Settling the Score: The 2014 Musical Oscar Race

The big Toon Town players are not just concerned with the coveted Best Animated Feature trophy—the genre also tends to be well represented in the Score and Song categories come awards season. We reached out to some of the brilliant composers behind the year’s top films to find out why music and animation make such a great team.

Since the Academy unveiled their list of contenders for the 2014 Best Animated Feature Oscar, industry watchers have been debating which of the big studio blockbusters (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, The Croods, Despicable Me 2, Epic, Frozen, Monsters University, Planes, The Smurfs 2, Turbo), indie underdogs (Free Birds, Khumba, The Legend of Sarila) and foreign language offerings (Ernest & Celestine, The Fake, A Letter to Momo, The Apostle, Rebellion, Rio 2096, The Wind Rises) will claim prized nomination spots.

But another race is underway, one which often highlights the interdependence of two art forms: which of the moving original scores and songs crafted for these animated pics will be vying for their own Oscar nods? The diversity of offerings in these categories, each as distinct as the story they help tell, is worth examining.

Ernest & Celestine

Ernest & Celestine

Vincent Courtois
Vincent Courtois

Getting Into the Rhythm

As Vincent Courtois, an acclaimed jazz cellist whose first film composing gig is the French-Belgian 2D feature Ernest & Celestine, puts it: “In an animation film, every sound must be created. Therefore, music is essential. It has to support the drawing without overpowering it, and without being merely illustrative. As the composer, I also tried to tell the story of the movie. I learned a lot about the high demands it makes by watching the animators work.”

“A good [animated] movie is like a ride of emotions acted by unreal characters for real people with real feelings, and being a family affair it should feel like a family holiday with lots of stories to be shared afterwards,” adds Despicable Me 2 composer Heitor Pereira, who also scored the first film. “So, the music should be all of that, plus the untold stories as well.”

These are some of the particular challenges faced by a musician crafting the audio backbone of an animated feature. But, as Dominic Lewis—the musical scribe behind Reel FX’s Free Birds—notes, this unique genre also offers flexibility. “There’s certainly more freedom when scoring an animated feature than a live action,” he points out. “You get to use the whole orchestra in a more traditional way, if one so desires. Plus, it’s extremely rare that the animation is finished, or even close, so you become more a part of the process.”

Free Birds

Free Birds

Dominic Lewis
Dominic Lewis

The first step on this road is to work with the directors, discussing what kind of themes, tones and styles are envisioned—and which might be better options. Lewis, who has provided music for a number of toons, says he was lucky in that Free Birds‘ Jimmy Hayward wanted the epic, orchestral style the composer prefers to work in to set off the turkeys’ time-traveling mission. Drawing on Classical staples like Strauss Mahler and Brahms, Lewis used music to balance the film’s wackiness with gravitas.

“The main thing Jimmy and I spoke about, which is now extremely common in animation, was to treat the events happening on screen seriously and not to draw attention to the fact that there are turkeys running around traveling through time and blowing up 1621 Plymouth,” he says. “The more seriously you take it, the funnier it becomes.”

For the artists working on the year’s healthy sequel crop, much of the fine-tuning of the musical tone came down to new characters and new locations. The film with the biggest departure from its progenitor is likely Monsters University from Pixar. Mike and Scully’s prequel adventure was once again put in the capable hands of multiple Oscar and Emmy winner Randy Newman.

Monsters University

Monsters University

Randy Newman
Randy Newman

“Dan Scanlon, the director, and Kori Rae, the producer, wanted to make sure the musical setting emphasized the university setting in which most of the movie takes place,” Newman explains. “As a result, there’s some rock and roll, some EDM, some band music; there’s a college song, which is used thematically, and there are brass chorales. Mike is in love with the university and the music often reflects his reverential view of the place.”

Monsters, Inc. had a fairly serious bad guy from the beginning, and there was a constant threat of danger from the human world. As a result, the music was consistently dissonant for about the first half of the picture,” he contrasts. “The college setting is very different from the factory setting [in Monsters, Inc.]. The factory setting was my modest version of Fletcher Henderson’s 1930s jazz, and Monsters University is more like Homecoming at Notre Dame.” Newman also points out that the new film has several montages with prominent music, while the first outing had nothing of the sort.

