Source Material

  • On April 29, 2024 ·
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Today I’d like to talk about source material. Specifically works in the public domain.

Steamboat Willie

Steamboat Willie (1928 Film) – 4K Film Remaster via Did You Catch This?

Steamboat Willie (1928) is an important film for a number of reasons. It’s the first released (3rd produced) appearance of Mickey Mouse and one of the first cartoons with synchronized sound. It includes the 1910 song Steamboat Bill. A clip from the short with Mickey whistling a verse of the tune has been the production logo of Walt Disney Animation Studios since 2007. The title is probably a parody of Buster Keaton’s silent comedy Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928).

4K Restoration trailer by Cohen Film Collection, watch the entire film in 4K via Annictive Public Domain

Steamboat Willie entered the public domain in the US on January 1st, 2024, AKA Public Domain Day 2024. This meant that anybody was able to use that specific version of the iconic mouse for their own purposes, with certain restrictions. This led to a slew of Steamboat Willie horror video games, horror films, a puppet music video by NOFX, an animated music video from Green Day, overdubs, and the list is still ongoing.

This is all to be expected, you might say. The average person probably doesn’t see the value in an almost century-old video of a cartoon mouse. The Walt Disney Company, however, cares very much. In fact, their interest in holding onto the rights to Mickey for as long as possible has influenced copyright law. For a breakdown of the various extensions over the years, Cartoon Research has a list of dates.

Adam Ruins Everything – How Mickey Mouse Destroyed the Public Domain via truTV

Disney has quite the storied history concerning copyrights. Mickey Mouse was created after losing their character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit to Universal Pictures. (If you’re a fan of Drunk History, an amusing recounting of the tale can be found in Drunk History – The Creation of Mickey Mouse on editor Charles Breiner’s website) They’ve since been known for obscuring artists who’ve worked on their productions, selling the image that everything that comes out was made by Walt Disney himself, or at the very least the work of a few skilled hands instead of a creative army. Here’s a list of at least 50 Disney works based on sources in the public domain. As an animator, there’s plenty to learn Steamboat Willie.

Mouse of Madness playlist via Animate with Dermont

Why Use Sources in the Public Domain?

Some folks may object to the idea of using sources at all. “You’re a creative, you should be making everything up entirely whole cloth!” The reality is most concepts don’t emerge fully formed. Even the rare times something feels like it comes completely out of the ether it often has roots in inspiration an artist has absorbed. Think of Shakespeare in Love (1998) and the parody short George Lucas in Love (1999). Original ideas come easier when our minds are allowed to play and adapt. Fiction is so powerful because we’re anchored in the real world and can imagine new things. If stories become overly unmoored from reality and what we know we start to lose the ability to relate.

The public domain holds many interesting works yet a lot of people find it inaccessible. Old, black and white, silent or foreign films; myths and legends from different cultures or history; things viewed as outdated ephemera or hokey and old-timey. The more distance between us and what we think a work embodies, the harder it may be to appreciate. That’s why simply colorizing images can make them feel more real. It’s why Peter Jackson took such care with They Shall Not Grow Old (2018).

How Lord of the Rings director brought colour to WW1 – BBC via BBC

Dangers of the Public Domain

Cartoonist Nina Paley produced the film Sita Sings the Blues (2008) using 1920s recordings from Annette Hanshaw. She believed the songs were in the public domain but ran into issues, due to a messy web of state laws that existed before federal copyright reform, rights to the compositions, and synchronization rights. There are very few truly public domain audio recordings in the United States, because copyright is still such a mess. Understandably creators want their work protected, but when anybody originally involved in the creation is long dead, and the physical materials they’re recorded on literally break down, who really benefits?

Inspirational Sources

When I’m looking for ideas, one of my first stops is the Internet Archive. There you can find uploads from libraries, institutions, and regular users like yourself. Collections include books, magazines, newspapers; software, video games, hardware manuals; music, podcasts, old time radio recordings; movies, TV shows, music videos… as well as the Wayback Machine that preserves snapshots of websites.

The source that spurred me to write today’s post is Librivox. Volunteers record public domain writings and release them for free. Their collection is also on the Internet Archive.

Project Gutenberg offers free ebooks for download and online reading. Their collection is also on the Internet Archive.

Lastly I want to mention Originally designed as an indie video game storefront it’s grown to host game dev assets, zines, comics, soundtracks, and honestly a little bit of everything. Creatives can set up profile pages and ones for individual projects as well. They often have bundle sales raising funds for good causes.