Preferred Citation: Smoodin, Eric, and Ann Martin, editors. Hollywood Quarterly: Film Culture in Postwar America, 1945-1957. Berkeley:  University of California,  c2002 2002.



Music and the Animated Cartoon

[*] Author's Note: The title of this article may be misleading, as it implies an easy skill and familiarity with both the animated cartoon and music. It is rather an animation cartoonist discussing some of the potentialities of his medium with the musician.

Chuck Jones

Chuck Jones has worked in animated cartoons for fifteen years. He is now a director of cartoons at Warner Brothers Studios, where he has participated in some experimental and pioneering work.

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The animated cartoon, in its mature form, can be the most facile and elastic form of graphic art. Since the first Cro-Magnon Picasso hacked etchings on his cave wall every artist has longingly sought the ideal medium —one that would contain within its structure color, light, expanse, and movement. The animated cartoon can supply these needs. It knows no bounds in form or scope. It can approach an absolute in technical realism and it can reach the absolute in abstraction. It can bridge the two without taking a deep breath. The technical problems present in live action, when it tends toward the unreal or fantastic, are simply not present to the animator. The transition of Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde is workaday routine to the animator. He can do it and add three pink elephants to the transition. He can do it while stifling a yawn. In fact, he frequently does. A red ant can grow to a golden elephant under his hand, a flying horse recede to a black pearl. He can create thunderstorms, tidal waves, flying carpets, talking hornets, dancing orchids, all with credibility, all with no technical obstructions.

Yet in spite of these potentialities the animated cartoon has been severely restricted in its growth. Its use as an educational device is a comparatively recent development, stimulated by wartime needs. Culturally, the animated cartoon is in the toddling stage, as it is politically. It has made few profound statements about anything. Like all other motion pictures, it is dependent on a wide and highly diversified audience approval

—the thing known in some quarters as "box office," and "box office" in terms of animated cartoons is judged almost wholly by the degree of audible audience reaction. The appreciative chuckle, the pleased cluck, does not add up—in animation circles—to good "box office." This has resulted in a wave of reaction throughout the industry against the type of cartoons known as "Rembrandts"; that is, any type of cartoon except those based on the "boff" or belly laugh. One producer asked his artists to use lots of purple in the backgrounds because, as he put it, "purple is a funny color." Well, I think G-flat is a funny note. I mention these instances, not because I am unsympathetic with the producer's viewpoint or wish to suggest that the imperative pressures of the box office can be disregarded, but because I believe that a deeper understanding of the aesthetic and cultural possibilities of the medium can serve to broaden its usage and increase its popularity. My purpose here is the appraisal of one of these possibilities—the function of music in relation to the cartoon.

All cartoons use music as an integral element in their format. Nearly all cartoons use it badly, confining it as they do to the hackneyed, the timeworn, the proverbial. The average cartoon musician was a theater organist during the silent era and so William Tell takes quite a beating in the average cartoon. For some reason, many cartoon musicians are more concerned with exact synchronization or "mickey-mousing" than with the originality of their contribution or the variety of their arrangement. To be sure, many of the cartoons as they reach the musician are something less than inspirational, but most of them, even the best, gain less than they should from his contribution. I have seen a good cartoon ruined by a deadly score. If you can visualize Death and Transfiguration as a theme to Peter Rabbit, you get the idea. Nor is this a diatribe against the practicing musicians in the cartoon field; many are excellent and conscientious artists (among them Carl Stalling, Warner Bros.; Scott Bradley, MGM; Frank Churchill, Paul Smith, Larry Morey, and others for the Disney features and shorts), but many tend to underrate the medium and to disregard its musical potentialities.

Here are two examples of what I believe to be the nearly perfect wedding of music and graphics which occurs when the visual and auditory impacts are simultaneous and almost equal. Both examples are from the picture Fantasia; both are bits. One consumed about four seconds in the Toccata and Fugue sequence. It pictured simply a ponderous, rocklike,

coffin like mass that waddled into a murky background accompanied by a series of deep bass notes. I should not say "accompanied," because this Thing was the music: to my mind there was no separation; the fusion of the auditory and the visual was perfect. The second of my two instances represents, I believe, the happiest, most perfect single sequence ever done in animated cartoons, perhaps in motion pictures: the little mushroom dance from the Nutcracker Suite. Here was an instance of almost pure delight; again, an entrancing blend of the eye and the ear in which I found the music itself personified on the screen. There was a personal quality to these sequences, too, that was generally lacking throughout the rest of the film. It may be that if the makers of future Fantasias will be less concerned with the pageantry of their project and will search harder for the humanness of the music, we will have better films and better box office; for I believe that the mushroom dance has universal appeal, that it will go well in St. Jo and Walla Walla—as well as it will go in Hollywood or New York.

