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Experimentation with Sound

Sound technology breaks the silence of the movies and revolutionizes filmmaking.


Steamboat Willie

Walt Disney, Ub Iwerks
(American, 1901–1966)

1928. 35mm film (black and white, sound), 8 min.

Though it may seem like Mickey Mouse has always been with us, this most well-known of cartoon characters sprang to animated life on November 18, 1928. The high-spirited, mischievous mouse debuted in Steamboat Willie, a short film designed and animated by Ub Iwerks, the chief animator with the then-nascent Walt Disney Company, with direction from Walt Disney. They cast Mickey Mouse as a shipmate on a steamboat captained by a surly cat. Scheduled to be the opening for a feature-length film, Steamboat Willie was given an initial modest run at the Colony Theater in New York. But audiences and critics went wild for the impish, round-bellied mouse and for the premiere of the first cartoon with synchronized sound. Two weeks later, Steamboat Willie was re-released at the Roxy, also in New York, and the largest theater in the world at the time. It made silent animation obsolete and launched the Disney empire.

Before the runaway success of Steamboat Willie, Iwerks and Disney had made two shorts centered on their new Mickey Mouse character. Both were silent; neither interested distributors. So Disney changed course. With the success of The Jazz Singer in mind, he directed Iwerks to craft a cartoon specifically for sound. Iwerks delivered a symphony, turning nearly everything in it into an instrument. The three whistles atop the steamship—a merry vessel despite its snarling captain—trill out musical notes along with puffs of steam. Mickey Mouse turns the farm animals and kitchenware on the ship into various instruments, squeezing a duck like bagpipes, for example, or playing a cow’s teeth like xylophone keys. Meanwhile, the ship’s wheel creaks, its smokestacks puff heartily, and background music moves the action along—there is never a silent moment in this cartoon.

Disney wanted the sound in Steamboat Willie to correspond with the images. He brought the completed animation to a studio in New York to record its soundtrack with a 17-piece orchestra and three sound effects professionals. But their first attempt failed as the orchestra struggled to keep time with the cartoon’s action. For their second attempt, the animators added a bouncing ball to the filmstrip, which was overlaid onto the images to indicate the tempo at which the orchestra should play. (The ball was removed for the film’s final cut). This solved the problem and resulted in a precisely synched sound animation.

Walt Disney, quoted in Dave Smith, “Steamboat Willie,” Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/programs/static/national-film-preservation-board/documents/steamboat_willie.pdf.

Sounds that are most often added during editing, rather than recorded at the time of filming. Sound effects take a number of different forms. For example, “spot effects” are single sounds, like a gunshot or a thunderclap, and “atmospheres” are continuous sounds, like rain or traffic. Sounds may be directly linked to the action that appears in the shot, like footsteps, or they may provide information about what can’t be seen on the screen, like an approaching train or birdsong.

Today, any film running for 40 minutes or less and therefore not considered long enough to be a feature-length film.

1. A series of moving images, especially those recorded on film and projected onto a screen or other surface (noun); 2. A sheet or roll of a flexible transparent material coated with an emulsion sensitive to light and used to capture an image for a photograph or film (noun); 3. To record on film or video using a movie camera (verb).

A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.

Disney Predicts: Sound Is Here to Stay
As he was about to embark on the first recording session for Steamboat Willie, Walt Disney wrote to his team at his California-based studio: “Sound effects and talking pictures are more than a mere novelty. They are here to stay and will develop into a wonderful thing. The ones that get in on the ground floor are the ones that will more likely profit by its future development. That is providing they work for quality and not quantity and quick money.”1 His words would prove resoundingly true not only for his own company but also for the entire motion picture industry. Less than a decade after Steamboat Willie, in 1937, Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first feature-length sound cartoon and another smashing success.

Struggles to Success: Disney’s Development
Walter Elias Disney was born in 1901 in Chicago to a family of modest means. In 1919, he met Ub Iwerks while working in commercial art studios in Kansas City. Three years later, the two started their own, ultimately unsuccessful, animation studio. Disney regrouped in California, forming the company we know today with his brother, Roy, as business manager and Iwerks as lead cartoonist. After releasing Steamboat Willie, the struggling company began to thrive and to introduce other characters—like Donald Duck and Goofy—into popular culture. As the American economy crumbled during the Great Depression, the Walt Disney Company rose, a paradox explained by the delight, even relief, that its cartoons brought to Americans and audiences worldwide, hungry for a respite from harsh daily realities.