Early Pixar

October 22, 2006

 Last Saturday I caught a presentation by Pixar director Gary Rydstrom at the Chicago Film Festival. Rydstrom was giving the first public screening of his new short Lifted, and he opened the show with 4 early Pixar shorts: Luxo Jr., Red’s Dream, Knick Knack and Tin Toy (all of which were sound designed by Rydstrom). These films were all new to me, and I was surprised to discover that the first two films, Luxo Jr. and Red’s Dream, feature jazz scores. 

Luxo Jr., which is accompanied by a jazz piano trio, looks as great on the big screen today as I imagine it did 20 years ago – in fact, the only thing that might seem dated in the film is the electric bass in the piano trio (but that’s only to my ears). The musicians/composer go uncredited on this film. 

Red’s Dream is scored with a solo saxophone performance, conjuring a noir aesthetic. The music credit goes to Pixar’s current music editor, David Slusser. I’d be curious to know who the saxophonist is.  

The score to Knick Knack isn’t jazz, but it is completely improvised by Bobby McFerrin. According to Gary Rydstrom, McFerrin created vocal loops in the studio while watching the film in real time. During the credits you hear him say “Blah, blah, blah,” because during the recording session the credits on the rough edit literally read “blah, blah, blah.” In a medium where every last visual detail is painstakingly realized through hours of work, the improvised score creates a nice balance in the finished product. 

On an off-topic note, Rydstrom’s new short Lifted is fantastic. Every last visual and sonic detail supports the story in a thoughtful way. The score by Michael Giacchino is an unabashed nod to Speilbergian sci-fi. Rdystrom also showed a large amount of development/production footage, including Jeff Pidgeon’s storyboards, character studies by Bud Luckey, and a clip from Giacchino’s electronic mock-up of the score.


Date With Dizzy (1956)

October 9, 2006

Recently I’ve been immersed in Amid Amidi’s new book Cartoon Modern. One of my favorite treats his book has to offer is the section on Storyboard, the independent animation studio founded by John Hubley in 1953. Hubley’s late, non-commercial work is well documented on DVD (see: Art and Jazz in Animation). However, his commercial work at Storyboard studios is all new to me. So you can imagine how excited I was to discover Hubley’s 1956 film Date With Dizzy, which showcases three of Hubley’s animated commercials in their entirety, as well as a live performance by the Dizzy Gillespie Quartet.

As I’ve learned from Amid’s book, Date with Dizzy was the first of Hubley’s many personal films. When Hubley married Faith Elliot in 1955, they agreed to produce one “serious film” per year in order to balance out Storyboard’s creative output. While Date with Dizzy is hardly a “serious film,” it does provide a coyly subversive commentary on creativity in the commercial marketplace.

The plot of the film involves two advertising executives trying to get Dizzy Gillespie to score a commercial for an “Instant Rope Ladder.” Although Dizzy is unable to provide an adequate score, the joke is ultimately on the two adversisers. The sound of Dizzy’s group simply can’t be comprimised for a silly commerical.

To show Dizzy an example of how jazz can be integrated into marketing, the advertisers present three commercials (actual television spots produced by Hubley’s Storyboard studio). The first spot, “Bop Corn,” is an ad for Ez-Pop popcorn that features a spoken-word narration, syncopated with a walking bass line. Rim-shots are played on the drums as the popcorn pops. It’s astounding to think that for a short instance in American history, “Bop” could be used to sell popcorn. Granted, the soundtrack isn’t really be-bop, but popular perceptions of be-bop culture are invoked between the bass line and the beatnik dialogue.

The third spot, an ad for Speedway 79 gas, is the most visually enthralling of the bunch. The swing soundtrack intersects with abstract, often non-representational backgrounds. The spot even features a 6-bar improvised sax solo. I’m willing to bet that an improvised jazz solo didn’t appear on an American TV commercial for another 50 years, until Wynton Marsalis’s “Sparks” iPod spot in 2006.

These ads show that Hubley believed that jazz, like his modern animation design, was an accessible art form and viable as a part of the cultural mainstream. But when the ads are viewed within the context of Date With Dizzy, Hubley is acknowledging the struggle to reverently integrate modern jazz into popular culture. Are the advertising executives not hip enough to dig Dizzy’s music, or is Dizzy’s music too hip for mass consumption? Hubley leaves the question unanswered.