L’illustration Magazine

May 7, 1938

This article, signed « R. de B. » and entitled « A Masterpiece of Animation” explains how Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was made to a French audience that could discover the film in only one theater in Paris where the film had premiered the day before. The text is enhanced by several drawings by Disney artists and photographs of Walt Disney and unnamed studio artists: sound effects man James MacDonald, animator Norman Ferguson and an inker.

A Masterpiece of Animation

Today, everyone knows Walt Disney, the prodigious creator of Mickey Mouse, Minnie, Donald Duck, Pluto, the Three Little Pigs, the Big Bad Wolf, and all the other animated characters from the Silly Symphonies, which are shown every week on screens around the world. The fantasy, ingenuity, humor, movement, color, and often the poetry of these short films make them true masterpieces. The public, whose enthusiasm never wanes, more or less understands the technical effort they represent. At a rate of 24 frames per second, a 15-minute projection requires 21,600 different images, first drawn, then colored and reproduced on celluloid sheets, in even greater numbers since each color requires a separate image. Adding to this the work of musical synchronization, it is easy to see why Walt Disney’s studios regularly employ several hundred specialists in various fields and that producing a short animated film can cost more than an ordinary feature film, which is seven or eight times longer, starred by actors with fabulous salaries, and adorned with the colossal productions that only Hollywood knows how to create.

These material difficulties had so far prevented Walt Disney from creating a full-length animated film. But he had been dreaming of this for a long time. As early as 1933, he chose a subject for this daring experiment, which all his friends advised against. It was the charming Grimm fairy tale: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. With his characteristic determination, he set to work. It took more than four years to make this film, which the Parisian public will also be able to see starting this week. Grimm’s tale, with its action-packed and multiple episodes, is akin to Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. It is a magical adventure where the animals of the forest and the dwarfs adopt the little princess whom the wicked queen wants to kill, and she manages to poison her, but Prince Charming comes to revive her with a kiss in her crystal coffin.

Walt Disney’s first task was to establish a detailed script. Then he created the physical appearance and character of the figures. After many trials, a “flesh and blood” Snow White was adopted, who became the model for the heroine. For the dwarfs, wax figures were made, also stylized based on real-life people. Nothing was left to chance: each dwarf’s appearance, clothing, particular tics, habits, and psychology were specified exactly as if they were human beings. Doc, the self-elected leader, is a bespectacled pedant, nervously authoritative and never quite sure what to do with his hands; Happy, chubby and round, has a perpetual smile; Sleepy is a sleepyhead who views life through half-closed lids and speaks between yawns; Grumpy with his long nose is the grouch who hates women but has a good heart and leads the group out of the toughest spots; Dopey, ridiculous in his oversized clothes, is formidable in his pranks; Sneezy, who has hay fever, speaks through his nose and always sneezes at the most inopportune moments; Bashful, full of goodwill, is an incurable sentimental who is greatly intimidated by Snow White.

These characters, provided with their “character sheets,” were entrusted to Walt Disney’s “animators” and “gag men.” The “animators,” all talented cartoonists and caricaturists, filled entire albums with their sketches. The “gag men” are humorists who, given a plot and by identifying with the characters, invent comic scenes, expressions, and attitudes that the cartoonists must draw inspiration from. When these preliminary studies, which lasted for months, were completed, the story of Snow White was transcribed onto paper, like a wordless comic strip. An initial selection retained only part of them. These base drawings were then handed over to the auxiliary cartoonists, whose job was to multiply them with the slight modulations that differentiate one image from another and, through their accelerated succession on the screen, create the illusion of movement.

At the same time, other teams worked on the backgrounds, that is, the settings in which the characters evolve. Independently of the graphic realization, the musical realization was developed; composing the melodies and their lyrics, orchestrating, choosing the voices, and researching sound effects obtained by often very complicated special devices. When the graphic and musical departments had each completed their tasks, they had to ensure synchronized development, which was delicate and involved many trials and errors before achieving the final results. It remained to color the sketches — more than 1,500 shades were used for this — and reproduce them on celluloid sheets using “Technicolor” processes.

We are told that the film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs cost about 1.5 million dollars, that its screening, which will last an hour and a half, is an assembly of 250,000 drawings, selected from 2,500,000, that 600 cartoonists were employed, including 32 animators, 102 assistants, 187 in-betweeners for the intermediate work, 20 storyboard artists, 25 watercolor background artists, 85 for special effects — smoke, water, clouds, etc. — and 158 young women skilled in painting and inking on transparent celluloid sheets. The magnitude of this effort is almost unique in the history of cinema, but the more unnoticed it goes, the closer perfection will have been reached.

R. DE B.

Walt Disney meditates in front of his seven clay dwarfs. 90 minutes of color animation. To fix an expression, a cartoonist studies himself in the mirror. One of the many noisemakers created especially for the film. A draftswoman transfers the drawing to be colored onto transparent celluloid plates.
Fragment from one of the worksheets that Walt Disney distributed to his collaborators, which constituted the “character sheets” of his characters. Here are some expressions of Snow White; the search for exact detail extends to the meticulous study of the eyes, mouth, and nose.
An example of the precision with which the physical types of the characters were determined; in this sketch, Walt Disney noted the relative sizes of the three dwarfs Doc, Grumpy, and Dopey in relation to Snow White.