Once upon a time on a wet Saturday afternoon, I said to my granddaughters who were all born in the last 14 years, “In a land far away, a young lady bit into a poisoned apple and fell down into a deathlike sleep only to be awakened by a kiss from a Prince, but! can YOU guess the show?" Their voices blended as they outstripped each other to shout, “Snow White, Nanny, it's Snow White."
It’s 80 + years since the first screening of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and it still holds its own when compared to some of the most beautiful and entertaining work that one ever thought to see produced and brought to life on the big screen. But then talent, story, beauty and art when combined with great direction are a win-win, and during his reign as a film producer Walt Disney, won 22 Oscars from 59 nominations, and was presented with 2 Golden Globe Special Achievement Awards. His name is the most recognizable out of the handful of animators that helped build the industry that included such luminaries, as Max and Dave Fleischer, Earl Hurd and J.R. Bray.
J.R. Bray and Earl Hurd were filing patent application on the Cell Animation Process, in 1914 when 13 year old Walt. the fourth son born to Elias and Flora Disney, was attending McKinley High school in Chicago, and the following year when he was taking night courses at the Art Institute of Chicago, Max and Dave Fleisher were filing similar applications for the Rotoscope.
It was 1917, before the Americans joined the Great War. Walt's three older brothers immediately joined up to fight. Impressed by their fervour and eager to experience an adventure, and fight for his country Walt applied to join the navy, to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, Roy, but his application was refused on age grounds, for at 16 he was deemed too young, however he persisted in his dream of adventure and together with his friend Russell Maas, he applied to join the Canadian armed forces--his father Elias had been born in the Province of Canada in 1859. But once again they had a setback when Russell failed the eye test, and because they wanted to stay together they decided that the Red Cross might not be as particular, however while they were accepted they still needed their parent’s signature. When Walt’s parents found out, his father, refused to sign the document stating that he would not sign his son's death warrant, but his mother Flora agreed to help, and she altered his DOB to add a year to his age. She had found his suitcase half packed and knew if he were like his older brothers he'd go with or without their permission, so she also signed the necessary documents in both names.
The boys found themselves in Camp Scott, the Red Cross Training Facility, that was situated in the south side of Chicago. But with all his manoeuvring to get out to war torn Europe, the war would be over by the time he made it; in Camp Scott he caught the Spanish flu that was running rampant across the world and while Russell got his orders to leave for the campaign Walt was sent home to recuperate, both his sister, Ruth, and mother were also ill with flu, but Flora nursed them back to health and he returned to his training base and enlisted in September 1918, just in time for the signing of the Armistice on 11th of November.2
However, though the battles had been fought and arms decommissioned, the Red Cross still needed men to drive ambulances in Europe and on Nov 18 he was awoken at 3.30 AM and told to get ready to go, he was one of 50 being sent out and he arrived in France the day before his 17th birthday.
A young lad driving ambulances, and later dignitaries around the countryside; drawing cartoons for his brother's in arms on the back of canteen menus; meeting up in Paris with his best friend Russell, finding a puppy and naming it Carey, after his favourite Chicago cartoonist and working with his art; always working with his art whether it was in the back of an ambulance or in a canteen--there was always a caricature falling out of his pencil. And while the boys rambled through the Paris' streets they built castles in the air as they dreamed of going home to build a raft and float down the Mississippi like Huckleberry Finn .
It would be October 19th, nearly a year later, before he set foot on American soil again, and when he returned his brother Roy got him a job in Kansas, at "Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio" and whilst working there he met UB Iwerks, and shortly afterwards he joined "Kansas City Film Ad Company," where he made commercials based on cutout animation.
Walt got a taste for the business and decided to venture out on his own, hiring Iwerks, Frank Harman and a small bevy of artists to work on his "Laugh-O-Grams." It was successful and it was here that he created the first of his "Alice Comedies." However the business saw him out the door, bankrupted, and it was then that he made the decision to move to California to join his brother Roy.
Arriving in Los Angles in 1923, Walt quickly found his feet and together with Ub Iwerks and Roy created a new working space from where he set out to market and sell the pilot of the “Alice Comedies" series to distributors: Shortly afterwards, it was picked up by "Winkler Pictures" who were based in New York The success of this initial project and a few others allowed him to reinvest in studios, artists and staff, and also to experiment with the genre.
The "Alice Comedies" lasted 4 years, they were an interaction between a young girl and an animated cat --it was an idea that Disney successfully revisited again in 1965, when he produced “Mary Poppins" and released it through “Walt Disney Productions" and again in 1988 when the company made “Who Framed Roger Rabbit" which was released by the Disney’s “Touchstone Pictures." However, in 1927 Disney felt that the series had run its course and he decided to move the studio focus to a full time animated series and he created "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit."
Walt made 26 of the "Oswald" cartoons, but when he tried to get additional money from his distributor for a second run, he discovered that the distributor had gone behind his back and signed up almost all of his animators hoping to make the cartoons in his own studio for less money, and without the Disney input. On reading the small print in his contract Walt realized that he had inadvertently signed off the rights of the series to the distributor.
On that train journey back from that meeting in New York would he have appreciated the cliché that says that "every cloud has a silver lining," or would he have preferred the one that declares that "a person makes their own luck," because it was while travelling back to California with his wife, Lillian, and considering bankruptcy a second time out that he pondered on his circumstances, and while wondering how he was gonna break the news to his team he drew a picture of a mouse, called him "Mortimer," showed it to his wife, who immediately said the name was too depressing and urged him to run with Mickey instead.
