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Tunes For Toons: Writing Music for Animation

Published August 1997

Cartoons — they're brilliant! And wouldn't you just love to write the music? Big George Webley puts you in the picture...

One of the most rewarding jobs a composer can ever do is write music for animation. It's not an easy skill to acquire and there is no higher education course on earth that can show you how it's done. When you compose your first animated score, it really is a case of jumping in at the deep end, getting soaking wet and praying that you don't drown.

Good Advice

If the opportunity ever does arise for you to write music for an animated TV title sequence or an advert, do what you know! If all your previous work has been on a MIDI sequencer triggering sound modules and a sampler, neatly housed in a rack unit, the last thing you should think about doing is printing off a copy of the manuscript from the score edit page of your sequencer and taking that into a studio to get an orchestra to play it. Trust me, no matter how big the budget for the job, it will be a disaster. When it doesn't sound right, you can't just thicken up the cello sequence an octave above and below to see if that works — unless you can instantly hire a couple of extra cellists — and when the lead violinist asks "Do you want it played more 'Animando'?" what are you going to say? "Er... I dunno, but can you play the pitch‑bend bit at maximum velocity with a quantise swing of 33 per cent?"

You're going to have enough problems working under the constraints imposed on you by the film makers, the production company and the time available to have to learn the hard way that getting your first big‑time job won't give you instant studio experience. So do what you're good at, and if you need help, get it! This business is all about being able to work with and for people, so having someone work for you — to help score parts for an orchestra, programme a computer‑based sequencer or calculate frame numbers — isn't an admission of inability: it's the mark of true professionalism.


BAFTA‑nominated animator Tim Searle has dealt with dozens of composers during his career. "Most are totally aware of the extreme pressures that this aspect of filming exerts and have a good approach to their side of the process. But sometimes you have to put up with self‑important idiots, usually wearing pink leopardskin spandex trousers, giving it a large one about how they see their music portraying the mood of the piece and lifting the animation to a higher plane of realism... blah blah blah. Then, when they finally deliver their work, usually way over time, it sounds like someone playing a nursery rhyme on a Bontempi Organ with one finger."

To generalise (enough for the above‑average music composer to understand), animation is produced in one of three ways: Cell, Computer Generated Animation, or Pixelation. Triffic Films have a very distinctive, some might say 'pacey', style of animation, despite using every technique available, either singly or in combination. Talking of which...


Cell animation is where a different picture is created on different layers of acetate for each individual shot. Often the only alteration to a shot is in the shape of the character's mouth. The face and body are on separate acetate, along with other characters and movable objects, laid against a stationary background.

This is a time‑consuming affair (for the animator), which works both for and against the composer. On one hand it allows plenty of time to work on the music and get a general feel for the look of the piece, as you get to see lots of different (still) pictures as they are created, drawn and coloured in. But it also means that you'll have to compose your music to an accurate template (of hit‑point frame numbers and a storyboard), which must be bang‑on when their moving pictures and your music marry up. When the pictures and the sound don't come together, it is much easier for you to completely re‑do the score rather than for them to redraw a minimum of 720 pictures per minute.

Computer Generated

Computer‑generated animation lives in the brain of an Apple Power Mac computer (PCs are rarely, if ever, used in professional animation, as reliability is a key factor in production, which is one thing PCs can't guarantee). The animation packages available get more comprehensive by the day, and can bend considerably to accommodate the groove of your music. But don't get cocky. The very versatility of computer animation means that animation sequences are re‑arranged and new ones added at the drop of a hat — so your groovy music (completely cast in stone, as far as you're concerned) may need an extra five seconds in the middle of your favourite bit, in order to accommodate the extra footage just added... and can they have it now, please, they're waiting!

Luckily, hard disk systems work just as well for composers — in fact, a good hard disk editor can often be the only way of fixing the unfixable at a moment's notice, which is all you'll get.


If you've ever watched the Wallace And Gromit films or The Magic Roundabout, you've seen pixelation (or single‑frame animation, or claymation). Small, precision‑made models that have joints (in their limbs) are moved a minuscule amount 12 times every second. This is an incredibly time‑consuming process for the animator (the models are designed, constructed and filmed at a rate which produces one second of finished film every two hours). This means that the composer will have a lot of time to develop ideas and a general feel for their music. However, in the end you may find you have precious little time to actually finish an accurate musical framework that fits with the animation's timing, as you won't be able to see how a scene works until it's actually complete. Having said that, there are times when an animator will be happy to work to a time‑frame that's been decided beforehand — for example, when there is a 'non‑limb moving' action scene (say, Wallace driving somewhere in his car) for which the music has been scored, recorded and plotted for a specific time‑frame (see Dope Sheets, below).


