May 21, 2010

Soundtracks: Popcorn Music

I AM going to Iron Man 2 tonight, no matter what else the universe tries to pull on me this week! Though I am looking forward to this movie a lot, and I love the first movie so much, one thing I'm not anticipating enjoying is the music for this film. The first film's music was awful (but more on that in my next Soundtrack post...)

It is thinking about Iron Man's score that has me writing this particular post on soundtracks. Iron Man falls into an odd genre that is becoming all the more common in film scores these days. I can't say it is my favourite breed of scores, but yet a few tracks from some of these records still make my favourites.

There is no agreed upon name for this newly emerging sub genre, but there are plenty of features to define them (in particular the select "usual suspect" list of composers typically involved in their creation... with some film directors and producers also being a sign of such music as well). I personally refer to them as popcorn scores, as they have substance when you listen to them, but much like eating popcorn you get little of value out of it in the end.

At its core film music exists to assist the storytelling through making the emotion audio during the movie so that the audience knows what they should be feeling. However good composers also find ways of injecting personality into this music, causing the soundtrack to suddenly give the film a unique musical identity different from other movies. Thus differentiating one film from another just by listening to the music for a few moments. At least in normal soundtracks...

Popcorn scores certainly obey the first convention of conveying the emotion of the film, but yet their most defining feature is they all fail at attaining or defining their own identity. In essence they are scores that could all be easily swapped with each other and you'd barely notice watching the film. I personally look at them as feature length trailer music samples, and often these are the soundtracks studios take trailer music from!

The question is what is the purpose of this music if it is not defining its film? For a movie maker the answer is it provides simplicity for the audience. Popcorn scores are the equivalent of animated scores for adults. They provide a simple set of musical rules for the audience to gauge what they should be feeling. However unlike children's scores, popcorn music is devoid of the intelligence and craftsmanship of (good) animated scores. It is the lowest common denominator of film music in every sense. As of it such it can safely be said to lack any intelligence.
So why do I listen to them? In the short answer, they are a guilty pleasure. Essentially popcorn music is the equivalent of pop music in film scores (the boy bands of soundtracks as it were). It is music you listen to when you are brainless, don't feel like being overly engaged, or when you don't want a specific genre of music.

What is interesting about Popcorn music is that it is a very recent phenomenon. In its true form it emerged just this decade, but it didn't have too! My list here today includes scores that go back into the 1990's, but when these scores were released they were novel break outs of originality. However rather than take the new musical constructs that they offered to new and interesting levels, the pioneering group of composers choose to basically keep rehashing them to the point that, sadly, even the original 90's albums became popcorn.

You'll notice this list includes many albums by Hans Zimmer, master of the Popcorn score. He was one of my favourite composers in the early 2000's . Yet a few years later I'd come to immediately dismiss his work unless he was teamed with someone else I liked. His music all sounded the same!

Virtually every other composer of the following albums worked for Zimmer at some point or another. Typically as a ghostwriter. This is an odd situation in the soundtrack world. With most Zimmer scores you have up to a dozen ghostwriters, blurring who created what in the first place. Then even when some of these guys go independent you won't know the difference between them or their boss.

(With the notable exceptions of my two favourites John Powell [who doesn't come up here, due to being a transparent ghostwriter pre 1998] and Harry Gregson-Williams who would break out into his own man as of the 2000's!)

All these Zimmer employees running around creating the same sort of music has given rise to the term "Zimmer clones" in soundtrack circles. I could have called this genre Clone music, but I felt Popcorn music was more descriptive of what it really was.

It is a real shame this genre even came to be, as Mr. Zimmer invented some brilliant new musical constructs for people to play with. Many other composers have employed them in effective non-popcorn manners. Yet Zimmer himself has fallen into a comfort zone he rarely breaks out of (though when he does it is quite good!). Let's look at a few (of my favourites... but by no means all) of the first proto-popcorn scores.

The Kernel Albums

The Rock by Hans Zimmer, Harry Gregson-Williams, and many more!

This score is probably one of the biggest sources/causes of the popcorn movement. Not only did the Rock have very satisfying action music, but the project had practically the whole Zimmer team onboard. Meaning all of them were involved/exposed to the Rock's sound, and many seem to have imprinted on it for good!

When this soundtrack came out, it was one of my favourite action scores. It was fresh and new. Sadly in the following 14 years it has been rendered the most generic of generics as this one movie seems to be the basis of so many more that follow...

Sitting down to think about describing this score, I'm at total lose because of this. I haven't listened to anything except the opening title and climax battle piece in years! Even with these two, all that comes to mind is generic action music. Yet I can recall a time I would have been able to describe all that was unique and cool about this album... How the times change :(

Backdraft by Hans Zimmer

This is still one of Hans Zimmer's strongest albums, which makes sense as it is very early in his career. The best parts of this album have never been definitively ripped off (which is perhaps why they remain my favourite?). Some of his music constructs from this film pop up elsewhere, but never to the same epic levels or intelligent executions.

The most memorable themes from this album are the variations of the march for the firefighters. It is a combination of catchy snare drums, synthetic bass, and choir. Yet in the action music for this film you can hear the birth of The Rock's action music.

