Disney – from Mickey Mouse to Bambi
This week we will look at the development of the Disney studio in its early years. We will look at the work of Ub Iwerks and the initial team, the move to California, changes in organization and structure. Disney’s studio identified the 12 principles that define character animation. They created works that were based on the personality of the characters. We will look at the feature films they made during the 30s and 40s, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia and Bambi.
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Ub Iwerks (1901-1971) was an American animator who worked for Walt Disney’s studio during its early years and for much of his career. His style of animation helped define the “Disney” style, and he designed many characters, including Mickey Mouse.
Iwerks grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, as did Walt Disney, and they both started careers there, working in commercial art. Disney started the Laugh-O-Gram studio in 1922 with Iwerks as the head animator. The studio went bankrupt, and Disney decided to move to California, where much of the production of live action cinema had migrated.
Iwerks designed a character for Disney named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in 1927 for a series of cartoons for Universal Pictures produced by Winkler Pictures, started by distributer Margaret Winkler. Disney’s studio was eventually removed from this series, which led Disney to vow to only work with characters to which he controlled the rights. Many of Disney’s staff left at that time for Winkler Pictures, but Iwerks stayed with Disney. He designed Mickey Mouse based on a sketch by Walt Disney, and Mickey Mouse appeared in Steamboat Willie, animated entirely by Iwerks.
Iwerks animated many of the Silly Symphony series for Disney until he left Disney in 1930. He started his own studio Iwerks Studio and developed a few new characters, “Flip the Frog” and “Willie the Whopper”. Though he had distribution deals with MGM, his films were never as successful as those produced by Disney’s studio.
Iwerks worked for Leon Schlesinger Productions on a few Looney Tunes animations with “Porky Pig” and other characters. He also worked with Screen Gems in the 30s. He eventually returned to work with Disney in 1940. At this time he worked primarily on special effects. He helped develop the process for combining live action and animation used in Song of the South and he also worked on some of the attractions in DisneyLand. Iwerks developed the technique of using xerography to print the pencil drawings of animators directly to cels, eliminating the need for inking.
The live action film industry was firmly established in California by the late 1920s. New York remained the center for animation film production until the 1930s. Disney and many of his team had not been focused in New York, as he and many of his initial staff including Iwerks were from Kansas City, where Disney had created his early studio Laugh-O-Gram. After the bankruptcy of Laugh-O-Gram, Disney moved to California in 1923 with his brother Roy and started Disney Brothers Studio, changed to Walt Disney Studio in 1926, when a new studio was completed on Hyperion Street in Los Angeles.
Many of the staff of the studio left to work for Winkler Pictures, which was run at this time by Charles Mintz, Margaret Winkler’s husband. This lead to a shuffling of the production staff. Iwerks, who was a partner, stayed and as noted above, developed Mickey Mouse.
“Though it may seem like Mickey Mouse has always been with us, this most well-known of cartoon characters sprang to animated life on November 18, 1928. The high-spirited, mischievous mouse debuted in Steamboat Willie, a short film designed and animated by Ub Iwerks, the chief animator with the then-nascent Walt Disney Company, with direction from Walt Disney. They cast Mickey Mouse as a shipmate on a steamboat captained by a surly cat. Scheduled to be the opening for a feature-length film, Steamboat Willie was given an initial modest run at the Colony Theater in New York. But audiences and critics went wild for the impish, round-bellied mouse and for the premiere of the first cartoon with synchronized sound. Two weeks later, Steamboat Willie was re-released at the Roxy, also in New York, and the largest theater in the world at the time. It made silent animation obsolete and launched the Disney empire.
