Steamboat Willie

Steamboat Willie (1928) was Walt Disney’s third film with the cartoon character Mickey Mouse and the first in which sound was integrated into the planning and production process from the outset. The typical motifs of animated film right from the very start – surprising transitions, the shifts between a drawing and a living character, and between mechanics and life[1] – were in this case transferred to the synchrony or asynchrony of sound and image. What was later called Mickey Mousing – when, for example, a character climbing stairs is accompanied by an ascending tone sequence – describes only one aspect of audiovisual wit for which Disney would later become famous, in particular with his Silly Symphonies. It is a play with the duplication of overlapping relationships between sound and image in terms of illustration, causality, and reaction, and between seeing and hearing. Synchresis[2] – the perception of a unity of image and sound through their synchrony – and the disjunction or the counterpoint of image and sound are shown at the same place simultaneously: steam whistles, for example, that miss the order to whistle, and, because in Disney films they are living things, delay the immediate transmission of the signal that would normally be expected from mechanical equipment. Conversely, a goat that eats sheet music and is subsequently converted into a hand organ or a gramophone performs a metamorphosis from being an intentional creature to an acoustic, technical medium. And the cries of various animals reacting to Mickey Mouse’s abuse are at the same time part of the score because they follow the beat or the melody. All of these sounds are always at least doubly coded and cause an ostensibly fixed distribution between voice, noise, and music and the specific way each of them relate to the image to oscillate. Because in principle, each image in a cartoon had to be produced individually, a highly differentiated division of work developed very early on. In this context, the multiplication of image-sound relationships described above can be viewed as complex logistics and a chain of graphic recording methods on paper and the strip of film:[3] The Disney Studios are not only attributed with the introduction of the metronome as a timer for the draftsmen, but also with the introduction of bar sheets, a kind of sheet music for the parallel timing of animation and sound.[4] Steamboat Willie was drawn in California and later set to music in New York by means of the Cinephone optical sound method. In order to insure synchrony, a bouncing ball, which prescribed the beat for the musicians and sound-makers, was drawn at the place where the soundtrack was later copied onto the film.[5] Unlike the audible ticking of the metronome in the recording studio, this visual clocking had the advantage that it was not inscribed into the soundtrack during recording. Later however, so-called click tracks were used, which the musicians and sound-effects technicians heard over headphones.[6]


  • original Title: Steamboat Willie
  • Date: 1928
  • Duration: 7′45″