Music for animated features not child's play


No disrespect to Disney, but there's nothing Mickey Mouse when it comes to scoring animated features.

Composers say the genre often gives them a chance to do their best work. And while some approach an animated feature just as they would a live-action film, there are logistical and thematic differences that make the experience stand out.

Regardless of the format, the role of the score is the same: to serve the movie. "Scoring animated films, I have the exact same approach and philosophy as I do for a live action. It's all story- and character-driven. I don't care if it's a mouse or Tom Cruise," says Michael Giacchino, who's scored both 2006's "Mission: Impossible III" and Disney/Pixar's "Ratatouille." "It's all the same."

Although it can be challenging to express human emotions with cartoons: "I think it's a little trickier to move people in an animated movie," says Hans Zimmer, who scored Fox's "The Simpsons Movie" as well as 1994's "The Lion King" and 1998's "The Prince of Egypt." "So we composers maybe have to work a little harder because the outcome is supposed to be the same: You come away with an emotional experience."

Then again, as Christopher Lennertz, composer for Fox's live-action/animated feature "Alvin and the Chipmunks" concedes, "When you walk into a film and there's talking chipmunks, there's a license to be larger than life."

Today's cynical times don't allow for the lilting, tweeting birds of 1950's "Cinderella" or even the magical world Alan Menken, co-composer of Disney's "Enchanted," and Howard Ashman created in 1989's "The Little Mermaid." "It was very clear Howard and I were going into an homage," Ashman says of that film's score and songs.

If a composer is going to write an animated score that suspends disbelief or veers wildly from contemporary musical convention, "you need to justify it," Menken continues. "There has to be a reason why you're doing it that the audience understands. If you know that hearing the solo violin with a lot of vibrato takes you back to (1937's) 'Snow White,' you're there. Sometimes you need to wink a little further to make sure the audience gets it. It's all about setting a vocabulary that will reach the broadest possible audience."

Indeed, that means not pandering to the small fry. "People think of animation as for little kids, and I keep thinking if you write little kids music, they're going to hate you for it because they don't like being talked down to," Zimmer says. "Animation has embraced having great grown-up music in it."

Giacchino says he looks to grand scores of yesterday like 1953's "Peter Pan," 1955's "Lady and the Tramp" or 1961's "101 Dalmatians" for guidance. "It's how they treated characters," he says. "They could be funny, but they weren't cheapening them."

Moreover, animation music must somewhat reflect its time. "Right now, we're very ironic in our movies," Zimmer says. However, he was able to visit the past with "The Simpsons Movie" by building on Danny Elfman's now classic theme. "It's a score based in the whimsy of long ago. At one bit, I used rock guitar, and it was just horrible. The rest is really good, old-fashioned comedy scoring."

Harry Gregson-Williams, who scored DreamWorks/Paramount's "Shrek the Third," believes that the composer often has to take fewer chances when scoring animated films to give the movie some grounding. "From (1998's) 'Antz' to (2000's) 'Chicken Run' to (2001's) 'Shrek,' Jeffrey Katzenberg's always reminded me in our initial meetings to put in the back of my mind that we're dealing with a bunch of ants (or chickens or an ogre). It's tough to cause any excitement or real emotion like happiness or tenderness if you're really stuck with the fact that you're looking at a lot of claymation chickens. One thing music has to do (in animated features) is take a more honest line and underline the story."

Composers say another difference is that, by its very nature, working on an animated feature is a team sport, unlike live action, which can feel like a solo pursuit. When he first worked on "The Lion King" more than a decade ago, Zimmer says, "I felt there were a lot of really good things in the way the composer worked with the animators and the animation directors. It was far more collaborative (than live action)."

Unlike live action, where adding the score is one of the last elements, animation composers are involved from the start. "I've started to apply that process to my live-action thing now," Zimmer says. "I try to write themes and bits of scores before they go out shooting."

The early involvement can lead to great satisfaction and truly feeling like part of a team, says Gregson-Williams. For "Antz," his first full animation score, "there were scenes where they cut to your music instead of the other way around, and we love that."

For "Shrek the Third," Captain Hook makes his entrance playing an upright piano, so the music drove the animation. In fact, Gregson-Williams scored that scene 14 months before he wrote any other music for the project.

Because of the workload in creating an animated feature, a composer might find himself serving several masters. "There are often as many as three directors," Gregson-Williams says. "At DreamWorks, Katzenberg will be the producer, and then there may be another producer -- throw in an editor for good luck. You have five or six people who may have an idea of how the music should sound. It can be quite a cauldron. It frequently causes debate. It's actually very good. The flip side may be a Napoleonic monopoly."

