Eye on the Oscars: Animation Preview

Animation relies more heavily on music than most live-action films, not just for pacing and tone but for emotional content and sometimes even comedic support. As such, toon composers have enormous opportunity to create the tone and feel of the film in question, which might explain why so many noted musicians have seized the opportunity to score animated pics.

“Even in the best animation, nothing is alive on the screen,” says Mark Mothersbaugh, composer of “Hotel Transylvania.” “Music has to bring the moving atoms to the screen. That’s a big part of the reason orchestras are so predominant in animation: You have 90 or 100 people on a recording stage, they are all breathing, their hearts are beating, and the music sounds like life.”

Such work hasn’t gone unnoticed by Oscar, either. In the past five years, six animated films have been nominated for original score, and one of them (“Up”) won, making music — along with song and screenplay — one of the few Oscar categories in which the Academy seriously considers toons.

Scottish composer Patrick Doyle (“Sense and Sensibility”) delivered one of the year’s most distinctive scores for “Brave,” channeling the sound of ancient Scotland. The result is a radical departure from musical signature of previous Pixar films.

“I was brought up in a household where everyone sang,” Doyle says, so the folk influences were already deeply ingrained. “There are certain rhythms which are unique to the culture,” such as jigs and reels, that are “evocative of the country” and lent an authentic kind of energy.

Flavoring the score were Celtic fiddle and percussion, whistles, Celtic harp and a judicious use of the traditional bagpipes. (Such non-Scottish ethnic instruments as uilleann pipes, dulcimer and cimbalom are also in the mix.) “All the Celtic players were very proud to be part of it.”

Expanding on his Oscar-nominated work for “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” French composer Alexandre Desplat was confronted with a huge canvas uniting Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman and Jack Frost in a single story. “The music has to convey a lot of emotion,” says Desplat. “You share the stress of the Guardians and the desperation of the kids who are starting not to dream anymore, and you want the audience to feel what the kids are feeling.”

But, he adds, there are also “humor, danger, suspense, chases and moments of wonder.” He conducted a 90-piece orchestra and 60-voice choir in London, crafting the film’s theme to suit each of the various characters. That same musical motif also inspired the end-credits song, “Still Dream,” performed by opera star Renee Fleming (because the two-octave melody was “perilous” for all but the most virtuosic sopranos, Desplat says).

Like “Guardians,” Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph” demanded different sounds for its various characters and environments, which each belong to different videogames. Composer Henry Jackman found himself doing “some pretty geeky research” in an attempt to create their unique sonic world. “Some of the music wasn’t even synth; it was the actual sounds that the chips of Namco and Konami machines made in 1983. Later, ‘Halo’ and Xbox (featured) a whole different musical style. I had some fun with that,” he says.

“On top of that, just being a good story, there are also some straightforward orchestral requirements. It was the perfect film; you could bring every paintpot to the table.”

According to longtime Tim Burton collaborator Danny Elfman, ” ‘Frankenweenie’ was the simplest, purest story I’ve done with Tim for a long time. My role was really the same as in any of Tim’s films: define the tone of the film and play the emotion. The heart of the film was a boy losing his dog. That just went right to my heart.”

Elfman has a 7-year-old son and they had recently lost their own dog to cancer. So, he concedes, “I didn’t need to be coaxed into the emotional importance that a dog can have in a child’s life.”

Elfman’s aural contributions not only reinforce the film’s connection to vintage horror films but also lend gravitas to a somewhat jokey concept: “I took a kind of classic approach to the music, because Tim took somewhat of a classic approach to the film. There is an homage to monster films (musically) but it’s really a simple story with a very emotional core,” Elfman says.

For popular prehistoric sequel “Ice Age: Continental Drift,” composer John Powell says, “I was definitely asked for comedy scoring. I ask filmmakers what Stalling number they want,” he laughs, referring to legendary Warner Bros. composer Carl Stalling, who scored hundreds of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck shorts: “Zero, a normal action film; 10, full-on, hit everything.”

“Ice Age” definitely pushed Powell to go farther than he’d ever gone before for laughs, including what he calls “the most obscene orchestration and arrangement” of Beethoven’s Ninth.

Mothersbaugh’s task on “Hotel Transylvania” fell somewhere between “Frankenweenie” and “Ice Age”: “My favorite part is helping to create that musical universe, the aural world that everybody in the film lives in,” he says, “getting to pull a little bit out of the old Hammer films from the ’50s or ’60s. But we also had this other element that was atypical for kids’ films: the Adam Sandler quotient.”

Whether playful or serious, in all cases, the composers are given enormous room to define each film’s personality. Desplat remembers being “in awe of the beauty, the technique and the charm of the film” when he first saw scenes of “Guardians” two years ago, and was grateful that “the people I worked with were so fond of what I was doing. When you feel that people are behind you, you just fly.”

Eye on the Oscars: Animation Preview
Acad swoons for toon tunes | Cartoon contenders | Pixar pro hits with fast track | Live-action techniques bring life to stop-motion

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more