Harrison Abbott chats with composer Carl Johnson…
Carl Johnson is an Emmy Award-winning composer and orchestrator, known primarily for his credits on big-budget animated films (Wall-e, Monsters Inc.) as well as beloved children’s cartoons (Gargoyles, Pinky and the Brain, Animaniacs, Batman: The Animated Series).
His latest undertaking for Warner Bros. is the new Looney Tunes Cartoons (which recently debuted on HBO Max). Much like the reboot series itself, Johnson’s music here hearkens back to the charm and simplicity of the timeless source material. Everything from the big bang instrumentation to the way that classical music is quoted throughout, makes it feel so authentically Looney Tunes.
Or more accurately, it feels authentically Carl Stalling. For those who don’t know, Stalling was a ludicrously prolific composer who basically set the standard for cartoon music in the twentieth century. Creating the soundscape for many of the early Mickey Mouse shorts, Disney’s Silly Symphonies collection and, of course, Chuck Jones’ original Looney Tunes, he effectively came up with every convention and musical device that we now take for granted in the genre.
As such, following in this maestro’s footsteps is a pretty tall order. To understand how Johnson approached the daunting endeavour, we sat down for an in-depth interview wherein we discussed the finer points of composing for animation, as well as how he went about replicating Stalling’s vintage sound.
To start us off, could you explain how you got into composing?
Music was always one of my hobbies. I started taking piano lessons when I was roughly 7 years old, a pastime which I then [complemented] by playing in the school ensemble as a trombonist. I didn’t take it very seriously though, at least not until I enrolled in college and realised how much I enjoyed it. At that point, I ended up changing my major to Music Theory.
Then I auditioned for Disneyland’s ‘’All American College Marching Band’’ and spent a whole summer playing as part of that troupe.
Cool! What was that like?
Oh, it was a blast! They treated it like an internship: we arrived in early June; rehearsed for a few weeks; and then graduated into being professional acts. Plus, when we weren’t busy performing in the park, we were given the opportunity to head out to L.A itself and do clinics with industry veterans. In that sense, it was kind of like an educational experience, as well as a fun job in its own right.
Anyway, whilst I was there I discovered that there was a Film Music programme at University of Southern California. Once I had finished my degree in Kansas, I enrolled at USC and moved out to California, where I have been based ever since.
From there you obviously became a professional composer, with a unique specialism in scoring for cartoons –
[Laughs] That’s kind of how it’s ended up, yeah.
It seems to be that it’s a very different ball game altogether. Earlier I was listening to the track for the ‘’Wet Cement’’ short, and I was doing so without the accompanying visuals. It was just the music on its own, divorced from any context or animation.
And what stuck me was that it’s not really a typical listening experience at all. When you listen to it in isolation, it sounds almost avant-garde. The style changes constantly, it’s manically paced, and motifs drop in-and-out for just a few seconds.
Yeah it’s very distinct from other types of music. With animation, there’s a much shorter attention span that you have to cater to. Like you pointed out, you’ll have to set a scene or introduce a motif in a matter of seconds, but you never really get to dwell on it for too long. It’s rare that you finish a musical thought in a cartoon, you’re just bouncing from one thing to another.
So you’re right, listening to ‘’cartoony’’ music without the animation as a reference point doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s kind of all over the place.
So do you think it’s harder than writing for live action movies?
Well I think it’s far more challenging than your basic film score, that’s for sure. In a lot of ways it’s more challenging than composing for concerts too, because the synchronisation aspect is very meticulous.
In animation you want the music to match up perfectly with the visual track, often to the exact frame. It has to be very precisely timed and the skill lies in figuring out how to achieve that synchronicity, without making it sound overly mechanical. That can be an incredibly difficult hurdle to overcome.
The other daunting task is that you’ve got to set a mood or establish a sense of place extremely quickly. For example, you don’t get very long [to communicate] the idea of Bugs Bunny being on the street, or atop a mountain. You have to immerse the audience in these scenarios right away, without wasting any time.
Gotcha. It’s about being ultra concise.
Then you’ve got to make sure it’s feasible for musicians to play as well. The one you were listening to, ‘’Wet Cement’’, was recorded with a live orchestra and it really pushed them, as well as their instruments, to the very limits of what they were capable of. In its own way, it was just as demanding as playing a classical piece or a big film score.
Did you have that orchestra at your fingertips for the whole series?
No, about a quarter of it was recorded with the live orchestra. The rest was done electronically, supported by a few live players.
Come to think of it, that was another challenge for the project: getting the two methods to feel consistent. Because when the shorts are being presented on HBO, they’re all shuffled together, meaning that you might get one that’s been done with the full orchestra right next to one that was done electronically. We had to ensure that the audience couldn’t tell the difference.
Returning to the subject of intense synchronisation, how is that feat pulled off? Do you write the music first and then the animators work around it, or do you accommodate what’s already been drawn?
