Walt Disney's Magic Touches All of Us

Posts tagged ‘Fantasia’

The Key to Disney’s Artistic Masterpiece

pinocchio posterThere is something special about the second full length Disney animated film, Pinocchio, released 78 years ago, that is easy to forget as you get caught up in the story and characters.

There’s a critical element that makes characters like Pinocchio, Gepetto, Jiminy Cricket, Honest John, Stromboli and the detailed backgrounds so beautiful to watch. Walt recognized a key advancement in movie making before most of the film industry and it would revolutionize, not only his animated films, but all movies. . .

 

color

Seems Obvious, right? As I wrote about in Ahead of His Time . . .Again and other posts, Walt had an uncanny ability to see into the future and make decisions that others were too afraid or lacked the foresight to consider. I’ll get back to that thought.

It’s easy to understand why we take color for granted. Most of us have grown up in a world of color. Television, movies, newspaper comics, our smartphones and computers are, and have, used color for decades.

hyperionBut, let’s travel back in time to 1930. The recently created Technicolor three strip process was unproven, expensive, required specialized equipment and extremely bright light that needed to be balanced for every shot. The major studios were not  prepared to take on the cost to retool their equipment and experiment with the new technology. Imagine what a risk it was to Walt and Roy’s fledgling studio, huddled into overcrowded buildings on Hyperion Avenue. Even with the success of Mickey Mouse and the Silly Symphonies, Roy was understandably nervous, since their current contracts would not pay them additional money to offset the costs of producing in color.

Of course, Walt was undeterred, both by the technical obstacles and that other nasty annoyance – Money – or so it might seem. A couple of paragraphs back I mentioned Walt’s foresight. In most books I’ve read about Walt, he was more interested in quality and innovation than what it would cost to achieve his goals. But, don’t for a minute think that he wasn’t business savvy.

Flowers and TreesThe Technicolor people were so desperate to prove their process that they would have financed all of the changes necessary for Disney to retool for color animation. Walt was so convinced that color would make his animation more realistic and more entertaining that he decided to stop production on the Silly Symphony short Flowers and Trees and start over in color. He had the back sides of the black and white cells washed to remove the gray shades and had the Ink and Paint department redo them in color. And instead of taking that silly money from Technicolor, Walt made a deal for two years exclusive use of the Technicolor process.

Flowers and Trees, now in color, was a huge success and even rivaled Mickey Mouse in popularity. For his people’s efforts, Disney was awarded the first Academy award for an animated short in 1932. Proving color could work with Forest and Trees was more than just a stunt. Walt was now confident that he could began the process to develop Snow What. The films success enabled Roy to get new, desperately needed bank financing. Plus, Walt now had a two year head start using and learning about color over any other studio. And learn they would, throughout the rest of the Silly Symphonies releases.

In a previous post Inspired by Walt to get Creative, I mentioned the book Ink and Paint, the Women of Walt Disney’s Animation, as inspiration for a novel I am writing. I highly recommend the book to anyone whose interested in learning the back story of what it took to get Animated films through production. Flowers and Trees utilized about 400 different color shades.

Getting back to Pinocchio, the shades ballooned to about 1,500 shades to complete, what might be the finest hand drawn animated film ever made. That number doesn’t include special effects like water above and below, bubbles, the Blue Fairy glow and other important film elements.

Live action films have the advantage of actual colors to shoot. For hand drawn animation, the Disney Paint department had to deal with issues like colors shifting after drying or being under the not camera lights, as well as a need for wide ranges of shades depending on the action in the context of the film. The Disney Paint people ended up designing their own colors and paints to meet the increasing demands of the films. Disney hired chemists and built an entire department to create, manage and distribute paint as needed.

I chose Pinocchio as the focus of this post because I think it might be the apex of what Disney artists, including animation, background, and painting created in those early years of feature films. Keep in mind, this one only feature film #2 for the Studio and it’s an artistic masterpiece. The backgrounds are of quality found in museums around the world. The use of color not only fills the screen, but adds to the film’s mood through the use of shadows and details that might not register fully when screening the film.  But upon closer inspection the completed work reveals subtle and complex intricacies.

