Walt Disney's Magic Touches All of Us

Posts tagged ‘Snow White’

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

 

A Snow White Winter Holiday Surprise in NYC

As I sit in my house surrounded by a frozen tundra that looks more like the arctic than Long Island, I’m reminded that one of the benefits of living close to New York City, is the holiday season festivities. Our family makes many trips into the City during the course of the year — Museums, markets, restaurants, theater, shopping to name a few. The holiday usually includes a day to enjoy the changes many of our favorite go through in the month before Christmas. For those who don’t get the opportunity to visit during this magical time of year, I’d like share some of our favorites. Some are iconic and some less known. This year included an unexpected tribute for the 80th anniversary of the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Retail stores in NY are famous for their elaborate, usually holiday themed windows

A lesser known but equally amazing site is the Metropolitan Museum’s 18th-century Neapolitan Nativity scene set under a Christmas tree populated by angels. The pictures don’t do the display justice. The front of the tree depicts the classic scene of Christ, Mary and Joseph in the manger attended by Kings bearing gifts along with elephants, camels, horses and royal attendants. All around the tree in the is surrounded by different scenes of life in 18th Century Italy from farms to merchants. The mysterious way the Angels on the tree are lit confounds even many who see it in person. The history of the display is quite fascinating, going back to a collection of figures started in 1925.

met museum tree

met museum creche

Two marketplaces have become magnets for shoppers. Both offer many artisan goods and food but very different vibes. In lower Manhattan, Union Square Park adds a holiday market to its regular farmers, green market for the holidays. The maze of vendor kiosks makes it feel like a fun scavenger hunt.

An uptown market started in 2002 at Bryant Park, behind the main branch of the NY Public Library, not only has a market but a skating rink and restaurants.

Theatrical spectacles are very much on display in NYC starting around Thanksgiving. They include famous the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular featuring the Rockettes in the iconic Art Deco building located just behind 30 Rockefeller Center.

Rockefeller Center’s iconic holiday transformation includes the area in and around the front of 30 Rockefeller center. During the summer it is home to the Today show’s concerts and a restaurant in front of the golden statue of Prometheus.

Most everyone who has a TV has seen pictures how that same space is changed for the holidays.

The crowds, especially on the weekends are massive and a bit overwhelming. But it’s hard to beat the atmosphere. This year if you could stand with your back to the tree at the ice rink (hard to do), you looked through the Rockefeller Center Channel Gardens with their angels to saw the department store Saks Fifth Avenue lit up to look like a certain iconic castle.

Saks from Rock Center Gardens

And perhaps, for us fans of Disney, Saks chose to use their holiday windows to pay tribute to the 80th anniversary of the premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The crowds make it really difficult to get really good pictures of the windows so I’m borrowing some great ones from TimeOut New York.

Saks Snow White 5

Saks Snow White 4

Saks Snow White 3

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Saks Snow White 1

Saks Snow White 2

Saks Snow White 13

Saks Snow White 10

These two were the same window

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Saks Snow White 12

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Saks Snow White 7

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Other windows showed designer’s re-imagining Snow White fashion

Most of the windows were animated in some way. Here’s a nice video.

It’s not Disney specific, but here’s a link to the light and music show on the front of the building.

Most of the holiday decorations go up around Thanksgiving and remain on display until early January. If you can swing it I highly recommend a magical Holiday trip to NYC, even if there’s no special Disney event.

Saks Snow White 18

 

Why Writers Matter

NaNo-2017-Winner-Twitter-HeaderWith the passing of November so passes the annual National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWrimo) challenge of writing a novel in thirty days. According to my calculations, at 6pm on November 27th I crossed the NaNoWrimo 50,000 word finish line. The official word count on their computer was about 58,000. I must have lost track of some words along the way. The draft of my future best seller will be left to rest for at least  a couple of weeks as I give myself a breather. To give you some perspective on why I am so proud of this accomplishment I offer these facts into evidence. I’m not a professional writer. The weekly Disney Connection blog I’ve been submitting for your enjoyment over the past year typically runs about 1,500 words and usually takes me between 3-4 days to write, edit and layout. According to my NaNoWrimo Dashboard, for the 27 days I wrote, I averaged 1,932 words, writing every day. My best one day word count day was 11,000! I went from running a couple of laps around the track to tackling a marathon with no training period. There was no carb loading, no daily stretching, just BIC (Butt in Chair) and fingers on the keyboard. So, I hope you will forgive me for using this space to crow about my accomplishment. I have proudly hung my “Winners” certificate on the wall of my office.

