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Essay: Explore How Walt Disney's Steamboat Willie Paved Way for Animation Industry Success

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Logan Fields

Int Cinema 1


Steamboat Willie and Animation

Steamboat Willie is a short animated American film lasting only eight minutes (16mm). The animation was produced by Walt Disney and directed by UB Iwerks (Dowling 3). This 1928 film was screened in black-and-white by Walt Disney Studios and the production released made by Celebrity Productions. The cartoon animated film was the debut of Mickey Mouse and Minnie, although it was the third production of Mickey’s films. It is ideally because, despite Mickey mouse and his friend Minnie appearing in two screen-test films several months earlier known as Plane Crazy, Steamboat Willie was the first distributed animated film by Walt Disney since its sound and motion were fully synchronized. Through this short fully synchronized sound film, Walt Disney's ingenuity in putting soundtracks, voices, and animations came to the fore and this is perceived as the foundation upon which the famous Walt Disney entertainment corporation was built on. (Fanning 27).

According to Dowling, the Museum of Modern Arts described it as “a landmark in the history of animation” (2), because its original reels were definitely priceless given the fragility of its acetate upon which the motion pictures were drawn. Soon after, animation movies of the same kind were produced to American and European theaters on either 16mm or 32mm films, first by Eastman Kodak in 1932 which were sold for home use. According to Verrier, the effect of Steamboat Willie in the animation world shocked even Walt Disney himself was amused that his 1920’s Mickey Mouse, ‘a little fellow trying to do the best he could’ has been called upon time and again to do even better including the impossible (2). He meant that cartoon productions of the modern day that are derived from the Steamboat Willie concepts are animated to do virtually everything to ensure the viewers are entertained. This is how Walt Disney’s ingenious invention led to the world of animated cartoon movies.   

When Steamboat Willie was first premiered at the Universal's Colony Theater, New York on 19th November 1928, it was an instant hit resulting into Walt Disney rising to the international stage as well as the cartoon, Mickey (Verrier 8). To demonstrate its immediate impact Finch argued that soon after the first theater display, an authoritative paper, the Variety Magazine, published its review on the film as, “…Not the first animated cartoon to be synchronized with sound effects, but the first to attract favorable attention. Steamboat Willie represents a high order of cartoon ingenuity, cleverly combined with sound effects. The union brought laughs galore. Giggles came so fast at the Colony Theater as the audience was stumbling over each other” (23).

The wild positive response to the movie inspired Walt Disney to reproduce the two previous Mickey and Minnie films with sound and motion fully synchronized. They received huge acceptance and accorded large theater releases.

According to Bendazzi, the positive reception of Disney’s invention gave the zeal and confidence to move forward and produce more similar and improve animated films (8). McLaughlin argued that to improve on the quality, Disney visited New York City to in search of a firm that can supply quality sound systems and eventually settled on Pat Power which improved the sound synchronization of the later productions (97). In a later interview, Disney confessed of his shock at the effects of the first filming of Steamboat Willie where he described the Colony Theater audience as simply electric as it responded to the union of motion and sound almost instinctively (Fanning 38). Disney further explained that he thought the audience was being satirical as it compelled to run the movie again but he learned that they were truly thrilled by the synchronization. This laid the foundation upon which Disney worked tirelessly to improve the animations and the sound attracting other players into the industry. According to Finch, the $500 that Disney was paid as weekly revenue for renting Steamboat and other subsequent films was too much at that time leading to other people getting interested in the cartoon animation industry (33).

Beckerman argued that animation did not start with the Steamboat Willie movie; Winsor McCay is considered as the father of animation after he created Little Nemo in Slumberland in 1905 – a surreal art Nouveau and vividly colored newspaper strip that depicted a dream world of an adventurous over-imaginative boy (14).  In 1911, Winsor generated a short film of Little Nemo which is considered the first greatest turning point in the history of animation. The animation that lasted only two minutes was hand-colored frame by frame and was silent since Winsor has no knowledge of how to incorporate sound into the motion. Despite this shortcoming, the film demonstrated his amazing character and the dazzling effect of his hallucinatory style. Inspired by the positive response received, Winsor further made more remarkable animated silent movies such as Gertie the Dinosaur, released in 1914 and the Flying House of 1921 (Bendazzi 10). Some analysts claim that Walt Disney might have been inspired by Winsor's development that he decided to move it a step further. This is because, in the technology and invention world, it said that an idea is expanded into a framework upon which other similar ideas are placed upon and modifications made to perfect the desired outcome.

In the production of Steamboat Willie, Disney overcame the challenge of using new technology without live actors in that he successfully fused handcraftsmanship with technology and abstraction with naturalism – a feat that has proved him over time that he was from this point a great animator and artist (Maltin and Jerry 126). Critics perceived Mickey Mouse as a blended character of Charlie Chaplin during his campaigns for the underprivileged, Douglas Fairbanks when possessed with his rascal-like spirit of adventure, and Fred Astaire on his joyous freed from the laws of gravity (McLaughlin 64). The criticism did not withstand the test of time as the several audiences including the largest theater in the world at the time, New York's Roxy was amused by the perfect combination of sound and motion that Disney was toiling to improve in every of the next production including the improved versions of Steamboat. All critics started realizing the ingenuity of the synchronization and soon become admirers of the cartoon, Mickey Mouse with some trying to reconstruct and reinvent the technology.