I believe that there are some films that are better because they are in black and white. If, for example, you watch a noir film that has been colorized, the loss of shadows and the heightened color seems to mute the overall tension common in films like The Third Man, The Big Sleep or Double Indemnity. There’s no doubt that color afforded so many possibilities to the world of Disney animation. After the richness of Pinocchio, Disney artists explored many different styles. Fantasia was a mix of realistic

rite of spring

Rite of Spring

Modern

toccato and fugue in D minor

Tocata and Fugue in D Minor

traditional animation humor

Dance of the Hours

Dance of the Hours

and Classical

The-Pastoral-Symphony

Pastoral Symphony

Bambii takes us into the realistic world of landscapes and animals.

bambii art

And, Sleeping Beauty, perhaps one of the most visually experimental and stunning films, can be seen as an end, not only of the golden age of hand drawn animation, but of the use of artistic drawing and painting styles in Disney Animated films.

sleeping-beauty

Jiminy_Cricket_standing_up_to_LampwickOverall, it’s hard to imagine any of the films, starting with Snow White, any other way, but in glorious color. I don’t think there’s any doubt that, even if Walt had gone ahead with Snow White in black and white, it might have been considered a good, maybe ground breaking film. But it would not have had the impact that the color added. It almost certainly would not have encouraged Walt to continue to explore and expand on the use of color in Pinocchio, both in character design (27 different colors were used to bring Jiminy Cricket to life) and detailed backgrounds.

Walt Disney never described himself as an artist. He didn’t draw as well as others, he couldn’t paint and he had no training in the use of color. He did, however, recognize how much color would bring to the films he was making. As with other great leaders, he surrounded himself with people who could do those things. The list of great animators, artists on all of the films during Walt’s lifetime, both conceptual and actual production is lengthy. Walt not only took advantage of their skills by constantly challenging them to do more, but he encouraged their continued growth by providing training. We’ll never understand how, but somehow, Walt could see the finished product in his mind’s eye. By any means at his disposal, like taking a leap of faith on Technicolor, he found a way to realize those dreams and ideas.

walt oscar forest and trees

 

Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse – Inseparable

walt and mickeyWe recognized some major calendar milestones in the months of November and December. The birth of Mickey Mouse in November as well as the birthday and anniversary of the passing of his creator Walt Disney. Walt was, without a doubt, always the creative driving force behind all the Disney successes and failures during his lifetime. But, the idea of Mickey and the amazing animators and artists who gave him life were not responsible for his meteoric and continued success. For that, Walt left nothing to chance and imprinted himself on the character.

Mickey and Walt are forever linked. Mickey was created out of an act of business

Mickey_Mouse_concept_art

Earliest known drawing of Mickey Mouse

survival. Losing Oswald the Rabbit to a sneaky film promoter, which, while it might have led to the end of Disney brother’s company, lit the fires of Walt’s imagination, leading to the creation of the mouse that still roars. It’s likely that the spark of creation that was Mickey Mouse would keep the character close to his heart for many years. It’s not surprising that Walt couldn’t find a suitable voice for the character. And, he didn’t relinquish the role until 1946. Even though, by then he was incredibly busy overseeing many films in development and production, he knew he was the only one who could give voice to a character that was really an extension of himself – an alter ego, perhaps.

Early Mickey Mouse

It isn’t surprising, then, that the many of the early shorts are full of many settings and situations that show Walt’s fingerprints. Farms and farm animals are well represented in shorts like The Barn Dance, The Plowboy and Musical Farmer.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that trains, something close to Walt’s heart, figured prominently in Mickey’s Choo Choo.

And, while Walt never showed any particular musical abilities, the films make judicious use of music, to drive the action and the gags. Anything became an instrument from animal teeth, spaghetti, train tracks, boat and train whistles, even ducks, chickens, animals and more traditional instruments. Walt clearly understood the importance of music and he continued to use to maximum effect in all of his films.

