by Warren M. Sherk
Reporting from Los Angeles, December 2011
The Making of It’s a Wonderful Life
Those who were able to attend the “Making the Holiday Classic: IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)” at the Academy’s Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood on December 9 were in for a treat. Hosts Craig Barron and Ben Burtt thoroughly entertained the packed house regaling the audience with tales of the technical side of the film. The duo demonstrated the visual effects by projecting images on the full theater screen and also played sound and sound effects from the film through the house speakers. Visual techniques in use in the mid-1940s, such as optical printing and matte painting, were explained followed by detailed imagery, often breaking down a scene by displaying its various layered components. Adding commentary were special guests Frank Capra III, the grandson of director Frank Capra whose own resume includes two decades of film credits as a co-producer or assistant director, and John Frazier, a special effects supervisor.
During the film’s pre-production Frank Capra nixed the use of bleached cornflakes to simulate snow primarily because the microphones would pick up the sound of the crunching flakes as the actors moved about during filming. Details were offered regarding the snow machinery that made its debut in this film. The Academy recognized this achievement and awarded the RKO Radio Studio Special Effects Department along with Marty Martin, Jack Lannon, and Russell Shearman a Scientific or Technical Award in 1948 for the development of this new method of simulating falling snow on motion picture sets.
For the grand finale, John Gray of Snow Business gave an in-house demonstration of how Hollywood makes snow using a vintage snow-blowing fan fitted with blade tips to produce howling wind and a canister of modern-day firefighting-type foam. It was a good thing the theater staff had been positioned on stage to hold down the screen curtains because as the fan revved up to full speed and started sucking in more and more air the curtains billowed and bulged and could have become a casualty of the evening without human intervention. If you ever wondered what it would be like to experience the inside of a snow globe, this was your chance. The snow engulfed the entire theater (see a demonstration at oscars.org) swirling up to rafters before landing on wide-eyed audience members and melting.
View “Movie Snow“: A special presentation on the innovative use of movie snow in It’s a Wonderful Life.
The newly-struck 35mm print courtesy of Paramount Pictures and archivist Andrea Kalas was beyond reproach. The crystal clear picture and steady image were probably as good or better than the film looked in its initial release sixty years ago.
On display in the theater foyer were items from the Linwood Dunn papers at the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library. Dunn worked on some key scenes in It’s a Wonderful Life and in 2002 the newly-built theater was named in honor of the special effects wizard. I attended the screening with Olivia Tiomkin Douglas and Richard and Gayle Kaufman. The program was presented by the Science and Technology Council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The Golden State Pops Orchestra
The Golden State Pops Orchestra (GSPO) is fast becoming one of California’s premier community orchestras and has developed a reputation for its programming and performance of film music. The GSPO holiday concert traditionally draws a large crowd and this year was no exception. The Warner Grand Theatre was buzzing with activity inside and out. The pre-concert talk featured GSPO Holiday Chorus director Marya Basaraba in conversation with GSPO executive director Linda Grimes.
Kudos to Grimes, conductor Steven Allen Fox, and music director Victor Pesavento for the progressive program featuring a wide range of Christmas-themed music drawn from the Classical repertoire, popular vernacular, and films from 1946 to 2004. Notably, an orchestral setting of “Stille Nacht” (“Silent Night”) adapted by Calvin Custer from the The Mannheim Steamroller Chip Davis arrangement was enthralling.
Film music on the program included The Polar Express Suite based on music by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard orchestrated by Conrad Pope; the Main Title from the 1994 film version of Miracle on 34th Street by Bruce Broughton; Elf music by John Debney arranged by Victor Pesavento; and Three Holiday Songs from Home Alone, music and lyrics by John Williams and Leslie Bricusse. The concert concluded with a performance of the Suite from It’s a Wonderful Life. Dimitri Tiomkin’s music from the film has been conscientiously arranged by Patrick Russ and Paul Henning, based on the original orchestrations by Paul Marquardt and (later) Christopher Palmer.
Arranger Patrick Russ was in the audience and two of the arrangers were among the orchestra. Violinist Paul Henning and horn player Victor Pesavento serve as concertmaster and music director, respectively. The GSPO has been growing strong since its formation ten years ago and the talent runs deep. A number of the orchestra’s composer friends have pledged to match up to $10,000 in donations between now and the GSPO Cinema Fantastique epic choral soundtracks concert in February 2012 with the USC Concert Choir. The GSPO Industry and Composer’s Fund donors include John Ottman, Christopher Tin, and others.
Become a Friend of the GSPO.
My family attended the concert with the family of Pat Russ. On the way out I happened to run into an old friend, film music enthusiast Preston Neal Jones. Post-concert, the GSPO continued their holiday tradition of providing falling snow in front of the theater to the delight of all.
These were just two of the many It’s a Wonderful Life related events this holiday season, both of which happened to come with snow—indoors in Hollywood and outdoors in San Pedro. For the record, the city of Los Angeles has seen trace amounts of real snow on a number of occasions, according to Los Angeles Almanac citing the National Weather Service.