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The Ink and Paint of Music

Amin Bhatia recounts a day in his life as an "electronic composer" for animated TV shows, explaining his tools and techniques.

Amin Bhatia.

At 6:45 am on a weekday morning the routine begins: Open all doors, turn on the office computers, server, and the printer. Turn on the power bars for digital audio, samplers, and MIDI and boot up. Check the Power Mac and confirm no backup problems the night before. Coffee: decaf with one package of Sweet and Lo. Your treat for this morning: A Sausage McMuffin you picked up on the way over. Savor each bite as you load up the second Mac in the MIDI room with spotting notes. Four computers, two racks, four digital samplers, a printer and voice mail are standing by. Review the worklist database and decide which music cues to do today. Close the door and start. You have at least two hours before any other staff come in so get creative. Don't come out for a break until 2:00 pm. Don't go home till 9:00. The above scenario, while particular to my studio, is typical of an electronic composer in the middle of a network animation series. Just as with the animator whose ink and paint tools have become digital tablets and SGI stations, the musician's tools have changed from pencil and scorepaper, stopwatch and a roomful of musicians, to digital audio and MIDI workstations, and racks full of synthesizer and audio sampler modules. Nevertheless the discipline and deadlines are still the same. Even in the cases where real musicians will be brought in for the final recording, a film composer must still use his tools and techniques to perform the arduous task of enhancing a group of images (in a very short amount of time) with an underscore that, at it's best, becomes an unconscious part of the whole. This is the fun and the nightmare that is film scoring. On a live-action project, the dialogue and the sound effects are reality. Sound effects are especially complex with location audio, ambiances and foley (. . .the added footsteps, grunts, groans and body movements). Music must carefully play outside this and be the emotional reaction of the scene, rarely leading the story or accenting a visual moment. This is not so in animation. Because there is no location audio or reality to simulate, music has been granted the license to lead the action and provide the extra energy and motion in the audio track, to make up for the missing detail in sound. This philosophy hasn't changed, from the black and white days of Steamboat Willie to the cyberworld of Reboot. The bottom line for the composer is: You can get away with a lot more in animation!

Screen shot from Studio Vision, a MIDI Digital Audio sequencing program by Opcode Systems.

Anything ever written about music for animation inevitably pays homage to Carl Stalling, and as much as I tried to, I couldn't avoid it here. Most noted for his scores for the classic Warner Bros. cartoons in the 40s and 50s, Carl defined the all too well known musical style of playing every visual gag with a musical sound effect. Whether it be a group of plucked violins tiptoeing across the screen in perfect sync, or the surprise "oh-no" orchestral phrases that preceded every exploding Acme device, Carl and his peers created a set of musical rules that have shown up on every single animated project since then.

Why Carl? And why always Carl? I've seen cases where producers of a new series (especially a computer generated one) will plan for an audio track that uses sound effects and underscore in a conventional live-action approach. Yet, when the show is previewed, the inevitable request comes through to "make the music busier". . . "play the gags". . ."it's missing something". . . All this is Carl's fault! The process of initial writing is a slow and laborious process. It begins with meetings and spotting sessions with the producers, who determine the overall style of the music, be it orchestral, rock, ethnic, country . . . (On a recent project, I asked the producers about style and the answer was simply, "Yes, we want style.") From these meetings, one runs back to the hovel of a MIDI studio and experiments with themes, variations, ideas and anything that strikes a fancy. These works of Wagnerian art are then eagerly played back to the producers, who respond with, "Oh . . . that's. . . well, it's . . . interesting . . .hmmmmmm. . . No, that's not quite right . . . I can't quite tell you what I want, but I'll know when I hear it." Like any creative art, there are semantic frustrations when a composer and producer must work together, each using a totally different vocabulary. It doesn't matter how cool your MIDI studio is, or your résumé, or musical background. Those are already a given. But this business is about teamwork and relationships, and you and the producer will just have to sweat it out with each other until it sounds right to both of you. I'm fortunate in that Nelvana's producers and editors are a good bunch of people . . . . One does not always get so lucky.

Nelvana's Tales From the Cryptkeeper.

