Interviewed by Milton Gray
Reprinted from Funnyworld No. 18 (1978), where it appeared (in slightly different form) as part of "The Moving Drawing Speaks," a multi-part feature on cartoon voices.
Jim Macdonald retired in 1976, after 42 years on the Disney Studio's staff; he continues to work on special assignments for the Studio. He was hired in 1934 as one of two men who formed the newly established sound effects department, after working for Disney as a musician during the recording of cartoon soundtracks. He invented many of the Disney sound effects himself building the necessary contraptions in his home workshop. He was asked repeatedly to provide voices as well as sound effects for the Disney cartoons (and for Disney's live-action features, too), and he has now been Mickey Mouse's voice for more than twice as many years as Walt Disney himself was.
Milt Gray interviewed Jim Macdonald on December 7, 1977, at the Disney studio; excerpts from that interview follow. M. B.
Jim Macdonald: Being on staff, you were asked to do bits of everything. In the 42 years I was here, before I retired, I wore a lot of hats, and I never got rid of any. Whenever I did any voices, the director would say, "Jim, will you try this?" For instance, on Cinderella, I did the two mice, Jaq and Gus. It was something that I'd never tried before; we just thought we’d try it because I was on staff, and if I could do it, it would save having to pay actors to come in.
Winston Hibler had written a lot of strange jargon—he called it "mouse latin," an unintelligible language. I remember a couple of words the mice would say—"Rooky rumpy shiz." Now, nobody would know what that meant. But this was done just the way Winston Hibler wanted it. The one mouse we had to speed up a bit, and the other one we slowed down. When that was cut into a rough cut, and shown to the people here, everybody loved the picture, and they loved the mice, but they said, "We wish we could understand what the mice were saying." Hib wrote more dialogue and cleared it up a bit; he’d have words in there that you could understand, with all this other mouse Latin, as Hib called it. Pretty soon, the picture comes up to color. They showed it and the people said, "Oh, this is a great improvement, we must make that dialogue more clear." Now you have the problem of speed-up and slow-down tracks, and how to get it in sync with the lips.
There was no tape then, no quarter-inch tape with the variable speed. Today, we put it on quarter-inch tape and use the variable-speed oscillator, and then we have great latitude. When we get the take we want, we do it on 35 [record the sound on 35mm film] also, because then it can be on numbered stock and they keep that in library. But we do it simultaneously on quarter-inch tape, then speed it up and slow it down. But when we did Cinderella, we had nothing but discs, and we would hold our finger on it to slow it down. It was really a trial-and-error set-up.
Milt Gray: Was that the way most dubbing was done, from disc back to film?
Macdonald: Only on speed ups or slow downs.
Gray: I would have assumed it would have gone from film to film, in a dubbing session.
Macdonald: Unless it was some trick that was needed, like those voices, it would just go to film.
When I started doing Mickey's voice, about 30 years ago, we were doing " Mickey and the Beanstalk," and the animators and the director in charge of the sequences that needed Walt's voice on Mickey approached him and said, "Walt, we need you on the stage; we want to go ahead with this." He said, ''I'm too busy, I just can't do it. Call Jim up here."
They said, “Walt wants to see you,” and I thought, “What have I done now?” He said, "Have you ever tried to do Mickey?" I said, "No, Walt." You wouldn't try to do that, because it was always Walt's voice; there was no reason ever to try it. So he said, "Do it. Just say something." So I said [in Mickey's voice], "Hi, Walt, how are you?" You know, he always had that little identifiable giggle. He said, "That's fine." He told the directors, "Have Jim do it, in the future. He can do it fine." But, he said, "Don't let them give you long speeches. Because you have that falsetto, and you have a couple of inches of area for inflection, and it'd be terrible to have a long speech in falsetto voice." You don't have much room for inflection; you're already up there. And if you get too low, you start to yodel, and yodel right out of it. So it was always best, he said, to have short speeches.
In the early days, way back onto Snow White, they had the Fraunfelder family, a Swiss family, and they did a lot of the yodeling for the dwarfs. I played in the band; I played jugs and ocarina and different things. We had a little five- or six-piece group, and I remember that Art Smith played clarinet without a mouthpiece, and all of these oddball things, and we made the sound of that organ. It was a very cute and funny sound for the organ, and when Walt heard it, he said, "That's great. Now, this is a happy little group, they should be singing. Maybe they could yodel." And he looked at me. "Have you ever yodeled?" I said, "No, Walt." He said, "Go on down to the stage and try it." So I did a lot of test yodeling.
Now they had the Fraunfelders come in, and they did a great job. But, as you know, that picture went on for years and years, and as the picture keeps progressing, they keep changing scenes and so forth. Some of the yodeling would be out, and some they wanted a little more of. They got in the habit of saying, "Call Jim down, and let him do it." The Studio didn't have a lot of money in the early days, so I would do those things and fill in. Like on Sneezy—[Billy Gilbert] did all of Sneezy. Sneezy never did have a great big sneeze; he always went [a smothered sneeze sound], like he was holding it back. As the years went on, and they would change Sneezy's action, they would have to change some of this sneezing. Rather than call in an actor, they would call me, because I was on staff. I just fell into doing them. This is the way I came into doing the voices.
A long time ago, I did the first articulating of a sound, on Clock Cleaners (1937); Ben Sharpsteen was the director on that picture. Every time the spring would pop up [while Donald was cleaning it], I'd use the jewsharp; the Duck would be quacking away, and he'd hit this thing, and it would bounce out, so there were a lot of "sproings" in there. Ben Sharpsteen said, "I wish I could get that spring to answer him, like a couple of kids; the Duck would say, “I'm gonna beat your sproing off,” and I'd really like to hear that spring answer and say, 'Oh, yeah?'" [Jim then produced the "Oh, yeah?" sound with the jewsharp.] That was the first articulating sound, to my knowledge, and it was done very simply with the jewsharp.