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“What’s Opera, Doc?” celebrates the marriage of animation and classical music

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“What’s Opera, Doc?” celebrates the marriage of animation and classical music

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As the lights went down in the Samuel Goldwyn Theater this past Friday night, the curtain rose to reveal Leopold Stokowski taking the conductor’s stand in Fantasia. But the first notes of the evening were not from that 1940 classic feature. But – rather -- from the tinny, half-destroyed instruments that Goofy and the gang played in that Mickey Mouse favorite, “The Symphony Hour.”

Symphony Hour poster with conductor Mickey Mouse
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

This was then followed by a rapid-fire musical montage (which had been lovingly stitched together by Alexander Rannie and Les Perkins) which deftly wove together clips from 28 different cartoons. Among them Popeye's The Spinach Orchestra, Andy Panda’s The Bandmaster, Tom and Jerry’s The Cat Concerto, Clara Cluck in Orphan’s Benefit, Peter and the Wolf, Rhapsody in Blue and Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s dueling piano scene.

This reel played as if it were one massive cartoon symphony. And even though most of these clips are well over half a century old, they still received huge laughs and recognition applause the instant they appeared on screen.

As this clip reel wrapped, it received a huge round of applause from the capacity crowd. And – with that – the Marc Davis Celebration of Animation officially got underway -- exploring this year’s theme: “What’s Opera, Doc? Animation and Classical Music.”

Bruce Broughton, Alice Davis  and composer Michael Giacchino at the reception preceding Friday night's "What's Opers Doc?"  presentation
(L to R) Oscar-nominated composer Bruce Broughton; Alice Davis,
widow of Marc Davis; and Oscar-winning composer Michael
Giacchino at the reception preceding Friday night’s "What's
Opera Doc?" presentation. Photo by Ivan Vejar.
Copyright 2010 A.M.P.A.S.

Before the guest speakers took to the stage, this A.M.P.A.S. event’s producer, Randy Haberkamp, acknowledged some of the special guests in the audience. Among them the daughter & great granddaughter of Chuck Jones, as well as the official hostess of the evening, Disney Legend Alice Davis.

Randy also noted that “What’s Opera, Doc?” was being held in conjunction with the Los Angeles Ring Festival 2010. During which the LA Opera will present its production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Haberkamp noted that this production of the Ring cycle would take four nights to see in its entirety. Mind you, Chuck Jones’ version of Wagner’s epic (which would close Friday evening’s programming), would take just four minutes to see in its entirety. Shakespeare once said “brevity is the soul of wit.” Perhaps Wagner didn’t know how many laughs he was missing out on.

Haberkamp then brought out tonight’s host, the Oscar-winning composer of Up, Ratatouille, The Incredibles and Star Trek, Michael Giacchnio. Michael is fresh from finishing 88 minutes of original music for the Lost series finale just one week ago and a Lost concert at Royce Hall just 24 hours before tonight’s event. “If Michael isn’t the busiest man in show business,” said Haberkamp, “I pity the person who is.” As Giacchino took the stage, he added “I thought this was going to be a discussion of possible endings to Lost ...“

Michael Giacchino during Friday night's "What's Opera Doc?" program
Michael Giacchino during Friday night’s "What's Opera Doc?"
program. Which was presented as part of the Academy of
Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Marc Davis Celebration of
Animation. Photo by Ivan Vejar. Copyright 2010 A.M.P.A.S.

Giacchino started by screening the 1935 Silly Symphony Music Land, and the Mickey classic The Band Concert, to boisterous laughter and applause. Giacchino then threw the discussion to panelist Bruce Broughton – legendary composer of films such as Silverado, The Boy Who Could Fly, Homeward Bound - The Incredible Journey, Young Sherlock Holmes, The Rescuers Down Under, Tombstone and television’s Tiny Toon Adventures. Broughton should be familiar to Disney park fans, as the composer of the soaring scores to The Timekeeper, Ellen’s Energy Adventure and the playful music to Honey, I Shrunk the Audience. Broughton was especially taken with the wit of Music Land’s score, which not only had to precisely punctuate the action and emotions, it also had to provide the characters’ voices. “The young prince of Jazz Land was voiced by a saxophone, while the old king was voiced by a baritone sax. The minister spoke through the sawing of a bass. It’s very cleverly worked out.” Broughton observed that the extraordinary thing about these cartoons is that they “pre-suppose that people knew what this music was. This was a time when people went to concerts, and knew the classics.”

Giacchino talked about Music Land in particular as evidence of a time when the old guard of music was giving way to the new guard. Giacchino, whose boyish enthusiasm for these films and their scores positively beamed, added that he first became aware of these classical music pieces through the cartoons.

Pete Doctor, Oscar winning director of Monsters Inc. and UP
Pete Docter. Photo by Todd Wawrychuk.
Copyright 2010 A.M.P.A.S.

It was at this point that they were joined by Oscar-winning director of Monsters, Inc. and Up Pete Docter – who valiantly fought his way through air travel and LA traffic to be here tonight. Docter asked the audience “How many of us learned classical music from these cartoons and The Muppet Show ?” The audience responded strongly. Docter’s insight is especially unique, since he hails from a family of accomplished musicians, and himself plays the violin. Pete talked about his music background playing into his animation, working out the rhythms temporally in his mind as if to music.

