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THE delighted laughter and chuckles that always greet the screening of "Mickey Mouse" or "Silly Symphony" films testify to their genuine humour, and to the great popularity of these animated cartoons with cinema audiences of all ages. Consideration of these films inevitably leads one the wonder how they are made, and how Walt Disney, their producer, first thought of them. He declares that he does not know how the idea came to him, but it came at an opportune time, for he had just made his second start in business for himself.

The drawing of cartoons first interested Disney in his high school days, when he drew illustrations for the school magazine. He had the wisdom to realise that cartooning was his particular gift, and in order to perfect it he attended evening classes in this subject at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. Then the entry of America into the Great War intervened. On his return to civil life late in 1919 he began to earn his living by drawing, and was employed by a Kansas City firm to produce animated advertising films.

During his spare time he made a cartoon film in a studio at his home and succeeded in selling it for exhibition in three large cinemas in Kansas City. Greatly encouraged, he decided to make a series of animated cartoons each about 500 ft. long and based on old fairy tales. His enthusiasm must have been contagious, for he was able to enlist the help of several young men who were eager to establish themselves as cartoonists, by promising them free instruction and permanent appointments in his employ if the films were a success. The first film, entitled "Red Riding Hood," was completed in six months and was bought by a firm of film distributors. Disney then resigned from the Kansas City firm in order to give his whole time to producing his cartoons, and organised a small company to make them. Unfortunately the distributors who bought the "Red Riding Hood" film went bankrupt before paying for it, and Disney was ruined at the very outset of his venture.

Hollywood was already attracting many ambitious artists and actors to its rapidly growing film industry when Disney went there in 1923, and he obtained a contract to produce a series of cartoon films. He completed them by 1927, and began a further series, in which he introduced Oswald the Rabbit. Then he decided to launch out as an independent producer, and in considering what character to feature in his own films he hit upon the idea of "starring" a mouse. This character was to have been named Mortimer Mouse, but finally Mickey was chosen instead, chiefly because it was shorter. He was to be one of a family of animals that already included Oswald the Rabbit and some others.

The first Mickey Mouse film was made in humble surroundings, the cartoons being drawn at Disney's home and the filming done in his garage, where he was assisted by his brother Roy, and a group of fellow enthusiasts. The film was despatched to a New York distributor and work was begun on the second picture.

The appearance of the first two Mickey Mouse films coincided with the introduction of sound films, the immediate success of which made it clear to Disney that any further adventure of Mickey would have to be accompanied by sound effects, if the films were to be acceptable to exhibitors. It was then, in the late spring of 1928, that he had the inspiration that was to bring him success. He decided to synchronise Mickey’s actions to music, and this was done for the first time in his third film, which was given the title of "Steamboat Willie."

[img]Studying preliminary drawings in preparation for work on a new cartoon film at the Walt Disney Studio, Hollywood. The portrait in the heading is of Walt Disney.[/img]

At that early stage in the history of sound films Hollywood did not possess facilities for synchronising sound and picture, and the Mickey Moose film was taken to New York for this purpose. The musical cartoon did not impress New York film exhibitors, but eventually Disney found one who was willing to give it a trial, and it made its debut on the screen of a small New York theatre one day in September 1928. "Steamboat Willie" was an immediate success, and in a few days it was showing to tremendous applause at the Roxy Theatre in the city. The public demand for this novel type of film was quickly noted by exhibitors, and they clamoured for it.

History repeated itself when Disney produced his first Silly Symphony early in 1929. This film differed from the Mickey Mouse series in lacking a "star," and in having all the action centred around a musical theme. It was entitled "The Skeleton Dance," and like the Mickey Mouse films was synchronised in New York. The exhibitors did not fancy it, but Disney continued trying to sell it, and at last he found an exhibitor who was willing to give the film its chance. "The Skeleton Dance" made its first appearance at the Carthey Circle Theatre, in Los Angeles, and again the public proved the exhibitors to have been wrong in their judgment. Delighted audiences loudly applauded the film every time it was screened, and before long it was being shown with equal success at the Roxy Theatre, New York.

To-day the Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony films are produced in a fine modern studio built and equipped at a cost of more than £50,000, just off Hollywood Boulevards, on the outskirts of Los Angeles. In the daytime the building is made conspicuous by its white stucco exterior, and after dark by an electric sign surmounted by Mickey himself with his hand stretched out in welcome. At this studio 25 cartoon films are produced every year, either a Mickey Mouse or a Silly Symphony film being delivered to the United Artists distributing office every fortnight. The movements shown in the films are obtained, of course, by minute changes in a series of drawings. Each film requires about 9,000 separate drawings, and the preparation of these is carried out by a large staff of experienced cartoonists known as animators.