Storyboards are the first (and usually the only) clue a composer will get to how the finished piece of animation will eventually look. But it is vitally important to remember that the pace of the storyboard is not in step with the timeline of the action. One picture can account for 10 seconds of film, and 10 pictures can account for one second of film. In fact, animators more often than not have no firm pace in mind to their work at the storyboard stage. The input of a composer (who can convey musical ideas in split‑second terms) early on, can help to concentrate their minds towards setting the pace of the piece.

One of the most rewarding jobs a composer can ever do is write music for animation.

Being able to give the animator a rough demo in strict tempo (or, more likely, strict multiple tempos), with a visual breakdown of the musical hit‑points where the action and the music work in perfect harmony, is of enormous benefit. A simple way of doing this is to sequence your idea on your chosen software package, and record a single track which simply marks any useful hit points (a crash cymbal when the strings come in; the start and end point of a piano glissando, and so on).

Dope Sheets

When the animation and/or the music is cast in stone, it is mapped out on a dope sheet. This is a breakdown of every frame of film used in the sequence — background blocks, character animation, physical movements — as well as musical hit‑points. If you compose music that sets the pace of the animation and you have no knowledge as to how to dope the music out, this can be done by a line producer.

The first time you will see pictures accompanying your music is on an 'Animatic'. This is a process whereby the music track is dubbed onto a video and the storyboard stills are superimposed at the relevant points. As the animation is completed in draft form, the Animatic is updated. This process is part of another process used in animation, called Line Testing or Leica. This is where the outline of the image, without colour or background, is put onto video to see how the pace and movement look for specific scenes.

Getting Inspired

If you're writing for animated pictures, you must be able to compose music which can complement action with a resolution of 24 or 25 frames per second, depending on what process is being used. And whatever you do, make sure you know how many frames per second the animator is working to, or your hit‑points will be woefully out of sync with the pictures. Most animation shoots two frames per separate image; it can be three frames per image, but is never more than four.

When you actually do start to compose for animation, setting the tempo or tempos is a good place to start. If you use a sequencer to write on (doesn't everybody?), switch the edit page frame of reference to 'position in Milliseconds' and not 'position in Frames'. The reason for this will become evident in a moment.

Stick With The Click

Record a click track onto the sequencer, as opposed to using the automatic one that keeps time when in record mode. This will give you an audio, visual and numbered mark to where the beat falls. It's most likely that the piece you will be working on is a 30‑second sequence, therefore you should have a separate sound marking the end point. This is the point where every part of the music should have finished, and not the last beat of the tune. Once you've done this, use other percussion sounds to highlight the locations of the relevant hit‑points you wish to catch, and jot down what sound corresponds to what action. Using the relevant millisecond chart (see 'By The Numbers' box), you should be able to approximately play the hit points in live and adjust them to the exact point in the action. Then, using your musical ear, push or pull the hit points to make rhythmic sense. Most sequencer users are expert in delaying tracks in milliseconds.

As a point of interest, if it's a sudden crash, smash or bash‑type action, it will be better for your musical punctuation to fall just after the motion, as the sound should reinforce the visuals, not pre‑empt them. However, if it's a regular action, like a footstep, a clock ticking, or an off‑screen noise, it's better to make the sound fall slightly early.

You Must Be Joking

Animation music may seem like an extremely dangerous avenue to go down, but if you can cope with it there's no other medium which will ever cause you fear afterwards. Scoring a big‑budget Hollywood blockbusting movie is a trivial task in comparison to writing soundtracks for animation. And there's plenty of animation work around these days: TV signature tunes, commercials, government training videos, film school graduate shorts, art films, TV, satellite and cable station logos: the list is virtually endless. There really is every chance of you becoming one of the new breed of young, happening, serious composers.

