Saturday, 14 December 2013

Music in the Animated Cartoon

There were two Paul J. Smiths in the animation world. Both worked for Walt Disney. One later went on to animate at Warner Bros., then animate and direct at Walter Lantz (he also stopped at the John Sutherland studio). The other was a composer. You can read a nice biography about that Paul J. Smith HERE. He’s the one we’re going to talk about.

Music, in the early sound cartoons, gave an excuse for comical characters to sing and/or dance (such as Disney’s skeletons to the right, animated by Ub Iwerks). It set moods. It even provided gags. Many talented composers and arrangers worked well with cartoon directors. Smith was one of them.

Smith was a member of the American Society of Music Arrangers. He was asked to come up with a three-part series on writing music for cartoons in the Society’s newsletter, Score, starting in March 1944. Here’s what he had to say:


As in live-action, cartoons are divided into sequences and scenes, but in this medium a further breakdown is accomplished by the animator who may draw a different picture for every frame of film, or in other words, 24 pictures a second.
Unless the picture is pre-scored, the musician receives a complete outline of the picture with the placement of scene cuts, dialogue, sound effects and action as drawn by the animator.
The animation has been set up into numbered measures (groupings of frames) of predetermined length in which the action is minutely described. Measures may have as few as 14 frames or as many as 40 or more. With the speed of film constant (24 frames per second), a "pulse" or "beat" is established for the measure. Measures of fewer frames will take less time than those of greater length, and consequently will have a faster beat.
The artist animates the point he wants musically emphasized at a position in the measure where the musical accent normally falls, or at a point where a syncopated thrust of the music will enhance his work. A 32-frame measure has, in cut time, a normal accent on the first and seventeenth frames and a secondary accent on the ninth and twenty-ninth frames, with syncopated beats almost anywhere ("Charleston" on the thirteenth frame). If the animator lacks musical knowledge, or if things go wrong (in 10,000 probable ways), the composer finds a series of unrelated, illogical points of emphasis that should be, but cannot be, pointed musically.
Here the musician must dip into his bag of tricks. He must use judgment as to what is important to point musically; knowledge of mathematics as to what can be emphasized without musical distortion; discretion as regards the general mood of the scene without undue emphasis on minor points of action. At times he finds that a tempo different from that the animator planned, will give better results, that is, animation planned for 24 frames per beat actually might be enhanced by music in a 22 beat.
Careful consideration must be given to the smooth connection of short musical sections of different tempos. Perhaps if a complete "take" is shifted forward or backward a few frames, the music will "jell" with the picture. The music is recorded to a beat loop* of the same tempo as the music written for the scene, and since the animation, the beat-loop and the recording film all move at the same rate of speed, the score, good or bad, ultimately fits the animation like a glove.
The above system is employed mainly in "shorts," and applies only partially to feature cartoon technique, in which the animator is allowed greater freedom of accent placement; thereby further complicating the musician's attempt to justify his own existence. * A beat-loop is a loop of sound film prepared for the purpose of projecting a regular metronomic beat through earphones to the conductor of the orchestra.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Writing music for cartoons is a highly technical development. Readers of THE SCORE will be interested to know how music and, the animated, cartoon are synchronized, Paul J. Smith, composer, arranger, and conductor at Disney Studio is in a position to discuss this subject. In his 11 years of association with the Disney Studio his screen credits include: "Snow White," "Pinocchio," "Bambi," "Saludos Amigos," "Three Caballeros," and numerous other short subjects.)


