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LOONEY TUNES Composer Talks Balancing Legacy and Innovation

After months of hype and announcements, HBO Max has launched. Alongside 10,000 hours of library programming, one of its launch series is a rebooted version of their classic animated series Looney Tunes. To celebrate the release, I chatted with the show’s composer, Emmy-winner Carl Johnson, about taking on the studio’s flagship animated characters, creating a new sound that pays homage to what came before, and how the team was oddly prepared for COVID-19 crisis.

Marvin the Martian holds a flag on an alien planet.

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Nerdist: What’s it like taking on a property like Looney Tunes that has such a massive legacy?

Carl Johnson: It’s humbling for sure. I was involved in Animaniacs back in the ’90s, working with Rich Stone, and we were very conscious even then about sort of trying to step into Carl Stalling’s shoes. On that project, we were recording on the same soundstage, working with the same piano and some of the equipment Stalling worked with. Just walking the same halls, being in the same space was very humbling. So it’s a tremendous honor to be able to carry on that tradition.

Something that struck me when watching the episodes was how similar the score was to the traditional Looney Tunes episodes. How did you balance that tradition with knowing that this would be going out to an entirely new, young audience?

CJ: It’s kind of exciting. The things that made the original Looney Tunes so special in my life are kind of timeless. The sense of comedy, the sense of timing, the way that Stalling uses the orchestra, and also the inclusion of so much classical music as part of the storytelling. I saw somewhere recently, a quote that most people’s introduction to classical music is through Looney Tunes. I think certainly for me…the first place I heard any Wagner opera was in “What’s Opera, Doc?” So it’s an exciting opportunity. We’re even trying to fit in some more classical literature that a lot of people maybe haven’t heard and is not normally in cartoons, so it’s really neat to try to introduce a whole new generation of people to that style of writing.

Did you do any particular research or use any interesting or unusual techniques to hone that classic Looney Tunes sound?

CJ: I have over the years collected bits and pieces of Carl Stalling’s writing, so I have some old scores that I was able to look at and study. Listening to albums like The Carl Stalling Project, I really studied it. What makes this work? What are the stylistic signature elements in this? It was very much, kind of, “What would Carl Stalling do?” In any situation like that you can only do your best to sort of imagine what somebody else would do, but ultimately you have to put your own stamp on it. So for me, it was very much starting with, “What would Carl Stalling do?” and then ending up with, “Well, now what’s Carl Johnson gonna do?”

Also, my background is in music theory, so I’m kind of a geek and I approach it from sort of an academic point of view. I like to go in and take things apart and find out what makes them tick and then put it back together again in a new way.

Bugs Bunny arm-wrestles Yosemite Sam.

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You spoke about your time on Animaniacs, which is just such a beloved show. Will fans of the series and its music be able to recognize some nods to that series in the score?

CJ: Yes, definitely! With these cartoons, I was consciously trying to stick as close to the universe that Carl Stalling set up as possible. He ultimately put his own stamp on it, but I think people who are familiar with Animaniacs and Tiny Toons and a lot of the stuff that was going on in the ’90s will recognize the original Stalling vocabulary coming through in those shows and hopefully on this one also.

Was there any one character that you were particularly excited to get to score?

CJ: I think for me doing a Road Runner cartoon was just kind of the pinnacle of animation music. The thing about Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons is that there’s no dialogue and the storytelling has to be done completely through sound and visuals, so the music really becomes the narrator of the piece. And if you do it right, it’s a really beautiful, seamless commentary on the film. And it has to be funny, so when you find a way to hit a joke and really make it land, it’s incredibly satisfying. Musically, sometimes that’s finding just the right place to insert a beat of silence, or finding a way to hit a gag just slightly ahead or slightly behind or in an unexpected way. So doing some of these Road Runner shorts was special to me.

What are the challenges of scoring an ongoing series of shorts like this that need to have a thematic similarity whilst still feeling like their own separate tracks?

CJ: On the one hand, it’s different than working on a series that has more of a storytelling arc where you feel like the story has to start somewhere and then over the course of several episodes or seasons end somewhere. On a short like this, it’s often kind of repeating yourself. You know, how many times can a safe fall out of the sky? There are only so many ways to tell that story differently. But part of the trick is how to repeat yourself without ever getting repetitive.

I think that’s part of the challenge of working on these. It’s not really a matter of coming up with musical themes that get used over and over again, as much as situational things recur. I think part of the challenge is: how do you play a gag that’s reminiscent of something else you’ve done before without actually just going back to that same music? How do you find a different way to do the same gag and still make it funny?

Bugs Bunny holds a bucket of popcorn, a stick of cotton candy, a teddy bear, a flag that says Fun!, and wears a dog hat.

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What was the process of crafting the score like for this series?

CJ: There’s two different ways of creating the music for this series. One of them is a full classic cartoon orchestra of 30 to 35 players. But then some of the other ones are done electronically plus a handful of players. And the question is, how do you make it indistinguishable which one you’re listening to? So it’s been a little bit of a challenge, finding ways to incorporate the electronics into the overall sound and adding just enough live players so that it sounds convincing.

Of course, the ones that are the most fun to do are the ones when you get to do it with a big orchestra. But unfortunately, we can’t do all of them that way. Oddly enough, because the series is structured this way it sort of put us at an advantage once the whole coronavirus thing happened. Suddenly, recording with an orchestra was no longer an option. Luckily, the show had already been doing kind of a hybrid approach anyway.

For example, I tend to do the electronics in my studio and then hire musicians to record themselves in their own homes, send me those records back, and then I mix those into the overall session. We’d been doing that for over a year before the coronavirus thing happened. So the whole work-at-home, shelter-in-place movement, we’re doing that well ahead of time.

How does it feel to sit down and watch the finished shorts with your score?

CJ: It’s very gratifying. Last year as we were wrapping up some of the early episodes, Warner Bros. put together a screening on the WB lot for the cast and crew. I think there were around a couple of hundred people in a big screening theater there and there’s something really magical about watching a cartoon where you can hear the audience react. When all those people get the gag and laugh, that’s a magical experience for a composer.

You can watch the new Looney Tunes on HBO Max.

Featured Image: HBO Max