Voice Over Origins : Animation
Updated: Sep 13
Searching for the origins of voice over generally brings up a lot of generic information that has been copy and pasted from one site to the next. Even the debunking of the myths and misconceptions aren’t entirely accurate. In this series of voice over origin explorations, I will endeavour to more thoroughly research the first use of voice overs across a spectrum of industries.
Of all the industries that will be covered, we’re kicking off with the origin of voice over in animation - the industry commonly thought to be the dawn of voice over. In fact, not only is this untrue, but additionally the cartoon credited as being the first ever was not even the first in the industry to synchronise sound to picture.
For those of you who have either A) already looked into the history of voice over, B) are Disney enthusiasts or C) are keen general knowledge, QI buffs - you will probably be aware of Disney’s ‘Steamboat Willie’, often erroneously referred to as the first cartoon with voice over. 'Steamboat Willie' came out in America in 1928 as a black and white short, and was the world’s first introduction to Mickey and Minnie Mouse, with Walt Disney himself providing the sound effects for Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Peg Leg Pete and the parrot.
However, the real title of voice over originator in animation goes to Walt Disney’s rival, Max Fleischer and his cartoon ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ released in 1926 - 2 years earlier than ‘Steamboat Willie’. This short featured the first cartoon character with a line of spoken dialogue. In fact, 2 years prior to ‘My Old Kentucky Home’, it was Fleischer again who came out with the ‘Ko-Ko Song Car Tunes’ starting in 1924, with the likes of “Come Take A Trip In My Airship’ and ‘Oh Mabel’, which featured synchronised sound and music to picture, the precursor to voice over artistry.
Of course, being the first in the industry of animation to pair sound with animated image was an incredible achievement. However, it seems that Fleischer’s early offerings came at a time where the idea of “talking pictures”, albeit a novelty, was considered to be a short term fad.
Bear in mind, the first “part talkie” film was ‘The Jazz Singer’ which came out in 1927 - 3 years after Fleischer started releasing his ‘Ko-Ko Song Car Tunes’ and 1 year after ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ with actual dialogue. This is important in the history of voice over because it suggests that it was years after Fleischer’s early animations before Hollywood’s thoughts on synchronising sound and spoken dialogue to image changed and consequently, the development in audio quality as well as public opinion and critical success.
A special mention must go to Lee de Forest, a pioneer in the development of sound synchronised to moving images used for motion pictures. In a nutshell, de Forest invented Phonofilm in 1919 which was the system that allowed for sound on film. In 1927, after de Forest had filed for bankruptcy yet again (he supposedly prided himself on making and then losing 4 fortunes in his lifetime) a chap called Pat Powers who owned Celebrity Pictures, swooped in and hired a former technician of de Forest to exactly recreate the Phonofilm sound recording system. While this was an infringement on de Forest’s patent, he was already in too weak a financial position to take any legal action. Powers named it Powers Cinephone and convinced Disney to use this system for Steamboat Willie.
This perhaps leads us to understand why Disney’s Steamboat Willie gets so much credit. The short was used to open for the "part talkie" main feature, 'Gang War', and was immediately well received by the public and critics alike. A review at the time by Variety read:
“Not the first animated cartoon to be synchronized with sound effects, but the first to attract favorable attention. This one represented a high order of cartoon ingenuity, cleverly combined with sound effects. The union bought laughs galore. Giggles came so fast at the Colony they were stumbling over each other.”
Further to this unprecedented commercial success came the subsequent impact Steamboat Willie had on the industry. For example, before Steamboat Willie and Mickey Mouse arrived on the scene, Felix the Cat was a hugely successful cartoon, enjoying the height of popularity during the silent film era. However, Hal Walker - a Felix the Cat animator - is quoted as having said “Disney put us out of business with his sound.”
The title for popularity and sustained preeminence rightly go to Disney’s Steamboat Willie. However, there is a lot of misplaced credit in the archives when recalling actual voice over and sound synch in animation firsts, from the creator and animation title, to the guy who actually made the sound synchronisation system which made it all possible. The names of Max Fleischer and Lee de Forest, and the titles of the ‘Ko-Ko Song Car Tunes’ and ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ may not have the pioneering legacy they deserve but their contributions have been appreciated the world over, if not always correctly credited. On the part of the voice over industry and the artists that play a role in it - that no longer need be the case.