Thursday 1 November 2012

The Sound - Narrative Relationship Explored

What is sounds relationship with animated narrative and direction?

In order to establish and develop understanding about this relationship we must look it’s birth. Without trying to open the can of worms centred on the question of which was the first fully synchronised animation and sound audio-visual, the popular – and very much disputed idea – is that Disney’s Steamboat Willie was the first.

To illustrate the passion the topic can produce, I have found a conversation spreading from a book over to the Internet between Stephen Cavalier, Rodney Baker and Mark Mayerson. Initially the conversation begins when Mayerson commented on the errors found in Cavaliers’ book The World History of Animation. The blog post commented:

On page 97, Cavalier says that Steamboat Willie was half finished before Disney made the decision to make it a sound cartoon. This is wrong. The synchronization that is Steamboat Willie's great advance was due to planning the musical beats in advance of animation.’ (Mayerson 2012)

This instigated a response from Baker via his blog that questioned the validity of Mayersons’ comments on this particular subject. Baker says:

‘The most compelling evidence to suggest Cavalier is at least mostly correct is the storyboard for ‘Steamboat Willie’. Note how right after the “-Main Title” there are very specific instructions for a live orchestra. The way it is written cannot be instructions for and orchestra enlisted to record a sound movie because of its suggestion to create various arrangements coupled with its emphasis to hit certain cues. I must say it certainly reads as written for a live performing orchestra. If the film was not intented [Intended] for live orchestra accompaniment then this document’s origin should be considered suspect.

…My thought: Since at this time not all theaters [theatres] were likely equipped to play sound in sync with moving pictures, Disney probably targeted theaters [theatres] both with and without the technology. Given that cartoons were often held onto and reworked until they fit into proper scheduling, I think it reasonable to say Walt Disney originally did not plan the movie to be gifted with sound but saw the opportunity and took advantage of it. (I seem to recall the xsheets/draft indicate several strategic additions to allow Mickey some breathing space…. I’m willing to guess it was for sound).
At a minimum, the storyboard suggests the author’s assertion of the film being half way done before shifting to sound may require further thought. Knowing Cavalier’s reference would certainly shed some more light on the subject.’ (Baker 2012)

Baker goes on to question Mayersons ability to spot mistakes. Mayerson responded:

‘…I need to say that not everything I note ends up being an error. Many times I question things that turn out to be right. Rodney, my system is dead simple. When I'm reading, if I find anything that might be wrong, I write the page number down on my bookmark. Once I'm done, I return to the pages I've selected and then compare the information with other books on my shelf or with information that's online…I need to say that not everything I note ends up being an error. Many times I question things that turn out to be right.’ (Mayerson 2012)

Cavalier accepts and lists the reasons for many of the errors highlighted by Mayerson and says they will be amended for the new addition of the book. With regard to Steamboat Willie, Cavalier says:

‘Steamboat Willie- In the accounts I've read (ie Charles Solomon's Enchanted Drawings, Leonard Maltin's Of Mice and Men), a test screening was arranged with the film, in Disney’s words, 'half finished'. The silent film was projected and the sound effects were produced live in another room. The audience reaction was very positive and they then went ahead with the production. As this was a test as to whether the sound worked with an audience, then it seems to me that the decision about viability of sound hadn't been fully made at that point.’ (Mayerson 2012)

Finally, Mayerson responded with:

‘No one disputes that Steamboat Willie had a proof of concept screening when it was half finished to see if the idea of synchronized sound would work with animation. However, on page 97 you wrote, "The movie was already finished as a silent short before Disney had the idea to make it a synchronized sound film." The decision to make Steamboat Willie with sound was made before the short was started, as everything in the film is animated to a musical beat.’ (Mayerson 2012)

The significance of the subject and the way people define the different areas of audio present in animation could be causing the confusion. Mayersons last comment doesn’t expend on what type of sound was decided on, though he hints that it was a musical score [albeit through tempo] rather than a sound effect. This is important for a number of reasons; a live orchestra could play a musical score. Sound effects, one would assume, would be more difficult, as a musical score playing at a certain tempo could keep in time with the animation if it, and Kaufman (1997) confirms this. Meaning the music may not have been pre-determined in its finished form, but merely a foundation for a score to be produced from. In his book Animators Survival Kit Richard Williams describes the process of sound synchronisation development in two phases:

