There’s a scene in The Dam Keeper, the Oscar-nominated animated 2014 short film from Berkeley’s Tonko House Studios, in which poor Pig gets stuffed into a toilet in the school bathroom by a pack of nasty ogre-faced bullies. But when the quick-witted Fox comes in and sees Pig’s little feet under the stall, a gentle piano figure starts to build. As light creeps into the dark, gray bathroom, the two characters begin to sketch pictures of the sinister punks, laughing giddily all the while. Suddenly, a huge string section hits with gale-force strength, and the dingy bathroom becomes fully illuminated in a gorgeous glow.
While the scene flows effortlessly, built with emotional precision, its construction was anything but simple. In fact, its dynamics and pace aren’t even solely the work of the film’s directors. Instead of adding music to an existing scene, the score itself had actually formed the scene — which was painstakingly repainted by hand once the directors heard the music.
This back-and-forth dance between picture and music, which courses its way through the film, is at the heart of the relationship between Tonko House’s Dice Tsutsumi and Robert Kondo — both Pixar art director veterans — and their musical partners Zach Johnston and Matteo Roberts, who’ve both been involved with the indie-rock ensemble Phox. Their collaboration is built on the idea that a film’s music and its picture do not need to be constructed independently, and instead can feed and inspire each other. But such a process is also insanely tedious; Johnson told me that in the course of their collaborations, some scenes are re-scored 10 times. “Even if you get it right,” he explains, “the timing might change.”
Yet that tedium hasn’t stopped Johnston and Roberts from teaming up again with Tonko House for their upcoming second release, Moom, which premiered at San Jose’s Cinequest Film Festival earlier this month. “When we started Moom, we didn’t even think about anyone else [to write the score]. [It became] a long journey of them trying to hit the feeling while we were still trying to get feeling for the film,” Tsutsumi says. “I don’t think every composer would be able to do that.”
While The Dam Keeper’s characters and plot line were easy enough to follow without words, Moom’s narrative is far more abstract. Based on a Japanese children’s book of the same name, Moom explores the challenges and importance of how we let go of memories and accept changes in our lives.
In the film, memories manifest themselves in the form of giggling 3D balloon-like characters, who then in turn spend their days releasing other memories that have washed up in the pastoral wonderland that they inhabit with an unnamed (and unexplained) astronaut. The astronaut wears a clunky space suit with an American flag, trains surface majestically out of a lake, memories pop out of ballet slippers, an ensemble of jittery memory blobs form an impressive jazz combo, and the bright yellow title character laps it all up with wide-eyed glee.
The score for Moom was recorded over the course of two bright December days at Berkeley’s famed Fantasy Studios and conducted by Magik*Magik Orchestra’s Minna Choi. Musicians came in for a couple hours at a time, and as they recorded, the score grew, accumulating layers of sound in both dramatic leaps, as with the addition of a string section, and in elegant minutiae, with the subtleties of a harp. Johnston and Roberts had flown in from Wisconsin for the recording and subsequent mixing; Johnston padded slowly around the control room with his hands behind his back, like a scientist watching an experiment unfold, while Tsutsumi camped out in the brightly-lit live room with a camera on a tripod, filming the musicians gleefully. The film itself played on screens overhead, flashing to help mark time. “In [those] two days, it went from a fun art project to ‘We made a film!’” Kondo told me. “It was the only time a tear welled up.”
The finished score brings a degree of clarity to an otherwise perplexing piece of art. When I asked Kondo and Tsutsumi which scenes were most reinforced or effected by the music, they quickly point to a moment towards the end of Moom in which the unnamed female character finally learns to let go. As she floats away, in the midst of a sumptuous, uber-realistic sunrise, the sweep of the strings and the plink of the piano all but disappear, leaving only a faint chord in their wake, building suspense as we wait to watch her fate. “[Johnston and Roberts] gave [that scene] breath that it didn’t have before,” Kondo says. “They completely did their own interpretation,” Tsutsumi adds glowingly. “It works so much better.”
Yet it’s the film’s final moment that was most drastically altered by the music. (Don’t worry — no spoilers here). It’s a testament to Tonko House’s open-mindedness and flexibility that the final, culminating moment of their project; the moment a filmmaker dreams about, often slaves over, would make a complete 180-degree turn simply in response to the music.
In both of their releases, Tonko House have put their trust in their musical collaborators; they’ve used music not merely to add to their story but have made it part of the story. As a result? They’ve created films that are, to some degree, out of their hands.