Once the style and themes are shaping up, the actual writing of music to picture begins. In live action, one waits until the picture is "locked" and there are no more edits in show timing. In animation, the picture is usually the last thing to show up! In my work with Nelvana, I start by reading storyboards and listening to a prerecorded dialogue track that has beeps to tell me where in the storyboard I am. From this, I can time out my scenes and organize my computer metronome track to block out the beats and bars of music I have to write to. The picture itself is being rendered and colored in another department across town, or sometimes overseas. I don't get to check my work against picture until two days before the final mix of music dialogue and sound effects. Thankfully, I don't do this alone. (Those glossy ads of one person sitting in a room spouting music from his or her electrified fingers are absolute crap!) I work with Magnetic Music, which is a music production/editing/supervision company run by David Greene. The Magnetic crew supervise the meetings, and organize spotting notes that give me a breakdown of the action right down to the hour minute second and frame. They also produce the music, and are my objective ears when after working on a two minute piece for eight hours, I can't hear it anymore. It's wonderful because I actually rent my studio space from them for my MIDI workstation. We bring each other a lot of work and they're always down the hall when I need them. The relationship is well worth the added expense and much better than a second bedroom studio in my opinion. The following audio examples give you an idea of the writing stages. Care has been taken to process these so they sound the least offensive in eight bit mono (ugh!!), and I look forward to the day when you can download a Quick Time movie of this without dying from graybar fatigue on the World Wide Wait!

Screen shot from Studio Vision, a MIDI Digital Audio sequencing program by Opcode Systems.

The scene is from Nelvana's Tales from the Cryptkeeper, episode 14, entitled Game Over. Our hero, that snickering punster the Cryptkeeper, is trying to get some peace and quiet while his two enemies, the Vaultkeeper and the Old Witch, are trying to steal the show from him. The Vaultkeeper has hijacked his cab and the witch is following behind on her broom. (Listen for a musical quote from The Sorcerer's Apprentice for the broom. This job has it's perks.)

The first audio example is a skeleton sketch (no pun intended!). Just as an animator will first do a line drawing or pencil sketch to determine speed and pace before filling things out, I use only one or two synthesizers to flesh out the actual melody and make sure it works to the picture timings. Working with a MIDI sequencer is akin to a word processor. You can juggle notes and tempo about, just like words and fonts, and never commit to anything till you finally "print" it to tape. Yes, it's fun, but just as a word processor cannot write for you, a sequencer cannot compose for you. You've still got to know your stuff.

Audio Clip 1: Skeleton Sketch (900k)

The analogies between animation and music making are many. Both require imagination preplanning, and perspiration! Once the skeleton sketch is done it's hours of adding in all the other instruments: woodwinds, strings, brass and percussion.

A note to potential MIDI composers who expect to play a keyboard patch called "Orchestra." Forget it. In animation, you can't copy and paste a water texture. You have to paint it, one wave at a time. It's the same with music. The only way to sound like an orchestra is to build up each part one note at a time!

Audio Clip 2: Finished Music (900k)

After I've finished writing, I entrust the staff at Magnetic to do the final mix of all the various audio tracks (never mix your own music), which can have as many as 40 different synthesizer sources. Nelvana's producers are present during this and, if all goes well, we tell jokes and drink coffee during the mixdown. If something feels "wrong" to them, everything grinds to a halt. I dash to the computer to rewrite sections of music, while they sit patiently and ponder hiring a different composer next time.

The music mix is the second last step in the process. The inevitable final mix or dubbing is where sound effects, dialogue, and music meet. If everyone has done their job well, the dialogue presents the story, the sound effects provide the reality (or hyper-reality), and the music emphasizes the emotion and "fun." Hopefully, you hear them all working together. That's the goal . . .and sometimes we achieve it. Take a listen.

Audio Clip 3: Final Mix with SFX and Dialogue (900k)

Composer/synthesist Amin Bhatia has been writing for film for nearly 20 years. Recent projects include Once a Thief, directed by John Woo, and Nelvana's animated series Blazing Dragons. He has worked on album projects with David Foster and Steve Porcaro and is currently working on the sequel to his solo CD Interstellar Suite.

All audio Copyright 1994 Nelvana Ltd. Music Composed by Amin Bhatia, Theme by Danny Elfman.