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Digital Media FX - The Power of Imagination

Bum Da Daaa, DaDa Da Dun Daaaa: The Early Animation Composer
by Noell Wolfgram Evans

When Jerry hits Tom over the head with a shovel, the language of the action is understood across the globe. This is one of the beauties of animation; it's a translatable art form. When done properly, a finished animated film can be viewed and enjoyed (in much the same manner) in countries around the world. There's only one other medium with such a universal acceptance rate: music.

Music is an incredibly expressive medium. In a single note more can be expressed than what most people express through words in a single day. That music and animation would join together is a celebration of common sense. When married properly the two are a perfect fit, complimenting, driving and inspiring each other and the audience.

The men and women who have helped marry music and animation number in the 100s. From studio composers to arrangers, lyricists to musicians, each has played an important part in the evolution of the animated film. Each musician has (or continues) to offer their own unique outlook to the soundtracks that they create and yet each also, in some way, builds off of the work that has proceeded them.

A Quick Start and Stop
While synchronized sound on film had been an experiment for a number of years, it wasn't until 1927's release of 'The Jazz Singer' that studios began to see the power of sound. As that film broke box office record after record, studios tripped over themselves to get sound films into production. This of course included all of the cartoon studios. While Disney is widely credited with having the first sound cartoon with 'Steamboat Willie' (1928) there were others that came before him.

The first animated film with a synchronized soundtrack was actually completed in 1925 by chronic innovator Max Fleischer. The short, 'My Old Kentucky Home', made use of Dr. Lee DeForest's PhonoFilm system. The picture was competent but the system never caught on with distributors or studios.

The Foundation
All good songs come from notes. Many composers create these notes themselves, but some look to other sources for 'inspiration'. Raymond Scott was one of these inspirations. Scott was born Harry Warnow in 1908 (he would change his name several years later). He started playing the piano at age two and played around for a number of years before finally getting serious in 1931 as he was hired to be the staff pianist for the CBS radio house band. He not only played, but he also began composing work for the orchestra.

Scott was truly a unique individual; he had a playful, surreal outlook on life that he expressed in a particular way through his music. In 1936 Scott, in an effort to experiment more with his own compositions, approached CBS about letting him form a band as a 'side' project. CBS eventually agreed and so 'The Raymond Scott Quintet' was formed. The uniqueness of the arrangements and the musicianship of the players led the Quintet to great popularity. They played on a number of radio programs, toured the country and even appeared in several movies and yet their greatest and most lasting success would come from a place they never suspected: animated films.

A Sample of Raymond Scott's Songs:
'Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals'
'War Dance for Wooden Indians'
'Careful Conversation at a Diplomatic Function'

Music in Animation Arrives
Carl Stalling learned the business of film music from the ground up. He worked during the silent era as orchestra conductor and composer at the Isis Theater in Kansas City. His time here was well spent as it gave him a first hand opportunity to see how audiences reacted to a musical score, to discover what types of musical ideas worked with what types of pictures and to see how an audience could be manipulated through music.

Stalling was enthralled with the world of film and thankfully for him so was all of Kansas City. The town was practically over-run with fledging filmmakers, many of whom spent time in the Isis and came to know Stalling well. One of the men who became particularly close to Stalling was Walt Disney.

By the late 1920's, Stalling had moved to Hollywood to stake out a career. He started to pick up a number of odd jobs and sensing that things there were only going to get better and better, began persuading his Kansas City friends to 'head West'. Walt Disney heard the call and with help from Stalling in the form of a small loan, he moved his fledgling animation studio to the California. Stalling became Disney's studio composer and was responsible for the music in all of Disney's early cartoons, including 'Steamboat Willie' (1928). Stalling enjoyed composing for these cartoons but felt that his music was too often being used either as a novelty or an after-thought. It was out of Stalling's concerns and desires to see musical scores evolve that Disney started the Silly Symphony series, the lead cartoon in which was 'The Skeleton Dance' (1929). This was the first time in which the action of the animated film was created around the music. Its phenomenal popular and critical success helped to bring to a new level of importance to the way music was viewed in animation. Music was now deemed so important to animation that musicians and artists at Disney all worked in the same room.

Stalling eventually left Disney and worked for several other studios (including Iwerks) before finding himself at Warner Brothers in 1936. He remained here until 1958 composing the music for over 600 cartoons.

At Warner Brothers, there had always been a caveat attached to the cartoons, and that was that each should contain a Warner Brothers song. The advertising and marketing benefits of placing popular songs in the cartoons was to good for the studio to pass up. This practice produced such 'classics' as 'Shuffle Off to Buffalo' (1933). When Stalling arrived at Warner Brothers the importance of song placement was starting to lag but as Stalling considered it he realized the brilliance that it contained. By using popular songs one could easily tie into the audience's emotions and help direct them down any chosen path, which in some ways was predetermined by the previously heard song. Stalling felt the trick though was not to make a blatant use of a song but rather to incorporate it into the soundtrack. Take the song 'I'm Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover'. Previously this song would be given to Porky Pig to sing as he walked across a farm its presence was pure advertising, doing nothing to further the action of the film. Stalling though placed it in a Coyote/Road Runner film as the Coyote chased the Road Runner around a highway cloverleaf. Its placement was simple, subtle and incredibly effective.