He did, and the rest is history, though it was on his third attempt when he added synchronized sound to his Mickey Mouse cartoon that he hit bedrock and "Steamboat Willie"opened to rave reviews at the Colony Theater, in New York, on November 18, 1928.
The post war feel good cycle ended with the stock market crash in 1929 that saw the advent of the Great Depression, which introduced a timeline of little luxury and great loss in a country where no work meant no income, and a huge percentage of the population lived within a pay cheque of homelessness.
They were tough times, times for looking within, boot strap days; many years later after celebrating much success Disney was asked by an interviewer what he considered to be his best achievement and he supposedly answered that it was holding onto his business and keeping it in the family name.
During the depressed 30s Disney continued his trend of forward motion and forward thinking, and always with great design ethic. And as the studio work gelled, he started to plan the first full length animated feature film and he sent out an instruction to his staff: his photographers, illustrators, musicians, cell painters, artists and project managers to get ready to go to work on the "Snow White" project. And over the following 3 years more than 750 artists completed over 2 million sketches and within the industry his critics nicknamed the Snow White work, "Disney's Folly."
6 years earlier, in 1931, "Frankenstein" and "Dracula" had been released to great reviews, and monsters were dissected, and writers, actors and directors celebrated, and in that decade some of the best story that was ever celebrated was brought to the big screen: "Of Mice and Men," "Mr Smith Goes to Washington," "Wuthering Heights," "Bringing Up Baby," but now it was the turn of the illustrator, the storyman and the artist to take their turn in the spotlight. The turn of the Imagineering Departments. The illustrators who experimented until they found the way and means to produce an illusion that made hand-drawn cartoon characters adhere to the basic Law of Physics, and the cell painters and inkers who worked on the assembly line to colour the final product.
However this was not your regular industrial factory assembly line--the type that was established in the Industrial Revolution. Large amounts of output had to be generated and rendered, and the girls worked hard, but these assembly lines were inspired by the classics, and supported by the men and women who loved story, colour and best design. And every fairy-tale grandmother knows that it's a well-known fact that when hearts and souls converge to lift a project magic occurs. There’s a Walt Disney quote in the first chapter of the Illusion of Life Disney Animation it very cleverly states that: “Animation can explain whatever the mind of man can conceive." There is another essay to be found in that comment!
I don’t know if discovering how to make a skeleton wear a physical form was greeted with great excitement in the halls of government or academia, but on the day the film was released it made a big difference to the artists, writers, musicians, and everyone else who were involved in the project, who were striving to draw life into form and connect with an audience in an emotive way.
The Twelve Principles of Animation are a shoo-in to a good story. They underpin all motion work. They were first introduced by animators Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas in their book: "The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation,"that was first released in 1981. Once these basic steps are followed by the artist. the character comes alive whether one is working in 2D, or 3D(CGI).They add believability and movement, personality and enchantment, fun and story. They are the method behind the illusion and an understanding of their function is recommended for any would be artist or writer, for to be brought to life a line will always need a squash and stretch, without that small shove in the right direction it just remains a stick figure. And an audience reaction will need to be tugged; it will want to see Grumpy stamp his foot, or hear the dwarfs hold their breaths before that big sneeze, or hear an audience soft sighhhh as they sense a zephyr lift off the suitor’s fluttering eyelashes before the kiss in the cartoon love scene. And the story background setting will appeal to the senses, it might be so beautiful that when horror enters it will be recognized immediately by its contrast.
The Disney team dealt with and created more than the Law of Physics ever assumed or appreciated; his teams considered emotional and character appeal. and together they developed the principles to standardize the process. And with that standardization a line was crossed and a third star was placed in the heavens as a new art form was born.
Two years later in 1939, Max Fleishers’ adaptation of "Gulliver's Travels" would light up screens and "The Wizard of Oz" based on Frank L Baums 'Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ children’s book, (1900) would stir hearts. And all this in the same year that "Gone With the Wind" premièred: it was a great era, the best of the best of times, for actors, producers, directors and cinema goers.
And when "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" first premièred at the Carthay Circle Theatre, in Los Angeles, on December 21, 1937, what a contrast! it created for cinema goers, who, if they had not been affected by the crash and its after-effect would have known someone who was: What a sensational surprise it was when the Disney team took them into the world of the imagination, where hand-drawn characters smoothly transitioned from paper to screen in light filled strokes, to bring the fairy tales to life, to allow the child within to venture into a world of princes and princesses and kings and queens-where good always won the day, and where nature blessed all with amazing vistas.
1n 1937, a second Disney star was placed in the heavens when an audience started a love affair with the illustrators' line, and a springboard was created and from there the studios continued to grow and create more beautiful work.
Walter Elias Disney was an American entrepreneur, animator, writer, voice actor, and film producer. He was responsible for bringing the first full length animated film to life on the big screen. He died at the relatively young age of 65.
A pioneer of the American animation industry. Several of his films have been included in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
“I applied streaks and blobs of colors onto the canvas with a palette knife, and I made them sing with all the intensity I could…
“Color provokes a psychic vibration. Color hides a power still unknown but real, which acts on every part of the human body." --Wassily Kandinsky