To mark this year’s Halloween, Headstuff animation expert Joseph Learoyd is starting a new three-part column titled Cartoon Pumpkins, delving into the spooky side of animation. His first entry is on 1929 Disney short The Skeleton Dance.
Halloween has been the perfect opportunity to tackle the spookier side of animation. For this first dive into nostalgia, we must look at 1929, the year The Skeleton Dance was released. This, the first, and arguably one of the best, Silly Symphonies shorts to be created, this Walt Disney directed piece of spooky musical genius has stood the test of time.
The likelihood is that you will have seen at least a clip of this six-minute short at some point, conjuring imagery of skeletons parading around, creating creepy tunes in a graveyard. This party of the dead focuses on atmosphere and setting the scene for the musical accompaniment and that is where it finds its strength. It opens by throwing us into the vibe of the short. We see an owl, hear wind and immediately have the scene painted for us by the visuals that, although were standard when they were made, really add a gritty dark style nowadays due to their age and grainy black and white look.
As the first of the 75 Silly Symphonies, The Skeleton Dance allowed Disney to experiment and solidify his technique and style going forward to the feature length films. This dance of the macabre is filled with odd transitions and strange hints of physical humour. It is simple yet filled with beauty in its family friendly but powerful techniques.
Using the filming techniques of the time, we can see the start of the animation flow that would build throughout the series. Although containing noticeable animation repetitions and being dated, the short still holds up as one of those films you should see at least once – even just for the appreciation of the work that went into its small teamed, six week production and to be able to live the narrative, feeling the emotions that one may have gone through during its original release.
The Skeleton Dance proves to us that animation and music can co-exist, complimenting each other in a symbiotic, well timed arrangement. The eerie atmosphere rivals the jokes and again create a clash of opposition that flies from the screen and launches Disney forwards with his sheer genius of the artform.
Our skeletons here, despite lacking a lot in the physical feature department, manage to emote quite cleverly, adding a sense of awe to the jokes and letting us see the characters’ interactions and reactions. Through simplicity, animator Ub Iwerks managed to add fluidity to the piece, each shot transitioning in a sound narrative to the next.
It is, however, the dark yet cheerful music that is the real hero of this short. It manages to set the scene perfectly, delivering each joke and conjuring emotions from the viewer. On a re-watch, I noticed a forgotten subtlety in the repetitive sounds of bones moving in time and sync to the musical beat. Through this underlying element, we are added once more, a sensory association to the themes of the cartoon.
The Skeleton Dance is a vital part of animation history that lets us hold onto the feelings of the time in which it was made. Even if you never planned to watch this short, hopefully after this article, you will give it a chance. If you love animation, it is worth taking a look at this early entry to see just how far we’ve come.