Animal Crackers, a new Netflix original movie, debuted last week, and features my first score for an animated film! My personal and creative journey with this movie is a dramatic story unto itself.
As I forged my career as a film composer, I experimented with every genre, scoring horror, comedy, science fiction, thrillers, dramas and so on. And yet, aside from two holiday episodes of Eureka, the medium of animation that I adored so much somehow always eluded me. That was until the directors of Animal Crackers gave me a shot.
MAKING NEW FRIENDS
In 2009 and 2010, I scored Human Target, a series based on the DC Comics character. Scrolling through my Twitter mentions one day in 2013, I came across a comment that read “Hey, did I ever tell you how much I LOVED your first season Human Target theme? As the character’s creator, ya done me proud.” Wow! I realized that tweet came from the legendary Len Wein, creator of Wolverine, Swamp Thing and yes, Christopher Chance aka the Human Target. Before long, I was at a party at his house where I met him and his lovely wife Christine Valada.
Len’s house was filled with interesting people from throughout the comics, animation and writing realms. I began chatting with a particularly gregarious fellow named David Wise. We bonded instantaneously, over our mutual love of obscure Jerry Goldsmith scores. I felt like I had met another true soundtrack aficionado. Only after nerding out about animation, scoring, and storytelling for an hour, did either of us figure out who the other person was. “Wait, YOU created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon?!” was followed almost immediately by “Wait, YOU scored Battlestar Galactica?!” David, as it turns out, was a juggernaut in writing for animated series. He not only created the legendary TMNT television series, expanding upon the comic book source material and creating many of the turtles’ now iconic character traits, but also wrote unforgettable episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, Transformers, and many more.
(The day I met Len Wein!)
Sitting at the picnic table beside Len’s pool, David asked if I’d ever considered working in animation, to which I replied that I would love to, but I could never find opportunities. David told me about his friend Scott Christian Sava, who was in the early stages of developing an animated film based on his graphic novel, Animal Crackers. Scott had recently lamented that the temporary scores in the early animation tests had the comedic energy he wanted, but lacked an emotional connection to the characters. Even though my credits offered no hint I could score a film in this genre, David connected me to Scott and vouched for me. David Wise and I became close friends over the years, and I would spend many phone calls with him, sharing my creative journey on Animal Crackers, sending him sneak peaks at cues as I wrote them.
I spoke with Scott Sava off and on as his project developed. Finally, in late 2015, he and his co-director Tony Bancroft (a legend himself, who animated on Aladdin, The Lion King and served as a director on Mulan) were ready to hire a composer for Animal Crackers. They had completed a rough version of two scenes: an emotional family moment and a raucous chase sequence. They sent me these sequences and asked for a demo of original music.
(Selfie taken in December 2015, while composing the demo for Animal Crackers)
I dove headfirst into scoring these challenging sequences. For a brief moment, I wondered if I even had it in me to fulfill the musical potential here. As I powered through, I found surprising inspiration by picking up a kazoo and using it to write a theme for the pint-sized antagonist in the chase scene. Suddenly, my creative engine went into overdrive.
After a week of eighteen hour days, I finally completed the two scenes. Going the extra mile, I assembled a full symphony orchestra at the Twentieth Century Fox Scoring Stage to record the cues and had the time of my life conducting. I submitted the scenes back to the Animal Crackers creative team, along with a video that included the orchestra, kazoos, accordions, and other weird instruments I used. I then put Animal Crackers out of my mind and went back to my dark gritty science fiction horror thrillers.
To my delight, Scott Sava called, saying he wanted to hire me to score his film. A month later, I flew out to Franklin, Tennessee, just outside Nashville, to meet with Scott. We went down into the “Hobbit Hole,” a customized basement in his home that he had retrofitted to look like the set from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. This guy had a level of nerdy passion I could relate to!
(Scott took me to his favorite, appropriately named, restaurant.)
Scott showed me all the comic books he had created for his children, something I could relate to because I had recently become a father myself. For the first time in my career, I was actively pursuing projects to score that I could share with my daughter. With our proposed production schedule, the film would debut when she was three years old. Animal Crackers would be the perfect film to introduce her to the idea that her dad is a composer and filmmaker.