Crimson Tide by Hans Zimmer

Was the height of Zimmer's creativity, and this is a standout album! Seriously despite my misgivings about later Zimmer, this is the man's best work. It is a true classic of soundtracking.
The music constructs the confided nature of not only the submarine on which the story plays out, but captures the equally constricted attitude of the captain whom the conflict comes from. The heroic theme for the mutiny is still a highlight of Hans Zimmer music... Just sadly it is no longer unique to this album...

So powerful and original was this when it came out, that Steven Speilberg commented on how he was very impressed with Hans Zimmer's work. If not for the long standing relationship Speilberg had with John Williams, Speilberg stated he'd have hired Zimmer for his films. Considering the timing of all this, I'm not sure it would have turned out much different (Williams began his spiral towards plagiarising his own work within a few short years of 95... meaning it either be Williams regurgitated of Zimmer regurgitated).
Gladiator by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard
This was the last album by Zimmer I would ever think "wow he is so original", and it was for its time.
Though this music has an ethnic flavour to much of its composition to try and lend a feel of the Roman era, in the end it is so mellow most of the time it barely registers. A trend with Zimmer clones to follow. Even when they try and inject identity, they do it within their comfort zone, or drown it out with all their other stuff.
Where Gladiator is still the best, is the Zimmer masculine style. The two battle tracks are boiling to the top with muscle, and are very awesome action tracks. They would lend a great deal to the sound of other Zimmer projects down the line. Notable is Kung Fu Panda, which made the cut of my top animated scores. Here Zimmer teamed up with his former ghostwriter John Powell and took this masculine method and apply it to Kung Fu in a amazingly original way. I just wish it were true for other Zimmer projects...

The Kernels of course would pop, and we got a whole lot of...
True Popcorn!

These next albums are in no real order, basically the order I downloaded the pictures. This is partially as I couldn't be bothered to resort them, and more to the point I couldn't figure out a clear way to do so... Again these are so close to each other I could switch them between their films and you'd barely notice.
Though you might say to me, "hey I remember the theme from *insert movie*!", but I challenge you to think about the difference in a film having a individual theme (any score should have tracks recognizable to that film) and this theme having a true character. All these scores while having individual themes, don't have individual character. You won't be able to tell musically that a film is about giant robots, pirates, or space etc. without the film to tell us this.
This is why they are popcorn. They are so generic they can easily be removed from their film, and not give a hint of the movie they were attached to beyond emotion. So functional yes, but still generic!
Transformers by Steve Jablonsky

Just the other day while trying to give Peter "the" Transformers theme", we discovered that Peter didn't remember the true theme from this film! It was seriously funny. As I kept trying to give him the "Autobot" theme, which was so generic Peter didn't realize it was from this movie.
The one memorable piece, and the one that Bond sought, was the single action piece during the army taking on the robot scorpion. It is why I bought the album, and though extremely satisfying action music, could be from any film. This is in fact why I like it. As I often use music to spur my "massive imagination", I find Transformers action and "Autobot" themes very good trailer type music. The general emotion/pace is set, but everything else is blank for me to imagine to my hearts desire.
Transformers has a single exception to this genericness in having very unique villian music. A very deep choir chanting Latin over a synthesizer riff is actually quite haunting and effective, and somehow matches the Decpticons in a way the Autobots music never sticks to them...
You'll notice the sequel is not in this post. Where the first movie's score (much like the film) was a brainless chunk of fun, the sequel's music (much like its film!) doesn't connect to what made the first one good. Revenge of the Fallen will be included in my later When Popcorn goes wrong post...
Pirates of the Caribbean 1 by Klaus Badelt... though what they weren't allowed to say, was really by Hans Zimmer, with Badlet taking the credit due to a contract thing...

I recall when this film came out, and hearing the ongoing Pirates theme (which I'm sure you would recognize if I hummed it too you) at the end I said "I must own that generic hero theme!"
Because yes Pirates 1 certainly had a recognizable couple of themes throughout, there was NOTHING piratey about them! The golden age of film clearly defined the instrumentation, pacing, and construct for swash buckling music. This film completely ignored it all (much like it ignored swash buckling choreography), and as a result created music that could have worked as well on the high seas, as it could in space, or in a police car. Which is why I wanted it! It could be anything I wanted it for...
The sad part is that former Zimmerite, Harry Gregson-Williams demonstrated you could easily escape all the constraints of the golden age, so long as you kept some of their basics. He took a modern orchestra and created a brilliant pirate/swashbuckling score for Sinbad Legend of the Seven Seas. Which puts all 3 pirate movies squarely in their place!
Pirates 1, much like Transformers hides a single gem. "Barbosa is Hungry" is among the closest any music from the Pirates franchise comes to actual Pirate music, but "Up is Down" from 3 robs it of the most piratey distinction. Barbosa is a solid effort though, and well having hints of the Pirate's themes standout from the rest the score. Had the rest of the music been this good, Pirates would have been a truly awesome score, as opposed to good Popcorn...
Pirates 2 by Hans Zimmer... which is what the first should really have just had!
This is my least favourite of the Pirates films AND scores. Overall it is just a bunch of random music playing aimlessly amongst the equally aimless plot. The first Pirate movie album while the most generic of the lot (I'll get to how Pirates 2 and 3 are at least less generic than 1 in a sec), had the most clear cut direction. It was the heroes theme all the time, and while boring from a construction point of view, was at least fun. Pirates two has a lot less pure fun, and a lot more random all over the place to its music.
Zimmer tries his best to try and infuse some piratey elements into this score, and thus remove the generic criticisms of the first film. To do this he grabs an accordion and some whistles and inject them into the mix. However that's what it feels like, some random accordion and whistle samples laid over top of otherwise generic music. These days whenever Zimmer tries to inject authentic elements into his music, he fails as he refuses to leave his underscore comfort zone.
Accordions and whistles need some adjustment from the rest of the orchestra if they are to fit in.
The singular highlight (noticing a theme with popcorn scores and the number of highlights they tend to contain yet :P) is the theme for the Kraken. It is very boring in its genericness, but a Gladiatorized monster(like) theme saves this album from my next post!

