Saturday, 9 February 2019

How to Make Mickey a Talkie

Mickey Mouse whistles and plays animals as musical instruments in Steamboat Willie, but there’s one thing he doesn’t do.


As 1928 turned into 1929, sound feature films meant music and dancing. They also meant singing and talking. Cartoons weren’t quite there yet. Singing and talking meant characters had to make mouth shapes that corresponded with words, as opposed to just random opening and closing in the silent days (with a title card to explain what they said).

Mickey and his artists conquered sound fairly easily. Other cartoon characters weren’t as fortunate. By 1930, Mickey spawned a sound cartoon craze that gave birth to a whole pile of new characters (and new cartoon studios, for that matter).

Here’s a story from the Los Angeles Times of August 11, 1929. It already declared Felix the Cat dead, a victim of microphones (Felix was soon revived in a vocal-effects version that didn’t excite movie audiences). It claims there were only four cartoon studios in existence at the time. There’s no mention at all of the Charles Mintz studio, which was still making Krazy Kat cartoons, albeit they were silent for much of 1929.

When animated cartoons go vocal the drawing masters must work overtime.
The theme song and business of letting the shadows shout seem to to have passed to the studios of the motion picture comic strips.
“Mickey Mouse,” a favored character of these thing-a-ma-jig films, is going to sing in his next screen appearance.
Perhaps Mickey’s voice will ring out clear and true for the total time space of one minute. Walt Disney, Mickey’s fond creator, conveys the information that 700 drawings will be required to reveal the contraction and expansion of Mickey’s throat in the simplest act of getting the song out of his system.
These muscular movements of the throat and body must occur in such a fashion that they synchronize perfectly with the notes and words of his theme song, project, of course, by a human voice double.
Just a matter of rhythmics and mathematics, explains Mr. Disney glibly. In fact, “you write the music to fit the drawings and then draw the drawings to fit the music.”
Animated cartoons, as it may or may not be known, are simply a series of black and white sketches, one sketch to each different posture or movement of the stuff-legged characters. A cartoon runs from five to six minutes. It may contain five to six thousand drawings, projected as such a speed that the whole seems a piece of continuous action as if from humans.
The business of adding vocal histrionics to the film antics of Mickey and his confreres, Oswald, the rabbit, and the farmer and the cat of Aesop’s Fables series complicated considerably animated cartoon construction.
Perhaps that is the one reason why at present there are in existence only four cartoon studios, two on the west and two on the east coast.
The two local production units are the independent Walt Disney studio, found in a small one-story friendly appearing stucco building at 2719 Hyperion avenue and the Walter Lantz studio at Universal Pictures Corporation. Aesop’s Fables cartoons are produced in the East and released by Pathe.
Disney not only turns out the Mickey Mouse films, but recently launched what he terms his “Silly Symphony” series. The first of the latter, named “The Skeleton Dance,” was recently shown at the Carthay Circle Theater and proved a sensational success, taking about as much applause on the occasion of the premiere as the feature itself. The film depicted grotesque skeleton characters dancing weirdly to the music of a symphonic—at times—nature.
His studio, small though it is, employs eight artists, a musician and various technical assistants. Disney himself studied cartooning at the Academy of Fine Arts in Chicago, went almost directly from school into picture work, and has maintained his present studio about six years.
Walter Lantz at Universal, now turning out the “Oswald, the Rabbit” series, is a veteran of the animated cartoon production. From him was gleaned the information that the first motion drawings were produced by J. R. Bray in 1914, and had to do with the antics of “Col Heeza Liar.” About the same time Windsor McKay [sic] made a series about a so-called prehistoric animal called “Gertie.”
Lantz was responsible for the first combination cartoons, that of a human appearing on the screen with black and white figures.
He did much work at one time on the “Heeza Liar” series, originated a “Dinky Doodle” group, in which nursery rhymes were parodied, and sketched what was known as the “Un-Natural History” series. Among these were such classic short fun films as “How the Elephant Got His Trunk,” “The Leopard’s Spots,” “The Cat’s Whiskers” and others.
Most of these have long since folded their wings and passed into oblivion as have more recent efforts, such as “Out of the Inkwell,” from the pen of Max Fleischer, and “Felix the Cat,” as well as a number of films based on newspaper comic strips.
The advent of talking pictures and the subsequent necessity for vocalizing the inanimate figures is blamed for the passing of these once-popular strips.

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