(Visiting the Sava family when we came to Nashville for the total solar eclipse in 2017.)
I got to know Scott and his whole family very well, especially his wife and co-producer Donna. Over the years working together, our families grew close, visiting frequently. I smiled to think that Len Wein’s one tweet in 2013 had truly changed my personal and professional life. Through Len and his wife, Christine, I met David Wise and his wife Audry Taylor, and through them, the Sava family. And in the process I had the opportunity to score a film in a new medium and genre. Life is full of surprises!
THE THEMES OF ANIMAL CRACKERS
In the summer of 2016, I began the actual scoring of Animal Crackers by composing sketches of various themes. I felt that a thematically rich score could help guide the audience through the narrative journey of the film’s many memorable characters, bringing out the core emotional truths for each character. Over the course of a few months, I sketched dozens of theme ideas for Scott. I collaborated closely with him, tweaking and revising until we were both happy.
With these ideas as my foundation, I began constructing the actual score. Though numerous and distinct, these nine themes flow together smoothly in practice and create what I hope is an organic musical experience. In fact, I stitched all these themes together into a single piece of music, the “Animal Crackers Overture” that plays over the film’s end credits and opens the soundtrack album.
Here are the nine primary themes of Animal Crackers.
1. Cookie Theme
This playful theme pays homage to Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse,” as well as the Rota / Fellini collaborations and early Danny Elfman scores. I thought of this tune as the general “main theme” for the film, one that captures its whimsy, mischief and mayhem. In practical terms, it came to represent the mechanized gears of Binkley’s dog biscuit machine. (0:00 – 1:12 in “Overture,” also check out “The Dog Food Factory” and “Monkeying Around.”)
2. Huntington Brothers Theme
Drawing inspiration again from Nino Rota, this bouncy calliope theme needed to serve double duty, both as the joyous fanfare for the circus, and underscoring the Huntington Brothers at the core of the narrative tension. (1:13 – 1:46 in “Overture,” with joyous fanfare variations in “Life at the Circus,” “Showtime,” and a surprisingly sad rendition in “Circus Memorial.”
3. Family Theme
The family trio of Owen, Zoe and Mackenzie at the heart of the film needed their own theme. Intimate and warm, their theme is frequently presented on gentle strings, with solo flute, harp and celeste providing an innocent music-box-like color. (1:48 – 2:33 in “Overture,” with memorable statements in “The Magic is Gone,” “Showtime,” and especially “Papa Bear.”)
4. Horatio Theme
I wanted to capture the spirit of Sir Ian McKellan’s conniving Horatio Huntington, as he relentlessly pursues the secret of the magical animal crackers. A tricky, high bassoon solo twists over a plodding bass harmonica march. (2:33 – 2:58 in “Overture,” with notable appearances in “Circus Memorial” and “An Offer From Horatio.” The theme is given the full “Night on Bald Mountain” treatment in “Chimera.”)
5. Zucchini Theme
Horatio has a crew of dastardly henchmen, but none of them get as much as screen time as the pint-sized Zucchini. Inspired by his self-congratulatory narration provided by Gilbert Gottfried, I wanted to write a theme that would tell the audience what Zucchini thinks of himself. (He never fully understands that he’s not the one in charge.) This is where the kazoos and accordion came in! This theme was from my original demo pitch, and it remains arguably the most memorable of the score. (2:58 – 3:24 in “Overture,” with notable appearances in “Circus Memorial,” “Freak Fight,” “Monkeying Around” and, of course, “Zucchini Chase.)
6. Gypsy Theme
This theme supports Talia and her gypsy mother Esmerelda, whose magic powers the animal crackers. The audience must intuitively understand that her magic is real. For that task, I turned to one of my favorite collaborators, violinist Sandy Cameron, who infused my catchy tune with jaw-dropping energy. Set above accordions, dulcimer, upright bass and tambourine, her performance soars. (3:24 – 3:54 in “Overture,” with brief appearances in “The Huntington Brothers,” “Zucchini Chase,” and “Chimera.”
