Sound in Animation

by Maureen Furniss

1 Silent Film and Before

2 Early Sound Film

3 World War II and the Development of Television

4 The Rebirth of Animation


Animation is a varied practice involving the creation of movement through frame-by-frame manipulation of images and objects—either tangible materials (e.g., drawn, painted, or constructed) or virtual ones produced digitally (e.g., 2D Flash or 3D Maya figures). Throughout the history of motion picture production, sound has been paired with animation in a wide range of ways, both as an accompaniment for images and the inspiration for them.

Animation sound can be divided into the three general categories applicable to other forms of motion pictures: voice, music, and sound effects. While the soundtracks of live-action media typically are dominated by voice recordings, it is common in animation to find work that contains no spoken words at all, giving sound effects and music a relatively larger role in conveying meaning.


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.

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.

3 World War II and the Development of Television

World War II and the postwar period brought many changes to the world. During wartime, much of animation production turned to government-sponsored work accompanied by voice-over narration, which is typical of documentary or informational films. This method saves money because it avoids lip-synching, and it also facilitates clear dissemination of information, without the need for extensive animated movement to visualize it.

One of the most important of the postwar studios, United Productions of America (UPA), formed during wartime and later utilized voice-over in some of its most memorable narrative works, including Gerald McBoing Boing (US 1951), directed by Robert ‘Bobe’ Cannon. This is a film about a boy who speaks in sound-effect noises rather than words, with a story by Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss.

The 1940s saw the rise of the National Film Board of Canada, which had units devoted to both documentary and animation. Norman McLaren was head of animation, and explored a broad range of techniques—including synthetic sound. McLaren scratched, drew, and photographed images on the audio portion of many films, achieving great mastery of the techniques. A notable example is his film Neighbours (CA 1952), in which synthetic sounds complement the erratic movement of pixilated human actors.[6] Like McLaren, Len Lye was a pioneer of cameraless film techniques. Starting in the 1930s, he painted directly onto celluloid, experimenting with different ways of working on the surface of film. To make Free Radicals (US 1958/1979), Lye scratched into black leader to create a hypnotic viewing and listening experience, his images accompanying drum music credited to the Bagirmi tribe of Africa. Lye also created kinetic sculpture, often very large in scale, and was particularly interested in their sonic qualities.

During the period following World War II, major shifts in animation production occurred in two opposing ways: one through the development of television programs mainly for children, and the other through expansion into more adult-oriented production. By the end of the 1950s, animated television programming was growing, partly due to the economics of a limited animation style that favored dialogue over action—talking figures that moved relatively little. The Japanese television animation industry embraced limited animation techniques from its beginnings with Osamu Tezuka’s Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy, JP 1963–1966). Hanna-Barbera and Filmation are among the American studios that were associated with this style. During the 1960s, the use of laugh tracks in television was developed as a sound effect—suggesting the presence of a live audience in Hanna-Barbera’s The Flintstones (US 1960–1966), for example. This effect replicated the aesthetics of live-action situation comedies of the day.

The development of adult-oriented work coincided with larger trends in film production. Teen audiences were attracted to movie theaters by showing music in films, such as Yellow Submarine (UK/US 1968), directed by George Dunning. This feature was developed around songs by the Beatles, whose animated likenesses are the film’s central characters. The world of independent filmmaking had been growing since World War II, and animation for adults found expression in this realm. The 1973 Frank Film (US), by Frank Mouris, includes the filmmaker’s own voice, documenting his personal experience in a work typical of the diary film genre of that era, which was mostly found within live-action production.

4 The Rebirth of Animation

During the 1980s, the applications of sound in animation were as diverse as the many contexts in which they appeared. As college programs multiplied, there was an increase in student and independently produced work that was often quite sophisticated in terms of its sound design and animation technique. An example is the Oscar-winning film Balance (DE 1989), by Wolfgang and Christoph Lauenstein, which employs a restrained use of sound to depict the vastness of space.

Especially interesting during this period is the growth of animation to illustrate music. After the development of cable television network MTV during the early 1980s, the practice of music-based animation became commonplace. Among the famous uses of animation in music videos are Aha’s Take on Me (1985), Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer (1987), and Michael Jackson’s Black or White (1991). Filmmaker Michel Gondry made his name directing innovative music videos featuring animation for such artists as Björk and the Chemical Brothers. Animation was largely valued for its ability to create interesting visual effects to illustrate the content of the music.

There were significant changes in sound technology during this period. The refinement of Dolby sound processes and THX standards enhanced the viewing experience, especially in terms of high-budget blockbusters that relied on animation for the development of elaborate special effects.

The 1990s saw great growth in the animation industry, with sound continuing to play a major role. Disney’s successful sales of movie music continued into recent years, highlighted by the work of composer Alan Menken and lyricists Howard Ashman and Tim Rice in such films as Beauty and the Beast (US 1991, dir. Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise), Aladdin (US 1992, dir. Ron Clements and John Musker), and The Lion King (US 1994, dir. Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff). Further extending the scope of its music, Disney adapted some of its films for the theater—including the long-running Broadway musical The Lion King.

This era saw a significant change in voice acting for animation. Animated television series and feature films increasingly have utilized star voices, such as those of Robin Williams, Tom Hanks, and Cameron Diaz, in part to increase the box-office draw for teen and adult viewers. Today, a famous voice actor’s performance typically is used as a basis for the development of animated movements; in earlier years, performers created voices for characters, whereas it is now commonplace for characters to be designed around the star who is providing its voice. The character design of animated documentaries also is often closely linked to the individuals providing their voice tracks; for example, the Oscar-winning short Ryan (CA 2004), directed by Chris Landreth at the National Film Board of Canada, is animated around interviews with its subject, Ryan Larkin.