In Britain we are blessed with some wonderful composers, in particular the girl power trio of Anne Dudley, Rachel Portman and Debbie Wiseman. Sadly, we're also cursed with a musical establishment packed to the gills with chummy PR‑influenced snobs who seem to be impressed by people who wear pink leopardskin spandex trousers. Plus, our film industry may contain the finest technicians in the world and make the most thought‑provoking films, but it can't compete with the trillion‑dollar Hollywood macho garbage that gets shown every week at your local 10‑screen (USA‑owned) multiplex cinema.

The best thing about the Hollywood system is the soundtrack music being made. That doesn't include the shameless exploitation of third‑rate tracks by has‑been artists who just happen to have a business (or marriage) tie‑up with an executive in the distribution company.

All the great composers living today work in films. If Beethoven or Mozart were alive now, the last thing they'd be doing is trying to become part of the Proms elite or South Bank chic; they'd be scoring film and cartoon soundtracks.

Carl Stalling: Toonsmith Extroardinaire

A man whose name you won't find in any directory of composers, but who is probably the most enjoyed and listened‑to composer of all time, is Carl Stalling. He was a musical giant who had complete mastery of every style of music ever played in his lifetime and before, and, apart from making the first recorded sound ever heard in a cinema, single‑handedly invented most of the methods and tools of film composition still being used today. He may not have the academic profile of Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev, or the PR of John Cage and Michael Nyman, but he has, without any doubt, made far more people happy with his music. It's one of the biggest scandals in history that his genius has not been recognised but, thanks to the best serious music periodical known to humanity (Sound On Sound), all that is about to change.

So who was Carl Stalling?

Born in Lexington, Missouri at the end of the last century, Stalling started playing piano at six. By the age of 12, he was the principal piano accompanist in his hometown's silent movie house, and by the time he was in his early twenties was conducting his own orchestra and improvising on the organ at the legendary Isis Movie Theatre in Kansas City.

In 1920 Kansas City was the centre of the animation world, and it was there that Stalling first met and worked with a young artist called Walt Disney. Shortly after that meeting, Stalling moved out to Los Angeles, the hub of the silent movie world, to seek work in the keenly anticipated but non‑existent Talking Pictures. On arrival, he found a pioneering town run by short‑sighted olive oil salesmen, but craving visionaries; so he sent for Disney, loaning him $2,000 to open his first studio in Hollywood. It was here that Stalling was to invent the process of scoring for animation and the tick system (click track), both still industry standards. He composed Disney's legendary Silly Symphonies, the first sound movie the world ever saw, and was the early voice of Mickey Mouse.

Stalling left Disney after a couple of years to join Ub Iwerks (another Kansas emigrant) and score the Flip the Frog cartoon series. Then, in 1936, he was asked by Warner Brothers to join their new and anarchic animation department, to compose the music for their cartoon shorts, at a rate of one per week. The famous 'BOINNGGG darrrr da da da da dar!' fanfare which graces the start and end of every Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies is his! So is the music for every single Bugs Bunny, Road Runner, Tweetie Pie cartoon — the list goes on and on.

During his 22 years at Warner Brothers (1936‑58), Stalling had a small office where he spent four days a week sweating over some of the most complex musical scores ever written. With the help of the mad but brilliant orchestrator Milt Franklyn, the sound effects pioneer Treg Brown and the vocal wizard Mel Blanc, every week a new masterpiece was born. Once a week there was a short session with the Warner Brothers in‑house orchestra, which just happened to be the Los Angeles Philharmonic (probably the greatest bunch of sight‑reading musicians that ever lived) doing a bit of moonlighting. Next time you watch a Merrie Melodies cartoon, close your eyes, listen to the music and be amazed that 64 people are probably playing (and sight‑reading) that piece first take.

Stalling wrote over 1200 symphonies lasting, on average, six minutes, with musical themes embodied within the cartoon characters that stand alongside the work of all the recognised masters. Apart from his own stream of musical consciousness, Stalling liberally borrowed, re‑arranged and pastiched other composers, from classical greats to fellow Warners staff composers. His adaptations of the classics were far more accessible to an audience and more sympathetically arranged for an orchestra than when originally conceived. Two extremely notable cartoon composers who both owe a great debt to Stalling's ground‑breaking, and as yet unequalled, body of work are Scott Bradley (Tom & Jerry) and Danny Elfman (The Simpsons — which, incidentally, uses the biggest orchestra for a TV series in the world today).