7. Woodley Theme
Played to lovable perfection by Wallace Shawn, Woodley is Zoe’s well-meaning father, owner of a dog food factory. He disapproves of the circus lifestyle and hopes his daughter will follow in his footsteps. Woodley is equal parts awkward, overbearing, and endearing. To capture this character, I wrote an expressive tuba solo that bounces playfully above a hesitant ostinato in pizzicato strings and marimba. (3:54 – 4:24 in “Overture,” with significant moments in “The Dog Food Factory,” “Brock and Woodley” and a surprise heartwarming variation in “Showtime.”)
8. Brock Theme
Patrick Warburton brings out the relentless ego of Woodley’s sycophantic employee, Brock. As with Zucchini, Brock is a character who I imagine sings his own theme song to himself, every day, all day. I wanted to bring that inner musical monolog to the forefront. I composed for him an overconfident 1970’s-inspired macho theme built around playful wah-wah guitars, bongos and sexy saxophones, performed with incredible swagger by saxophonist Sam Phipps from Oingo Boingo. (4:01 – 4:20 in “Overture,” and fun appearances in “Brock and Woodley” and “Monkeying Around.”)
9. Chase Theme
Less a theme, and more a recurring musical idea, this theme underscores the “chase” elements in the plot. (4:24 – 4:40 in “Overture,” with most notable appearances in “Circus Memorial” and “Zucchini Chase.”)
These nine themes were essential building blocks for the Animal Crackers score. I doubt a minute of this score goes by without at least one of them appearing, commenting on the characters and conflicts. I have written thematically complex music before but writing in this totally zany style was an enormous challenge. The sheer number of themes, instruments, notes, styles, and musical shifts to hit narrative points was nearly overwhelming.
As I wrote, I returned to the musical sounds I grew up in the 1980’s and 1990’s to find the right emotions. Reaching back to my own childhood I channeled Jerry Goldsmith, in particular his collaborations with director Joe Dante, as well as the musical personalities of Dave Grusin, James Horner, Nino Rota, Danny Elfman, and many others. I also strove to infuse the music with the manic energy of classic animated shorts scored by Tom Bradley (Tom & Jerry) and Carl Stalling (Looney Tunes). These were a lot of musical ideas to jam together, and there were days when I felt like my brain was going to explode.
RECORDING THE SCORE
After demoing for and talking about the film for years, I actually blasted through the entire writing process in a single month in early 2017. Then at last, it was time to record the live musicians.
As I got to know the Sava family better, I learned that Scott’s now high school aged son Logan was a huge soundtrack fan. I knew the recording sessions for Animal Crackers would be an incredible opportunity for Logan to witness the film scoring process first hand. Sadly, Scott told me it was not be feasible for him to miss at least a week of school to fly to Los Angeles or London for our recording sessions. As an alternative, I offered to record the score in Nashville, up the highway from their home in Franklin, working with the world-class musicians there. That way, the Sava boys could attend school during the days, and come up to the recording sessions after class each day, which is exactly what happened.
Conducting these sessions was a joyous experience. The talented Nashville players immediately locked into the extreme emotional and dynamic range in the music, hopping nimbly from gentle emotional vibrato, to soaring anthemic fanfares, to comedic plunger-mute wah-wahs.
Scott Sava attended every session. During the first few hours, I peeked back through the glass between takes, trying to gauge my director’s reaction. I always saw him writing intently on his notepad. Oh no, I thought. Scott has so many comments on my music that he can’t stop writing them down. He must hate everything I’m doing!
Actually, Scott was quickly sketching and painting images of everything he saw, capturing his unique perspective of the recording sessions on the page. I was thrilled when I saw the artwork he was creating in the control room while I conducted.
After an intense, physically exhausting yet emotionally fulfilling week of music and delicious BBQ, I returned to Los Angeles. The score was mixed and delivered. I worked closely with music supervisor Andy Ross to create the score soundtrack album, and contribute score tracks to his incredible song soundtrack album. My final step was to write and record a custom logo for Scott’s own Blue Dream Studios, a fanfare that would open the film.
