Da Daaa, DaDa Da Dun Daaaa:
The Early Animation Composer
Noell Wolfgram Evans
Jerry hits Tom over the head with a shovel, the language of the
action is understood across the globe. This is one of the beauties
of animation; it's a translatable art form. When done properly,
a finished animated film can be viewed and enjoyed (in much the
same manner) in countries around the world. There's only one other
medium with such a universal acceptance rate: music.
Music is an
incredibly expressive medium. In a single note more can be expressed
than what most people express through words in a single day. That
music and animation would join together is a celebration of common
sense. When married properly the two are a perfect fit, complimenting,
driving and inspiring each other and the audience.
The men and
women who have helped marry music and animation number in the
100s. From studio composers to arrangers, lyricists to musicians,
each has played an important part in the evolution of the animated
film. Each musician has (or continues) to offer their own unique
outlook to the soundtracks that they create and yet each also,
in some way, builds off of the work that has proceeded them.
A Quick Start and Stop
While synchronized sound on film had been an experiment for a
number of years, it wasn't until 1927's release of 'The Jazz Singer'
that studios began to see the power of sound. As that film broke
box office record after record, studios tripped over themselves
to get sound films into production. This of course included all
of the cartoon studios. While Disney is widely credited with having
the first sound cartoon with 'Steamboat Willie' (1928) there were
others that came before him.
animated film with a synchronized soundtrack was actually completed
in 1925 by chronic innovator Max Fleischer. The short, 'My Old
Kentucky Home', made use of Dr. Lee DeForest's PhonoFilm system.
The picture was competent but the system never caught on with
distributors or studios.
All good songs come from notes. Many composers create these notes
themselves, but some look to other sources for 'inspiration'.
Raymond Scott was one of these inspirations. Scott was born Harry
Warnow in 1908 (he would change his name several years later).
He started playing the piano at age two and played around for
a number of years before finally getting serious in 1931 as he
was hired to be the staff pianist for the CBS radio house band.
He not only played, but he also began composing work for the orchestra.
truly a unique individual; he had a playful, surreal outlook on
life that he expressed in a particular way through his music.
In 1936 Scott, in an effort to experiment more with his own compositions,
approached CBS about letting him form a band as a 'side' project.
CBS eventually agreed and so 'The Raymond Scott Quintet' was formed.
The uniqueness of the arrangements and the musicianship of the
players led the Quintet to great popularity. They played on a
number of radio programs, toured the country and even appeared
in several movies and yet their greatest and most lasting success
would come from a place they never suspected: animated films.
of Raymond Scott's Songs:
'Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals'
'War Dance for Wooden Indians'
'Careful Conversation at a Diplomatic Function'
in Animation Arrives
Stalling learned the business of film music from the ground up.
He worked during the silent era as orchestra conductor and composer
at the Isis Theater in Kansas City. His time here was well spent
as it gave him a first hand opportunity to see how audiences reacted
to a musical score, to discover what types of musical ideas worked
with what types of pictures and to see how an audience could be
manipulated through music.
enthralled with the world of film and thankfully for him so was
all of Kansas City. The town was practically over-run with fledging
filmmakers, many of whom spent time in the Isis and came to know
Stalling well. One of the men who became particularly close to
Stalling was Walt Disney.
By the late
1920's, Stalling had moved to Hollywood to stake out a career.
He started to pick up a number of odd jobs and sensing that things
there were only going to get better and better, began persuading
his Kansas City friends to 'head West'. Walt Disney heard the
call and with help from Stalling in the form of a small loan,
he moved his fledgling animation studio to the California. Stalling
became Disney's studio composer and was responsible for the music
in all of Disney's early cartoons, including 'Steamboat Willie'
(1928). Stalling enjoyed composing for these cartoons but felt
that his music was too often being used either as a novelty or
an after-thought. It was out of Stalling's concerns and desires
to see musical scores evolve that Disney started the Silly Symphony
series, the lead cartoon in which was 'The Skeleton Dance' (1929).
This was the first time in which the action of the animated film
was created around the music. Its phenomenal popular and critical
success helped to bring to a new level of importance to the way
music was viewed in animation. Music was now deemed so important
to animation that musicians and artists at Disney all worked in
the same room.
left Disney and worked for several other studios (including Iwerks)
before finding himself at Warner Brothers in 1936. He remained
here until 1958 composing the music for over 600 cartoons.
Brothers, there had always been a caveat attached to the cartoons,
and that was that each should contain a Warner Brothers song.
The advertising and marketing benefits of placing popular songs
in the cartoons was to good for the studio to pass up. This practice
produced such 'classics' as 'Shuffle Off to Buffalo' (1933). When
Stalling arrived at Warner Brothers the importance of song placement
was starting to lag but as Stalling considered it he realized
the brilliance that it contained. By using popular songs one could
easily tie into the audience's emotions and help direct them down
any chosen path, which in some ways was predetermined by the previously
heard song. Stalling felt the trick though was not to make a blatant
use of a song but rather to incorporate it into the soundtrack.
Take the song 'I'm Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover'. Previously
this song would be given to Porky Pig to sing as he walked across
a farm its presence was pure advertising, doing nothing to further
the action of the film. Stalling though placed it in a Coyote/Road
Runner film as the Coyote chased the Road Runner around a highway
cloverleaf. Its placement was simple, subtle and incredibly effective.
