Bringing Forth The Mouse

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We had to push out 700 feet of film every two weeks, so we couldn’t have a character who was tough to draw. His head was a circle with an oblong circle for a snout. The ears were also circles so they could be drawn the same, no matter how he turned his head.

His body was like a pear and he had a long tail. His legs were pipestems and we stuck them in big shoes [also circular in appearance] to give him the look of a kid wearing his father’s shoes.

We didn’t want him to have mouse hands, because he was supposed to be more human. So we gave him gloves. Five fingers looked like too much on such a little figure, so we took one away. That was just one less finger to animate.

To provide a little detail, we gave him the two-button pants. There was no mouse hair or any other frills that would slow down animation.

In short, the mouse was very much a product of the current conventions of animation, which held that angular figures were well-nigh impossible to animate successfully, and that clearly articulated joints were also too difficult to manage, at least at the speed of drawing that was demanded by the economics of the industry. Hence the strange appearance of many old cartoons when we glimpse them today on television— the thick round bodies contrasting so oddly with the rubbery limbs of the characters. Within a few years, thanks largely to the leadership of the Disney studio, these conventions were abandoned. Whatever economic advantages these early techniques provided were offset, Disney later said, by the fact that they made it “tougher for the cartoonists to give him [Mickey Mouse] character.”

Indeed, it is possible that the mouse would have had a life no longer than many of his competitors if a technological revolution had not intervened and presented Disney with an opportunity particularly suited to his gifts and interests. He seized it with an alacrity shown by few in Hollywood. Plane Crazy , in which both Mickey and Minnie Mouse made their first appearance, was on the drawing boards on October 6, 1927, when Warner Brothers came out with The Jazz Singer , which though not actually the first sound film was the first to integrate sound with story. Only a small part of the dialogue was recorded, but all the musical sequences were, and the result was a sensation. Warner’s immediately added similar sequences to three other movies the studio then had in production and laid plans for an all-talking picture. The rest of the industry formally agreed to fight the “Warner Vitaphone Peril,” as the innovation was labelled by a trade magazine. The movie makers had been dragging their feet about sound ever since the first practical sound system was invented in 1923, but by the spring of 1928 opposition had collapsed and all the studios were rushing into production with sound pictures. There was nothing dignified or even very intelligent about the transition period. It was, indeed, a hysterical scramble in which Walt Disney and his problems, never in the forefront of anyone’s mind, were almost entirely lost from view.

At this point the frugality of Walt and Roy Disney paid off. Between them they had between $25,000 and $30,000 in personal assets, and their studio, though not wildly successful, could afford to go ahead with its first three Mickey Mouse films even though they had no contract for them nor any real idea of who might be persuaded to distribute them. In addition, they were in somewhat the same position as the nearly bankrupt Warner Brothers had been—they had nothing to lose by experimenting with sound: their investment in films not yet released was negligible, they had no investment in actors whose vocal qualities might be unsuitable to the microphone, and the animated cartoon was a medium ideally adaptable to sound. The early sound camera was all but immobile in the soundproof “blimp” that was necessary to prevent its whirrings from being picked up by the microphone. Disney, of course, had no such problem. The animation was shot silently, as always, and sound was added later. This meant that his little films retained their ability to move, unhampered by a stationary camera. Just as important was the control he could exercise over the co-ordination of picture and sound. They could be perfectly integrated by matching the musical rhythm to the rhythm of the drawn characters’ movements.

Disney hesitated only briefly before plunging into sound film production. After Plane Crazy , he shot a second silent film, Gallopin’ Gaucho , but in his third, Steamboat Willie , he began to experiment with sound.