Score One for Animation

***This article originally appeared in the June/July issue of Animation Magazine (No. 281)***

Probably no area of filmmaking has changed so much over time as animation, the art form having virtually reinvented itself many times over. Yet one aspect of it remains fixed: the importance of music. Once the province of specialized composers, such as Disney’s Oliver Wallace, Warner Bros.’ Carl Stalling and MGM’s Scott Bradley, in recent years the animation industry has opened up to include A-list film scorers. As a result, today we are seeing — rather, hearing — something of a golden age of animation music.

“I think music is even more important in animation than live action, because animation is still not the same as reality,” says musician and composer Mark Mothersbaugh, who created the musical score for Sony’s Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation. The former lead singer for Devo is certainly no stranger to animation, having provided music for such 1990s TV series as Rugrats and Santo Bugito, not to mention the first two films in the Hotel Transylvania franchise.

“I love the animation in this one so much because the monsters are underwater, you see them in a prone position with slippers and snorkels on, swimming,” Mothersbaugh says. “What you’re looking at is much different than when you see them in their normal costumes. The different situations gave me some new opportunities.”

He confesses to loving all aspects of animation, in fact, though he adds that scoring music for it is a labor-intensive process. “It’s much more complex,” Mothersbaugh states, “and from a workload view, animation requires about 50 to 100 percent more than live action. For a 90-minute film you can write anywhere from 85 to 100 minutes of music, because very often you’re writing the source music that’s overlapping the score.”

Mothersbaugh believes a large, live orchestra is essential to creating a feature film score. “A big orchestra really helps bring animation to life,” he notes. “When you’re playing with synths or smaller groups, you don’t have the feeling that [the musicians] are playing in real time, and they’re never perfect.” Perfect, in Mothersbaugh’s definition, “means it sounds like humans playing it.”

Working closely with a film’s director is another key element for the success of a musical score. “Part of it is figuring out what they mean,” Mothersbaugh says. “I once had a guy who didn’t like any cue, then I realized he didn’t like hi-hats [cymbals] and tambourines. Once I took them out, he loved the same cues.” Having now worked with veteran animation director Genndy Tartakovsky on the three Hotel Transylvania pictures, Mothersbaugh has nothing but praise for him. “Genndy is an amazing director,” he says. “There are times when he asks for something and I do it, and he goes, ‘You know, now that I’ve heard that, let’s try something else.’ But that’s just part of the creative process.”

Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation, Mark Mothersbaugh
Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation, Mark Mothersbaugh

Songs in the Key of Toons

Songs, of course, are a traditional element of animated filmmaking, though composers are often quick to note the difference between a film’s score — the instrumental music — and its soundtrack, which also includes any songs or samples featured in the picture. Two-time Oscar-winning composer (most recently for last year’s The Shape of Water) Alexandre Desplat, who composed the score for Fox Searchlight Pictures’ Isle of Dogs, cuts an even finer point in distinguishing the use of passages from other works. While the soundtrack for Isle of Dogs contains leitmotifs from classical maestro Sergei Prokofiev and Japanese film composer Fumio Hayasaki, Desplat insists that they are not part of his score.

“I read some strange things,” he says. “I read that I used some [music from the films of Akira] Kurosawa and some Prokofiev. When people hear these in a film, they think that I might have ripped off these composers … no. It’s nothing to do with me. It’s real, existing, licensed music from some Kurosawa films and from Prokofiev.”

Working once again with director Wes Anderson, for whom Desplat has scored both the live-action film The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) and the animated Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), the composer put together a score that featured both traditional Japanese instruments and choral voices. “Wes said he had this fantasy of doing a Japanese story where we would try and create a magic imagery of Japan, sound-wise,” he says. “We used Japanese taiko drums as the basis of the instrumentation, but on top of that, everything is non-Japanese: saxophones, recorders and men’s voices. We made a very strange combination of instrumentation.”

In addition to the Japanese instrumentation, the orchestra for Isle of Dogs is larger than the one Desplat assembled for his first collaboration with Anderson. “If we go back to Fantastic Mr. Fox, there was a sparseness to the story, to the characters, and to the visuals, and the music had to match that,” he notes. “We reduced the orchestra to a minimum. There was only one single instrument in each section. Isle of Dogs, though, is colored by the achievement Wes had in Grand Budapest Hotel, where he showed his obsession about frame, about details of the set design, and the position of his characters within the frame. The quality of the animation [in Dogs], the fluidity of every camera move, the precision and detail is so incredibly complex and rich. So, I had to write grander in a way, and not be as restrained as we decided to do on Mr. Fox.”

Except for scenes such as those in which the taiko drummers are actually seen on screen, which were animated to a pre-recorded track, the music was created after the film was mostly completed. Seeing the entire picture is important to Desplat. “I did see scenes throughout the film,” he states, “but it’s difficult to start working on a scene unless you know what’s coming before and after. I need to have a sense of the flow of the film, so I prefer watching the entire film.”

Isle of Dogs, Alexandre Desplat
Isle of Dogs, Alexandre Desplat

Sinking His Teeth into the Work

For Annie winner (and Oscar, Emmy and BAFTA nominee) Bruno Coulais, scoring the French/Luxembourgian production of White Fang offered both a large musical opportunity and a large challenge, since the film’s dog and wolf characters are animated realistically and do not talk  — or even think out loud — and even their human counterparts are decidedly tight-lipped.

