Modern Mechanix Reveals the Secrets of Disney

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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Modern Mechanix Reveals the Secrets of Disney

It's not easy being a Disney historian, or at least a good Disney historian.  It requires effort to reconcile information, long hours trying to locate and obtain primary resources, and, of course, the inevitable sigh when after you publish your research someone immediately pops up with that one piece of information you had searched years to find but never could despite all the networking with others.  

Perhaps one of the earliest Disney Historians was Earl Theisen who during his career wrote many articles about the Disney Studio.

Earl Theisen (1903-1973) entered the film industry in 1922 when he took a job with the Alexander Film Company. He left Alexander for Consolidated Film Company. In 1931 he began researching early cinema history and collecting artifacts under the auspices of the Los Angeles Museum and the Society of Motion Picture Engineers.

He later became associate editor of "International Photographer," lectured at the USC, and became the West Coast representative for the Register Tribune Syndicate and a photographer for Look magazine.

In 1949, he gifted the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a collection consisting entirely of motion picture film-frame specimens. The film frames, numbering in the hundreds, document a wide variety of formats in relation to image size, sound on film, and color processes.

Theisen collected the specimens in the 1920s and 1930s, and they reflected his interest in film technology, cinematography, and film stocks.  The film frames, many of which are nitrate, have been copied to safety black-and-white negative, color negative, color transparency, or 35mm color slide film.  

Several frames are from one of the first animated films, J. Stuart Blackton's "Humorous Phases of Funny Faces", released by Vitagraph in 1906. Finally, there is good representation on several producers of early animation, with coverage of Walt Disney films from 1928 to 1933.  Copies of Theisen's donation can be accessed through the Margaret Herrick Library in Los Angeles.

In the 1930s, Theisen wrote at least two articles about the working of the Disney Studio for "Modern Mechanix." From its debut in 1928, the magazine went through a number of different names from "Home Mechanix" to "Modern Mechanics and Inventions" to "Mechanix Illustrated," to name just a few. It was designed to compete with magazines like "Popular Science" and featured information on home repairs or projects like building your own sports car or helicopter.

To help out future researchers, here are those two articles by Theisen.  The first is from "Modern Mechanix" April 1934 when Mickey Mouse was just 5 1/2 years old. Also, notice the reference to "Mickey and the Bean-stalk" which is a cartoon idea that would pop up almost a decade later in "Fun and Fancy Free":

"What Makes Mickey Mouse Move?"

"Fifty highly trained artists and scores of sound engineers unite to bring fast-moving animated talking cartoons to screen. Here's how amazing job is accomplished."
by Earl Theisen - Honorary curator motion pictures, Los Angeles Museum

"Making Mickey Mouse move is not a mysterious technical process that Walt Disney does behind studio walls. It is an interesting thing that everyone can understand. The methods of animating a cartoon are fascinating. The fact that a hand-drawn picture can show motion is little short of miraculous.

"A cartoon studio, in many respects, may be compared with a real life studio. In both they have stars or characters, a story or scenario, a director, and sets. In the Disney Studio, the stars are cartoon pictures painted on sheets of celluloid and the sets are not made of wood by a carpenter, but are water color paintings made by an artist. The cartoon director is known as the "layout" man. As the term implies, it is his duty to lay out the story. He does this in the form of rough pencil sketches which serve as a guide for the artists who draw the story action. These sketches illustrate the various things the cartoon character does in the story.

How "Motion" Is Supplied

"In order to explain how a cartoon moves, we will look at a piece of motion picture film. Each foot of the film has 16 individual photos that are a little larger than a postage stamp. These tiny photos are quite similar to the Kodak pictures; except that movies are finished on transparent celluloid. As a movie camera photographs motion, the movement is recorded as a series of progressive poses. For instance, if a person is photographed while walking, the camera 'shoots' the action as a series of different poses. When these various poses are projected to a screen at high speed, the individual pictures blend and give the illusion of motion.

"There are two different sets of gears in a movie camera. One set takes 16 pictures or a foot of film for each turn of the crank while the second set 'shoots' only one picture for each turn of the crank. This last named camera is known as a 'stop-action camera' and is the one used in making cartoons.

Drawing Made for Each Pose

"To create the illusion that Mickey Mouse is moving, a different drawing for each pose is needed. These different poses are "shot" one after the other with the stop action camera. While the different drawings are being changed in front of the camera, it is, of course, stopped.

"For example, imagine Mickey Mouse in "Mickey Mouse and the Bean-Stalk." He is on the giant's dinner table and the giant sees him. Of course, Mickey turns and runs. To portray this, Walt would first paint a water color of the dinner table. Next, he would draw a cartoon of Mickey Mouse which would then be traced to a sheet of celluloid.

