Interview with Composer Joshua Moshier

As a jazz musician, how did you first become interested in composing music for films? 

My interest in music for films actually came way before I started listening to jazz. At a pretty early age, I would tape record the soundtracks to my favorite movies and listen to them constantly. Disney and Warner Bros. cartoons made a huge impression on me. In high school, my focus turned to jazz and improvised music. In college I was doing lots of writing for big band and small jazz ensembles, and this led to working on a number of student films that needed jazz scores or jazz-inflected cues. Fortunately I was able to segue into working on non-jazz scores too - I was sensitive to being typecast as the "jazz guy," so I relished the opportunity to write in all kinds of styles.

At what point did you come aboard "Sidewalk"? Tell us about your approach to the film's music.

I started composing once Celia had finished the rough animation for the film, so all the timings had been established. Since there is no dialog in the film, I was excited at the opportunity to use music so prominently in the telling of the story. To help study the arc of the story, I printed out thumbnail images of each shot and spread them out in chronological order and started improvising themes at the piano. 

I wanted the film to have a relationship to the tradition of acoustic jazz scores in animation, so I knew I wanted the score to be performed live by jazz musicians rather than by layering in recorded or synthesized performances. I also knew that I wanted the score to combine composed elements with improvisation, and I wanted the music to be tightly connected to the animated performance onscreen. So to have a score that sounds spontaneous and flowing but that is also synced to the action like a Carl Stalling or Scott Bradley score -- well, that was a challenge!

Celia had mentioned Bill Evan's "Waltz for Debby" as an inspiration, and I liked the idea of a lullaby-like melody with the bounce of a waltz for the little girl's first steps in the film. I composed a waltz melody that bookends the film, and through the middle of the film the music changes with each life transition the girl enters.

"Sidewalk" has nearly a dozen-and-a-half distinct transitions throughout its four-minute length. Was creating a soundtrack for such a formally structured film easier or more difficult than usual?

There isn't really a "usual" level of difficulty in scoring, except to say that every film I've worked on has its own unique challenges. I divided the score for "Sidewalk" into 13 individual cues, each cue with its own own tempo. Now on a longer short or feature film it would not be uncommon to have 13 or more cues, but in this particular film all 13 cues happen within just 4 minutes! So in some ways this film had all of the logistical work of a much longer film. Thankfully I had learned a system for negotiating all the different sync points and tempo changes so that I was very organized heading into the recording session. I had all the punch-ins set up in advance so that Celia and I could review each recorded take synced up with the animation on a screen in the control room.

How did you decide on the instrumentation for Sidewalk?

I started with the basic jazz trio instrumentation of piano, bass and drums, which I felt would ground the piece with a classic sound. I knew I could utilize various soloistic functions of the trio at different points in the story. For instance, when the little girl becomes a grumbly teenager it seemed like an appropriate place for a bass solo. The ensemble grows into a quintet as the girl becomes an adult.

Initially Celia wanted to shy away from using the saxophone, and I think rightfully so, because of it comes with a lot of distracting connotations. However, I had a feeling that my friend Caroline Davis's unique sound on the alto saxophone would be perfect for expressing the girl's femininity as she steps into adulthood, and I thought that as a female jazz musician Caroline would bring an vital voice to the project. Celia trusted me on this, and we were very happy with the result! Caroline's alto saxophone also plays a nice counterpoint to the the trumpet (played by Marquis Hill), which represents the male voices in the film.  

The only departure from standard jazz quintet instrumentation is the celeste, which has a sound similar to a music box. I used the celeste at the beginning of the film as a signifier for childhood, and also as something of a musical callback to the celeste in the opening of "All The Cats Join In," an old Disney short with a Benny Goodman score that I recognized as an inspiration for the look of this film.


Is there any difference in the sounds you try to achieve when composing for animated films as opposed to live-action projects?

When creating the musical sound of a film, whether live-action or animated, my choices are informed by the story. In animation, sometimes the score needs to be agile and able to shift quickly between different moods and thematic ideas. I think this has to do with the fact that in animation there is the opportunity for caricature, so the music might swing from drama to comedy within just a few seconds. I try to bring a unique sound to each project I work on, and a big part of what's unique about the music in "Sidewalk" is how the personalities of the improvising players connect to the characters in the film.

Original music composed by: Joshua Moshier

Saxophone: Caroline Davis

Bass: Matt Ulery

Drums: Jon Deitemyer

Trumpet: Marquis Hill

Piano: Joshua Moshier

Music Mixing: Brian Schwab