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.


Delmark and the Direct Method

August 19, 2006

This short animation was created to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of Chicago-based Delmark Records in 1973. The film was created by Tom Koester, whose brother Bob Koester founded Delmark Records. Tom uses the direct method, drawing the images “directly onto the film stock.” I don’t know if Tom was hip to Norman McLaren’s films, but his short captures the spirit of Norman McLaren’s work. The playful animated text is befitting of the music, provided by “Terry Waldo’s Gutbucket Syncopators.”

Delmark Records is an independent record label that is hugely important to the Chicago jazz scene. I highly reccomend their latest release from the Deep Blue Organ Trio!

First trip

July 17, 2006

In a January 1, 2006 press release celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Animation, ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive director Steve Worth wrote:

“From its humble beginnings with J. Stuart Blackton’s film, ‘Humorous Phases of Funny Faces’ first released on April 6th, 1906, animation has gone on to become one of the greatest American creative contributions to the arts, second only to Jazz.”

Mr. Worth is keen to note the historical relationship between animation and jazz. However, I’ve long felt that animation is one of our most missunderstood art forms, second only to jazz.

Both fields have experienced tremendous growth and innovation in the relatively short history of 100 years. During 1940s and 50s, jazz and animation were each undergoing significant stylistic change. The music of jazz artists such as Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk was evolving the language of jazz into a sophisticated new language called be-bop. Similarly, animation artists were developing a new visual language. By the 1950s, the independent animation studio UPA had replaced Disney as the new artistic standard in animation. Many animation artists during this time were amateur or even professional jazz musicians. Some animation directors collaborated with jazz musicians such as Oscar Peterson, Shorty Rogers and Dizzy Gillespie on their short films. So there was a lot of “crossing over” going on.

I’ve always found it interesting that many viewers describe animation art from this period with the same adjectives music critics use to describe jazz from the same period: words such as “angular,” “avant-garde,” and “modern.” But I haven’t seen much discussion on why this is. What prompts someone to call a piece of animation “jazzy?”

Current scholarship on the relationship between jazz and animation has dealt almost exclusively with racial representations of jazz musicians in cartoons. The goal of this blog is to explore the influence of jazz music on animation design in the 1940s and 50s by looking at animated films from this period that feature authentic jazz music. I’m also interested in finding similarities in how jazz musicians and animation artists visualize music. Though my research will focus on the 40s and 50s, this blog will have a broader scope, covering other decades as well.

I hope this blog might prompt dialogue between musicians and artists. So post comments! Thanks for visiting, and stay tuned as this whole thing develops.