Before the runaway success of Steamboat Willie, Iwerks and Disney had made two shorts centered on their new Mickey Mouse character. Both were silent; neither interested distributors. So Disney changed course. With the success of The Jazz Singer in mind, he directed Iwerks to craft a cartoon specifically for sound. Iwerks delivered a symphony, turning nearly everything in it into an instrument. The three whistles atop the steamship—a merry vessel despite its snarling captain—trill out musical notes along with puffs of steam. Mickey Mouse turns the farm animals and kitchenware on the ship into various instruments, squeezing a duck like bagpipes, for example, or playing a cow’s teeth like xylophone keys. Meanwhile, the ship’s wheel creaks, its smokestacks puff heartily, and background music moves the action along—there is never a silent moment in this cartoon.
Disney wanted the sound in Steamboat Willie to correspond with the images. He brought the completed animation to a studio in New York to record its soundtrack with a 17-piece orchestra and three sound effects professionals. But their first attempt failed as the orchestra struggled to keep time with the cartoon’s action. For their second attempt, the animators added a bouncing ball to the filmstrip, which was overlaid onto the images to indicate the tempo at which the orchestra should play. (The ball was removed for the film’s final cut). This solved the problem and resulted in a precisely synched sound animation.” (From “Steamboat Willie” MoMA Learning https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/walt-disney-ub-iwerks-steamboat-willie-1928/ Retrieved June 2021)
“Silly Symphony is a series of 75 animated musical short films produced by Walt Disney Productions from 1929 to 1941. As their name implies, the Silly Symphonies were originally intended as whimsical accompaniments to pieces of music.” (from Silly Symphony Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silly_Symphony)
“The series is notable for its innovation with Technicolor and the multiplane motion picture camera, as well as its introduction of the character Donald Duck making his first appearance in the Silly Symphony cartoon The Wise Little Hen in 1934.” (from Silly Symphony Wikipedia)
The Silly Symphony cartoons were generally stand-alone, not part of a series. Carl Stallings composed the score for the initial films, from 1929-1930. After Iwerks and Stallings left in 1930, they were directed by a number of directors, including Burt Gillet, Wilfrid Jackson and David Hand. Bert Lewis and Frank Churchill were among the composers who scored the films after Stallings departure.
The series was distributed first by Pat Powers, then Columbia Pictures, United Artists, and finally RKO, who continued to distribute Disney’s films until 1953 when Disney developed their own distribution arm, Buena Vista. Disney controlled the patent exclusively for the 3 color Technicolor process from 1932 and 1935 and it was used to create Flowers and Trees (1932) the first commercially released film made with this process.
Flowers and Trees was directed by Burt Gillet, with animation by Les Clark, David Hand and Tom Palmer..
Three Little Pigs (1933) was directed by Burt Gillet, with music by Frank Churchill. This short was enormously popular.
“Animator Chuck Jones observed, “That was the first time that anybody ever brought characters to life [in an animated cartoon]. They were three characters who looked alike and acted differently”. “(From “Three Little Pigs (film)” Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Little_Pigs_(film) Retrieved June 2021)
The Old Mill (1937) was directed by Wilfrid Jackson, scored by Leigh Harline.
“Like many of the later Silly Symphony shorts, The Old Mill was a testing ground for advanced animation techniques. Marking the first use of Disney’s multiplane camera, the film also incorporates realistic depictions of animal behavior, complex lighting and color effects, depictions of wind, rain, lightning, ripples, splashes and reflections, three-dimensional rotation of detailed objects, and the use of timing to produce specific dramatic and emotional effects. All of the lessons learned from making The Old Mill would subsequently be incorporated into Disney’s feature-length animated films, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), which was released a month later, as well as Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940) and Bambi (1942).” (from “The Old Mill” Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Old_Mill Retrieved June 2021)
While there had been earlier studios who marketed their characters, such as Pat Sullivan’s studio creation Felix the Cat, Disney brought marketing to a whole new level. Disney sold merchandise of all types, including “cel setups” (a cel on top of a background drawing) by 1939. Much of the merchandising involved Kay Kamen, who like the Disney brothers was from Kansas City.
