Animation Soundtracks: From Gulliver’s Travels to Lion King

Monday April 22, 2019 / Behind the Scenes

As we think back to the golden years of Saturday morning cartoons or even all the way back to 'Saturday morning matinees' at the theater, we think of the TV classics like Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and the Disney movies like Snow White, Bambi and Pinocchio. Soundtracks at this time used orchestral instruments just like the movies, and unlike a lot of the synthesized music in TV cartoons and video games of today. They also got very creative when making sound effects. From slide instruments to creaky wallets, cardboard boxes and just straight up voice effects, masters like Jim McDonald left no stone unturned in looking for ways to represent visuals with fun and creative audio.


We (Jamie and Eli) love this era of animation and we took our turn at re-creating a soundtrack for an old short classic, Gulliver's Travels. We wanted to use an orchestral base for the short to honor the classic but also wanted to do something a bit different and more grown-up. While this short is just three and a half minutes long, it moves quickly from scene to scene so we broke it down into eleven segments and plotted a unique collection of instruments for each segment.


Early on we are using low woodwinds such as oboe and bassoon, and low strings such as double basses and cellos. The low strings are heard prominently around the 1-minute mark where Gulliver and others are creeping forward and the music emphasizes their steps.

We bring in some unique instruments when the visual calls for a sound effect. For example, as Gulliver is counting fingers we use a xylophone, or when he is quickly shaking his mouth we use a flute and higher strings to represent the movement.

 As they are working on tying down the giant, strings and brass provide some tension. As the giant is freed and the attack happens, we bring in the full accompaniment of strings including cellos, violas and violins to 'thicken' the soundtrack and enhance the on-screen action.

Finally, as the crowd is cheering we widen everything out and include a French Horn that adds a 'seaworthy' element. This is a cartoon so we didn't go all the way over the top and bring in a choir or anything, we tried to keep it a bit light while still evoking the notion of a triumphant ending. An example of 'going all the way' in this type of scene would be the ending to Lord of the Rings where Frodo and the gang sail off into the West. The strings are sweeping, the horns are blaring and everything rises to a tremendous crescendo. LOTR was a great trilogy that deserved that treatment after 6+ hours of epic storytelling, but here we are trying to use orchestra in a way that is still appropriate for animation.

While we tried to do something a bit different here, there are certainly sound elements that are more familiar. The 'rise and hit' that is ever-present from animation to live action gets a play or two in this short, as does the falling whistle as Gulliver falls into a trench. Familiarity plays an important role in soundtracks as it gives the audience a cue that they know intrinsically, but the beauty of music is that even a familiar note can be played with a new instrument or just enough twist to evoke something slightly different in the mind of the viewer.

Speaking of the rise and hit sound effect, the new Lion King movie trailer has NINE rise and hits in the first 40 seconds, wow. Of course that is followed by one of the all-time great movie tracks, 'Circle of Life' as composed by the great Elton John and sung by Carmen Twille and Lebo M., what a score! This trailer is also amazing to watch because it exemplifies how this modern era of animation hardly even looks like animation anymore. Technology has advanced to where it is getting very close to looking like live action. This means that soundtrack composers also have to rise to the occasion. While 'Circle of Life' is an epic start to the movie, there is still a need for many minutes of soundtrack that evoke more subtle emotions without the benefit of epic vocals. How will the great Hans Zimmer, who returns as composer for this remake, evolve the score to match the quality of animation? Our bet is that it will be orchestral in nature but will have some unique and creative twists for which Zimmer is known. We will eagerly wait to hear!


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