Just about everyone believed that Walt Disney’s plan to make a full-length animated feature film would flop.
“Everybody told Walt no one would sit still for a 11⁄2-hour-long animated film,” said Lella F. Smith, creative director of the Walt Disney Animation Research Library in Burbank, Calif.
That didn’t stop Disney.
Despite the doubt about the project from colleagues, in 1934 Disney embarked on a three-year-long process and an expenditure of $1.6 million to bring the classic fairy tale, “Snow White,” to the screen, producing the first full-length cartoon. The film revolutionized and elevated the art of animation.
To celebrate, the Norman Rockwell Museum brings “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Creation of a Classic” to its galleries starting Saturday. The exhibition comes from The Walt Disney Family Museum, which opened in San Francisco in 2009. “Snow White” was its first exhibition and, through a special arrangement, the Norman Rockwell Museum will be the only other venue to present the show.
‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Creation of a Classic’
WHERE: Norman Rockwell Museum, 9 Route 183, Stockbridge, Mass.
WHEN: Today-Oct. 27, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
HOW MUCH: $16, $14.50 for seniors, $10 for students, $5 for ages 6 to 18, free for active duty military personnel
MORE INFO: 413-298-4100, www.nrm.org
The exhibition takes viewers on a behind-the-scenes journey through the production of the film. Organized by sequence, works of art, video and interactive media on iPads give visitors a glimpse into the painstaking and team-oriented process.
“I want people to take away the feeling of the intense collaborative effort that was a part of every project of my dad’s,” said Diane Disney Miller. In addition to Walt Disney, 32 animators, 1,032 assistants, 107 in-betweeners, 10 layout artists, 25 background artists, 65 special-effects animators and 158 inkers and painters worked on the film with other production staff.
Miller also wants visitors to be able to see the beauty of the artwork that went into making the film. She notes that the Animation Research Library where much of the exhibition’s art comes from, is a storehouse of beautiful animation art that people don’t often have a chance to see.
Miller’s favorite piece in the exhibition is a 21⁄2-by-2 inch watercolor concept painting by Gustaf Tenggren, which was the first piece of animation art that Miller purchased. It shows Snow White in the forest at night surrounded by logs that looked like alligators.
Another favorite of Miller’s is a series of black-and-white sketches by Ken O’Connor depicting the queen-turned-witch fleeing up a rocky slope with the dwarfs in hot pursuit.
These are just two examples of the more than 1 million pieces of artwork created in order to produce the film. There are conceptual drawings, early character studies, detailed story sketches, animation drawings, thumbnail layout watercolors, pencil layouts, watercolor backgrounds and vintage posters, over 200 of which are included in the exhibition.
The most challenging part of putting together the exhibition for Smith, curator for it, was deciding what to leave out.
An eye for detail
One aspect of the exhibit that illustrates how labor-intensive the process was is a display of some of the 125,000 “cels” used to make the movie. After animators made their drawings, inkers copied the drawings onto the front of a piece of celluloid, a process called inking. Then artists painted in the outlines on the reverse side of the acetate sheet. When completed, production staff photographed each of the animation cels against a finished background.
To create these cels, animators had to make a careful study of the movements that the film’s characters would make. Disney used reference models for the characters, who were filmed and studied by animators. Part-time Stockbridge resident Marge Belcher Champion was the reference model for Snow White. Champion later became half of the famed dance team Marge and Glower Champion.
She was just 13 when a talent scout came to her father’s dancing school in Los Angeles to audition dancers. Several months later, having been awarded the part, her father took her to the Disney Studios to be fitted for a costume. “I was very young, and my father never believed in letting me work in movies until I had graduated from high school,” Champion said.
He made an exception for this film. “He knew Mr. Disney, slightly, and he knew I would be looked after at the studio,” she said. Disney asked her to call him “Uncle Walt,” as she wasn’t old enough to call him by just his first name.
Two or three times a month, for $10 a day, Champion went to the Disney studios and acted out the part of Snow White, such as dancing with the dwarfs and the prince, while a cameraman filmed. On one occasion, they hung up a clothesline with a bunch of ropes on it to mimic Snow White running through the forest with the tree branches grabbing at her. Staff would also grab the hem of her dress as she was running. By the time she was 15, Champion had earned enough money to buy herself a Model T Ford so she could drive herself to the studio.
Staff took the frames from the footage, enlarged them, and traced them onto animation paper using a rotoscope.
For the child in everyone
This was a technique essential in creating believable characters, which is part of what made the film the success that it was, as it appealed to both children and adults. Miller said that her father did not make the film for children. “He said, ‘I don’t make films for children — I make films for the child in everyone,’ ” Miller said. He expected — correctly — that the film would appeal widely to an adult audience. During the first three months after it was released in 1937, 20 million people had seen it. By the end of the following year, it had been shown in 46 countries and dubbed into 10 different languages.
Miller was just 31⁄2 when Disney released the film, but she still has memories of seeing it on the sound stage at the Hyperion studio. “When the queen starts to turn into the witch, I began to scream with terror,” Miller remembered. “Somebody whisked me up and took me outside,” she said. “I think that element of fear is delicious fear from which you’re rescued because the bad thing was destroyed.” Later, at home, she and her sister would ask their uncle and Snow White animator Bill Cottrell to play “old witch” with them by chasing them through the house.
The museum is a fitting venue for this exhibition, as Rockwell and Disney were mutual admirers. They exchanged several gifts, and Rockwell gave Disney the painting of the Saturday Evening Post cover entitled “Girl Reading the Post.” He had inscribed it with the words, “To Walt Disney, one of the really great artists, from an admirer, Norman Rockwell.”
When Miller visited the museum several years ago, she got the feeling that the painting belonged at the Norman Rockwell Museum, so she donated it.
Rockwell also asked to do portraits of Miller and her sister. She remembers going to her father’s office to be photographed for the portrait.
In addition to the Snow White show, the museum has created a complementary exhibition of correspondence between Disney and Rockwell, which comes from the museum’s archives. “Girl Reading the Post” is also part of this side exhibition.
On Saturday at 6:30 p.m., to kick off the opening of the exhibition, the museum is hosting “An Enchanted Evening Gala,” transforming the museum’s grounds into an “enchanted forest” with dinner, music, dancing, performances inspired by the film, and a tour of the exhibition with Gabriella Calicchio, the CEO of The Walt Disney Family Museum. Marge Champion, one of the few still living who were part of the making of the original film, is the guest of honor. Reservations and tickets are available by calling 413-931-2264.
Other events associated with the exhibition:
-- Members Opening, Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m., with presentation by Lella Smith, creative director, Walt Disney Co. Animation Research Library. The afternoon will include a book-signing, performances and readings, art activities, costumed characters, and refreshments. Free for museum members, or with regular museum admission.
-- Lecture and Performance Series, Thursdays, July 11 through Aug. 22 at 5:30 p.m. Free with museum admission, members free.
July 11 — “Fairy Tales: A New History” with Ruth B. Bottigheimer.
July 18 — “Disney Inspirations: The Silent Snow White.”
July 25 — “Youth, Identity, and Media: A Four Freedoms Forum.”
Aug. 1 — “When You Wish . . .” An a cappella evening with Quintessential.
Aug. 8 — “Snow White: A Tale of Dark and Grimm” with Adam Gidwitz.
Aug. 15 — “Maya and Beyond:” An evening with Jarvis Rockwell.
Aug. 22 — “The Horror and the Beauty: Folklore, Culture and Children’s Literature” with Maria Tartar, professor of Germanic languages and literatures at Harvard University.