“Then one day in 1932, Walt received a phone call from an affable fellow named Herman “Kay” Kamen, a Kansas City advertising man. He had a vision of putting a Disney character in every home in America. Intrigued by his energy, and already dissatisfied with his current deal, Walt invited Kamen out to California to hear his proposal. During the meeting, Walt and Roy quickly learned that not only did he have great ideas, but they were also all on the same page in terms of only allowing high quality merchandise to be stamped with the Disney name. On July 1, 1932, Kamen signed with Disney. The contract outlined a 50/50 split of the profits, a deal with which both sides were highly content.
Kamen wasted little time realizing his vision. Soon Mickey and Minnie could be found in department stores everywhere, adorning such products as: napkins, wallpaper, books, phonographs, all types of clothing, hairbrushes, toys, and much more. Mickey products extended beyond the store shelves as well, thanks to annual, then biennial, merchandise catalogs published by Kamen.” (from Gluck, Keith “Selling Mickey: The Rise of Disney Marketing” https://www.waltdisney.org/blog/selling-mickey-rise-disney-marketing Retrieved June 2021)
In addition to selling merchandise like toys and other objects, Disney sold sheet music of original scores. He used many methods of promotion, including placing the studio’s work in magazine inserts and newsreels.He donated copies of the films to the Museum of Modern Art.
In 1930, Ub Iwerks and Carl Stallings left the Disney Studio. Iwerks (animation) and Stallings (sounds) had been responsible for most of the work on the Silly Symphonies series. Disney restructured his studio at this time, hiring and training many young animators. This allowed him to set up a production process and production standards that emphasized a separation of tasks and an emphasis on story development.
Story meetings, storyboards and layout were not used in animation production at this time when Disney instituted these practices. The studio eventually started a story department. The labor of animation was divided into separate tasks, using the pose-to-pose approach; one animator created the key poses or extremes, a less experienced animator drew the in-betweens. Inking and painting cels was done in another department.
The size of the staff tripled within 3 years. This led to the hiring of the core group of Disney animators, know as the Nine Old Men.
“Disney’s Nine Old Men were Walt Disney Productions’ core animators, some of whom later became directors, who created some of Disney’s most famous animated cartoons, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs onward to The Rescuers, and were referred to as such by Walt Disney himself. They worked in both short films and feature films. Disney delegated more and more tasks to them in the animation department in the early 1950s when their interests expanded and diversified their scope. Eric Larson was the last to retire from Disney, after his role as animation consultant on The Great Mouse Detective in 1986. All members of the group are now deceased, and are acknowledged as Disney Legends.” (from “Disney’s Nine Old Men” Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disney%27s_Nine_Old_Men Retrieved June 2021)
At this point women worked exclusively in the ink and paint department, there were no women working as animators.
Disney Studios made advances in technology, production techniques as well as pre-production approaches to storytelling and character design.
The use of the multiplane camera enabled the films that were created using this technique to have a much stronger representation of depth.
“The multiplane camera is a motion-picture camera that was used in the traditional animation process that moves a number of pieces of artwork past the camera at various speeds and at various distances from one another. This creates a sense of parallax or depth.
Various parts of the artwork layers are left transparent to allow other layers to be seen behind them. The movements are calculated and photographed frame by frame, with the result being an illusion of depth by having several layers of artwork moving at different speeds: the further away from the camera, the slower the speed. The multiplane effect is sometimes referred to as a parallax process.
One variation is to have the background and foreground move in opposite directions. This creates an effect of rotation. An early example is the scene in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs where the Evil Queen drinks her potion, and the surroundings appear to spin around her.” (from “Multiplane camera” Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiplane_camera Retrieved June 2021)
The clip below shows how the multplane camera works, narrated by Walt Disney..