I am not going to attempt a general survey of the use, or misuse, of music in the cartoon of today. It is rather my purpose to suggest certain potentialities. These potentialities may be classified in six rough categories: (1) Musical Education, (2) Television, (3) Program or Narrative, (4) Regional and Folklore, (5) Satire, (6) Abstract or Absolute.

1) MUSICAL EDUCATION. This is a wide and exciting field, one in which the cartoonist and musician must band together. Here the simple, strong diagrams of the cartoonist in conjunction with the sound track can do for a classroom of embryo musicians what only individual instruction could do before. I do not mean that we are going to have platoons of Bachs underfoot, but we can have a musically intelligent generation, a thing that has not been particularly feasible heretofore. But we must be guarded in our use of this new medium, because it will be quite possible to teach a thousand children the simultaneous rudiments of the glockenspiel —a result hardly to be desired. Therefore the musician must be there to direct the artist in what to teach and how to teach it; and he may be sure that the artist will do an exciting and interesting job of presentation. It is important at this time to remember that visual education has a head start on other educational methods in that we have a sympathetic audience to start with. The motion picture is widely known and widely appreciated. It is our responsibility to maintain this attitude, and we have

learned valuable lessons during the war in so doing. Education can be fun, it can be attractive, but only if we, as teachers, keep it so.

2) TELEVISION. The signature music of today's radio must be bolstered in tomorrow's television by some sort of visual image, something in the nature of MGM's lion, Warners' shield, and so on. Many educational programs will also use the cartoon, as will children's programs, comedy, and musical programs. The opportunities here hardly need elucidation; they are obvious. The points I shall stress in ensuing categories will of course apply to television as well, because the broadcasting of motion pictures will represent an important feature of television.

3) PROGRAM OR NARRATIVE. Here is another wide and tremendously provocative field for the animator and musician to explore together. Here we are free from the prejudice resulting from the visual interpretation of more abstract music.

Peter and the Wolf, Hänsel and Gretel, Don Quixote, among many others, are exciting possibilities. Richard Strauss' ballet, Schlagobers (Whipped Cream), about the nightmare of a cream-puff addict, seems to me to offer an enormous amount of fun. And consider two titles of Erik Satie's, The Dreamy Fish and Airs to Make One Run, parts of which, the composer noted, should be played "on yellow velvet," "dry as a cuckoo," "like a nightingale with a toothache." He must have seen us coming. Rip Van Winkle, The Fire Bird. The list is endless.

The animated cartoon medium is the logical medium vehicle for these, because, among all media, it lends the greatest credence to fantasy. And in this field the greatest delight is measured in the degree of credibility. The magic of the great juggler, of the trapeze artist, of Charlie McCarthy, of the storyteller, lies in his ability to convince you that the impossible is quite possible—nay, is logical; is, in fact, as the children say, "Reely!" The animated cartoon can match, enhance, make credible the melodic fantasy of the composer. Overlapping here a little bit, I believe that the educational system will one day demand a library for its public schools of just such painless introductions to classic and semiclassic music.

4) REGIONAL AND FOLKLORE. I believe that the animated cartoon has immense advantage in the exhibition of regional and national dances, songs, and cultures, because here we can combine the folk art with the folk dance. Straight cinematography covers this field to a certain extent, but seeing strange people in unusual costumes, dancing sarabands or tarantellas,

gives us little insight into the thoughts of these people, their dreams, or their desires. But folk art does. It gives us a rich insight into the hopes and needs of a people. The pottery, furniture, and fabrics of any nationality suggest colorful fields for the artist. The bright blues, yellows, and reds used by the Scandinavian artisans in the creation of the jaunty figures which decorate their dish cupboards, ski shirts, and aprons would make a dancing, happy accompaniment to Grieg's Norwegian Dances or Stravinsky's Norwegian Moods. No live-action color camera could do for the West Indies what Covarrubias has done in painting. I have often thought that the Habañera, or even a group of Calypsos, against his silky greens, murky jungle yellows, and luminescently coppery islanders, would be a striking experiment. Javanese, Egyptian carvings can be brought to life to the sounds of their ancient rhythms and instruments.

Mosaics and tapestries have enchanting stories to tell—in fact, will become understandable to most of us only when they become more human. The run-of-the-mill tapestry contains about the same degree of credibility to me as a petrified salamander. I can't believe the salamander ever salamandered, and the tapestry looks about as human as a geological fault. We can do something about it if we will, and there are several reasons why we should—among them a personal one of my own concerning a seventeenth-century bucolic tapestry called "Apollo and the Muses." The thing is crowded with variously voluptuous and idiotically unconcerned ladies in déshabille, surrounding a handsome rube, dressed in a shirt, with a twenty-five-pound lyre poised lightly in his off hand. His other hand is daintily uplifted, preparatory to a downward strum. He apparently is a past master at his instrument because his head is upturned toward a sort of Stuka angel whose power dive has carried him within about three feet of our hero's face. This little monster is on the point of releasing a very lethal-looking arrow. For three hundred and forty years this scene has remained in a state of suspended animation, and I, for one, would like to unsuspend it—if only to determine whether our friend succeeds in finishing his piece or gets spitted. His girl friends may be unconcerned, but I am not.

