Funny sounds always have been an integral part of cartoons. It is almost impossible to think of the early films without the slide whistle, ratchet, pop-gun. xylophone. and bells. These had all been written in as part of the score and were not recorded until everything on the picture was completed. The animation had been done to a specific beat, the actions were all marked on the score itself, and four or five percussion men were now brought in with the orchestra to record the whole picture in one long, complete take of everything that would be on the sound track.
As technical knowledge advanced, it became possible to do the different parts of the sound separately and combine them onto one track at a later date. Now if someone hit a wrong gong or scraped his sandpaper block once too often, the whole seven-minute take did not have to be done over. But a larger advantage was that now the way was open to experiment. The music could be recorded in separate takes called "cues," the voices could be done over and over until just the right inflection was captured, and the sound effects could be recorded individually, speeded up, run backward, or built out of two or three separate parts.
For Three Little Wolves, in 1936, the sound effects men had to get the juicy impact of a ripe tomato hitting the big. bad wolf in the face. A wet washcloth had too much impact, a spoonful of grease was too wet, and a cup of water had too much splatter. The sound finally was achieved by combining the three best sounds over the blatant sound of the "razzberry," the impertinent noisemaker made of two loose pieces of rubber. None by itself sounded anything like a tomato, but together they had the feeling needed to match the action.
As Jim Macdonald says, "The sound man must think about what the sound is going to do for the picture—not just how it ought to sound." Jim was the most creative and dedicated of all the sound men, staying at the studio for some forty-two years, then continuing to come in for sound effects sessions after that well into his seventies. Originally brought in as a drummer to handle some of the sounds for those early cartoons, he was offered a steady job because of his imagination and sense of entertainment. He says that the sound effects man must "feel" the effect, even as he makes the sound, and in support of this philosophy threw himself violently into everything he did, from pounding on a door to choking himself with the hiccups. Being a musician he saw to it that the sounds always fit properly into the score, and being an entertainer he made sure the sound was the best that could be gotten for that spot. Good sound effects will add life and excitement to a film, whereas drab, ordinary sounds will quickly drain what life there might be in the action.
There were always changes in the ideas and the material as a picture developed; but when the studio embarked on the feature cartoon, the period for this experimentation stretched to three years or more. This meant that there would be endless changes in the sound tracks as a good track inspired better business, which, in turn, built an even better track. No department was free of Walt's constant building and improving. Any new idea had to be tried out before a decision could be made about its actual value, and this led to test tracks and test recording and test music.
No studio could afford to bring in specialists even time there was a new idea to try, so members of the staff who were particularly inventive and creative— along with their other talents—were asked to do the experimenting. If it had to do with music or sound, it was usually someone from the sound effects department, and most often Jim Macdonald.
With considerable ingenuity and a great deal of blowing and accompanying dizziness, a track had been recorded for the organ that Grumpy played in the dwarfs' house. It was only a first test, but it involved everyone in the studio who could read music, plus a handful of competent musicians and all the sound effects men. some thirty of us in all, blowing on bottles and jugs and strange homemade instruments. The most demanding part was for the man who blew over the giant jug for the lowest bass notes. That part had gone to Jim. When Walt heard the track he exclaimed. "Yeah! That's a happy song ... a happy group! Somebody should be yodeling," and he turned to look at Jim. "Why don't you get down on the stage and try to yodel?" As Jim said, "I had never yodeled in my whole life, but when Walt said. 'Yodel!' you yodeled."
And yodel he did. over and over, for a couple of years while they built the track into a happy sequence with just the right amount of singing and playing and fun. When everything was finally approved, a professional group of yodelers was called in to give the ringing, authentic sound, but the structure and the length had been worked out by amateur yodeler Jim Macdonald. He commented, "I was always doing voices for actions where they didn't want the a^tor to hurt his voice—grunts, strains, screams, gasping.. .."
In Aristocats there was a scene of the alley cat O'Malley nearly drowning in the river. Phil Harris played the part and was not only willing to do anything we needed, but invariably found a way to make it all the more entertaining. Still, drowning did not seem to be a suitable application of his talents. We had used some miscellaneous gasps and coughs he had done for
us as we built our continuity and business to its climax. but then we called upon Jim. After looking at the film he recommended that he do it all in one take as he watched the film on the screen, rather than in separate pieces as he usually did. He brought out a big tub. filled it with water, and then with the mike in place and his chin half submerged, fixed his eyes on the screen and gave the order to roll the film. He not only matched the action precisely, but inhaled at least as much water as the cat in the picture, and ended up just about as nearly drowned.
Jim had a woodworking shop in his garage and would spend hours building gadgets that might make sounds for special sections of the pictures. When work was beginning on The Old Mill he saw that there would be a need for many different kinds of creaks as old, rotting parts of the structure would turn. He conceived of an elaborate contraption of drum heads, string and buttons and supports, and a wheel for tightening it all. figuring that with a bit of rosin and a bow he should be able to get some exceptional groans. What he got was a perfect foghorn! So he recorded that, which is still the one used today, and returned to his shop to start a new idea. It is very important that the effects man have enough time to think and play around with ideas if the sound is to be at all unusual, or just right for the picture. Many times it is necessary to run the recorded track through some of the sound equipment, to rever berate it. or take out the lows, or speed it up, or combine it with other sounds. When the day comes that the director is down on the stage to record, the sound effects man must be ready. It is then too late to experiment.