Seeing the success of Disney from the Mickey Mouse series, Warner Brothers Cartoons was founded in 1933 to rival the Disney Studios. Using the same technology as Disney, Warner Brothers allowed their hired animators freedom to generate more recognizable individual styles (Beckerman 24). After Disney invented a complete three-color Technicolor mechanism that he used to produce his next films that won his him the Academy Award, Warner Brothers copied it to produce full color animated movies and it soon became the industry threshold (Gabler 48). While Disney was now building on the sound effects that made Steamboat Willie a success and his subsequent production, other players entered the industry and shifted from depicting emotionally charged stories that were being criticized of Disney films, to focusing on the quality of features such as color, background, sound, and props. That is how little by little, animators developed from just a sound synchronization feat in Steamboat Willie to visually appealing full colored films.

Just like the way Wright brothers’ first aerodynamic experiment resulted into first powered and controlled aircraft in 1903 and subsequent modifications to the present day Jumbo jets, Disney’s Steamboat Willie triggered a wave of further tests and modifications leading to the sophisticated modern animated cartoon network (Maltin and Jerry 157). For instance, after successfully incorporated color into the animation films and making them visually and emotionally interesting, Disney in 1937 made a great breakthrough in animation being inspired by the gains from Steamboat Willie (McLaughlin 102). Walt Disney produced the first animated feature movie, Snow White, and the Seven Dwarfs, which ran for 83 minutes (Beckerman 34). Though perceived as a big risk given that no one believed it could be possible, it found a huge audience as Disney had impressed with Steamboat Willie. This large and more realistic animated movie opened a new era of animation and catapulted Disney to the position of mainstream animation king as he dominated the industry because his creations were turning out to be classic after classic – making huge profits at the box office (Bendazzi 12).

Gabler accounted that animation started with the stop-motion techniques in the earlier 19th century where cloth and clay puppets were moved using a behind-the-scenes human being (53). Through the century, the techniques changed to screen animation and to where Disney made a breakthrough with the introduction of sound in the motion pictures and later full colors to make the films visually appealing. Triggered by Disney’s breakthrough, first occasioned by the Steamboat Willie and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ success, new animation technologies have emerged supported by the presence of computer capabilities. One of these techniques is the Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) which enables the production of computer-animated feature movies (Lee and Madej 88). This technology coupled with its transformation of 2D drawings into 3D has revolutionized the animation industry.

The first ever CGI feature movie was Toy Story produced by Pixar in 1995 and received a lot of acknowledgments which shook the Walt Disney Empire making it think along that line and produce better animations for the audience (Finch 68). The main distinction between CGI animations and the Disney-style traditional animations is that 2D drawing is substituted with 3D modeling making it look like a virtual edition of stop-motion animation. According to Bendazzi, this sophisticated form of animation combines stop-motion and 2D drawing to produce a motion-packed animation that is visually attractive and functionally capable of doing anything that it is commanded to do via programmed computer software (61). The process of producing CGI animations is highly technical, tedious and complex but surprisingly adheres to the traditional principles of animation as those invented by Disney when synchronizing sound into the moving animations. There are other computer-aided techniques of making animations including Cel-shading which is non-photorealistic and intended to make computer-generated graphics seem hand-written and Machinima which makes real-time 3D computer graphics machines to generate cinematic screen productions (Gabler 79). All these endeavors to make the traditional animations look good and up-to-date with the modern technology – their level of sophistication notwithstanding, they have their foundations on Disney's earlier works including the famous Steamboat Willie.

The CGI technology was boosted by the introduction of color television in homes and amphitheaters. The first animation only program on US screens was Hanna-Barbera’s The Huckleberry Hound Show that lasted for 30 minutes (Lee and Madej 112). After it received wide acceptance, many other animation companies followed suit to entertain people from the comfort of their homes including Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse and Tom & Jerry that are running in leading global television channels up to date. It is justifiable to sit and reflect on how a mere eight-minute poorly colored animation film led to the CGI animations today in a surprising domino effect.

From the aforementioned domino effect of Disney’s Steamboat Willie movie, it can be argued that the animation industry just like any other technologically driven sector, has been building its tower stone after stone going up. The Steamboat Willie movie made animators realize that it was possible to successfully introduce sound into the silent animation and everything else erupted from there including the full-color productions. The audience was amused to see a talking cartoon that moves on the screen and yearned for more forcing Disney to think on new ways of improving the visual and audio aspect of his productions. The Americans spread the world to the world stage and given that animation is computer driven, the introduction of computer software made it easier for other players to copy Disney's creation and modify it to the contemporary cartoon network and other forms of animations. It all started with the ambitious Walt Disney taking further Winsor's creations to produce a sound-synchronized animated story and everything after was built on it give the huge approval it received from the American audience.

Works Cited

Beckerman, Howard. Animation: The Whole Story. Allworth Press, 2003. Print

Bendazzi, Giannalberto. Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1994. Print

Dowling, Lynn. Disney’s Steamboat Willie’ revolutionized Cartoons. Gannett Co., Inc. 2016

Fanning, Jim. Walt Disney. Chelsea House Publishers, 1994. Print

Finch, Christopher. The Art of Walt Disney from Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdom. New York: Harry N. Abrahms, Inc., Publishers, 1995, p. 23. Print

Gabler, Neal. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. New York: Vintage Books, 2007. Print

Lee, Newton, and Krystina, Madej. Disney Stories: Getting to Digital. London: Springer Science+Business Media, 2012. Print

Maltin, Leonard and Beck, Jerry. Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980. Print

McLaughlin, Dan. A Rather Incomplete but Still Fascinating History of Animation. UCLA, 2001. Print

Verrier, Richard. The Nation; M-I-C-K-E-Y: He’s the leader of the Brand, Los Angeles Times, 2003. Print

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