Jon Hofferman talks to composer extraordinaire Normand Roger about how to score with animators.
Since the early 1970s, composer Normand Roger has been providing music and sound design for some of the most acclaimed short animated films produced in Canada, and around the world. Best known for his work with the National Film Board of Canada, with which he's been associated as a freelancer since 1972, Roger also has been the composer for all of the films of Frédéric Back, including the Academy Award-winning The Man Who Planted Trees, and over the years has worked with everyone from Co Hoedeman (The Sand Castle) and Eugene Fedorenko (Village of Idiots) to Paul Driessen, Michael Dudok de Wit, Chris Hinton and Aleksandr Petrov, most recently on Petrov's 2007 Oscar nominee My Love. He also composed the theme for PBS' long-running Mystery! series, among other TV-related work. While Roger was in town for the Academy Awards in February, we talked about how he came to his singular calling and some of the highlights of his nearly 40-year career.
Jon Hofferman: So is it true that you've done the music for every NFB short since the days of Norman McLaren?
Normand Roger: (laughing) Not at all, of course not. I am a freelance at the Film Board, so, in the best years, it will represent maybe a third of my work. And a third might be with other independent companies in Montreal, or Television Radio-Canada, the producer of the films of Frédéric Back. Another third will be foreign projects from various parts of the world.
JH: And do you work most of the time in the course of a year?
NR: Yes, there's never any stop. There hasn't been, I guess, for 30 years or so. I've been doing it for 37 years now. In the first five years of course it was more occasional, but then… it was nonstop and the projects always overlapped. And that's why I'm looking forward to working less.
JH: What was the first job you did, or the first job that was important?
NR: The first film that I did the soundtrack [for was an NFB film by] a young director named Pierre Veilleux, a French-Canadian. And he knew my work because when I started studying music, I got into trying to write little pieces on modern paintings. My favorites were Paul Klee, di Chirico, and the like... So I was interested in visual art and I thought I would go to the art school and study a little further about [it], and how I could combine music with it -- I was not thinking of film at the time. I have some drawing talent, so I got accepted at the [Ecole des Beaux-Arts] in Montreal, and there I met some young artists who were interested in animation. I [also] had a band for which I was composing the music and we were performing, it would be some sort of progressive rock--I'm talking like 1968, around that time.
So in '71, [Pierre] made his first film at the NFB and he asked me to do the music for it -- it was called Dans la vie, "in life." And I think I worked on that -- it was a short film, seven minutes long or so -- for six months. I did everything; I even worked on all the visual aspects of the film -- even the tracing and painting. So, it was a learning process that went on for six months. And the film had some success -- it won a prize at the Canadian Academy Awards, the Genies. And that was it. I discovered a form of animation that I [hadn't been] aware of. I grew up with cartoons like every North American kid, [but] I did not [originally think of] animation in my search for music and visuals. I was exploring, looking, didn't know what I was really looking for, and animation... hit me, you know -- of course.
JH: Once you thought of it, it seemed obvious. For the first films you did, was the music more rock-influenced?
NR: Well, the first one was [pretty close] to the music that I was doing. It was not too rock, but it was kind of modernish -- there were drum and bass and cello, clarinet, and some xylophone. At the Film Board, they had an electronic music studio, a little studio, and that was an occasion for me to try that. So I combined electronic sounds with music that was close to the music that I was doing before. But then the next film, Tchou-Tchou (Co Hoedeman, 1972), was more directed toward children and it called for something completely different, and that seemed to have been natural for me -- to adapt to the film and try to imagine what music will complete it.
JH: How big an influence is French-Canadian music?
NR: [It depends on] the subject--it's as simple as that. And I really love going from one film to another so that I can experiment and learn about different forms of music. I did the first film with Frédéric Back -- Illusion -- in '75, and there is a character who's the bad guy, who carries instruments on him. And Frédéric asked me to do something in the style of Stravinsky -- The Soldier's Story. And I thought, oh wow -- I really didn't know his work. So I went and bought some scores to analyze and listen to see what makes it sound like that. And from that analysis I wrote some music in the film that was in that style, with the odd bar structure and all that, and that was one of my first experiences having to do music that I knew nothing about and had to learn on the spot very fast. It's been a permanent, or constant, learning process, and that's one aspect of my work that I cherish the most.
On many occasions I also collaborated with musicians that would specialize in styles. For Crac (1981) by Frédéric Back, for which the style of the music was very influenced by the folklore from Quebec, I worked with traditional musicians who could not read music, but had the real style. So I made them cassette demos and they learned by ear very fast. And they also brought their knowledge of the style of music. And later on I worked with Japanese musicians, or South American musicians, and I love doing that.
