The History of Disney Animation – Part 1: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

snow_white_1937_poster.png
Image from: Wikipedia, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snow_White_and_the_Seven_Dwarfs_(1937_film)&gt; , [accessed 5/5/2017].
I have been thinking recently about a series to do for my blog and, as a massive Disney fan and nerd, I thought it would be a lovely to make a series about Disney’s animated films. The history of the Disney company and its films have some history books and documentaries written about them, but I often lament that there is not a better monograph talking about Disney as a whole. Now this blog is not attempting to write a history of the Disney company. I just want to focus on the beautiful films that have been created by this company: how they were made, their success/failures and impact on the company and popular culture. A little, quick history on these classic films.

So let’s start at the beginning with the revolutionary Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Now despite the claims being everywhere, Snow White was not the first feature length animated feature. This accolade goes to El Apostol in 1917.[1] Unfortunately, the film has been lost in a fire.[2] But Snow White, nevertheless was a revolution and is a significant part of film history. Known as ‘Disney’s Folly’ and initially being scoffed and laughed at during the production phase, there is no doubt that the nay sayers were proved wrong when the film had its premiere at the Carthay Circle Theatre on the 12th December 1937.[3]

The Disney company had been having a lot of success with their cartoon shorts – which were shown, like other cartoons at the time, before the main feature film. These included the Alice cartoons, the Silly Symphonies and most famous of all, Mickey Mouse. With this success came respect but Walt Disney decided to gamble and wanted to create a full length animated feature.[4] Another reason why Disney decided to make the jump was because the costs of doing the simple shorts were increasing and yet the income from them was not.[5] Walt came to the decision to do Snow White, it seems, because of a variety of factors. One could have been him remembering one of the first ever films he saw at the cinema – a version of Snow White in 1916.[6] This film is given credit by Inge as being influence to Walt and to the development of Snow White.[7] Another reason has been because he was unable to make an Alice film because another studio had beaten him to it.[8] Walt seems to have considered a variety of films, not just Alice in Wonderland.[9]

Whatever the final reason, work on Snow White began in August 1934.[10] Walt pitched the idea to his studio himself, acting out all of the parts and doing all of the voices.[11] It seems that everyone was excited for this idea that no one at that moment really questioned the possibility of the challenge.[12] First drafts on the story were began but these initial plans and sketches were very cartoony. The Queen was frumpy and Snow White looked more like Betty Boop.[13] Furthermore, the story had many elements in that were cut throughout the process of making the film. These included the witch poisoning Snow White with a poison comb, the Prince being captured by the queen and left to die and many dwarf scenes (such as the soup scene or a Doc and Grumpy argument).[14] Disney removed the back story for Snow White late in production and hence why we never see her mother.[15] Ward Kimball’s fully animated sequence where the dwarfs eat their soup was scrapped just before the ink stage.[16] It is this sort of attitude that highlights the perfectionism of Walt and the general ethos that was in the animation studio at the time. Walt argued that the world had to be appealing but ‘believable’ and with ‘compelling characters’.[17] No wonder they exceeded their initial budget and nearly went bankrupt on this film![18] Even the songs were not safe. Of the 25 songs written, only 8 found their way into the final cut.[19]

With the more cartoony aspect of the film being refined, a new design was being influenced by styles from European art and story books such as Albert Hunter.[20] Walt personally brought back 350 books from a holiday in Europe to help inspire his artists.[21] Additionally, Walt Disney really wanted Snow White to stand out and kept pushing for more realism in the backgrounds, filming and human characters. For the human characters Natwick, who animated Betty Boop, was brought in to help progress the realism.[22] Disney began testing out techniques on some of his shorter cartoons and Goddess of Spring is a short Natwick worked on in order to develop and master animating a realistic human form.[23] Furthermore, Walt hired live actors to come in and act out scenes from the film.[24] This process was called roto-scoping but Walt tried to keep this a secret because he thought that it was cheating; basically because the animators would trace over the frame by frame recorded footage.[25] But it did help to get a realistic flow of movement for not only the humans, but their clothing, hair etc.

Likewise, with pushing for realism within his background and look of the film in general, Walt not only put his artists back into school but each colour you see on screen was hand mixed in the studios by chemists to create custom shades – 1500 in total.[26] Lastly, to enhance the look of the film and how it was shot, Disney developed the multiplane camera. This would help to make the backgrounds more 3D. Oils are painted onto panes of glass that are put at various distances away from the viewer (on one of these will be the characters).[27] The camera is at the top and can pan down, each pane being moved out of the way in order to give the illusion of zooming in through a 3D world.[28] This camera was first tested on a short called the Old Mill but was not ready by the time Snow White began production – so a lot of scenes had to be shot again![29]

But all of this striving for perfection did come at a cost. We have already seen how Ward Kimble’s scene was scrapped but the human element is not really expressed through Disney documentaries. Many of the ink girls, the ones who gave the picture colour and fine lines, were sometimes working 85 hours a week, often collapsing or sleeping at their desks.[30] Yet one thing that keeps coming out about this film and the people that worked on it is that they all wanted perfection. They all cared for it, loved what they were doing and ‘wanted to be the best’.[31] They seemed to have wanted to put in the effort to make the picture the best it could be. I think this was all fuelled by the fact that outside of the studio, people were so sceptic, that inside the studio, people wanted to prove them wrong. Furthermore, so much money had been invested in Snow White, it had to be a success otherwise the studios could have failed and all of the staff could have lost their jobs.

