Editor's Notebook: A Word on Music and Animation
A Word on Music and Animation
Manny Davis, the former Terrytoons director, told me that the introduction of color to cartoons in the 1930s seemed very natural to him, something that wasn't necessarily the case with live-action films. The same might also be said about sound and animated films. With few exceptions, early sound films paled in comparison to the silent movies that went before them and whose glory days these talkies seemed to so cruelly eclipse.
Animated movies, however, were not hampered by the cumbersome restrictions the new technology imposed on their live-action brethren. (Limitations that were delightfully spoofed in the Stanley Donen-Gene Kelly musical, Singin' in the Rain.) Instead of being hampered by soundtracks, animated cartoons were suddenly liberated, kicking off a period of experimentation and innovation the likes of which had never been seen before.
Ub Iwerks, at an awards dinner in his honor in the 1960s, spoke fondly of the magic moment when he and colleagues on Steamboat Willie first married sound with picture. Several crew members gathered behind the translucent screen (probably a sheet) to play music, while the rest of the crew watched. Then the "band" switched places with some of those out front and the scene was run once again so everyone could experience it.
This sort of infectious energy was unleashed in animation studios almost across the boards during the early sound period. Thus, when the people at Disney saw the way Fleischer Studios had married Rossini's William Tell Overture to a tornado in Tree Saps, they turned the music around and one upped Fleischer with a musical tornado of their own in The Band Concert. In all, animated cartoons seemed to gain an rhythmic coherence and energy from sound that previously seemed lacking.
It was also during this period, as Daniel Goldmark and J.B. Kaufman point out elsewhere, that the Hollywood majors often used their captive cartoon studios as vehicles to promote songs featured in their live-action films and published by their music divisions. With the success of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the musical became the de facto animated feature film genre in the minds of industry executives and public alike. This bias was reinforced in recent years with Disney's The Little Mermaid,had many stage and music critics hailing it for resuscitating the moribund Broadway musical.
The association of animated features with musicals, however, has also been an albatross around the neck of filmmakers, who have hardly dare to make an animated feature without the requisite song and dance numbers. Happily, there have been some signs of change of late, given the success of Toy Story, Space Jam and Beavis and Butt-head Do America, which are basically straight comedies.
If this trends holds, then perhaps we can start looking at music in animation in the same sense as Norman Roger, who has said that he does not so much consider himself a composer, but as someone who designs soundtracks. In this sense, we can look at music in its proper context, rather than a series of set pieces, where everybody bursts into song. If so, we can delight in the driving rhythms of Roger's marvelous score for Frédéric Back's Crac!, the voice artistry of Mel Blanc in a Warner Bros. cartoon, and the minimalist soundtrack of a Paul Driessen film, and perhaps not be afraid to call it all music.
"Harry Love was the last of the pioneers, in at the very start of the industry.
A Word on Music and Animation