Saturday, 5 January 2019

Cowbells, Saxophones and a Rabbit

When the era of sound cartoons began, characters weren’t exactly filling theatres with chatter. Instead, animation producers concentrated on making music and sound effects that were coordinated with what was happening on the screen. That was novel enough for the audience and it also eliminated the need to animate dialogue.

Mickey Mouse’s “Steamboat Willie” and Fables Studio’s “Dinner Time” had appeared in theatres equipped for sound towards the end of 1928. The Associated Press decided to do a story at that time on how cartoonists put the sound in sound cartoons. But the wire service didn’t approach either Walt Disney or Paul Terry. Instead, it contacted either Universal or George Winkler, as its story centres around Oswald the Rabbit. Oswald not only didn’t talk, his cartoons were still silent. According to the Universal News of January 12, 1929, the first sound cartoon prints were just being made (the first sound Oswald was “Hen Fruit,” released on February 4th).

This story appeared in newspapers 90 years ago today and gives you an idea of how basic and primitive it all when theatres were still deciding if sound was a fad or if it was worthwhile installing audio equipment.

How Oswald The Rabbit Is Given His Vocal Chords In The Talkies
By WADE WERNER.

Associated Press Feature Writer.
Hollywood. Cal., Jan. 5.—(AP)—It is the very darkest middle of the night and the great studio sprawls like a town of fantastic shadows between the dry river bed and the barren hills. One supposes there is a night watchman somewhere on the lot; but apparently he does not see the dim figures slinking one by one toward a barn-like structure, each carrying something, and each disappearing through the same small door in the building.
Heading away from the studio they might have been taken for burglars escaping with their loot; but under the circumstances it is more reasonable to guess they are conspirators of another sort. The interior of the building is dimly lit, but by mingling casually with the crowd one can see very clearly what they carried in: Two saxophones, a galvanized iron wash tub half full of tin cans, a cornet, a tuba, a clothes wringer, three phonographs, a school bell, several cowbells, a hand-operated alarm gong, three sizes of electric bells. Innumerable tin, brass and wooden whistles, many assorted pieces of wood and metal, half a dozen panes of window glass and a metal cylinder of compressed air.
Obviously these are not the paraphernalia of arsonists or dynamiters; and besides, even In the dim light, the conspirators have a jolly look. It begins to look more like preparations for an old-fashioned charivari. Before one can ask who was married, however, the head conspirator explains everything:
"Our job tonight," says he, "is to synchronize Oswald the Rabbit."
Oswald, one learns, is the pen-and-ink hero of an animated cartoon which, in keeping with the modern craze for screen sound, must be embellished with music and noise-effects. Six musicians, skilled in leaping nimbly from tune to tune in harmony with the action on the screen, take their places under one microphone. Another microphone hangs near the table where all the bells and whistles are spread. A large man in overalls sits near the tubful of tin cans with a wooden paddle in his hands, as if waiting for the cauldron to boil; the other conspirators stand here and there between the microphones, ready to make the right noises at the right times.
They rehearse with the picture running on the screen in front of them. As the main title of the comedy appears on the screen the orchestra leaps into an overture, while the other sound-smiths stand tensely waiting for their cues.
When the opening scene discloses Oswald sleeping in his bed, the orchestra dodges quickly Into a cradle song, while a lad within whispering distance of a microphone snores rhythmically and another specialist imitates the squeaking of the bed by running sole leather through the clothes wringer. After each rehearsal the recording engineer In the sound-mixing booth, who hears all this as it will sound to an audience, suggests improvements.
And again and again the mixed symphony of harmonies and discords is rehearsed; then, "This is the picture, boys," and they go through it once more, with the sound-recording apparatus registering everything on celluloid.
Along about sunrise the sound-smiths call it a night and go home, tired and hungry, but with a little glow of pride at the thought their artistry has made it possible for the world to hear as well as see Oswald the Rabbit.

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