Saturday, 24 July 2021

How Sound Changed Cartoons

Walter Lantz was a survivor.

His cartoons weren’t as wild and lippy as ones out of Warner Bros. They didn’t have the stunning animation of Disney. But he put them on the screen from the late ‘20s to the early ‘70s with, arguably, only one real A-list character after 1940.

He had an A-list character before 1940, who petered out as the 1930s moved along. His silent star, Oswald the rabbit, made the jump into sound. How much of a transition was it? Lantz himself supplies some answers in this story found in an Australian newspaper of July 17, 1937. It was no small accomplishment; the studio (and others) had to completely rethink how they put together a cartoon. Now everything had to be timed to the beat of the music.

Looking In At The Making Of A Cartoon

THE animated cartoon was once a catch-penny device. It was thrown in with the rest of a picture programme. If you found the awkward, jumping pen-and-ink, figures amusing, you stayed to watch.. If not, you walked out of the theatre, feeling you hadn't missed a thing.
A radical change has occurred with the production of cartoons in atmospheric sound and speech effects, with the application of color, and the development of a psychology in the public demand for satire and fantasy in unique combination.

THERE were a few individuals, like Walt Disney and Max Fleischer," states Mr. Walter Lantz, who is producing Oswald Rabbit cartoons for Universal, "who dedicated their life's work to making the animated cartoon a thing of beauty, interest and artistry. So many improvements have been introduced in these crude, irregular short films that they have now become one of the most popular forms of screen entertainment. Grown-ups, no less than children, love the amusing drawings and the fleeting escape from a hard, practical world into delightful realms of fancy.
"To-day, from 40 to 200 people actually work on the making of a single cartoon feature, which usually runs from 600 to 800 feet in length, and costs from 1600 to 15,000 for the same amount of footage. Each cartoon screen strip contains from 12,000 to 15,000 Individual drawings, and an animator—the artist who executes the sketches—averages about 60 of these drawings a day.
"Besides the animators, there is a separate crew of musicians, vocalists and actors. Each of these men or women is a specialist chosen exclusively for the character sound effects required in the picture.
Synchronising the Music.
"The business of making animated cartoons with sound is a much more difficult and complicated process than in the silent picture days. Back in 1926 [sic], when I first started producing the adventures of Oswald, the Lucky Rabbit, for Universal, we never worried very much about a story plot. We just said, ‘This week we will make 600 feet of Oswald Rabbit going to the North Pole,’ and then permitted the story to take care of itself, ambling on in a rather haphazard fashion, in relation to the gags inserted. To-day the scenarios for film cartoons must be planned, written and set to music with as much care and thought as any screen drama. For instance, the action must exactly fit the sound track. Four hundred bars of music mean 800 feet of action, two feet of action being counted to every bar of music. If in the story also Oswald is required to run to a certain place, the music accompanying the running hops must be speeded up to synchronise with the ever-changing drawings to the exact moment of Bunny's arrival. The scenario is perfectly timed, and the tempo of the music in relation to it is tested repeatedly until both fit identically.

Magnified for Testing.
"Wherever talking is introduced a sound recording is made of the voice and the words to be used. Then the film is placed under a magnifying glass in order that each syllable of each word can be picked out separately and measured for length. Naturally, some of the syllables are long and some short, so the animator must accelerate or slow up his action drawings accordingly. Of course, no two of those thousands of pen-drawn pictures, which take on the movements of life when run off in rapid succession, are identical; each differs in a very slight degree from its preceding one. And when once the actual animating of the drawings begins no changes are made. So that not one foot of film is ever wasted.
"In the early stages of celluloid comics when only blacks and whites were used, a few sketchy lines were considered sufficient as backgrounds. Now photographic backgrounds are often combined with the drawings.
Application of Color.
"Color in its application represents another big progressive step. This is obtained by placing sheets of celluloid over the line drawings and painting in any desired color on the celluloid. In this way the original black and white lines are blotted out.
"The majority of creators of animated cartoons have entered the screen world after experience as newspaper comic strip artists. Besides developing a facility for drawing very rapidly, the cartoonist soon possesses an eye carefully trained to the foibles and frailties, the vanities, eccentricities and humorous quirks of his fellow creatures. He acquires a deep insight into human nature and, with tongue in cheek, he gets and gives a lot of fun by transferring his whimsical slant on human beings to animals and puppets.
"Two men right here on the lot both started out in life as ‘comic strippers,’ James Whale and Gregory la Cava. Long before he produced Journey's End and directed the film Show Boat, Whale drew 'funnies' for two publications in London, and la Cava, who directed My Man Godfrey, used to do comics for the New York American in 1915, when I, too, was drawing for that paper. Both of us gave up newspaper work with the intention of making screen cartoons."

Eventually, Lantz ran out of story plots for Oswald and tried a menagerie of unfunny characters. Fortunately, he was able to jump on the “brash heckler” bandwagon, thanks to a guy who came from Warner Bros., where he had put a rabbit in a duck suit. While Warners greatly modified its rabbit so he became a whole new character, Lantz put Ben Hardaway’s rabbit in a woodpecker suit and onto the screen for the next 32 years.


  1. Hans Christian Brando24 July 2021 at 17:53

    Walter Lantz needn't have been so modest. By 1937 he was making better cartoons than Fleischer (except for Popeye).

  2. " Back In 1926, when I first started producing the adventures of Oswald, the Lucky Rabbit, for Universal,". I think Lantz got the date wrong, It was around 1928 when Walter Lantz became Director for those Oswald cartoons. As in 1926, He was still working at Bray Productions in New York.