By the middle of 2017, my work on Animal Crackers was complete. And then… the waiting game began.
As the film struggled to find distribution, each heartbreak was followed by another. Despite a successful premiere at Annecy International Animation Film Festival in 2017, and a theatrical run in China, it began to feel like the film would never reach a wider audience for reasons I could barely understand, let alone affect. In these couple of years, I gradually came to peaceful terms with the idea that all my work on this score was never going to be heard. Then, at last, the film landed at Netflix, where it has trended in the Top 5 films in its first week!
Scoring a feature film tends to be a burst of work that ends suddenly, with the fanfare of a premiere. My journey with Animal Crackers was different, spanning years and touching upon personal milestones, some of them melancholy.
(Hanging with David Wise and Audry Taylor at the first screening of Animal Crackers.)
My friend Len Wein, in whose backyard I first heard about this film, died in September 2017. My friend David Wise, who had a shared love of film music and the foresight to connect me with Scott Sava and Tony Bancroft, also passed away, in the spring of 2020. David kept his illness to himself, and I only learned he was sick from Scott, who had flown to Los Angeles. We met for lunch, and he told me David was not expected to survive the week. He died the following day. I am deeply saddened that these two creative, inspiring people who came unexpectedly into my life, are not here to see the film and hear the score that was hatched directly from their influence.
The delay of the release for Animal Crackers had an unexpected happy side effect as well. I had anticipated that my daughter Sonatine would be three years old when I showed her Animal Crackers, but now she is six. Last week, I watched Animal Crackers with my family, and I am grateful that Sonatine saw it at this age instead. Now, the film resonated with her much more vividly. I felt like the movie was tailor-made for her! She laughed at the physical comedy, adored the cute animals, and got emotional at all the right moments. One, in particular, will stay with me always.
During the film’s most poignant scene, little Mackenzie asks her daddy to eat a Bear cookie to transform into a big bear to scare away the monsters she fears are under her bed. Then, she snuggles up with him and falls asleep in his fur. When I scored that scene, years ago, I was thinking only of Sonatine, channeling my deep desire to always protect her and be her daddy Bear. Watching this scene in the finished film, now with Sonatine by my side, was profoundly moving for me. She reached over and pulled me close as the little girl on screen snuggled her dad. I don’t think Sonatine noticed I was so moved I was ugly crying like a baby. I would take that experience over a big fancy red-carpet premiere any day.
(One of the unexpected delights of working on Animal Crackers, was getting to meet Huey Lewis, who wrote a song for the film.)
At last, Animal Crackers is out, streaming on Netflix for a global audience, and I’m thrilled to take part in the two soundtrack albums, one with the various amazing songs (including my personal favorite, “While We’re Young” by Huey Lewis and the News) and an album completely dedicated to my original score.
Fans might notice my score album has, perhaps, the weirdest film score soundtrack album cover ever. The image is not from the film, not even characters in the film, but… is a portrait of me and my orchestra drawn in the animal style of the film. This was a surprise gift from director Scott Sava, who painted this and gave me the original artwork, which is currently hanging in our living room. I am honored that he took the time to create this and that it graces the cover.
Scoring a film like this takes a village, and I could not have pulled it off with the support of everyone around me, including Scott Christian Sava, Tony Bancroft, Donna Sava, Curtis Koller, Jaime Maestro, Andy Ross, and the entire Animal Crackers team, as well as Joe Augustine, Paul Mounsey, Ed Trybek, Henri Wilkinson, Jonathan Beard, Michael Baber, Richard Kraft, Laura Engel, my entire team at Sparks & Shadows, and my friends and family for keeping me (mostly) sane.
(Hanging with co-director Tony Bancroft at a production meeting, and his amazing gift at the end of the film.)
After many years working in dark and gritty musical genres like science fiction and horror, I finally got to explore my lighter side with Animal Crackers. I hope that Animal Crackers will bring a little levity and fun to families around the world during this especially trying time. Thank you for watching and listening!