95% of the time, the animation is completely finished before I get my hands on it. If anything, there might be a few colour corrections or small tweaks that need making, but the general timings will already be set in stone. It’s then my job as a composer to make the music fit the animation.
Every now and then they might need a guide track – for instance if a character is singing or whistling – in which case I might write something in advance. You know, a melody for the voice actors to use. However, most of the time the music is done at the very end of the process.
I guess another unique aspect of scoring for cartoons is that you’re essentially contributing to the slapstick humour. It’s in your job description to be funny, almost like you’re a comedian as well as a musician. Presumably that’s not something you can be taught?
Exactly! Sure, the music’s got to fit the picture, it’s gotta match the mood, it’s gotta be fundamentally playable. But above all else it’s gotta be funny, which is sort of a nebulous, intangible quality. A judgement call.
When I was working on Animaniacs with Rich [Stone], we were quite a small team and every once in a while a new recruit would be brought onboard. And even if they were able to handle the nuts and bolts of scoring from a mechanical perspective, they sometimes couldn’t crack the humour. To which Rich would say: ‘’You just can’t explain funny to people’’.
You can teach them technique, but if they don’t get the jokes then they’re just not going to work.
Right! When a composer sits down to watch a cartoon, it’s really the first time that anyone besides an animator has seen it. And the creative team is really nervous about whether or not the jokes are going to land. As such, if the composer laughs then it puts everyone at ease. On the other hand, if they just sit there totally stone-faced and unresponsive, then the producers are [left] worrying about how on earth this person is going to sell their jokes.
But I imagine that even the funniest slapstick joke loses a lot of its impact without the music and sound effects? When you’re just looking at raw animation, surely it’s not going to be as effective?
Hopefully that’s the case. When I’m reviewing cartoons with directors – and they see it with music for the first time – they often laugh out loud. For me, that is tremendously rewarding because those guys had seen the gags a thousand times before, but I’ve managed to breathe new life into them. I always take that as a sign that I am doing my job right.
Moving onto the new Looney Tunes Cartoons, you’ve clearly gone to great lengths here to authentically replicate the style of Carl Stalling. Was that something that Warner Bros. explicitly asked for or was it your own pitch?
No, that was one of their prerequisites when scouting for composers. They wanted whoever was working on the project to be familiar with that vintage Carl Stalling sound. As it turns out, I’d already demonstrated that knowledge when I was working on Animaniacs and all those other cartoons I did for Warner Bros. back in the ‘90s. So I was used to operating within that Universe.
The decision was in line with the creative process for the wider series. It was never about reinventing the wheel, so much as it was about rediscovering what made Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies click in the first place. The whole point was that we were trying to imagine what it would be like if Warner Bros. never stopped making those cartoons and they continued running up to the modern day. That was the basic idea behind the new shorts and the music was just another way of tapping into that vibe.
In terms of capturing that Stalling sound, did you identify any particular rules or key characteristics that you needed to imbue into the score? Was there almost like a set of guidelines for you to adhere to?
Absolutely! The first question in my mind was always: ‘’What would Carl Stalling do?’’ Being a music theory geek, I was able to take apart his work and analyse what made it so successful. Without slavishly copying, we would consider what he was going for, how he went about achieving it, and how he would play certain scenes. Stuff like that.
It was really an interesting exercise, trying to get into his head and walk a mile in his shoes. At the same time, I had to think about how I could honour that heritage whilst simultaneously making it my own.
How did you strike that balance between homaging the past and inflecting the music with your own signature?
Basically the overarching ethos was to stick to Stalling’s legacy, except for when it would be beneficial to deviate and try something new.
The nature of the cartoons themselves helped a lot in that respect. Some of the situations that are depicted here simply wouldn’t have occurred in the early Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. For example, the animators took inspiration from Ren & Stimpy, by borrowing that gag [wherein] a character does something really disgusting and you cut to an elaborately painted shot of their toenails or whatever (AKA: Gruesome Close-ups).
That obviously never happened in the original Looney Tunes and so it wouldn’t be a scenario that Carl Stalling ever encountered. But it’s kind of fun to step away from the past occasionally and do something fresh. I had to conceive of my own way of approaching it.
One of the things that Carl Stalling is famous for is how he quoted older pieces of music. I noticed that you’ve retained that quality here. For example, in the track ‘’Snow Laughing Matter’’ you sample a bit of Mozart’s requiem. How do you go about selecting those cues and knowing when to deploy them?
There’s actually quite a bit of effort channeled into that. Often when we have a meeting to talk about a particular short, the director will go through the whole thing and identify opportunities to drop recognisable pieces of music, whether it’s a folk song or a classical symphony. It’s one of the first creative decisions that we make.
From there, I have a running list of public domain songs that the legal team compiled. To be honest, it can be a tricky call. There are lots of complications to wrap your head around. For instance, just because something is public domain in one part of the world doesn’t mean that it is everywhere else and copyright can always be renewed.