We can be assume that since Walt probably approved every script and frame of the early shorts, it’s interesting how the early Mickey had many of Walt’s personality characteristics. Like Walt, Mickey is forever optimistic, whether he’s trying to build and fly do-it-yourself airplanes, courting Minnie, or cheering her up after rescuing her from the ocean. Mickey’s also a problem solver. Many of the problems he encounters are of his own making, but he always finds a way to get things done. Walt was always creating problems for himself and his staff, creatively and technologically. Many of the difficult situations arose because Walt was always pushing the limits of what could be accomplished in the mediums of animation, film and theme parks. But, he always managed to match the right person to the difficult tasks whether it was making X Atencio a songwriter or recognizing Bob Gurr’s wizardry with wheeled machines.

Walt also instilled Mickey with his own brand of small town, childish humor. Many of the shorts include situations that involve cow’s udders, Minnie’s bloomers, and the use of outhouses. I’ve read that, even though he gave a kind of buttoned up image, Walt was very fond of what we would call today, bathroom humor. Other accounts told of him adding many of those kinds of gags to early animated shorts, much to the chagrin of some of the other creatives on the staff.

In his own way, this early Mickey is a take charge guy who doesn’t hesitate to ask Minnie to get on stage and play an instrument, or want to drive the steamboat. All accounts describe Walt as someone who wanted things his way or not at all. Even though the company started out in 1923 as Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, in 1925 Walt informed his partner and brother that the studio would henceforth be called Walt Disney Studio. He said that it was his name that they were building the company around. I don’t think he wanted any audience doubt about who was in charge. The lack of credit accorded to the people doing the heavy lifting part of the work was the reason why his long time friend and collaborator Ub Iwerks left him to work elsewhere. Given how important Iwerks was to the fledgling Studio’s success, many in Walt’s shoes would have done anything to keep such a valuable asset. But, Walt hardly missed a beat.

As Walt got further away from hands on work with Mickey, you can see changes in the character that practically built the Studio. The changes may have been due to others taking over primary responsibility for story and character. Not only did Mickey’s look change, certainly approved by Walt, but he began to mirror more of contemporary society.

mickey-mouse-gallery-03

No longer the chaos creating scamp of the early shorts. Mickey settled in as a more dapper and conventional man of the 40s and 50s. Pluto is the ever present man’s best friend and we often see Mickey in more indoor settings. Instead of stealing kisses from Minnie by scaring her with loop the loops in a plane, he courts her with flowers and gallantry. It’s possible Walt thought that the symbol of his company should be more accessible and politically correct. But, it’s also possible that Mickey had a personality transplant.

The image of Mickey today is that of a corporate ambassador. He’s someone you want to hug or expect to obediently ride atop a parade float rather than execute a practical joke with him. With the occasional excursion into something more like the old days as we recently saw in Pixar’s Get a Horse.

Mickey is a model citizen showing off a very large wardrobe at the Parks and other public appearances. There’s nothing wrong with the Mickey that recent generations have come to know and love. We may not want to admit it. But we all age and slow down.

In the wake of the spectacular success of the animated features, by the 1040s Mickey was no longer starring in his own shorts. Fantasia had originally been considered as a feature that would star Mickey. Walt changed direction and created a ground breaking art piece. But, Walt kept Mickey in there. And, as his last contribution to the legend of Mickey Mouse, he left us with what may be one Mickey’s most iconic images – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice with his oversized robe and the wizard’s hat. That Mickey lives on in many forms including being adopted as the mascot of Disney Imagineering.

Walt_Disney_Imagineering

It’s only natural that future generations may gravitate or identify more with characters in the Marvel and now 21st Century worlds. I think everyone will still have a soft spot for the Mouse that started it all, even if they don’t understand the important role that Mickey played in making everything we associate with Disney in the 21st century possible. I do hope that as long as Mickey is the symbol of the Disney Company, we will continue to be reminded of Walt Disney himself.

 

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