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  • Interview to Itamar Ben Zimra, Tom and Jerry in New York composer

    Interview to Itamar Ben Zimra, Tom and Jerry in New York composer
    An exclusive behind the scenes of the music of the new animated series.

    Before starting, would you mind introducing yourself to our Readers?
    Hello! My name is Itamar, I’m a composer, arranger and performing clarinetist and I write music for films. In the past 3 years I’ve been living in Los Angeles, and have written music for a feature documentary, several short films and animation shorts.
    I was born in Israel and grew up in an artistic family; theater, photography, visual arts and movies were always around. My journey with music began when I picked up the clarinet at the age of 7. After five years of classical training I started exploring the world of jazz and improvised music, and that’s where my passion for sound and music as a language progressed.
    As I was surrounded with visual and performing arts, studying acting and theater at a young age and as music became bigger part of my life, the visual world, and the musical world combined and created my passion for film music. Only later, when I went to Berklee college of music the possibility of actually composing music for film became a reality to me.
    I have always had passion for cinema and telling stories, but animation has a special place in my heart. I feel like animation is a medium where worlds are created from scratch, fully imagined and envisioned, nothing on screen is “real” and I believe that gives the music so much room to be expressive.

    How have you been involved in this project?
    They say Cinderella stories don’t happen, but the way this project happened felt like one for me.
    Right when the pandemic hit and meeting people became almost impossible, I reached out to the producers and director of the show because I loved their work. To my huge excitement, they loved my work too and decided they wanted to work with me on a new show of the famous cat and mouse rivals but this time – in the big city.
    Of course, I was thrilled! I grew up with and it was huge for me to now create the sounds that made me laugh as a kid! And honestly still today!

    Did the old animated series inspired you in any way while defining the atmospheres, or were your choices directly established on the TV series materials and sequences that has been shot?
    When thinking about it goes hand in hand with thinking about Scott Bradley, the mythological composer who invented the language of Tom and Jerry since the beginning, from 1940 to 1958, in about 150 or more episodes. So, to answer the question, Absolutely! I spent hours of revisiting all of the classic Hannah-Barbera MGM era episodes, trying to capture the movement, harmonic language, rhythm, instrumentation, construction of themes and overall development of the music/story.
    Of course, this show is more modern, has different pace to it and drawn digitally, which affects the treatment of the music, but I tried to bring as much of Scott Bradley’s influence and blend it with my own approach of telling the story.
    Scott Bradley had a unique way of using the orchestra while creating sometime “ugly” or extreme music to convey humor, and a lot of drama. In a way, with the craziness of music (and maybe in animation music in general), everything goes! Dissonance, weird musical forms and rhythms, there are no classical music rules to limit what you can or can’t do.
    I really loved that aspect because it allowed me to experiment and try new things, new ways of telling the story: be aggressive and bold, be ugly and beautiful at the same time and finding the musical ways to do it.

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    Did you create any specific theme for the characters?
    I tried to use themes as much as possible, as it helps connecting the audience to the story and characters. Because every episode had very different setting or characters (and probably also because there was another composer who worked on different episodes than me) themselves didn’t get much individual themes like in the classic Scott Bradley version. However, I did create themes for new characters who “star” in an episode. For example, in the segment “Come Fly With Me”, Jerry’s meets a new pigeon friend at Central Park. Every time the pigeon appears the theme appears, sometimes in a more mellow variation and sometime in a happier or triumphant variation. This helps making the character’s emotions stronger and by that help the audience identify with it in a way.
    In the segment “Stormin’ the Doorman” I wanted to put an emphasis on the cold New-York weather. So, I created a theme for the wind and it appears every time we see the wind blows and Tom or Jerry are getting the chills. Another example is a short love theme between Tom and Toots in Billboard Jumble.
    There are many more examples. Even though there is almost constant music throughout, you can spot a repeating theme inside the chaos.
    I feel like using themes in a very emphasized and obvious way is part of the language, and, it helps the humor of the scenes too!

