On location: L.A. session musicians score one for ‘Judy Moody’ film

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It has been a slow tempo for Hollywood’s session musicians. Work has grown more scarce in the last two decades as studios have slashed music budgets and composers have relied more on synthesizers and digital samplers to produce scores for their movies and TV shows.

Local musicians have been further squeezed by competition from other cities where scores can be performed at a fraction of the cost, thanks to film tax credits or the use of nonunion musicians in such countries as the Czech Republic and Poland.

So it was music to the ears of many L.A. session musicians when producers of “Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer” hired an 80-piece orchestra composed of local musicians and union members to perform the score for the film, which will be released Friday by Relativity Media. The decision was particularly unusual because of the small budget of the picture, which was shot throughout the L.A. area for less than $20 million.

The producers declined to say how much it cost to hire the orchestra.


“When you have an 80-piece orchestra, you expect it will be for a Spielberg or James Cameron-type movie, not for this kind of production,” said Antony Cooke, a veteran session musician who was a principal cellist in the orchestra. “It was a great thing to see.”

Although L.A. remains the largest center for scoring in the movie industry, its share of the industry dropped to about 30% in 2008 from 38% in 1996, according to the Film Musicians Secondary Markets Fund, which collects royalties on behalf of musicians who work in the motion picture industry.

One of the biggest centers for movie music is London, where “Kung Fu Panda 2,” “Thor” and the upcoming “Captain America” were all scored. Britain offers a generous film tax credit that covers post-production costs.

Many other films are scored in Seattle and in such Eastern European cities as Bratislava in Slovakia, where music for the movie “Priest” was recorded. Producers often buy out royalties and avoid long-term obligations to performers, such as paying health and welfare benefits payments that are standard for professional union musicians in the U.S.

The Los Angeles chapter of the Recording Musicians Assn. has about 900 members, about 500 of whom work regularly in the film and TV industries, which have cut back on the use of orchestras and the number of recording days allotted for film scores.

“It’s tough to be a session player in Los Angeles, so it’s always great to be able to hire local musicians,” said local composer Richard Gibbs, who composed the original score of “Judy Moody.” “I wish we could do more of it.”

The orchestra hired for “Judy Moody” recorded the music over four days at the Newman Scoring Stage on the 20th Century Fox studio lot in Century City. The film is based on Megan McDonald’s popular children’s book series about a young girl’s comical plans to craft her own vacation, and stars newcomer Jordana Beatty as the restless Judy Moody and Heather Graham.

Director John Schultz acknowledges it was an unconventional choice, but said he wanted to evoke the big scores of movies such as “Home Alone” and “Back to the Future.”

“We could have hired a 20-piece orchestra,” Schultz said. “We thought that a really good score, played really well, would elevate the movie and create a better experience.”

Hiring local musicians was in keeping with the decision by Schultz and the movie’s producers to keep all aspects of the production in L.A., partly for personal reasons -- the director wanted to be close to home because his wife just had a baby -- and because of the local talent pool and discounts provided by local companies.

“There’s no place other than Toronto that has the kind of infrastructure that Los Angeles has,’’ said Bobbi Sue Luther, executive producer for the film, who also championed the hiring of such a large orchestra.

Although the story is set in Virginia, “Judy Moody” filmed over a two-month period last summer in all corners of Southern California. Locations included the San Rafael Elementary School in Pasadena, a house in Studio City that served as Judy’s home, Six Flags Magic Mountain, beaches in Oxnard and the streets of Altadena and Glendora where bike and car chases scenes were shot.

The Santa Monica office of Dallas-based Reel FX worked on the film’s animation sequences while end credits were handled by the Sherman Oaks-based nonprofit group Exceptional Minds, which employs autistic students.

For the music, Schultz hired Gibbs to compose a score that would reflect the frenetic, adventurous spirit of the main character, Judy Moody, and provide welcome employment for nearly seven dozen session musicians. They worked for lower fees under a union contract tailored for low-budget films.

“L.A. tends to be the most expensive place to record,” Gibbs said. “But it will give you the best players in the industry.”


Photos on location: ‘Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer’

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-- Richard Verrier

Upper photo: Judy (Jordana Beatty) and Frank (Preston Bailey) on the San Pedro set of Relativity Media’s upcoming release, ‘Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer.’ Credit: Relativity Media

Right photo: Parris Mosteller, Jordana Beatty and Preston Bailey shooting a scene in Agua Dulce. Credit: Suzanne Tenner / Relativity Media