The Road To Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs
A Brief History of Disney: Part 3
WORDS BY RICHARD OUZOUNIAN | LIGHTHOUSE IMMERSIVE
The decision to embark on the production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a momentous one on many levels. Creating the first full-length, cel-animated feature film in full Technicolor emphatically placed Disney at the head of the pack and generated an incredible amount of both admiration and resentment in the world of animation.
It carried an incredible financial risk with it as well. No one really had an accurate idea what a feature-length animated movie would cost, since there had never been one in the sound era before. Walt defied his closest advisers, including his wife Lillian and his brother Roy, by making the film. He had to mortgage his home to get things started and even had to turn to
Bank of America for a loan to complete it.
But for Walt, this was so much more than an exercise in showbusiness brinksmanship. He really believed that if his company were to grow, his artists and filmmakers had to learn how to tell the stories he had always dreamed of telling – stories larger than life that could make people laugh and cry at the same time.
Walt was also smart enough to realize that his devoted team needed to grow and develop a skillset that was still beyond most of their reach. At one point, Walt commented, “I definitely believe that we cannot do the fantastic things based on the real, unless we first know the real.”
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was publicly announced in June of 1934. Walt not only had to make a feature, he had to train a team as well. He brought in renowned art instructor Don Graham to teach his animators how to draw from life and empowered other people like Ben Sharpsteen and Dave Hand to help provide a unifying force in the stories that were being constructed.
To Walt, “If the story is good, the picture may be good, but if the story is weak, good color, music, and animation cannot save it.”
Someone once asked Sharpsteen what Disney’s secret weapon was and he said, “We analyze.” During the film’s lengthy development period, that kind of analysis greatly benefited Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. What was initially conceived as a comic romp acquired more depth and humanity, as most clearly evidenced in the change in the depiction of the evil Queen from a rotund troublemaker to an elegantly beautiful villainess.
Walt elevated two of his animators to a higher level in Snow White by entrusting the two major characters to them.
Norm Ferguson, who had previously animated Pluto and the Big Bad Wolf, came into his own as the primary animator for the Queen’s persona of an ugly hag. Hamilton Luske became one of the two primary animators for Snow White (along with Grim Natwick, the creator of Betty Boop). Luske’s contribution was part of a distinguished career that would climax with his winning an Academy Award® for Special Visual Effects that included the animated sequences in Mary Poppins (1964).
Another advance that made this project so special was the vertical multiplane camera, a Disney invention which allowed numerous images to move past the camera at various distances, creating a three-dimensional sense of motion in animation. First used in the short film The Old Mill (1937), the multiplane camera added an extra level of artistry and believability to Snow White, proving useful until the advent of computer animation.
The team on Snow White worked seamlessly together, even though Walt confessed years later that, “I didn’t know what I had or what would happen to it.”
The film became an enormous success, justifying all the risks that Walt had taken and premiering to a celebrity audience at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Hollywood on December 21, 1937. The review in Variety summed it up: “So perfect is the illusion, so tender the romance and fantasy, so emotional are certain portions when the acting of the characters strikes a depth comparable to the sincerity of human players, that the film approaches real greatness.”
Walt had achieved his artistic goal. And the financial news was welcome as well. In its original run, it earned $7,846,000 in international box office receipts. But best of all, he had a creative team with whom he could confidently move into the future.