Raymond Scott in Studio (1955)

Raymond Scott in his studio (1955)

Deconstructing Dad: The Music, Machines and Mystery of Raymond Scott is a documentary about the life and work of American electronic music pioneer and inventor Raymond Scott (1908-1994). Scott’s music has been widely used in Warner Bros’ cartoons such as Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, and sampled by artists such as J Dilla, Madlib and Gorillaz, however his achievements (such as inventing the Videola, Electronium and Clavivox, and influencing Bob Moog) have remained largely overlooked by those unfamiliar with the Raymond Scott Archives. His full story is told personally by his only son, film-maker and editor Stan Warnow, and is also pieced together by audio extracts of Scott’s own voice, talking heads of archivists and musicians, and found archive footage, resulting in a complex tapestry about the early history of electronic music, Scott’s slip into obscurity, and a son’s personal view of a distant father.

The film’s UK premiere was at this year’s NonClassical Pioneers of Electronic Music event, after which we talked to Stan Warnow about his experience making the film and working with archives.

Stan Warnow Editing Deconstructing Dad

RTR: As a director and editor what challenges did you face working with so much archive material in Deconstructing Dad? Did looking in the archives ever change the course of the film, or were you sure of the film’s content before making it?

SW: For me working with the archival material did in fact represent one of the major challenges of the film. In embarking on the project I was concerned with the reality that I knew there was precious little on camera material of my father to work with, that I would have to reply on stills as well as what little live action existed of him, balanced by the integration of interviews with people who were knowledgeable about him. I knew I’d be walking a tightrope of needing to tell my story through many stills and afraid of failing by not keeping my audience involved. I feel that archivally based films are susceptible to having trouble with maintaining audience interest when they are short on live action footage of whatever sort, and I was always trying to find and hone the right balance of the various elements I had to work with. I also knew that though I had access to a lot of material it it would still be difficult to find what I felt were just the right images to convey the information and emotions I was trying to get across to the audience, and that was definitely another challenge.

Looking at the archives definitely changed the course of the film because I learned so much by being there. Some of it was musical, new compositions and recordings discovered; hearing recordings of my father calling my mother when they were courting, and additional extensive audio recorded notes of that my father made as part of his studio work. Additionally because another department at the University of Missouri Library where the music was contained a lot of document based material, which was a total surprise to me, I also found quite a lot of my father’s written notes and correspondence which added a whole other dimension to the film. In any case while I certainly had an overall conception about the content before starting, for me film is an organic process and always continues to evolve, and though it’s hard to quantify, I would say I was sure of only about 50% of the specifics the film would contain, and everything was of course subject to revision. And there was definitely a fair amount of material I was “sure” would be in the film before I started that didn’t in fact make the final cut…..

RTR: Raymond Scott is said to be a perfectionist about some of his work in the film, where some projects would never get finished or turned into something else. Are you similar in this sense with film-making and editing?

SW: Have to confess that in this way I am somewhat similar to my dad (wish I was similar in musical talent, but that’s another subject!). I think of myself as more obsessive-compulsive than perfectionist, though of course there’s a lot of overlap. And I don’t mean to imply that I suffer from a clinical case of OCD, far from it, just that in my work I am obsessive and compulsive about getting things right to the best of my ability and have a real problem leaving something as is if I feel it’s not quite as good as it could be (good enough is not good enough).

On the other hand I do understand the necessity of finishing things up and moving on, which clearly was a problem for my dad—in Deconstructing Dad as in every film there was material that didn’t make the final cut including an excellent interview with one engineer/entrepreneur who formed a company with my dad in the mid 70′s. He spoke with great frustration about the syndrome that although my father had brilliant ideas he couldn’t let go of them as he was always thinking of ways to improve and expand the products they were developing. In the end they only finished one product, and that one only because my my dad’s partner just insisted they had to finish something, and shortly after that the partnership dissolved.

RTR: Is there a film that you think makes the best or most creative use of archive footage?

SW: This question is impossible for me to answer categorically, (and I’m certainly no film scholar) but two that I liked come to mind. Although I know it’s fashionable in many quarters of the documentary community to dismiss Ken Burns as overrated, ponderous and pandering, (and it doesn’t help that Final Cut calls it’s pan and zoom filter the “Ken Burns effect” though other filmmakers and editors, including me, did that sort of thing long before Ken Burns!), I do remember being tremendously impressed with Brooklyn Bridge, the first film of his I saw in the early 80′s, long before he was….well, KEN BURNS.

The other film is Hearts and Minds, Peter Davis’s Academy Award winning documentary about U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war—for me it struck a great balance of original and archival footage that explored so many dimensions of the war.

For more information about Raymond Scott and the film visit:

The Raymond Scott Archives

The Deconstructing Dad Website

Reeling The Real is a website dedicated to the discussion of all kinds of moving image including documentary, film essays, archive re-use, artists' moving image and more.

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