Cutting the Music of "Tarzan"

An Interview with Music Editor
Earl Ghaffari

Interview by Nick T. Spark

Since graduating from UCLA's film school in 1984, Earl Ghaffari has worked as a picture and/or music editor on more than two dozen feature films and documentaries. His credits include "House Party", "Wayne's World I and II", "The Decline of Western Civilization" and "The Thing Called Love". For the past four years he has been affiliated with Walt Disney Pictures, serving as music editor on Hercules and the recently released "Tarzan". The latter film features songs by rock icon Phil Collins and a symphonic score by Grammy Award winner Mark Mancina.

How is it that you ended up becoming a music editor?

I've played the violin and a bit of piano since I was a little kid. When I started working on films, I found I could understand the music - speak the language - and early on I got an opportunity to experiment with music editing and felt very comfortable doing it. I've always felt that my strongest point as a film editor involved music.

Tarzan and Jane get to know one another in a scene from the new movie.

The first composer I worked with was Chris Young, who is really successful now. I worked on quite a few films with him, including "Torment" and "The Fly II". Being able to go into a room with Chris, read the music, understand metering and everything about that, and make edits in the music really helped me appreciate the process and see how I could make a creative contribution.

Is it difficult working with a composer when part of your job description calls for you to cut down pieces of their carefully created score?

If you, as composers say, "chop up" something, but they don't mind that you've chopped it up, it's not such a bad thing. One composer I worked with would get so upset: "I can't believe we have to cut something!" And then, sure enough you play the final version and there's a bunch of edits in it, and he says, "What, didn't you cut it yet?" Of course, it's like a dagger through your heart if they say, "You know, you are a good music editor but that didn't work."

Are there rules to music editing?

Well, there was a rule that we learned in film school about picture editing: anything goes as long as you don't notice it. With music editing it is kind of the same thing. The meter and structure of the song have to be maintained. The integrity of music editing is in the flow of the song.

There are music edits that I have made that I thought were great, but the composer, who is expecting to hear what he has heard before, doesn't like it. If it is a new score or song and people haven't heard it that much, then you have more leeway. Recently, for example, I was working with a composer and I tried to cut something he wrote that everyone knows. He said, "That's a great edit, but you know what? We just can't change that!"

Some of your career highlights have included editing "The Decline of Western Civilization II" and working on "Wayne's World" and "Wayne's World 2". All three of these are obviously pillars of our civilization at this point...

It was just a natural for me to be working on "The Decline of Western Civilization" because I could cut film and also be feeling and thinking about the music; not just slapping underscore behind picture to see if it plays, but making creative decisions based upon how the music is working. Projects like that are great fun to do.

The most fun, though, was "Wayne's World". I was hired to cut all of the music sequences. It was raw footage, wonderfully shot and very funnily acted, and it was a dream to cut. Especially the "Bohemian Rhapsody" scene in the car. I think we all remember doing that during our high school years.

How is it that you ended up working with Disney?

Adam Smalley, the music editor of "The Lion King", recommended me. I got the call to help out on "Pocahontas" and "Hunchback of Notre Dame" with a music editor named Kathy Bennett. Soon after I was offered the job of temp music editor on "Hercules", where I started cutting temp tracks and eventually ended up working with Alan Menken, who wrote the songs and score. I soon realized that these projects are music driven - music is such an important part of telling an animated story - and that really turned it around for me. Now music editing is my primary focus. Plus, it doesn't hurt that the people at Disney are great to work with.

The young gorilla Terk and friends in the "Trashin' the Camp" sequence.

At what point did you get involved with "Tarzan"?

I started working on "Tarzan" two years ago, in June '97. The first thing I did was travel to New York to participate in the recording of four out of the five Phil Collins songs in the picture. That was great. I am a huge Genesis and Phil Collins fan from the '70s.

That summer we worked with Phil and edited the songs for the film. We cut out some verses - all the songs usually come in a little long. Then there was about half a year where I was working with a temp score and Phil's songs before Mark Mancina came on in January of '98. The first thing Mark began to do was start arranging and orchestrating Phil's songs. Then he graduated to working on the score last fall.

