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There's this terrific comment that someone once made about
"Sure he was great. But don't forget that Ginger Rogers
did everything he did backwards ... and in high heels!"
And for some odd reason, that comment brings to mind British
composer Christopher Willis. This is the guy who's been composing all of the
music for that Emmy Award-winning series of new Mickey Mouse shorts which
Disney Television Animation has been producing.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
Now you'd think -- having come out of the world of film
(Willis has written additional music for many popular motion pictures, among
them "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2
," "Winnie the
," "X-Men: First Class
," "Shrek Forever After
& "Grown Ups
") -- that Christopher might view working on these 3 &
1/2 minute-long cartoons for the Disney Channel to be something as a career
come-down. But to hear Willis talk, that's really not the case.
"For me, working on these new series of animated shorts
has been more challenging than composing music for full-length films. In fact,
I think that composing for these new Mickey Mouse shorts is the hardest thing
that I've ever had to do," Christopher admitted during a phone interview
earlier this week. "I mean, they're certainly the most time-consuming
things that I've ever had to work on. But -- at the same time, because these
new Mickey Mouse shorts are so varied & colorful when it comes to their
subject matter -- they're also probably
the most rewarding composing assignment that I've ever had."
So what exactly is about this series of new animated shorts
that makes them so difficult to compose for? Well, one of the basic conceits
for these new Mickey Mouse cartoons is that they're supposed to send the Fab
Five around the globe to all sorts of different urban settings. And Willis has
to then compose a suitable score that supports this far-flung cartoon adventure.
"So for 'Tokyo Go,' which is this cartoon about Mickey
battling rush-hour crowds aboard a bullet train as it zooms through Tokyo, that
short's score was supposed to be done in bebop style," Christopher
explained. "And since I didn't know a lot about bebop, I had to sort of
teach myself a lot about that particular music genre very, very quickly."
And to hear Christopher talk, that's actually become one of
his favorite parts of working on these new Mickey Mouse shorts. These deep
dives in specific music genres that he sometimes has to do in order to come up with
just the right score for the next animated cartoon.
"Take -- for example -- the new Mickey Mouse short that
I'm working on right now. It's got a section that's supposed to sound kind of Indiana
Jones-ish," Willis. "I was initially a little hung up on what I
should be doing with this section of that short. But then I thought: What did
John Williams listen to before he began writing the music for 'Raiders
' ? So I
dug up all of this music from old Republic serials & Zorro movies. And that
proved to be the perfect inspiration for this part of that project."
Christopher Willis with his Annie Award
And Christopher's dedication & attention to detail when
it comes to composing music for these Mickey Mouse shorts has clearly paid off.
Given that -- just last month -- Willis won an Annie for Best Music in an
Animated TV/Broadcast Production category.
But now -- on the heels of this well-deserved recognition
from the International Animated Film Society (ASIFA-Hollywood) -- comes what
Christopher considers to be the most challenging Mickey Mouse short that he has
scored to date. And that's "The Adorable Couple," the first
all-musical episode of this series. Which debuts tonight on the Disney Channel
at 8:25 p.m. ET/PT.
"Given that music is such an integral part of this new
series of Mickey Mouse shorts, we knew that it was only a matter of time before
we then attempted an all-music, all-singing short," Willis stated. "But
here's the funny thing about Mickey Mouse. Though he sang a bit early, early on
in Disney, for most of his film career, Mickey hasn't really sung that
"So when we began thinking about turning 'The Adorable
Couple' into a musical short, the question then became could Chris
Diamantopoulos make Mickey Mouse sing in a way that sounded & felt right,"
Christopher continued. "I mean, we knew that Chris could sing. And he did
say that 'I think that I can do it.' But
as soon as we got him in front of the mic to do a test, Chris made Mickey Mouse
sing in the most obvious way. He made you think that you've been hearing him
sing for Mickey for a hundred years already. So that helped a lot."
But then it came down to what sort of musical style should
Mickey & Minnie sing in. Given that these two mice have been around since
1928, a lot of musical styles have come and gone in the past 86 years.
"I have to admit that -- when we first started on this
one -- we weren't quite sure what it was that we were thinking of historically.
This short's score could be a 1930s vaudeville kind of thing or it could be
more of a Golden Age 1950s 'Hello Dolly' kind of musical number," Willis
said. "But as we worked on 'Adorable Couple,' as so often happens when we
work on these shorts, we tend to either move into the Disneyland era of the
1960s or we move all the way back to the 1930s. And this one eventually wound
up all the way back in the 1930s. So musically, in terms of instrumentation, we
thought that there'd be an orchestra. But what we wound up using instead was
just a vaudeville piano mostly. So this whole short has kind of a honky-tonk
And that -- to my way of thinking, anyway -- is the most
impressive part of Christopher does. He took the short that director William
Reiss storyboarded and then turned into a full-fledged musical filled with that
classic 1930s vaudeville energy. And Willis pulled all of this off with just 3 &
1/2 minutes of screen time.
"Look, I'm sure that making a musical is hard at even
the best of times, but if it's going to be 3 & 1/2 minutes-long and it's
got to be musically coherent and it's supposed to tell a story, that's a huge
amount to pack into a single short," Christopher said. "So we had
quite a lot of to-ing & fro-ing. And quite a lot of stuff had to go. But
that's the only way through this kind of process."
"And the people at Disney Television Animation are so
nice to work with. Which is very unusual in the film world. I mean, I can come
in and go to them and say 'I'm really struggling to make this work because ...'
And I'll go over to the piano and I'll make this very pretentious music-centric
observation. And in most cases, they'll then say 'Well, we can add a few frames
if you want. Or maybe we can swap those two things around,'" Willis
continued. "You never hear of anybody doing that in movies. In the film
world, the composer always comes last."
Anyway, if you'd like to check out Willis' handiwork (which
features Mickey & Minnie attempting to use the power of song to cheer up an
extremely grumpy Donald & Daisy. And FYI: This new animated short features
a cameo appearance by another Disney power couple who were once " ...
barely even friends"), be sure and catch 'The Adorable Couple.' Which air
tonight on the Disney Channel starting at 8:25
Now you'd think -- what with last month's Annie win as well
as tonight's all-musical episode -- Christopher could maybe take a break. Enjoy
a little bit of his success. But no such luck.
"Each week, these Mickey Mouse shorts throw another
challenge my way. I mean, it's one thing to when you're writing in what
everyone thinks of as cartoon music and you then have to hit all of the beats,
make the music go up where it needs to go and then go down where it needs to go
down. Because making the music go down is what then makes it sound scary,"
Willis concluded. "But when one episode of these new Mickey Mouse cartoons
features a score that's inspired by Hawaiian music and the next week it's samba
... Well, how do you then make samba music sound like it's scary? That -- I
think -- is the biggest challenge of this series."
Fred Astraire and Ginger Rogers
Which -- again -- is kind of why I think of Ginger Rogers
whenever I think of Christopher Willis. For he's a guy who's consistently
delivering high quality music for these new Mickey Mouse shorts while having to
learn a new musical genre every week and then having these brand-new scores fit
each of these animated cartoons' 3 & 1/2 minute long running times.
Which -- I'll admit -- isn't exactly doing everything that
Fred Astraire did backwards and in heels. But it's pretty darned close.
Thank you for this, Jim. I had, indeed, caught the wonder of the music in these new shorts and loved them (particularly Tokyo Go). Are you aware of any move to release any of the tracks to the public?