Wild Card

Just Another Manic Monday

Most people tend to hate Mondays. They come too soon, they last too long, and they are only the beginning of another full week of work.

Then, there are those of us who work in the customer service sector. Since Monday’s tend to be slow for us, I usually get the day off. After working a long, hard weekend, it is absolutely delightful to sleep in on Monday and spend the day however I wish.

And let me tell you: my last two Mondays have been FANTASTIC.

Monday #1: I called up my go-to “random adventure” friend: Jaci. I told her I was headed her way, so she better be ready! My only plan was to go to a beach and work out the rest of the day from there. We ended up on a bench in Santa Monica with a spectacular view of the shoreline. I switched on my Kindle and Jaci opened up the pages of her special edition copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird”. We tucked into our books for a good hour or two, breathing in the crisp, salty air. When we began to get antsy, we decided to find the most interesting restaurant in the area. A Pan-Asian place caught our eye. We sat at a table under bamboo rafters and ate edamame as we people-watched.

But now for the really good part. Jaci and I have been regular attendees of “Harmontown”, Dan Harmon’s weekly podcast recording at Meltdown Comics. There is a tiny theater in the back of this comic book store in downtown Hollywood where Dan, the creator of the show “Community”, records a podcast that is somewhere between stand-up comedy, sophisticated analyses of pop culture, bumbling ideas that never really go anywhere, and very real rounds of Dungeons and Dragons. Often, he brings in special guests to help with these shows. People like Kumail Nanjiani and Erin Hill… i.e. people you’ve probably never heard of.

But last Monday, who stepped out from the tiny recording box next to the stage? ROBIN WILLIAMS. The entire crowd (a staggering 40 people or so) gasped. Was this for real? Yes, yes it was Patch Adams in the flesh. He stayed for almost an hour, gabbing away with Dan. I had to wipe my eyes, I was laughing so hard at one point. It was the most random, unplanned, hilarious interaction I have ever witnessed live. Robin is just genuinely a funny person. And I got to watch it all unfold from ten feet away. It was just… awesome.

Monday #2: How in the world do you top Robin Williams? Well, you don’t really. But you can have another experience that is totally different and equally exciting. Jaci went home to Vegas for the week, so I was stuck all on my own. Sunday night I texted one of my golf buddies, Stephen, to see if his offer was still open for me to come down to the recording studio.

“Yes, sure! Culver city. Sony Studios” was the answer I received.

Just show up at Sony Pictures Studios?? Umm… okay! Stephen met me under the giant rainbow just inside the gates. We walked down “Main Street” to the Commissary for lunch with Steve, our other golfing friend who just so happened to be playing first cello that afternoon. Walking along the sidewalk, bordered by perfectly manicured grass and gardens, I couldn’t help but stare in awe at the offices and studios that produced so many blockbuster films.

“We’re recording the string section for the big summer movie ‘Pacific Rim’ today,” Stephen told me. He’s the orchestrator for the film; he works directly with the composer, transcribing all of the original music into separate parts for the instruments.

“Why just the strings?” I asked.

Steve answered that one: “Back when we recorded ‘Pirate’s of the Caribbean’, we realized how much more you could play with the mixes when you separated the strings, brass, and percussion. With big action movies, it’s easy for brass and percussion sections to dominate in the recording studio. This way, we get to fine-tune the strings and really layer them well with the other sections.”

After lunch, we headed up to the studio. The room we entered featured half a dozen television screens and a soundboard roughly 20 feet long. Stephen pointed out his “desk” next to the soundboard. His laptop was open to Logic, the music composition program he uses. A large window at the front of the room looked into the sound stage. Steve led me in, opening up his cello case as he explained the dynamics of the room.

“This is one of the oldest sound stages in Hollywood. It was built back in the what, the 1930s or so? They recorded all the old movies here… “Gone with the Wind”, “Wizard of Oz”. Barbara Streisand recorded several of her albums in here. They really got the acoustics right,” he said, looking around at the brown walls. To me, it looked like a partially-constructed basement. The walls were all different shades of tan, the floors were nondescript; it felt really old compared to the high-tech wonder we had just stepped out of.

The musicians began to claim their seats and tune their instruments. I followed Stephen back into the sound room, hopping up on a tall chair so I could see out through the window. Ramin Djawadi, the composer, entered the room and Stephen introduced me to him. He’s incredibly talented, with a resume that includes the scores for “Ironman”, “Clash of the Titans”, and “Game of Thrones”.

For the next few hours, I was able to hop between rooms. Being with the musicians felt like I was receiving my own personal concert.  These were not your run-of-the-muck cellists and violinists, these were Julliard-trained, principals of the Pacific Symphony Orchestra, absolutely brilliant musicians. It was pretty incredible to just sit in on such a performance.

I rather enjoyed the “production” end of it, though. Stephen and Ramin would listen to the strings and constantly analyze the nuances of each piece of music.

“I think that E at the end of the bar needs to change,” Stephen would say and Ramin would nod and rework it.

“Let’s put the slurs back in, violas,” Ramin would say into his mic, directly into the ears of all the musicians.

“We need to get 2 through 4 again,” the music editor would chime in from behind. A dozen people were working in the room, all intimately attuned to the music. I was so impressed by how well they could catch the slightest glitch from the orchestra.

Did I mention that the musicians did not see the music until they got to set? They were all sight-reading the entire thing. That’s how good these guys were. And they were still getting picked at the whole day for being to “vivvi” or “too front desk”. Quite an elite level of music creation.

Another element to add to the mix was the actual footage. “Pacific Rim” is still being edited, but one of the recent versions was played on all the screens in the studio to make sure the timing of everything was precise. It was cool to see an unfinished version of a big sci-fi film. I watched as actors interacted with these huge alien creatures that were part-drawn, part-cartoonified, and part-finished. Looks like it will be a pretty impressive movie, though!

I was exhausted by the end of it all; I couldn’t imagine how tired Stephen would be after another 3-hour brass session later in the evening. It was a great opportunity to see just how much work goes into this industry.

I wound down the night with a short trip over to the beach in Santa Monica. Wrapped up in a beach towel with my toes buried in the sand, I watched the sun set over the mountains.

Mmm… yes, I do love Mondays.


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