Set­tling the Score: The 2014 Mu­si­cal Os­car Race. by Mercedes Mil­li­gan

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The big Toon Town play­ers are not just con­cerned with the cov­eted Best An­i­mated Fea­ture tro­phy—the genre also tends to be well rep­re­sented in the Score and Song cat­e­gories come awards sea­son. We reached out to some of the bril­liant com­posers be­hind the year’s top films to find out why mu­sic and an­i­ma­tion make such a great team. by Mercedes Mil­li­gan

Since the Academy un­veiled their list of con­tenders for the 2014 Best An­i­mated Fea­ture Os­car, in­dus­try watch­ers have been de­bat­ing which of the big stu­dio block­busters ( Cloudy with a Chance of Meat­balls 2, The Croods, De­spi­ca­ble Me 2, Epic, Frozen, Mon­sters Univer­sity, Planes, The Smurfs 2, Turbo), indie un­der­dogs ( Free Birds, Khumba, The Leg­end of Sar­ila) and for­eign lan­guage of­fer­ings ( Ernest & Ce­les­tine, The Fake, A Let­ter to Momo, The Apos­tle, Re­bel­lion, Rio 2096, The Wind Rises) will claim prized nom­i­na­tion spots.

But another race is un­der­way, one which of­ten high­lights the in­ter­de­pen­dence of two art forms: which of the mov­ing orig­i­nal scores and songs crafted for th­ese an­i­mated pics will be vy­ing for their own Os­car nods? The diver­sity of of­fer­ings in th­ese cat­e­gories, each as dis­tinct as the story they help tell, is worth ex­am­in­ing.

Get­ting Into the Rhythm

As Vin­cent Cour­tois, an ac­claimed jazz cel­list whose first film com­pos­ing gig is the French-Bel­gian 2D fea­ture Ernest & Ce­les­tine, puts it: “In an an­i­ma­tion film, ev­ery sound must be cre­ated. There­fore, mu­sic is es­sen­tial. It has to sup­port the draw­ing with­out over­pow­er­ing it, and with­out be­ing merely il­lus­tra­tive. As the com­poser, I also tried to tell the story of the movie. I learned a lot about the high de­mands it makes by watch­ing the an­i­ma­tors work.”

“A good [an­i­mated] movie is like a ride of emo­tions acted by un­real char­ac­ters for real peo­ple with real feel­ings, and be­ing a fam­ily af­fair it should feel like a fam­ily hol­i­day with lots of sto­ries to be shared af­ter­wards,” adds De­spi­ca­ble Me 2 com­poser Heitor Pereira, who also scored the first film. “So, the mu­sic should be all of that, plus the un­told sto­ries as well.”

Th­ese are some of the par­tic­u­lar chal­lenges faced by a mu­si­cian craft­ing the au­dio back­bone of an an­i­mated fea­ture. But, as Do­minic Lewis—the mu­si­cal scribe be­hind Reel FX’s Free Birds— notes, this unique genre also of­fers flex­i­bil­ity. “There’s cer­tainly more free­dom when scor­ing an an­i­mated fea­ture than a live ac­tion,” he points out. “You get to use the whole orches­tra in a more tra­di­tional way, if one so de­sires. Plus, it’s ex­tremely rare that the an­i­ma­tion is fin­ished, or even close, so you be­come more a part of the process.”

The first step on this road is to work with the di­rec­tors, dis­cussing what kind of themes, tones and styles are en­vi­sioned—and which might be bet­ter op­tions. Lewis, who has pro­vided mu­sic for a num­ber of toons, says he was lucky in that Free Birds’ Jimmy Hay­ward wanted the epic, or­ches­tral style the com­poser prefers to work in to set off the tur­keys’ time-trav­el­ling mis­sion. Draw­ing on Clas­si­cal sta­ples like Strauss, Mahler and Brahms, Lewis used mu­sic to bal­ance the film’s wack­i­ness with grav­i­tas.

“The main thing Jimmy and I spoke about, which is now ex­tremely com­mon in an­i­ma­tion, was to treat the events hap­pen­ing on screen se­ri­ously and not to draw at­ten­tion to the fact that there are tur­keys run­ning around trav­el­ing through time and blow­ing up 1621 Ply­mouth,” he says. “The more se­ri­ously you take it, the fun­nier it be- comes.”

