The Fleischer Brothers had made cartoons using Lee DeForest’s Phonofilm system as early as 1925. Their first, My Old Kentucky Home, included some synchronized sound of a character playing a trombone and speaking the line “Now let’s all follow the bouncing ball and sing along.” Later Fleischer cartoons using this sound system seem to have only a musical score added with no attempt at synchronization (Cabarga 34).
While in N.Y. to record the soundtrack for Steamboat Willie, Disney saw an Aesop’s Fable cartoon with sound. Disney wrote to his brother Roy in California, “It merely had an orchestra playing and adding some noises. The talking part does not mean a thing. It doesn’t even match. We sure have nothing to worry about from these quarters” (quoted in Bob Thomas 92). Disney was confident because he conceived of sound cartoons in a specific way; he valued the tight synchronization of picture and sound.
Disney’s shift to the production of sound cartoons was born out of desperation. Prior to the creation of Mickey Mouse, Disney had been producing silent Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons for producer Charles Mintz and Universal. When it came time to renew the contract, Mintz insisted that Disney take a $450 cut in the budget of each cartoon or he would take the character and a majority of Disney’s staff away and produce the series himself. Disney couldn’t meet the price cut, so he left the meeting without a character, a distributor, and a large percentage of his staff (Maltin 34).
With his remaining staff, Disney created Mickey Mouse and started to produce cartoons without having a distributor. Two cartoons, Plane Crazy and Gallopin’ Gaucho (both 1928) were produced as silent films. The third Mickey Mouse cartoon, Steamboat Willie (1928), was conceived from the start as a film with a soundtrack (Maltin 34). Disney needed something to differentiate his cartoon series from his competition; the cartoons had to be distinctive enough to gain a distribution contract or the studio would have no income.
When starting Steamboat Willie, the Disney staff had struggled with how to achieve synchronization. Wilfred Jackson, then an assistant animator, brought in a metronome. Jackson’s mother was a music teacher. As Disney knew that sound film would be projected at 24 frames per second, they were able to work out a relationship between the metronome and film frames. This allowed them to use the metronome to plan the action of the entire cartoon in advance, before the musical score was recorded and the film was animated (Barrier, Hollywood 51).
Exposure sheets existed as an animation tool in the silent era, at least as early as 1916 (Barrier, Hollywood 28). An exposure sheet is a chart that indicates which drawings are to be photographed for each frame of film. During the silent era, the exposure sheet would be prepared after the animation was drawn (J. B. Kaufman 30). Because there was no soundtrack to worry about, the timing of the animation could be changed with little problem. With sound, in order to maintain synchronization, the exposure sheets needed to be planned in advance of animation, so that the animator would know which frames would match a musical beat or a sound effect.
Each horizontal line represents one frame of film. The vertical numbers in the colunms labeled 1 and 2 are drawings that will be photographed for that frame. From Animation by Preston Blair.
Disney developed a new tool for use with exposure sheets called bar sheets. These sheets were essentially musical manuscript paper. One musical staff would include the score and a parallel staff would include the action. Bar sheets took up less space than exposure sheets because they didn’t need space for drawing numbers, camera information, etc. Once the action was plotted on a bar sheet relative to the musical score, the information would be transferred to exposure sheets that were sent to the animators (Barrier, Hollywood 51).
A detail of a bar sheet from the Warner Bros. cartoon Shuffle Off to Buffalo. You can see how action has been planned to work with the musical beats. Courtesy of the ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive and Mark Kausler.
As a result, Steamboat Willie was more tightly synchronized than any sound cartoon had previously been. “As Disney was well aware, he was now far ahead of any other cartoon producer in his mastery of sound” (Barrier, Hollywood 54).
This approach to timing cartoons became an industry standard. Director and musical director would collaborate on choosing tempos for each section of a cartoon. The director would plan out the cuts and action to work to the musical beat and the animator had to stick to the beat in order to maintain synchronization.
In effect, this approach to synchronizing animation and sound turned all cartoons into the equivalent of musicals. There might be no singing or dancing within a cartoon, but the pacing of the action is still dictated by the musical tempo. Animators were dominated by the musical beat in the same way as dancers. This creates a unified approach to timing, forcing all the animators on a film (and all working on a single character) to adhere to a preset pace. It prevents individual animators from using timing as a means of expression. To use a live action analogy, Walter Kerr talks about how Oliver Hardy’s sense of pace altered silent comedy.
“It was Hardy’s personal rhythm, a rhythm that has been recognized as that of a “Southern gentleman,” that determined the new pace at which both men were to work and to which silent comedy would be forced to accommodate itself. In taking over from [Stan] Laurel as go-getter, as initiator of all catastrophe, Hardy could not behave as the impetuous Laurel had behaved in the role, or as virtually all two reel runaway clowns had eagerly behaved before him. They had sprinted from square one, as though in response to a starter’s gun; there would be further gunshots along the way to make them go faster and faster. Hardy heard music instead, the soothing guidance of a steady 2/4 beat, the mellifluous promptings of a chastely tuned pianoforte” (Kerr 329).Once the decision to pre-time cartoons to a musical soundtrack was made, it became impossible for individual animators to affect pace in the way that someone like Hardy could. The director and the musical director controlled the pace of a character’s motion, not the animator.
The reliance on the musical beat at Disney loosened by the end of World War II. At that point, dialog sequences were post-scored with music the same way that a live action film would be. By the time Cinderella was in production in the late ‘40’s, even action sequences were no longer timed to music (Barrier, Hollywood 399). However, musical beats remained an integral part of cartoon timing at studios like Warner Bros. and MGM.