Sunday, January 29, 2006

Cartoons and Music Make Sweet Harmony

It is hard to imagine cartoons without music. As soon as sound was integrated into cartoons, music became an important component. I have always intuitively felt that the role of music in a cartoon was very important but until recently I haven’t really tried to dig any deeper into the question “what really is the role of music in cartoons?” Certainly music provides a bridge to be used to smooth out transitions or to fill out silences. And music can be used to enhance motion. But it can have a much bigger role. One of the primary roles of the music is to enhance the comedic affect of the story or gag. Sometimes the music is a familiar tune and therefore it’s original title or lyrics make a particularly funny statement when coupled with a visual. For example if the story has an elderly character and the chosen music were something like “The Old Gray Mare”. Some cartoon music has been used so frequently in similar situations that just hearing a few bars of a particular piece establishes a connection to a comical aspect. For example there are certain familiar tunes that just imply a pending chase or a spooky situation. Music can act as a significant storytelling device helping to build anticipation, to alert the audience to upcoming events, or to set an emotional tone. This can also be applied to creating contrasts, actually using music that creates one impression in a totally contrasting situation.

I'm currently writing the script of a new episode of our cartoon series. And it is perhaps one of the most exciting and interesting types of cartoon episodes I have ever attempted to write. It is a comic opera ballet. I have to admit that for years I have wanted to do this type of cartoon but the situation never presented itself until now. I have long been influenced by the Chuck Jones opera cartoons, What's Opera Doc and The Rabbit of Seville. As I was saying I have long wanted to tackle this type of cartoon. It is a real learning experience on many levels. Normally writing a cartoon in script form is a large enough challenge when there is so much action and visual humor involved. But when you add in the additional dynamic of opera and music the challenge is greatly multiplied. Most times background music is for me an after thought but not in a cartoon opera. Now the really interesting aspect of this episode is I'm not really writing it as much as I'm witnessing it and just writing it down. It just seems to be happening inside my head as our troop of characters performs it. And the strong interaction of the music in the flow of the story is also there and I just need to document it. When I discussed this with my story writing partner he became very intrigued as to how I planned to communicate this all in just typed text. And I realized it was not going to be possible. He would never get the same feeling for his visuals although that isn't totally bad because his unique visual interpretations are part of the synergy of our collaboration. But I decided that the script would need many of the musical parts audibly included so that as it is read the importance of the musical influence could be communicated. Visually the characters in costume and some in drag creates a whole new perspective on their interactions and adding ballet dancing to the mix is visually very funny as well. This will certainly be a most difficult episode to produce but at least at this early stage of pre-visualization it is already shaping up to be a classic.

Speaking of classics, “What’s Opera Doc” was one of the most beloved of all Warner Brothers cartoons, it stars Elmer Fudd versus Bugs Bunny in a German opera, and features the great comic opera song "Kill the Wabbit!" Created by that magnificent team of Chuck Jones and Michael Maltese this cartoon parody of Wagnerian opera combines their usual off the wall style with a real appreciation of Opera. I love Elmer's role as the spear carrying Wabbit hunter and there is a particularly funny sequence with Bugs in drag as the warrior maiden Brunhilde. Elmer climbs to the top of a mountain to invoke magic to defeat the Wabbit and calls up the power of the weather, including winds, hurricanes, and the worst horror of all, smog, which is very Southern California in its humorous reference. It even has a “tragic” ending that almost sticks until Bugs as usual gets in the last word.

As I mentioned previously this cartoon is one of my favorites and I always wanted to do something in this style. Unfortunately there isn’t nearly enough written to explain the process of merging opera and cartoons so it will be a lot of trial and error to develop this episode. Thanks to some ideas I gathered from a great article "Animation and Music:You Can't Have One Without The Other" written by Tony Craig of the Disney Studios, I have a beginning foundation for where to start. Check back and I'll keep you posted how it's going.


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