José Dias

Stubborn Pencils: composing music for animation film and television through an improviser’s perspective

For several generations since the mid-1950s, television has had a crucial impact in the upbringing of children around the world. Music is an essential and intrinsic part of educational television programmes in the forms of both song and background score. Particularly in the latter case, it is mainly used to support a narrative by illustrating different moods, an action, a situation, or emphasise the presence of an object on screen. However, it also conveys social codes and ethical values. The repeated correlation between the use of recurrent musical mechanisms and specific types of characters or scenes has established a distinctive and universal musical vocabulary. As a result, music in children’s television programmes has had a crucial role in informing the way children perceive the world and assess situations, people and behaviours.

Jazz music has taken a very significant role in this process. The reactiveness of improvised music, as well as its apparent arbitrariness, have produced perfect sonic matches to animation’s very own logic. Jazz music has proven to be as flexible as the most chaotic and unrealistic narrative would demand. At the same time, it responds naturally to radical shifts of mood or constant diegetic swings.

Between 2007 and 2009, I was commissioned to compose music for a series of 25 short animation films, featured as segments of “Ilha das Cores” – a children’s educational programme for the Portuguese public broadcasting corporation, RTP. I opted for a reactive methodology, where I recorded myself improvising for those short films as I saw them first-hand. The final scores resulted from listening to those recordings and, together with each director, adjusting details. This paper draws from that experience and the challenges posed to me by that demanding task at hand. Time in short animated films has a completely different logic than tempo in music: telling stories through music in a very narrow time-frame can become quite challenging. Visual metaphors can be significantly different from music metaphors: in emblematic paradigms that range from ‘happy music’ or ‘sad music’ to conveying moral messages through music. And perhaps more importantly, I often questioned to what extent could I challenge musical preconceptions and clichés that have become important elements of a distinctive and universal musical vocabulary: the selection of instruments according to gender or size of the characters; the abundant use of rhythm to illustrate busier actions or unsophisticated landscapes and characters; the recurrence to well-known musical templates for endings or particular musical ornaments for comical purposes.


Manchester Metropolitan University, UK

Is Senior Lecturer in Music at Manchester Metropolitan University. He has developed research on European jazz networks, exploring the relationships between jazz practices, cultural identity and cultural policies in Europe, featured in his monograph ‘Jazz in Europe: Networking and Negotiating Identities’ (Bloomsbury, 2019). Dias directed the documentar film ‘Those Who Make It Happen’ (2017), on contemporary Portuguese jazz, and has authored and co-authored several book chapters and articles. Presently, he is developing his practice-as-research project on music improvisation for short silent films. As a musician and composer, he has worked with numerous jazzartists and released several albums, including ‘After Silence, Vol 1’ (Clean Feed, 2019), which consists of short improvised pieces for short silent films by Man Ray. Furthermore, he has scored music for theatre, contemporary dance performances and animation.