This is an interesting story, but also a lesson is being prepared when working on a job.
In 1972, Warner Brothers was gearing up to make a film and live album for Aretha Franklin. The album came out and became the biggest selling gospel album of all times. But what about the film? Why did it take so long to be released? Well the answer comes down to being prepared, and the film crew that set about filming this two-day concert were not prepared at all. They came in with five cameras, and proceeded to film snippets and bits and pieces without ever thinking about how all those little shots, most were between 5-20 seconds, would be resynced together with the audio. They did not use a slate of any kind, and the only time reference at all was an analog clock on the wall that only had an hour and minute hand, that was only referenced a couple of times.
Let’s go back in time. Not all the way to 1972, but to 2009. My old boss called me and said he needed some help on a project. I had worked for him on a lot of post production stuff in the past, it was my first “job” when I moved to Los Angeles, but by this time I was a full time Production Sound Mixer. I wen’t into his little studio in Long Beach, and he explained what it was we were doing.
Usually my work with him involved restoring digitized tapes of M&E and Dialogue Stems so that we could make surround mixes of foreign language tracks for films and TV shows that were being restored for BlueRay.
This was totally different. He had a number of digitized video reels of a bunch of video clips from the Aretha Franklin performance, run together in segments, but not in any sort of order. He also had digitized mono reels from a Nagra that was also present during the performance. These audio reels were quite literally a man in the auditorium with a Nagra (visible at times in the video) holding a Sennheiser MKH-415T and capturing a reference track. My job was to take that reference track and find the accompanying video from the five film cameras roaming around during the two-day performance. The idea was that, since plug-ins such as PluralEyes existed at this point, they could be used to resync everything with the album once a reference track was attached to the video clips.
What made this so very difficult, and why it wasn’t possible to accomplish before, was that there were so many little video clips and only a handful of them that lasted longer than a minute. We had to start with the longest takes, determine which song and which day (the final film only has part of each performance in it) by reading the rhythm in which people were swaying and reading their lips. This was extra difficult because Aretha was hiding behind a huge mic with a pop guard at the lectern where she stood for most of the performance.
Then the hard part: figuring out where all those little clips fit. If we were lucky, a clip would be of Aretha, and her mouth would be visible. Since she wore a different outfit on each day, that would help us determine which day, and therefore which potential song it could be. But then there were random clips of people in the crowd. So now we have to go back to those longer clips, try to see if we can see anyone in the crowd, what they were wearing, and what else was going on. If you could see a choir member raising their hands or getting up out of their seat during a specific part of a specific song, then see the actions of the people in the crows, then maybe you could figure out where that clip belonged. But it took a lot of referencing other clips and angles to be able to place all the little pieces. These cameramen were certainly trigger happy, and I wonder if they knew that piecing this project together was going to be difficult, or if they even cared? I know I’ve been on some projects where I just knew that nothing was going to be usable, and whomever was in charge wouldn’t listen, so all you can do is keep on going until it’s a wrap.
It took us about two weeks from what I remember, my boss and I, to sync everything up. But there were more road blocks ahead for this project. The failing health of the original director is what prompted the reboot, but now Aretha herself had some quarrel over it. But over what exactly is only known by her and people involved with the original production. So the project was again shelved for the unforeseeable future. Several years later Aretha herself was laid to rest, and now all dealings were done through her estate, with family members overseeing things. It was at this point that this film finally came to light again, and with no one standing in the way, the estate was determined to finish what had begun so many years before.
I learned about this film finally being released via Facebook ads of all things, and after a few months, my old boss sent me a text telling me about it finally coming out, and that he had pushed for me to get a screen credit, which was very thoughtful of him! All the restoration work we had done together was confidential and we are therefore not credited on a lot of big name projects for our work.
I finally went out to see Amazing Grace just the other day and was happy to see it on the big screen, almost exactly nine years from when I had worked on it. What an amazing journey this project has gone through, and now this legendary performance is available for people to see, not just hear, for the first time.
This is also a big lesson on being prepared and hiring the right people for the job. Such a small oversight meant that the project couldn’t be completed until technology and litigations would finally let it come out of the vault. In this case, it took 37 years before it was pieced together, and another nine to make it to the public. This is a good argument for production companies to not hire dime-store producers and not to try to get the cheapest warm body available on set. Hire people that are good at what they do, and be prepared to pay for what that costs. The long term pain of an unusable production will always hurt more than the short term pain of paying for what you need done up front.