Composing for an animated series presents a different set of challenges to scoring for film or conventional TV. We look at what it takes to be a cartoon composer...
Television animation has come a long way since the golden age of Bugs and Woody. There has been a recent explosion of production companies and animation studios working around the world, cranking out quality cartoons for a thriving, healthy market. All these cartoons need music and if you're the composer who gets the call, there are a few things you need to know.
Composing for a cartoon series has its own unique set of challenges that differentiate it from live‑action scoring. Having just wrapped up scoring 52 episodes of a new series called SuperNormal, I'd like to take you through the process so that you'll know what to expect and how to avoid the potential pitfalls that are common when writing music for a cartoon.
First things first: a little background about the show. SuperNormal is a co‑production between New York‑based World Leaders Entertainment (the company responsible for Venture Brothers) and Granada Kids/ITV. The show follows the misadventures of four students at Super Hero Junior High. But here's the twist: the main character, Eric Normal, has no super powers at all. Yet in spite of his shortcomings, hard work, enthusiasm and zeal become his (super) strengths and somehow Eric, as part of a bumbling team of pre‑pubescent superheroes, manages to thwart evil exactly 52 times.
As with any scoring job, getting a gig composing for an animated series can come from a variety of scenarios: the people who run the show have worked with you before, someone recommends you, right place, right time, bribery, blackmail and a host of other possibilities. On SuperNormal, I had worked with one of the producers before on another show which enabled me to get my name thrown into the hat. Next, I had to interview with the show‑runners to determine if we all got along and to see if we were on the same page (when you're going to be working on a show for 52 episodes, it's crucial that you can all communicate and understand each other). After the show‑runners narrowed it down, they gave the composers a sample scene to score and made their final decision based on the music we wrote for that.
There are many factors that go into getting any gig and the composer never gets the whole story. All you can do is listen to what the show‑runners want and come up with something that excites you and fits their vision.
A quick note: I keep mentioning the show‑runners. Unlike a film where you primarily deal with the director, on animated TV (and all TV for that matter) there are a whole group of people to whom you are answering, which in this case was the show's creator, the directors, and the producers. That's a lot of opinions and points of view to navigate through. Fortunately, on SuperNormal (at least as far as the music was concerned) there was a general consensus and the show‑runners were all seeing eye‑to‑eye on where the music needed to go. On other shows I've worked on this is not always the case — you try to give the director what he wants only to have the producer question it (translation: hate it). It's important to identify who the 'boss' is but it really is a collaborative effort and you need to be able to work with the whole group if you want to succeed.
Every TV show — animated or not — needs a theme song. In the case of kids' shows, the theme songs can be pretty literal and a great way to share a back‑story so the viewer understands the premise. The challenge is making the information sound like a song. There's a confusing movement in television right now to have everything not sound like what it is. For example, when scoring commercials you can be told to write a song for a cleanser with the lyrics "cleans and sparkles, with gloss and shine; cleans your house in half the time" and then the ad folks will say "But we don't want it to sound like a jingle!" Good luck with that.
Fortunately, kids' shows still predominantly sound like kids' shows, and an opening tune becomes the fabric for each episode — not only musically, but also thematically.
One obstacle for SuperNormal's theme song was that it was only 30 seconds as opposed to 60. That's because each half‑hour episode was really two 11‑minute episodes. Instead of having a longer theme song at the beginning, it was decided to have a shorter song at the start of each segment.
I came up with some lyrics that covered the basics — most notably that Eric Normal was a kid with no superpowers even though he went to a special super hero school — and after some back‑and‑forth tweaking, everyone was happy. For the opening theme music itself (and for quite a bit of the show's underscore), I went for a modern version of a '60s surfy, spy vibe — think Dick Dale meets Henry Mancini. The influences are obvious, but I also tried to throw in some twists to keep the action of the opening credits moving. As frequently happens, I put down a vocal track that I sang with the intent to have a pro replace it once everyone signed off on the theme, but it never came up (and I never mentioned it!) so my vocals (and my wife's background vocals) are on the air.
One of the best things about scoring an animated series is that you can create themes for all of your main characters. Especially if you have the job of scoring a fairly large number of episodes, you have time to let the themes sink in to a viewer's ears and subconscious mind. Some people won't necessarily know that they're hearing each character's theme but it does give a consistency to the show. Character themes can be your go‑to guys when you're not sure what to write.
Eric's theme is simply the show's theme song. I use the melody in all sorts of variations whenever he is being the hero or even when he is depicted as a not‑so‑superhero.
Many classic cartoons have a buffoon who serves as the hero's foil. On SuperNormal, that part goes to Brass Butt. Super‑human strength and super‑strength flatulence, along with the earnest wisdom of the village idiot, are Brass Butt's trademarks. For Brass Butt, I actually wrote two themes: there's a quirky, kitschy song that I play when he's acting like an ass, and then there's a theme for the occasions when he is actually being a hero. Brass Butt's hero music is anthemic and plays in several variations from quietly uplifting to forcefully heroic.
The actual setup I used while scoring SuperNormal was pretty modest. The whole score was done on my Mac using Logic. I rely on a massive amount of sampler instruments and soft synths to get the job done. I do record live guitar in spots, but for the most part it's all done virtually. The production company provides me with a QuickTime file of the episode that I load into Logic, and then I save a Screenset in my session. Another advantage to scoring an animated series is that cartoon video files are much simpler than their live-action counterparts, so small files can be used without sacrificing quality.
One of the keys to scoring an episode of a cartoon is your template. In Logic, I have a custom template that I open each time I start an episode. My SuperNormal template has about 100 tracks, loaded with all the instruments I'll need for the show. Rarely are more than 10 to 15 tracks playing at once, so it's not as out of control as it may sound. I keep all my bread‑and‑butter sounds at the top, and the less common ones farther down the page. The template will evolve over the course of the show as I add or remove sounds, resize things, adjust levels and so on.