How Mickey Mouse Eludes Giant

"When this celluloid cartoon is laid on top of the table painting, Mickey Mouse appears to be standing on the table. This picture of the Mouse standing on the table is photographed. Since Mickey is to run away from the giant, the next cartoon drawing would be of Mickey with one foot off the table in a position wherein he is starting to run. This last picture is now substituted for the one already photographed on the table. Walt would continue to draw Mickey Mouse with first one foot off the table and then the other as he runs away from the giant. These pictures would be photographed one after the other on motion picture film with the stop action camera.

"In this picture Mickey runs and hides in the Swiss cheese. To show him running to the cheese, it would be necessary to draw about 50 different poses. When these pictures are projected in a theater at high speed, they blend together and give the illusion that Mickey Mouse is running.

"It must be remembered that every bit of action in a cartoon is drawn as a set of progressive poses. Of course, to do this a great number of drawings are required. Walt Disney and his staff draw from 10,000 to 12,000 individual drawings for each cartoon movie. These are viewed on the screen in about seven minutes. That seems like a lot of work for only seven minutes.

Artists Study for Six Months

"It is no simple matter for 50 artists, all working on the same movie, to have their drawings similar. The technique of all the artists must be the same, otherwise the movement and character of Mickey Mouse would vary. In order to standardize the drawings, the artists go through a period of training of about six months.

"The cartoon scenario is the result of a 'gag - meeting.' When a story idea is thought suitable for a Disney cartoon, everyone from the janitor to the studio cat knows about it and submits ideas or gags. The cat submits gags in the way of antics and stunts. Every idea is considered.

"The result of this meeting is a cartoon scenario. In it may be ideas and stunts from perhaps a dozen of the Disney tribe. They have been thoroughly gone over under the close supervision of Walt until they are Mickey Mouse.

"The cartoon scenario is not like the conventional motion picture scenario. It differs in that it is really two manuscripts in one. One part tells the story or action for every inch of the film while the second part notes and describes the corresponding music and sound. These two parts are carefully matched by musical beats. Each beat of music requires a certain length of film and for each beat of music, the characters must do a definite bit of action. The reason for the two scenarios is because the picture part of the story cannot be photographed with sound. They are recorded independently on different films. Sound cannot be photographed by a stop-motion camera, while that is the system necessary in animating a cartoon. The sound film and the picture film are later synchronized.

Sound Stage Mysterious Place

"One of the most interesting places at the Disney studio is the sound stage. Within it is a mysterious quietness. Each sound has a hollowness due to the sound-proofing. Off in one corner is the 'monitoring' room where the sounds are judged in rehearsal. Here Walt and his musical director sit and listen to the sounds as they come to them over the circuit to the sound recorder.

"An imitator speaks for each of the cartoon characters. A large orchestra provides the musical score. Working with the orchestra is a group of 'effect men' who manipulate mechanical devices that create the many incidental sounds.

"Recording sound effects at the cartoon studio is more than just interesting. It is like a scene in an old alchemist's laboratory. You hear the director asking for a dog bark, or a dog sniff, for a kiss or shivery growl. Perhaps a door slam. The kisses are made by a musician who kisses the back of his hand. A bottle and a cork in their hands can be made to sound like a monkey chattering. A tin car with a resin covered string sounds like Mickey's trousers tearing. They have dog barks in all pitches, deep barks for big dogs, little barks for little dogs, and yips for frightened dogs. These sounds are made by the imitators who have specialized in voice control or by special apparatus designed for the purpose.

Rhythmic Ticks Keep Time

"The imitators group themselves around the microphone. On their heads are earphones through which come rhythmic ticks that serve to keep them in time. It is a guide that tells them when to begin their lines. By previous rehearsal, they know that at a certain point, as represented by the ticks or beats, Mickey Mouse is saying something. So the conversation must punctually begin at that point.

"This is the time to again point out that the picture film is being recorded in another part of the studio on another film. They are not recorded on the same film. The sound recording camera 'shoots' 90 feet of film per minute while recording the sound and the cameraman on the 'stop action' camera is lucky if he gets 50 feet of film in a whole day. He is delayed because he must tediously change each pose before it can be photographed."

Theisen also wrote an article about the sound effects at the Disney Studio and while he mentions Bill Garity (who designed and built the first multiplane camera for the Disney Studio and was later responsible for Fantasound) and Pinto Colvig (the voice of several Disney characters including Goofy), no mention is made of Jimmy MacDonald.

MacDonald was working as an engineer in Los Angeles when that career was cut short by his fall down a manhole.  Pursuing work as a musician, he played percussion with a band when in 1934, he was called in to provide music for a Mickey Mouse short cartoon.  Walt liked what he heard and saw and hired MacDonald to work in the newly formed sound effects department.

