Walt Disney Animation Studios, still flying high with 2013’s colossal success Frozen, has long been considered the premier studio for animated projects – since, in fact, its time as Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio in the 1920s with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a certain Mickey Mouse, and their popular Silly Symphonies series.
The 1930s saw Disney keen to move onto more ambitious projects, on both artistic and financial grounds, and in late 1934 he first discussed his plans for the studio’s first feature-length animation. The story was to be Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as Walt had been inspired to produce his own version of the fairytale since watching a 1916 silent film version in a cinema back home in Kansas City.
He would face resistance from both the outside industry, who nicknamed the venture “Disney’s Folly”, and inside his own studio from brother Roy and wife Lillian. Walt would not be dissuaded and he sank his entire personal fortune into Snow White (including mortgaging of his house). The budget ended up just shy of $1,500,000 – an exorbitant amount in the 1930s.
Disney was prepared for the three years of solid hard work that Snow White would take. His artists had been schooled in-house to focus on naturalism in both setting and movement. There was to be flow and realistic action and reaction with characters. The Silly Symphonies were an apprenticeship for these artists as new techniques were developed in those shorts ready for implementation in Snow White.
Central to the project was a realistic and engaging heroine, something not seen in animated shorts, where females tended to be the males plus eyelashes and a skirt (e.g. Minnie). 1934 Silly Symphony The Goddess of Spring and 1935’s Cookie Carnival saw the staff pushing themselves to animate the perfect lead female in preparation for their first princess.
Bendy limbs aside, huge strides were made in those shorts, and during the character animation stages of Snow White, dancer Marge Champion (then Marjorie Belcher) acted as a live model. Champion would go on to marry Art Babbitt, the lead animator of the Queen, and model for other iconic Disney characters (the Blue Fairy, Maid Marion and the Dancing Hippo in Fantasia), before marrying and dancing onscreen with Gower Champion.
Despite disapproval at Walt Disney Productions, rotoscoping could be used for more tricky character movement, whereby scenes were traced directly from the live action footage. Models were, however, chiefly used for reference. Disney himself liked to act out scenes and dialogue in minute detail during pitches and throughout the entire production, something animators still do today.
The more technical aspect that Disney pioneered in the process of making Snow White was the multiplane camera, an innovation which lent the illusion of a more three-dimensional perspective to the animation. Several drawings would be placed behind one another and then moved at different speeds – the ones in front faster – so that the background could move more realistically. This procedure was first tested in 1937’s Silly Symphony The Old Mill and used right up until the introduction of computers in animation.
Music was a major part of Snow White’s development and success, and it became the first American film to have its soundtrack released concurrently. Frank Churchill and Larry Morey composed around 25 original songs for the film, although only eight were used. A fully-animated but unfinished sequence to an additional song, ‘Music in Your Soup’, has since been released.
Snow White’s trilling soprano has become iconic – and that’s something that Walt Disney banked on, signing 19-year-old Adriana Caselotti to an incredibly strict contract, effectively barring her from appearing again onscreen or on the radio so as to not “spoil the illusion”. She did sneak in an uncredited role in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz though, speaking the line “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” in the Tin Man’s song ‘If I Only Had a Heart’.
The design of Snow White is also distinctive, with its traditional Germanic look and introduction of the cutesy, anthropomorphic woodland creatures. The influence of German Expressionism is also clear in the twisted, howling trees of the forest – a scene so scary that New York City’s Radio City Music Hall had to replace much of its velvet seat upholstery as children kept wetting themselves. The more romantic influence of MGM’s 1936 Romeo and Juliet adaptation is obvious as Snow White sleeps in her glass coffin, and the Queen’s transformation into the Witch is strongly reminiscent of 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – an inspiration Disney referred to directly in storyboard meetings.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was given a star-studded premiere at the Carthay Circle Theater on December 21st, 1937. The film was a commercial and critical hit, with the press and public alike gushing over its innovation and storytelling. In 1938, it became the most successful sound film of all time… until Gone with the Wind the following year. At the Academy Awards, as well as a nomination for Best Musical Score, the picture received an honorary (and unique) award for its success. The profits from the film allowed Disney to build Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, the only studio that survives from the Golden Age of Hollywood – and is still very much in use today.