Soundtrack: <I>Tom and Jerry in New York</I>
Issue: May/June 2021

Soundtrack: Tom and Jerry in New York

Keith Baxter and Greg Sims are the musical duo behind the new HBO Max animated series Tom and Jerry in New York, which premiered on July 1st. Baxter is a director, songwriter, story artist and guitarist, who’s worked on a number of animated projects, including Toonsylvania, Hotel Transylvania 2 &  3, Despicable Me, The Croods, Flushed Away and The Looney Tunes Show. Sims is a composer, arranger, orchestrator, songwriter and producer of music for film and television, who previously scored the documentaries 40 Years of Rocky: The Birth of a Classic and Stallone: Frank, That Is. Both won awards at the 2020 Beverly Hills Film Festival.

Here, they share insight into their work on the series.

Tell us about how you got involved in this project?
Keith Baxter: “I’ve known (story supervisor) Will Finn since we worked together on Slimer and the Real Ghostbusters, one of my first animation jobs. Will had asked me a year earlier, in 2019, if I wanted to make (a) musical Tom and Jerry’s. I had met Darrell Van Citters and Ashley Postlewaite (Renegade Animation director and producer) and really liked them personally, and was eager to work with them, but I was working on a movie at the time. I didn’t feel I could do a good job trying to do both shows at once, so I declined. A year later, Will asked me again. By now, Greg and I had begun collaborating and I felt we were making really-good music. I was eager for another project we could work on together. So this time I said yes."

Photo (L-R): Keith Baxter and Greg Sims

Greg Sims: “Keith called me up one day and said, ‘Hey! How would you like to help me write songs for Tom & Jerry?’ We had recently written together on some other animation projects and really enjoyed the collaboration. Plus, our skill sets complement each other.”

Keith, what is your process like for an animated project? 

Baxter: “When I write, I go for a long walk and take a legal pad. I don’t know why, but I always write longhand, then type it up on the computer afterward. When I storyboard, I draw thumbnails on paper, and then when I figure out my shots and action, I’ll draw on my (Wacom) Cintiq in Photoshop. In TV, it’s a lot more important to draw the characters on model than in film. The poses are leaned on heavily for the animation. I was having so much fun drawing Tom and Jerry. I did a huge amount of posing in my storyboards. I posted an animatic of one of my rejected premises called ‘Cheesemonger’ on YouTube and LinkedIn. It’s a great example of my process. 

“I’d never been asked to write, storyboard and compose on the same project. I had to come up with a process on the fly. In the beginning, I was a bit unsure how I was going to pull this off. The assignment was, ‘Create a three-minute musical. You have three-and-a-half weeks to turn it in’. On the first cartoon, I quickly realized I couldn’t just turn in a folder full of story panels. I would have to create an animatic and turn in a storyboard timed to the music. Each cartoon became more ambitious as I got comfortable with this process. It was so successful, I prefer this now to just handing in a stack of story panels.”

How do you collaborate on the music? 

Baxter: “Much of the collaboration process was dictated by the production schedule. Everything was happening super fast, so we needed to work very efficiently. I would go over the premise or outline of the cartoon with Greg. Sometimes the story supervisor would tell me, ‘We want a cartoon where Toots is a torch singer and Tom accompanies her on the piano’, or ‘Do a surf tune’. 

“I ended up writing all the lyrics on the songs because they were part of the outline, and usually by the time I had written the lyrics I had some idea how the music was going to go. Most of the time we co-wrote the music, then I would split off to draw the storyboards and Greg would write the orchestration and arrangement. We would review the animatic with the music and make adjustments. Sometimes the storyboards inspired changes in the music, sometimes the music inspired changes in the storyboards.”

Sims: “Keith has decades of experience working in animation and has a unique perspective as a director, storyboard artist and musician. I don’t know of anyone else in the industry with these combined talents. He dictated the style and pace of the song, and it made more sense for him to write the lyrics since he was the one conceiving and creating the story. We had already established a workflow on previous collaborations where we would concentrate on separate tasks simultaneously. 

“After the songs were written, I could concentrate on production while he fleshed out the storyboard. And because of the unique situation where the music and the storyboards - which Keith made so detailed they were practically animation - were being created together instead of the usual assembly line method, much of the animation was dictated by the music. For instance, on our first mini-musical, we created a torch song, which is sung by Toots. Tom and Butch get into a dueling piano competition trying to one-up each other, so Keith worked out the timings for a series of increasing maniacal gags for me to score, which he then turned into storyboards.”

Tell us more about your equipment setup? 

Baxter: “I use ProTools, Photoshop, either Final Cut Pro or Premiere, and a Wacom Cintiq. I have an assortment of guitars; Gibson Les Paul, 335 and ES175, a couple Strats, a Tele, a Ricky 12 string, Gretsch Tennessee Rose, Taylor acoustic, Mesa Boogie amps.”

Sims: “I always like to say my favorite gear is a musician! But, because of the pandemic, we limited ourselves to close friends and family for the live tracks. Keith played guitars, his friend and fellow animation veteran Jeff Snow performed sax and flute parts, and I played keys and programmed the rest with Logic Pro, using a bunch of Native Instruments plug-ins, VSL for the orchestra instruments, and various other favorite sample libraries. 

“My wife Annie is a wonderful singer, as are her bandmates Masha McSorley, Gregory Finsley, and Chris Evans. My friend David Wise recorded an operatic part for Jerry, which he uploaded from his studio in Nashville, and Keith sang a hilarious part for Tom. They all covered the character voices beautifully. Our go-to engineer here in LA, Marc Greene, did an excellent job on the final mixes with ProTools."
Do you have a favorite episode or moment for these musical shorts? 

Baxter: “The moment word got back to us that Jay Bastian (the WB exec in charge) said of our cartoons, ‘This is exactly what these cartoons should be!’”
Sims: “When I saw Keith’s first animatic segments with our first song. That’s when I knew we were creating something very special together.”