Digital Media FX - The Power of Imagination
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
Wheeler - He worked for Walter Lantz, particularly on
the Chilly Willy series.
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.
Lerner - Musical Director at Paramount. His major contribution
was in writing Popeye's theme song.
Timberg - The third major Music Director at Paramount.
He was responsible for scoring the majority of cartoons released
between 1942 and 1949.
Rainger and Victor Young - Both did work for the Fleischers,
particularly on the feature 'Gulliver's Travels' (1939).
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.)
continued to branch out and grow, new composers entered the
field and started to leave their mark. Composers such as:
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?'.
Laws - The man behind the music of Rankin/Bass.
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).
Stone - The Music Director for 'Ren and Stimpy', he brought
Raymond Scotts music back to animation.
Gray - The composer behind 'Courage, The Cowardly Dog',
Jody is also working on-line, scoring an entirely new generation
of Warner Brother shorts.
Walker - Continuing the tradition of amazing musical settings
with her work on 'Spawn' and 'Batman: The Animated Series'.
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
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.