Scoring ‘Ideas in Animation' With Verve

"Ideas in Animation" screens tonight at The Parkway Theater, 1834 Park Boulevard, Oakland. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Admission is $10. For more information, call (415) 681-3189.

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Where silent films may conjure images of kooky Charlie Chaplin-like characters puttering around a black-and-white world, composer and musician Nik Phelps sees a half-painted canvas.

What's missing?

Music, of course. Phelps has been composing and playing music for films since the early 1990s, first with a group called the Club Foot Orchestra, which worked on accompaniments for old German silent films, and now with locals The Sprocket Ensemble.

The Club Foot Orchestra worked on some cartoons including "Felix The Cat," Phelps says, and from September 1995 through January 1997 they worked on a CBS Saturday morning cartoon series called "The Twisted Tales of Felix The Cat."

After the Felix series' demise, Phelps wanted to continue composing music for animation and set out to find endeavors that would keep him moving on the same path.

"Once the 'Felix The Cat' show was discontinued...I wanted to get a project together that would keep me writing all the time," Phelps says. "I devised this group to keep me working with filmmakers and giving concerts."

"This group," also known as the Sprocket Ensemble, adds to animated films by performing Phelps' whimsical, multidimensional compositions. Phelps says he encourages people to give him a call or send him films for consideration-even if the film already has a musical score.

Phelps and the Sprocket Ensemble play about twenty shows annually, with at least one each month in the Bay Area. They also play benefit shows, such as an upcoming benefit for the Cartoon Art Museum of San Francisco.

The music of Nik Phelps and The Sprocket Ensemble is mutable, ranging from soul-tinged classical to jazz to folk-rock-inspired licks. Tracks are not simply "cartoony," as listening to cuts from the group's latest album, Fetch!, brings lighthearted folly, exaggerated melancholy and bright, though imprecise, musicianship together in a slippery dance.

Though he has worked avidly with artists and musicians ranging from the Sprocket crew to Tom Waits to Frank Zappa, Phelps says he rarely collaborates with other musicians or composers to create his scores.

A prolific composer, Phelps' turnaround time is impressive-he once completed the score for a CalArts student's thesis project in about three days. His creative process sounds hasty, but the student's film, "Boobie Girl," with Phelps' music, was accepted by the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. Another film he wrote some music for, "The Cockettes," a documentary co-directed by David Weissman and Bill Weber, was also in Sundance's 2002 festival.

"Boobie Girl" is most likely a compositional aberration. With most of his other pieces, Phelps concedes he tends to move a bit more slowly.

"For a show like I'm doing tomorrow I try to keep to the framework [that] a minute of film would take about an hour of composing time. That's to write it out and everything. Sometimes it's quicker and sometimes it's depends on how inspired I am," Phelps says.

Tonight, Nik Phelps and The Sprocket Ensemble play live at the Parkway Theatre in Oakland, pairing their music with animated films by San Francisco animator Nina Paley, Russian filmmaker Ivan Maximov, Swedish animator Ulla Carin and Portuguese animation group CITEN under the tutelage of animator Jose Miguel Ribeira. Titled "Ideas in Animation," this show presents European films that are very different from what most American animation fans tend to see, Phelps says.

"It's a bit on the dark side, but hopefully the sense of humor in my music will help to keep the atmosphere light," Phelps says.

With his musical track record, audience members should be seriously amused.


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