Pixar in Concert, as described by the Director of Disney Music Group

We talked to JMU alum Jonathan Heely from Disney about how this production came about, why it’s different, and how much you will dig it.

Jonathan Heely, the man who walked into Disney’s music offices and rescued reams of valuable scores, is also the nicest person in the world. So it follows that he was a major resource for the Pixar folks who wished upon a star that they could get a concert together that celebrates the only four composers they’ve ever used.

The JMU alum chatted with us over the phone from Los Angeles, where he heads up the Disney Music Group. He’s been a proponent of these kinds of concerts from the start, he says, but this one is a little different.

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Q. How has your role at Disney helped with creating Pixar in Concert?

At Disney Music Group, we handle Disney music publishing and hold the rights to all the music of Disney films and Pixar films. My job is to do things with that music, like turning it into sheet music for home pianists or school bands and renting music to orchestras. But it’s another thing again to license a whole evening of Disney music, because now you’re sort of loaning the brand itself. It took me a long time to get the bigger arm of the company to accept the idea of doing concerts like this. I’ve done three or four other concert packages, but the people from Pixar were different in that they had the idea to celebrate their moment in time, since they’ve been having success upon success with their films since the start. They also really wanted to celebrate the composers. There have only been four composers in thirteen films, which is remarkable in itself!

Q. How is this different from other Disney concerts?

It was different! The folks from Pixar started by editing the film together into montages, actually cutting in audio from the films. So they made their own musical mix, which is a little bit ironic because on one hand, they want this concert to be all about the music, but then they started it by cutting the picture! It sounded counterintuitive to me, until I finally saw what [visuals] they had come up with.

[Creative Editor] David Tanaka had cut and pasted the scores together. He’s not a musician, but he’s deeply knowledgeable about these films and their themes. We made very few changes to the music and visuals they had suggested. I had originally thought, “We’ll make some nice arrangements and you’ll just cut the pictures to the arrangements!” But it ended up being the opposite, and it worked out great.

Q. What happens next in the process? How do you get from pasting scores together to a cohesive piece of orchestral music?

We hired a really talented arranger, Mark Watters, and had him shepherd the project as far as finding the printed music and matching it to the visuals. Oftentimes, the printed music is deficient in some way—for example, it won’t include the pre-recorded synthesizer sounds, so we had to create some things orchestrally to match what we actually hear in the movie.

Q. You’ve been with Disney since 1981. How have you helped them organize and archive the musical side of their business?

I come from that side originally. I’m kind of a music/writer guy, so I talk the language. We do have the original handwritten scores from every Disney films dating back to Snow White , Pinocchio, and Cinderella. We have the actual physical paper with the original pencil notes on it! You know, I studied music at JMU and grew up in Portsmouth. For me, to put my eyes on the score of Mary Poppins and think “I’m really looking at the score of THE Mary Poppins!” it was hard for me to believe that it was the real thing.

When I first came to Los Angeles in 1981, I contracted with Disney to reorganize this library.Thankfully, they were storing this material, but it wasn’t being cared for very well. It would be in some office somewhere, and someone from another division would grab the office, then just pick the music up and move it somewhere. It would all get mixed up. So I went through it all, put it in acid-free boxes, and got it all labeled and coded. For many years, we would send these boxes away to a facility to store. But in the last five years, we’ve started scanning them into digital files. We still have the original artifact in those boxes, but now we also have beautiful digital color scans of them all.

Every new generation has to be reminded [of the importance of this process]. When you finish a production, the last thing you want to do is archive it. You’re sick of it at that point, but it’s still so important. Luckily, Disney has never been split up or bought. There are stories about the old MGM music library—you know, somebody needed an office, they threw the sheet music away, and it went to a landfill. But that’s not Disney.

For this project, we went and dug through the available scores to see what we could put together.

Q. Why do you think symphonic productions of Disney works like this are so successful?

There’s a multi-generational interest in these shows. It’s either because you remember these films from your own youth and you want to take your kids to experience the films in a new way, or it’s kids that are still watching the same films. Disney just has a strong [whole] family brand and a reputation for quality.

And this model lets us partner with the local symphonies and become a part of more communities. That also turns it into a brand new show every time, because we didn’t just hire some no-name orchestra to travel around performing it. It seems to me, too, that the orchestra musicians have an awareness that it’s a great opportunity to play this Disney stuff. And it’s the real deal. So everybody really steps up their game.

Q. Since there are lots of kids involved, do you have to adapt a potentially length musical program accordingly? How do you keep them engaged?

You know, Pixar is an interesting group. They made the clips themselves, and they really drove the bus as far as what the show is going to be. They’re almost obsessive compulsive about their product, and that’s partly why it’s so good. Every little detail is thought about and considered. Will kids like this? Will adults like this? In our original production in L.A., we thought about perhaps having some of the characters from the park come up and be on stage [in order to engage the kids more], and the Pixar people said, “No, we don’t want it to be cheesy.” And they also didn’t want it to appear that they were trying to promote Pixar. They were very, “Let’s celebrate the composers and show our wonderful images to these fans.”

I respect that they have such a detailed perspective on things!

The music was the important thing, so there’s no spoken dialogue in these clips. Initially, we had to make some edits in the film we show during the performance, because sometimes you’d see a character moving his mouth. But we also realized that in the underscore, the music would be playing along…and all of a sudden it would get simple, then complex again. Because there was probably dialogue during that section! And it helped us realize that music is really part of the whole audio spectrum of a film.

Occasionally music is really simple for a reason, so in order to use one of those simple sections, we had to beef it up a bit. That’s where arranger Mark Watters came in. For example, there are some arpeggios that leads up to an explosion in Cars 2. It’s like “bumbumbumBUMBUMBUMBUMBUM!” There was a lot of talk about how that kind of sequence should go with this concert, and whether we should include the explosion to help it make sense. And we did! We ended up using the explosion as part of the music and the audio. It all works together.

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Catch Pixar in Concert this weekend with the Richmond Symphony at the Carpenter Theatre.

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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