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Animation as Visual Music

by | Feb 26, 2015

Animation is Visual Music

We are in for a treat! This is a special blog post written by Carlos Baena (Pixar / Paramount Pictures / Animation Mentor Co-founder). Carlos is a 15-year animation veteran and is most notably known for his work on some of our favorite Pixar characters. You can see his animation work through Luigi and Guido from Cars, Skinner from Ratatouille, and Spanish Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story 3. Carlos is currently working on two personal projects.

Today, Carlos walks you through how music can add some interesting unique beats to your animation. Enjoy, read and go animate!

-The Animation Mentor Crew


Since I was little there was always a side of me that wanted to be a musician. That dream quickly faded away as I became more and more involved in animation and films. However, over the years I learned how important music is for animation, and how close one is to the other.

Animation is very similar to music from a timing/texture and rhythm point of view. Watch films like Fantasia to see how much character/personality the music injects in the film and in its characters. Additionally, some of my favorite animation/acting shots have always had a musicality to them that keeps me coming back to them such as The Jungle Book and Nightmare Before Christmas.

As I learned more about musical terms I found their equivalent in animation terms. Things like tempo, beats, accents, phrase, rhythm, legato, staccato, adagio, presto, finale, monotone to name a few all have things that you can apply to animation in some way or another.

Check this link to go over the meanings if interested:

Our goal as actors/performers is to always keep audiences engaged and entertained, as well as to make them feel something, whether it’s through comedy, emotion, action, etc just like music. So I wanted to show a few examples of shots with and without music to show the importance of musicality whether it’s present in the shot as sound/music or not.

Music as Timing

I wanted to show two examples I always go back to. When animation is paired to a piece of music like in Eric Goldberg’s sequence “Carnival of Animals” (from the film Fantasia 2000) or the Muppets piece Mahna Mahna, the musical timing works parallel to the performance timing and also brings lots of entertainment/character with it. In the case of the muppets piece, it’s full of great contrast comedic moments and surprises that work alongside to the music. What I find successful with it is that I’m always engaged/entertained as the the timing is pushed more and more as the films play. I find it fun to sometimes listen to a piece of music, and think of what a character would do with that music be it comedy, emotional or even action. Lots of great ideas can come up.

The musical timing works in parallel to the performance timing

Disney legend Eric Goldberg’s sequence in Fantasia 2000

Music and Pacing

The term “tempo” is often used in music. In animation, I think of it as the speed/pacing of a shot, movement or even the scene. Take a look at this scene from the Wallace & Gromit short film The Wrong Trousers (at 15m55s) with and without audio. If you watch this moment where Feathers McGraw walks from the window, stops in front of the cardboard box and starts to walk towards it, you’ll see a change of timing on the walks, giving the shot a nice pace that works just as well with or without the audio.

Nice change of timing on walks

Timing on Walks

Feathers McGraw’s walk timing and beats


In the case of timing, music has also helped me to look and study things differently. You can use repetition to get an audience used to something or surprise an audience through contrast or texture. I always find I can watch this one scene in The Jungle Book (at 1m18s) over and over and never get tired of it. There is a wonderful mixture of repetition in the kid Mowgli four legged walk that when combined with the turning halfway through the walk it adds a fantastic sense of rhythm. The repetition in the timing doesn’t change…but instead it adds an additional sublayer of quicker timing.

Nice sense of rhythm

Posing Elements as Musical Instruments

When it comes to posing/phrasing, it’s helped me in the past to think of the different parts of the body as visual instruments for acting purposes. As in music, many times in animation you want to use one instrument only or a whole orchestra if you need to. So for example, with an acting/performance shot you have the opportunity to use just a part of your body like a hand for a gesture and/or create a simple shape that’s reduced to a simple finger gesture (as in the 1959 Chuck Jones short film Baton Bunny – at 1m54s), and other times you want to use the entire body to make an acting statement depending on what you want to say (see example of Singing in the Rain with the Donald O’Connor scene at 2m05s).

Simple shape to convey a performance with a single finger gesture at 1m54s

Using the entire body to make an acting statement

Music as Character Inspiration

I’ve always found music to help me get inspired for a character or a moment. As I was working on the film Ratatouille, I found some inspiration from the Peter Sellers character Inspector Jacques Clouseau in The Pink Panther. His timing/comedic choices always stood out. Because of watching these films to study, I also found myself constantly listening to composer Henry Mancini as I was animating. What was great is that by listening to his scores, new ideas would come up.

Carlos’ inspiration when he was animating Skinner in Ratatouille

I wanted to finish with a great Rowan Atkinson example that combines much of the above. Great musicality, entertainment, posing, attitude, pacing, and many others.

So while the end result in one medium is music/sound, I still like to think of the end result of what we do in animation as visual music.

– Carlos


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