I didn't go to school very long, you know. I started working professionally in '71 -- I was only 22. And my music studies were sort of marginal. I mostly learned by myself. I had a private teacher -- I took like a once-a-week lesson for orchestration and harmony and the like. And that was it. So I learned from the films and the necessity that came from the films.
JH: So you're really self-taught as a composer?
NR: In large part, yeah. But at the time there was not much school for that. The conservatory of music in Montreal -- I knew musicians who were studying there, friends of mine -- it was very narrow-minded. It was serious music, you know? Most of the musicians that ended up having a career and making music for film had a more, at the time, eclectic background. They were more open and they would have done jazz, rock, and they would be curious about other forms, and will touch anything without much prejudgment. Because once you associate music in a scene in a film, it's not about the music any more. It's about the impression, and the emotion you create. And the most kitsch music could be a brilliant addition to a film.
JH: It's all contextual.
NR: Yes. It's this new dimension that you add to music that makes doing music for film so fascinating. It renews, it redefines music in a way. I very soon lost interest in doing music without context, whether it's visual, or an installation. Even doing music for a song is contextual because it's in relation with lyrics and whatever the lyrics are about.
JH: My impression is that the vast majority of your work has been for short films. Is that true?
NR: That's the best-known part of my work. I was fortunate to be in a milieu that has a strong tradition in short animated film, thanks to Norman McLaren and some others. So the quality of the work that was done in that field I believe was and is still the best we produce up north there. After short animation, I did a lot of documentaries, and some of them had success in festivals.
JH: Do any particular ones come to mind?
NR: There is one that was nominated for an Academy Award that's called The Colours of My Father (1992) by Joyce Borenstein. It's a film that includes animation. Another one, Champagne Safari, won several awards for its score. I did some drama, a few feature films, drama for TV. I did quite a bit of commercials in Canada and also in Japan somehow. And I also have a side interest in installations for museums or special fairs. I've done quite a bit of that -- installations with unusual sound systems, multi-channel, interactive -- all sorts of acoustic challenges.
JH: But you find the short form particularly appealing?
NR: Yeah, I do. I think for me in animation the ideal length will be between six and 12 minutes. Of course there can be more ambitious projects. But once you get to a feature length, most of them are mostly based on dialogue, and they resemble more live-action films in that sense -- which can be interesting too. But I like to deal with a unique sort of film that calls for, ideally, an unusual soundtrack treatment. That's what I tend to like most, but every project brings its own challenge in its way and they're all interesting.
JH: So, you've done the music for at least four or five Academy Award-winning shorts, I think.
NR: Six, actually.
NR: The Sand Castle by Co Hoedeman, Every Child by Eugene Federenko, in which there was no original music -- it's a special sound treatment, I was the sound director. And Crac is the sixth one. Out of 13 nominations.
JH: Not a bad record.
NR: I've been fortunate on that.
JH: Have the films that have been the most successful been the most interesting or satisfying for you? And, if not, are there particular films or particular directors that have been especially challenging or satisfying?
NR: There are relationships that have been important in my career, obviously. There are some directors with whom I've been working almost constantly for a long period of time. That's the case with Frédéric Back -- I did the music for all of his films since 1975. Another one is Paul Driessen. I did a lot of work with Paul and I love his work -- he never got Academy Awards or the like. But he has a strong body of work, a strong personality in his films, and I always feel close to his style of films. The first one I did with him was Cat's Cradle (1974) and the last one was The Boy Who Saw the Iceberg (2000), which is a film I love. I love his work, but it's kind of subtle. I don't think he got the recognition that he deserves. And I've done two films with Aleksandr Petrov, and many others with whom I've been collaborating over a period of time.
Each director has a different personality -- this is an interesting part of my work, it's also a difficult one, in the sense that you work with someone who hates what the other loves, so it's challenging for your judgment. And there was a period where it was troublesome, you know, and I had difficulty with that -- trying to find my ground between the different aesthetics and directions of directors that could be very opposed to each other. When they meet each other, they're very kind and nice and polite with each other, but when I work directly from person to person, they are very strong about what they like, and they can be very radical. And sometimes going from one to another, trying to get into their little world in order to make a soundtrack that will complete their quest -- it's not always so easy.
JH: That leads to the next question. I don't know if it's always the same or if it varies, but are you usually presented with a finished film?
NR: Yeah, almost always. I do the soundtrack when everything is done. Because before that I'm working on another film, and they cannot hire me to work for a long period of time and change the music constantly… In the beginning of my career, I did a few soundtracks [to which animation was added]. And I was not so happy with [the result]. I thought, well, if you had given me this visual, I would have done a more interesting soundtrack. So it sort of discouraged me from doing that. I find music and sound is a very flexible material. You can adapt to any change or length or rhythm, like in a snap, you know. But when you do animation, it's a lot of work and you don't want to trash it because it doesn't work perfectly with the music.
