Universal Orlando Resort’s Awesome Expanded Workshops!

September 5, 2017

Universal Orlando Youth Programs have expanded the music/film offerings for its STARS Performance Program workshop, “Sound Design: Music and the Art of Foley,” which they developed a few years ago with notable composer and music educator, Robert W. Smith. They invited me back down this past April to get a look and listen. Go back to Universal Orlando Resort? Twist my arm! It is always a fun trip, and this was no exception. I first saw it in action two years ago in Sound Stage 33 at the Universal Studios park. The students participating were having a great time, actively engaged and excited to be there. It was clear they had learned their parts and took capturing their performance in a soundstage studio very seriously.

I discussed the expansion of the workshop and performance programs with Eric Marshall, vice president of park sales, who stated, “We like the fact that now we have classic and contemporary. We have a lot of groups that repeat. So, the ability to provide multiple experiences to them is important to us.” And going forward? “I think there’s two things that we’re going to continue to focus on. One is continuing to develop new [workshop] content that we think is relevant, and then the second thing is a commitment to continuing to improve what we already got. There are opportunities to march as part of the Macy’s parade, and the parade is new. We’re coming out with all-new holiday content, which we’re very excited about.”

Designed to align with the National Core Arts Standards and endorsed by NAfME, Universal Orlando partnered with famed composer and music educator Robert W. Smith to produce the high-spirited workshops. “We’re excited to enter into a relationship with Universal Orlando Youth Programs through the ‘Sound Design: Music and The Art of Foley’ workshops. Working together, we will create new experiences that extend the education that goes on in the classrooms of our members across the nation.” states Mike Blakeslee, executive director of NAfME. 

“Choir students will sync choral arrangements, create sound effects, and record spoken lines through automated dialogue replacement to movies that inspired attractions featured at Universal Orlando,” said Teresa Crews, Universal Orlando’s educational program developer and former classroom teacher. “Students who participate in ‘Sound Design: Music and the Art of Foley’ also have the unique opportunity to learn about different aspects of music education, including future career paths available in the field.”

“Sound Design: Music and the Art of Foley,” is designed to let students experience a day in the life of a musician working in a studio on a film soundtrack. With the new additions, band and orchestra students perform new underscore music and create sound effects, along with “ADR” work (automatic dialog replacement) voiceovers to matching attractions at the parks. The new workshop offerings now include choices, in addition to the original Frankenstein workshop, such as Illumination Entertainment’s Despicable Me and The Lorax.

Connecting with the Composer

I spoke with Smith about the new additions to find out his approach to the expanding project. “I was asked to create these two projects in early 2016.  I was fortunate to have free-reign over the musical underscore and the sound effects. However, that free-reign was tempered with my respect and reverence for the original films and Universal Orlando Resort’s intellectual properties,” said Smith. “I had seen both films before.  I’m a fan of animated motion pictures and appreciate the artistic work in these two incredible productions.  I re-watched the films prior to writing to insure I wouldn’t be drastically altering the mood and tone of the original films.  The actual film clips were selected by the team at Universal Orlando Resort under the leadership of [manager of program development] Teresa Crews.”

Crews explains, “We partnered with Robert W. Smith for original music, and it syncs with a three-minute clip of the film, with Despicable Me and The Lorax. They are all original compositions, but it maintains the energy and the feel of the movie. When the kids play it, they’re part of the creation of a whole new movie clip. We gave him the clip that we wanted to use in the workshop, so we let him work his magic.”

I asked Smith how these new film clips and underscores differed for him in composing, and how he thought students would relate to them versus the original workshop and its use of the silent film version of Frankenstein. He replied, “The Frankenstein film clip was entirely different based on the year of its original production and the technology available.  Universal Studios originally released Frankenstein in 1910.  It was a silent movie.  The underscore in the theater was created by a live musician on piano or organ.  With this setting in mind, I used classical themes in the public domain that would represent that era of theater musicianship.  With the early 1900s camerawork and perspective combined with the iconic Frankenstein character, the underscore is big, broad and aggressive.  The approach to Despicable Me and The Lorax is completely different.  Students can clearly relate to these characters including their personalities and voices.  As a result, the underscores were written to capture and reinforce those characters and the action on the screen.”

When asked about the challenges of writing a workshop for students that range from middle to high school with comparative levels of ability, Smith replied, “We created multiple performance levels of each film clip to allow for success at various levels of experience.  I wrote the more advanced versions first and followed with arrangements suitable for developing bands, orchestras and choirs.  The choirs required multiple voicings including SATB, SSA and unison/two-part.  The strings also required arrangements for full orchestra as well as string orchestra.  I’m also working on settings for beginning band to broaden the options for directors and their ensembles.”

Finally, I asked Smith what it is he hopes the students get out of this experience, to which he replied, “In addition to a strong musical experience, I hope each student comes away with an understanding of how their study of music fits into their daily life both in terms of traditional live performance and in media production.  The concepts and skills they are learning and experiencing each day in their music classroom are key in terms of their success in all fields of endeavor including motion picture production. The creativity experienced and used in Universal’s Sound Design Workshop is invaluable in terms of its application in their lives.  I am thrilled this workshop brings that creativity into focus in a fun and entertaining educational experience.”

