Pop quiz: what is important about the year 1937?
It marks the official beginning of the Second World War’s western theater, with Germany’s invasion of Poland. The Hindenburg exploded. Detective Comics published its first volume, and within two years would introduce both Batman and Superman to the world. And Disney released its first feature length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, also sometimes known as “Disney’s folly,” a film that would inevitably bankrupt an otherwise fledgling animation company that seemed to have a good future ahead of it, leaving the small company to die relatively unnoticed as little more than an interesting animation footnote of the early US animation business.
First proposed in 1934 with a budget of $250,000, Walt Disney would eventually have to mortgage his house, run up a total cost of $1,488,422.74 – a modern-day a budget of over 26 million, which is more in line of producing Oscar winner A Star is Born.
Cartooning at the time was already a very stressful business, and while Walt Disney had already run quite the gamut before Snow White. He’d lost his rights to his popular character, Oswald the Cat when he left Universal to start his own cartooning studio. In an effort to salvage at least the personality of Oswald the Cat, he’d created an Expy in the form of a mouse for their first short, Steamboat Willie (1928.)
Short cartoons like Steamboat Willie and the Silly Symphonies collection would be played before the featured films at theaters, after newsreels. It was a hand-to-mouth kind of business and a very young one at that. The first American animation we have was made less than 30 years earlier, A History of Funny Faces, and it was only three minutes long and drawn on chalkboards. The only people who were in animation were the ones who owned companies big enough to supervise and star-struck artists.
Most of the animators in Disney’s studio were newspaper cartoonists, and the studio even pulled in a local art professor and models to give their new animators lessons on anatomy and movement. They were urged to watch as many movies as possible, ranging from modern popular films to European Art Films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), which had a huge effect on the visuals of the finished Snow White.
Caligari specifically is a German Expressionist film, and so the accuracy of things like a background meant less than what it made you feel. As long as it could get the point across, it could be used. So, like many German Expressionist films, Caligari used… a painted background. Tilted, odd buildings, crooked paths, and desks that tower over the characters trying to hand in their papers.
These painted backgrounds and shifting set angles are easiest to see in Snow White during the forest scene, where Snow White is anxiously seeing monsters in every tree and toadstool. The camera tilts and whirls around characters. The scenes are set with large, open establishing shots full of scenery and nature.
In other words… Snow White is shot like a movie. Not a cartoon.
That’s not something so groundbreaking today, maybe. Most cartoons you see are still going to be side-scrolling sorts of cartoons, and you’re not as likely to see a character move through space by turning and walking away, shrinking in size as they go, unless it’s just a few very short steps to represent it. With CGI and digital animation, it’s a lot easier than it used to be to move characters through space. Of course, everything today with animation is a lot easier than it used to be, and it is still a grueling process.
Animating on Cels
Before digital animation took off, animation happened on cels. Now, in the 1930s, ‘cel’ was short for celluloid nitrate, which was extremely flammable, and that is part of the reason we have so few films from before the 50s.
There were. A lot of fires.
At the time, Disney was practicing animating on multiple cels and had invested in a multi dimensional camera, so the camera would be able to move during the shot, allowing for things like the Queen’s transformation scene to have spinning-like effects in it. This was all very high tech in the day for animation, or at the least, very expensive. Animating at lower than 24 fps or on just one cel was definitely a thing which had already been figured out and been used, but it was seen as sort of cheap and cost-cutting.
Background on Cels
Now, that whole last paragraph may not have made much sense if you don’t already know a bit about traditional animation, so this is a quick rundown. Cels are clear sheets of plastic that can be laid overtop each other, to make a foreground and background. The furthest back cel is usually a static image that the other cels can then put characters on top of. More cels can be layered on for more complicated movement, like looping ocean waves in the background while people talk, etc.
Back in 1937, these plastic cels would be drawn, inked, and painted all by hand. Once they were all finished, they would be layered on top of each other to make a single frame of the film, and a camera would then photograph that layered frame. This is basically making something like a freeze-frame—a single moment of film you could pause on. You put enough of those together, and like an animorphs book flipped fast enough, you have a moving picture, same as live action film, which is the same principle: lots of captured photographs, moving very fast.
By the 1930s, 24 frames per second had become the standard for film. That meant for every second, 24 pictures flickered by. That’s about the base minimum for people to see moving pictures without being able to catch moments of pause between them. If you wanted to do limited animation, you’d perhaps do what’s called “animating on 2s,” where you’d draw every other frame, so only 12 frames per second, or borrow a trick from Loony Toons, and only animate a single part of a frame such as a mouth talking, and leave everything else static, so it wouldn’t have to be redrawn. Modern day, our cameras can go to 30 frames per second, to the modern standard for digital cameras at 60 frames per second, or even higher to catch extremely fast movement– but in 1937, the framerate standard was 24.
