Sound in Animation

1 Silent Film and Before

There were many precursors to animated film, including magic lantern projections, which were the early equivalent of today’s slide shows and Power Point presentations. Some incorporated animation in the form of movable images; for example, a small glass slide containing an arm that would move up and down. Magic lantern shows, as well as animated films up to the late 1920s, almost always were accompanied by live sound.

In these shows, sound was ever changing. Narrative was presented in the tradition of oral storytelling, and content could be adjusted to account for local audiences and topical news events. Sound effects could be created on the spot with a range of objects. Musical accompaniment was as ephemeral as narrative and sound effects, varying from screening to screening. In rare instances, original scores were produced for animated works made during the so-called silent era of film. For example, Wolfgang Zeller composed a score for Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (DE 1926), a film utilizing backlit cutouts that is generally acknowledged to be the first feature-length animation in history.

Some performers gained the status of star. Such was the case for Winsor McCay, a well-known comic-strip artist who presented early screenings of his Gertie the Dinosaur (US 1914) on stage, speaking to his character. In Japan, it was traditional for films to be accompanied by the performance of a benshi, or actor who vocalizes the parts of all the characters.

Narrative was also imparted through the use of intertitles or speech bubbles within a film, reflecting the influence of print comics during the early years of animated films. A good deal of early animation was built around physical comedy—an example is found in Felix the Cat, modeled after the silent film comedian Charlie Chaplin. In general, humor in physical comedy is expressed less through dialogue and more through acting out a series of gags.

Within the art world, especially in Europe, the silent era saw the beginnings of a filmmaking practice known as visual music. Filmmakers Viking Eggeling and Hans Richter created works that explored the possibilities of a visual language organized as a type of orchestration, with rhythmic components. The titles of their respective films, Symphonie Diagonale (DE 1925) and Rhythmus 21 (DE 1921), suggest the association that these silent abstract films have with musical structures.