On Monday, May 16th, Children’s Media Association’s Hannah Cope moderated a lively discussion with musicians/composers Michael Rubin and J. Walter Hawkes at Hyperbolic Audio. Michael and Walter talked about how they first discovered a passion for music, how they got started in the music industry, and their individual artistic processes. Both artists also delineated the steps involved in composing for children’s television. Michael and Walter were gregarious and easygoing, not to mention super-generous with sharing their wisdom!
Walter’s path to music is pretty relatable – it was better than P.E. class! (I hear ya, Walter!) In Walter’s words:
P.E. class… I was so bad! I was soooo bad! Completely uncoordinated. Growing up in Mississippi, a very sports-oriented sort of place… I was the last kid picked for kickball, all that stuff. Music class would come right after a lot of the time. And I did really well in music class. And just the fact that I wasn’t falling flat on my face was enough to keep me going at it.
Walter came to find music almost accidentally — he gravitated towards it because it wasn’t P.E.! To me, Walter’s story is a reminder of the importance of arts education. What if Walter never had music class in school at all?!
Michael originally went to school to study film and ended up scoring lots of his friends’ films, so he pursued a composing career almost by happenstance. In Michael’s words:
Eventually the world kind of told me, this is what I should do, because I was achieving the most success doing that than many other things I thought I would have a better chance of doing. So in a lot of ways, it found me.
It’s easy to think that careers have clear trajectories. But, in reality, luck and circumstance dictate our paths – along with passion and ambition, of course! Michael continued:
I imagine a lot of people might be thinking how to get our careers, and… it’s always a little funny starting that conversation because everybody I know who does what we do, it’s such a small, weird, singular, non-linear path of serendipity and falling into this and falling into that.
But that doesn’t mean you should just sit back and wait for serendipitous moments to fall into your lap! Michael encouraged us all to: “Step up and take advantage of an opportunity!”
And sometimes we have life-changing moments that propel us full steam ahead towards our dreams! Both Walter and Michael had dramatic, paradigm-shifting moments that fundamentally changed the arc of their careers, if not their entire lives. Walter’s moment: he survived a fall off an 80 meter cliff in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico (yikes!!).
I was working on a cruise ship, I was going to get my masters in computer science, I had studied computers and music, and basically after surviving that, well if I can handle that, I can handle trying to be a musician. It just sort of changed certain priorities.
Sometimes a shake-up with a near-death experience can help us realize what’s really important in our lives. But, please, don’t jump off a cliff after reading this post, hoping to find enlightenment! (I’m not responsible for your actions!) Walter realized in that moment that fear was holding him back from pursuing his dreams of becoming a musician. But after staring death in the face, career-fear suddenly seemed trivial.
Michael’s big moment was very different — no physical pain, but just as dramatic. I’ll let him tell the story:
I would score movies or other people’s projects all the time, but nothing that really made money, and eventually another twenty-something person called me up and said “I need three seconds of music, but you gotta be a BMI writer.” And I had no idea what that meant at the time… but I just totally faked it, and I said, “Sure, I can do that!” “And that’ll pay $100 bucks.” “OK, great!” I did three seconds of music, and I go, “Who should I call to get my hundred bucks?” I call this number… and they’re like, “You’re the guy that won the lottery!” And I was like, “Whaddya mean??” And they’re like, “You don’t know what you just did?” And I’m like, “No…” “You have no idea?” “No…” “Well, this is Viacom, and you just composed a new Viacom logo, and Viacom owns every TV show in God’s creation, and your music is going to go on every TV show, it’s going to get played all over the world a gazillion times of day, and every time it does, a nickel is gonna go in a jar for you.”
Talk about serendipity!! Oftentimes we really have no way of knowing what opportunity will lead to something huge. OK, Viacom didn’t actually use Michael’s music as promised. Still, this was a game-changing moment for him: “I had this affirmation: I’m a professional now.” Michael straightaway turned his apartment into a recording studio, and sure enough, more music gigs came his way!
Walter recalled a similar moment in his career — right when he made the gutsy move to get his own studio space, he was offered the gig composing the music for The Wonder Pets! Again, it’s all about being ready for serendipity!
Walter also had another key piece of wisdom for budding musicians — or, really, all young artists! (or, honestly, anyone!) Which is: be open and ready for new experiences!! In Walter’s words:
It’s really so much just being out there and just being open, especially to things that you did not plan on doing. I was playing in a Persian wedding band, a burlesque band, a Dixieland band, a salsa band. I mean, honestly, I had to pay the rent. So, at the same time, just making yourself available, finding out what’s going on, and being cool. It works!
Serendipity’s not going to find you if you’re not ready to be found! In fact, Walter first met Michael because they ended up playing in a band together! Plus, Walter’s experience playing all different kind of music meant that he really expanded his repertoire, which is super-duper useful on Peg + Cat.
So, switching gears — what about the creative process? How do you come up with ideas, especially when you’re on a deadline? Michael talked about his process:
You learn basically to kickstart the process by what’s in front of you. So what the client tells you is huge… it’s not, oh, we’re walking down the street and we saw something beautiful and we’re inspired to write a song about that… no, it’s like, when you’re sleepy and groggy and hungover, and just had a fight with your significant other, somebody calls you up and says, “I need a piece of music, and it’s gotta do this, that, and the other thing.”