I use one Logic project for each episode. When you have wall‑to‑wall music, it doesn't make any sense to have a project (or song) for each cue. You would end up spending your whole day waiting for sessions to open. Besides saving time, having an entire episode in one project has other advantages: you can copy and paste cues easily, refer back to what you've done instantly, and maintain files in an orderly way.
I try to use mostly EXS instruments, as they are very efficient and load quickly, but I do employ a fair amount of third‑party plug‑in libraries. While I have a good collection of orchestral sections loaded into my template, I also have very basic groups, such as brass and strings, that I can play with both hands to get the feel I want, filling in the orchestration later. When I have some downtime, I'll create new EXS patches that will be very specific to the show or be optimised for their use. I occasionally use my expanded Roland XV88 (my last vestige of the hardware synthesizer era) for some sounds, but I prefer to record the audio instead of using MIDI; that way I don't have to worry about the patch being recalled and I can do off‑line bouncing.
One trick I use is to transpose each instrument up or down in octaves so that the 'meat' of the instrument is where my left hand is. That way, I can move around with the mouse in my right hand and play my MIDI controller with my left hand without having to transpose the keyboard or move my hand up an octave or two.
Since all the music is mixed in the box, it's important to thoughtfully utilise buses. Each instrument is sent to one of four buses: Percussion, Pop Instruments, Orchestral Instruments and Extras (this bus is for sound effects and solo instruments). This way when it's time to make stems (splits), I merely have to mute the other three buses instead of muting all of the tracks I don't want included in the stem. As for effects, I employ yet another group of buses — each one also being bussed to one of the output buses. I might have, for example, a percussion reverb that I send different amounts of only percussion to and then that reverb will be assigned to the percussion bus. The reason for this — and I've learned this the hard way — is so that when you're outputting stems, you won't have the effects return of instruments that don't belong in that stem included.
So now that the template is optimised and loaded, it's time to score!
In a cartoon like SuperNormal, the music has different roles that are constantly converting. In most instances, you're playing to or against the action, while at other times the music is simply keeping the show moving along. Sometimes the music parodies familiar pop culture themes, and sometimes the music leaves space for comedy to happen. And then, of course, there are instances when the music is used like sound design, as an effect.
It's hard to explain the process from a creative standpoint but I will say that, for me, it's a kind of spontaneous composition. I look at the scene and just start writing. Many times I'll start playing piano and compose in the traditional sense, while other times I will put down a groove and build it up. Your character themes come in handy because they will always give you a good starting point.
You have to find a way to keep your momentum going. Sometimes I'll write the whole episode on four instruments and then go back and do the arranging and orchestrating. Sometimes, simply because I'm inspired, I may spend a whole day on the first cue. But for the most part, I like to get the whole episode done and then go back and really dig in: record live guitar, try different instrumentation, even sing! The main thing is to keep it moving and (try to) have fun.
Because there is so much music needed in cartoons and because your characters tend to relive the same scenarios, a practice worth adopting while scoring an animated series is keeping a library of your cues. If you keep mixes (and stems) of your cues accurately named and organised, you can usually drop them into your project and they may work perfectly. Don't get in the habit of dipping into your mix stash too regularly or it will become tired (it also could damage your image — they hired a composer not a music editor), but when you know what you want to write and you have it in your library and it works, why not?
You usually only have a few days to compose an entire episode, so streamlining your process is paramount. Slow and steady won't win this race, my friend; you need to be fast. But that doesn't mean you can't play around and have fun. Actually, you need to have fun, otherwise you will burn yourself out. My notion of 'having fun' is probably different from yours. Sometimes, I'll record a trombone solo because I like to keep my 'bone chops' up, or I might fully orchestrate a cue for strings and winds even though it will be buried under FX and dialogue, just as an exercise. It keeps things fresh and my enthusiasm up — not to mention that it's a great way to incorporate some of my other musical interests, while still getting the job done. But seriously, you don't need to be a Super Composer to score an animated series; you can always get it done the Eric Normal way.
Here's a short list of things to bear in mind when scoring for an animated series:
- Templates: Make the most comprehensive template you can and then you can start writing what you want immediately, instead of spending 10 minutes looking for your good accordion sound.
- Mixes: Nothing is more unprofessional than turning in a mix with problems. Whether your file is mixed badly or the wrong instruments are on the stem or the file doesn't even open, you're saying, 'Hi, I'm a hack.' Check everything and keep your session open while doing it. If you hear that something's off, you can pump out another mix in minutes. If you close your session, however, you're more likely to say 'good is good enough'.
- Rough cuts: Avoid them if you can. If you work to a rough cut, you will eventually get the locked final cut and some of your cues won't work any more. You could spend precious days trying to line things up again. You may not even remember what you were going for in the first place. On SuperNormal, I was asked to work on rough cuts so the show‑runners would have time to review the music. I proposed that if I could wait and work to a locked picture, I would finish the show two days earlier than originally scheduled so they would have an extra day to review it and give me notes.
- Library: Besides using your mixes in the episodes, it's great to have a playlist of your favourite cues from the show — kind of like your own soundtrack album.
- Plan B: You're not going to knock everyone's socks off every time; today's footwear is just too solidly built. So when trying to get the gig or pitching a theme song, have another idea in your back pocket in case your first effort leaves them scratching their heads.
- Humility: Lose the ego, amigo. You've been hired as the composer for an animated series. Congratulations. Don't get too big for your britches. The job is to make the show better and to maintain the show‑runners' vision. Don't make it solely about your precious music. And, no, that's not selling out.