Focus on Storytelling
Animated films up until this time had focused mostly on gags. Stories were described briefly often on scraps of paper. Disney realized the importance of the story, hiring writers to work full-time and creating a story department. Storyboards and detailed layouts were created for all of the films. Animators filmed pencil tests, pencil drawings of the animation on paper, of their work and these were screened at staff meetings as the story was discussed. Concept artists were used to generate ideas for the look of a film.
The success of Mickey Mouse indicated to Disney how critical the development of characters would be to his studio. The personality of the character should be immediately evident in every frame. How a character moves tells more about a character than a bit of dialog.
Frank Thomas (1912-2004) and Ollie Johnson (1912-2008), who were part of the Nine Old Men, wrote The Illusion of Life (1981), a book that codified the Disney approach to animation. It is often considered the bible of character animation. In this book, they identify 12 principles of animation, designed to imbue a set of sequential drawings with life. The approach described in the principles had been developed during their early years at the Disney studio in the 1930s.
This short film demonstrates in animated form each of the principles.
The 12 principles were written for traditional hand drawn animation. They are still used to teach animation, particularly 2D, but they can also be applied to CGI or 3D animation. These principles target movement, storytelling and character design; the critical components of character animation.
The 12 principles are:
- squash and stretch: give the illusion of weight and volume by adjusting the shape of the form while moving
- anticipation: prepare the audience for an action
- staging: presenting an idea clearly
- straight ahead and pose to pose: straight ahead is starting at the first drawing and continuing to draw sequentially until the last drawing, while pose to pose is creating key drawings done at intervals throughout the scene and filling in the in-betweens later on
- follow through and overlapping action: when the main body of the character stops all other parts catch up
- slow in and slow out: bodies start moving slowly, pick up speed, then slow down
- arc: actions tend to follow a slightly circular path
- secondary action: an action that supplements and reinforces the meaning of the main action
- timing: fewer drawings make the action appear fast, more drawings make the action appear smoother and slower
- exaggeration: present a more extreme form of reality
- solid drawing: give the forms weight and volume
- appeal: charm the viewer
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), was the first feature length film produced by the Disney Studio. The film was wildly successful critically and financially.
Snow White was based on the German fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. Production on the film started in 1934. While reference footage was shot for the movement of the dwarfs, the character design, with large heads and rounded, squat bodies, is traditionally cartoonish, as was the movement of the dwarfs. Snow White, the Queen and the Prince were drawn to look “human”. All of these characters, including Snow White, were rotoscoped. Animator Grim Natwick animated Snow White. He had worked for the Fleischer Brothers, creating Betty Boop. Snow White incorporated many of the innovations of the Silly Symphony series in terms of using color, the multiplane camera and streamlined production techniques in a feature film.During this period, at the instigation of animator Art Babbitt, life drawing lessons were given regularly at the Disney Studio. The classes continued, and led to a relationship between the Chouinard Art Institute, which eventually merged with Los Angeles Conservatory of Music to become the California Institute of the Arts.
“From our vantage point in history, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs looks and sounds so effortless and fully formed that it’s easy to overlook the effort that went into making it. Even today, the animation, overseen by supervising director David Hand and designed by concept artist Albert Hurter, positively sparkles with life. The songs, written by Frank Churchill and Larry Morey, are timelessly catchy.
But the finished film only gives a hint at the enormous behind-the-scenes work that went into Snow White. For every one of the roughly 362,000 cels that made it into the finished film, there were thousands more drawings and tests that never saw the inside of a theatre. Two sequences were conceived but later cut from the production – one saw the dwarfs build a bed for Snow White, while the second was a musical number called “Music In Your Soup.” These still exist in pencil test form.
The pressure of getting the film made meant that Snow White‘s now familiar songs were recorded quite quickly. Adriana Caselotti, immortalised as the voice of Snow White herself, was only at Disney’s studios for a few days. As she later told Cinemagic, “All the dialogue and musical portions were done in a rather short period of time, then there was a little dubbing to do after the animation was finished. But I always felt very much a part of the Disney family, even though I probably didn’t work at the studio more than a week or two.”
