Disney Production Process and Innovations in Animation Technique in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937)

In this age of digital media and computer generated cartoons, the golden era of the Disney studio tends to be pushed to the back of our collective mind. It is often difficult for the modern viewer, accustomed to the strikingly lifelike animation coming out of the Pixar and Dreamworks studios, to see the quality behind such a film as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The immense progress animation has made since 1937 leaves many modern viewers disenchanted with what they perceive to be antiquated technology. What many do not realize, however, is that much of the ground that animation has covered since the mid-1930’s was broken singlehandedly by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and that the basis for animated films to this day simply build on many of the techniques that Walt Disney cultivated in creating this film.

The Disney studio invested an unprecedented amount of time, effort and manpower to bring Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the very first full-length animated motion picture, to fruition. It provides the prototype for all animated films to come out of the Disney studio since, and holds a place as one of only two animated films on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years, 100 Movies” list (the other film being Fantasia). In addition to being the first full-length animated feature, it was the first to employ the use of Technicolor, and features the first large-scale use of the multiplane camera which became a signature at Disney for decades. In short, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a masterpiece in animation, far ahead of its time in creativity and technological output.

The idea for an animated film version of the Grimm fairy tale came to Disney in 1933. His primary motivation for pursuing this project, he said, was due to his perception that dwarfs were “natural for the medium,” and the story’s setting in the woods provided ample opportunity for artistic creativity in animating birds and animals. By 1935, the storyboard had been completed and the voices chosen (Adriana Caselotti, the 19-year-old daughter of a Los Angeles vocal coach, was chosen to voice Snow White), and animation officially began in 1936.

Adriana Caselotti, the voice of Snow White.

The film’s opening reads: “My sincere appreciation to the members of my staff whose loyalty and creative endeavor made possible this production.” Disney’s staff on the film was comprised of 32 animators, 102 assistants, 20 layout artists, 25 watercolor artists, 65 effects animators, and 158 paint artists. His dedication to the project was evident in his perfectionism–after 6 months of work, he threw away the initial sketches and instead opted for the animators to employ representational drawing. He brought in live actors to go through the motions of what would eventually be animated, and photographed the actions he wished to replicate. The animators studied the film taken by Disney, and drew directly from them to create what would become the first animated rendering of live action footage. Over 60% of the film was animated in this way, and it is notable that the movement model for Snow White was none other than the dancer Marge Champion, best known as one half of the famous dance team of Marge and Gower Champion.

To create the “soft focus” that Disney wanted for the visual effect, the production team perfected the “multiplane” camera, an apparatus that that the studio had invented for a previous short subject. By painting foregrounds and backgrounds on different carriages of the camera and lighting each differently, this camera allowed for different levels of light that created a soft look that became the hallmark of the film. After the completion of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Disney studio used the multiplane camera for such films as Pinocchio, Bambi, Fantasia, and Peter Pan. It remained in use for over 50 years, and was used for the last time in The Little Mermaid (1989).

The original budget of the film was between $150,000 and $250,000, but Disney went far over budget. He was forced to take out a loan of $1,000,000 from Bank of America in order to ensure that the film would be completed, and the project became known as “Disney’s Folly” due to the huge sums of money invested in it. Each foot of film was nearly four times as expensive as that of the average Mickey Mouse cartoon and the final price tag on the completed project was nearly $1,500,000.

After nearly 5 years of production from concept to finish, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs finally premiered on December 21, 1937, and was released in theatres across the country on February 4, 1938. Tickets for the premiere at the Carthay Circle Theatre sold at $5.00 apiece, grossing nearly $200,000 during its first 16 weeks at that theatre, and breaking attendance records upon its release at Radio City Music Hall. It was a smashing critical success, earning a place among the top 10 movies of 1938 according to the critics’ poll released annually by Film Daily.

The film won no Oscars, but the Walt Disney Music Department was nominated for Best Original Score. The next year, Walt Disney received a special award presented by Shirley Temple comprised of one full-sized Oscar statue and seven miniature statuettes, for his work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which the Academy “recognized as a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field.”

I am grateful to Turner Classic Movies for their thorough work in studying this film for their website, which has helped tremendously in my research for this post. As a final note, I leave you witha special cinematic trivia moment. Listen to the voice at 0:54–that is the voice of Adriana Caselotti. Caselotti only appeared in 5 movies, 3 only featured her voice, and she was uncredited in all of them. She lived her life in comparative anonymity, though she was always active in the re-releases of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. She died in 1997 at the age of 80.

4 responses to “Disney Production Process and Innovations in Animation Technique in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937)

  1. Excellent post, Lara! You rightly point to “the immense progress animation has made since 1937″, but after all, it’s been 75 years. I would suggest that that’s nothing to the progress animation made in the 13 years between Steamboat Willie and Fantasia — nearly all of it thanks to the Walt Disney Studios. Technology can become outmoded, but artistry — never. That’s why there’ll always be a place at the table for Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs.

    BTW, Adriana Caselotti can also be heard singing in the background at “Nick’s Place”, the raucous bar in the alternate, George-Bailey-less world of It’s a Wonderful Life.

  2. Thanks Jim! You’re so right. The accelerated rate of innovation between Steamboat Willie and Fantasia is stunning, and is probably more significant than any other time period in the medium over these past 75 years. And yes, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is one of the 3 movies in which her voice is heard! The other two are “Oz” and “Snow White” of course, and she also appeared briefly in “The Bride Wore Red” and “Naughty Marietta.” Thanks for your comment!

  3. I continue to be awed by the brilliant work to be found in classic Disney animation. My autistic/developmentally delayed son prefers the older films and their amazing artwork.

    Your appreciation for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is insightful and greatly appreciated by this fan. I’m sure you will open the eyes of many viewers.

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