Snow White – Behind the Magic Mirror – Page 4

Walt Disney and colleagues by the multiplane camera that was responsible for adding an illusion of depth to Snow White.

Used on the water rippling effects in the wishing well sequence of the film, the Multiplane camera required three technicians to operate it. The reason being that it stretched to the top of a high ceilinged room in the camera department with the camera mounted facing down through a stack of glass frames. Each of the cels, comprising a sequence, are placed on the glass frames at different levels. Supported between four solid columns, each frame is lit independently, but careful adjustments were made to ensure the 500 watt bulbs didn’t burn out too quickly. Discolouring as they wane, their life span was carefully charted and the bulbs removed before they began to redden. Because of this isolated lighting at different levels, care also had to be taken to ensure there was no unwanted light spillage from below, which could give a foreground character the appearance of floating. Four men were required to lift each of the glass plates into place, and due to the complexity of the camera, Garity devised a working manual.

“In the multiplane scenes,” Garity explained, “it is possible to keep the distant background and sky elements from changing in size during the camera trucks by keeping them at the same distance from the camera while it is moving with respect to the characters and foreground.”

Teeth racks on all four columns allowed the precise synchronising of such a sequence. Numbered in inches from the floor, they also served as a height indicator for all equipment on the camera.

This separation of elements greatly enhanced the potential for special effects. Distortion and diffusion glasses could be used on a background without affecting the rest of the scene.
So impressive was the work done with the camera, William Stull wrote in American Cinematographer in 1938, “In all, camera, backgrounds, foregrounds and animated action are capable of no less than 64 separate and distinct adjustments for every frame exposed.”

While the camera crews were hard at work, the Sound department was busy creating sound effects and unusual musical effects to highlight the visual gags. In the original campaign for the film, it was reported that the sound technicians “washed their faces all morning long, drank countless thick malted milk and blew into water filled bottles, all for the sake of their art.” In the scene where the dwarfs wash before supper, experiments were made with pieces of cellophane, crushed between the fingers to produce a splashing sound, but it wasn’t as effective as the sound of real water. In the soup-eating sequence, one of the two scenes edited from the final film, the dwarfs’ slurping noise was achieved by drinking thick malt through a straw. The sound of the organ that Grumpy plays in the dance sequence, however, was achieved by bottle blowing which created just the right tones.

Certain musical instruments were devised for reproducing a number of other effects. A tympani capable of going up to C Sharp, four tones higher than the average tympani, was used to heighten Snow White’s terrifying flight through the dark woods. For the Queen, studio musicians used low cello notes, basses and bassoons. In the scene where the dwarfs keep an eternal vigil at the side of Snow White’s glass coffin, the vibrant swelling tones of a church organ are heard. For the film’s final scenes, these are subtly blended into a large chorus of mixed voices and underlying harp music for when the Prince comes across Snow White. For the glorious closing moments of the picture, voices and a full orchestra rise to a crescendo as the couple say goodbye to the dwarfs and “live happily ever after.”

Synchronizing music to animation isn’t as complicated, however, as animating mouth movements. Animator Ollie Johnston later commented that fanciful animals such as Jimmy Cricket were relatively easy in comparison to humans in realistic situations. After a recording of the actor’s voice is sent to the animator, he consults his exposure sheet. This tells him the exact number of frames needed for a character to say a certain number of words. Some lip movement can be extremely complex needing modification to fit the mood of a particular scene. Most animators achieve the best results by observing the movements of their own mouths in a mirror.

The success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs meant that it had to be dubbed into a number of foreign languages. Jack Cutting, who had worked at the Studio in various departments, handled the overseas recordings. But it wasn’t only the voices that were changed. In some European prints, certain backgrounds were actually re-shot. In the Italian version, for example, the dwarfs’ names carved on the end of their beds (the first time Snow White notices them) were written in Italian. The same applied to the calligraphic scribblings in the Queen’s book of spells. It is an example of the technical complexities that puts a film like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in a class of its own. With the exception of Pinocchio, Fantasia and Bambi it was an excellence seldom repeated.

All illustrations ©MCMLXXX VII The Walt Disney Company.

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Printed in Animator Issue 20 (Autumn 1987)