Steamboat Willie Synchronised sound first cartoon minnie mickey mouse.jpeg
Steamboat Willie, Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney, (1928). Image via Disney+
Stories & Ideas

Tue 01 Dec 2020

Disney’s Steamboat Willie and why the flipbook is still important

AnimationCraftFilmHistoryReadShort filmSound
Maria Lewis
Maria Lewis

Writer & Editor, ACMI

The movie-making powerhouse pays homage to the beginning of the moving image and its own iconic animations in a 15-second clip that traverses moving image history.

In 2007, Walt Disney Animation Studios changed their opening logo. It’s just a brief 15-second clip, beginning with a red line drawing of the iconic character that speeds up as the pages he’s being drawn on begin to flip, faster and faster, until the view shifts backwards. What we’re viewing is now a flipbook, Mickey’s cheeks moving in a musical whisper as the background around him is shaded in, adding light and tone to the scene. By the time text spelling out Walt Disney Animation Studios is scrawled across the screen, it’s obvious what we’re watching: it’s a scene from Steamboat Willie (1928).

One of the most iconic pieces of moving image, the studio’s new opening logo did more than just remind audiences that Disney was right there during a landmark moment in the history of animation. Playing first before animated movie Meet The Robinsons (2007) and later as a slightly modified version before more modern Disney fare like Tangled (2010), Frozen (2013), Moana (2016), and Frozen II (2019) – and even an 8-bit version for Wreck-It Ralph (2012) – it was a nod to not just Disney’s origins, but one of animation’s earliest tools: the flipbook.

The concept of the flipbook has been around for hundreds of years, with what is believed to be medieval flipbooks with figures moving through in a progression of motion dating back to as early as the 1400s. That same concept had technological enhancement with the invention of the zoetrope and phenakisticope in the 1800s. Those devices – and dozens of others that were similar in design – presented the illusion of moving image by rotating sequential images so they would look like they were moving. Despite the ingenuity of the inventions, however, it was ultimately the flipbook that was most popular on a mass scale in terms of representing the moving image and some of the earliest forms of animation. It was cost effective, considerably cheaper than zoetropes and phenakisticopes, and it was the simplest in execution: flipbooks could be produced and distributed en masse. Anyone could make one so long as they had something to draw with; a pencil, ink, paint, whatever. From pre-production on Disney shorts through to their animated features, flipbooks and flipbook technology has been an important part of the process: something they have acknowledged with not just the Walt Disney Animation Studios updated logo, but official Disney flipbook merchandise that features beloved characters such as Snow White and Dumbo.

Yet there’s no character more important to the history of the company than Mickey Mouse and his girlfriend Minnie. They represent the first major success for not just Walt Disney, but the studio as a whole. They both feature in Steamboat Willie, which became the first cartoon with Mickey to utilise synchronised sound and one of the first pieces of animation to be considered critically and commercially important. The company was about to go under and Walt Disney was struggling financially when he saw The Jazz Singer (1927), which featured audible dialogue and music to create one of the most successful films of that year, sweeping the country. Disney – who was in his late 20s – spent just under five thousand dollars to finance the short, which he co-directed with Ub Iwerks. They incorporated the music of Wilfred Jackson, which accompanies the action of the two mice. The filmmaking pair worked on it from July to September of 1928, when they began running test screening before the premiere in New York in November.

“The effect on our little audience was nothing less an electric,” Disney was quoted as saying at the time in the book Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons by legendary film writer Leonard Maltin. “They responded almost instinctively to this union of sound and motion. I thought they were kidding me. So they put me in the audience and ran the action again. It was terrible, but it was wonderful. And it was something new.”

It was hugely successful, with audiences so desperate to watch and re-watch Steamboat Willie that within two weeks it was expanded theatrically. With the addition of Mickey in Plane Crazy (1928/1929), his presence as a pop cultural icon was solidified and the company began to strengthen by pushing its use of technology. In the same way Disney took a risk by believing synchronised sound was the future of filmmaking, he took another with the release of Flowers and Trees (1932) just a few years later. It was the first Technicolor cartoon and largely considered the movie that started the Technicolor boom. It also became the first animated short to win an Academy Award in that same category.

Much of what Disney would go on to do can be traced back to Steamboat Willie: from the groundbreaking Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (1937) to The Little Mermaid (1989), which would resurrect the Disney fairytale and save the company from corporate raiders. While Mickey Mouse might be more mascot than beloved Disney character like, say, Buzz Lightyear, Elsa or even Stitch, he signifies the dawn of the company’s success instead of the dawn of the company itself. There are three key elements to Walt Disney Animation Studios opening logo: the use of sound, the use of the flipbook, and the merging into a scene from Steamboat Willie. Within a 15 second clip, three seminal moments in moving image history are acknowledged one after the other. Yes, it’s a company winking at its own importance via its previous films and in front of its current ones. Yet it also works as a salute to the types of animation and techniques that paved the way for concept artists, designers, effects animators, storyboard artists, producers and directors to make the kind of films the Steamboat Willie pre-roll has the opportunity to play before. They’re the kind of films that once seemed impossible.

Maria Lewis, 21 September 2020

Watch Steamboat Willie on Disney +

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