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Animation and Music: You Can't Have One Without The Other

Animating to music seemed to be a lost art in televisionanimation until two producers at Disney decided to bring it back. Tony Craig explains how he and his animation partner re-created the days of yore.

© Disney. All rights reserved.

Often without realizing it, we go through life creating emotional associations through our most influential senses. A certain taste reminds us of a place or an event. A particular scent brings distant memories of a beloved person. And for many of us that grew up basking in animation, there are instant associations that arise when specific music plays. When you hear Dukas' Sorcerer's Apprentice, one can't help but conjure thoughts of a mischievous mouse and an army of broomsticks. Rossini's Barber of Seville and Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries bring immediate, humorous visions of a rascally rabbit and his inept adversary. It was only natural that my creative efforts in animation would involve music.

My animation partner, Roberts Gannaway, and I both grew up in musically-inclined families. My parents are high school band directors, and I play the French horn. Bobs spent his youth as an upstanding member of the Tulsa Boys Singers. A Forgotten Past During our first season as producers of The Lion King's Timon & Pumbaa, we decided to create an all-musical cartoon short called "Beethoven's Whiff." It wasn't a popular decision. People looked upon the concept as a big experiment, something that might not play well before today's audience. In the end, we proved just the opposite -- that music can carry a story for eight minutes maybe even 11 minutes. We didn't originate the concept - Walt Disney pioneered the technique back in the 1930s, with an award-winning, albeit experimental series called the "Silly Symphonies" (which included the Academy Award-winning animated shorts, Flowers and Trees of 1932, The Three Little Pigs in 1933, and the double Oscar-winning The Old Mill in 1937). Other studios followed suite with musical catchphrases like "Harman-Ising" (Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising at MGM), and Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies at Warner Bros. Carl Stalling, who helped Walt Disney create the score for Steamboat Willie, moved on to Warner Bros. and has become revered for his work there.

Tony and Bobs' fascination with musical cartoons started with the Timon and Pumbaa TV series. © Disney. All rights reserved.

Unfortunately, the majority of those pioneering animators were no longer around to pass on their tricks of the trade. So we invented our own method. We do know that the old-time animators used a bar sheet that had all the music on it, so they'd know the tempo and the number of frames per beat. We utilized a similar system in making not only "Beethoven's Whiff," but in creating our own all-musical shorts, including a new series of "Silly Symphonies," for the new Disney's Mickey MouseWorks cartoons. Our Re-Invented Method Everything begins with a storyline, which is broken down into segments of approximately 90 seconds. Next comes the selection of classical music from within public domain, and then we assemble a rough edit track simply by transferring these pieces of music from our CDs onto an audio cassette.

Actually, Mr. Rogers deserves a little of the credit for the next step in our system. Bobs was watching one morning (don't ask!) when Mr. Rogers discussed a fun project that involved kids taking a crayon and a piece of paper and, when the music played, drawing whatever the music made them feel. That's basically what we do - we follow the music. We just pin up a 10-foot piece of paper, put a pencil at one end, and let the music tell the story. As the music rises, we move the pencil up, and when it lulls we move the pencil down. If it zigs and zags, that's the way the pencil goes. The result is a veritable map of the musical piece. We already have a rough script, so all we have to do is name the hills and valleys. We then discuss the story with our composer, Stephen James Taylor, who adds his suggestions and then creates a temporary synch track on his computer. The synch track includes a click beat that identifies changes in tempo. The click track is transferred onto an exposure sheet, and that is matched up with the storyboard. Sometimes you have to add or cut a few gags depending upon length, but usually it's pretty close because the storyboarders work from the same temp track that we initially created.

Next, we breakdown every action of the animation, timing the on-screen movements with musical cues. Animators around the world will use these references to create the cartoon. Finally, a 40-piece orchestra marries the music to the animation. The conductor and the orchestra are seeing the film for the very first time when they enter the studio and, as a result, matching our tempo changes with picture can be quite tricky.

A winged Goofy sparkles magic fairy dust in an interpretation of Johann Strauss' Voice of Spring. © Disney. All rights reserved.

Worth the Effort

Overall, although these all-musical cartoons create more work, it's fun to do. And, to that end, I think there's greater satisfaction in making them.

From the outset of production on Disney's Mickey MouseWorks, we've focused on a musical foundation for the shorts - much the way Disney's original animators did. After all, "Mickey Mousing" was the term early animators used to reference the process of utilizing music as a guideline from the beginning of the animation process, rather than as an addition or after-thought. In creating MouseWorks animation, we've written at least a partial musical score before many of the cartoons are produced to enhance the character's motion and movements, and the rhythmic, emotional continuity of the story. We've been given the opportunity to showcase both Disney's standard characters and the critical role of music in animation. And the result? Who knows, but maybe one day you'll hear Johann Strauss' Voice of Spring and immediately think of a little winged Goofy fairy, or the Brahms' Lullaby will give rise to thoughts of Minnie Mouse. You'll just have to watch. And enjoy. Saturday, May 1, 1999, Disney's Mickey MouseWorks premieres on ABC and continues every Saturday at noon ET/11 a.m. PT in the United States. Tony Craig is Executive Producer of Disney's Mickey MouseWorks.