Once upon a time, animated films relied on music far beneath the artistic standard of their live-action contemporaries. In some cases, as in Walt Disney’s “Silly Symphonies” shorts, the compositions replaced dialogue and sound effects altogether, whimsically telegraphing every gesture — or “Mickey Mousing” the action, as the technique pejoratively came to be known.
“That kind of scoring has become synonymous with a certain period of animation out of the ’40s,” explains “Ratatouille” composer Michael Giacchino, who recently tried his hand at it in a new Goofy short, a throwback to the character’s classic “how to” toons. “Scoring that was very different from ‘Ratatouille,’ where I felt like I could just approach it emotionally and didn’t have to worry about chasing every character around.”
Today’s toons boast music every bit as ambitious as — and sometimes even more sophisticated than — their live-action counterparts. Alan Silvestri’s “Beowulf” score, for instance, blends the bombastic hyperbole the epic tale might suggest with a subtle hypnotic sound.
“Because of the nature of animation, music can play a slightly bigger role,” says “The Simpsons Movie” composer Hans Zimmer, a seven-time Oscar nominee who won for his “Lion King” score. “You’re basically dealing with a totally silent world, so to bridge the emotional disconnect between the audience and a drawing, the music is very helpful. In its own funny way, animation manages to be ahead of live action in being experimental and such.”
As the medium evolved, animators — including Disney himself — began to ask more from their music, and the Academy was quick to notice. As early as 1938, toon scores were being considered alongside live-action compositions (music was the only Oscar category to recognize that year’s “Snow White and Seven Dwarfs”), and they’ve been well represented ever since.
Alan Menken, an eight-time Oscar winner, pays homage to the musical-theater tradition of Disney animation (a style he helped modernize) in “Enchanted,” where the music is tailored to support songs. The mostly live-action film imagines what might happen if a cartoon princess were to tumble into the real world, blending the two spheres.
“‘Enchanted’ uses the world of animation as a color to deliver the conceit of these hyper-innocent, hyper-romantic characters coming to life in our world, so the music had a very specific role to play,” Menken explains. “When Giselle’s pushed into the well, the transition musically takes her from the world of animation, where it’s almost like something from ‘Fantasia,’ through the manhole cover, where the style of scoring instantly changes and irises into a solo piano and very soft strings.”
Since their characters don’t break out into song, Pixar and DreamWorks projects have taken toon scoring in a different direction. Giacchino, who gave “The Incredibles” its distinctive retro sound, describes “Ratatouille” as a “fruitcake” mix of influences — European romantic music, French and American jazz, Latin and classical rhythms — but not the obvious accordion-driven Parisian caricature one might expect.
He took his cues from the film’s key scene, food critic Anton Ego’s penultimate review. “When I left the theater, I felt this weird kind of melancholy, a really wistful longing, and yet somewhat inspired feeling,” he remembers. “Instead of coming back with a quirky rat theme, I ended up with something far different from anything I ever expected to write for that movie.”
In addition to supporting the film’s emotional and story arcs — as all scores, animated or otherwise, should — Giacchino’s music had to convey what film simply can’t: the experience of taste.
“It was a fun challenge to give to our composer: What does a strawberry sound like with some cheese?” director Brad Bird says, referring to the abstract animations in which Remy demonstrates the miracle of mixing ingredients.
“I had to find orchestral sounds or ideas for these tastes, so grapes became a little plucky or strawberries became more sweet sounding, maybe a violin,” Giacchino explains. “It was about taking two totally different musical ideas — like salsa and Beethoven — and making them work together.”
As for the key food-tasting scene, when the titular dish transports Ego back to his childhood, Giacchino shifted from the energetic frenzy of a busy kitchen to the simple sound of a harp and a vibraphone. “It’s like whispering to someone,” he says. “Sometimes the softest thing will speak volumes.”
“In ‘Simpsons,’ I’m ducking in and out of jokes all the time, so the big theme is a really useless idea, but the short little motif suddenly comes in really handy,” concurs Zimmer, who expanded upon the opening-title music Danny Elfman wrote 20 years earlier. “Danny’s theme is actually far more European than expected. He writes about the quintessential fractured family experience, but to me it sounds more Prokofiev than Copland.”
Zimmer doesn’t distinguish between live-action and animated movie assignments. “We have more animated shots in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ than we had in ‘Simpsons,'” he says. “Animation was always different because you make the movie last. Everybody sits around a table for years going through these endless story developments, and the music would be written to animatics and storyboards” — again, no different from the last 40 minutes of “Pirates 3.”
“Beowulf” producer Steve Starkey describes a similar challenge for Silvestri: “For Alan, the biggest difficulty in this form versus live action is that it’s longer before he has all the information he needs because the imagery is slow to reveal itself. He could write the first two-thirds of the movie almost six months ahead of time, but when it came to the dragon fight, which is practically a movie unto itself, Alan couldn’t see it until very late.”