MacDonald created all sorts of unusual contraptions to make sounds as well as devising a way to mark down on paper the sound and the length of it duration so he could perform the effects in sync with the projected image.

MacDonald also provided several voices for Disney characters from Mickey Mouse to providing the gagging and hiccups for Dopey when he swallowed the soap in "Snow White." He was scheduled to contribute sounds to the "Splash Mountain" attraction at the time of his death.

MacDonald actually deserves a separate column, especially since he was the very first Disney celebrity who gave me his autograph.  As a kid, I really didn't have a clear idea who he was and when a friend of my uncle introduced me and said, "This is the voice of Mickey Mouse."  I kept my mouth shut because I knew the voice of Mickey Mouse was Walt Disney and Walt Disney had passed away a long time ago and this guy was certainly not Walt Disney. However, he was nice and signed his autograph that I still have to this day.

Anyway, sadly, he is not mentioned in the following story by Theisen written for "Modern Mechanix" January 1937. "Mickey Mouse Sound Tricks Revealed" was the banner on a red cover with Pluto, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse swirling above a hard working (his sleeves are rolled up) Disney employee placing cels underneath a camera.  (Notice that the peg holes, and there are only two of them, are at the top of the cel).  For 15 cents, you could learn these secrets:

"Sound Tricks of Mickey Mouse"

"Squeaks, squawks, oinks and music-it's another animated cartoon hit set to music in a brand new way. Read how the hay baler joins a symphony."
by Earl Theisen; illustrated by Walt Disney

"Music and noises in the animated cartoon interpret the action of the story. The narrative theme of the music and what is called the "sound effects" punctuates and emphasizes the story.

"By playing on the aural nerves with symbolic sounds and noises the psychological reaction of the audience is controlled and varied according to the dramatic and emotional needs of the cartoon story.

"If Donald Duck falls, for example, it is not enough for the sound man to hit a drum for the noise, but an additional sound characteristic must be added to convey a certain kind of fall. There are dozens of different 'sound effects' for cartoon character falls, which vary according to the story. When a sympathetic attitude is desired, the 'fall' sound is hollow and devoid of jarring characteristics, while a harsh sound which shocks the aural nerves is created for that effect.

"The associative value of sounds is widely used for humor, such as a tearing noise which accompanies the falling of a character. For humorous responses the 'sound effect' is often caricatured and distorted. An example of this was the tire skidding noise used in 'The Tortoise and the Hare' when the fast moving rabbit slid to a stop.

"Through study and experimentation Walt Disney and his engineers have found that by introducing music or various sounds and noise frequencies into the cartoon, the response of the audience is varied and controlled. By combining noises of certain pitches or tempos the psychological values of the cartoon music is emphasized in keeping with the story requirements.

"Sound of 16 cycles is deep toned and may be used for conveying heavy or depressing moods, whereas the sound of a higher frequency is what William Garity, chief engineer at Walt Disney's, calls the 'pain sensitive region.' Noises of this higher pitch make the hearer alert and may be carried to the point of actually causing distress, such as a 'file on glass' noise. The average ear is very sensitive to sounds of 2,000 or 3,000 cycles and unless some sound of this pitch is added to the cartoon background noise, the audience is less responsive to the effects.

"Stories are told by sound. 'Pinto' Colvig, who wrote the lyrics for 'The Three Little Pigs' and who does many of the sound 'imitations' for automobiles, airplanes, or machines when they assume human characteristics, is able to convey a whole story by sound. For example, in a recent picture he caricatured a steam roller at work by suitable noises, pops, puffs, razzes, and wheezes. Vocally, without the aid of mechanical devices, he depicted a narrative episode of a very busy steamroller that worked hard, then got tired and stopped. To do this he made a picture on paper of the sound by working out the suitable suggestive sounds and inflections which he set down on music paper according to the desired effects, tonal range, and tempo which brought to life the pen and ink steam shovel. 'Pinto' Colvig with the aid of a trombone and vocal sounds can make an airplane do all sorts of antics. Real airplane sounds cannot be controlled to musical tempo for cartoon effects. Each sound in a cartoon film is the result of much thought. Such things as bugs, all sizes, getting the hiccoughs which happened in 'Mickey's Garden' when Mickey sprayed them with 'bug eliminator' required hours of rehearsal before the sound was recorded. For some sounds hours are required in rehearsal, and 50 or 60 hours are required to make the sound for the average cartoon.