Because animation is constantly changing, the score can need updating on a dime if one look or expression changes between the animatic and final stages. "When they did the animatics for ('Chipmunks'), Alvin may be on one side, and then he magically appears on the other side," recalls Lennertz, "and you don't know if he's going to skip or glide or go from a smirk to a shit-eating grin. That's up to the director." So when it comes to working with the final print, "you have to be nimble."

Therefore, Gregson-Williams says he brings a tricks bag to the scoring stage. "The true color of what's going to happen on the big screen and the detail of the animation is done last minute. I find myself having a safety recording session in my pocket. With some added animation and shadows and light done, the slight texture change is wanting me to make the music react slightly differently. That doesn't happen so much in live action." However, he adds that 2005's fantastical "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" worked similarly. "It's not until the postproduction right at the end that the true reality of what's going to be" is revealed.

Unlike live-action movies, which often focus on one theme -- thriller, romance, action, etc. -- animated movies can have elements of many genres, allowing composers to follow a variety of emotions through different music styles.

With "Ratatouille," which was done at lightning speed in just 18 months after the original director dropped out, composer Giacchino and director Brad Bird worked hand in hand to develop the musical tone as the animation also developed. "Is it a cute score with rats or is it a serious, emotional score? Is it French? Is it jazz? It ended up being all of them," Giacchino says. "When we were done, I said (to Brad), 'This is a lot like cooking, like coming home and saying, "I don't know what we're having for dinner."' You're just grabbing things and hoping what you put together works."

Take 2006's "Cars," which Randy Newman scored, says Lennertz: "It's got heart, drama, chase scenes, all the elements of a great movie, whereas a live-action film is a little more compartmentalized. They can be just a drama or a horror movie. You get to play with the entire palate of colors. As a composer, you get to write a score that in the course of one movie has music that will make you cry, laugh, cheer. Who doesn't want to do that?"

Plus, Menken feels animated scores and songs often develop more organically than the music for their live-action counterparts. "The songs and score play a very active role thematically," he says. "You always get the sense that it's written for the piece."

Despite that sense of integration, only a handful of animated scores have grabbed the Oscar since the award ceremonies started in 1934. In 1941, "Pinocchio" was the first animated score to land an Academy Award, followed by "Dumbo" in 1942. Almost half a century would pass before an animated score again took the prize: In 1990, Alan Menken won for "The Little Mermaid." He won again in 1992 for "Beauty and the Beast," in 1993 for "Aladdin," and in 1996 for "Pocahontas." Animation's run on best score statuettes also included Zimmer's win in 1995 for "The Lion King."

It should come as no surprise that Menken -- the second-most-awarded composer in Oscar history -- is pretty happy with the way the Academy has treated music for animation. However, he adds, he feels his best animated work -- both score and song -- was "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." The score was nominated, but lost to Rachel Portman's score for "Emma" in 1996. Maybe, he speculates, "it was 'Enough of Alan Menken, thank you so much,' or 'Animation is getting a little big for its britches.'"

Similarly, Zimmer, who, in addition to his "Lion King" win, was nominated for his score for "The Prince of Egypt," feels animated scores are given serious consideration. "Sure they get their due. The thing that is beyond doubt is 'Dumbo' and 'Pinocchio' are fabulous pieces of music."

Others, like Lennertz aren't so sure. "In a lot of ways, they get short shrift," he believes, because Oscar voters focus on songs from animated features rather than scores. "In something like (2001's) 'Monsters, Inc.' even, Randy (Newman's) songs get all the attention, but there's another 50 or 60 minutes of score that he hits out of the park."

Just as comedies almost never get nominated for best picture, Giacchino thinks the Academy voters similarly take animated features less seriously.

But in the end, as Zimmer says, quoting Duke Ellington, there are only two types of music: good and bad.

And as composers note, if animated scores don't find their way onto Academy final ballots, they find their way into something much more enduring: people's hearts. "I think the animation scores are truly beloved," Zimmer says. "People go out and buy them for their kids. The only (live-action score) I've ever felt that way about that I did was 'Pirates of the Caribbean' (Zimmer scored both 2006's 'Dead Man's Chest' and last May's 'At World's End') because it embraced the same spirit as an animated film."

Or, as Gregson-Williams plainly states, "My children are just not interested in my doing another Tony Scott drama -- they want to know when I'm doing 'Shrek 4.'"