The Bird Girl by Adam Haynes
This is a piece of music that I wrote for a short cartoon animation entitled The Bird Girl, and this is the final version of my score, which went through many drafts and changes over six months. It’s the first professional music-to-picture collaboration I’ve ever worked on and I learned many new things during this new experience, including an understanding of how a composer works as a client to somebody else.
Story and scenes
The story begins with a small bird crash-landing into a boy’s garden as he is sweeping the fallen autumn leaves. The bird emerges from the pile of swept leaves but has magically transformed into a small girl in the process. She and the boy are both bewildered.
The girl, believing she is still a bird, runs away from the boy down the road, desperately trying to take flight with her newly-formed human arms. The boy is in pursuit.
As the runaway girl comes to a stop, she seems to have given up hope of flying, until she spots a flock of birds overhead. With all of her determination she climbs up onto the ledge of a railway bridge with the intention of taking flight. The boy tries to stop her and the girl ends up losing her balance, and plummets into the passing train underneath. The boy is shocked.
A flurry of leaves majestically sweeps over to the boy from the train tracks. A small bird with a girl’s face emerges from within these leaves and the boy watches as the girl completes her transformation into a bird. She then flies off into the distance, joining the flock of birds.
Through discussion and collaboration with the animators we decided we wanted to encapsulate all the emotions of the girl within the music, using a simple ensemble of instruments. I decided very early on to make use of the marimba, to create an awkward and quirky sound, and to focus on the woodwind section to emphasise the wind, the leaves, and the “bird girl” herself - all prominent themes and ‘props’ of the animation.
I loosely assigned different instruments to the characters: the woodwind was prominent in moments with the birds and the leaves, the marimba for the girl, and the double-bass for the boy, particularly his footsteps. His character didn’t provide much narrative and only seemed to be walking and running everywhere, so this seemed appropriate. However, these instrument assignments were not strict.
I studied the music of Joe Hisaishi, the composer for many of the Studio Ghibli films. I listened closely to his music as I had never composed something so intricate with the picture, and wanted to understand the techniques of doing so. My first draft of the score was actually more of a narrative, rather than being ‘interactive’ with the movements of the picture. The animators wanted the latter, so big changes needed to be made half-way through the project. I listened closely to the soundtrack of Ponyo and tried to borrow some of Hisaishi’s techniques. This resulted in my score having many moments of playful disharmonies and whimsical movements, which I believe suited the animation well.
I carefully mimicked the actions that appeared throughout the animation; the bird hitting the chimney, the girl kicking the boy in the face, her jumping up onto the fence, falling off the bridge. The whole piece is carefully intertwined with the animation itself, something I spent a lot of time perfecting.
The ending credits is just a simple piece that contains some of the themes I used throughout the score.
I was composing the score at the same time as the animation was in production, and so many cuts and changes had to be made to the music. I feel that the end result is a bit of a patchwork of ideas and still doesn’t flow too well due to the scene changes over the six months and a lack of time towards the end. However, I believe I captured the feeling of wonder and intrigue that both the characters and the audience will feel, and that the animators were looking for, using Hisaishi’s techniques of crescendo, timpani, dissonance, and a general playfulness throughout. Some of the timing is a little awkward in places but this is due to last-minute scene changes. With a score so detailed and intricate, it was difficult to keep everything in line when even a second of the film was removed.
My first draft (the more narrative piece) is very different to the final score, with more character themes and simpler melodies. I will write about this piece another time :)
I’ve requested permission to share the finished animation but I’m still waiting for a reply, so I can’t share it at the moment, but you can hear my score via the player above.
~ Screenshots used without permission. All credit for the artwork goes to Daniel Hamman and his team.
Source: SoundCloud / adamhaynes