Today we launch a new blog series entitled, Disney Classics- a monthly feature highlighting a different animated classic film Walt Disney personally developed and worked on. While Walt became known for many creative endeavors over his lifetime, it was his love of animation and the family feature film that ultimately put him and the Disney Company on the map. Walt fundamentally changed the animation industry and the animated feature film as we know it today would not exist without the vision and drive of Walt Disney. Naturally, as we begin our new series, what better film to start with than the one that started it all for not only Walt Disney himself, but feature animation as a whole- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
The early 1930’s were proving to be a great year for Walt Disney and the Disney Brothers Studio (founded by Walt and his brother Roy Disney). Mickey Mouse was growing in popularity and the new Silly Symphony shorts were taking off as well. However, with the success of his cartoon shorts, Walt knew that he wanted to keep pushing the envelope. The next natural transition was to colorize his animated shorts by a process called Technicolor. While Technicolor had been around for a bit, a newer three-strip process was developed and early tests excited Walt to the point that he knew he needed the technology for his cartoons. As a result, Disney Studios was able to sign an exclusive deal with Technicolor and Walt soon released the first three-strip Technicolor animated silly symphony cartoon, Flowers and Trees. Flowers and Trees was an immediate commercial and critical success and got Walt thinking about how to push the envelope even further… in fact, Walt decided he wanted to try something that no one, up to that point, had thought of doing- creating a full length animated feature film.
In 1934, Walt Disney called his most trusted animators, along with his brother Roy, into a storyboard room and decided to clue them into his next big idea for the Studio; he wanted to create the world’s first full length animated feature film and wanted to base it off of the Grimm Brother’s fairy tale story, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. You can well imagine some of the puzzled looks Walt’s animators gave him, to say nothing of the disbelief of his brother Roy. However, after dropping the bomb shell, Walt immediately began to act out the entire story to the animators, start to finish, with such passion and enthusiasm, that by the time he was finished, any doubts they initially had, had been quelled. Many of Snow White’s eventual animators later went on to say that, although they were very proud of the film they released, it never did turn out quite as good as how Walt originally told it that day.
Walt and his animators began prep work on Snow White immediately. Around this time, Walt was actively seeking out new and exciting animation techniques and testing them out on his Silly Symphony cartoons. He figured if it worked for Flower and Trees, it could work for other shorts as well. In 1937, Disney released The Old Mill, the first short to utilize Walt’s new multiplane camera technology. The multiplane camera was an apparatus that filmed multiple animated cells at one time and gave the illusion of depth of field and presented the artwork in a more believable way. The multiplane camera test was so successful, Walt would later go on to use it in many of his feature length animated films. In an effort to improve the skills and development of his animators, Walt also began to host animation courses at the Studio, taught and instructed in the way Walt believed they needed to be.
Now that Walt felt comfortable with the education and techniques his animators were learning, work began on character and story development. In nearly all incarnations of Snow White up to this point, including the Grimm Fairy Tale, the “Dwarfs” of the story didn’t have individual personalities and acted sort of a singular hive mind. Based on the critical success of another Silly Symphony short, The Three Little Pigs, Walt knew that he wanted his Dwarfs to have unique and individual personalities. He handed the job off to Fred Moore, the animator behind the design of The Three Little Pigs, and Doc, Bashful, Happy, Sleepy, Sneezy, Grumpy and Dopey were born. Walt’s hunch on the Dwarfs turned out to be right on the money as the different personalities of the seven dwarfs became one of the most endearing things to audiences of the film. Couple the wonderful character development of the dwarfs with the spot-on, perfect casting of Adriana Caselotti and Lucille La Verne as the voices of Snow White and The Wicked Queen respectively, and Walt was doing is very best to stack the deck in his favor.
Though Walt and his animators were firmly behind Snow White, the rest of Hollywood was admittedly not so keen on the idea. In fact, many dubbed Snow White as “Walt’s Folly” and pretty much wrote the entire project off as Walt’s crazy dream that would lead the company to bankruptcy. Even Walt’s own brother, Roy, had his doubts about the film and urged his brother to proceed with extreme caution. Walt would not be deterred though and decided that if he was going to do this, he was going to do it right and wouldn’t second guess a thing. The gamble was huge as Walt and Roy both poured every cent their company had into the production of Snow White. Had the film flopped financially, The Disney Brothers Studio would have closed it’s doors and Walt’s many critics would have been correct on their assumption.
Lucky for Walt and Roy, Snow White proved to be a huge critical and financial success. Opening on December 21, 1937 at the famed Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles, the big Hollywood premiere attracted nearly every big name in the industry at the time. The theater was packed and the audience was completely enthralled with the picture from start to finish. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs went on to gross over $8 million during it’s first year of release- a feat quite remarkable considering the average price for a movie ticket back during this time was only 25 cents. Snow White literally put Walt Disney and his company on the map. In fact, that same year, Walt was given a special Oscar at the annual Academy Awards program for his achievements with Snow White. The film was so successful that Walt was able to move his studio to a much bigger lot in Burbank and Walt Disney Animation was born.
Though he was told he was crazy through the whole thing, Walt had a vision and, like many things in his life, he believed in what he wanted so passionately that he would not let anyone dissuade him. Walt bet everything he had on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and as a result he went on to create the world’s premiere animation studio, a studio that still continues to produce industry topping films today.