23 years ago I had the privilege of catching Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in theatrical re-release. At the time I was acutely aware what a privilege it was, because about five years earlier, in a history of animation class at the School of Visual Arts, I had written a research paper about that very film, and in those days there was no easy way for me to actually watch the film I was writing about!
I thus found myself in the awkward position of writing about a film that I hadn’t seen since childhood, learning about its groundbreaking achievements, appreciating all sorts of nuances and details I could only read about but couldn’t see. It was odd to feel such excitement over a film I barely remembered. Actually seeing it on the big screen five years later felt almost like a kind of pilgrimage.
Snow White’s achievement is immense; the great filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein called it the greatest movie ever made. Prior to Snow White, animation was a garnish or appetizer; Disney proved — at considerable risk, and in the teeth of industry skepticism — that it could be the main course.
Snow White was a pioneering first, but also a climax: the culmination of years of discovery and growth perfecting the art of animated shorts. Disney’s team took what they had learned producing Silly Symphonies and other shorts to the next level, but they also grasped something that imitators and competitors didn’t: that what works in a five-minute short can’t simply be extended over an hour.
A five-minute cartoon can be wall-to-wall gags and goings-on; with Snow White, Disney and his team learned to simplify their storytelling in order to sustain it. Character design and animation in a short can be as fluid as desired; with Snow White, the animators had to bring an unprecedented level of discipline to keep the seven dwarfs distinct and individual.
Nowhere is the delicacy of the film’s achievement more evident than in the design and animation of Snow herself. Unlike the cartoony dwarfs, Snow looks and moves like a real woman (the naturalism of her hands and fingers is often particularly striking). That’s because the Disney team used rotoscoping, a technique involving filming a real actress (it was Marge Belcher, later Marge Champion) and then projecting the image onto frosted glass to be traced by an animator. You can see a snippet of Belcher dancing as Snow in this clip, along with some very different ideas of what the character might have looked like:
Critically, though, the animators didn’t trace Belcher slavishly. They used her movements and gestures, but completely redrew Snow’s features and proportions so that she would work with the cartoonier dwarfs, with an exaggeratedly large head, short torso, slender waist, and so forth.
The shrewdness of this approach is highlighted by comparing Snow White with one of its first imitators, Gulliver’s Travels from Fleischer Studios. The contrast between the cartoonish Lilliputians and the rotoscoped Gulliver does aid the effect of Gulliver looming over his costars like King Kong looming over New Yorkers — but the animators traced Gulliver so exactly, making him weirdly hyper-realistic, that he seems to belong in a different movie from the Lilliputians.
The Fleischer team also didn’t understand how to create characters that would hold an audience’s interest for over an hour. Neither Gulliver nor his diminutive costars — the rival kings of Lilliput and Blefuscu; the star-crossed lovers Prince David and Princess Glory; the irritating town crier Gabby — is a patch on any of the seven dwarfs, or Snow, or the wicked Queen. (Only Snow White’s Prince is as dull as the characters in the Fleischer film.)
Sadly, it seems at least one thing I “learned” writing that research paper isn’t true: The famous story, often repeated by veteran animator Frank Thomas (one of the Nine Old Men), about the rosy color on Snow’s cheeks being real rouge applied by the ink-and-paint girls appears to be a myth. At least, according to cel painter Ruth Thompson, the girls tried rouge, but it didn’t work. Apparently they eventually found a rose-colored dye that bled into the surface of the cel, creating the needed gradation of color.
Snow White also made unprecedented use of Disney’s recently invented multiplane camera, which enhanced the illusion of depth by not only allowing objects at different perceived distances from the camera to move at different speeds relative to the camera, but also to have different levels of focus. A particularly dramatic multiplane effect was used in the transformation sequence in which the evil Queen drinks the potion turning her into an old hag: Foreground and background layers move in opposite directions, creating a whirling camera effect.
None of this technical virtuosity, though, would carry Snow White if the filmmakers hadn’t found the right blend of fairy-tale enchantment, music, and dwarfish slapstick. As a point of contrast, consider Disney’s own Cinderella, made a dozen years later. The process by now is much more assured and in some ways more mature, but the magic isn’t quite there. For one thing, the animal sidekicks take over too much of the story; for another, few of the songs are as memorable (“Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” being the notable exception).
Something special is at work in Snow White: a spirit of discovery and invention that belonged to that particular moment in Disney history when the animated feature film was in its infancy, which left its mark on Fantasia, Pinocchio, and Bambi, but finally faded away. Whatever masterpieces Disney might create after that, this particular magic is gone, never to return.
Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is widely celebrated as a beginning, the first feature-length animated film in Hollywood history. It’s just as correct, though, and perhaps more illuminating, to hail it as a culimination — as the crowning achievement of years of experimentation, discovery, growth and achievement by Disney’s animation team.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.