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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Walt Disney Sets Picture and Music To Time


Putting A Stopwatch To Synchronization With The Clock Store (1931)

One thing you could say about Silly Symphonies from the beginning: they were precision instruments. Each was synchronized to the last beat, a flawless wedding of animated picture and sound. I'm only surprised they didn't get around to a clock cartoon sooner, considering how much Disney's output had in common with timepieces. Silly Symphonies measured music with picture in terms of  hair-splits, that being what thrilled audiences most when Disney shorts were shown. The novelty of synchronization, even if flawless, would dissipate as a wider industry gained competence. Where, then, to go past technical summit once reached? Disney was slowed, but not stopped, by two good men who'd quit him --- Ub Iwerks and Carl Stalling. They'd done initial Symphonies almost single-handed. Other staff would train toward their level, but in a meantime, release schedules had to be met. Walt's best cartoons were ones he did slowest, but distributing Columbia's clock wouldn't pause for him.


Many a past century home, humble ones even, kept clocks that were often a centerpiece among furnishing, many having been passed down generations. Ornate-enough specimen could engage a family like radio or television to come, set-off of chime/cuckoo, or figures emerging from behind a time-face to signal an hour's passage --- these could entertain between stories told or meals ate. We had a Grandfather clock that concertized every fifteen minutes. I don't know how I slept through its night-long din. The Clock Store trades on good will folk felt for time-keeping, happy association with what ticked at home. How else could Disney draw seven minutes from such inanimate objects going into their dance? (added query: how many digital-dwellers are even conscious of clocks, other than collectors of antiquity?) A lot of '31 viewers, especially youngsters, might have imagined household clocks coming to life at night, asserting their presence amidst otherwise silence. Impressed critics called early Silly Symphonies "mood pieces" for just such meditation, and didn't require they be funny. In fact, the Sillies were as close as any cartoon series got to being art. Walt couldn't have bought his genius persona with just the Mickeys. He would (to his mind) improve on The Clock Store and stately shorts like it, B/W Symphonies removed from circulation, and kept for decades on ice. A one-and-only place you'd see a lot of them was The Mickey Mouse Club. It's only within a last seven-twelve years that we've had access to a complete run (but wow, look at prices those out-of-print DVD's command!).

2 Comments:

Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson speaks to the post-Disney career of Ub Iwerks:


You can still get Iwerks' independent work on two very nice "Cartoons Time Forgot" DVDs from Image -- and they're still pretty cheap. Those are fascinating and a little sad because Iwerks the producer/director wasn't in a class with Iwerks the animator. And you see what a huge difference Disney's story sense makes.


The Flip the Frog series is full of fun individual gags, moments of Fleischeresque surrealism, and cheerful bad taste; but they don't always add up to a complete cartoon. The color shorts, closest to the Silly Symphonies, feature strange attempts at "naturalistic" movement next to old-fashioned rubber-limbed characters. You get dancing bits that at first look like rotoscope, but seem to be just very detailed and not quite right animation.


Iwerks didn't have the resources to pursue improved animation the way Disney did. And in the end, perhaps he wasn't that interested. Upon returning to Disney, Iwerks focused on technology to great effect.

6:09 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

These films were meant to be seen one at a time. Seeing them on anthology discs most of us soon grow tired of the perceived sameness whether it's Flip The Frog or Bugs Bunny.

We don't see these with the same eyes people who saw them for the first time saw them. We bring a lot to the process.

I, personally, find the Disney material not as interesting as non-Disney. I reacted negatively towards Iwerks' films when I first saw them back in the 1970s when I began programming my animation festivals. I never cared for w. C. Fields the first time I saw him either.

Seeing Fields with a huge audience (which is how these films are meant to seen) changed my mind dramatically.

Ditto Iwerks. His color shorts thrilled audiences because they are so different from everything else. In JACK FROST Grim Natwick hid in plain view some terrific female nudes in the snowscapes. I first noticed them by their absence in a colorized black and white version of the film made from a silent Castle Films 16mm print. I sensed something was missing. I dug out my color 16mm, looked at it and there, for the first time, saw what I had been seeing all along.

I can't stress too much the importance of seeing films with a large non-fan audience if you really want to study film.



8:37 AM  

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