“There is so little dialogue in White Fang it gives a big place for the sound and the music,” Coulais says. “The difficulty was not to stifle the movie with music, but to mix it in a natural way. Starting with the principle that the animals don’t speak, the music takes charge of this lack while emphasizing a little of the characters’ psychology. However, it is necessary to use it with precaution in order to be neither too redundant nor too explanatory.”

Coulais — whose animation credits include 2014’s Song of the Sea and 2009’s Coraline and The Secret of Kells — says he combined two distinct elements in creating the score for White Fang. “The big symphonic orchestra reveals the epic side of the film, and illustrates White Fang’s adventures in a more conventional way, while the Irish traditional group Kíla gives a side that is more human, more intimate and more moving.”

The composer also used specific instrumentation to heighten the intensity of the realistic dogfight sequences. “The music for the fights is really violent, with percussion, string ostinati [repeating motifs], rising wind instruments, and the cornemuse [French bagpipe] shout,” Coulais says. “The music creates, in contrast with this realism, a more fictional element. Since we are not in real realism, the music has an essential part.”

White Fang, Bruno Coulais
White Fang, Bruno Coulais

Down to the Wire

Even for features, once the film is done, the time demand placed upon a scorer is tight. “As a film composer, you’re trained to work fast,” Desplat says. “That’s the discipline you have. Isle of Dogs took me maybe a month and a half. But when there is wall-to-wall music, with a big orchestra plus a jazz band, like in The Secret Life of Pets [2017], that was maybe a bit over two months.” However, Mothersbaugh says that he increasingly feels the squeeze: “It’s gotten to the point for composers where they really put you in the final possible moment they can. I’m not sure why they couldn’t hurry up a month earlier, but they don’t. They trust us to work in semi-abstract situations.”

Even so, there is still enough time allotted in feature film scoring to concentrate on orchestra size, instrumentation, and even the choice of a recording hall (AIR Studios and the famed Abbey Road Studios, both in London, are popular venues for recording scores).

Then, there’s television. Scoring music for a TV series is an entirely different proposition, according to Emmy- and Annie-nominated songwriter/composer Alex Geringas. In television, the music is created electronically using sample libraries.

“In the series I’m scoring [DreamWorks’ Trolls: The Beat Goes On] we don’t have a live orchestra,” Geringas states. “This is something you have to work with. You try to get your library up to date, and get the closest to a real orchestra sound. Five or six years ago, it would have been a bigger problem, but today we have a lot of great-sounding libraries.”

DreamWorks Trolls: The Beat Goes On, Alex Geringas
DreamWorks Trolls: The Beat Goes On, Alex Geringas

Digital Dynamics

Geringas, who nabbed an Emmy nomination for his very first toon project, the DreamWorks/Netflix show All Hail King Julien, relies on such digital sample libraries as Spitfire Audio, which records every section of an orchestra independently and makes the results available as plug-ins to a keyboard. “It exists for everything,” he says, “strings, woodwinds, percussion, and piano. We have a workstation and a template where all our instruments are ready to go, and I import my picture, and start to play ‘LEGO,’ and get it all together.” (For the record, Geringas provided theme music and songs for an actual LEGO movie, 2017’s The LEGO Ninjago Movie, which was scored by Mothersbaugh.)

Among Geringas’ recent projects was Universal Animation’s 2017 feature film Woody Woodpecker, for which he spruced up the venerable and familiar theme song from the old cartoons. “It was a hard one,” he says. “We had to get it modern, but also it had to fit the whole film. [Director] Alex Zamm and I were listening to the original ‘40s song, and we found something which defines Woody Woodpecker as a troublemaker. We tried to leave the original as it was, but translate it into our time.”

What is the best quality to possess for anyone scoring television animation? For Geringas, it’s flexibility. “In the current episode of Trolls I have huge symphonic orchestral cues, and then I have a super-urban pop transition, and from there we’re taking it to a very choral Indiana Jones kind of thing, and then again to a Selena Gomez kind of thing … it’s crazy,” he says. “You’ve got to be very open minded and very versatile. And even if you have only 10 seconds, it’s got to sound great. It can’t sound like you were compressing something.”

Despite the differences in styles, budgets, schedules and working conditions, all four composers share one thing: the love of animation. “I can’t tell you how much I enjoy it,” Geringas says.

Says Desplat: “The great thing about animation is that it’s fun. You can do anything. It’s more imagination and at the same time, more humanity.”

“For me,” says Coulais, “animation plays with the childhood part that lives within us — ‘fairyland,’ imagination, fear. That’s what I hope regarding my work in the cinema.”

Adds Mothersbaugh: “I like the challenge of animation. I’m a visual artist, so I enjoy working with the people who are involved in animation. And I love to compose. Depending on my enthusiasm for a film, sometimes I’ll score the same film a second time, because I’ll think, ‘Oh, I’m done … well, let’s see, what’s a whole other way to think about it?’ Then I’ll go back and start over, and rescore the whole film, because the writing of my music is my favorite part.”



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