JH: So the director for the most part is really setting the rhythm, which you're matching.
NR: Yeah. Sometimes if he needs to animate a dance or some visual music, I will give him a guide track with a rhythm, and I will tell him how many frames per beat, and the like. So afterwards I can complete that music or redo it, but I already have a structure and a tempo, so it's easy to match it afterwards.
JH: At this point, in terms of styles or genres that you'll draw on, or the kinds of instruments you'll use, it's all pretty much wide open?
NR: Anything can go. And the most unexpected is often what is the most interesting to me. When I approach a film I try to see behind the most obvious, you know? There are things that come to my mind at first and I try to see if there is not something unusual [that could work better]. So I use all sorts of unusual instruments -- glass harmonica or ondes Martenot [an early 20th-century electronic instrument] -- everything you can find that will sound a bit unusual is attractive.
JH: Is there a particular film that illustrates that?
NR: Well, [NFB producer Marcy Page, who is also Normand's wife] did a film called Paradisia. It's a very sensuous film about sexuality and she suggested glass harmonica. And I thought, wow, that's perfect. So I sampled the rubbing of glass and the hitting of glass -- there was a fragility to it. And, you know, this is the only instrument that is wet and rubbed. How can you think of anything else for suggesting sensuality? Even if you don't see it being played, there is some sort of subliminal aspect behind it. Like in Sand Castle with Co Hoedeman, the wind was a very important character. So I used wind instruments mostly. It's very basic and simple, but I believe in subliminal suggestion with the instruments whenever it's possible.
For A Sufi Tale by Gayle Thomas I had this idea I wanted something that resembled primitive theater, with a choir that responds and soloists that change. So I had a group of musicians -- I didn't want to have professional singers -- who at the time were doing musical theater. You know, there was this trend in the early '80s. So these musicians would perform voice sounds that I had written, hand claps and foot stomps. And that was all the soundtrack. That gave the film a special color, and many people [consider it] one of their favorites.
So if you have a unique sound for a film, a unique concept, I believe it makes the film more memorable, it makes the film more distinct from others. It's not always possible. Sometimes a film calls for the worst clichés, you know, in the positive sense. Especially in comedies, for example, you make all sorts of stupid references, and that's [what works]. But some other films, if you succeed in finding a sound that is distinctive, you make this film unique, and that's a great thing by itself.
JH: You have credits both as a composer and a sound designer.
NR: That's interesting, because when I did my first film at the Film Board, they had a tradition where the composer would take charge of the whole soundtrack. The term "sound designer" did not exist at that time, but the composer would decide when there will be music in the film, or if there will be sound effects, and whether these effects will be reality or caricatural. Maybe because the animators came from the drawing school more than the directing school -- you know, in live action, the directors direct. In animation, the animators tend to animate [exclusively] -- especially if it's a very personal film and if there is no dialogue. So I soon got into being in charge of the soundtrack. And they had a Foley artist that was on staff at the time, so I would tell him what I wanted and he would do it. And eventually he retired and they didn't replace him. So for the next film [I decided], "So I'll do it myself, it's no big deal." So I got into doing that.
JH: Are you still doing that?
NR: Yeah, I do more and more sound design because I try to work less and I delegate more. For many years, I've had a little team -- there's a musician who plays keyboards -- he's a very good performer -- named Denis Chartrand. We've been collaborating for maybe 25 years. And I have someone who is in charge of the sound editing, all the technical aspects of it -- he's also a good musician. So I collaborate more and more, and that's the direction I'm taking. I progressively will do more sound design and consulting, and direction, than the hands-on work part, which I've done enough I think. And I'm not interested in reading more technical manuals. And that's already for a long time.
JH: You've chosen to work in a particular niche where the potential for large audiences and for recognition, especially for the composer, is limited. Is that ever a concern?
NR: [It's true that] short personal animated films are marginal, but they [have a worldwide audience], and they have long life. It's like a graphic novel artist might have a marginal audience, but these people are [genuinely] interested in that form. So I find it far more satisfying in that sense than people might think. It's rarely a local hit, but it's often a very interesting international success.
Also, I've never had to do a pitch or try to fight to get a job for a project in animation. [Directors] know my work very well, so they will just be straightforward and say, "Do you want to do the music for my film?" And I love that. In genres where they will not know my work so much, they will ask me to compete with other composers and to pitch on projects, and I have no need for that because there is always another project. I guess it depends on [individual] personality -- I'm happy with what I'm doing.
Jon Hofferman is the interim editor of AWN.