Every sound that is recorded eventually goes to the Sound Effects Library for use in other pictures. Over the years this enormous collection has been built into a treasure house of nearly every sound in the world— except the one. special, elusive sound that you want. There are fifty different coughs, whistles, footsteps, creaks, and foghorns, and these are widely used to build the test tracks, but when the picture is finally all put together, there is always a long list of needed sounds that should be done a little differently for this particular picture. t
If the sound is part of a story idea or related to a I character, it is always recorded early, so the animator can work to it. rather than trying to fit it in later. As the idea for the exhausted dragonfly in The Rescuers was developing, Jim was told of the problem and immediately started searching for things he could use. A power saw with its varied whines and straining noises seemed like an obvious choice because it sounds so determined and desperate, but it did not prove as flexible as a little creation of brass tubing and an air hose combined with a rubber membrane over a kind of drum that Jim could play like a musical instrument. It was when Jim added the panting and wheezing on the end of the buzzing sounds that the character of Evinrude finally leapt to life. That sense of entertainment in commonplace sounds is a very special talent.
It is the assistant director's job to build his tracks and keep them in sync and growing to match the needs of the picture. So it falls to him to rummage through the sound effects library for the most appropriate sounds he can find, and, also, to decide just how many he should put in. Too few can make the film sound spotty. too many can make it sound ridiculous.
At the start of the war in 1941, Ward Kimball and Fred Moore were animating a long, involved scene of a small soldier going through all the things a soldier is trained to do—drilling, manual of arms, saluting— everything except making his bed and KP. There was an eager assistant director at the time who was just waiting for his big chance to show what he could do.
The suggestion was made that the scene would get over better even in its rough state if it had a few sound effects. Ward and Fred cautioned the assistant that if the effects were too real the scene would be dull, while if they were too exotic it would become silly and lose its strength. But the right sounds, carefully chosen, would give a sprightly character to the whole thing.
Three hours later the beaming assistant returned with the film and put it on the Moviola w ith the sound track he had concocted beside it. On the opening frame of the scene, there was a ratchet sound as the soldier's arm came up in a salute, followed by a "ping!" from a tiny bell as the fingers touched the forehead. This was followed by "sproings," wheezes, thuds, claps, squeaks, one after the other, accenting every last little move the animated character made. Fred and Ward looked at each other in amazement, back to the film, back to each other, then broke into convulsive laughter. They fell to the floor and could no longer see the film, but the parade of unlikely sounds continued on and on. popping and bleeping, like something gone mad. The longer it went, the funnier it got. and once Fred and Ward had started to laugh, there was no stopping.
The assistant's beaming look of anticipation had long since dropped to a more defiant attitude, then to a grim set of determination. He stared doggedly at the film clacking through the Moviola, intent on seeing his masterpiece through to the end no matter what. Then he quietly turned off the machine, took off the film, walked out of the room with his track under his arm without uttering a word. The gales of laughter had naturally attracted everyone else in that wing of the building, and now curious heads were thrusting into the room. Not realizing the source of the humor, they let the assistant walk right past them, and that very special track disappeared forever.
Occasionally the sound effects man is asked to come up with a sound for something that cannot possibly make a sound of its own: for instance, the sound of a spider web shimmering with dew. Walt insisted that there should be a special sound, and though he could not describe it exactly he gave the impression that everybody knew what it should be. Jim Macdonald was given the assignment at that point and turned it over in his mind for several days. It should be like a wind chime, he thought, soft and delicate, without the impact of glass hitting glass; it had to be something else.
Jim found his answer in some pieces of duraluminum left over from a new panel installed in the sound department. He cut the material into small pieces and suspended them from a plywood frame, and when he shook the whole thing an amazingly light and shimmering sound came forth. Walt liked it so well that he asked Jim to tune it chromatically so that a glissando could be played, or maybe even a tune. It was never enough to give Walt what he asked for. That always stimulated him to even more elusive, but undeniably better, ideas, and especially ideas that never would have been thought of in the beginning.
One of Jim's greatest accomplishments was the sound for a giant magnet. This actually was intended for a ride at Walt Disney World, but Marc Davis, who had helped develop the ride, knew from his years of animation training that the key factor in making the whole idea work was to have just the right sound. He called Jim out of retirement to find it. The fascinating thing is that Jim went right to objects that make no sound! That is, no sound the human ear can detect. A heavy-duty soldering iron operating on 60 cycles held close to the microphone gave off a very low, rhythmic hum. A de-magnetizer used for taking static electricity out of scissors before cutting tape gave off another sound that barely could be recorded, and. finally, Jim got a large cymbal and gently brushed a tiny piece of cotton against the edge. No sound could be detected on the stage, but the tape machine was picking up strange vibrations. These three sounds were taken to the dubbing panel in the theater, where the tracks were mixed and switched and altered, and raised in volume until the sound could be heard by human ears. It was a slow, pulsing, indefinable sound, and it started to make everyone there sick. As they bolted for the door, the annoyed technicians yelled back at Jim, "You can't put that in Disney World!"
But Jim continued to play with his sounds, feeling like a mad inventor, until he had them at the provocative stage just short of producing illness and just past recognition of it as sound at all. It was more of a feeling, and it felt like a magnet should sound!
The principle of the multiplane camera is shown in these two photos; the view of the country lane leading hack to the farmhouse in the distance is actually made up of four different levels of art work.
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