In contrast, a great deal of independent production is made without dialogue. Recording dialogue is expensive and time-consuming, lip-synching to dialogue adds to the labor of animating, and recording in a given language puts constraints on international distribution. Many short films find a home on the Internet or are screened in film festivals around the world; avoiding spoken words makes sense in these contexts. It is rare to see a feature film without dialogue, and yet The Triplets of Belleville (FR 2003), a French-Belgian-Canadian coproduction directed by Sylvain Chomet, showed that dialogue is not essential. In this film, characters sing the French-language song Belleville Rendez-vous several times, but the film’s story is carried with almost no spoken dialogue.

And, of course, dialogue typically is not found in non-narrative work, which continues to be a vital practice—for example, in the development of visual music, which is adapting to changing contexts. For instance, successors of this tradition can be found in the field of electronic music and especially in VJing and live cinema, which increasingly incorporate animation techniques. The development of digital sound technologies has enabled diverse experimentation for artists at all levels, encouraging even more varied sound elements in recent years.

all footnotes

[1] 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).

[2] 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.

[3] For more on Fischinger and other experiments in synthetic sound, see Thomas Y. Levin, “‘Tones from out of Nowhere’: Rudolph Pfenninger and the Archaeology of Synthetic Sound,” in Grey Room 12, Summer 2003, pp. 32–79. Online at

[4] 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.

[5] 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

[6] Pixilation is a process in which live actors are moved and photographed frame by frame, creating a type of quirky, mechanized motion. For more information, see Stephen X. Arthur, Pixy-led by Pixilation, online at

List of books in this text

Pixy-led by Pixilation
Author: Arthur, Stephen X.

The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926–1931
1999, Author: Crafton, Donald Publisher: Univ. of California Press

‘Tones from out of Nowhere’: Rudolph Pfenninger and the Archaeology of Synthetic Sound
Author: Levin, Thomas Y.

see aswell

  • Roger Allers
  • Howard Ashman
  • Betty Boop
  • Bjork
  • Mel Blanc
  • Tregoweth Brown
  • Bugs Bunny
  • Cab Calloway
  • Robert Cannon
  • Charlie Chaplin
  • Sylvain Chomet
  • Frank Churchill
  • Ron Clements
  • Daffy Duck
  • Lee De Forest
  • Cameron Diaz
  • Walt Disney
  • Dr. Seuss
  • George Dunning
  • Viking Eggeling
  • Joseph Engl
  • Felix the Cat
  • Oskar Fischinger
  • Dave Fleischer
  • June Foray
  • Peter Gabriel
  • Michel Gondry
  • Tom Hanks
  • Michael Jackson
  • Wassily Kandinsky
  • Ko-Ko the Clown
  • Chris Landreth
  • Ryan Larkin
  • Len Lye
  • Joseph Massolle
  • Winsor McCay
  • Malcolm McLaren
  • Alan Menken
  • Mickey Mouse
  • Rob Minkoff
  • Frank Mouris
  • John Musker
  • Olive Oyl
  • Porky Pig
  • Pat Powers
  • Mae Questel
  • Lotte Reiniger
  • Tim Rice
  • Hans Richter
  • Scott Squires
  • Carl Stalling
  • Deems Taylor
  • Osamu Tezuka
  • Gary Trousdale
  • Hans Vogt
  • Robin Williams
  • Kirk Wise
  • Wolfgang Zeller
  • Works
  • Aladdin
  • Astro Boy
  • Balance
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • Belleville Rendez-vous
  • Betty Boop
  • Black or White
  • Circles
  • Fantasia
  • Frank Film
  • Free Radicals
  • Gerald McBoing Boing
  • Gertie the Dinosaur
  • Looney Tunes
  • Merry Melodies
  • Mickey-Mouse-Series
  • Neighbours
  • Phonofilm
  • Popeye the Sailor
  • Radio Dynamics
  • Rhythm 21
  • Rotoscoping
  • Ryan
  • Silly Symphony
  • Sledgehammer
  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
  • Snow White
  • Song Car-Tunes
  • Steamboat Willie
  • Symphonie Diagonale
  • Take on me
  • The Adventures of Prince Achmed
  • The Concert Feature
  • The Flintstones
  • The Lion King
  • The St. James Infirmary Blues
  • TheTriplettes of Belleville / Belleville Rendez-vous
  • Three Little Pigs
  • Tri-Ergon System
  • Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?
  • Yellow Submarine

  • Timelines
    1920 until today

    All Keywords
  • Immersion (Chap. 4)
  • Performativität (Chap. 1)
  • Polysensualität (Chap. 3)
  • Verzeitlichung (Chap. 1)
  • club culture (Chap. 4)
  • drawn sound (Chap. 3)
  • mickey-mousing (Chap. 2)
  • rhythm (Chap. 1)
  • synchronicity (Chap. 2, 3)
  • synthesis (Chap. 2, 3)

  • Socialbodies
  • a-ha
  • Chemical Brothers
  • Filmation Associates
  • Fleischer studios
  • Hanna-Barbera Productions, Inc.
  • Jay Ward Productions
  • Max and Dave Fleischer
  • MTV (Music Television)
  • National Film Board of Canada
  • Paramount Pictures Corporation
  • The Beatles
  • United Productions of America
  • Warner Bros.
  • Wolfgang and Christoph Lauenstein