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Disney Films

Snow White: Production

1937

Walt Disney loved making cartoons, and in the mid 1930s, he hit upon the idea of creating a full-length, color animated feature. People thought he was insane. Not just silly, not just eccentric, but actually, literally insane. They called the police. His family tried to have him committed. But in the end it was no use -- Disney was determined to make his film. To raise the money needed to begin production, he gave up his home, cashed in his life insurance, and sold the rights to his two first-born children.

A great deal of thought went into what would become the Disney Studio's masterpiece. Disney considered and rejected many proposals. A 90-minute, expanded of "Steamboat Willie"? An animated adaptation of one of Shakespeare's histories? A jolly musical version of Fritz Lang's Metropolis? No, none of them were perfect. Eventually, Disney settled upon fairy tales as the perfect source of raw story material.

He narrowed his choices down to three: "Hansel and Gretel", "Hans My Hedgehog," and "Little Snow White". "Hansel and Gretel" had a good story, but Disney wasn't sure that audiences were ready for a song about eating kids sung by a woman who would later be baked alive. "Hans My Hedgehog" had all the makings of a classic, but it was a little on the obscure side and had to wait for the Eisner era to finaly enter production as a Disney feature. Only "Little Snow White" had everything Disney needed -- a sympathetic heroine, an exciting situation, and midgets (technically dwarfs).

Walt would call his film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and by changing the story's title he began a long tradition of ignoring the source material for any reason what so ever.

A team of writers was assembled from Hollywood's vast store of quasi-unemployable dreamers, and they quickly got to work on Disney's opus. They defined the characters, named the dwarfs (see the "Naming the Dwarfs" page for details), wrote cutesy songs, and, like little gods, remade the story in their own image. But even when the script was finished, work had barely begun.

The creation of an animated feature on this scale was a monumental task. To this day, many people believe that Walt Disney drew every one of the film's more than three billion frames himself, but that is largely not the case. The on-screen artwork was the product of the work of dozens of people, including:

  • 32 animators (who created the bulk of the actual animation)
  • 65 effects animators (animators who concentrated on those scenes which would have a significant effect on the audience)
  • 25 background artists (animators who stayed "in the background" -- that is, they didn't get credit on screen or in the press)
  • 102 assistant animators (who brought the animators coffee and lunch, took their laundry to the cleaners, and made sure they were comfy at all times)
  • 167 inbetweeners (middlemen between the assistant animators and animators, since assistant animators did not have the clout to interact with animators directly)
  • 20 layout artists (interior designers with specialization in feng shui and made sure that the artists' work area was optimally conducive to creative flow)
  • 158 inkers and painters (female animators)

These remarkable numbers don't even include the copious sound engineers, photographers, rewriters, directors, assistant directors, quality control technicians, paint mixers, lab technicians, executives, toadies, and "yes" men involved in the project. Not to mention all of the actors brought in to make live-action reference footage, and the talented Mel Blanc, who provided all of the voices for the film (except Dopey).

Every frame of the film was handled with loving care. Each strand of Snow White's hair was individually inked and her face was painted with real makeup by a licensed beautician. A veterinarian was on hand to make sure that the forest animals were accurate in every detail.

Completed animation cells were assembled with their corresponding backgrounds and photographed with a multiplane camera (so named because it was made from parts of multiple airplanes). Each day, completed animation was shown to Walt Disney, who personally oversaw the changing and trimming of scenes where he thought that the story needed to be adjusted or tightened.

Several significant scenes were cut after they were well into full animation. Disney eliminated the bed-building scene over concerns that it might be seen as inappropriately suggestive, and and a scene of the dwarfs eating soup was cut because, well, who wanted to watch dwarfs eat soup? The fabled "wedding of the animals" scene was added, then cut, then added again, and then lost behind a desk, only to resurface ten years later and be lost again, this time in a poker game.

After years of production, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was finally completed just in time for its world premiere at the Hyperion theater in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Trivia: Many years later, Disney made a self-parodying short, "Snow White and the Seven Rats," in which a jazz-singing Snow White shacks up with a group of seven cool cats: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, Henry Silva, and Doc.

Snow White
Home | Production | Naming the Dwarfs
Release and Aftermath | Original Story


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