By Elizabeth Walker
Vivek Maddala has written scores for numerous films, and studied jazz performance at the Berklee College of Music. One of his most recent projects has been writing for the Cartoon Network reboot of Tom and Jerry. I reached him by phone to discuss his latest project.
Elizabeth Walker: So is this your first time writing for animation?
Vivek Maddala: My first job writing for film was working for Turner Classic Movies. They were restoring old silent films from the 1920s. Back then, there was no score, because they didn’t have a way of synching music with the film, so I had to create the score. I did five or six of thosefor TCM, and they were not that difference from scoring for animation.
EW: How so?
VM: There is no dialogue between Tom and Jerry, and only a bit from the minor characters. As aresult, it is very visual, and the music has to convey a lot of the emotions. So I did my training for that by scoring the silent films.
EW: Interesting. So how were you approached for this particular project?
VM: On the silent films, I was fortunate enough to work with a tremendous recording and mix engineer – and a very talented musician in his own right – named Dan Blessinger. He was actually the one who recommended me for the Tom and Jerry gig.
EW: What do you like about scoring for animation? Is it something you have always been interested in?
VM: I’ve always said that composing the score for a Pixar film would be my dream job. Scoring for a television show is a lot more steady, whereas writing for a film is more feast-for-famine. Even though the episodes are obviously shorter than a film, over the course of the series, it is a long-form medium, with multiple opportunities to develop characters.
EW: Tell me more about that process. Do you score it all at once?
VM: As you know, Tom and Jerry is a half-hour show, with three vignettes, so basically short films, which are about 7 ½ minutes long with commercials in between. So I do three of those short films every four weeks.
EW: So do you have to wait until you see the episodes, or were you able to start brainstorming?
VM: When I first got the job, I wrote some main themes – just general themes that I use for all the scores. As I get new cartoons and new characters, I evolve the theme to make a character more sympathetic, for example.
EW: You are talking about these characters almost like authors talk about developing their characters. How do you make a cartoon more sympathetic?
VM: Well, for example, if Tom is doing something menacing, I might make his theme darker.
In addition to the traditional “housecat-chases-rodent” plotline, the new episodes incorporate vignettes with other motifs, such as “Cat and Mouse Detective,” a Bogart-esque film noir cartoon, “Downton Tabbey,” a riff on the upstairs/downstairs aristocratic theme, and “Catsylvania,” which plays with traditional horror tropes.
As Maddala tells me about these, it is clear that he relishes getting to play with these other musical styles, referencing Bernard Hermann and other famous composers. I ask Maddala if he has received any pushback or criticism for working on a cartoon show.
VM: There is a cultural perception that because the work is ostensibly for children that it is somehow not serious, but it’s clear when you listen to the music that it is serious orchestral work. In order for the audience to be invested, you have to add depth and emotional complexity.
EW: How do you add that complexity?
VM: I try to layer the music with a melody and counter melody. The writers write to appeal to adults, too, with obscure references to moves, so the show is operating on a variety of levels. I sort of feel like it would be interesting if the writers commented on world events, but they haven’ttaken it there yet.
EW: But isn’t that the thing about Tom and Jerry, it’s timeless quality?
VM: Actually, if you look at the show, when it was first created in the early forties, you notice a lot of wartime references, so in a lot of ways the different iterations of the show represent the culture that produced them. That said, the essence of the show is timeless, and it is interesting how the two main characters occasionally set aside their differences to solve a problem.
EW: A lesson for us all. Do you feel the weight of writing for such an iconic show?
VM: I’m honored to be scoring it, and trying to honor the tradition, just as the directors are.
EW: It sounds like you take your work seriously.
VM: Well, for a lot of young viewers, this will be their first introduction to orchestral music. Pop music is so awful lately, it’s akin to eating junk food. If I can introduce music that is helpful to children’s brains, that gives them – extend the analogy – a more balanced diet.
EW: Wow, it really is important work, when you think about it. Brain development for our most prized possessions – our children.
VM: Yes, but I try to keep in mind, it is still a cartoon, right? So it’s supposed to be fun, first and foremost.
The Tom and Jerry Show airs on Cartoon Network.