The first - ‘The Felix cartoons led straight to the arrival of Walk Disney, and in 1928, Micky Mouse took off with his appearance in Steamboat Willie – the first cartoon with synchronised sound.’ [Emphasis added on the latter]

The second - ‘Disney followed Steamboat Willie with The Skeleton Dance. For the first time, action was co-ordinated with a proper musical score.’ (Williams 2009 p.18)

Steve Roberts talks about the relationship between sound and animation and also makes the assertion that Steamboat Willie was somehow the first animated production.

‘Ever since the very first animated productions, Disneys steamboat Mickey and Fischinger’s abstract film Brahm’s Hungarian Dances, it was clear that there is a strong relationship between animation and music. This relationship can be explained on two accounts. First both elements have a basic mathematical foundation and move at a determined speed. Second, since animation is created manually frame-by-frame, it can be fitted to music in a very exact manner. It is further able to capture its rhythm, its mood and hit the beat right to the frame. Most animation makes good use of this advantage.’  (Halas and Whittaker 1981 p.130)

Where Roberts uses the term production, it’s difficult to establish if he means a production with sound or production in general. If it’s the latter this is incredibly hard to believe considering Felix the Cat and Ko-Ko the Clown had been produced since 1924, whereas Steamboat Willie was produced in 1928 (McLaughlin 2001). J.B. Kaufman highlights the ambiguous nature of the topic further. In the paper, The Transcontinental making of the barn dance, he states:

‘It is an unbroken rule in film history: for every film that has achieved recognition as a classic or milestone, other equally noteworthy films lie forgotten in the shadows. The early “Mickey Mouse” cartoons of Walt Disney are a case in point.’ (Kaufman 1997 p.36)

Steamboat Willie did have two predecessors, Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho, but these were not released until after Steamboat Willie. The reasoning was ‘that Disney could, technically, approach distributors with three sound films…However, of the three, only Steamboat Willie had been designed to exploit the sound medium to maximum effect.’ Referring to the previous discussion above between Baker, Cavalier and Mayerson, this ‘design’ was that of a pre-planned beat.

‘Dinner Time [by Paul Terry] (1928) is perhaps the most significant cartoon in animation history that no one has ever seen. It was one of the few synchronized sound cartoons produced before (though released after) Disney’s Steamboat Willie. It played a small but pivotal part in Walt Disney’s creation of his first Mickey Mouse sound cartoon. It was this film, shown to Walt in New York on the cusp of recording his track for Steamboat Willie, that gave him the confidence to press on with his plans.’ (Brewmasters 2008)

There is however another that claims to be the first sound cartoon, and that is Max Fleischers Ko-Ko song car-tunes. Some had been made and recorded with the Phonofilm sound-on-film process in 1924 (Furniss 2007). However, watching these back one can clearly see that animation and sound isn’t synchronised effectively and doesn’t inform the timing or pacing of the animation. The only aspect synced with any unified purpose is the ‘famous bouncing ball’ (as it states on the DVD casing). The process for creating the effect of the bouncing ball is told by Bernard Fleischer (son of Lou Fleischer):

‘They worked out a situation where they put the lyrics on a drum, which would be turned as needed, and my dad had a laton[? Stick] which was all black except it had a white ball on the end, and he wore a black glove and he would actually bounce the ball and the drum would turn to the next set of lyrics.’ (Fleicher 2002)

The only truly synced part of the shorts was not animated. This explains the expression of calling them series ‘The first sound cartoon ever!’ This is an important distinction. The term sound, void of synchronised, is the first and opposing stage of the relationship between action and audio. Audio has no influence on performance and is merely an accompaniment. This stage would also include Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho because they had been animated with no pre-planning for audio synchronisation, as the idea to include this was an afterthought (Kaufman 1997). The second stage could be seen as what Richard Williams calls the First phase, where sound and action are synchronised at a predetermined level. The second stage can appear quite ambiguous, especially when you could consider both Steamboat Willie and The Skeleton Dance to be in the latter despite having clear differences. Although Williams says The Skeleton Dance followed Steamboat Willie, in this regard he means in animation innovation as opposed to a chronological release and production. As Kaufman (1997) highlights there were other Mickey Mouse releases after Steamboat Willie such as The Barn Dance.

