The Skeleton Dance

With Halloween on the way, there’s no better time to look at the scarier side of animation! Animation and horror have always had an oddly tumultuous relationship, both contemporarily and in the medium’s infancy. On one hand animation remains a perfect medium for horror storytelling, given the genre’s gravitation to the nonliteral/fictitious, compounded by its reliance on tone and atmosphere; something we see modern horror directors implementing animation (particularly CGI animation) as a supplement to their live-action films. Yet the relative lack of fully animated horror films exists as a phenomenon foremost be attributed to the other hand— the juxtaposition of the preconceived macabre of the horror genre grinding with the assumed friendliness of animation (in America particularly). Of course, it goes without saying: not all horror is blood and gore; not all animations are friendly; animation itself is a medium and not a genre; and other daily affirmations to say in the mirror in the morning; but there remains a disconnect in how most’s expectations for one contradict the other— which makes the early examples of filmmakers bridging this gap even more fascinating; moreover, ways that discrepancy inspired animators to crave a unique vision of horror. Indeed, this vision would first take form with the 1929 Disney animated short The Skeleton Dance, a landmark film in animation not only introduced new cinematic techniques to the medium but a new genre. 

The 1920s and early 1930s stand as a notable turning point in how the medium of animation conducted itself, specifically regarding the degree of sophistication that animated filmmakers brought to their work. As a brief overview of film history, this period of cinema saw filmmakers beginning to reap the benefits of their previous years of experiments. By this point, filmmakers had developed methods of shorthand and montage that allowed them to accomplish more than just novelty with their films— they could now tell stories with characters, plot, pathos, etc. However, cartoonists had a particularly tough time reckoning with this cultural shift because of how much the audience’s interest in animation came from the fixation on the novelty of the medium; live-action films of the 1900s and 1910s often proposed themselves at the cusp of narrative storytelling, with years of increasingly more precise cinematic language finally allowing them to cross that hurdle; whereas the priorities of animation were more so focused on film’s visual capability as opposed to its narrative, leading to early animated films that often had simplistic and/or surreal plotlines executed with experimental conveyance; with the medium as a whole able to perform novelty for longer comparatively to live-action films because of how much more fundamentally novel its foundation was— in other words, animated filmmakers made films that underscored the fun of watching animated characters move and do things, more than they did on the things the characters were doing. This contrast in priorities laid the groundwork for how early live-action and animated films differ in their approach to the genre, specifically horror; live-action fixated on its narrative, and conveyed its details through the atmosphere. This approach remains more in line with the disturbing, ominous, and often physiological side of horror— films evocative of theater and literature. Conversely, animation fixated more on horror’s aesthetical and personality-driven side, creating films that were— above any other descriptor, and as a compliment— silly.

Still from The Skeleton Dance provided by “The Disney Classics

This sillier side brings us to one of animation’s first attempts at the horror genre, the 1929 Disney animated short film The Skeleton Dance. The idea for The Skeleton Dance originally came from composer Carl Stalling, whom Disney had met in 1928 while recording the soundtrack for Steamboat Willie when Stalling proposed the idea of having music lead the story of animation. Previously, cartoons utilized live orchestras for their soundtracks (if they had soundtracks at all), but Disney was in the process of pioneering methods of synching recorded audio to his cartoons. Stalling wanted to push Disney’s idea further by creating a score that was not just important to the cartoon, but a score that became the inseparable, beating heart of the film. Stalling hoped to utilize this ethos in a film idea he entitled “Spooky Dance,” where skeletons would rise from their graves to dance throughout the night before returning to rest before the morning. This idea— and, indeed, the ethos Stalling was proposing for an audio-visual cartoon, intrigued Disney enough that he wanted to use Stalling’s pitch as the pilot entry in a series of films titled “Silly Symphonies.” Additionally, Disney brought Ub Iwerks onto the project to help develop the idea visually and narratively. Regarding the former, Iwerks took inspiration from the illustrations of Thomas Rowlandson; whereas, he wanted to focus on the narrative of the film, ironically, on the livelier elements of the idea, incorporating aspects of danse macabre into a more approachable portrayal of the dead— as MousePlanet put it, “not rising [the skeletons] from their graves to threaten people but just have a playful night of partying with each other.”

Photo of Ub Iwerks, Walt Disney, and Carl Stalling provided by “Disney Detail

 After the completion of Steamboat Willie, The Skeleton Dance formally began production, with key staff members including Disney as director, Stalling as the composer, and Ub Iwerks as the animator, with Roy Disney and Wilfred Jackson (the latter of which later directed Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland), also contributing uncredited animation work— however, this new approach to creating animated films brought with it unfamiliar challenges. For example, the production had to solve the question of how to compose music that could be synced to the animated visuals. Their solution was to have Stalling and Iwerks time both of their pieces to the same tempo so the two would consistently keep the bpm— with this idea later becoming the foundation for what we know as a “click-track.” Nevertheless, the production encountered an even more dire issue: hesitancy from distributors regarding the film’s subject matter. By this point in his career, Disney had already proven himself as a fan-favorite and profitable director, yet the horror-tinged contents of his new film scared off potential distributors from backing the short— simply put, nothing like it had been attempted before, and therefore companies weren’t sure of how audiences would react. However, Disney remained unshakably optimistic about the film’s prospects and eventually secured Columbia Pictures as a distributor for the film— with the final short, now titled The Skeleton Dance, releasing on August 22, 1922. 

Even today, The Skeleton Dance remains a festively cheerful watch around the Halloween season. Although relatively simplistic by today’s standards, the film endures because its simplicity allows it to expertly accomplish what it sets out to do, doing so with such confidence and unencumbered energetic personality that it feels hard not to share the film’s elated delight. The character design work I particularly love; of course, I’m predisposed to enjoy skeletons categorically (a decent yearbook quote), but these skeletons have such pervasive “little dude” energy that I am immediately, completely enthralled. The film utilizes horror in such a playful way that best iterates the strengths of the animators; rather than translating/ emulating the work of horror artists from other mediums, the animators instead chose to translate the elements of the genre into their medium; in turn, benefiting a different type of horror while maintaining the spirit of the genre (the spirit Halloween, if you will). Of course, that is not to diminish the efforts of more traditional horror films— many of which in subsequent decades would, too, be acclaimed animated films. Instead, it’s to show appreciation for the identity that The Skeleton Dance carved for itself— an identity created by allowing animation to embrace horror in a way only achievable through animation.

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