How did you interface with Mark? What was your role in supporting him?

It helped that I had been on the project and had already come to know the directors, Kevin Lima and Chris Buck, and Greg Perler, the editor. I knew the direction they and Bonnie Arnold, the producer, were heading in. So the kind of feedback I would give Mark about the score addressed the creative decisions that had already been made on the film.

Having produced "The Lion King" musical on Broadway, Mark was very careful to create a new sound for "Tarzan". When he started scoring, he made synth mock-ups of some of the cues. We went through the film, and there were dramatic points that were identified as very important. For those he made full synth mock-ups. He also ended up buying a myriad of African instruments for the project. He performed and recorded all the percussion live for the score in his own studio. He really went the extra mile for every single cue, and the scope and emotion of the final score speaks for itself.

Was it difficult for you to transition from the live action and
documentary world to animation?

Well, the first sequence I saw on "Hercules" was just storyboards. It was like watching a slideshow, and it was really hard for me to put the whole thing together until I watched it a couple of times. There is a language to be learned. Obviously, music helps. It adds fluidity and helps the scenes work as a whole. Music and effects really do bring it to life.

I would assume, then, that a large part of the job of a music editor involves
communicating the production songs to the animators. How do you do that?

There is a whole process, actually, of providing music beats and beat readings for the animators to animate in sync to the music. This is the only time on "Tarzan" where I touched film, by the way. What you do is transfer the track to mag film and then mark it with a grease pencil - mark everything that is happening in the score that they might want to animate. One of the elements is actually the click track. Physically, I will put a black grease pencil mark every time the click happens. But that is the most basic of all. From there you go into any musical thing that is happening.

For instance, Phil Collins wrote a piece called "Trashin' the Camp." This is for a sequence where these apes trash the humans' camp, and it is raucous fun and there is lots of detailed animation. The apes are breaking dishes, banging on pots and pans, typing on typewriters, ripping up clothes, and so on. An animator has to know exactly at what point in the song these things are happening: at what frame, at what part of the frame. In some of the wide shots, there are 20 things going on with 20 different apes! I had to use five pieces of mag because of all the stuff that was going on.

Once I have marked everything on the mag - that part is absolutely old school - I put it in a gang synchronizer and translate that onto a "gray sheet," which is like a master blueprint for the animators. It has all the location points, to the frame, of where things happen.

The same technique is used with the dialogue. Every single piece of dialogue is pre-recorded, pre-cut by the editor, and then transferred to film and given to track readers. They go through and mark the dialogue, and that's what the animators draw to for lip sync. The track readers also do the vocals for the songs.

Do you actually create some of the tracks in a sequence like that?

Yes. That sequence demanded more attention from me than any other part of the film because it relied on the music editor to build individual elements. There is one character named Tantor who plays the trumpet, and I edited together many different passes of a trumpet on Pro Tools. These actually ended up as final elements patched into the digital mix.

Can you make adjustments to picture if, let's say, something doesn't appear to sync up?

It can happen, although it is harder in animation than live action because of the value of every frame of animation. Usually, you get back the animation and the sync is very, very tight. Getting them to change something is really difficult because adding frames requires so much work. An animated film is a huge juggernaut that you don't want to try to reverse. But it does happen. In "Hercules", for example, there are a couple of places where we shifted the picture a few frames to get tight sync.

Is there a moment where you say, "Ah-ha!" I'm done?

On "Tarzan" that moment for me was when we had a screening at Todd-AO and we invited Phil Collins and Mark Mancina to come and watch the film. I didn't see this, but I heard that Phil had his notepad ready and was going to give some notes. But, after about the first 10 minutes, he just set his notepad down on the mixing console and enjoyed the film. That was very satisfying to hear.

Photos courtesy of © Burroughs and Disney, Tarzan, ® Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. All rights reserved.

Nick Spark is an assistant editor.

Reprinted from
The Motion Picture Editors Guild Newsletter
Vol. 20, No. 4 - July/August1999

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