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Saturday, May 03, 2008

Synchronizing Mickey

Without a doubt, the single most important event for Walt Disney's success was the success of Mickey Mouse. "Let's not forget, it all started with a mouse..." And the most important reason Mickey was a success? Synchronization! Steamboat Willie is considered, not as the first sound cartoon, but the first cartoon with a character that is perfectly synchronized to the sound track, when this was still a novelty. When the Colony Theater in New York opened its doors on November 18th, 1928, theatergoers were excited because they watched a cartoon character seemingly have a life of its own, with sound. That was Walt's big breakthrough, and the reason his company is still around. So... How did they set about it? Ok, here goes, off the top of my head...

After Walt was unable to secure distribution for his first silent Mickey cartoons Plane Crazy and Gallopin' Gaucho, he decided that the breakthrough he needed was sound. But he did not know how to do this. Wilfred "Jaxon" Jackson, at the time mainly Ub Iwerks' assistant who had a little musical knowledge, suggested using a metronome, and breaking the soundtrack up into musical beats. It could then be established easily, how many frames of screen time there would be between the beats. They set about animating Steamboat Willie, and had a projection of the first scenes at the Hyperion Avenue studio, with Roy Disney projecting this reel through a back window, while the animators made sound effects etc. This is all very well established and documented. Then, when the film was finished, Walt went to Kansas City to have Carl Stalling score the two previous silent films, and then off to New York to have this score recorded with an orchestra, conducted by a Carl Edouarde. The first recordings were a disaster. The conductor could not figure out to follow the action on the screen well enough to have the orchestra stay "together," and the result was cacophony.

When Walt wired reports of this back to Roy Disney on the West Coast, a system was devised to give the conductor a visual aid: a bouncing ball was drawn in the side of the film, in the sound track area. As Walt said later, in a 1963 CBC interview: "We had a little thing, a little ball that went up and down... and they were all musicians working for me, see, and they would follow this thing, and they would go AAH! or they would go BENG! or they would pop one of those pop guns. And it would always fit!"

Steamboat Willy was finally recorded using this system, and they must have been excited about the results, because before the opening of the film, the system was already patent-applied-for, in the name of Roy O. Disney...
Obviously it wasn't all about drawing funny drawings: without the technology, they would not have amounted to much.

Now - saying it would ALWAYS fit was seemingly a bit of an overstatement. For after this, they devised ways of having lines in the picture areas, and finally they hit upon one of the most universally used devices in the world of cinema: the Click Track! The patent, which outlines the history, as well, was applied for in the name of engineer Bill Garity, who had several patents to his name already, for vacuum tubes and the like, from before he came to work at Disney's Studio. The click track has often been ascribed to Ub Iwerks, but he left the studio several months before this patent application, so who knows...
Note the spelling mistake in the reference to the (previous) companion application, where the inventor is mentioned as Roy E. Disney. At the time of filing, Roy Edward was four months old...

To top things off and to corner the market, Walt, Jaxon and Garity applied for an all-inclusive patent that outlined the system of musical beats and how this related to the recording stage. To simplify matters, they tell of exposure sheets in stead of bar sheets, but the principle is the same. Then it shows how the orchestra will be able to hear the beats - or feel them, through some ticking bracelet...
The rest, as they say, is history. Musical timing--to the beat--started as being the only way of synchronizing the films, and it has been a very important part of cartoon production all the way up to the 50's, where more often it was abandoned because some directors felt it was a crutch. If used correctly it is more a backbone than a crutch, and it certainly is worth getting back into the director's bag of tricks!

Check out more about bar sheets here on this blog. I have written a little metronome program to go with the bar sheets, so you can try this out yourself, which you can find here. As I stated earlier, I'd love to hear comments, and it would be great if readers would try to make bar sheets based on some of the early Disney shorts, or at least try to analyze the beats used. Not all directors worked in the same way, and this could be an interesting area for study!

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Anonymous Robert Cowan says...

Hans - An absolutely excellent article! Understanding these elements makes it easier to produce a tighter video on the home computer. Great work.

Saturday, May 3, 2008 at 10:06:00 PM PDT  
Anonymous Michael Sporn says...

This is just one brilliant post. The archival material is stunning and your article is so concise and precise. Thank you for sharing with us, Hans. The information you offer here is enormous.

Saturday, May 10, 2008 at 5:52:00 AM PDT  
Anonymous Hans Perk says...

Thanks, Bob and Mike - this is the stuff that makes my heart beat faster ;-)

Saturday, May 10, 2008 at 2:52:00 PM PDT  

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