The Silly Symphonies, as Williams (2009) describes, sees music take a more central role rather than the extended accompaniment previously. According to Mayerson (2006), a reason for this is ‘because the marriage of picture and sound was one of the main selling points of cartoons in the early '30's, directors had to deal with musical beats in order to make the films work.’ To find what ignited the prominence of music as a central driving force for the action we have to look back to Steamboat Willie.

‘He [Disney] knew that, if steamboat Willie did achieve a popular success, it would be essential to follow it up immediately with other films… The first, unsuccessful recording session for steamboat Willie had taken place on 15 September and, after hearing results, Walt had a much better understanding of post-synchronization. The main problem was not synchronizing the music – which rolled along at a steady, predictable tempo – but synchronizing the sound effects, which popped up at random intervals and difficult to anticipate.’ (Kaufman 1997 pp.37-38)

It was only natural that Disney would evolve into the Silly Symphonies. Disney was very conscious of not repeating gags and staying ahead of the competition (Kaufman 1997) and this is not surprising.

In search for the differentiation to separate the two types of predetermined sound – action relationships (stage two), the Warner Bros offer a similar reflection. Maureen Furniss cites Scott Curtis

‘… He finds that ‘ostensibly’ the Warner Bros. series split worked on the same principle as disney’s, that is, action taking precedence in the Looney Tunes and music guiding action in the “Merry Melodies” … He also indicates that, while most of the scoring for the “Looney Tunes” series was recorded after the production of images, the music director was still consulted at the beginning of the process, so that timing could be indicated on sheets of written music.’ (Furniss 2007 p.104)

The two statements present the central difference. Music guiding action can be seen as the third and final stage. Where action holds narrative importance, such as Steamboat Willie, it should be seen as action taking precedence, and The Silly Symphonies, can be seen as music guiding action. Although Steamboat Willie was designed to exploit sound with the pre-planned beat, it only holds up for part of the film and falls back to be freed from the musical structure, allowing action to be timed freely. The Skeleton Dance however, uses both musical timing and pitch as a means to manipulate movement from start to finish, and although with a linear narrative structure (start and end), the importance of the action is secondary to the music, and it’s the last statement that defines the third stage.

However, music guiding action was not without its issues, according to Maureen Furniss who cites Chuck Jones in Animation Aesthetics (2007), the concept of sound driving action developed the expression ‘Micky Mousing’, which was ‘being used to describe a situation when sound and visual elements are deemed to be too tightly matched.’ Thus, ‘music guiding action’ became a limited technique and is often saved for more abstract and non-linear narratives. It is still important for budding animators to learn as John Kricfalusi points out:

‘I'm convinced that the quickest way to learn the basics of animation is to start by animating fundamental animation techniques using rubber hose designs. I mean Hell, it worked for all the greatest animators in our history. It could work for you too and you the advantage because you have their stuff to study. They didn't have any reference. They were making it up from scratch through trial and error. Animating to a regular beat teaches you: … Rhythmic timing: it feels better- imagine a song with no beat, it wouldn't be much fun. It would meander. General timing - you get used to what different amounts of frames feel like - what 12x feels like as opposed to 8x. Classic animators and directors were like drummers. They automatically thought of their scenes as rhythms and that helped make their timing so crisp.’ (Kricfalusi 2007)

Just as the first conversation above illustrates, it can produce a heated discussion among animation historians. And although Cavaliers information was incorrect, it is still the ambiguous nature of the topic that causes such debates. Searching the question ‘what was the first animated sound film?’ and one is presented with a variety of responses, each claiming to be correct – and all could be – depending on the interpretation of the definition of the word synchronised. Paul Wells suggests the narrative and action relationship could be seen as the Chicken and Egg question, he says:

