Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Orchestrating the Apocalypse

Daffy-blogging, essay 8 of 15 blog entries on
Duck Dodgers in the 24 ½th Century

Part One, Earlier Apocalypses

In Max Fleischer's Koko's Earth Control (1928), Koko the Clown's dog
Fritz presses the "Destroy the Earth" lever.  At the top of the earth,
Koko and Fritz are panicking but it's too late to reverse things now.

Animals can be seen in the foreground surveying post-apocalyptic
desolation in Hugh Harman's Peace on Earth (1939).

Two fighting superpowers (a super-cat and a super-mouse)
endanger the entire planet in Tex Avery's King-Size Canary (1947).

Bugs Bunny tricks Marvin the Martian into blowing up the moon
in Haredevil Hare (1948).  Left hanging on the remaining crescent,
Bugs screams, "Get me out of here!"

Planet X obliterated in Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2the Century (1953).

Part Two, Orchestrating the Apocalypse

How do you orchestrate the end of the world?

In the closing scene of Duck Dodgers in the 24 ½th Century, Duck Dodgers and Marvin the Martian blow up Planet X.  Michael Maltese and Chuck Jones dreamed the scene up, Mel Blanc supplied the character voices, the animators painted the images on hundreds of cels, and then the sounds of apocalypse were added.

Treg Brown, Warner Bros. resident sound effects genius, orchestrated the noise.  A 20-year veteran at the studio, Brown had assembled a vast collection of thousands of sound effects, preserved on small reels of tape, over the years.  His task was to find or create the appropriate sound effects and synchronize them into the film using the animator’s exposure sheets, which precisely timed image, dialogue, and sound effects.  This particular scene—the blowing up of a planet—would have required a super-sized explosion noise.  Brown had plenty of explosions on file to choose from.

Planet X, pre-explosion...
Carl Stalling wrote and conducted the music.  At the age of 62, Stalling was the oldest of the core team of artists who worked on Duck Dodgers.  He was a pivotal figure in the history of animation having wedded music to animation for the first time with his legendary work on Disney’s Steamboat Willie in 1928.  Like so many others who worked on Duck Dodgers, he was a wizard at his work but also
a consummate team player.

The roots of Stalling’s genius extend back to his improvisational work as a silent movie organist in Kansas City.  Matching music to a wide variety of silent films, Stalling became a master at borrowing snippets of melodies from classical and popular sources, incorporating them into broader themes, and building emotional or comic impact.  Performing for live audiences, he learned when it was most effective to play loud and when it was best to be silent.  He learned the art of timing.

So this is how you orchestrate the end of the world:  Stalling’s fifty-piece orchestra is fully employed, building up to a mighty horn section crescendo that reaches its peak a second before the explosion.  Then there’s a split second of silence followed by Treg Brown’s enormous “kaboom” effect.  As the sound effect trails off, an eerie subdued flute melody emerges in the background.  On the screen, we have deep space, with Daffy and Marvin standing on what’s left of Planet X, just a floating clump of dirt now.  The characters exchange their final dialogue as the flute melody temporarily drops out, replaced by the mock-heroic Dodgers theme.  But then, as the camera tilts down to show the predicament of Porky and Marvin, the minor key of the flute melody returns, momentarily suggesting their insignificance against a backdrop of infinite space.

Iris in on Porky for the closing line and the orchestra roars back for the traditional Merrie Melodies’ closing theme.  That’s all, folks!

It’s perfect music for Duck Dodgers.  And it would probably work just as brilliantly with an arthouse piece like Samuel Becket's Waiting for Godot.  The essential existential themes are all there—the anarchic comedy and underlying despair—but perhaps a bit more accessible for the general public when performed by Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Marvin the Martian, and Carl Stalling.

The explosion fades, revealing a clump of dirt with our three leads
clinging to it.
Reference Sources
Chuck Amuck by Chuck Jones
Chuck Reducks by Chuck Jones
Hollywood Cartoons by Michael Barrier
Looney Tunes: The Ultimate Visual Guide by Jerry Beck
Warner Bros. Animation Art by Jerry Beck and Will Friedwald
7 Minutes by Norman M. Klein
That's All Folks by Steve Schneider
Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume One DVD set, Duck Dodgers commentary by Michael Barrier
Friends at the IMDb Classic Film message board including Rollo Treadway, Chloe Joe Fassbender, Illtdesq, and Fish Beauty
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

Watch Duck Dodgers...
Purchase Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume One DVD set at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Rent Disc Two of Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume One DVD set at Netflix or other rental service.

© 2011 Lee Price

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