And why is Carl Stalling the most enjoyed composer of all time? Simple. if you're into punk rock or hardcore techno it's doubtful whether Mozart or Bruckner will stir any emotion in you, and not everybody likes the Beatles or the Spice Girls, but here's a composer who has touched the entire world. Throughout Stalling's working life, the main form of mass entertainment was the cinema. The Warner Brothers cartoons were the longest‑running and most popular series of films ever made. The films, with Stalling's soundtrack, were distributed across the world and dubbed into all languages. Not long after his retirement his music was introduced to an even bigger audience and heard by just about every child, parent and grandparent again, when these same cartoons started to be endlessly re‑run on television sets around the world. To this day they are broadcast continually in every country on the planet.

Some of Carl Stalling's Warner Brothers' cartoon music can be obtained on CD: The Carl Stalling Project Volume 1 and 2 are US imports and not that easy to come by in the UK. However, we found them stocked by the Cheap or What CDs web site ( The company can be contacted by more conventional means at PastelBlue Ltd, 115 Deeds Grove, High Wycombe, Bucks HP12 3NY, but the best bet is to check out the web site if you can, for details of prices and postage costs.

By The Numbers

When you're working with animators, frame numbers become vitally important. Although complete accuracy between music and pictures is nearly impossible to achieve, it is worth being able to see where the nearest beat hits, to match up with an appropriate frame (hit‑point). Below is a chart calibrating the millisecond division of one second for both 24 frames per second and 25 frames per second, regardless of musical tempo. Changing the Beats Per Minute (bpm) slightly can often make all the difference when trying to make musical sense out of a storyboarded animation sequence.
• 25 frames in ms
000: 1040: 2
080: 3 120: 4
160: 5200: 6
240: 7280: 8
320: 9360: 10
400: 11440: 12
480: 13520: 14
560: 15600: 16
640: 17680: 18
720: 19760: 20
800: 21840: 22
880: 23920: 24
960: 25 
• 24 frames in ms
000: 1042: 2
084: 3125: 4
167: 5209: 6
250: 7292: 8
334: 9375: 10
417: 11459: 12
500: 13542: 14
584: 15625: 16
667: 17709: 18
750: 19792: 20
834: 21875: 22
917: 23959: 24

Further Reading

For a complete guide to understanding the technicalities of composing for animation (and all film scoring), there is really only one book you need: On The Track — A Guide To Contemporary Film Scoring, by Fred Karlin and Rayburn Wright. It is only available as an import and will set you back the best part of £50. From the foreword by John Williams (Star Wars trilogy, Indiana Jones trilogy, Jaws, Schindlers List, ET, Jurassic Park, and so on, and so on), to the comprehensive and complete Click Book at the back (see 'In the Frame' box), it covers everything you'll ever need to know about making music for film. All the current top Hollywood composers give anecdotal advice and helpful tips alongside examples of their actual film scores. There's simply no other book on the market that comes anywhere close, but on enquiring with the wholesaler, I found that there seem to be only three copies in the country at present, so get down to your local bookshop and place an order now!

In The Frame

Long before SMPTE, MIDI and millisecond read‑outs on software sequencer packages, accurate synchronisation was demanded in the film industry. Most film is shot on 35mm stock, including 70mm widescreen digital. For every frame of film there are four sprocket holes each side, giving a constant division of an eighth (0.125) of a frame — or, to put it another way, every second is split into 192. Music can be, and has historically been, plotted with pinpoint accuracy using this calibration, although a click chart is essential for this method (see 'Further Reading' box).

Who Is Big George?

Big George is currently composing The Childrens' Symphony which includes the voices of 7000+ children between the ages of 8 and 12 singing musical phrases and textures. It's being compiled on a hard disk recording system, using Emagic's Logic Audio, and will include over one million musical notes. The world premier is scheduled for September 1998 on BBC Radio 3.

Over the past decade, George has composed numerous animation title sequences for TV programmes, two MTV idents, a variety of TV ads, an award‑winning environmental film, Lead Free, and Round the Bend, a childrens' series which included cell, pixelation and computer‑generated animation sequences.

He has also worked as a line producer on a wide range of TV animated sequences and dozens of animated pop videos. An expert on all aspects of film music production, he is currently available to score the music for any Hollywood blockbuster movie in production!