By Jennifer Walden
Tom and Jerry have been locked in conflict since the 1940s when animators William Hanna and Joseph Barbera pitted cat against mouse in a theatrical animated series for MGM’s cartoon studio. Their Academy Award-winning Tom and Jerry short films spurred numerous iterations over the years by different directors and animation studios.
The latest reboot, The Tom and Jerry Show, produced by Warner Bros. Animation and Renegade Animation, and directed by Darrell Van Citters, started airing on Cartoon Network in 2014. It didn’t really come into its own until Season 2, which began airing in 2016.
Vivek Maddala is co-composer on the series. “The storytelling is getting better and better. Ostensibly, it’s a children’s show but what I’m finding is the writers seem to be having a lot of fun with allegorical references. It features layered storytelling that children probably wouldn’t be able to appreciate. For example, Tom’s love interest, a cat named Toodles, is an aspiring dancer by night but her day job is being a spot welder for heavy construction. Obviously, this is a Flashdance reference, so I was able to thread oblique references to Flashdance in the score.”
New episodes of The Tom and Jerry Show are currently airing on Cartoon Network, and Maddala will be composing 39 of the episodes in Season 3.
As with Hanna-Barbera’s animated theatrical shorts, the characters of Tom and Jerry rarely talk, although other recurring characters are voiced. Music plays an essential role in describing the characters’ actions and reactions. Maddala’s compositions are reminiscent of composer Scott Bradley’s approach to the original Tom and Jerry animations. Comfortable cartoon tropes like trumpet blasts and trombone slides, pizzicato plucks and timpani bounces punctuate a string-and woodwind-driven score. “Scott Bradley’s scoring technique is the gold standard. It is beautiful writing,” he says.
In their initial conversations, director Van Citters regularly referenced Bradley’s scoring technique. Maddala studied those scores carefully and frequently revisits them while writing his own scores for the show. Maddala also listens to “music that is completely unrelated, like Led Zeppelin or Marvin Gaye, to help jog my imagination. The music I’m writing for the show very much sounds like me. I’m taking some of the approaches that Scott Bradley used but, ultimately, I am using my own musical vocabulary. I have a certain way of hearing drama and hearing action, and that’s what the score sounds like.”
Maddala’s vintage-meets-modern compositions incorporate contemporary instrumentation and genres like blues guitar for when the cool stray cat comes onto the scene, and an electro-organ of the muziak persuasion for a snack food TV commercial. His musical references to Flashdance can heard in the “Cat Dance Fever” episode, and he gives a nod to Elmer Bernstein’s score for The Magnificent Seven in the episode “Uncle Pecos Rides Again.”
Each new musical direction or change of instrument doesn’t feel abrupt. It all melts into the quintessential Tom and Jerry small orchestra sound. “Darrell Van Citters and Warner Bros. are giving me quite a bit of autonomy in coming up with my own musical solutions to the action on-screen and the situations that the characters are experiencing. I’m able to draw from a lot of different things that inspire me,” explains Maddala.
Instruments & Tools
His score combines live recordings with virtual instruments. His multi-room studio in Los Angeles houses a live room, his main composing room and a separate piano room. Maddala keeps a Yamaha C3 grand piano and a drum kit always mic’d up so he can perform those parts whenever he needs. He also records small chamber groups there, like double-string quartets and woodwind quartets. The string ensembles sometimes consist of seven violins (four first and three second), three violas and three cellos, captured using a Blumlein pair recording configuration (a stereo recording technique that produces a realistic stereo image) with ribbon mics to evoke a vintage sound. He chooses AEA N8 ribbon mics matched with AEA’s RPQ 500 mic pre-amps.
Maddala also uses several large diaphragm tube condenser mics he designed for Avid years ago, such as the Sputnik. “The Sputnik is a cross between a classic Neumann U47 capsule with the original M7 design, and an AKG C 12 mic with the original CK12 capsule. The capsule is sort of like a cross between those two mics. The head amp is based on the Telefunken ELA M 251.”
Maddala uses three different DAWs. He composes in Cakewalk’s Sonar on a PC and runs video through Steinberg’s Cubase on a Mac. The two systems are locked together via SMPTE timecode. On the Mac, he also runs Avid Pro Tools 12 for delivering stems to the dub stage. “The dub is done in Pro Tools so they usually ask to have a Pro Tools session delivered to them. Once the score is approved, I copy the stems into a Pro Tools session so it’s self-contained, save that and post it to the FTP server.”
Maddala got his start in composing for film by scoring classic silent films from the 1920s, which Warner Bros. and TCM restored in order to release them to today’s audiences. He worked with recording/mix engineer Dan Blessinger on those silent films, and Blessinger — the sound designer on The Tom and Jerry Show, recommended Maddala for the gig. “A lot of the classic silent films from the 1920s never had a score associated with them because the technology didn’t exist to marry sound and picture. About 10 or 15 years ago, when TCM was releasing these films to modern audiences, they needed new scores. So I started doing that, which built up my chops for scoring something like a Tom & Jerry cartoon where there is wall-to-wall music,” concludes Maddala.
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based writer and audio engineer.