Creating Successful Music For Animation
November 14, 2002 By Darlene Chan
Four working composers discuss the creative challenges of making music for animation. Denis M. Hannigan, Don Grady, Jody Gray and James L. Venable offer tips and advice for both composers and creators, directors and producers.

Chances are that when something moves you by either making you laugh or cry while watching a movie or TV show, a musical score accompanies the scene. Music is a fundamental device that filmmakers use to develop a mood, set up a character and move a scene along. Music for animation has its own set of requirements, so we asked four successful animation composers to give us a behind-the-scenes peek at how they work. They talked with Animation World Magazine about their working relationship with producers, directors and creators, how they approach their work and what they think about when writing a score.

Denis M. Hannigan suggests that composers ask the producers and directors very direct questions about their musical likes and dislikes before composing.Photo credit: Teri Hannigan.

Denis M. Hannigan, Hooligan Music

Composer for Rugrats, Recess, CatDog, Beakman’s World, Adventure in Wonderland and the 2002 ASCAP Award Winner for Most Performed Underscore. Being able to handle technical issues and deadlines is another consideration for animation composers. These issues could include short deadlines, time code problems and which delivery mediums are required, etc. I’ve had simultaneous projects, all with different requirements. Experience working with live players is very important too, if the producer/director wants the feel of live musicians. This entails printing sheet music and additional recording sessions and time.

A director searching for a composer will first look at how well the music complements the animation in the composer's sample reel. An excellent sense of timing should be evident -- the music should move the action forward, not slow it down. Since story and dialogue are top priority, music should support and enhance, rather than overpower these essential elements. Versatility, writing for live players, original sound palettes are important, but is the music doing what it’s supposed to?

When talking to a director or creator about a new project, a composer needs to ask some crucial questions: What musical direction are they looking for? Do they have any examples? What’s the overall concept of the project and who is the audience? Are there songs? Do they want a unique, original sound palette or one from a specific genre like orchestral, rock, etc.?

Another important question to find out is how much music the director envisions in the project. This can range anywhere from wall-to-wall music to a minimal approach.

Composers and directors alike need to be aware of warning signs that indicate the musical score is off. Sometimes the musical style seems to conflict rather than enhance or contrast with the animation. When music is at its best, you don’t think about it while you’re watching it -- unless it’s a scene or project in which the music is being featured.

Don Grady, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, feels composers should think of their target audience as they begin to write. Photo courtesy of London Symphony Orchestra.

Don Grady

Emmy-nominated composer for The New Adventures of Jonny Quest (Cartoon Network), Magic English (a Disney series scheduled for release in early ’03), the just released two disc set of Beauty And The Beast -- The DVD (56 minutes of original music for featurettes and game animation), Nickelodeon’s Globehunters ,Walt Disney’s Favorite Christmas Stories and music for numerous Disney game animation DVD titles including Emperor’s New Groove, Pocahontas and Peter Pan . Also, you might recognize Don as Robbie Douglas from My Three Sons , one of the longest running series in television history.

Basically, there are five different types of music that fit any given project: orchestra, production sound design , contemporary/groove-orientated music, geographical, or time/place kind of music or songs.

To me, those five areas generally cover the kinds of music required on any given project. Having said all that, a lot of producers/directors at first don’t really know what they want. I don’t mean this as a slam, but they’re not really sure. So they rely on a composer and his instincts to come up with stuff.

With regards to the relationship that happens between a composer and a producer/director, each is different, so you start writing for them . I was working for a director and every time I went anywhere from about the C in the treble cleft above, she would complain about it. “Yeah I really don’t like that harp there, and the strings, they seem too high there.” So by the time I was into the third film, everything was low and dark; she just didn’t agree with any kind of harp, plucking or piano. I happened to go to a party once, and she was there, and I overheard her say to somebody that she had had an incident when she was a kid. Her little brother shot a cap-gun in her ear, and ever since then, she has had this problem with this ear. Certain sounds buzz that ear and bother her. I practically dropped my drink. I grabbed her and said, “You never told me this!” She said, “Well what does that have to do with anything?” And I said, “You know the high harp and the piano and the stuff above, that has everything to do with this.” It was like BINGO. Now, there’s a good reason to get out of the studio once in awhile and go to a party. Sometimes it’s stuff that comes out of left field like that.

Jody Gray feels it's important for a composer to find a chemistry with the director or producer when starting a new project. Photo credit: Bianca Black.

Jody Gray

Weekly composer for Courage the Cowardly Dog , all online Looney Tunes shorts (, Cartoon Network’s animated special Private Eye Princess (premiering November 29) and Stellaluna (spring 2003 release on Scholastic Entertainment DVD/Video).

Chemistry, an overall sensibility and a shared comic or dramatic sense are enormously important traits for a composer and director to share. A director’s ability to express him or herself in musical terms is a big plus, as is a composer’s ability to “read” the director. And a big love of the fluid, manic magic that is animation is imperative.

When a producer or director of a project considers a composer, he will first decide if that composer’s music moves him. Be aware that a composer’s reel is made up of what he or she has already done, often reflecting the style, taste and input of another director or producer. It shows what you did -- not always what you’re capable of doing. The reel may open a door but I find that scoring a minute or two of picture for a new director is extremely helpful. Kinda puts you all on the same page quickly and gets an immediate creative dialogue going.

When a composer starts a new project, he should get the director/creator/ producer to talk in depth about the project. Ask what kind of music they envision for the project, then sit back and be the most astute of listeners!

James L. Venable warns that a composer should make sure a scene works better with music than without. Photo credit: Sophia Venable.

James L. Venable

Film composer for The Powerpuff Girls Movie , weekly composer for Samurai Jack and The Powerpuff Girls TV series for the Cartoon Network, Clerks the Cartoon , and the upcoming fall MTV cartoon series, 3 South.

I want the directors that I work with to know that they have a composer who will listen to them and can handle anything. I also strive to be a composer who will help the director realize his or her vision and is open to changes. I would say when selecting a composer, keep an open mind, try new people! Also, be open to hearing the many sides of a composer's music. Composers can wear many musical hats; this is a good thing, something that animation often demands, so meet with them or at least talk with them to get to know what they are comfortable with musically. I was very fortunate to have found this open mindedness in Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier, who hired me to score Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back after we worked together on Clerks the Cartoon . I wouldn’t have gotten Clerks the Cartoon if it wasn’t for former Disney music exec. Bambe Moe taking the time to listen to the demo of a new guy with few credits. If Craig McCracken and Genndy [Tartakovsky] weren’t open minded, I wouldn’t have become the Powerpuff and Samurai Jack composer. So, needless to say, I am a big fan of open mindedness in directors/creators/executive producers.

At the beginning of a project, the executive producers/creators/directors should have a creative conversation with the composer and ask him or her to put together a reel that is more specific to the project that they are all working on. If you have a scene, perhaps you can arrange to have the composer score it. This is a low pressure, inexpensive way to actually work together. A “general reel” can be a good way to hear what a composer is most proud of, but I find “specific” demos to be more effective. I think those in charge of looking for composers need to listen for music that moves them on an emotional level.

I recommend to directors/creators/producers to remember that they hired a musical expert, so be sure to listen to what the composer has to offer; it might be something better than you even considered.

Darlene Chan is managing editor of Animation World Magazine . After receiving a bachelor's degree from UCLA, Darlene happened into the motion picture business and stayed for 14 years. She served as a production executive for Paramount Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures, Davis Entertainment and Motown. She produced Grumpy Old Men (1993) for Warner Bros. In 2000, she joined Animation World Magazine.

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