‘Steamboat Willie’: The Sound of Transformation

Mark Mayerson posted an excellent review about the recently released book ‘The World History of Animation’ by Stephen Cavalier and lists a series of errors he discovered in the book. Importantly, the focus of the review is on the errors he found. As I read through, I was nodding my head in agreement until the following one…

Mark states:

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.

While I don’t know where Cavalier gets his idea for the movie being ‘half finished’ and then retooling as a sound cartoon, I am inclined to believe he correct for a number of reason. Space only permits me at this time to pursue one except to say that the argument suggesting planning musical beats in advance of animation began with ‘Steamboat Willie’ doesn’t hold up. Even before this film music was considered a very important part of animation. I’m no expert there so perhaps we can explore that aspect further after I’ve studied it.

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 for live orchestra accompaniment then this document’s origin should be considered suspect.

My thought: Since at this time not all theaters were likely equipped to play sound in sync with moving pictures, Disney probably targeted theaters 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.

Respectfully submitted for your consideration.

None of this detracts in the least from Mark’s review so everyone should check it out!
Mark’s Blog: http://mayersononanimation.blogspot.com/2012/01/review-world-history-of-animation.html

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About Rodney

Cartoonist and Animator! I'd tell you more but then I'll have to debrief you.
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4 Responses to ‘Steamboat Willie’: The Sound of Transformation

  1. Stephen Cavalier says:

    Hello Rodney
    Enjoyed your comments about Steamboat Willie, interesting stuff. I notice that a response that I posted to Mr Mayerson’s blog in which I address many of the issues he had with my book, has now gone up on there, somewhere under your comment. You might be interested to check it out as it talks more on this subject.
    Great site, keep up the good writing and Ill keep tuning in !
    Stephen Cavalier

  2. rodneyabaker says:

    Thanks for dropping in Stephen. To say that I appreciate you taking the time to comment would be quite an understatement especially in light of the information you posted in Mark Mayerson’s commentary. You cleared up some of the mystery for me about the nature of ‘Steamboat Willie’ when you referenced Leonard Maltin’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ and Charles Solomon’s ‘Enchanted Drawings’. (I regret to say that I do not have the latter book but would love to someday).

    If Maltin and Solomon have correctly attributed Walt Disney as stating the film was ‘half finished’ then that would certainly settle the case and (I think) beautifully shine light upon an incredibly important transitional time in animation history. It might even help us capture a moment in time of that tranformation and better reveal the people and processes involved in the transformation of cartoon animation. I can only assume this aspect is what made the event particularly noteworthy to Solomon and Maltin. Is the story absolutely true or perhaps polished by Walt himself a bit to help him sell talking cartoons? I dunno (yet). Perhaps more importantly it suggests a place for related discussions to begin.

  3. Megan says:

    Hi i am a student in Washington and would like to us your photo of the original “Steamboat Willie” in my National History Day project. Would that be okay?

    • rodneyabaker says:

      Megan,
      You certainly have my permission but keep in mind that the image is not my own to grant permission. As the image has historical value your usage certainly seems to fall within the terms of ‘fair use’ and that’s why you see the image here. Good luck with your project!

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