The bouncing ball is a device used in video recordings to visually indicate the rhythm of a song, helping audiences to sing along with live or prerecorded music. As the song's lyrics are displayed on the screen, an animated ball bounces across the top of the words, landing on each syllable when it is to be sung.
The bouncing ball is mainly used for English language songs in video recordings; however, in Japan, a similar device is used where the text changes color as it is sung, just like in karaoke.
The bouncing ball was invented at Fleischer Studios for the Song Car-Tunes series of animated cartoons (both Max and Dave Fleischer later claimed to have devised the idea). It was introduced in September 1925 with the film My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean. In these earliest films using the device, the bouncing ball itself was not animated. The effect was created by filming a long stick with a luminescent ball on the tip, which was physically "bounced" across a screen of printed words by a studio employee. The movement was captured on high-contrast film that rendered the stick invisible. The ball would usually appear as white-on-black, though sometimes the ball and lyrics would be superimposed over (darkened) still drawings or photographs or even live-action footage. Later versions of the bouncing ball have used cel animation or digital effects. Some modern video editing programs achieve the same effect as the bouncing ball by highlighting each displayed syllable as it is sung.
The bouncing ball cartoons continued production at the studio formed after Paramount ousted the Fleischer Brothers, Famous Studios. The revived series, retitled Screen Songs, began in 1945 with Old McDonald Had A Farm, and continued into the early 1950s. An attempt was made to revive the series in 1963 with Hobo's Holiday, using a more modern folk music style. Meanwhile, in the United States, younger generations of children continued to be familiar with the cartoons from television rebroadcasts into the 1970s.
The bouncing ball has been used in many films and television programs over the years.
Mitch Miller's Sing Along with Mitch program (1961–1964) is often thought to have used it, although Mitch himself denies there was a bouncing ball: Ms. KAREN HERMAN (Director, Archive of American Television): Talk about the bouncing ball concept. Mr. MILLER: Never was a bouncing ball. Everyone says there's a bouncing ball. We just had the lyrics and, as I told you, had the two cameras and the stuff in black. Ms. HERMAN: Why do you think that everybody thinks that there was a bouncing ball? Mr. MILLER: Because there was in the theater. There was a - when the organ would teach you a new song in theater, the organ would play and there was a bouncing ball. And then there was a cartoon - Looney Tunes and all that, they had a bouncing ball. So people, you know, drew that from their memory.
More recently, it was used in the Disney Sing Along Songs series of children's videos (where the "ball" is shaped like Mickey Mouse's head) and in The Simpsons episode "22 Short Films About Springfield" (in which it accompanies Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel's theme song), and even the MGM Sing-Alongs series.
Plus, the Walt Disney Animation Studios movie Frozen released a Sing-Along version of the movie in theaters on January 31, 2014. Movie-goers saw, instead of a bouncing ball, a bouncing snowflake above the words to such songs as Let It Go and In Summer.
- John Grant (2001). Masters of Animation. Watson–Guptill. ISBN 0-8230-3041-5.
- Maltin, Leonard. Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons (New York: Plume Books, 1980), 89.
- Remembering Singing Along With Mitch Miller, NPR Radio, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128957153