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"Pixar In Concert" reveals how a musical score can help tell a movie's story, get the audience inside of a character's head

"Pixar In Concert" reveals how a musical score can help tell a movie's story, get the audience inside of a character's head

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It's engaging stories, great characters, good acting, lighting and hundreds of things working together that makes a motion picture a truly MOVING experience.

One of the most critical pieces is a film's musical score. Even before recorded dialogue, music was there and it's always had the power to excite us, amuse us, to elicit a tear or two. Those musical notes hit our heartstrings and have the ability to spark memories years later as well as certain feelings. Think about the deep foreboding ba dum, ba dum of "Jaws," the five notes from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," the Married Life sequence in Pixar's "UP."

"UP" is one of the 13 featured scores celebrated during "Pixar In Concert." Its world premiere was July 28-29 at the Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, hosted by Disney-Pixar Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter on Saturday and Pixar director Pete Docter on Sunday.

Photo by Leon N Holzer

"Pixar In Concert" will be performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic tonight, Aug, 3, through Sunday, Aug. 5, at The Hollywood Bowl. Tickets, priced from $20 to $59 are still available. On Nov. 2-3, it will be the featured program at the iconic Sydney Opera House in Australia. Hopefully, this family-friendly concert will be headed to a symphony near you in the coming months. I can't think of a better way to introduce children to live, orchestral music.

I attended Sunday's performance, which opened with the Pixar Logo theme and "Toy Story," the music filling the hall as favorite scenes played on a large screen above the symphony performers. Docter then came out to introduce the program.

Docter grew up in a musical family in Minnesota. He started playing the violin at age 5, his mom was a music educator and his dad was a choir director at a local university. He's listed as "Creative Director" for Pixar in Concert.

Pete Docter addresses the audience at last Sunday's performance. Photo by Roger Colton

"I'm really excited to celebrate the music of Pixar films with you all," Docter said. "... Personally, I credit music for getting me into animation. My parents took me to a lot of concerts as a kid. And what would happen is that I'd gather everyone's programs and draw cartoons on them.

"... Music is a crucial part of what we do at Pixar. It can really speak to an audience in a way that nothing else can, not dialogue, not acting. ... We have selected some favorite parts of all 13 of our films, starting with 'Toy Story' in 1995 up to and including 'Brave.'

The program features clips without dialogue, putting the emphasis on the great music.

Copyright Pixar. All rights reserved

Docter then introduced the next three suites, "Finding Nemo," by Thomas Newman, featuring guitar work by George Doering, who played on the original soundtrack; "Ratatouille," by Michael Giacchino (who was attending the concert and was repeatedly introduced every time Docter addressed the crowd); and "A Bug's Life," by Randy Newman. The Newmans and Giacchino, along with Patrick Doyle, who wrote the score for "Brave," created the music in every Pixar feature film.

Following "A Bug's Life," Docter returned to talk about the process by which music is composed for Pixar's films. For the composer, the job usually starts when the film is almost complete. "The composer and director will sit down and watch the film together -- in minute detail -- at what we call a spotting session ... talking about musical possibilities of every sequence. Then, armed with a bunch of notes, the composer goes away, disappears into their studio to somehow, miraculously produce music.

Where it comes from, I have no idea. Michael's tried to tell me that he has a team of musical hamsters that helps him. I'm not sure I believe him," causing the audience to laugh and Giacchio to scrunch a bit lower in his seat.

"Ratatouille" composer Michael Giacchino.
Photo by Roger Colton

"In some cases," Docter continued, "the composer will produce a demo, a synthesizer version and we'll discuss that and any changes. And in other cases, the first time we hear it is when we show up at the sound stage ... and I just walk away in awe. Partly because of the ... breakneck speed. In animation, it takes one animator about a week to produce 4 seconds of animation. With film music we typically record between 7 and 15 minutes a day ... and we'll walk away with the whole score in about two weeks. Then we'll come back and cut that into the final mix of the film."

The afternoon continued with Docter introducing us to "WALL-E," "Toy Story 2" and "Cars" as well as conductor Sarah Hicks and the "amazing musicians" in the San Francisco Symphony.

Another highlight came when Docter reappeared after "Cars" to illustrate how music helps tell the story and gets you inside the characters' heads.

