Composers honor aural traditions

A tune for a toon, loony or not, can punch up a show more than a gloved hand to the exaggeratedly addled chops. Music for cartoons is more sophisticated than ever, as musicians have mastered digital techniques and compiled multilevel libraries of sounds as animation pushes the envelope, providing more opportunities for melodic exploration.

“The techniques I use have undergone the most change,” says Shirley Walker, composer for “Spawn,” the TV spinoff from the science-fiction film that’s the first series produced by HBO’s new animation division. “Like a lot of people who have recently been introduced to digital, it was an emotional hump for me to get over. I whined. But now it’s my friend and not my enemy. It’s possible for one individual to create a finished product that it once took 25 individuals to do.”

But creativity still can’t be automated, and the composers working in animation TV will tell you that the best equipment and knowledge for using it must come accompanied by the ear and the instincts to marry music with the laughs or dramatics that the animators have provided.

“Let me give you an example of what music can do,” says Fred Seibert, former president of the venerable Hanna Barbera and now president of Frederator Inc., an independent animation producer allied with MTV Networks. “We launched a series at Hanna Barbera called ‘Dexter’s Laboratory.’ It was OK, but when we decided to rescore it, it went from OK to brilliant.”

That rescoring of the cartoon about a boy genius was done at the behest of “Dexter’s Lab” animator Genndy Tartakovsky at Chase Rucker Prods., one of the state-of-the-art independent scoring contractors with a concentration on animation.

“In any animated series, especially ‘Dexter’s Lab,’ the music is a much more important element than in live-action productions,” says Steve Rucker, co-owner of Chase Rucker with Thomas Jones Chase. “In animation, you not only have to underscore the action and mood, you also have to help create the emotions of the character. The key to successfully composing for ‘Dexter’s’ is being able to handle any given style very effectively, because Genndy, one of the most musically conversant producers I’ve ever worked with, will take you everywhere.”

Chase Rucker’s library is a compendium of thousands of tracks and sounds and instruments that can be recalled, pinpointed and placed with an image within seconds, changed at a whim or enriched in the next minute. Chase Rucker, which has been in business since 1983 and has provided scores for more than 30 animated series as well as live-action primetimes shows, uses a Euphonix Console with a snapshot memory to mix and match tracks.

While digital technology has helped carry animation music into the future, traditions — just like ACME safes falling from a great height and enduring epithets like “You’r-r-r-e dithpicable!” — endure in the aural arena.

At Warner Bros. Television Animation, musical director and composer Richard Stone carries on the legacy of animation music that goes back to the great Carl Stalling, who wrote the music for the original Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts. Stone’s duties encompass “Steven Spielberg Presents Animaniacs,” “Steven Spielberg Presents Pinky & the Brain,” “Steven Spielberg Presents Freakazoid!,” “The Sylvester & Tweety Mysteries,” “Road Rovers” and “Warner Bros.’ Histeria!”

“We’re able to score cartoons on the same stage that Stalling used 30 years ago,” Stone says. “We use the same piano he used. When a boulder falls off a mountain and you hear the piano, it’s the same chord and the same size orchestra that he used. We don’t use any tracking. Many other studios will score the first and second episodes, then tracking of that over and over. We still use the xylophone for an eye blink and we still play ‘The Lady in Red’ when a character wears a red dress.

“We do this to honor Carl Stalling, but also to keep conversant with the Warner Bros. tradition,” Stone continues. “Cartoons from other studios often come from a cute place. Warner Bros. has always come from wit and satire.

“In a Warner Bros. cartoon, if a character starts to cry, in six more frames he’ll be clobbered by an anvil. At the same time, it allows us to experiment. We stick to Stalling, but we branch out depending on the subject matter — to rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, country, show tunes.”

Walker’s style and the supernatural aspects of “Spawn” allow her to “go overboard so often, which would be silly in live action.” While a big orchestra and broad strokes allow composers for animation to clang the cymbals and liberate the tubas, “You have to be very careful how you orchestrate so as not to be distracting,” Chase warns. “You have to support what’s onscreen.”

While both big-studio and indie-contracting composers for animation are thriving, Walker, a pioneer for women composers — she orchestrated and conducted the scores for “Batman,” “Backdraft” and “True Lies” and recently scored “Turbulence” — says that, across the board, music budgeting has dipped.

“There’s more animation product that needs music to be put with it these days,” she says, “but we’re in a downward trend in money being allotted for it, with the big exception of Warner Bros. My work is well-supported, but creators of animation occasionally are short-sighted when it comes to music.”

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