This is part of Stalling's genius for he wouldn't just throw a song into a soundtrack, rather he would take snippets from a song and thread it in or re-work them until they flowed with the music and added a punch to the music and action. Stalling's work benefited from having the large and diverse Warner's musical catalogue to work with. A catalogue that grew in1943 when Warners bought Raymond Scott Publishing. Stalling now had a license to use Scott's work. And use it he did.

The Raymond Scott Archive estimates that Stalling used Scott's music a total of 133 times in 117 separate cartoons. Far and away the song used the most was 'Powerhouse'. Its straight ahead drive instantly puts into your mind an image of Daffy Duck and Porky Pig working the assembly line in 'Baby Bottleneck' (1946) (or any number of similar situations). Carl Stalling had most certainly been providing impressive musical scores up to 1943 but once he began to incorporate Scott's structured lunacy into his work, it became inspired and a mark against which others continue to be measured.

These Stalling/Scott scores were (and continue to be) an inspiration for established composers and those looking to join the field. Jody Gray, a composer, says that these scores were 'enthralling' to him as a child and cites them as a major influence on his decision to become a composer. Their influence is still felt at Warner Brothers as well. Gray, who completes a number of scores for Warner Brother's On-Line animated ventures says that in discussions, 'Stalling-like' is a description that is continually bantered about.

Over at MGM Scott Bradley had a both enviable and unenviable task: compose music for the animated shorts being produced there. This was enviable because of the popularity, both commercial and critical, of the MGM cartoon stars. Unenviable because after all, Tom and Jerry films are chase films. Perhaps each has a different setting, but at their core…. Bradley saw this challenge and rather than 'cartoon up' his work he took a more serious approach. An orchestra composer by day, Bradley used much of the same orchestral overtones in his music for MGM which provided a certain serious, cynical counterpoint to all of the action on the screen.

Back over at Disney, Bert Lewis had taken over for Stalling as Musical Director and now gave way to Leigh Harline. Harline was the first college educated Musical Director Disney had; previous directors had learned their trade in music halls and theater orchestra pits. The schooling that Harline received paid off in droves for Disney as he brought a sophistication and complexity to his scores. Films such as 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' (1937) and 'Pinocchio' (1940) benefited from his talents. Many composers of the time composed almost on a shot by shot basis, but Harline had an ability to compose long musical themes that would carry out over an entire scene. Within each musical strand, he would place individual call outs which could punctuate the action without detracting from the overall musical 'scheme'.

In Everyone a Song
Stalling, Harline, Scott and Bradley are some of the more influential composers to come out of the early years of animation but they are in no way the only composers you have heard. Over the years we've also been treated to the work of:

Clarence Wheeler - He worked for Walter Lantz, particularly on the Chilly Willy series.

Winston Sharples - Winston wrote music for a number of Paramount cartoons as well as Merrie Melodie shorts. He would compose music for 696 animated shorts in all.

Sammy Lerner - Musical Director at Paramount. His major contribution was in writing Popeye's theme song.

Sammy Timberg - The third major Music Director at Paramount. He was responsible for scoring the majority of cartoons released between 1942 and 1949.

Ralph Rainger and Victor Young - Both did work for the Fleischers, particularly on the feature 'Gulliver's Travels' (1939).

Some studios left music composition to one person or to a core group while others worked with music differently on every picture they created. For example, UPA had no composer on staff. Instead it kept to its artistic ideals by hiring in a composer for each particular animated piece. That meant that they could marry the overall tone of the work with a composer's specific skills. This put the studio in a partnership with various talents such as Pulitzer Prize winner Gail Kubik (who scored the Oscar winning 'Gerald McBoing Boing') and jazz artist Shorty Rogers (who scored a number of Mister Magoo cartoons.)

As animation continued to branch out and grow, new composers entered the field and started to leave their mark. Composers such as:

Hoyt Curtain - A composer with Hanna/Barbera, he was responsible for the creation of a number of themes including: 'The Flintstones', 'The Jetsons' and 'Scooby Doo, Where are You?'.

Maury Laws - The man behind the music of Rankin/Bass.

Howard Ashman and Alan Menken - They helped Disney achieve new highs with their work on 'The Little Mermaid' (1989), 'Beauty and the Beast' (1991) and 'Aladdin' (1992).

Richard Stone - The Music Director for 'Ren and Stimpy', he brought Raymond Scotts music back to animation.

Jody Gray - The composer behind 'Courage, The Cowardly Dog', Jody is also working on-line, scoring an entirely new generation of Warner Brother shorts.

Shirley Walker - Continuing the tradition of amazing musical settings with her work on 'Spawn' and 'Batman: The Animated Series'.

There are an incredible number of men and women who have made our cartoon favorites dance, made them scared, set their moods and given them music to chase by. As you watch your next animated show, give yourself an exercise, at some point turn the sound off. You'll discover that while although the images may still be incredible to look at, the animation its self is missing something, it's missing a personality, a tempo, a story spine, it's missing its music.


Noell Wolfgram Evans is a freelance writer who lives in Columbus, Ohio. He has written for the Internet, print and had several plays produced. He enjoys the study of animation and laughs over cartoons with his wife, daughter, and newborn son.