Steamboat Willie

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USA, 1928

Director: Walt Disney

Production: Walt Disney Productions; black and white, 35mm, animation; length: 500 feet. Released 18 November 1928 in New York. Filmed in California.

Producers: Roy Disney and Walt Disney; scenario: Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks; sound recordist: P. A. Powers; music: Carl Stalling; animation supervisor: Ub Iwerks; animation: Wilfred Jackson, Les Clark, and Johnny Cannon.

Cast: Character voices by Walt Disney.



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* * *

Steamboat Willie—starring the most famous of cartoon mice, Mickey—has the distinction of being the very first sound cartoon. While that feat may not seem so remarkable in the context of modern sound technology, by 1928 standards it was a bold and potentially disastrous step on the part of Walt Disney. Not only was early equipment difficult and cumbersome to use, but Disney had to decide what cartoons should sound like. Since cartoons are totally fabricated, it was feared that sound might bring too much reality into play and shatter the illusion of make-believe. Luckily, Disney took a very logical (and correct) approach by using silly and bizarre sounds to match the characters and situations in his cartoons.

Up to this point Walt Disney's career was fairly active, but not secure. His Alice series had not been a profitable venture, and he lost the rights to the Oswald Rabbit character to his former partner Charles Mintz. In 1928 Disney and his chief animator Ub Iwerks developed a new character named Mickey Mouse. They made two cartoons with Mickey, Plane Crazy and Gallopin' Gaucho, but Disney was unable to find a distributor for the films. At this point Disney knew he had to find something unique to make his films stand out from all the others. He decided to take a risk by adding a musical soundtrack to his cartoon.

The most difficult aspect of making Steamboat Willie was the synchronization of picture and sound. For this reason, dialogue was kept to a bare minimum (with Walt Disney himself supplying the voices of his characters). The music for the cartoon was planned, although not scored, before any of the animation was begun. Since music can be broken down mathematically, the animation was drawn to follow a musical pattern. For example, if the music had two beats per second, the animation would hit a beat every 12 frames (based on 24 frames per second).

The last half of Steamboat Willie contains several excellent examples of the synchronization of action to music. In this sequence Mickey and Minnie play a version of "Turkey in the Straw" using barnyard animals as instruments. The early Mickey Mouse was a bit more crude than the sweet and lovable creature he eventually became. In this cartoon he pulls on a cow's udders, stretches a cat's tail, throws a mother pig and her babies across the room, and plays a cow's teeth like a xylophone. All of these actions fit into the beat of the music.

Because the synchronization between picture and sound was so important, Disney knew that his recording should use the sound-onfilm method rather than disc. In 1928 sound equipment was at a premium in Los Angeles, so Disney took his film to New York. The first attempt to record the soundtrack was not to his satisfaction, and Disney sold his car to finance a second attempt. His confidence in the project paid off. Steamboat Willie was a tremendous success and received terrific reviews. What started out as a novelty—the first sound-on-film cartoon—became the standard of cartoons to follow.

—Linda J. Obalil