Monday, May 04, 2009

Timing Story To Melody

I don't know any other director who could pack more action into a small space than Clampett did.
Here's a small part of an amazing little sequence from an amazing cartoon.
Clampett not only packs in a ton of action, he makes it all completely clear to the audience. You're not confused by it at all, even at the lightening pace.
How does he do it? It's partly the clarity of the great animators and partly Bob's great direction - which is musically structured.
There are assorted ways to time a cartoon:

1) Straight Ahead - one action at a time, with no thought to an underlying structure, not even to a tempo.

2) Timing to a tempo - Friz, Tex, Bill Hanna, Chuck all timed to musical tempos - without always knowing ahead of time, what the music would sound like. Friz and Bill timed their cartoons on musical bar sheets.

Having all your actions built around rhythmic tempos automatically makes the timing feel good. It is an automatic structure that you can build comedy, suspense and whatever moods you want around.

The musician though, is somewhat hampered with this system because although the beats can add up to a sensible tempo, you can't always fit pure melodies to the actions. This makes the musicians tend to write music that isn't melodic. Background music that is more like sound effects that mirror the actions in the cartoons. You can't hum it.

Scott Bradley's MGM cartoons really illustrate this method. Listen to a Tom and Jerry cartoon, then try to hum the music afterwards.

3) Timing and writing the story to pre-scored music- The Fleischers did this a lot and were great at it. All classic animation directors would do it when a certain cartoon or sequence was built around a song or classical music. Fantasia. Rabbit Of Seville. Magical Maestro, etc.

This system can severely limit the creative choices you have to write your story around, because you have to fit it to the song. This is probably the hardest way to time a cartoon and takes the most skill, but if the director is good at it, I find it it the most rewarding.

Carl Stalling did both types of rhythmic scoring -pre and post, depending on the directors and the cartoons he was working with - some melodic, some just echoing the visual actions - think of the Road Runner for an extreme example of the music echoing the actions.
Clampett seemed to favor this 3rd most difficult timing method, but then maybe it wasn't difficult to him. He must have been very comfortable with it since he used it so much.
He told me his method of timing a cartoon went something like this:
The speed, beauty and clarity in this bit of repainting the stripe on the road just kills me.

Once he had a storyboard for a cartoon, he would take it into Carl Stalling's room and act it out for him. Stalling would suggest melodies on the piano for each sequence and the 2 of them would work out the whole track on bar sheets. As Stalling wrote the score, Bob would write his cartoon actions on top of the score. After the whole cartoon was scored, he would transfer the timing from the bar sheets to exposure sheets to give to the animators.

Clampett liked songs and melodies rather than sound effects style music, so this method worked well for him. Stalling could pull from the huge Warner Bros. publishing library and sometimes they just wrote simple new songs for the cartoons.
The structure of Clampett's cartoons is more like music than it is like straight narrative.
His cartoons are highly emotional and they pull you along in the characters' crazy adventures.
This is a very short scene from a longer sequence, but you can see (and hear) how much action, emotion and fun he crams into his cartoons, partly by using strong melodies to time the action to.

If you watch this clip you can see the overall structure of the actions moving to the melody, but then also, certain key moments are punctuated with strong visual accents and musical stings that fit right into the song.

I'll put up another clip from the sequence next.