Towards the end of the process, more fine-tuning went on.[32] The Premiere was a big event, with major Hollywood stars turning up.[33] If Walt was nervous, he needn’t have been. The film received a standing ovation from the crowd, with many in tears.[34] In total:

32 animators

1032 assistants

107 imbetweeners

10 layout artists

25 background artists

65 special effects animators

158 inkers and painters

came together to work on Snow White.[35] The film went on to win many awards including the ‘Grand Biennale Art Trophy from the Venice Film Festival’ and a special Academy Award in 1939 for ‘significant screen innovation’.[36] There were some critics who were of the opinion that animated films should not stray into the realms of live action films and should stick to their jovial, jokey nature.[37] But it seems the majority of reviews were positive, claiming the film was nothing like anything else before.[38] On its initial release, the film made $8 million dollars – enough for Disney to easily pay off creditors with several million to spare.[39] Furthermore, at the time, it had been seen by more people than any other film.[40] But aside from these facts, figures and awards, Snow White has had a huge cultural impact. It was the first film to release a movie related franchises and a soundtrack.[41] Snow White also has a spot on the Hollywood walk of fame but more significantly, in 1989, it was one of the first 25 films ‘to be reserved in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry’.[42] The latter fact really cements the significance of this film. The film is argued to reflect the 1930s popular culture ideals through its romance and political images and there has been several academic papers published on Snow White, its art and the messages/imagery within the film.[43] Thus it is important culturally and academically too. Yes, it may not be the first ever feature length. But it pushed the boundaries of animation to never before seen lengths and proved critics wrong that animation can be an art form.

Interesting Facts

There were lots of little interesting facts that I couldn’t really fit in to the main story but thought you may like to know. Here are 7 facts for each of the dwarfs!

  1. During Snow White, animators were paid $5 for each gag they came up with, that was accepted into the film.[44]
  2. Snow White did well on an international level. Animators went back and changed drawings where text appears, e.g. the dwarf’s beds and the Queen’s spell book, in order to translate them into each countries language.[45]
  3. To counter the dullness in Snow White’s hair, ink and paint girls added in highlights.[46]
  4. In order to make Snow White look more realistic, real make up was put onto the cels.[47]
  5. 3D models of some sets and characters were made.[48]
  6. Snow White originally had blonde hair.[49]
  7. It took ages to come up with the dwarfs’ names. For a while Dopey was called ‘seventh’ and some of the rejected names were ‘Jumpy, Baldy, Hickey, Sniffy, Stuffy, Shorty, and Burpy’.[50]

Thank you for reading and I really hope you enjoyed it!

Bibliography

[1] Thought co., Timeline of Animated Film History, <https://www.thoughtco.com/timeline-of-animated-film-history-2420991&gt;,[accessed 3/5/2017].

[2] Ibid.

[3] Encyclopedia Britannica, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Snow-White-and-the-Seven-Dwarfs-film-1937, [accessed 3/5/2017]; Norman Rockwell Museum, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Creation of a Classic, <http://www.nrm.org/snowwhite/exhibition.html&gt; [accessed 3/5/2017]; The Walt Disney Family Museum, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Creation of a Classic, <http://waltdisney.org/exhibitions/snow-white-and-seven-dwarfs-creation-classic&gt; [accessed3/5/2017].

[4] Encyclopedia Britannica, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

[5] Disney Wikipedia, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, <http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/Snow_White_and_the_Seven_Dwarfs&gt; [accessed 3/5/2017].

[6] Ibid.

[7] M. Thomas Inge, Walt Disney’ Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Journal of Popular Film and Television, 32:3, (2004), p. 134.

[8] Disney: The Making of Snow White, narrated by Angela Lansbury, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8SDB7EHx-k&gt; , [accessed 3/5/2017].

[9] Inge, Walt Disney’ Snow’, p. 135.

[10] Disney Wikipedia, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

[11] Disney: The Making of Snow White.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Disney: The Making of Snow White.

[14] Disney Wikipedia, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

[15] Inge, Walt Disney’ Snow’, p. 137.

[16] Disney Wikipedia, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

[17] Norman Rockwell Museum, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

[18] Disney Wikipedia, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

[19] Disney: The Making of Snow White.

[20] Ibid; Disney Wikipedia, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

[21] Disney Wikipedia, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid; Disney: The Making of Snow White.

[24] Disney: The Making of Snow White.

[25] Vanity Fair, Colouring the Kingdom, <http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2010/03/disney-animation-girls-201003&gt; [accessed 3/5/2017].

[26] Disney: The Making of Snow White.

[27] Disney: The Making of Snow White.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Vanity Fair, Colouring the Kingdom.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Disney: The Making of Snow White.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] All figures and information in the list above from: The Walt Disney Family Museum, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

[36] Ibid; Encyclopedia Britannica, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Snow-White-and-the-Seven-Dwarfs-film-1937, [accessed 3/5/2017]

[37] Disney Wikipedia, Snow White and the Seven Dwarf.

[38] Terri Martin Wright, ‘Romancing the Tale: Walt Disney’s Adaptation of the Grimms’ “Snow White”’, Journal of popular Film and Television, 25:3, p. 99.

[39] Disney: The Making of Snow White.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Disney: The Making of Snow White; Oh My Disney, 11 things you didn’t know about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, <https://ohmy.disney.com/movies/2015/06/06/11-things-you-didnt-know-about-snow-white-and-the-seven-dwarfs/&gt; [accessed 3/5/2017].

[42] Oh My Disney, 10 mind-blowing facts about snow white and the seven dwarfs, <https://ohmy.disney.com/movies/2013/04/21/10-mind-blowing-facts-about-snow-white-and-the-seven-dwarfs/&gt; [accessed 3/5/2017]; The Walt Disney Family Museum, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

[43] Wright, ‘Romancing the Tale’, p. 107.

[44] Disney: The Making of Snow White.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Vanity Fair, Colouring the Kingdom.

[47] Disney: The Making of Snow White.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Oh My Disney, 11 things you didn’t know.

[50] Ibid.

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