The name Disney is synonymous with animation and we’ve all seen at least one Disney movie in our lifetimes. Maybe you’ve become like me and have countless Disney movies in your home entertainment collection and have been to a theme park and store bearing the Disney name and logo. Every Halloween there are plenty of children dressed as Disney princesses and heroes walking the streets, bags filled with candy. The movies have even inspired the hit television program Once Upon a Time. While the show is on winter hiatus, ABC aired a special entitled Behind the Magic: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It tells the story of the making of the classic movie and is narrated by Once Upon a Time’s Snow White, Ginnifer Goodwin.
The Walt Disney we know as the creator of Mickey Mouse and other famous animated characters, was not the Walt Disney his family and friends saw behind the scenes. His family was not poor, but his father still made him work to contribute to the family income. At the age of nine, he was awake at 3 a.m. to start a paper route. When he was 17, he went to the theater and saw a silent-movie presentation of the Snow White story and it stuck with him. By 1923, he was traveling to Los Angeles to help make a name for himself in animation. In 1928, he released Steamboat Willie, the first animated cartoon featuring Mickey Mouse. It was a hit and in 1929, Walt and his brother Roy, started Walt Disney Productions. In 1934, he would get to work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Up until the time of Snow White, cartoons were 8-10 minute shorts shown before movies. He pitched the idea of Snow White to his team by acting out the fairy tale as he saw it in the theater when he was 17. The team of artists were on board but Roy and Walt’s wife, Lillian were nervous. The Great Depression had just ended but times were still tough and Walt was taking a huge monetary risk with the movie. As a form of inspiration, Walt read every variation of the Snow White tale he could find and picked out the commonalities between all of them. However, he did make his own changes. For example, in the original Grimm tale, the Queen ordered the Huntsman to kill Snow then bring back her liver and lungs so she could eat them. Walt felt this was too dark and instead, decided to use the classic heart in a box method we know from the film. In addition, the Grimm tale had the Queen making three attempts to kill Snow White by suffocating her with a corset, poisoning a comb and poisoning her with the apple. Walt felt this was too repetitive and just decided to use the apple instead.
The first characters to be animated were the dwarfs themselves. The animators took the traditional route and used the look of the Grimm characters but Walt found it would be too hard to animate them and give them personality so he decided to have the animators draw them in the style we know today. The hardest character to create was Snow White herself. There were various renditions of her with different styles and colors of hair and dress. The process literally drove Walt crazy. In 1935, he had a complete breakdown. He was losing sleep and growing impatient with the project. Roy, his wife Edna and Lillian took Walt on a trip to Europe while back in America, critics and naysayers were panning the project and wondering if Walt would could actually go through with it. While in Paris, he saw a presentation of Mickey Mouse shorts put together into a feature-length movie. He now knew it could be done and got right back to work when he returned to California.
Back in the studio, Walt began voice casting for the part of Snow White. After numerous women tried out, an 18 year-old girl named Adriana Caselotti auditioned using a falsetto voice and got the part. In the early era of animation, realistic human movement was hard to recreate and many characters were either really stiff or really flimsy. Walt decided to record Vaudeville performers and dancers acting out what the characters would do then use the footage as a template when animating the characters. Marge Champion (nee Bell) was the motion actress for Snow White. She danced and moved in a model of Snow White’s dress so animators could have footage to use to get accurate movement for the character. It was a revolution in animation technique.
Another revolution used by Walt was the multiplane camera. It was a camera set on a rig with a number of levels set up to hold different cells to create depth and background layering while giving animators freedom to move the cells as needed. This made animating multi-character scenes or scenes like the living forest easier and more creative. RKO Pictures decided to take on the film but they wanted it done by Christmas 1937. This sent Walt into a panic and he hired extra artists and had his existing team working around the clock giving bonuses to his best artists. He brought in female artists who came up with a unique coloring method after Walt told them Snow was too pale. They put small amounts of red dye onto the cells, consistently giving Snow her rosy cheeks. Unfortunately, Walt was spiraling into debt and the movie’s budget was drying up. He mortgaged his house, sold his car and sold whatever possessions he could to save himself, the company and the movie. His banker, Joe Rosenberg, would only give Walt money if he thought the film was worth it. The film was nowhere close to completion but Walt did not have a choice. He screened the film and all Joe said to Walt was he’d make millions off of it. This was all Walt needed to hear. All he needed was to perfect one last scene.
We all know the famous scene where the dwarfs think Snow is dead so they lay her out and mourn her along with the forest animals. Walt was concerned the scene wouldn’t be emotional enough and therefore ruin the movie. The animators not only made the dwarfs cry but they had water running down the trees to make it look like they were crying too. On December 21, 1937, the film premiered in Hollywood and stars from Shirley Temple to Marlene Dietrich were in attendance. The movie was a roaring success sending the crowd into laughter, amazement, tears and cheers. Walt Disney had done it. He had become a pioneer in movie making and animation. He even received an honorary Oscar. The movie itself was number one for the rest of the year and had been translated into numerous languages for showings around the world.
As an avid Disney fan who has visited Walt Disney World and owns so many movies, I was even amazed at what went into making Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. From the film and animation techniques to the astronomical final budget (over $1 million in 1937), the film revolutionized cinema and set the groundwork for the animated features we see today. It’s also very inspirational to learn how Walt never gave up despite everything going wrong financially, time-wise and even mentally. He was determined to make this movie and he did, launching an empire. After watching Behind the Magic: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, I am more intrigued by Walt Disney and wish to learn more about him and everything that he built into what we know today. I hope you will want to learn more too.
Just a reminder, Once Upon a Time returns Sunday March 6, 2016 on ABC at 8pm. Check your local listings.