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Music for Kids TV- A Serious Business

Sandy Nuttgens bumped into a friend recently, one that happened to be a senior lecturer in Media at a London university. When she asked what Sandy had been up to, he proudly replied that he had just finished writing the music on a new series of Postman Pat. “Haha,” she said. “Stop messing about – what proper work have you been doing?” This would probably be many people’s response, and one that shows how ill-informed we are about the craft of writing music for children’s animations. “I would argue that within the media industry as a whole,” ponders Sandy, “music for animations and children’s television is utterly misunderstood, and thus often dismissed as inconsequential.” So, is it high time that children’s TV music and animation scoring gets the respect it deserves?

A serious challenge

Sandy has been a professional television composer for 23 years. In that time he’s scored more documentaries than you can shake a (drum)stick at, won RTS awards for Best Music, scored Children’s BAFTA winners and nominees, written the music on ITV dramas, and composed songs and incidentals for many hundreds of episodes of children’s TV. “Of all the work that I do, it is the frame-accurate scoring of children’s animations that is without a doubt the most challenging and technically demanding.” Postman Pat is owned by Dreamworks Animation – a company that takes the process of making fantastic children’s entertainment very seriously indeed. The stop-frame animation is by Mackinnon and Saunders, the company chosen by Tim Burton for his animated films. During the last season of Postman Pat, Sandy went up to their studios in Manchester to have a look at the stop-frame in action. “The meticulous attention to detail, patience and total professionalism that goes into each episode was really quite awe-inspiring,” he recalls. “The idea that, as a composer, I would put any less attention or thought into the score is unthinkable.”

A theme that sticks – for life

The starting point for composing a children’s series is usually the title theme. Postman Pat’s very well-known theme was written by Bryan Daly 20 years ago, but there’s no doubt that Bryan would have been working to a brief very similar to one you might find today. The standard brief is “simple, infectiously catchy, instantly recognisable, and sing-able on second listen by a three-year-old,” says Sandy. In years to come you will be singing these tunes in the pub as you reminisce about your favourite childhood TV shows. And it’s the same for all ages, whether it’s Top Cat, Banana Splits, The Double Deckers, Roobarb & Custard, or Bob the Builder. These are songs that touch the heart and leave a massive impression. For many people they are some of the most important building blocks on our lifetime relationship with music. “I remember working out the Blockbusters theme on a piano, simply because it was a fabulous tune!” recalls Sandy. “I recently scored a series for Sprout in the US called Floogals. In one episode our Floogals (tiny happy aliens) hear the ‘hoomans’ singing a pop song that is so catchy that the Floogals think that they must have caught a virus because they cant stop singing it! Such a song is the Holy Grail for the commercial record industry, yet in the world of children’s television it is an absolute given.” Now, Sandy’s media studies pal and many of her peers would probably tell you that it is not ‘serious’ music because it’s for pre-school age kids. In reality, the world has moved on significantly with regard to children’s TV music. “From birth, we are now hearing beautifully produced commercial music all around us,” says Sandy. “And that is reflected in the music created for pre-school shows.”

Extreme scoring

The incidental music scoring of animations presents a particular set of challenges. This is what Sandy calls “the extreme sports version of scoring to picture” – everything has to be written to frame accuracy. Whereas in documentary and drama you tend to avoid the picture cuts, Sandy knows that, in animation, you need to hit them more often than not. “In documentaries the sequence tends to be: start cue to get the mood, bubble bubble bubble, hit point, bubble bubble, end of cue,” he explains. “It is totally different for animations. The sequence is more like: start of cue, hit point, 5 seconds bubble, hit point, hit point, change direction, bubble, hit, hit, change direction, bubble, hit point, end.” Sandy continues, “There may be theme, but there is rarely more than five to seven seconds before needing to swerve into another hit point. On revisiting the tune, it needs to have developed in some way. Repeat this again and again and again, and you might have yourself a children’s hit.”

Storytelling on cue

Additionally, this all needs to feel musically coherent and connected, having taken your audience on a journey where they are unaware of the musical chopping and changing. All this within a scene duration that is probably no longer than 20 seconds. In an eleven-minute animation you’d have to navigate around 25-30 such cues. “The storytelling aspect of being a composer really comes to the fore in animation work. Where you bring cues in and out is crucial,” says Sandy. A composer for children’s TV is always thinking: How do you enhance the comedy at exactly the right time without pre-empting it? How do you go on a chase sequence and swerve at just the right time to get maximum effect? How do you end a scene so that it pulls the audience into the next scene?

An intense process

The production and arrangement of animation music is no different to dramas and documentaries. Most of the scores Sandy writes have a hybrid mixture of both modern and orchestral instruments, both live and sampled. Sometimes it can be exclusively one or the other. “In Dinopaws, an animated series about three cute dinosaurs, all the instruments needed to have an organic, handmade or ‘worn’ feel about them. So I ended up using instruments such as slate xylophones and cigar box guitars,” he says. It often takes Sandy three days to write, arrange and produce the music for an 11- to 13-minute animation. “Frame-accurate scoring is intense and patient work and I’m usually fairly worn out by the end of a series run. For me, coming back to a documentary after a 52-part animation series is a bit like going on holiday.”

A thriving market

The children’s television business is a major part of the UK media industry. In February, Sandy attended the Kidscreen Summit 2017 in Miami where production companies, broadcasters, and distributors all network together and make programme pitches. He went as part of the UK DIT Trade Delegation, and was one of nearly 2,000 attendees from over 50 countries around the world. As you might imagine, the competition for commissions is fierce at every level. These are award-winning shows made by people who are absolutely passionate about the work they do (a good example is Happy Films’ Bookaboo recently nominated for four International Emmy Awards).

Demanding the best

In that spirit, they quite rightly demand the absolute best from composers who are at the top of their game. In turn, it requires composers to be multi-disciplined and multi-skilled both technically and musically. “Scoring for children’s animations is highly creative and technically challenging work. I have mentored composers who have struggled with the intensity of the work – it really isn’t for everyone,” says Sandy. So as happy-go-lucky as the end product may seem, the creation process certainly isn’t child’s play. Perhaps the next time your kids have you watching an episode of Octonauts or Peppa Pig, take a moment to appreciate the unsung heroes of this long-overlooked craft.