Pirates 3 by Hans Zimmer

Everything I hated about Pirates 2 is addressed in this score, and while not being quite as consistent as the first Pirates movie, Pirates 3 has some fantastic tracks.
There are some kickers though. First the music is still very generic, and very Zimmer. Second most of my favourite material is NOT avaliable on the official movie release. Rather two extra tracks were redone by a pure orchestra on a Pirates complilation album I picked up a while back (complilations are another area of soundtracks I need to do a post on...).
It is interesting to hear all the Pirates movies done with just a normal orchestra, and not Zimmer's standard synthetic setup. The Prague Orchestra has a long history of excellent compilations (where they rerecord existing soundtrack music), and this is one of their strongest products. It proves there is some swashbuckling potential to the Pirates movies. Reworking the timing a bit, as well as applying their own choice of instruments to the music they give a bit of life to the Pirates music. It verges on breaking out of the generic container. Yet fails short due to the snippets of The Rock, Gladiator, and various other Zimmer efforts.
The highlights here though are worth while. Pirates 3 also breaks the rules by having multiple highlights. The "Up is Down" track is the most pirate sounding music from all of the Pirates music, and Zimmer's whistles work for him here. It has a lot of quirk and fun. The two part "I don't think now is the time" from the compliation while squarely back in the generic, is a very solid offering of Zimmer action at its best.
Batman Begins by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard

I think if there were ever a soundtrack that let me down completely and utterly it was this one. This album came out at the height of my love of James Newton Howard music, and to hear he was attached to the revamp of Batman, I was overjoyed. At the time though I noted Hans Zimmer attached to the project as well. I had hoped that Howard could infuse some originality into the Zimmer methods. Instead what I got was a Zimmer album with just a minor hint of Howard on the edges...

The only material worth listening to on Begins is the isolated statements of Batmans hero theme. It works for the caped crusader, but not satisfyingly. This music could just as well be for a submarine, dragon killer, or intergalactic bounty hunter. I still enjoy the dark edge of this hero music, but won't lie in saying it is amazing. It does its trick and that's it.

The album also failed me, in that it only contained 3 tracks with this hero music, and not the two chief moments from the film!!! Fortunately for me one of them was the end credit music cue, so I simply recorded it off my DVD, however the music where Bruce Wayne rushes to the Batcave to suit up and save the girl elude me to this day :(

The villain music for the Scarecrow was the beginning of the real bad in Dark Knight, with Zimmer taking major samples of noise and mixing them into music. Additionally he plays with this meta sound a lot in both Batman scores, and in Begins the hero music's only Batman-like quality is the application of sound variation that simulates flapping bat wings. It works, but is nearly annoying. An annoying that would blossom in the sequel!

The Dark Knight by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard

Much to my relief James Newton Howard seemed to have asserted himself musically a lot more in the second Batman. There are tracks that don't fit into this otherwise Popcorn score. The good standouts are the Harvey Dent themes in tracks 3 and 6, which are unquestionably Howard music. I'll probably discuss these anomalies in another post...]
Sadly there are terrible standouts in Knight too. In fact I question whether they are music at all!?! These are all pieces with the Joker "theme", in which Zimmer has sampled irritating noises and mixed them into what often sounds like a plane crashing. It really isn't music at all, but an annoying racket, that while thoughtfully constructed, is still the sum of its parts! Zimmer claims this cleverly captures the chaotic nature of the Joker, but last time I checked he wasn't made of metal or crashing into the runway!
Beyond this Batman's hero theme gets some more material (which again was lacking in the first album...), and so I still like this album more than the first. Guilty pleasure it might be, but I like it on occasion.
However in the latter part of the Dark Knight the weirdest music shift I've ever seen occurs. Where Batman's theme was distinct (though still generic) in Begins and the early parts of Knight, suddenly in later Knight Batman's hero theme is replaced with the mutiny theme from Crimson Tide?!? Seriously, there is next to no difference other than the pacing... While I love the Crimson Tide music, this was a big let down to have it used for Batman!!!

King Arthur by Hans Zimmer

Is basically Gladiator with none of the attempted Roman ethnicity. You get a lot of very macho action music. There is nothing overall surprising about this album, but you get some good generic hero and action music.

Team America World Police by Harry Gregson-Williams

Perhaps the most amusing of all Popcorn scores, this music was composed by one time Popcorner Gregson-Williams to spoof other Popcorn scores! His results are hilariously on the ball, though so over the top he borders on becoming to distinct at times. In particular the cheesy theme for Team America is just a bit too much to stay within its generic target, but the rest of the filler music saves it.