2017 Nanowrimo winner cert

I see a hand raised in the back of the room. Yes? You’re asking, “So, what has this got to do with Walt Disney?” I’m glad you asked that. Among all of the things Walt Disney accomplished in his lifetime, he was, first and foremost a story teller – a writer. Having taken a month to see what it’s like to do what he did, almost every day, here’s what I have learned from all my hard work this month.

Walt Disney hard at workFirst, no great or even good writing appears on the page, fully formed and perfectly written. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back (or if you’re Shakespeare they kill themselves) is just the framework. The hard work is making that story arc interesting by populating the story with characters, good and bad, and placing them somewhere the audience can identify. Creating a plot and story arc that the audience can follow, builds to a climax and then finishes with a satisfying ending is harder than most people think it is. I’m sure when I read back what I wrote, the plot will have all kinds of unexplained holes that need to be filled and the climax probably lacks emotional punch. It all seemed so simple when I wrote my four sentence plot summary.

snow white model sheet

I think I could make the argument that Snow White was the one animated feature that Walt wrote himself. In 1934, he pulled some his animators together on a soundstage for, what is now considered, a legendary session, during which he acted out the entire story for them. Walt was a visual artist so, he hadn’t written the story down on paper. But, he had spent considerable time writing it in his head so he could tell the tale. He couldn’t get away with the short film format which was really just a series of comedic gags. Walt knew that he could never sustain the feature film length without a strong story that would captivate the audience.

snow white model sheet posesSecond, a good story must be supported by characters that the audience comes to know and care or, in the case of the villain, hate. As I wrote my story, I found I still hadn’t really gotten to know my characters well enough. In scene after scene I discovered new details about their lives. As a result, my characters, seem to lurch between different emotions and don’t always act consistently from scene to scene. Snow White, and all of the other characters (with the possible exception of the Prince) have distinct enough personalities that most of us could write our own stories about them beyond what appeared in the movie. It’s not just the names of the Dwarfs that tell us who they are. It’s how they act with each other and how they interact with Snow White. Even the Huntsman, who appears only briefly, is someone who we come to understand and feel for, from the moment he is given his assignment to just before he has a change of heart (credit Milt Kahl and Co. for an amazing acting job along with Walt and the directors). There are no wishy-washy characters (maybe the Prince). Every character has his or her own set of objectives (even the Prince) and the story is driven forward by their desire to reach their goals.

Third, setting the story somewhere and describing it in enough detail to allow the reader to enter the fictional or real world is what sets a novel apart from a movie or play. Since I was writing a historical piece, I tried to gather enough information before I started writing to accurately describe life in Southern California in the mid 1960s. As it turned out, I woefully underestimated the kind of detail I would need to know. This meant frequent trips back to books and the internet to try and see and feel what a restaurant would have looked like, what cars they drove, clothing, houses, etc. Even if I were writing in the present, I would still need to be observant enough to tell someone what they needed to see in their mind’s eye.

Multiplane CameraConsiderable time and effort was put into backgrounds, costumes, settings for both the real things in Snow White as well as the fantasy elements, like the Queen’s laboratory and the Magic Mirror. If that had not been accomplished so well, our attention would have been drawn away from the story and focused on what we knew to be “wrong” or out of place. The use of the multi-plane camera provided more believability to the settings by giving a sense of real depth to what are only flat drawings.

 

Finally, the protagonist must overcome obstacles that increasingly raise the stakes. Each new challenge should have the potential to keep our hero from succeeding. The higher the stakes the more interesting the story. I can tell you from my experience that finding ways to get your hero into trouble without having Martians drop in from outer space is no easy task. Snow White finds herself almost killed and forced to run through the scary forest at night. This is followed by having to convince the Dwarfs to let her stay with them. She fails her last challenge, the apple, and needs the Dwarfs and the Prince to bail her out. I prefer to see my heroes solve their own problems. I think Pinocchio’s story follows a better path of obstacles to his eventual redemption and success.

The NaNoWrimo site offered this at the end of the month:

nanowrimo end of month message

Good stories and storytelling were the cornerstone of the Disney brand and its success and continue to be today. Many stories that are now considered legendary kicked around the studio for years before Walt or current Disney management felt they were “ready”. The Little Mermaid which premiered in 1989 was a story Walt had his people do work on right after Snow White was finished in 1937. Even then, once stories are in production, the stories continue to be reworked and refined.

