This Saturday in downtown Los Angeles, something truly extraordinary is happening. The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra is presenting a night in celebration of the Walt Disney Animation Studios, giving animation fans a peek at the world premiere of two classic “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” shorts thought to be lost for more than 50 years and several classic short films starring Mickey Mouse that feature brand new live orchestration. Like we said: extraordinary.
The two seemingly lost “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” short films are Poor Papa from 1927 and Africa Before Dark from 1928. Both feature newly created scores. Additionally the event will feature a new adaptation for chamber orchestra of the score for “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” from Fantasia, featuring a newly restored print of the film tied to its 75th Anniversary. There are also live musical performances of “Silly Symphony” short Music Land and the first ever live musical performance to the Oscar-nominated Get a Horse, as well as an 80th anniversary celebration of The Band Concert and new, “Have a Laugh” versions of Lonesome Ghosts and Mickey’s Trailer. We cannot wait.
And in anticipation of the event (you can get tickets right here), we got the chance to jump on the phone with Mark Watters, the Emmy Award-winning composer who was responsible for the “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” scores, the adaptation of the Fantasia music and pretty much overseeing the entire night and all of its awesomeness. Watters has worked with Disney on countless projects, including scoring the Aladdin television series and several Pixar shorts (amongst many others), so even before he decided to oversee this incredible night he should be considered a Disney Legend-in-the-making. So it was a real thrill to talk to Watters about his history with Disney, how this night came together, and
You’ve done so many things for Disney.
I have. There used to be an era where there were staff composers. And I guess I’m as close to a staff composer as Disney’s got right now.
It’s incredible – everything from safety videos to Pixar shorts to entire television series. Do you remember your first gig for Disney?
My first gig was a short for a character called Bonkers. It was a great series. But this was before the series. They had a short. Apparently an animation studio in France wanted to impress Disney to get work so they agreed to do a short for nothing. And Disney said, “We’ve got this character Bonkers. We haven’t really developed him yet but here he is.” It’s those kinds of things that allow the studio to take a chance on somebody new. I had just sent a tape over to the person who was the head of TV animation at the time. And one thing led to the next and timing is so important in this business, they were doing a new series called Goof Troop at that same time and she put me up for that. I did that and it did well and one thing led to the next.
Do you have a favorite Disney project that you’ve worked on?
Gosh … That would be so hard to choose. I loved working on the Aladdin series because they wanted to use a big orchestra on it and make it sound as close to the original movie as possible. So that was always exciting. It’s been exciting to work on the “Have a Laugh” project, rescoring 60 of the classic shorts from the ‘30s, which in a sense led to this concert.
Can you talk a little bit about the “Have a Laugh” Mickey Shorts?
The “Have a Laughs” was a three-year project where they took the original eight to nine-minute short and trimmed them down to two and a half minutes. They just felt that kids today would take to them better at those lengths. A nine-minute short is a long time for today’s attention-deficit children. We had a brilliant editor who was able to take the shorts and trim them down to two-minutes. But, of course, all the audio in those shorts was married into one track – the music, the sound effects and the voice artists. So all of that had to be re-recorded. They had to re-record all of the voices, redo all of the sound effects and redo the music. Disney has been really meticulous about archiving its music and it was really great to be able to call over to the music library and say, “I need the original scores for these.” And within 24 hours I’d have a box delivered to my office with a printout from the microfilm of all of these original, handwritten scores. My job was to edit them in a way that didn’t sound like they were edited. I had to make adjustments in instrumentation and timing and whatnot so that all of the edited segments were naturally, so they sounded like they were really written for these two-and-a-half minute shorts.
It sounds like you were an archeologist as much as you were a composer.
Oh very much so. The musicology aspect of it was there. Because you’d be listening to it and realize that it might say one thing in the music but when they got to recording it they changed this. So you couldn’t just take the music for full face value. They might have changed an instrument or put something in a different key on the session, so I would have to do that as well to match that.
And you’re on that and then you do Get a Horse, which is an ingenious marriage of the old Mickey style and this new computer-generated imagery. What did you think of the response to that short?
It was great. When I first saw the short I was blown away by how accurate the artists had recreated that style of animation, because Mickey has evolved over the decades. The black-and-white Mickey is unique in how he looked and how he moved and the facial expressions and all of that. So for the jokes to come off it had to be exact and the music had to be exact to that period. What will certainly be seen and heard in this concert is how the music for the Disney shorts in the late ‘20s evolved to what they became in the late ‘30s with shorts like The Band Concert and Music Land and even further with Fantasia. It really grew in sophistication and so the music for Get a Horse had to be that simple, using folk tunes, featuring solo instruments and the personality of the players really came through. We were really careful at getting players to do that.
So how do you go from scoring Get a Horse to orchestrating an amazing event like this?
I’ve done a fair amount of conducting. I was musical director for the Olympics in Atlanta and in Salt Lake City, I’ve conducted the Academy Awards. So conducting has always been a big part of my career. And I have a unique point of view in all of this in the fact that I’m also a composer and I’m also an arranger so I have a great respect for other people’s music not just my own. Recreating it for a live performance, I can bring to the table my knowledge of conducting and what the players want to see and what tempos make sense and how to change tempos so players will respond to it in the right and most logical way in a limited amount of rehearsal time. I can also bring to it my knowledge of arranging so what may have had x number of players for the original, we have a slightly different instrumentation and we have to use one instrumentation for several different shorts. Arranging it so that it sounds as close to the original as possible is very important. You don’t want it to sound different. The whole point is to recreate that original sound.
Are you feeling any pressure? Some of these haven’t been seen in 50 years!
Oh gosh! It’s a lot of pressure. Particularly for the two “Oswald” shorts, which are my scores. So my music is going to be right up there with Oliver Wallace and yes there’s a certain amount of pressure with that.
Do you have a favorite Mickey short?
I was really excited that we were going to do The Band Concert. It’s brilliantly animated and they’re doing a restored print for this performance. But it’s so funny. It’s the debut of Donald Duck and the musical jokes, with him harassing the band, it was clear that the writers and animators worked with musicians. It’s a great short. I’m really excited for that one.
What else can you do for Disney – a parade maybe?
[laughs] I’ve done stuff for the cruise ships, I’ve done stuff for videogames, the theme parks of course. I love Disney. They have historically had a great appreciation for music; their music department has always been first rate. I’m always delighted to work on a Disney project.