What is even funnier is the nature of the overall soundtrack. Originally Team America's score was much more Zimmer in nature, but the studio didn't like it and brought in Gregson-Williams to make a more zany version. Both scores supplement lyrical songs including one satirizing Michael Bay, master of awful popcorn (several of my popcorn gone bad are from Michael Bay films).

Anyways my tummy is getting sick from all this popcorn ;) So I'm going to leave it off here. Next time I visit soundtracks we'll look at some of the worst vats of popcorn music ever produced.

May 19, 2010

I am alive, but I can't say that for everyone else :(

It's been a little while since I last posted something on here. So before people start worrying, I am in fact still alive.

I am still unemployed. We're hitting an epic (personal) record in failed job applications. In this week alone (2 days so far) I've had 6 rejections. Though I'm slightly hopefully about Septemeber, two school boards have acknowledged receiving my applications.

My car died on the weekend. It still hasn't been repaired, which restricts my movements a bit. "Fortunately", the modern job market is one of pure online applications, in person visits and phone calls to places are forbidden!

Topping off everything my grandmother passed away yesterday. This is sad, but was not unexpected. She was 101, and had a really good run. Still just one more thing to add to the not happy pile.

To fight off depression and my slowly (but steadily) lowering self esteem, I've dove into a number of art projects.
You get a preview of this one:
It's my feathered Tyrannosaur. Only now I'm posing her.

Not just in a random pose. She needs to match this skeleton precisely. Why is a secret for now, all I'll tell you is that it is for a big joint project on ART Evolved.
With my T-Rex matching the skeleton closely, I decided I need to make somewhere for her to live. This is my progress with a Cretaceous landscape over the course of the last week+.

First I tried a generic forest. I didn't like this on a number of levels. I'm sure had I played with the tree density it would have gotten better. However I had a different idea...

Since my Rex lined up perfectly with the skeleton everywhere BUT the legs (in particular the feet) I decided to cover this up. With what else but water!

I also wanted the mountain range I'd put in the background to be visible.

Well okay, the trees covered up the mountains. Something I still have to fix, but there is room for them.

However yet again the trees were to few. My ginko trees leaves are too bright, and look plastic now (which is annoying as they are textured with a macro photo of a ginko leaf I took in New Zealand!!!). I also found the riverbank colour to be too cartoony. The biggest problem of all was the ground was too sparse.
Okay getting closer. Most of the elements are now present, it is just a matter of tweaking them.
There needs to be splashes at her feet, and I've already constructed these. I just need to add them (which might be a pain in the neck!). I also want to add some horsetail in the water.

I'm also vowing here to start getting some Traumador posts up (it is just so hard when I'm down. Traum is the embodiment of my happiness, and at moment he is starving. Poor guy. So I'm going to force myself to "Traumitize", and get some posts up darn it!).

May 10, 2010

Generation's of My 3D Modelling

2009 has proven to be a huge year for me in my artistic development. Knowing my education theory, this leads me to speculate that I wasn't really an artist at all up until this year. This is due to a learner hitting their greatest strides and progress in their early rudimentary phases of development (the progress of a grade 1 or 2er is staggering compared to any grade above them... they grow and improve so much in those early years).

I think it amounts to my networking with new artists online, and using them as both inspiration and motivation to push myself. ART Evolved in particular has been such a positive force on my creativity this year. I can't thank my fellow members enough for making it all happen!

Given as this progress has been coming thick and fast lately, I thought it might be amusing to go through formally organize and classify my 3D modelling. A number of people have noted I have made the odd reference here and there to certain models being a "Mark: [insert number]", but that I have never really laid out my criteria as to what this means.

That changes as of today! Welcome to the eras of Craig's modelling! (I'm intending on updating and adding to this as I go)...

Mark: Zero
These are all the models I did with my old Raydream software, and all my cross over to Carrara work pre-2007. Essentially all these models represent is my learning and grasping basic 3D modelling and compositional concepts. They have no direct tie in or lineage to my modern art, but were where all my learning allowing my modern work took place.

Mark: 1

Though not my first effort to create a 3D Dinosaur (as you can see from my example Mark: 0 example from before), this was the first model of my current efforts.

These models features more attention to detail in their construction, and were built for the ability to sculpt the various parts into different poses. The big break through of the Mark: 1's, separating them from my previous work, was the their texturing. Each and every surface of the model had a custom texture map created for it in an outside program(minus small parts like teeth, claws, and toe and lip scales). The first time I'd ever put any attention into texturing.

Mark: 2

Despite the break through of custom shading of Mark: 1, my first texture maps were rather crude. My lack of experience using Paintshop led to the scale patterns being very symmetrical and unrealistic. After the learning experiences of Mark: 1's in this new program I was able to improve the scale making process.

I also started to put a lot more attention into the details of the Dinosaurs, and started to try and create more accurate proportions.

This was the longest running Mark generation by far, and Mark: 2's represent the majority of my palaeo models I have ever built. At the same time this Mark is where I got complacent and fell into a comfort zone.

Mark: 3

Fortunately ambition has always been one of my qualities in 3D, and I strove to conquer 3D feathers. Despite Carrara having ready made tools to do this, it can be surprisingly hard to create these feathers.

Mark: 3 models represent those in which I have applied replicated objects to the surface of a creature such as fur, feathers, and or spines.

