We'd like to introduce you to Carl Johnson, a talented Emmy-winning composer of music for film, TV, stage and new media. He's spent much of his impressive career working on animated projects, which we wanted to explore further in this blog post. Enjoy!
How did you become interested in music/composing music?
I started taking piano lessons when I was 5 years old, and from the very beginning I picked out little tunes that I made up for fun. I also played trombone in marching band at school and several times in high school I wrote arrangements for the band to play. I always treated music as a hobby, and never took it that seriously until I was in college. I had been taking some music classes at the University of Kansas just for fun (I was a pre-med major) but soon found I was spending all my time on music-related activities and finally decided to change my major to music half way through school.
My first interest in film music definitely started when I got the original Star Wars album as a kid. I remember wearing out the “Cantina Band” track because I thought it was so cool. I played it over and over.
What was the first project you composed music for?
I didn’t plan it, but I really started my freelance career in animation. The first project I was hired to compose for was an animated series called Goof Troop by Disney TV Animation. The head composer was Mark Watters and he was looking for people to help him out. I got a nice recommendation from Bruce Broughton, who was an instructor of mine at the USC Film Music program, and Mark brought me on board to be part of his team. I worked for Mark on a few series (Goof Troop, Bonkers, Raw Toonage, Marsupilami) for Disney, then met Richard Stone and Shirley Walker who invited me to help them on their projects at Warner Brothers (Taz-Mania, Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, Batman: The Animated Series). That whole period in the ‘90s was such a booming time for animation and animation music. We got to work with live players several times a week. The studios were really putting a lot of resources into their shows.
Was it a hard industry to break into? What were the biggest challenges for you to break into the industry?
I was lucky, in that I got some really nice recommendations early on. It used to be a tradition in town that the more established composers would really make an effort to help out the newer ones trying to break in. I had some wonderful mentors in Rich Stone, Shirley Walker, Bruce Broughton and Mark Watters.
But really the industry has evolved to the place where you’re constantly trying to break in. The biggest challenge is trying to make an effort to meet new filmmakers, and constantly re-invent yourself. I find that I spend much more time marketing than I do actual composing!
What is your process when creating music for animated projects?
Animated projects are different from live-action ones in that you often don’t see final picture until the final mix of the film. It’s not uncommon to start composing music to very early drawings that only approximate the timing of the final film. Before animation was done digitally, they always started out with hand-drawn storyboards that were filmed and edited into a rough assembly of the project and synchronized with the recorded dialog. I would often start with these “Leica Reels” or sometimes just a script. And begin coming up with themes from those.
Once an initial creative meeting is held with the creative team, I go home to my studio and start work, either sitting at a piano or in front of a computer. I’ve had to learn to be very organized about getting the music written and ready in time to deliver it. I usually figure out how many total minutes of music I have to write, divide it by the total days I have available and come up with a minutes-per-day number that is my daily goal when I’m writing. I’ll start working at 4:00 am and finish around 5:00 pm so I can have dinner with my family, where I’ll complain about not meeting my daily quota.
Congratulations on your Emmy! How has winning an Emmy changed your career?
Thanks! Actually two Emmys. :-) It’s hard to say what would be different without them, but it’s a nice marketing tool. Sometimes it will get you in a door that would otherwise be closed. The best part is being in the TV academy and getting screener videos for that year’s Emmy Awards. It’s a good way to see the best of what’s going on without having to spend days watching TV to find it!
Are there any little known fun facts about any of the animation projects you've worked on?
There are lots of little quirks and challenges with every project. One experience that sticks in my head is writing the music for the end of the Hunchback of Notre Dame II. There’s a scene where Quasimodo is ringing a bell for something like a minute and fifteen seconds while dialog and action happen over it. I had to come up with a piece of music that supported the action, stayed out of the way of the dialog, and matched the exact tempo and pitch of the bell that was ringing away for 76 consecutive tolls during all that time. It was certainly a challenge!
What project are you currently working on?
I’m currently helping put together music for an animation-inspired theme park in the UAE. I’m also actively writing several works for musical theater (www.bagelsthemusical.com, www.marymariemusical.com) and doing short films and projects as I can. This year I helped orchestrate music for the features Finding Dory and the Magnificent Seven as well as wrote the score for an independent feature called “Price for Freedom.” There’s always something interesting going on!
What do you still want to achieve, or what do you want to work on next?
I’d love to keep working in animation, especially recording scores with an orchestra. My favorite experiences in this business have been conducting in a big recording space surrounded by dozens of expert musicians all working to create emotional, dramatic music. As a composer it just doesn’t get any better than that!
We'd like to thank Carl for taking the time to let us interview him, and we are so lucky we are able to collaborate with such a talented musician on our projects. Carl did the scores for both Bink, and the MagicMeeMees web series for us, and we look forward to continue working with him in the future!