For the artists work­ing on the year’s healthy se­quel crop, much of the fine-tun­ing of the mu­si­cal tone came down to new char­ac­ters and new lo­ca­tions. The film with the big­gest de­par­ture from its pro­gen­i­tor is likely Mon­sters Univer­sity from Pixar. Mike and Scully’s pre­quel ad­ven­ture was once again put in the ca­pa­ble hands of mul­ti­ple Os­car and Emmy win­ner Randy Newman.

“Dan Scan­lon, the di­rec­tor, and Kori Rae, the pro­ducer, wanted to make sure the mu­si­cal set­ting em­pha­sized the univer­sity set­ting in which most of the movie takes place,” Newman ex­plains. “As a re­sult, there’s some rock and roll, some EDM, some band mu­sic; there’s a col­lege song, which is used the­mat­i­cally, and there are brass cho­rales. Mike is in love with the univer­sity and the mu­sic of­ten re­flects his rev­er­en­tial view of the place.”

“Mon­sters, Inc. had a fairly se­ri­ous bad guy from the be­gin­ning, and there was a con­stant threat of dan­ger from the hu­man world. As a re­sult, the mu­sic was con­sis­tently dis­so­nant for about the first half of the pic­ture,” he con­trasts. “The col­lege set­ting is very dif­fer­ent from the fac­tory set­ting [in Mon­sters, Inc.]. The fac­tory set­ting was my mod­est ver­sion of Fletcher Hen­der­son’s 1930s jazz, and Mon­sters Univer­sity is more like Home­com­ing at Notre Dame.” Newman also points out that the new film has sev­eral mon­tages with prom­i­nent mu­sic, while the first out­ing had noth­ing of the sort.

For De­spi­ca­ble Me 2, Pereira had a lot of trans­for­ma­tive char­ac­ter mo­ments to work around in the score, like Anti-Vil­lain League agent Lucy Wilde’s grad­u­a­tion from high tech spy to “spy in love.” “Also, [the vil­lain] El Ma­cho’s trans­for­ma­tion from Mex­i­can

restau­rant owner, to wrestling vil­lain and then to mon­ster—ba­si­cally a trans­for­ma­tion from Mari­achi trum­pets to Wag­ne­r­ian Horns,” he adds. “The Min­ions’ theme went from a funky, bluesy, fun team of yel­low spy helpers into a pur­ple army of or­ches­tral, dis­so­nant, out-of-con­trol an­ar­chist mon­ster helpers.”

Mark Mothers­baugh, whose sound­track cred­its span ev­ery­thing from The Ru­grats Movie to the re­cent 21 Jump Street re­make, like­wise had an es­tab­lished sound to build on for Cloudy 2. He says his fo­cus was de­vel­op­ing themes for the new bad guy and his tech­filled cor­po­rate HQ, the hy­brid food an­i­mals and Barb, the vil­lain’s orang­utan as­sis­tant who has a change of heart. The ac­com­plished com­poser (and Devo co-founder) ap­plauds Thelma Houston’s per­for­mance of Flynt’s in­ven­tion celebration song and Paul Mc­Cart­ney’s fea­ture track “New.” He adds that the big re­veal of the mu­tant food­i­mals when the gang reaches Swal­low Falls was the most im­por­tant scene to get right.

Mu­si­cal Mo­ments

Of­fer­ing dif­fer­ent chal­lenges was the soft, emo­tive, wa­ter-col­ored world of Ernest & Ce­les­tine. Work­ing with the di­rect­ing trio of Ben­jamin Ren­ner, Stéphane Au­bier and Vin­cent Patar, Cour­tois sought to find mu­sic and in­stru­men­ta­tion that would be unique to the film while re­main­ing time­less and built around strong melodies rather than ef­fects. A cou­ple scenes stand out for their mu­si­cal im­por­tance:

“The pas­sage from win­ter to spring, when mu­sic had to gen­tly con­vey the feel­ing of na­ture’s tran­si­tion—it is a very po­etic mo­ment in the form of mu­si­cal and graph­i­cal mor­ph­ing,” he notes. “And also the one where Ernest is beg­ging on the street … the mu­sic had to cor­re­spond per­fectly to Ernest’s char­ac­ter, but also to his graphic iden­tity, whilst re­main­ing very mu­si­cal. The idea was to show that Ernest was po­ten­tially a great mu­si­cian, but that in this mo­ment, fam­ished by his long hi­ber­na­tion, he wasn’t.”