Mark: 4

Posing my earlier "Mark" models had always been a pain, and I lost any measured proportions. This changed as of Mark: 4, when I learned to apply "skeletons" to my Dinosaurs. Skeletal rigs are a means for the computer to bend my models at certain points. Just like the joints in a real skeleton. Meaning not only do my models now pose realistically, but much easier and quicker.

Mark: 5
The latest innovation has been an upgrade to my shading techniques. In this system I have stepped in and manually drawn each and every scale. Additionally I have put greater effort and care into creating and managing layers in the shader, giving me more control to change and customize shaders for individuals.

May 8, 2010

Soundtracks: Keep it coming 2010!!!

So as some of you know I was really disappointed with the majority of soundtracks last year. The only one real worth mentioning was John Powell's Ice Age 3. It was so dire last year I found myself seeking comfort in Jerry Goldsmith albums from the 80's I had never heard before (which I'm kicking myself for not finding sooner... they were all SO good!).

As I've been noticing a significant downturn in soundtrack quality the last few years, mostly due to the identical and bland popcorn soundtracks pumped out by Hans Zimmer clones and wannabes (a post on this will happen I'm sure), I was beginning to fear that my beloved music genre was dying...

Yet this year has hit me over the head early on with two of the strongest soundtracks ever released! Which at moment has me hopefully that the last few dull years have been build up for a fantastic year... Though that does remain to be seen. For example Iron Man 1's music was miserable overall. I'm not holding my breath on #2 being any better.

I'll do proper reviews of these two later, but here is a preview of why I'm so stoked about 2010.
James Horner's Avatar. Yes while technically a 2009 release, it was just barely in coming out late in December. I didn't get my hands on it till January, so to me this is a 2010 album.

I have always loved James Horner's work from the 1980's, but his constant repetitions of these sounds caused me to venture away from him seeking new sounds. Though Avatar still feels like a Horner album, not being familiar with his modern sounds (about 50% new) made this a refreshing revisit to his work. Plus from what I've read in the soundtrack community, Avatar represents an odd instance of Horner leaving his comfort zone and taking his old material and reworking it to the point of making it almost new.

This album is Horner's equivalent to Howard Shore's The Lord of the Rings in its scope and execution of themes. The themes for the alien Na'vi in particular are all superb, and woven throughout the music masterfully. We get everything from a love theme, to some impressive awe music, to action.

It is not as flawless as Shore's LOTR, but I wonder if this is due to the limited nature of this initial album. We only get 1/3 the music, much like LOTR's initial albums. I initially disliked the Return of the Kings' soundtrack, but that was due to abysmally chosen limited content on the commercial release. The extended full score proved it to in fact be the best of Shore's music... I just had to wait for it all to get properly presented...

Hopefully we get the full score for Avatar at some point.

Yet despite my comparisons to LOTR (I would argue the most incredible franchise music ever written... but not my absolute favourite score of all time though I'll point out. I recognize brilliant construction through personal taste) Avatar is not the break out album of the year... at least now.

In the animated genre John Powell has finally released the score I have been waiting for him to do! As you'll know from my last post covering animated soundtracks, I'm a tremendous John Powell fan. Yet despite my love of his overall work, each individual work has been lacking on one level or another. Having the extreme fortune of a wealth of discs to mix, I've always made by combining his material to cover all my desires and bases.

Yet with his new How to Train Your Dragon we get a disc that rivals Powell's previous contenders, when he was co-writing with Harry Gregson-Williams. The score is solid from start to finish (ignoring the annoying Emo-ish rock song that is not his towards the end), and adding to this the highlight moments all match Chicken Run in their intensity and enjoyability! That is saying something. Chicken Run has always been my hands down choice for highlight material (as an overall disc it is hit and miss). How to Train Your Dragon has simply blown my socks off, and made me very happy with 2010!

So I'll get around to proper reviews of these later. I've already written more about them then I'd planned.

Hopefully I'll have a few more breakouts this year, and I can just fire up a best of 2010 post.

May 2, 2010

Soundtracks: Animated Scores

Since I haven't touched upon soundtracks for a long while, I thought I'd return to them. Initially I'd wanted to do a review of 2009 scores. However sitting down to compose such a list, I realized just how terrible a year 2009 has been for soundtracks. I ended up acquiring and seeking out just as many 1980's albums as those from 2009 (probably more 80's!)...

So I decided to tackle one of my personal favourite subgenres of score music instead (the one from which nearly all my 2009 albums come), animated film music.

As the target audience is kids, a successful animated score should be movie music in its most pure form. Think of them as the beginner's guide to soundtracks. Listening to one of these scores anyone should immediately understand what emotion you are meant to be feeling. To achieve this effect, animated scores need simplify their musical construction while at the same time maximize their use of musical convention. This tends to render animated film music not very subtle or technically complex (in a sense), but extremely stylistic.

Often they are dismissed due to this simplicity, but I think this is a silly (if not snobbish) mistake. Animated scores are soundtrack music at its most streamlined and pure. This is what I really enjoy about them. If I want heroic music an animated hero theme doesn't beat around the bush, it is bravery and adventure straight up, if I want a sad theme similarly animated tragedy hits you straight up.