This is part
of Stalling's genius for he wouldn't just throw a song into a
soundtrack, rather he would take snippets from a song and thread
it in or re-work them until they flowed with the music and added
a punch to the music and action. Stalling's work benefited from
having the large and diverse Warner's musical catalogue to work
with. A catalogue that grew in1943 when Warners bought Raymond
Scott Publishing. Stalling now had a license to use Scott's work.
And use it he did.
Scott Archive estimates that Stalling used Scott's music a total
of 133 times in 117 separate cartoons. Far and away the song used
the most was 'Powerhouse'. Its straight ahead drive instantly
puts into your mind an image of Daffy Duck and Porky Pig working
the assembly line in 'Baby Bottleneck' (1946) (or any number of
similar situations). Carl Stalling had most certainly been providing
impressive musical scores up to 1943 but once he began to incorporate
Scott's structured lunacy into his work, it became inspired and
a mark against which others continue to be measured.
Stalling/Scott scores were (and continue to be) an inspiration
for established composers and those looking to join the field.
Jody Gray, a composer, says that these scores were 'enthralling'
to him as a child and cites them as a major influence on his decision
to become a composer. Their influence is still felt at Warner
Brothers as well. Gray, who completes a number of scores for Warner
Brother's On-Line animated ventures says that in discussions,
'Stalling-like' is a description that is continually bantered
Over at MGM
Scott Bradley had a both enviable and unenviable task: compose
music for the animated shorts being produced there. This was enviable
because of the popularity, both commercial and critical, of the
MGM cartoon stars. Unenviable because after all, Tom and Jerry
films are chase films. Perhaps each has a different setting, but
at their core
. Bradley saw this challenge and rather than
'cartoon up' his work he took a more serious approach. An orchestra
composer by day, Bradley used much of the same orchestral overtones
in his music for MGM which provided a certain serious, cynical
counterpoint to all of the action on the screen.
at Disney, Bert Lewis had taken over for Stalling as Musical Director
and now gave way to Leigh Harline. Harline was the first college
educated Musical Director Disney had; previous directors had learned
their trade in music halls and theater orchestra pits. The schooling
that Harline received paid off in droves for Disney as he brought
a sophistication and complexity to his scores. Films such as 'Snow
White and the Seven Dwarfs' (1937) and 'Pinocchio' (1940) benefited
from his talents. Many composers of the time composed almost on
a shot by shot basis, but Harline had an ability to compose long
musical themes that would carry out over an entire scene. Within
each musical strand, he would place individual call outs which
could punctuate the action without detracting from the overall
In Everyone a Song
Harline, Scott and Bradley are some of the more influential composers
to come out of the early years of animation but they are in no
way the only composers you have heard. Over the years we've also
been treated to the work of:
Wheeler - He worked for Walter Lantz, particularly on the
Chilly Willy series.
Sharples - Winston wrote music for a number of Paramount cartoons
as well as
Merrie Melodie shorts. He would compose music for 696 animated
shorts in all.
- Musical Director at Paramount. His major contribution was
Popeye's theme song.
- The third major Music Director at Paramount. He was responsible
scoring the majority of cartoons released between 1942 and 1949.
and Victor Young - Both did work for the Fleischers, particularly
feature 'Gulliver's Travels' (1939).
left music composition to one person or to a core group while
others worked with music differently on every picture they created.
For example, UPA had no composer on staff. Instead it kept to
its artistic ideals by hiring in a composer for each particular
animated piece. That meant that they could marry the overall tone
of the work with a composer's specific skills. This put the studio
in a partnership with various talents such as Pulitzer Prize winner
Gail Kubik (who scored the Oscar winning 'Gerald McBoing Boing')
and jazz artist Shorty Rogers (who scored a number of Mister Magoo
continued to branch out and grow, new composers entered the field
and started to leave their mark. Composers such as:
- A composer with Hanna/Barbera, he was responsible for the
creation of a
number of themes including: 'The Flintstones', 'The Jetsons' and
'Scooby Doo, Where are You?'.
- The man behind the music of Rankin/Bass.
Ashman and Alan Menken - They helped Disney achieve new highs
work on 'The Little Mermaid' (1989), 'Beauty and the Beast' (1991)
Stone - The Music Director for 'Ren and Stimpy', he brought
music back to animation.
- The composer behind 'Courage, The Cowardly Dog', Jody is also
working on-line, scoring an entirely new generation of Warner
Walker - Continuing the tradition of amazing musical settings
with her work on
'Spawn' and 'Batman: The Animated Series'.
an incredible number of men and women who have made our cartoon
favorites dance, made them scared, set their moods and given them
music to chase by. As you watch your next animated show, give
yourself an exercise, at some point turn the sound off. You'll
discover that while although the images may still be incredible
to look at, the animation its self is missing something, it's
missing a personality, a tempo, a story spine, it's missing its
Evans is a freelance writer who lives in Columbus, Ohio. He has
written for the Internet, print and had several plays produced.
He enjoys the study of animation and laughs over cartoons with
his wife, daughter, and newborn son.
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