Tunes for toons

Animation composers secure in age-old traditions

Technology has so altered the animation landscape that it would be unrecognizable to anyone who worked in the classic Disney era. But as opposed to the classic animator, whose tools include pen and ink, the job of composer on an animated feature is as secure and, in many ways, as traditional as ever.

“The job is the same,” says Alan Silvestri (“The Polar Express”). “It’s still to wind up at the finish line with an appropriate score, and that hasn’t changed.”

Of the three animation composers considered strong candidates for nomination in the music categories, Michael Giacchino may be the luckiest. Disney’s holiday hit “The Incredibles” is his feature debut.

Giacchino, 37, scores the ABC series “Alias” and “Lost.” His background as a videogame composer and his relationships with animators at Disney and Pixar helped him land the plum job of scoring Brad Bird’s funny, offbeat take on a family of retired superheroes.

Giacchino remembers that, after the initial screening, Bird asked him, “What did you watch as a kid?” Everything they talked about, Giacchino says — “Jonny Quest,” the “Pink Panther” films, James Bond, “The Green Hornet” — “had this great ’60s orchestral jazz sound. It was his way of saying, ‘that’s what I want for this movie.’ ”

The “Incredibles” score, Giacchino agrees, is a lively pastiche of ’60s spy and caper music, from John Barry and Henry Mancini to Hanna-Barbera’s Hoyt Curtin. No electronics were used. And, in another tip of the hat to the era, veteran engineer Dan Wallin recorded and mixed everything in analog, not state-of-the-art digital.

The composer is fond of saying that “The Incredibles” is a film about “hugs and explosions.” That vast mood swing finds its way into the music. “We approached it, not in the traditional sense of what people like to say is Mickey-Mousing (hitting all of the action), but more in the sense of a live-action movie. What we did was to follow the emotional path throughout the entire film.”

Mr. Incredible’s music, for example, undergoes a metamorphosis from, Giacchino says, a “simplistic superhero theme” into one of increasing complexity, eventually blossoming into “the family theme” by the finale.

Silvestri, who scored one of the most cutting-edge live-action/animated movies ever, 1988’s “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (also for director Robert Zemeckis), co-wrote the songs and composed the score for this year’s long-in-the-works, $150-million “The Polar Express.” He’s been traveling this trek for two and a half years.

From his point of view as a composer, Silvestri insists “there is no such thing as an animated movie. There is only the reality of what I’m seeing on the screen.”

The results may differ, he points out, when “you do something musical that is purely addressing a physical event. So if a live-action guy jumps off a building, ‘Die Hard’ style, that’s one thing. If Mickey and Bugs jump out of an airplane and they’re in spare tires, eating carrots and chatting, then do 95 backflips and land on their feet, you might do something different.”

Issues of seasonal color naturally arose, Silvestri noted, because of the film’s holiday theme (choir and celeste, although not “Nutcracker-suite cliche,” he adds).

But he says he did not look at it as a Christmas movie. “It’s an adventure film,” he says. “It’s the story of a boy in search of his sense of belief. It happens to take place in the Christmas environment, but it could have been in a desert or in outer space. It’s a boy trying to find what he believes in, and his inner strength comes from that.”

For Disney’s traditionally animated “Home on the Range,” eight-time Oscar winner and Disney vet Alan Menken (“The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast”) searched for the right sound.

“You’ve got to cleave apart ‘country’ and ‘western,’ ” explains Menken, “and farther east, Appalachian. And farther south to Tex-Mex. Those were all colors to play with and frankly, country was the least of them. Old Western was more of an influence.”

Another major issue involved the degree to which the film would be a break-into-song musical. “Was it going to be songs under action, songs sung by the characters or by known artists? It ended up being a hybrid,” he says.

One of the biggest surprises turned out to be “Will the Sun Ever Shine Again.” The song is sung by Bonnie Raitt at the halfway point of the film, as the three cows (the heroines of the story) are lost in the desert and their owner back home is about to lose her farm to creditors.

Disney execs had asked for a “where do we go from here” song, which Menken was reluctant to tackle, at first dismissing it as “musical theater 101.” But having just attended an “O Brother Where Art Thou?” concert of American roots music, he decided to write in an “Appalachian lament” style and the tune came quickly. Two weeks later, lyricist Glenn Slater finished the words.

This was at the end of 2001, and when artists began expressing interest in performing it, Menken realized that it was striking a post-9/11 chord.

“After 9/11, like many artists, I would sit at the piano in agony and try to touch this nerve and you just couldn’t go near it. It was searing hot. We sent this song out, and I realized it touched people because it hit that nerve we were all feeling.”

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