Docter, Giacchino and Broughton analyzed cue sheets from the era, and the ways the composers would annotate the notes with specific beats tied to on-screen action. They noted that in the old days, the cartoon’s director, the composer and the layout artist would sit in a room together to work out the timing, the story and composition. As Broughton noted, “these composers had to know the timing of the action and gags just as well as the story men did.” Pete remembered a story about the director of Music Land utilizing a metronome to illustrate to Walt how the tempo would change throughout the cartoon.

Michael Giacchino, Pete Docter and Bruce Broughton
(L to R) Michael Giacchino, Pete Docter and Bruce
Broughton. Photo by Todd Wawrychuk.
Copyright 2010 A.M.P.A.S.

Giacchino screened the comical ballet “The Dance of Hours” from Fantasia. The panel shared anecdotes they had heard about the limitations of sound technology at the time these classics were made. Michael Giacchino related a story he had heard, during the production of Fantasia, Walt referred to the single-channel audio of the day as “tinny” and in need of something to recreate the rich sound of being at the symphony live. This led to the development of the first multi-channeled audio for what would be known as “Fantasound.” It would take theaters decades to catch up with the idea of stereophonic sound. Docter shared an anecdote from PIXAR / Lucas Film sound designer Gary Rydstrom. There were so many tracks, that the tape hissing was audible. So they recorded everything loud, then played it back to re-record the audio, keying the volume up and down live to suit the volume required. As Bruce Broughton added, Walt once said of Fantasia, “Gee, this’ll make Beethoven.”

One of the highlights of the evening was the screening of three separate cartoons, each utilizing the venerable “Hungarian Rhapsody” – Rhapsody in Rivets, The Cat Concerto and The Backyard Oproar. The panel observed the differences in the orchestrations and the ways they interacted with the on-screen action. Broughton rhapsodized on the quality of the musical performances themselves, a product of the age in which studios had staff orchestras. These gifted musicians would spend the day recording with Max Steiner for a major live action score, then Carl Stalling would jump in at the end of the day and get them to record one of the cartoons.

Bruce Broughton
Bruce Broughton. Photo by Ivan Vejar. Copyright 2010 A.M.P.A.S.

Docter made perhaps the most profound observation of the evening, noting that classical music in cartoons functions much like Margaret Dumont in the Marx Brothers films. “The classical music was there for the cartoon to make fun of.”

Giacchino treated the audience to a rarity from the production of Up – the scene following “Married Life,” in which Carl gets up in the morning and we see the routine of his life after losing Ellie. He screened the scene twice. The first time the scene was played, we saw the action as seen in the released film, but accompanied by an original piece of music by Michael Giacchino. It starts small, almost clockwork-sounding, and adds instruments as the scene progresses. The final jaunty assemblage of instruments contrasts the stark banality of Carl’s actions, almost going out of its way to punctuate the comedy. It fits beautifully with the rest of the Oscar-winning score, and definitely foreshadows some of the instrumentation in the later Paradise Falls scenes.

Karl Fredrickson rides up his stairs in Disney Pixar's feature animated film "Up"
Copyright 2009 Disney / Pixar. All Rights Reserved

But as wonderful as Giacchino’s music was for that scene, the filmmakers decided that it just didn’t play as the moment needed. They then screened the finished scene from the film, with the selection from Bizet’s opera Carmen in lieu of the original composition. Docter noted following the heavy “Married Life” sequence, you needed something to give you permission to laugh. Giacchino said that familiarity of the classical music put you at ease.

The night closed with a screening of What’s Opera, Doc? In this legendary Chuck Jones short, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd gad about an Agnes de Mille dream ballet landscape, playing a Wagner-type opera fairly straight. It is rendered absurd by the intensity with which Bugs and Elmer carry out the melodrama. The only wink to the camera is the final shot of the film, when Elmer carries Bugs’ lifeless body into Valhalla’s rays of sunlight. Bugs turns to the audience and states “What did you expect from an opera, a happy ending?” As Broughton stated earlier in the evening, “comedy is serious business.”

Pete Docter, Michael Giacchino and Bruce Broughton
(L to R) Pete Docter, Michael Giacchino and
Bruce Broughton.
Photo by Todd Wawrychuk.
Copyright 2010 A.M.P.A.S.

After Friday night’s presentation, the audience streamed back into the lobby. Not only to ooh & aah at all the original Chuck Jones art that adorned the wall. But also to scope out the one-night-only display that had been set up at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in conjunction with this year’s Marc Davis Celebration of Animation event. Which featured some incredibly rare animation artifacts. Among them a studio memo from Walt Disney to composer George Bruns about his adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s music for Sleeping Beauty.

It’s displays like this – not to mention events like “What’s Opera, Doc? Animation and Classical Music” – which is why film fans should make a point of regularly dropping by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences website to see what else they’ve got in the works. For this particular Marc Davis Celebration of Animation was truly a one-night-only, must-see event.

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  • Bruce Broughton's score for "Rescuers Down Under" is a hidden symphonic classic. Disney released the sound track CD with the movie, decided quickly it wasn't selling and yanked it off the market within a few weeks. Collectors quickly bid up the CD to about $150 a copy. It was eventually re-released with a couple extra songs on it. (The RDU themes can be heard as one of the tracks for the water shows at the central fountain at Epcot.)

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