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Michael Giacchino's love of toons helped make him today's top tunesmith in Hollywood

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Michael Giacchino's love of toons helped make him today's top tunesmith in Hollywood

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Did you catch that terrific profile of Michael Giacchino that "Variety" ran yesterday?

I mean, if you thought that this Academy Award-winning composer was busy in 2009 - 2010 (i.e. that's when he composed & conducted the music for "Prep and Landing," "Day & Night," "Earth Days," the "Undercovers" pilot as well as the entire final season of "Lost"), wait 'til you see what Michael's going to try and do in 2010 - 2011. Which is to score Pixar's first ever live-action film, "John Carter of Mars" as well as "Cars 2." Not to mention "Mission: Impossible 4," "Super 8" and a little project that all you Disney theme park fan may have heard something about. "Star Tours II: The Adventure Continues ..."

But you know what's really great about Jon Burlingame's article about this super-talented, ultra-busy composer? Even though he's now working with some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry, it's obvious that Giacchino is a geek just like the rest of us. Don't believe me? Then check out what Michael had to say about the Muppets.

The 2005 TV movie that Michael Giacchino wrote the score
for. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"As big an influence as ''Star Wars' and 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' were, the Muppets were an equal inspiration. The Muppets taught me almost everything about humor, timing and music. I have this intense emotional connection to the Muppets."

Of course, the only thing better than listening to someone like Giacchino geek out about his favorite films & characters is to have three Hollywood heavy-hitters sit down and then talk about their favorite moments at the movies. And that's just what happened earlier this year at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, when Giacchino was joined onstage by his "Up" collaborator, Oscar©-winning director Pete Docter, as well as by entertainment industry elder statesman Bruce Broughton for "What's Opera, Doc? - Animation and Classical Music."

As these three shared passed-down anecdotes about Carl Stalling, Walt and the production of "Fantasia" as well as the evolution of recording technology at this "Marc Davis Celebration of Animation" event ... Well, it became obvious that Giacchino, Docter and Broughton were complete and utter fan boys.

(L to R) Michael Giacchino, Pete Docter and Bruce Broughton during "What's Opera Doc?,"
presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as part of the Marc Davis
Celebration of Animation. Photo by Ivan Vejar. Copyright 2010 A.M.P.A.S.

Which (in this case, anyway) is a good thing. Given that it's their shared geeky passion for film & film music that make Michael, Pete and Bruce so bloody good at this.  When asked what other composers, if any, they like, Broughton replied "you'd be hard pressed to find someone's work I don't like."

As the night began, Broughton shared that, as a boy, he had dreamed of becoming an animator.  But, as he grew, he abandoned this pursuit, feeling that he didn't have the talent.  And so he studied classical musical.  Bruce even came in second place in a children's music competition, playing that venerable cartoon tune "Hungarian Rhapsody."  "And I only came in second because I blew the first notes, played them in the wrong key," he added, still grated by his boyhood gaff.  

The three enthusiastically rhapsodized about the different ways composers worked, pouring over a heavily annotated Carl Stalling cue sheet that utilized "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" as part of the score.  Giacchino noted that he was first introduced to many pieces of classical music through their comedic uses in cartoons.  After playing the comic masterpiece "Dance of the Hours" from "Fantasia," Giacchino observed that he first learned this piece of music as perennial summer camp anthem "Hello Mudduh, Hello Faddah."  Only later, hearing it on the radio, did he realize that it's classical music.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Broughton gleefully shared stories he learned while working on "Fantasia 2000."  Roy Disney confided in Bruce that once the Mickey Mouse short "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" was completed, it was so expensive, they had to make the whole of "Fantasia" to defray the cost of the one short. 

Broughton, Giacchino and Docter all displayed a profound appreciation for the business' tradition of oral history.  They relentlessly collect these stories and apply them to their own work.  On the subject of "Mickey Mousing" - an arcane scoring term for music that punctuates the characters' every action, almost to the point of serving as musical sound effects. - Broughton recalled a story he heard about Max Steiner scoring a Bette Davis film.  Ms. Davis, watching composer Steiner conduct the orchestra, noted to the director: "Either Mr. Steiner walks up the stairs, or I do. But we can't go up together!"

Docter has acknowledged that "Up" 's Carl Frederickson is, in part, inspired by the time he spent with Disney legend Joe Grant.   He joyfully relayed stories Grant would tell of working on "Fantasia."  When storyboarding the film, Grant would listen to the piece again and again, all day, picking apart every beat in the music to create characters' action.  Grant obsessed over the music until he reached the point where he could say "alright, this bit of business has some negotiable play within these notes. But this gag has to land precisely at this beat." This is not some distant history lesson, but something that Docter and the other panelists delighted in learning, and assimilated into the working knowledge they use every day in their jobs.

Copyright Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All rights reserved

While this passion for the work of the artists that came before them is inspiring, it can be daunting as well.  Broughton talked about the difficulty he had in writing and orchestrating the hours & hours of original music for "Tiny Toon Adventures." Broughton noted the complexity in recreating Carl Stalling's rapid-fire, exceptionally clever musical style.

Giacchino, Broughton and Docter talked about the increasing sophistication of the cartoons' gags in these golden years.  Docter noted that the artists never wanted to repeat themselves, always relentlessly improving.  The quality of these cartoons and the level to which they hold up is extraordinary when you consider that they were on 6 to 8 week turn-arounds.  Giacchino's reverence for those animation and musical artists was evident.  They were the "cowboys of music," he beamed, "daunted by nothing." 

Giacchino's lifelong passion for the subject became even more evident during the question and answer session at the end of the evening.  The first question came from an older gentlemen, who Giacchino noted was "[his] father."  And the last question of the evening came from Michael's sister.  She noted that everything that proved so useful to Michael in his career was precisely the stuff that got him in trouble as a kid.  As things turned out, when he stayed glued to the boob tube, watching those classic cartoons as a kid, Michael was getting quite an education in classical music and preparing for an award-winning career as a film composer.

Michael Giacchino accepting this year's Academy Award for
Best Film Score. Copyright 2010 A.M.P.A.S.

Which brings to mind Giacchino's terrific speech at this year's Academy Awards ceremony. As he stood on stage holding the Oscar that he's just won for "Up," Michael talked about how his father had always encouraged him. Whether it was to try his hand at film-making or just indulge his son's love of animation and music.

Here's a particularly important passage of Giacchino's speech that I hope many parents will take to heart:

"... never once in my life did my parents ever say, 'What you're doing is a waste of time.' Never. And I grew up, I had teachers, I had colleagues, I had people that I worked with all through my life who always told me what you're doing is not a waste of time. So it was normal to me that it was OK to do that. But I know there are kids out there that don't have that support system, so if you're out there and you're listening, listen to me: If you want to be creative, get out there and do it. It's not a waste of time. Do it. OK?"

Michael Giacchino at the reception preceding "What's
Opera Doc?," presented by the Academy of Motion
Picture Arts & Sciences as part of the Marc Davis
Celebration of Animation.
Photo by Ivan Vejar.
Copyright 2010 A.M.P.A.S.

So please keep that in mind the next time you walk into the living room and find your child sacked out in front of the television watching Bugs Bunny cartoons. Remember that they're not - in fact - wasting time. But - rather - getting ready for a great career in entertainment like Michael Giacchino.

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