An important aid in perfecting the technique was the storyboard. When devised in the early Thirties it was simply a series of drawings arranged in sequence on a board, illustrating film scenes as the camera might see them. If changes needed to be made, whole sections were unpinned and new ones inserted. Widely used in animation today, often with the aid of modern video techniques, the system has also been adopted by live-action directors as an invaluable guide in planning a sequence.
Although in the early days of animation, the cartoonist was the director, producer, artist, layout and gag-man, the demand for perfection meant the creation of separate departments. As Bob Thomas noted in The Art of Animation, “The layout man actually stages the scenes. He is responsible for how the picture looks, just as the art director decides the appearance of a live-action movie or the designer the appearance of a stage play. He also moves the actors about, deciding how to photograph them for the clearest possible exposition of the story. He must know camera angles and how they can be used in the animation medium.
In Snow White, the choice of camera moves is simple yet most effective. For example, when the jealous queen looks down on the little princess from her tower window, or when the camera pans along the faces of the dwarfs as they react to the story Snow White tells them. Not only does it give a realistic feel to the film, it also helps to build characterization.
Atmosphere is equally important when building up character; Snow White appearing lost against the red-tinged, brick walls of her Step-mother’s castle, the dwarfs and the intimacy of their little cottage (suggested through its beamed ceiling and shapeless alcoves), and the Queen’s musty dungeon with its cobwebs, old books, flickering candles and grinning skulls. All of them examples of how the backgrounds in Snow White were given as much careful consideration as the characters who played against them.
“When I first came to the Studio,” remarked Ken O’Connor, “backgrounds were pretty meek and mild. Walt didn’t want them to overpower the characters, so everything was thin, watercolour washes.” With his first feature film, however, Disney instructed Samuel Armstrong to design backgrounds that had a strong emotional impact. Painted on stretched watercolour paper, the results were staggeringly realistic. Not only were the backgrounds effective they were also highly detailed. Take for instance, the furniture in the dwarfs cottage. Highly inventive, all the chairs and tables contain carvings of animals, faces and miscellaneous sculptures. The man responsible for dreaming up a lot of those ideas was Albert Hurter. Animator Eric Larson later recalled, “He (Hurter) was one of the most terrific ideas men we ever had, he designed all those crazy little things; he couldn’t draw a chair without giving it some sort of personality. There would be little animals on the arms of the chair, chest and table, nothing had just an ordinary quality.”
However, these three-dimensional backgrounds tended to make the animated characters look flat in comparison. The girls in the ink and paint department were, therefore, instructed to airbrush the edges of the characters giving them a more solid believable appearance. It was also felt that Snow White’s black hair was too harsh and unnatural. Airbrushing a light-grey softened the edges. Having to add this detail to every cel was very time consuming. Some of the girls even suggested to Disney that they could add colour to Snow White’s cheeks by rubbing rouge on them. Sceptical at first, Disney was delighted with the final results.
One Silly Symphony, although totally unconnected with Snow White in terms of story, was of monumental importance. Entitled The Old Mill, it was released in 1937 and won the Academy Award for best short subject.
More importantly, it fully exploited two of the Studios most fertile areas of invention, the Special Effects department and the enormous Multiplane camera. (The design and application of which also won the Scientific and Technical Class II plaque at the 1937 Academy Awards)
In the early Thirties, Disney set up a department to deal with special effects. Their greatest work, probably culminating with the release of Fantasia in 1940. Headed by animator Cy Young, the department was called upon to create everything from realistic-looking water ripples to a fully fledged rainstorm. They realised that lightning is not all that convincing if drawn as it actually appears in a photograph. In order to heighten the effect of the thunderbolt that is responsible for causing the witch’s demise in Snow White, the drawing of the lightning was exaggerated and a number of intermittent blank white frames were inserted. Stark silhouettes of the boulder and the witch were also dropped into the shot. Lasting less than two seconds of screen time, the results are dazzling.
Bubbles that rise when Dopey swallows a bar of soap were achieved after technician Joshua Meador made extensive studies of real bubbles with the aid of an 8mm camera. This small group of artists, animators and technicians experimented with coloured cels, diffusion lenses and filming through frosted or rippled glass. The effects helped heighten tension. Even the rain seems soft and weeping in the scene where the dwarfs pay homage to the princess whom they believe to be dead. Whereas it is torrential and sinister looking when the dwarfs chase the witch up the mountainside. After she has fallen to her doom the heavy drenching rain threatens to wash away the very artwork
itself. As some of the effects pioneered by the department superseded earlier work on the film, certain scenes needed to be re-shot because they now looked out of keeping with the rest of the picture.
Although the majority of the animation was filmed with a Bell and Howell 2709 camera made in 1914, (the precision of its shuttle and pin mechanism is considered to be the best ever constructed) Disney was enthusiastic about re-shooting one or two sequences in Snow White with the now completed Multiplane camera devised by William Garity. “It was always my ambition to own a swell camera, and now I’ve got one,” Disney remarked. “I get a kick just watching the boys operating it, and remembering how I used to have to make ‘em out of baling wire.