Sound in Animation

2 Early Sound Film

By the mid-1920s, sound film technologies were being developed and utilized as leading studios sought a competitive edge. For example, in the United States, Max and Dave Fleischer (well known for their Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons) utilized the Phonofilm process in many of their Song Car-Tunes films, beginning in May 1924.[1] Some of the films in this series were sing-alongs, in which viewers were encouraged to follow the bouncing ball that moved along printed lyrics on the screen. This process is said to be derivative of the Tri-Ergon system, which was developed in Germany and was the most significant sound film process in Europe during the early 1920s.[2] Both were sound-on-film processes, involving the printing of sound information onto the edge of a filmstrip.

Sound films became the norm in 1928, and over the next five years the technology spread throughout the world. The practices of visual music expanded at this time, as artists experimented with film as a way to extend the principles of sound, image, and (eventually) color correspondences theorized by Wassily Kandinsky and others interested in synesthesia and the mystical and spiritual components of art. Examples can be found in the work of Oskar Fischinger; for example, his abstract color films Kreise (Circles, DE 1933) and Radio Dynamics (US 1942). In 1931, Fischinger experimented with the emerging practice of drawn sound, extending his interest in abstract art into the realm of synthetic sound. Fischinger drew and photographed images into the audio portion of filmstrips in order to explore the correspondence between forms and the sounds they would generate.[3]

In the United States, Walt Disney was among the studios to quickly embrace sound. Steamboat Willie (US 1928) was the first of its films to include a synchronized sound-on-film process. This film introduced Mickey Mouse to the world through the use of Pat Powers’s Cinephone system, which was closely based on Phonofilm.[4] In the early Mickey Mouse series films (beginning in 1928), and especially in its other shorts series, the Silly Symphony films (US 1929–1939), Disney often closely correlated sound and image; the term Mickey Mousing soon came into use to describe work in which movements are tightly choreographed to sound.

Disney quickly learned the value of sound as a separate revenue stream, not just a novelty to sell its films. The song Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?, composed by Frank Churchill and presented in the Silly Symphony film Three Little Pigs (US 1933), became a best-selling single, and made the studio realize how valuable film music could be. Increasingly, songs were used as central points in Disney productions, and as a result the studio’s production of feature films, which commenced in 1937 with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (US), developed within the genre of the musical. Fantasia (US 1940) is the epitome of Disney’s interest in sound and image correlations. This film, originally titled The Concert Feature, is composed of eight musical segments, with no dialogue except for the vocal introduction of Deems Taylor as host of the event.

Other animation studios also valued animation as a means of showcasing music. Fleischer promoted musical properties of its parent studio, Paramount—for instance, in the 1933 film Snow White (US, dir. Dave Fleischer), starring Betty Boop and Ko-Ko the Clown, which features The St. James Infirmary Blues sung by Cab Calloway. In this instance, Calloway was used as the model for a character through the process of rotoscoping,[5] so that the singer’s highly recognizable movements were integrated into the animated figure singing his song.

Warner Bros. produced the series Looney Tunes (beginning in 1930) and Merry Melodies (beginning in 1933), which were largely structured to publicize the studio’s extensive music library. Warner Bros. was known for its innovative music and sound effects, created by composer Carl Stalling and sound editor Tregoweth Brown, both of whom joined the studio in the mid-1930s. Brown developed the studio’s signature zany sound effects created with all manner of sound recordings, such as jet engines and cowbells, among many others.

Mel Blanc was an important third component in Warner Bros.’s notable sound department. Blanc voiced the characters for Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and many other characters. As the 1930s progressed, Blanc and others became recognized as specialized voice actors in the field of animation. Also notable are Mae Questel, who was a voice for the Fleischer studio’s Betty Boop and Olive Oyl, and June Foray, who is best known for her voices at Jay Ward Productions. In this era, voice performers created personalities to match their characters, but the performers themselves were not considered to be stars by the general public.

The relationship of voices to onscreen characters is generally different in animated productions than in live-action works. In live action, it is typical to record voices as action is filmed, or in some cases to add dialogue after filming, in a process known as ADR (automatic dialogue replacement) or post-sync. In animation, a voice track often is recorded early in production, so images can be animated to it; in other words, visuals are created after the dialogue. Recording first allows lip-sync animation, or matching lip movements to dialogue. ADR also can be used in animation, if lip sync is not desired.

This process involved printing sound-wave information onto the filmstrip, which in turn represented sound information that would be read by the projection system. For an illustration, see The Complete Lee de Forest, online at For more on the history of sound on film, see also Donald Crafton, The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926–1931 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).  
The Tri-Ergon process was invented by Joseph Engl, Hans Vogt, and Joseph Massolle. De Forest apparently witnessed screenings of the technology in Europe and returned to the United States to create his own improved version.  
Producer Pat Powers initially attempted to obtain the Phonofilm process, but when he was unable to get it, he hired someone to create a system that was very similar.  
Rotoscoping involves the use of filmed live-action footage that is then projected onto paper, traced, and refilmed. An Effects Corner video by Scott Squires illustrates this process online at