Copyright Pixar. All rights reserved

"How does that actually happen?. Let's take an example from ...'UP,' one of my personal favorites," Docter said. "When we first introduce young Carl to what will turn out to be the love of his life ... Ellie, we introduce her with a musical theme and it's played initially on the piano in this upbeat jaunty fashion." Later, there's a similar piece of music that plays underneath a scene but this time, it's on the cello.

"Sound familiar?," Docter asked. "You'll hear that same theme played throughout the film in a very emotional way, in an action-adventure way. Every time you hear it, it's a reminder of why Carl is doing what he's doing."

"UP" was given the full-treatment and there weren't too many dry eyes among the adults in the crowd. Perfect time for intermission, to regain composure and to make my way to Giacchino and see if I could get a couple of quotes. He's a nice guy who I first met during the relaunch of Disneyland's Space Mountain.

Peter Docter (left) and Michael Giacchino (center) in the recording studio as they work on
the score for "UP." Copyright Pixar. All rights reserved

"I love watching other composers work," Giacchino said. "I love listening to the scores of Randy, Thomas and Patrick and I love for once to focus on the great stuff they've done. For me, that's what's been fun about this experience. I enjoyed putting together the pieces that they were going to use of my stuff, but I caught myself more enlightened by just what the other guys have done. ... I'm so lucky to even be in the same paragraph as those names."

Giacchino briefly explained the creation of Pixar in Concert. "David Tanaka is the guy who really edited all the video together and Pete took the first step. I would just sit there and give them comments about it. They know these movies inside and out; as well as I do. It's always nice to work together with a group of people who really know what they're doing."

He was also heartened by the crowd, a good 25 percent or so children. "That's the best. The more we can get kids in front of live orchestras, the better off we'll be."

The orchestra at last Sunday's performance. Photo by Leo N Holzer

Following intermission, the orchestra launched into another of Giacchino's creations, "The Incredibles." Then Docter returned to introduce "Monsters, Inc." and "Cars 2." He complimented the brass section, singled out Tom Scott, a saxophonist featured on several original Pixar soundtracks, including the opening credits of "Monsters, Inc." Docter then had more than two dozen Pixar employees stand for a moment of recognition.

He also delivered special thanks to "a few people without whom this program would not have happened ... Jonas Rivera, who championed it, ... Brice Parker, Laurel Ladevich and David Tanaka, who made it happen. And, of course, even with the best planning in the world, none of it would have happened without Sarah Hicks and the wonderful San Francisco Symphony."

The final two pieces included "Brave," featuring elbow-powered uilleann pipes and "Toy Story 3," which took the audience on another emotional ride with the laughs of Flamengo Buzz to the tears inspired by the incinerator scene and Andy's long goodbye to Woody.

Copyright Pixar. All rights reserved

Blessedly, an encore, of "You've Got A Friend In Me," left everyone feeling upbeat before heading home.

  • Any chance of "Pixar In Concert" being released on a CD?

  • for purposes of full disclosure, I received complimentary admission to the concert.

  • @Sherlock ... that would be nice. I think it'd make a great DVD as well, focusing on the musicians with a small picture-in-a-picture window showing the uniquely cut footage of the film clips. A lot of love, care and effort went into the entire program and it shows.

  • I'm with Sherlock! But one step further--would love to see this on DVD. Any possibilities? Nice job on the article, Leo.

  • @dustpan ... thanks! As far as a DVD recording ... I have no idea. I'd like to see it play at 50 or more venues around the world first. It's a great way to expose youngsters to live symphonic music ... that actually was my only quibble. I would have invited kids down at the end of the show to meet the musicians and see the instruments up close. I'd certainly welcome an eventual DVD release ... even a CD or download of the music that I could listen to whenever I wanted.

  • I attended the concert at the Bowl on Friday night and man let me tell you, It really took all I had not to lose it and breakdown during the up segment.  Very powerful!  Great show!

  • In comparison to the Disney films of the 90's (and a select few films from competing studios from the same time period,) Pixar's scores seem a bit dry and slightly less-important. This observation does not even include the fact that Pixar stubbornly avoids the inclusion of actual "songs" to narrate the story. I miss animated films with singing, in which music absorbs audiences, giving them something to whistle to once exiting the cinema. There is only so much on-screen explosions in the midst of scattered, Giacchino jazz interludes I can take.

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