In other words, we can’t just sit around and wait for inspiration (just like we can’t sit around and wait for serendipity. So basically the big takeaway is: get a standing desk, because sitting is bad for you! Did I get that right?).
And how exactly does Michael start composing? What’s his strategy? Michael plays with a tapestry of sounds to see what works.
I might put up a palette, so like, if I know there are going to be drums, what kind of drums? Is it maracas, it is bongos, is it tablas, is it traditional trap drums, or is it a guitar, is it a distorted guitar, is it a surf guitar, is it a Hawaiian guitar, is it a Jimmy Page sort of a sound, is it a Stevie Ray Vaughn sort of sound. And eventually when you have all these flavors interacting… inspiration will come and one idea will stand above the rest.
Play around! Have fun! You’re probably not going to find your inspiration on the first try, and that’s okay — it’s all part of the creative process!
Walter’s creative process is a little different because he typically is given finished lyrics on Peg + Cat, and the same was true when working on The Wonder Pets! Michael usually is responsible for the entire song on Bubble Guppies, and same was true on Blue’s Clues. So since Walter already has the lyrics, they inform the style of the song.
I usually start with a melody, because I have these fully realized lyrics, and a melody and a scansion. And what’ll happen is that I’ll take that, get a basic idea of the melody, of the tempo, and a feel and a key, and then as that works out and the timing of the jokes is good, then I start adding the guitars, the basses, the different sounds.
There really isn’t one formula for the creative process: it’s very dependent on your circumstances.
So let’s get into the nitty-gritty about the revision process with the network. How does it all work? In Michael’s case, he starts with a “sketch” of a song.
I want to convey the idea of what the song is to the client, I want to make it fun, I want to make them laugh. They’re not preschoolers, they’re adults, they’re going through a lot of preschool curriculum all the time. So I want to catch the spirit of the song and the thing that I want to do first. And I’m not going to edit myself. And later on, should they have approved this idea, I’ll spend hours to find a preschool word that can metrically take the place of necromancer.
Yes, he really did say necromancer. Michael brought in a song he wrote for Bubble Guppies, called, “She’s So Mean,” and showed us versions at every stage of the process. His first draft for the Bubble Guppies folks included lyrics like:
She’s a crone, she’s a wikken, she’s a harpie, she’s a hag, she’s an evil necromancer…
I mean, I’m into it! But I’m also not a preschooler. As it happened, the Bubble Guppies folks wanted Michael to go back to the drawing board — not just because of words like “necromancer,” but because they decided they wanted a song with a tango flair, and Michael’s original version was electronic hip hop. Staring over again is just sometimes part of the process. In Michael’s words:
You need a thick skin… It’s very easy at that moment to get angry at your client and say, “I love it so much!! How could they be denying my genius?!” and all that sort of stuff. But they have their million and one reasons, they have their people they’re answering to, that you have no clue about… It’s the very nature of what is a collaborative process, and you just have to go “Okay,” and take a deep breath and start all over again, and just know that, after a while, once you’ve done this enough times, you can detach your ego from it and just sort of move on. And really, bottom line, my job is to write another great song. It’s kind of hard to feel sorry for me.
To be a working artist, it’s a delicate balance between harnessing your confidence and checking your ego. You have to be able to do both: you have to believe in your ideas, but be ready to adapt, too.
So Michael worked on the song, and revised his lyrics, and revised them some more. All the while, he was writing for a celebrity to do the vocals, but he didn’t know who was singing them, or anything about that person’s voice (i.e., male? female? singing range?).
“She’s So Mean” was then given to choreographers — their dance moves instruct the animators on how to make their animated characters dance. The time code at the bottom indicates how far along we are in the song.
Finally, news came of the celebrity: Wanda Sykes! Who is fantastic, but… not a singer. So he made further revisions to “She’s So Mean” so that the lyrics could be sing-spoken.
And the finished product looks like this:
This Bubble Guppies song is from “Bubble Puppy’s Fin-tastic Fairy Tale,” which is episode 4 of season 2. I highly recommend checking it out — not just because Michael’s song is fantastic, as is the animation, but also Michael is actually singing the lead and back-up vocals, with Wanda Sykes interjecting as the Witch. Please go hear it for yourselves! Do it!
So that’s the process at Bubble Guppies. What about Peg + Cat? Because Peg + Cat is such a music-heavy show, the music is written in the form of fully realized demos before most of the visuals are even started! This means that all of the timing issues are worked out early on in the process.
The next step is a beatboard, which is the first step in syncing the music with the visuals.
Next is the Leica reel, which gives an even better sense of the pacing of the show.
And, finally, the beautiful finished product.
These screenshots are from “The Straight and Narrow Problem,” from Season 1 of Peg + Cat. Do check it out so you can see and hear the amazing finished product for yourself! (If you don’t, it’s “a really big problem!!”)
And folks, that wraps up “Putting the Tunes in Cartoons.” Thanks for reading, everyone!