‘In arguing for the autonomy of the composer and music itself, Halas fundamentally drew attention to animations ‘Chicken or Egg’ question – Should music be written and recorded before the animation, or synchronized after? In the first instance, the soundtrack essentially delineates the nature of the visuals, as evident in the more abstract works, which have often used music formally as a creative stimulus or a kind of illustration, either of the lyrics of a song or of a popular, often narrative based or symbolically charged instrument melody. In the latter instance, the soundtrack is always subservient to the needs of the visuals with regard to the post-dubbing lip – synced dialog, diegetic sound or atmospheric, mood-determining music.’ (Coyle 2010 p.45)


In searching for a place to start my master’s program, I first had thoughts surrounding where my previous research had ended. Sounds relationship to narrative and performance had influenced the results, and my curiosity and need for further understanding of why it played such an influential role seemed a logical place to start. I had anticipated this would be where my research this year would lead. After further rationalising I realised the sound – narrative relationship in all its forms (abstract, linear and non-linear) would be too big from initial research. Realising I want to use this opportunity to produce a piece of animated character performance to a portfolio standard, I decided the best approach would be to explore the first steps of sound and animation synchronisation and move on.

The relationship between sound and animation was an evolving process. Evidence of this is apparent by the multiple ideas expressed from various sources explaining which was the first synchronised sound animation. Each of the ideas can be acceptable, but only through merit with clear definition (which most have struggled to define). Through the course of the document the interpretations have been categorised into three stages:

1)   Action and Audio = no pre-determined concept of sound integration with action, but sound can be added later. The narrative takes complete lead over action. (Max Fleicher’s My Old Kentucky Home; Disney’s Gallopin’ Gaucho and Plane Crazy; Beuren Studios’ Dinner time)

2)   Co-ordinated Action and Sound = some pre-determined concept of sound in the planning stage, but action/narrative takes majority lead role. (Steamboat Willie)

3)   Music guiding Action = Pre-determined concept of sound in the planning stage and takes lead over any narrative forms and ideas. (The Skeleton Dance (Silly Symphonies) and Merry Melodies)

Each process can be interpreted as synchronisation. Each stage involves a relationship between the visual and audio senses. In the quest to answer ‘which was the first’, further into the discussion (outside of this document) one can see how technology allowed progression onto the next stage. This can also influence an individual’s response to the question. This has been purposely avoided in this discussion because the overall objective was to rationalise sounds influence on narrative and establish the different forms of the relationship. These forms were explored and evolved when sound was exploited for market purposes.

In answer the bigger question, why did the audio affect the outcome of the animation in my previous research? It is clear by the three identified stages that the third stage had been used as the process. Using pre-recorded audio had shaped the action, timing and performance. I had highlighted this at the time, but what I didn’t understand was the context of the process and its relationship with other processes. Now I understand the context, my future research and practice will produce better-informed choices.

Baker, R., 2012. Steamboat Willie: The Sound of Transformation. Newartofanimation [online blog], 17 January. Available at: [accessed 20 October 2012]

Brewmasters. 2008. Cartoon Brew TV 3: Dinner Time by Paul Terry and John Fisher. Cartoon Brew [online blog], 29 September. Available at: [accessed 1 November 2012]

Coyle, R., 2010. Drawn to Sound. London: Equinox.

Furniss, M., 2007. Art in Motion: Animation Aesthetics. Revised ed. Eastleigh UK: John Libbey.

Furniss, M., 2008. The Animation Bible. London: Lawrence King.

Kaufman, J.B., 1997. The Transcontinental Making of the Barn Dance. Animation Journal, 5(2), pp.36-44

Kricfalusi, J., 2007. Animation Course Level 1, Lesson 1 – The Beat – Kali Does Bosko. John K Stuff [online blog], 5 August. Available at: [Accessed 9 October 2012]

Mayerson, M., 2012. Review: The World History of Animation. Mayerson on Animation [online blog], 15 January. Available at: [accessed 20 October 2012]

Max Fleischer’s Ko-Ko Song Car-tunes, 2002. [DVD]. Morley Avenue, Michigan: Inkwell Images, 2002. [Region 0]

Mclaughlin, D., 2002. A Rather Incomplete But Still Fascinating History of Animation [online][accessed 27 October 2012]

Halas, J. and Whittaker, H., 1981. Timing for Animation. Focal Press.

Williams, R., 2009. The Animators Survival Kit. Expanded ed. London: Faber and Faber.

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