5) SATIRE. Satire, as I use it here, is best exemplified in such cartoons as The Band Concert and one we made at Warners called Rhapsody in Rivets. I shall consider the latter because I am more familiar with it. Friz Freleng, who made the picture, seemed to have a complete disregard—perhaps

haps contempt—for the pomp, ceremony, and sacred concept of music. Rhapsody in Rivets took the second Hungarian Rhapsody of Franz Liszt and performed a nice job of first-degree premeditated murder. The visual theme was the construction of a building. The job foreman served as orchestra conductor, using the blueprints as a score. The riveting machines served as instruments. As I describe it, this may sound like the usual cornily gagged cartoon; I assure you that it was not. The music was not used as a background, but as the dictating factor in the actions of the characters. Thus, when the musical pace was allegro their actions became quick and lively; if the music moved to prestissimo they became frantic in their endeavor to keep up with it. It moved from there to mysterioso, grave, or pianissimo; in any case, the characters were dragged inexorably with it.

It didn't take the audience long to appreciate what was happening. I can tell you they laughed. They split their stitches. In this field of satire one factor constitutes a limitation of sorts: the piece selected should have a certain amount of familiarity, because this adds anticipatory enjoyment for the audience. Other than this the field is limited only by the imagination of the cartoonist and the satiric ability of the musician. They should "hoke" the number to the nicest degree of subtlety, the cartoonist going the composer one point better in his degree of shading, particularly in pace and arrangement. (Friz Freleng, who displays an unusual mastery of this sort of thing, seems to have a preference for Hungarians; because he later directed a take-off on the immortal Three Little Pigs, using as his theme the immortal Brahms Hungarian Dances.)

6) ABSTRACT OR ABSOLUTE. Here is the greatest field for controversy because here the composer does not define his intention; he does not tell us what he means, or what ax he is grinding. So we all form our own ideas, and when some lout comes along and presumes to interpret his way, we get all stuffy and hot under the collar, and resentful, and start muttering, " … where the devil does he get off, the big stuffed shirt." Rightfully, too. He has the right to think or say what he wants to, and ours is the right to disagree as vociferously as we will. Dorothy Thompson found Fantasia fascistic; she is entitled to that opinion, even though it was a little startling to the artists who made Fantasia.

I believe that the best solution to interpretation of abstract music is to go along with it; that is, to be abstract graphically. Audiences may read

into your drawings the thing they've been visualizing all the time. I don't mean that you can throw a blob of ultramarine on the screen and hope thereby that the lady in the third row is going to find her dream prince, while the old gentleman in the right rear is mentally gulping flagons of sparkling mead. But there are some generally accepted symbols in art as in music. Just as the low note of a contrabassoon does not conjure in your mind "hummingbird," a single scarlet line does not, in drawing, say "elephant." These are definite things, yet it is possible to find abstract sounds and abstract images that are sympathetic. Here are two abstract shapes.


And here are two abstract words: "tackety" and "goloomb." The words become sounds when spoken, but they have no specific meanings. Yet it is simple to match the abstract words and sounds to the abstract shapes. The angular shape is obviously "tackety," and the curved one "goloomb."

Or, and now we are approaching music, take these two figures:


And take the two sounds: "ooooooooooomp" and "pooooooooooo-o-."

To go clear into music, which of these is the bassoon, and which is the harp?



Andante thus becomes:




Crescendo could be thus:


Diminuedo so:


These are static examples of what are mostly static sounds. The art of animation brings them to life, brings them fluidity and power; endows them, in short, with the qualities of music. The field of graphic symbols is a great but highly unexplored field. It will, I believe, prove an important one to the musician, and to any audience that is interested in satisfying the visual appetite, side by side with the auditory appetite.

An article of this kind can only be sketchy. We are dealing with a relatively new but immensely versatile and horizonless medium. The ideas suggested in this paper serve merely to suggest, or outline, a few possibilities from one viewpoint. Any imaginative person can easily elaborate on it. My sincere hope is that such people in the motion picture industry will see fit to do so. Only one serious danger confronts the animator: an under-evaluation of his medium. If the motion picture producer, writer, or musician believes the end purpose of the animated cartoon to be the cartoon short of today, then it must follow that the end purpose of easel painting is the comic strip. The animated cartoon as an artistic, educational, and entertainment medium is in its infancy. Its maturity depends on you.


Preferred Citation: Smoodin, Eric, and Ann Martin, editors. Hollywood Quarterly: Film Culture in Postwar America, 1945-1957. Berkeley:  University of California,  c2002 2002.