Did you ever find yourself in a position where you were hoping to use a song but ultimately had to scrap the idea because it wasn’t on the list?
[Laughs] Yes we did! There’s a short called ‘’Pest Coster’’, which was one of the first to be released on HBO Max –
I know the one you mean.
Initially, I planned on scoring that whole cartoon around a variation of ‘’While Strolling Through the Park’’. Given that it was such an old song, I assumed it would be in the public domain. After all, it was written in the 1890s!
I did this entire short with that song forming the backbone of the soundtrack. The director loved it, I was quite proud of it, and we headed into the final mix to finalise everything. Then, a few days before we were about to wrapup, Warner Bros. legal team got in touch and informed us that we couldn’t use it.
So I had to go back and rewrite all of those sections. Which was obviously a lot of extra work.
That’s something that didn’t even occur to me. The fact that you would have to clear all those quotes from a legal perspective. It must get frustrating?
You know, one difference between Carl Stalling and us, is that he was given clearance to use anything in the contemporary Warner Bros. library. So he was able to pull from popular songs of the day and because licenses were not an issue it didn’t cost a cent. For example, Warner Bros. owned the copyright to ‘’Powerhouse’’ by Raymond Scott, which was a popular song on the radio [at the time]. They didn’t have to pay to use that.
If you fast forward to the modern day however, using the melody of a current pop song – like a Katy Perry record or whatever – would be prohibitively expensive. Even if Warner Bros. music owned the rights, the animation guys would still have to pay up because they’re not the same team. The logistics of [how] the industry is structured has completely transformed since Stalling was around.
On the bright side, I suppose that forces you to rely on older musical references, which inadvertently plays into that nostalgic, old-timey feel you’re going for.
I think that’s true. You also get the privilege of introducing those older tunes to a younger audience. It’s funny, a lot of people’s introduction to classical music is through stuff like Looney Tunes. That’s something that I’m acutely aware of when adapting older pieces. I try to be as true to the source as I can, because I know it might be the first time a kid hears it. There’s a legacy that I have to respect.
The Looney Tunes roster consists of a very diverse lineup of characters and I imagine that gives you the freedom to play around with a lot of different genres and styles. Was there anyone that you were specifically excited to tackle?
There’s such a rich history to the big characters – such as Bugs, Daffy or Elmer – and it’s a tremendous honour to get to score them. Yet, for me, the high-point was definitely working on Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. You know, the beautiful thing about their cartoons is that the vocabulary is so limited: they always take place in the desert; they have a highly structured set of interactions; and there’s no speech. It’s a very defined environment and that’s what makes them so popular.
When writing music for one of these dialogue-free shorts, it’s kind of my job to get into the head of what the Coyote is thinking. There’s pure, emotional storytelling going on in the score and as a composer that’s really rewarding.
Yeah, I guess it’s almost like you’re responsible for charcatising Wile E. Coyote.
That’s right! A lot of what the music is doing is commenting on his reactions and frame and mind.
Earlier you mentioned that a big challenge for cartoon music is that you’ve got to squeeze a lot of material into a much briefer time frame. Which made me wonder about some of the new Looney Tunes shorts, specifically the ones known as ‘’Hole gags’. Those are like 20 second interludes. What was it like composing for them?
It’s really tricky because, even if they last for less than a minute, they still need a beginning, a middle and an end. You still have to find a logical way of tying it all together.
For instance, there’s one where Elmer Fudd is chasing Bugs Bunny as he dives into a hole in the ground. Elmer then attempts to reel him out using a fishing line. So I had to identify a piece of music would fit that scene, and I landed on Franz Schubert’s Trout Quintet. It’s a little bit of a stretched joke, but that’s the basic idea of how I approached those Hole Gags. I tried to find a musical pun that I could build them around.
[Oblivious to the reference even though, in retrospect, it’s quite simple] Cool.
Not everyone will get it on the first listen [Laughs].
To wrap up, what’s the thing you’re most proud of with your contributions to Looney Tunes?
Well I’m really pleased with how the music is being true to the past, much like how the shorts themselves are recapturing that original magic. We weren’t trying to reinvent or modernise anything, you know? I think it’s a respectful, and perhaps long overdue, approach to these classic characters. They worked so well, there’s no reason to try and fix them.
If you had a piece of advice for anyone looking to get into composing – whether it’s for cartoons, concert music or films – what would it be?
I actually do teach some classes in film music and the first thing I say to my students is: ‘’study the masters’’. If I have to quote a famous opera or a symphony, it’s good to have in the back of my mind where that piece came from. To ask myself: ‘’What were the circumstances surrounding it?’’ I think that’s the single biggest thing that an aspiring composer can do to improve their own writing.
Many thanks to Carl Johnson for taking the time for this interview.
Looney Tunes Cartoons are now streaming on HBO Max.