The music of a cartoon follows in extreme detail the action on the screen, heightening its detail, keeping out of the way of dialogue, emphasizing the drama of the situation, and pointing the comedy, always keeping in step with the characters emotionally and rhythmically.
Cartoons tend to be violent—no attempt is made to be subtle—the characters are not human but have human characteristics, they are usually animals but wear clothes and well illustrate the foibles of human nature.
It is easy to write directly to the action, catching every detail of movement, every swagger, every eye blink, but you end up with a lot of notes and no music. The score has not enhanced the picture. Sound effects might have done as well or better. No matter how simple the emotional situation on the screen, music can help if it says at least as much as the screen says.
A melody by itself cannot successfully carry action. Its efficacy in a cartoon or in any picture is dependent on what surrounds it- how it is clothed. Since it must be clothed, why not dress it up so it makes the best appearance for itself and the picture.
Normally, the melody is but the unifying line of an orchestral structure. It is supported with rhythm and harmony, embellished with counter movements, strengthened by thousand and one devices the arranger knows so the full force of the arrangement can directed towards the needs of the picture through the dramatic as well as the timing standpoint so the net result will be a score good in itself and vitalizing what is seen on the screen.
The approach to music writing in a cartoon studio is often times a cold mathematical one with the musical idea held in the back of the mind for exact placement when the mathematical solution to the placement is found. Creation of the melodic material is the easiest part of cartoon writing. Its placement in the score, so the arrangement heightens the acting normally and naturally, without distorting the picture or itself is the greater problem, in other words, the picture dictates the strength and timing of the arrangement. Every orchestral movement must tie in with the picture.
In practice, the functions of the composer and arranger are generally combined in the cartoon studio. Colors of the orchestra, the amount of emphasis needed, the pointing to comedy, the placement of sound effects and dialogue, the desires of the story men and director— the need of close control over all these factors tend to combine the two functions.


The sound track of all pictures contains a blend of dialogue, sound effects and music. Perhaps the most important is dialogue, for if words are spoken on-stage, they must be easily audible and understandable to the audience. Dialogue gives the story—tells the joke, and its necessity is the basic reason for the switch from silent to sound films.
Sound effects are used to give the impression of realism. In the normal picture every attempt is made to keep them unobtrusive, and as casual as the sounds we hear in normal living. No one actually pays attention to the sound of a door closing, but if it closes soundlessly, we are instantly aware of the fact. Our ears expect and demand the normal sounds of normal living.. Furthermore we edit all normal sounds. By this I mean we dismiss those sounds that are expected, such as the distant drone of a plane, or the squeak of a chair,—but are attracted by unexpected sounds of even lesser intensity. The boilermaker is used to the din of his work, so he hears the bird singing outside.
Cartoon sound effects oftentimes reach for the attention of the audience. Realism is not necessarily the goal, for comedy effects are desired. Anything tending to point the dramatic or comic situation on the screen is used.
Oftentimes the sound-effects track upon completion and before the musician starts his work, is found to be full of practically continuous sound, all of which is important to the director but something of a bother to the composer, for he knows that this results in a definite loss of the music value.
An attempt is thus made, in conference, to edit the effects. In the early stages of the picture, many effects are added simply to give the semblance of a sound track, but as time goes on the director is found to have fallen in love with those heretofore temporary sounds, and resists the effort of the musician to replace them with music. It is then up to the composer to prove that his music is of greater effect. Very much footage of a cartoon is accompanied by music and sound effects running concurrently. However, to achieve the best dramatic result, and to avoid burying one or the other, we must design our music so important sounds are exposed, and also spotted at logical places in the musical phrase. Perhaps a musical anticipation with a pause for the important effect will work, or if a series of effects is rhythmic in the slightest, we will shift our musical beat to a new spot, so as to incorporate the effect as part of the musical score. At times it approximates the handling of the orchestra in an operatic recitative.
Sound effects are generally recorded with a fairly close pickup, giving an on-stage feeling, and are dubbed in at a higher decibel level than music. Dialogue, of course, invariably has the greatest modulation in the final picture!
The least function of music is to act as a binder for sound effects and dialogue, disregarding its great dramatic, and, entertainment value.

I enjoy music several ways in cartoons. In some cases, it’s for the actual music itself, such as Darrell Calker’s scores for the Walter Lantz Swing Symphonies. In others, it’s for how intricate the characters are choreographed to the score, such as in Friz Freleng’s “Pigs in a Polka” or the MGM Oscar-winning “Cat Concerto.” But most of the time, it’s for how the music matches the mood on the screen, augmenting when necessary and filling in elsewhere. And there aren’t too many other places besides cartoons where you’ll hear “Shuffle Off to Buffalo.”

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