Lewis says he en­joyed the free­dom that Hay­ward and the Free Birds world of­fered him to play with dif­fer­ent sig­na­ture sounds for the char­ac­ters. “[Hay­ward] gave me a blank can­vas in which to go crazy, so I just started throw­ing ideas to­gether … A hunt­ing trum­pet fig­ure for the bad guy Stan­dish that could be dou­bled with low brass, strings and bas­soons. Tribal per­cus­sion and flutes for Jenny and the flock, dou­bled with hum­ming fe­male voices for the warmer mo­ments of the movie. Jake and Reg­gie were as­signed a com­bi­na­tion of palm muted gui­tars and picked bass, dou­bled with a fa­vorite synth pad to con­stantly con­nect them to the fu­ture—even when in 1621.”

As a vet­eran of the field, Newman of­fers even more par­tic­u­lar in­sights into what th­ese com­posers face dur­ing pro­duc­tion, cit­ing the Mon­sters U scene when Mike is on the bus to cam­pus and sees Ran­dall for the first time. “To do it, I had to write the ‘Mon­sters Univer­sity’ song, and the song had to be some­thing that would be use­ful to use in the rest of the pic­ture. It cov­ered a lot of ground, and there was di­a­logue and also a lot of ac­tion, which is al­ways dif­fi­cult.

“One thing that is al­ways a chal­lenge on al­most ev­ery pic­ture is some­how do­ing some­thing that the di­rec­tor will like as well as what he has on his temp track. Un­der­stand­ably, they get used to and fall in love with the mu­sic they’ve been hear­ing for years, in some cases … You have to do some­thing the di­rec­tor can live with, which usu­ally means you can’t re­ally do some­thing rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent from the temp track even if you think it’s the right thing to do. And a lot of times, it is the right thing to do.” Newman’s fa­vorite scenes are the li­brary chal­lenge and Mike’s farewell.

Of­ten­times, a com­poser also has to work around the mu­si­cal con­tri­bu­tions of oth­ers, whether they are one-off songs or more in­volved col­lab­o­ra­tions. De­spi­ca­ble’s Pereira again worked with Grammy win­ning song­writer/rap­per/pro­ducer Phar­rell Wil­liams for the se­quel. Phar­rell wrote the songs while Pereira han­dled the over­all score for the film. “For me, part of the fun of the job was to keep his mu­si­cal spirit al­ways present in the mu­sic of the film,” says the com­poser. Though Pereira most en­joyed the re­sults of the big fi­nal bat­tle against El Ma­cho. “It lasts a good eight min­utes, and we recorded it just like that,” he notes, “All the themes come into play in this one.”

While the opin­ions on whether it makes a dif­fer­ence to a com­poser’s strat­egy to work on an an­i­mated ver­sus a live-ac­tion film varied among the ta­lented rep­re­sen­ta­tives we in­ter­viewed—widely—both fresh­man and vets from the far cor­ners of indie labors and big-bud­get spec­ta­cles agree that you just can not cre­ate an an­i­mated mas­ter piece with­out this cru­cial sto­ry­telling tool.

“Mu­sic is al­most 95 per­cent of the time crit­i­cal for the suc­cess of a film, but in an­i­ma­tion it is def­i­nitely 100 per­cent of the time crit­i­cal,” Mothers­baugh sur­mises. “Mu­sic does a lot more heavy lift­ing in the world of film when­ever the char­ac­ters are hand drawn, stop ac­tion, com­puter gen­er­ated. An­i­ma­tion, though of­ten times more fan­tas­tic, lacks the amaz­ing life in pho­to­graphic im­age cin­ema. You [as the com­poser] help make the world you are in­hab­it­ing come to life.”

Nom­i­na­tions for the 86th An­nual Academy Awards will be an­nounced Jan­uary 16, 2014. Visit our web­site to learn more about the an­i­ma­tion and vfx con­tenders.

Mon­sters Univer­sity Randy Newman

Mark Mothers­baugh

Free Birds

Cloudy with a Chance of Meat­balls 2

Do­minic Lewis

De­spi­ca­ble Me 2 Phar­rell Wil­liams (left) and Heitor Pereira

Ernest & Ce­les­tine Vin­cent Cour­tois

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