2.5 LOONY TOONS: sound structure

In E. L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime” the character Tateh cuts out silhouette pictures that he then strings together into flip-books. The reader flips through the hundreds of slowly changing pictures to create the illusion of fluid movement for the human eye. The eye can only register a maximum of twenty-five frames a second, consequently images appearing at a rate equal or faster than this are received as continuous stream. Tateh develops this form of manual animation into a mechanical device, a kind of magic lantern that by rapidly screening a succession of images produces the first screened piece of true animation. His success with this later leads him into a new invention, film movies. Doctorow’s fictional-historical novel in this way shows how, although animation is not the direct parent of film, which is more often linked with photography, it has quite reasonable claim on having at least provoked the idea of movement in ‘motion-pictures’ or movies.

Animation, having been there for the birth of film however, failed to capitalise on the association. Early cartoons were seen as too silly or childish to be used for conveying dramatic narrative and were limited to one-off gags, or as with the first Disney cartoons, as background accompaniments to the work of live actors. The huge amount of effort required to produce enough ‘cells’ for an animation of even a minute in length (1500 separate drawings), and the limited technical abilities of the craft’s early practitioners, conspired with its lack of appeal to a public besotted with live action, to keep cartoons to a limited role in the wider film industry.

Sound support

When the sound finally became available it provided two vital ingredients that the cartoon desperately needed. One, it allowed the use of funny sound effects with which the animator could double the impact of the gags at minimal additional cost. Two, the use of music gave the otherwise chaotic gag-to-gag format structure and form. It is no coincidence that the most successful and long running cartoon series were called the Silly Symphonies, Loony Tunes, and Merrie Melodies. With the soundtrack providing the structure with beginning and end, verse and chorus, and often a lyrical narrative to boot, the visuals are freed up to indulge themselves in a string of essentially unrelated gags. Having a musical structure to work inside allowed animators a chance to experiment with special effects, fast cutting, montage, and so on, that would be to confusingly unstructured in a more visually focused medium like live action film.

In the late 1930’s most of the large animation companies began to move away from this early lead, seeking wider audience appeal. Disney concentrated more and more on animated clones of feature epics, ever striving to make cartoon fantasy more realistic, more deserving of ‘serious’ attention. Warner Bros. stayed with the short form and plenty of one-gag shots but failed to expand significantly on the experimental opportunities offered in relying on the music for narrative cover. Their cartoons concentrated increasingly on sound for sound effects, as did those of the major cartoon company of the 60’s and 70’s, Hanna Barbera..

Only occasionally did works arise that pushed the music to the narrative forefront. Fantasia showed inklings of what the form could achieve and layed a basis for films like Allegro Non Troppo to build upon. These films not only rely on the music for structure but actively seek to use the visuals to support the music. Other cartoons such as “The Three Little Bops” used traditional narrative, the story of the three little pigs, but utilised the contemporary music of the period, in this case bop, to provide an excuse for doing the visuals in a similarly modern, avant-garde way.

In 1975 Bruce Gowers had a revolutionary idea in creating a clip for the Queen track “Bohemian Rhapsody”. He decided, rather than just shooting a straight performance clip like normal, to create a series of visual moods that would complement the musical ones. Relying on the music to carry the narrative structure, he designed the visuals in a more supporting role. Freed from the need to create a coherent visual narrative, such as that of a ‘live’ performance, he was able to use a variety of lighting and lens effects to create different mood shots that highlighted the dramatic, stagy nature of the song.

The current ‘I like ambiguity’ trend of the so-called Generation X, has relied heavily on this invention in creating its music videos. Images are jumbled together at a level of density and confusion previously unimaginable. The music not only holds it together by giving it at least one level of coherence, but in doing so forces upon the viewer a sense of interrelation between the images that demands consideration. The music has the power in this way to create a sense of connection in a visual juxtaposition that may have been completely random or arbitrary. The long series of ‘classic’ images of human misery that appears at the end of the Carter USM video clip, “Do Re ME”, is a case in point: the naked Vietnamese girl crying, Hiroshima, Ayatollah Homeni, etc. Is the viewer expected to form this series into some kind of grand and serious political statement? There is no answer provided as to what the combination of images is meant to mean. The increasingly desperately screaming soundtrack gives the distinct impression that it is, whatever it is, very serious.

The connection between cartoons and music videos is, in this facet of the two genres, quite direct. In cartoons and in the ‘Gen X’ videos mentioned above, the music is generally acting as a structural prop to the visuals, giving them freedom from the need for explicitly defined inter-connection. In more abstract works the music’s narrative frees the visuals from even the requirement to mean anything, even as individual shots, or frames, as in Fantasia or Brian Eno’s video for “Ali Click”.

A video like that for the Toy Love track “Bride of Frankenstein” demonstrates an even more direct connection between animation and music video: the animated music video (another topic altogether).