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Film composer Christopher Willis talks about the challenges of writing music for Disney's new Mickey Mouse shorts

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Film composer Christopher Willis talks about the challenges of writing music for Disney's new Mickey Mouse shorts

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There's this terrific comment that someone once made about Fred Astaire.

"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 Pooh ," "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.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"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 much."

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"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 feel."

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."

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

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 p.m. ET/PT.

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.

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  • 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?

    Steve Barber

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