This does not make them superior to "normal" scores however. To achieve this purity of mood composers have sacrificed the subtle and complexity, meaning Animated scores run all over the emotional spectrum with no musical buffers to ease the segues. The more intense or fast paced the film attached to this music, the more of a varied ride you can be in for. Meaning you do have to be in the mood to listen to them and get enjoyment out of the whole album. However rocky the overall musical ride, I've personal found that every (good) animated score will have very enjoyable single tracks, that can be listened to anytime (even if just as part of a mix list).

If you enjoy film music, but haven't tried an animated here are some of my favourites... I seriously recommend you treat yourself to this rich and ever growing genre of soundtracks!

Immediately you might notice from my list, I'm a real fan of John Powell's animated efforts. He deserves this intro hat tip, as in the last decade he has become the real guru of animated music.

Antz by John Powell and Harry Gregson Williams.

This was the disc that got me paying attention and hooked on animated movie music. It would also be the debut ("solo") album of two of my favourite composers, John Powell and Henry Gregson Williams. Up until this point both Powell and Gregson Williams had been ghostwriters for Hans Zimmer (possibly explaining my love of Zimmer's music in the 90's, and my increasing disinterest with his stuff into the 2000's after the two departed... hmmm).

Antz is one of those animated efforts that is an extremely strong score beginning to end. Despite its strong style and varying themes, overall it is quite cohesive and never goes too far on any of its tangents.

The score is built to emphasise the small scale of the insect main characters and their world. This makes everything musical (and in the film) much grander and larger when it unfolds. So the action is bigger, the romance larger, and the villain's all encompassing.

Stylistically the score is defined by jazz pacing and a strong percussion. The jazz is the source of the fun in the score, and this is what simplifies the score for younger listeners. If Antz were stripped of this jazz it would be a pretty sheer epic album. The strong percussion under laying all the music is how the composers keep us in the small scale world of the bugs. The constant march interweaved throughout the score constantly reminds us where we are and how big we're supposed to be feeling. It is also through this constant marching the emotion of the film is conveyed. The strings take over the march for romantic scenes, the xylophone is employed for the villain's scheming, and the brass joins in for the heroic moments.

The highlights of the album for me are how the villain's ominous theme and Z's jazzy variation of the march steadily build up to a musical confrontation throughout the score into an excellent climax of the finale track. This has a excellent example of animated heroic music. Something I've grown to expect from John Powell in particular in his animated scores (though Gregson-Williams has shown he can come up with these on his own too).

Chicken Run by John Powell and Harry Gregson Williams.

The dynamic duo returned shortly after Antz, on one of my all time favourite soundtracks, Chicken Run. Despite my fondness for this disc, I must admit it is not as solid a listening experience as Antz overall, Chicken Run's strength is in about half its individual tracks. So despite some tracks being rather forgettable or worse annoying, the others when they get going man do they get going!

Chicken Run being a spoof of the Great Escape, has a score accented towards various classic WW2 films. Despite the homage of style most Chicken Run's main themes are original (just similar in instrumentation to the classic films), and to make them more kid friendly the composers have overclocked their epicness. This score can be quite the patriotic experience (despite not being tied into any one nation :P), and takes on a bigger than the individual dimension in the highlight tracks.

I also enjoy the villain theme alot. Despite it being aimed at kids, this theme is quite intense (just bordering on threatening). To keep it from crossing the true scary boundary the villain is given a flamboyant pacing (to capture the conflicting interplay of the films two farmer villains).

It is in the heroic themes I fell head over heels for this disc. There are few pieces of music with the energy of Chicken runs main hero theme, and it is incredibly infectious. You have probably heard it if you regularly check out my blogs, as this is the music I use for Traumador's vlogs.

This is a must own soundtrack if you ask me.

The Land Before Time by James Horner

This was an early prototype for the modern animated score, and predates them by a good decade. Land Before Time is a brilliant composition on Horner's part, that captures the sheer scope of emotions present in this story but waters them down for kids. You can tell it is an early effort at animated scoring though, as it verges on total sadness and depression at times and nearly crosses the line on these being too intense.

How Horner injects some optimism back into the score is awe music for the Prehistoric setting and the whimsy and playful theme of the five baby dinosaurs. Innocence is a commodity in this music however, as otherwise Horner captures the dying nature of the Dinosaurs' world.

Listening to it now as an adult, I find that the passing of Prehistory I was supposed to feel as a child (Land Before Time was one of the first films I ever saw in the cinema) now serves as a nostalgic musical memorial to the passing of my childhood. This is probably more to this long tie to this film and its music however.

Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs by John Powell

One of my latest animated acquisitions was this album, and it has quickly grown to be not only among my favourites, but is now my secondary music for Traumador.

John Powell is the defining composer for the Ice Age franchise now, but has only scored films 2 and 3. His Ice Age music has a very up bet slapstick pace, and all the themes have a nature of bouncing up and down while moving. Despite being thematically very solid (both scores sound like they are from the same movie), they are drastically different in mood and emotion.

Ice Age 3 is a none stop action ride, and is just fun to listen to. The music is adventurous and very fast paced. In a nutshell my kind of music. My one gripe is that there is no true villain or dread music in here, only hints at menace can be heard. Not that there isn't conflict constructs, but there is no prevailing counter to the hero's theme, which often leads to great moments in Powell music.