"There are six men and women under contract at Disney's who do nothing but mimic and imitate many sounds. The distorted Donald Duck conversation and singing is done entirely by mouth without mechanical aid, as is that of Madame Clara Cluck, Mickey, and the other characters. Walt, himself, does the Mickey chatter. Much of the 'imitator's' time is spent in inventing cartoon noises.

"For cartoon kisses, the 'imitator' kisses his own hand or arm. For a Mickey-Minnie embrace, the 'imitator' kisses the heel of his hand, while a tiny bug osculation is obtained from his thumb. A moist noisy smack is gained by kissing his arm at the elbow bend. Cartoon embraces are not as emotional as they are humorous because of the caricatured sound.

"Recently a sound of a cartoon character talking under water was needed. After much experimentation, the sound was made by one of the 'imitators' who talked while a common garden hose ran a stream of water into his mouth.

"While much of the sound is made vocally, mechanical devices and various materials are also used. One kind of slow-burning fire noise is made by crinkling cellophane, while a more crackling fire sound is gained by twisting a bundle of bamboo strips. A train getting under way is obtained by a tin can in which is a handful of gravel. By shaking the can and gravel up and down, the noise of a real railroad train is created. Another 'train noise maker' consists of a number of wires held at one end by hand. The other end of the wires is rubbed over a sheet of corrugated tin. Thunder claps of various kinds are obtained by cowhides and sheets of metal, while wind noises are made by rapidly revolving a wheel with wire spokes. Another hollow ghostly wind noise is made by revolving a wooden drum against taut silk. Rain noises are made in a drum in which are stretched piano wires. Particles of glass dropping against the wire when the drum is revolved creates the sound.

"Lion roars are obtained from a barrel over which is stretched, drumlike, a piece of skin. Into the center of this skin is tied a heavy piece of cat-gut and the sound is made by sliding a rosin coated piece of leather down the cat-gut. Dog barks are made by similar though smaller contraptions. Various dog bark pitches are made by using assorted sizes of tin cans. The dog 'language' is produced by the manner in which the rosined leather is slid on the string. Often ordinary tools such as egg beaters which furnish machinery noise, derby hats which supply thumping or more exactly a 'plop in' sound, and so forth are used for suitable noises.

"For 'squirrel conversation' a cork is twisted in a bottle with a 'cartoon technique' in such a way that various meanings are conveyed. The squirrels may be made to seem excited, in love, or just chatting.

"The sound stages where the recording is done are constructed of hard surfaced plaster board lined with blanket layers of mineral wool, felt padding, and matting interspersed with air pockets which aid in 'damping' extraneous sounds. Thick layers of felt padding and carpeting are laid on the floor. There are two stages; one of which is entirely sound-proofed, or 'damped,' while a second stage is 'live' in that it permits echoes to reach the microphone.

"Many devices are specially constructed in order that certain sound frequencies are dampened so the 'imitator' has a better control over the pitch and volume of the noise. Special resonators in the pianos, doors set in elaborate resonating jams so "door-closing" noises may be made for cartoon purposes, and many other constructions are necessary.

"Even the 'Silly Symphony' orchestra is set in a special resonator made of maple wood because of a required resonating quality of this wood. The resonator which gives a richness to the tone is built in the form of a large tapering loud speaker on one of the sound stages. It is suspended in a floating arrangement so as to eliminate echo vibration. Walt Disney, who knows the dramatic value of various sounds and musical tempos, has constructed many novel devices in order to produce the necessary sounds.

"The background orchestral music is valuable in directing the emotional responses of the audience, and is used to elaborate on the cartoon story by what Walt Disney prefers to call the 'earical illusion.' The psychological reactions of the theatre audience to suggestive noise, musical tempo and tune are carefully considered in composing musical scores for the animated cartoon.

"The emotional effect is gained not so much by the music itself as by the manner in which it is played and the noise effects instilled into the orchestration. In connection with the villain, for example, an annoying 'out of step' sound is cleverly interwoven into the background music melody is 'timed' into the musical effects.

"By tempo and musical 'timing' the audience may be excited or lulled into 'earical' pleasures. Musical tempo is used for speeding up the action of the cartoon story when things rapidly happen. To do this a slow musical tempo is played as background music until the tempo or 'time' is established with the audience, and then the 'time' is gradually increased. This literally sucks the audience along in what the Disney artist calls a 'musical vacuum.'

"When bugs march off to battle in a pseudo serious portrayal of a march, four-four time is used, while six-eight time is used for swinging comedy marches. Two-four time is used for "background" music where there are 'chases' or where music with a definite beat in which the action is gradually speeded. Three-four waltz time serves for scenes where beauty is emphasized.

"Music and sound has become an exact science with Walt Disney. The music and sound effects in his cartoon psychologically tell the film story for the ears as the picture on the screen does for the eyes."