That also meant that if Disney wanted to make a full-length motion picture up to the standards of film at the time, he would have to match the framerate at the time. And that meant drawing 24 pictures for every second of screentime. If we assume they stuck to that exactly, throughout the entire 88 minute run time, then that means at least 126,720 images plus backgrounds were produced between 1934 and 1937 for the film.
That’s not counting the scrapped scenes that were partly animated– a section where the dwarves and woodland creatures decide to thank Snow White for all her hard work by building her a bed, an expansion on the witch’s spelling of the apple which included a whole Macbeth spells, and even a scene where Snow White taught the Dwarves manners.
All of these scenes were almost or completely animated and ready for the big screen when they were cut. The scene where Snow White teaches manners was especially heartbreaking for Ward Kimball, who had spent nearly a year and a half just animating that one scene.
Why in the world did ‘Snow White’ have to be such a complicated film?
It was not the first feature-length animated story ever released in cinema–two films were released from Argentina in 1917 and 18, both by Quirino Cristiani, who animated at 14fps with cardboard cutouts. We can’t watch those two, they’re considered lost; the only copies burnt a good decade before Snow White would premiere, falling victim to those extremely flammable bits of celluloid nitrate in 1926.
They weren’t the only one before Snow White either, though. That same year in 1926, The Adventures of Prince Achmed was released. It was animated via paper cutouts by Lotte Reiniger, who spent the First World War crouched on her knees in the backyard shed with a sheet of lead, a lamp, and a camera, and individually photograph each papercut person’s movement until she had a sixty-five-minute silent movie.
Is Animation Ready for the Big Screen?
So it wasn’t as if Disney was doing this to be the very first company to make a feature-length animated film, but animation just wasn’t doing very well on the big screen. While little segments like the Silly Symphonies were popular enough, the longest were ten minutes. In preparation for Snow White and practice animating more humanoid figures, Disney even made their own nine minute short, Goddess of Spring, which definitely highlighted a good number of things they’d need to work on—like not making people’s arms out of jello—but it was also that… no one could imagine enduring something like Silly Symphonies for a full ninety minutes. It would get boring (valid) and some people worried that animation would be bad for your eyes over long stretches of time. As someone who has watched the entirety of The Adventures of Prince Achmed, I can vouch for most of these worries at least having some root in reality.
Live Action Material
So that’s the real sticking point of why Snow White was so determined to work like a live action movie. It wanted to be the first feature length animated film that made money and that people liked.
From the very first shot, Snow White makes effort to prove it’s ‘not like other animation’ and is trying to be more serious and more cinematique than the short animations at the time. The opening scene is a live action book of fairy tales opening to frame the story, and then as we open to a large landscape scene of a forest, hill, and castle up above… we zoom in towards the castle.
From the very beginning, the moving camera starts working hard at making Snow White just as dynamic as a live action film would be able to. They even filmed people acting out some of the scenes and then drew overtop those images to get the movement accurate in a process called rotoscoping.
Nowadays, people tend to agree that one advantage of animation is you can do things with it that you couldn’t do with live action, like the climax of Into the Spiderverse as multiple universes collide, or the dynamic fight scenes and aliens of Steven Universe.
That was not a thing at the time. People were still discovering cinema and film in rapidly new ways, learning what shots made people feel and what power adding sound and background music would do. In its own way, Snow White was the first large-scale medium blending in cinema, and its success allowed people to start to think about the larger abilities of animation as a film medium.
Beginning of Possibilities
Animation now is able to experiment without expecting to fail simply because it is animation. How to Train Your Dragon (2010) went back to these roots of ‘realism’ with lighting that would mimic how a live action film would look, obscuring painfully rendered background details with shadows, while ParaNorman (2012) mixed stop-motion animation and CGI to create an uncanny lightning effect that was both physical and digital at the same time–and you don’t get more practical effects than physically printing out each twitch of a contorting face to photograph.
The Disney corporation since Walt’s passing may not be what we’d always necessarily hope it would be–whether it’s burying Walt Disney’s friendship with Osama Tezuka to change Kimba to Simba in The Lion King or attempting to copyright ‘Dia de los Muertos’ after releasing Coco–but its first motion picture did what the attempts before hadn’t been able to, and 1937, the year Snow White didn’t fail, marked the beginning of possibilities for full length animated motion pictures.
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