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Disney music producer who worked on The Little Mermaid and The Lion King gets PhD from Welsh university

08 Apr 2022 7 minutes Read
Andy Hill PhD

A music producer who has worked on some of Disney’s most successful films graduated from the University of South Wales this week with a PhD in Film Musicology.

Andy Hill, who is originally from Chicago, supervised the music on classics such as The Little MermaidBeauty and the Beast and The Lion King, as well as animated hits including Happy Feet and James and the Giant Peach.

Now, at the age of 70, Andy can celebrate achieving his PhD by portfolio – almost two years after completing his studies – by attending his Graduation ceremony at ICC Wales in Newport.

Having studied a Bachelor of Fine Arts at New York University – now known as Tisch School of the Arts – Andy followed in the footsteps of household names such as Goodfellas director Martin Scorsese, rubbing shoulders with Joel Silver, who directed Lethal Weapon and the Die Hard movies, and Amy Heckerling, director of CluelessLook Who’s Talking and many others.

While he was at NYU, he discovered he had a talent for writing music for film, and would showcase his songs at music clubs in Greenwich Village, made famous by Bob Dylan’s performances.

After years of playing in rock bands in the 1970s and 80s, Andy decided to make use of his degree, and joined the Film programme at Columbia College, Chicago, as a production manager.

“I was at Columbia for about four years, and it was essentially a launch pad for me to eventually get into Hollywood, which is where I wanted to be,” he said.

“Then in 1986, I made my first reconnaissance trip to Hollywood – which, by the way, isn’t that much to write home about! I was expecting something more like Miami beach, with palm trees and people in bikinis, but in reality it’s just a small section of Los Angeles; a working desert town. It’s more of a state of mind.”

‘Moving’

Nevertheless, Andy was determined and persistent, and sent more than 100 typewritten letters to the music departments of various film studios, trying to convince them to give him a job as a composer.

On one of his three-day journeys from Chicago to Los Angeles, he was invited to meet the head of music at Disney. At that point, in the late 1980s, the corporation hoped to turn its fortunes around after having recruited two eager young executives from Paramount Pictures. That meeting resulted in a job offer, and he drove to Chicago with stars in his eyes.

After the promised job evaporated due to a corporate shakeup, Andy worked for a commercial post-production company in LA and moved his family over from Chicago, all while keeping in touch with Disney in the hope of an opening.

“Finally, I got a call one day and was brought in as Manager of Music Production,” he said.

After taking on the job, Andy met Alan Menken – who would later become the Oscar-winning composer known for his countless hit songs for film and theatre – and was tasked with supervising his work on Disney’s upcoming project, The Little Mermaid.

“The day I met Alan Menken was the day when my life changed forever. Alan was a great songwriter, but had never actually scored a film before, so Disney worried they were taking a big chance on him,” said Andy.

“I took him into the recording studio and we recorded a couple of pieces of orchestral music, called cues – the music you hear during scenes of action, tension, romance etc.

“After the first successful take, I turned to him and said, ‘I think you’re going to win an Oscar’. I predicted that he would achieve great things, because in those days people were writing rock ‘n’ roll scores that were cool, but they didn’t move people, and Alan’s music was moving.

“When he won the Oscar for The Little Mermaid, he thanked his wife and his mother and all these people, then he closed by saying, ‘and especially, I want to thank one of the best musical supervisors I’ve ever worked with – Andy Hill.’ That one moment basically made my career.”

‘Magical’

Andy went on to work with Alan on Aladdin, then Beauty and the Beast, which was recorded with award-winning lyricist Howard Ashman in New York’s RCA Studios. Howard was secretly battling AIDS at the time, and didn’t tell anyone until he was too frail to attend recording sessions.

“We’d become close friends, and after we’d recorded the title song for Beauty and the Beast, with Angela Lansbury who played Mrs Potts, Howard turned to me and said, ‘Angela Lansbury has recorded my song. Now I can die.’, said Andy.

“It’s a conversation that I will never forget, and still makes me emotional to think about it. Howard died shortly after, just months before the film was released.”

The next film Andy worked on was The Lion King, when he met composer Hans Zimmer, who has recently won his second Oscar for sci-fi movie Dune.

Disney had famously drafted in Elton John to write some of the film’s biggest songs, including Circle of Life and Can You Feel the Love Tonight, but the creative team felt that the initial recordings were missing an authentic African sound. So, inspired by one of Hans’ earlier projects – the soundtrack for the film Power of One, set in South Africa – he persuaded the producers that Zimmer was the man and, and ultimately, with Hans’ urging, that the vocals needed to be recorded in Africa. And so they were, by South African choral singers, and all with lions and giraffes roaming in the background.

“That music couldn’t have been faked in an American recording studio, and it still thrills me that we were able to capture the magical sound that is now so synonymous with the film,” said Andy.

‘Godsend’

Shortly afterwards, Andy set up his own company, producing music for various films including Elmo in Grouchland, earning him a Grammy award for Best Music for Children. He then left LA and returned to Columbia College, where he established the Master of Fine Arts programme in Music Composition for the Screen – the first of its kind in the US.

In 2012, he and his family relocated to Spain to run a new programme for Berklee College of Music in Valencia, before moving to Belgium and writing his first book, a comprehensive study of landmark film scores entitled Scoring the Screen: The Secret Language of Film Music, which is widely used in university degrees as a set text. Along the way, Andy has written four novels, and a fifth is about to be published.

It was in 2019, when Andy settled in Sofia, Bulgaria, to take up his role as Dean of the Film Scoring Academy of Europe, that he decided to pursue a PhD. He was recommended to apply to USW to study a PhD by portfolio, which provides the option of using existing or previous projects and associated outputs, forming a critical overview which draws these together into a coherent story.

“I suddenly had to write in a way that I’d never done before,” said Andy. “Thankfully my supervisor, Professor Paul Carr, was very patient with me and the PhD turned out to be a godsend as an academic credential. I’m now able to use my experience in the industry to make a difference for aspiring young film composers.

“I’m so glad I chose the University of South Wales.”

Andy completed his studies online, and was due to graduate in 2020, just weeks after the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Now, he hopes to continue his close relationship with USW by offering guest lectures and working on collaborative projects with the department of Music & Sound.

“Even though I’m now into my seventh decade on earth, I feel like I’m just getting started,” he said. “A person should never be defined by their age. It’s what you bring to the party that really counts.”


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