[img]Girl artists tracing drawings for "Mickey Mouse" and "Silly Symphony" films.[/img]

It takes about two months to make a Mickey Mouse film, even though the various stages in the process go on simultaneously. The first stage is to invent or select a story. Usually, but not always, Disney has the first germ of the idea that is to carry Mickey through another adventure, but sometimes it is the "brain wave" of a member of his staff, or an inspiration obtained from the large library kept in the story department of the studio. It may be that in the new film Mickey is to be an explorer and to go on an expedition through the jungles of Africa; or perhaps he is to be an Olympic star, taking part in the games in progress in Los Angeles. The idea, whatever its source and character, is discussed at a story conference attended by some 25 or 30 of the Disney staff, and a rough plot is worked out. The humorist "gag men" then take a hand, and ingeniously get Mickey into and out of scrapes, and invent the novel touches that bring the laughs.

The next step is the preparation of a series of "key" drawings, in the form of a comic strip, showing the principal episodes of the story. In the old days of silent cartoon films these drawings would have been passed direct to the animators, who would immediately have prepared the thousands of intermediate, or detailed pictures. Disney's idea that sound was not only to be added, but that Mickey's movements were to be synchronised to music, complicated the process enormously. The creation of the musical score is therefore done immediately the story is completed, and prior to the drawing of any detailed pictures.

When the musical score is finished it is passed to the chief "layout" man, more or less similar to a director in an ordinary "talkie" studio. He carefully works out the number of movements in each episode. It may be that Mickey is to do a little dance to a phrase from Mendelssohn's "Spring Song." There are 11 beats to this phrase, and therefore there is time for Mickey to take 11 steps while it is being played. Certain of the beats also give him a fraction of a second in which to perform a stunt or two, and at these moments he can, if he desires, take time to pull the tail of Pluto his dog, or annoy Minnie Mouse and Clarabell the Cow, or spring on the back of Horace Horsecollar.

Perhaps the story necessitates Mickey entering a jungle. From the time that he does so until he emerges just ahead of a ferocious lion, he performs a specific number of motions. Each of these motions requires a group of separate drawings to depict it, and the chief layout man makes each group correspond exactly to the number of beats in the musical score. He then compiles a list of all the various scenes in the story and of the drawings required for them. The scenes are allocated to the different cartoonists, who are informed of the relation of their part to the remainder of the film. Each cartoonist draws the pictures for the beginning, end and critical moment of each action in his scenes, and his assistants then draw the required number of intermediate pictures. It is remarkable that although many artists are engaged in this work, the style of their drawings is so similar that no difference is discernible when the film is flashed on to the cinema screen. Much time is saved by tracing the parts of successive drawings in which no movement takes place.

One of the most pleasing features of the films produced in the Disney studio is the lifelike mannerisms of the characters, and in the case of unusual creatures, such as penguins, this realism is obtained by studying living specimens brought to the studio for the benefit of the cartoonists.

[img]A member of the Disney staff studying his own expression in a mirror as inspiration for the homorous drawing on which he is engaged.[/img]

The scene of the action may be the same for a considerable number of drawings, and a single pen and ink drawing of the background is made to serve for all these pictures. The various characters are also drawn separately, and without a background and afterwards are traced on transparent celluloid sheets. When these tracings are finished the pictures that make up the film are assembled one at a time. The background is pinned down on the camera table, and the celluloid tracings of the characters in the scene are placed on it one over the other, and pinned clown. A hinged glass plate is pressed down upon the drawings to prevent them from curling, and the built-up picture is then photographed. The camera is overhead, with the lens directed downward toward the table, and it is moved up or down as required in focussing by a mechanism operated by compressed air.

While the drawings are being made and photographed the recording of the music and the sound effects is carried out in a sound-proof room in another part of the studio. This room is similar in appearance to the average broadcasting studio, and is the strangest of all the departments of the Disney building. In the left-hand corner, as one enters the room, there is seated a small orchestra, and at the opposite end is a glass-enclosed control room from which it is conducted. At the right is a long table that extends almost the length of the room, and on it there is an extraordinary array of instruments for producing different sound effects. The four or five men who stand in front of the table are the sound experts, and they can simulate any noise imaginable. There is a microphone in front of each man, and several near the orchestra. The conductor, musicians and sounds effects men all wear headphones, the lines from which are connected to a tempo-producing mechanism devised by the Disney staff. In this apparatus a vacuum-tube oscillator creates a continuous sound, which is mechanically interrupted at regular intervals, corresponding in frequency to the required tempo, and these interruptions give the beats.

When the processes just described are completed the photographic pictures of Mickey have been recorded on one film and the sound track on another. The two records are then transferred on to a single film, a simple operation that is done in all film studios. A negative of this new adventure of Mickey is then sent to the United Artists distributing office. All that remains to be done then is to print the required number of positives for distribution to cinemas.

The Silly Symphonies are made on the same lines. They are fully coloured by hand, and the making of the thousands of colour prints that comprise each film is a very complicated and highly skilled job.