Where his themes collide are the overall Ice Age friendship theme suddenly becoming entwined in the new Ice Age 3 heroics theme. The new character Buck's music is worth the price of this disc alone, and you get treated to it in 1/4 of the tracks.

The best overall track of the disc is the end credits, as through its 7 minute length you get a sample of nearly every worth while element of the overall score. In fact if you want a great one off sample of animated music as a genre, buy this one track off Itunes or what not for the $1.99. You get a something of a mini score for that price, and it is VERY worth it!

This all said Ice Age 3 is a flawed score on its own, as it is majorly lacking sensitive emotion. However in a rare instant there is a perfect solution to this void...

Ice Age 2 The Meltdown by John Powell

When I bought Ice Age 2, I always wanted to like it a lot more then I ended up doing. Not that it was terrible. Ice Age 2 was a much more subdued effort than Ice Age 3, and lacks ANY sense of action or excitement. That said it shines in virtually every other area a score can. Ice Age 2 is the emotional heart of the Powell Ice Age's, and has many touching moments. What it lacks in tension or suspense, you can get out of Ice Age 3.

Basically what I'm saying is that Ice Age 2 and 3 taken independently are flawed works. However combine the two and you have one VERY solid animated score! Which is how I personally view them. If I had to take one removed from the other, I'd personally take 3, but this is due to my personal preference to fast paced action. Ice Age 2 is a very good (but not excellent) album on its own. However put the two together and you will be hard pressed to find many soundtracks as good.

Sinbad Legend of the Seven Seas by Harry Gregson Williams

Want swashbuckling and pirates in pure CD form? Then simply buy this disc. Sinbad is pure adventure and fun. It is a solid listen as there are no dull or filler tracks anywhere throughout it.

Gregson Williams modernizes the classic era pirate genre. It is really quite a treat, as every range of emotion you'd expect from a high sea adventure receives a modern revamp that still plays homage to the classic sound of the black and white films.

Action and heroics are the star of this music, but the romantic undertones, and explorational contemplation are just as satisfying. The only thing keeping this from becoming a more serious "proper" film score is accenting all this music with a sense of fun. To achieve this Gregson Williams overstates and plays every track. The orchestra are as much responsible for the quality of this music as the composer/conductor (Williams conducted this score himself).

I highly highly recommend this disc to anyone who like film music!

Happy Feet by John Powell

Of all John Powell's animated scores, I have to level with you, Happy Feet is my among least favourite (Robots is my least, and doesn't make this list...). Yet this isn't actually saying that much. A "bad" John Powell animated, is way better than say a good Andy Newman (I personally find Newman scores among the most bland and generic of soundtracks out there).

Happy Feet still has some real highlight moments, but their more varied then in the previous Powell projects I talked about earlier. As an overall album Happy Feet is a very disjointed entity and feels more like a mix tape of orchestral music. In Powell's defense this matches the nature of the film perfectly. I found Happy Feet the movie a very conflicted film that switches its overall purpose a few times throughout rather awkwardly (it is still worth watching... it just isn't the best film your going to see).

The most impressive technical aspect of Happy Feet's score is how Powell has gone out of his way to integrate the popular songs sung by the Penguins into the score that surrounds the song performances Though I personally don't care for the songs (I typically hate musicals) I have to admire the attention to detail that Powell put into the effort.

From a stand alone perspective (removed from the film I mean) Happy Feet's strength is mostly in a number of isolated, but loosely unified "Aliens" theme presents some very impressive awe moments. The leopard seal chase is another track of particular notice, being very exciting and introducing the Latino theme for the smaller penguin sidekicks.

Not my highest recommendation, but if you run out of John Powell material this will have a few tidbits to cover your cravings...

Bolt by John Powell

The music as heard in the film of Bolt was very cool, and probably my favourite thing about the film (I found the movie itself started strong and just got more mundane and boring as it progressed finishing with a real fiz). However purchasing it on disc I was very disappointed. Not by the music itself, but by how short an album this is (30 minutes!) and how much of the score remained simply in the film...

Bolt as heard on album is not as disjointed as Happy Feet, but it has a degree of multi personality too it. These basically stem from the dynamic of Bolt the real life boring dog (which he is increasingly pushed towards as the film goes on) and the fictional superhero dog (that he starts the film as). The mundane boring dog theme material is well, boring! I couldn't care for it one way or the other. Powell has done much better, and in fact this stuff sounds like the Ice Age theme with all the life sucked out of it.

Super hero Bolt on the other hand is awesome! It combines Powell's strong genres of animation with superhero, there is nothing to hate (especially if you love his X-Men 3 music like I do). Sadly this music (unlike the film... that unleashed it every 5 minutes. The only thing keeping me awake later in the film :P) is only present in 5 tracks. The best performance of all beings being the self contained satirical finale of the film, in which the main characters watch the TV show from which Bolt has left behind. If only the film had been oriented more towards this sort of action (like the similarly plotted, but in reverse order Galaxy Quest)...

Kung Fu Panda by John Powell and Hans Zimmer

As much as I love John Powell on his own, I'm personally finding over the years, that if you team him up with another talented composer you get true masterpieces of soundtracks. In Kung Fu we see Powell team up with his old boss Hans Zimmer, and the results are quite spectacular.