Pressure continued to mount as Snow White‘s release date approached. Walt Disney’s daughter Diane later recalled, “Dad says that while Snow White was fun, it was a ding-dong, photo-finish race with their budget. He was running out of money, and still had a lot to do when his deadline loomed up in December.”
Layout artist Ken Anderson concurred. “Everyone was putting in overtime to get the picture finished,” Anderson said. “As I recall, the print from Technicolor arrived at the theatre only a few hours before show time…” (from Lambie, Ryan “Disney’s Snow White: The Risk That Changed Filmmaking Forever” Den of Geek https://www.denofgeek.com/movies/disneys-snow-white-the-risk-that-changed-filmmaking-forever/ Retrieved June 2021)
Below is a clip from Snow White that shows her fleeing in the frightening forest.
This clip shows Snow White meeting the dwarfs.
Disney’s studio made a number of other features in the 40s.. These were less successful financially than Snow White, due to a large extent to conditions during World War II. International distribution was severely curtailed.
Pinocchio (1940) was the first feature made by Disney after Snow White. It was based on an Italian children’s novel, The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883). It is the story of a wooden puppet that wants to become a “real” boy. Like Snow White, it is a musical, scored by Leigh Harline and Paul Smith. The supervising directors were Ben sharpsteen and Frank Luske. The plot of the novel was greatly revised to work as an animated, musical film. The character of Pinocchio in particular was revised many times, with differing approaches; should he look like a toy or like a human child?
Below is the original trailer for the film.
Fantasia (1940) has eight segments, each animating a piece of classical music. Leopold Stokowski was the conductor, the Philadelphia Orchestra performed. It received critical praise, but it lost money when originally released due to the expensive production costs and the lack of European and Asian distribution. Story direction was by Joe Grant and Dick Huemer, production supervsion by Walt Disney and Ben Sharpsteen.
“This Disney production was an ambitious experiment to try to popularize classical music, especially by accompanying it with animation. Originally, the film was to consist of only The Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment, but it was expanded to include the full anthology of shorts. Other segments, such as Ride Of The Valkyries, Swan of Tuonela, and Flight of the Bumblebee were storyboarded but never fully animated, and thus were never put into production for inclusion in future Fantasia-style releases.
It introduced a very expensive, “Fantasound” ‘stereo-like’, multi-channel soundtrack (an optical ‘surround-sound’ soundtrack printed on a separate 35mm reel from the actual video portion of the film). The film received a special certificate at the 1941 Academy Awards for its revolutionary Fantasound (early stereo or ‘surround-sound’).” (from “Fantasia(1940) Filmsite.org https://www.filmsite.org/fant.html Retrieved June 2021)
Pinocchio and Fantasia both lost a lot of money. Dumbo (1941), which has the shortest running time (64 minutes) of the Disney features of this era, was created using streamlined techniques designed to save money. It is based on a short story by Helen Aberson-Mayer and Harold Pearl, telling the story of a bullied misfit elephant in the circus with big ears that enable him to fly. The film has fewer special effects, simpler character design and background layouts. Production on the film was interrupted by the Disney animators strike of 1940. The supervising director was Ben Sharpsteen, it was scored by Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace.
Disney acquired the rights to Bambi (1942) in 1937 and originally planned for it to be the second feature of the studio. Difficulties in creating realistic movement for the deer and adjustments necessary to the adult themes of the novel pushed back production on the film. Story development began in earnest in 1939. The film is based on the novel Bambi, A Life in the Woods by Austrian author Felix Salten.
Though there had been animated deers in Snow White, Disney wanted more realistic movement for the deers in Bambi. He set up a zoo in the studio with deer, rabbits and skunks, as well as other animals, so the animators could observe their movement directly. Tyrus Wong, Chinese born American artist, designed many of the background scenes and the look of the film. The film received a mixed response when it was released, partially due to its perceived criticism of hunting.
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