So how long is this workshop? Crews stated “The plan, is that, beginning to end, it’s about a 90-minute experience, including the warm-up, but the actual workshop itself is really that hour. Then we can get kids out and enjoying the parks as well.”

West Orange High School Workshop

Dr. Jeffrey Redding, director of choral activities at West Orange High School in Winter Garden, Florida, brought in his exceptional choir into the soundstage studio, elegantly dressed in tux tails and gowns, and the risers in the soundstage soon filled to overflow. Redding moved the students around to accommodate the space, and the performance mix of voices for the recording session workshop. The group chose to perform Smith’s composition for The Lorax. While he warmed up his choir, the recording engineers adjusted microphones, just as they would in a commercial recording session. Soon, the day’s recording session producer, who went by Mike, was introduced and the workshop was underway. Mike did a great job engaging the students, and explaining the process of them singing the score, the automated dialog replacement for the film they would do for speaking parts, as well as how they would create vocalized sound effects. He explained who Jack Donovan Foley was, and the role he played in creating sound effects for motion pictures a century ago, with Universal’s film studios in Hollywood, California. A video was played featuring Robert W. Smith, who talked about the session about to take place, and helped get the students revved up. The students made sure their phones were off, advised on how important it is to keep things perfectly quiet in a recording session.

Quiet on the Set

And, action! A scene from The Lorax was shown, so the students had a feel for the visuals that would go with their score performance. The tempo was set to 150bpm to sync with the video, and with four tones played then a four click count in, they were off. Redding instructed his group to carefully follow his direction, watch the downbeat and cues, as they are singing to the score tempo without hearing the underlying music bed. It isn’t practical to play the music over live speakers when the vocals are cut, as it will bleed into the microphones. I have to say; this choir was fantastic! Redding is obviously a very good director, and his students showed him the respect he deserves. They site-read the part and nailed it in two takes. With the underscore done, volunteers from the chorus were selected for voiceover parts. Redding was chosen by the choir students to do the voice of the Lorax. The dialog was performed with text flowing in time along the bottom of the video monitor, much like lyrics in karaoke. There was a lot of laughter resulting from the teacher’s voiceover performance. So much so, they had to be asked not to laugh, since it was making its way into the microphones. On the “all clear,” the students, who had stifled their laughter to the point of holding their hand over their mouths, were allowed to let it go. The producer explained how dialog is not like notation, and how important phrasing and timing is to the scene.

A student stepped up for another voice acting part, and got some instruction on microphone use in dialog recording to prevent sound from clipping, that is, creating a distorted signal. After his part was done, the group was instructed to make various collective noises for sound effects, then a female student was selected to voice the Wunsler role, saying, “Now that’s a thneed!” to howls of laughter, again, on the all clear. Additional students provided voiceover and sound effect parts, then the group together listened to pre-recorded effects from a sound library, and chose the appropriate selections. These kids were having a great time and learning a lot about working in a professional recording studio, voiceover work, sound effects, and more. The session engineers edited together the final product, which the students loved watching, and seeing how their various parts came together for a unique scene. The final version was made available via digital download to Redding for the students, after the program ended. After the session, we walked in the Florida heat to the front of the park for the photos used in the story. Redding’s choral group spontaneously broke out in an amazing a cappella rendition of a Michael Jackson song, bringing a big grin to their director’s face, park visitors who happened by, and to my own. This choir was excited by their workshop, and obviously delighted to be back at Universal Orlando Resort.

Back to the Bay

West Orange High School is from the Orlando, Florida area, so they were not staying on property. In doing this story for our sister publication, SBO, I discussed accommodation choices for the workshops with another music educator, who brought her program for another trip to the resort. The director, Susan Mears, chose Cabana Bay Beach Resort for her second stay at Universal Orlando Resorts with her students. “We absolutely love Cabana Bay. I would not stay anywhere else.”

When asked about what the kids like the most about it, she replied, “I’d say the swimming pools. And I like the fact that they have the cafeteria there for the kids to go and get whatever they want. We had a pizza party last night. We bought the pizza right there and had it out right by the pool. And they show movies every night — it’s a great kind of outlet for them after being at the park and walking around all day. Just to go have fun, swim. There’s plenty for them to do so that they’re hopefully not going to go think about getting into trouble. Because there’s so much for them to do and it’s easy to keep an eye on all of them. We have a wonderful booster club. The eighth graders came with me when they were sixth graders — they were so excited that they were going to get to stay at Cabana Bay again. Last time we came, one of the students came back with their family that summer and stayed at Cabana Bay for two weeks, with like ten people in their family.”

About Universal Orlando Resort

Universal Orlando Resort has been around now for over 25 years, but the workshops have come about only in the last few years, as an added enhancement to the various marching/performance opportunities and festival partnerships. Universal Orlando’s two amusement theme parks, Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure, feature a wide array of thrill rides and attractions, popular with teens seeking some fast-paced fun after their workshop and performance experiences. On-site resort hotel properties include Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, the Hard Rock Hotel, Loews Royal Pacific Resort, Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort and Loews Sapphire Falls Resort. Universal Orlando connects it all through the hub of their entertainment complex, Universal CityWalk, with shopping, dining and entertainment options for all ages.

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