In Kung Fu Panda's music, much like the film's story, martial arts conventions get slightly westernized into a very epic but yet kid friendly spin. Perhaps the most appreciable thing about Powell and Zimmer is their arranging a score for traditional Asian instruments that plays along North American conventions. This may sound like a bastardization of what an ethnic score should be, but it is amazingly satisfying.

This score has everything from touching introspection (as per the main characters quest against every one's expectations of him), a sinister villain, and of course kung fu heroic action. At times this score could be for a proper kung fu movie, but reins it back in for kids with injections of the silly main theme for Po (perfecting mirroring the writers injecting Po in at the tense moments). Yet despite all these strengths and their westernization, it is the Asian stylized awe that knocks this score out of the ball park.

If you want an excellent, but very different style kids score Kung Fu Panda is very worth your attention.

Finding Nemo by Thomas Newman

Finding Nemo is probably my favourite animated film of all time (at least till I see a better one :P), but how does its score hold up. Frankly it is not my all time favourite animated score, BUT at the same time it makes this short list. This score is one of the key features of the film that transcends Nemo from a good movie to the great one it is.

If there were ever a "sophisticated" animated score than Thomas Newman's Nemo is it. In order to make the actions of a bunch of talking fish have substance the audience can take seriously Newman engages us with a very serious score. Nemo borderlines on proper classical music at times, and even the silly moments are done with a high degree of grace. However it is very clear cut music, and despite being very complex in its construction and execution, it is masterfully approachable for anyone. If you want your kids to gain a taste for proper classic music, Nemo is an excellent intro for them.

Nemo much like Land Before Time is fairly dark for an animated score, but this helps lend urgency to the fish characters plight of separation and discovering themselves. I think the only reservation I have about this score is the lack of coherent themes. They are in there, but buried in the clever construction, and used sparingly. This to me breaks the rules for an animated score, but otherwise it hits all the nails on the head.

Yet for one of the most "intellegent" animated scores out there you can't go wrong with Finding Nemo.

Bee Movie by Rupert Gregson-Williams

Film music seems to run in certain families, and there are several film scoring dynasties. The Goldsmiths, the Newmans, and the Gregson-Williams are some examples. Of these my favourite would have to be the Goldsmiths, but we're here to talk about the Gregson-Williams for this score.

As you've already seen in this list I'm a huge fan of Harry, but his brother Rupert has been an ever increasing entity in film music this decade too. For a long time though, I was sad to see Harry seemed to get all the talents I appreciate, while Rupert tended to work on subpar (animated) scores.

However Bee Movie fills me with hope this was just a series of bad luck for the younger Rupert. On his own, Rupert produces a score that rivals his brother and Powell's Antz. Taking a similar (only in concept) jazz under tone he creates a fantastic score for the Bees and their exploits.

Having never seen the film I can't comment on how effective it was in context with the picture, but on album this music is just fun. Mind you in only half its tracks. Perhaps showing why Harry's Antz was a solid album, as he had a cohort to fix the other half of the score :P

Bee Movie has some amazing hero style music, and this builds to energy levels on par with Chicken Run. Unlike Chicken Run and Antz though, Bee movie lacks any sense of darkness or dread, and thus this hero theme is more of an optimistic approach to life rather than one of struggle or suspense. This is a score one listens to in order to cheer up or stay in a good mood. Not one when trying to think of good vs. evil or such. I also find it very academic or insightful, so when studying I sometimes throw it on.

Hopefully Rupert continues on this route (and stays away from more Over the Hedge like efforts). To pick up evidence of a growing Gregson-Williams dynasty grab Bee Movie.

Wallace and Gromit The Curse of the Were-Rabbit by Julian Nott

Back in 2005, I didn't think I would find a score to properly rival Chicken Run. I'd picked up Chicken Run in 2004, yes a while after it was released, and was still in its total thrall a year later (it still holds major sway over me these days, but not as much as back then). When I went to see Wallace and Gromit in the theatre I left somewhat shocked. Yes the movie was fantastic, but the score was even better!

Placing my order at the CD store I was forced to wait (it seems all the best scores have to be special ordered in, and this takes months BOO!), and while waiting I had to be assured by several online reviews that Wallace and Gromit was of Chicken Run quality (the two were directly compared in two of the major reviews of the time!).

Recieving the disc I have to say Chicken Run's day as the stand alone animated score of all time was done. I still prefer Chicken Run's hero theme a tiny bit over Wallace and Gromit (partially as W and G's is very recognizable as their theme... not many people know Chicken Run), but overall Wallace and Gromit is a far superior album. It plays flawlessly from start to finish and every track has something to offer.

Wallace and Gromit combines the charming enthusiastic antics of Wallace with a borderline full-on horror score. The Wallace music is just good old classic animated music capturing everything from Wallace's silliness to his over the top heroics (and they are over the top!).

The horror while having everything needed to be scary, somehow never menaces you. I have been awe struck by how Nott achieves this balance. On the surface this horror music has everything from the instrumentation and timing of a perfect scary score, but yet you never feel fully threatened by it. Sure you're made uneasy and feel in suspense to an extent, but nothing compared to a proper horror score. If you listen carefully though, it is subtle extra instruments Nott adds to the underscore that slightly lightens it up, and reminds you that Gromit will somehow get Wallace out of this supernatural mess.

If I gave Chicken Run a whole heartened endorsement I must do so for this as well!