    Are there any particular instruments that you used for this TV series music? If so, could you tell us what they were?
    For the most part, the main palette I used was the traditional symphonic orchestra with some “spices” of jazz big-band and rhythm section. This is part of trying to stay loyal to the tradition of where the colors of the orchestra become elements of the story. Jerry is often played by the oboe, Tom is often played by trombone, and overall there’s a blend of swing tunes that come from the time this show first started, the 40s.
    I tried to use similar sounds, maybe in different arrangements. And again, there are no “classical” rules that apply! In order to make a scene look ridiculous, funny, sad, or any other extreme emotion, all means are in play, even the ones that seem the most “wrong”. Finding the right instrumentation definitely helps guiding the audience what to feel or think.
    For example, even though Jerry is often accompanied by a light oboe, as you would expect from a little mouse, if he’s angry in an extreme way, I could use a tuba to play a ridiculous melody to create this contrast.

    Did you have any kind of consultation with the producers before composing the music?
    For the most part, no! I feel very lucky that Darrell the director had trust in me and always gave me a free approach to tell the story with my music. He knew that I’m familiar with the tradition of and the characteristics and usage of “Mickey-Mousing” so it was natural for me to make right decisions.
    Of course, after each episode I would present the music and maybe get a couple notes to fit the director’s or producer’s vision, but it didn’t happen often and I felt like we had good connection and communication.

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    The recent movie directed by Tim Story saw a resurrection of classic animation over the CGI one that is currently seen in many animated series. Did this help you in working on this project?
    Even though the show is based on the movie location and is like a re-boot of the story of Tom and Jerry in this big New-York hotel, I didn’t watch the film!
    I knew it’s going to be a very different vibe from our show, and similar to the traditional pace and format of the old Tom and Jerry, 7-6 minute segments and a new story in each one. So the film didn’t affect me at all.
    I honestly think there is no replacement to the hand-drawn, raw look, and personal touch of the classic old animation. Our production drew a lot of elements influenced by the old versions which I liked very much.

    Can you describe your working method in detail?
    It can be a bit scary at first, to see all this action happening on screen but there’s no sound at all! There is so much happening on screen in every moment so it’s a good idea to try to build an arc of how the music develops. Although, specifically for Tom and Jerry when it’s intense ALL the time, wall to wall music, the goal is mostly to comment or amplify what we see. Then the trick is to pick your moments.
    I would start with a main theme if I think there’s a character, location, or mood that will repeat throughout the episode. Then I’ll try to develop it and play with it in different moods, while at the same time think of a foundation tempo or “pulse” to see what rhythms fit each part of the episode and how they pivot from one to the next.
    But after all the planning and sketching ideas, I just go from the beginning to the end and build it as I go while I have the key moments “in place” and I’m navigating my way leading to and transitioning from them. Transitions are really key, it’s like cooking and being able to connect all the ingredients to become one meal! Hopefully it’s tasty.
    I’m a little bit old school in my production process, I like writing the music with pencil and paper as I imagine it in my head using only the piano. Then I transfer the written or sketched music to notation if I need parts recorded. After that it all gets produced and mixed on the computer, matching with the picture and printed for delivery.
    With today’s technology that allows using sampled instruments, I feel like it’s important being able to hear the music in your head or at least have a vision first and not let the samples dictate what you can or can’t do. Otherwise you are composing only what the samples can play. It was crucial in the way I wanted to do this project, as Tom and Jerry is known for its’ acoustic orchestral sound.

    What about your future projects?
    The Tom and Jerry in New-York show started streaming in the US on July 1st and since then I’ve been doing a lot of different things. I did a bunch of clarinet recording for a few soundtracks of upcoming films and shows and I’m looking forward to their release.
    I also wrote a main theme for a podcast called “Dice and Pizza” focusing on a Dungeons & Dragons type game. I’m fortunate to have different projects that call for different genres of music, it keeps me fresh and sharpen my ears.
    As I said earlier, animation is a big passion of mine, and I’m looking forward to work on more animation in all its types. But for Tom and Jerry there will always be a special place in my heart.

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