Snow White – Behind the Magic Mirror

The artists studied a model, with small cardboard figures lit by low level lighting, as a guide to shadows for this sequence. (click picture for larger version)

It took 750 artists three years to produce Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Richard Holliss looks at the innovation that went on behind the scenes.

Almost as legendary as the premiere itself of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was the reception it received from the celebrity audience. Hardened movie-moguls and their wives, famous actors and specially invited guests, cried, laughed and cheered their way through the films 83 minutes running time.

“They even applauded backgrounds and layouts when no animation was on the screen”, recalled art director Ken O’Connor. “I was sitting near John Barrymore when the shot of the Queen’s castle above the mist came on, with the Queen poling across the marsh in a little boat. He was bouncing up and down in his seat, he was so excited. Barrymore was an artist as well as an actor, and he knew the kind of work that went into something like that.”

It’s actually unlikely that the famous star had any idea of what was really involved in bringing stunningly atmospheric sequences like the ones described to fruition. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was no mere animated film stretched out to feature length dimensions. It was a totally new approach to film-making, and the meticulous planning that went into its four year conception was a pioneering effort on behalf of a great number of talented individuals. The press campaign at the time which loved, as do all Hollywood publicists, expounding to the public the most trivial of statistics wrote “If one man were to undertake the job of completing Walt Disney’s first full-length production Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and had sufficient talent to do so, he would be able to complete the job in a little over 230 years by working eight hours a day minus a two week vacation each year.”

In fact, as many as 750 artists worked on the production in the years between 1934 and 1937. Consisting of 32 animators, 102 assistants, 167 in-betweeners, 20 lay-out men, 25 background artists, 65 special effects animators (who drew smoke, water, clouds and other effects), and 158 young women adept at inking and painting the cartoon figures onto cels.

The actual animation phase of the film didn’t begin until 1936 and it was after the creation of Mickey Mouse that Disney began experimenting with a new series of cartoons entitled the Silly Symphonies. These short films, synchronised to music, were an important stepping stone to understanding the requirements of a feature and preparing the Studio artists for the lob ahead. While his hard working employees blissfully churned out new adventures for Mickey Mouse and tinkered with original story ideas for the Silly Symphonies, Disney was planning his most ambitious project to date. Finally he announced these plans to a number of key artists and before long the Studio on Hyperion Avenue, buzzed with the excitement of a whole new era m animated storytelling. One of the ‘Sillies’ released in 1935, The Goddess of Spring had been a failure in its attempt to make the animated human form believable. But it showed Disney what was needed in order to improve the technique for the feature.

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