For Despicable Me 2, Pereira has a lot of transformative character moments to work around in the score, like Anti-Villain League agent Lucy Wilde’s graduation from high tech spy to “spy in love.” “Also, [the villain] El Macho’s transformation from Mexican restaurant owner, to wrestling villain and then to monster—basically a transformation from Mariachi trumpets to Wagnerian Horns,” he adds. “The Minions’ theme went from a funky, bluesy, fun team of yellow spy helpers into a purple army of orchestral, dissonant, out-of-control anarchist monster helpers.”

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2

Mark Mothersbaugh
Mark Mothersbaugh

Mark Mothersbaugh, whose soundtrack credits span everything from The Rugrats Movie to the recent 21 Jump Street remake, likewise had an established sound to build on for Cloudy 2. He says his focus was developing themes for the new bad guy and his tech-filled corporate HQ, the hybrid food animals and Barb, the villain’s orangutan assistant who has a change of heart. The accomplished composer (and Devo co-founder) applauds Gloria Houston’s performance of Flynt’s invention celebration song and Paul McCartney’s feature track “New.” He adds that the big reveal of the mutant foodimals when the gang reaches Swallow Falls was the most important scene to get right.

Musical Moments

Offering different challenges was the soft, emotive, water-colored world of Ernest & Celestine. Working with the directing trio of Benjamin Renner, Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, Courtois sought to find music and instrumentation that would be unique to the film while remaining timeless and built around strong melodies rather than effects. A couple scenes stand out for their musical importance:

“The passage from winter to spring, when music had to gently convey the feeling of nature’s transition—it is a very poetic moment in the form of musical and graphical morphing,” he notes. “And also the one where Ernest is begging on the street … the music had to correspond perfectly to Ernest’s character, but also to his graphic identity, whilst remaining very musical. The idea was to show that Ernest was potentially a great musician, but that in this moment, famished by his long hibernation, he wasn’t.”

Despicable Me 2

Despicable Me 2

Heitor Pereira
Heitor Pereira

Lewis says he enjoyed the freedom that Hayward and the Free Birds world offered him to play with different signature sounds for the characters. “[Hayward] gave me a blank canvas in which to go crazy, so I just started throwing ideas together … A hunting trumpet figure for the bad guy Standish that could be doubled with low brass, strings and bassoons. Tribal percussion and flutes for Jenny and the flock, doubled with humming female voices for the warmer moments of the movie. Jake and Reggie were assigned a combination of palm muted guitars and picked bass, doubled with a favorite synth pad to constantly connect them to the future—even when in 1621.”

As a veteran of the field, Newman offers even more particular insights into what these composers face during production, citing the Monsters U scene when Mike is on the bus to campus and sees Randall for the first time. “To do it, I had to write the ‘Monsters University’ song, and the song had to be something that would be useful to use in the rest of the picture. It covered a lot of ground, and there was dialogue and also a lot of action, which is always difficult.

“One thing that is always a challenge on almost every picture is somehow doing something that the director will like as well as what he has on his temp track. Understandably, they get used to and fall in love with the music they’ve been hearing for years, in some cases … You have to do something the director can live with, which usually means you can’t really do something radically different from the temp track even if you think it’s the right thing to do. And a lot of times, it is the right thing to do.” Newman’s favorite scenes are the library challenge and Mike’s farewell.

(from left) Pharrell Williams and Heitor Pereira

(from left) Pharrell Williams and Heitor Pereira

Oftentimes, a composer also has to work around the musical contributions of others, whether they are one-off songs or more involved collaborations. Despicable‘s Pereira again worked with Grammy winning songwriter/rapper/producer Pharrell Williams for the sequel. Pharrell wrote the songs while Pereira handled the overall score for the film. “For me, part of the fun of the job was to keep his musical spirit always present in the music of the film,” says the composer. Though Pereira most enjoyed the results of the big final battle against El Macho. “It lasts a good eight minutes, and we recorded it just like that,” he notes, “All the themes come into play in this one.”

While the opinions on whether it makes a difference to a composer’s strategy to work on an animated versus a live-action film varied among the talented representatives we interviewed—widely—both freshman and vets from the far corners of indie labors and big-budget spectacles agree that you just can not create an animated master piece without this crucial storytelling tool.

“Music is almost 95 percent of the time critical for the success of a film, but in animation it is definitely 100 percent of the time critical,” Mothersbaugh surmises. “Music does a lot more heavy lifting in the world of film whenever the characters are hand drawn, stop action, computer generated. Animation, though often times more fantastic, lacks the amazing life in photographic image cinema. You [as the composer] help make the world you are inhabiting come to life.”

Nominations for the 86th Annual Academy Awards will be announced January 16, 2014. Visit our website to learn more about the animation and vfx contenders.