Let me start by saying that I have never had the opportunity to actually animate to a music track. For that reason, I am not going to try and explain the process by which animators will work to a pre-scored track. I highly suggest you read the chapter on “Disney Sounds” in The Illusion of Life if you want to get a more concrete idea of how to animate to music.
There are some films that have such an impact on us that even decades after seeing them we can easily hum the music before recalling specific images in our minds. The amazing music that helped to make some films famous becomes ingrained in our consciousness. To quote The Illusion of Life, music “becomes the soul of our memory, forever coloring our impressions.”
I remember when I was nine years old and living in the Bahamas, on the coast of Nassau. There were only two VCR tapes where we were staying: Rock n' Roll High School, starring the Ramones, and Jaws. While living there, and even up until this very day, I have had a fairly strong fear of the ocean. Actually, just this past year, while living in New Zealand, I got my scuba diving certification specifically to combat my fear of deep water. You see, I blame that fear on the movie Jaws. When I'm in the ocean, I can hear the film's score in my head, and it sends shivers up my spine. I don’t think about the images of the shark killing the woman at the beginning, or the little boy with glasses disappearing in a pool of his own blood in front of all the people on the beach. I hear the music. Anyone who has watched this movie can quickly start humming the music. Go ahead, do it right now. Bom Bom......Bom Bom......Bom Bom Bom Bom....Ban na na! So thank you, Mr. Spielberg. This is what your film did to a nine year old boy living on the coast of a Caribbean island.
Music in a film, when done right, has the power to become its own character. As a tool it serves a number of important roles. Music is given the job of emphasizing critical points in the narrative, such as love between the heroes, for example, when Jake and Neytiri fly for the first time together in Avatar; or the death of a major character like when Angie Dickinson gets sliced up in Dressed to Kill; it could be an amazing accomplishment or pivotal feel-good moment, like when Daniel kicks Johnny in the face and wins the Karate tournament; or a very special kiss like Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr on the beach in From Here to Eternity. Music also serves to enforce the overall ambiance or theme of a film, and therefore connects strongly with the film genre. If I play you the music from the movie Suspiria by Goblin, I guarantee you will know Suspiria is a horror film. There are countless films that have successfully used music to elevate the emotional impact of the entire film. The Godfather (Love Theme - Nino Rota), Laurence of Arabia (Maurice Jarre), Rocky (Gonna Fly Now – Bill Conti), Kill Bill Vol. 1 (Battle Without Honor or Humanity – Tonoyasu Hotei). In films such as these, music is used in an almost Pavlovian way. By first associating it with a character or a strong emotional moment, it will later be repeated at critical moments as a way of re-introducing the same emotional arcs to the audience.
Another important device for music is to be associated with a particular character. “1, 2, Freddy's coming for you...” was Freddy Krueger's theme, or Darth Vader's theme (The Imperial march – John Williams). One of my favorite films of all time is Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time In the West. In that film, each character has their own music. Whenever Charles Bronson is in a scene we can hear the soft hissing of a harmonica. When Henry Fonda shows up, the most menacing music is introduced. The heroine Claudia Cardinale has her own music, and Jason Robards has his. Like Fantasia, the score was written and composed before filming began, and Leone would play the music in the background during shooting so the actors could feel the emotional arc of their character.
What are some other examples you can think of where the music, first used as a tool to move the narrative forward, can become so powerful that it takes on a life all its own. How about Hitchcock's Psycho? Anyone who has seen this film had shivers run up their spine when they heard the sharp scream of the violin while “mother” stabs away. In fact, for many of us, the sharp repetition of that violin is the first thing we recall when thinking about Psycho, not the images themselves.
So where does that put music when we think about animation? Well, like any live action film, animation is about narrative and performance. So in the same way, music's role is to enforce the power and emotional impact of either the character, the scene, a story point, or an all-encompassing theme. Music can even be associated with a physical action in the animation, such as Tom the Cat tip-toeing across the kitchen floor as he hunts little Jerry. Each step he makes is accompanied by a musical note, increasing in pitch. “dumdum dum dumdum.”
When I think of music associated with certain animated characters, I think of the Seven Dwarves “Heigh Ho” theme and how beautifully it painted the persona of the dwarves; or the French accordion-style music associated with the romantic Pepe Lepew; or how about Sebastien's pseudo-Jamaican rhythms. Music is so woven into the fabric of Disney films, that the animation performances, while still brilliantly executed and capable of pushing the narrative forward all by itself, are elevated to a much more powerful emotional level because of the music and lyrics. In fact, music is so intricately woven into the characterization and emotional development of the narrative of so many animated films, that one could hardly even imagine watching Beauty and the Beast without Belle or Lumiere singing. Imagine other animated films with music intricately woven into the emotional arc of the narrative, such as Mickey Mouse in Fantasia which was animated entirely to a pre-existing score.
Music is a directorial device that connects us emotionally to a scene; Walt Disney believed its importance was paramount. Historically, it has been a part of film since almost the very beginning. I hope one day I'll have the opportunity to animate to a music score. If anyone has had some experience animating to an existing score, please leave some feedback and let us know what kind of experience you had doing it. I would love to hear from you!