Cabbage Patch and the Art of Patience

I’d worked on several animation projects over the years; Mostly stop motion with 3 D models. Consisting of moving the characters in tiny details to create twenty-four separate frames for each second of real time, it was a painstaking operation and one requiring great patience and a peaceful demeanour.

Waiting for each episode to be completed, I wrote title music, songs and as much incidental music as was allowed, either to the script or as a library of themes.

When the Americans approached us to produce a series of animated features based on the Cabbage Patch Dolls, there was a shift in the working practices that we’d been used to. Rather than doing several short ten-minute episodes to complete a series of around thirteen, we were asked to get our heads around a longer movie format. One that consisted of songs as well as more involved musical features.

Not really knowing about the Cabbage Patch Dolls I really didn’t think much of it. I’d seen a few and heard that they were quite popular out in the States but never thought they’d caught on here in U.K. And they did look pretty weird.

Then, the owner and executives came to England taking up residence in a smart exclusive hotel in Sloan Square. They appeared to be a well-oiled machine. Their creator, Xavier Roberts, had made a fortune out of the dolls and was keen to exploit them coming to life in animated form. In fact, these dolls weren’t made; They had their own hospital just outside Georgia, Atlanta where they were ‘born’. (yikes)

Despite the obvious American influences, language, habits and behaviour that was intrinsic to this brand they seemed to think that a small animation company based in an old Dickensian workhouse in Clerkenwell could offer what they wanted. The best thing for me was that they were very specific in wanting these dolls to sing songs. So, we had to write and record these before any kind of animation took place. Also, it meant that we needed American kids to sing the songs. There were several American schools in and around London. Having done the rough demos, we set out to find the voices that would fit the characters. I’d really never done this kind of audition especially cold with no idea who could sing in tune. We found kids who weren’t professional singers and who threw in a few out of tune moments and unexpected detours. In fact, our esteemed producer, Dave Johnston, actually preferred the mistakes and requested several times that we keep in some of those moments to make the animation more real.

Having recorded the kids singing we arranged the songs, often with just piano accompaniment, and the production company started animating the characters for each of the performances. Progress was relatively slow with a good day achieving a couple of seconds of animation.

When it finally came close to the finished product, I was given a rough cut of the movie to add incidentals, moods, transitions and butch up the songs from the simple piano to full arrangement. It was like starting again. It had taken nine months to get to this stage, every frame meticulously energised so that the dolls came to life in a very natural way. But rather than get a general overview for the incidental work, the director at the time preferred to work as he had done with the animation and break down the music score into two to five second chunks. This I realised was how the original Warner Brothers cartoons were conceived with Carl Starling who wrote those memorable themes for Buggs Bunny, Roadrunner and Daffy Duck. It was initially a strange process but as we progressed, gluing together as we went along, the animation soundtrack came together and after probably more time than usual, we had the score covered, at first just with a piano marking the essential cues, and then finally with orchestra and fuller instrumentation.

It was now close to a year since I’d started the process, originally writing the songs, recording the demos, adding various tweaks and changes as the animation progressed and now to finally mixing the whole music score as the finished thing in my small studio in Twickenham with Dolby and Surround Sound monitoring. Very grown up!

It certainly taught me patience, especially with the invoicing, and that throughout there were several ways to achieve what everyone wanted. It wasn’t a job by committee but one that allowed a really good creative process of sharing between disciplines, something that I was able to take on with me to future work.

Sometime later we were visiting Los Angeles. I had by then done three of these movies for The Cabbage Patch brand and they seemed to be doing well. Rosie O’Donnell had a day time chat show over there and she had picked up on the Cabbage Patch Kids. She was heard on several occasions actually singing our songs live on air, much to the displeasure of the network who had to pay every time. Pre-internet they became as viral as they could be and very exciting for us especially when hearing our songs sung randomly by passing strangers which really did happen!

Some of these remain on YouTube and various streaming outputs. Worth checking out even if they’re simply good examples of excellent quality, meticulous endeavour and immense patience.

Here are a few links and clips from some of the movies.

The Clubhouse

The Audition

Trust Us

Don’t Look Back

Hello Seth

Hang Loose

Find My Way to Your Heart

Saturday Night

They Think I’m Crazy