Early on, Walt relied heavily on fairy tales and other stories he had enjoyed as a child or, in the case of Mary Poppins, stories he would read to his children. “What?” you say, JoeGrant3_Disney“Couldn’t he come up with his own stories?” I see nothing wrong with the approach he took. He took well written pieces and found ways to have them speak to new generations through the magic of animation and later live action films. Walt’s uncanny ability to recognize what his audiences would respond to was part of his story telling genius. He also had a knack for finding the right people to collaborate with and help him work out the final version of the story.

Writers of movies and television rarely get the credit they deserve. Most novelists toil in obscurity and few become household names even after their work hits the NY Times best seller list. But, make no mistake – writers are the engine of many mediums. Those of you who pursue the illusive satisfaction of a well written piece, as I do, regardless of the medium, should be proud, not only of your finished work,  but of the effort it takes just to try.

Here are some of my favorite authors (no particular order). Who are the authors you like to read?:

favorite authors

J.K. Rowling, Ernest Hemingway, J.R.R. Tolkien, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dan Brown, Rex Stout, Harper Lee, Isaac Asimov, Erik Larsen, David McCullough

Can Artists be Champions?

usopen logoI spent the last couple of weeks watching the great tennis being played at the US Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows (Also the site of the 1964 World’s Fair that Disney headlined). I love sports in general. But there’s something about the competitions that are head to head. There’s no one out there to count on but yourself. Tennis doubles down on the mano a mano-contest by forbidding coaching during the matches other than supportive yelling and clapping. If one of the players finds him or herself on the short end of the score, it’s up to him or her to come up with a new game plan or get themselves out of a negative mental funk. The champions, like Nadal, Federer, both Williams and a select handful of others can  do both, which is just one of the qualities that separates them from the pack.

goofy tennis

Certainly, practicing plays a part in a person’s success at any endeavor. But, success, is different from being recognized as the “best” at something. In sports, being the best is measured by wins and or statistics – most home runs, lowest E.R.A., most touchdowns thrown, etc. Being the best is more complicated to qualify in the arts. Beauty, as well as entertainment value, humor, scariness, dramatic quality, are found in the senses of the beholder. One person’s favorite painting is at the bottom of someone else’s list. I’ve heard people refer to Walt Disney as the best producer of animated features or the best theme park designer. There can be no argument that Walt was successful beyond the expectations of most people. But, was he the best?

ub iwerksWalt was quite comfortable admitting that he was never the best at drawing or animating. In fact, by the time he had come up with idea for Mickey Mouse and instilled him with the characteristics that would make a drawing one of the most recognizable icons in the world, it was Ub Iwerks and others who ultimately brought him to life. I’ve not heard any recollections of him doing any drawing that ended up on the screen once he had hired others to do the work. And, yet, it is his animated products for which he is most remembered.

I thought it would be an interesting exercise to see if I can we draw any parallels between the qualities that help athletes succeed on the tennis courts and the kind of success Walt achieved.

330px-Michelangelo_-_Creation_of_AdamCreativity – Tennis players are more like improvisational actors, creating as they go and responding to their opponent’s work. Great tennis players use creativity to surprise the other player. Since creativity is the essence of any artist’s work. In many cases, art is creating something out of nothing. It might be carving David out of a block of stone, mixing pigment with oil to create the Sistine Chapel, sitting at a lifeless piano and writing “Feed the Birds” or using language to write “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Walt’s creative fortes were developing ideas, sometimes through improvisational thinking in response to work by others in his creative field. From his earliest successes like the Alice Comedies to Disneyland, Disney found ways to improve

multiplane

Multplane Camera

on the success of others. The multi-plane camera brought depth to his animated work. Snow White pushed the limits of an audience’s attention span for animated shorts. And, of course, Disneyland went well beyond the amusement parks that had been around for more than a century and improved on even the most successful ones of their time like Luna Park in Coney Island.

Adaptability – Tennis players, like most athletes, never know just which of their skills and abilities will respond on any given day. So, not only do they need to adapt their game plan to take advantage of a good backhand one day while the forehand can’t find the inside of the court. But, at the same time, great tennis players quickly adjust their game to the strengths or weaknesses of their opponent. Players who can’t adapt have little chance of winning if their serve isn’t working and they have no other options. Walt’s success was dependent upon his ability to adapt to changing audience’s tastes and interests for entertainment. We all like to talk about the times when he was right. There were, however, times when he missed the mark, like the much criticized film Victory Through Air Power and the Pack Mules at Disneyland. But, he was right about feature length animated films, family focused, live action features, audioanimatronics, and theme parks.

1180w-600h_020116_oswald-hungry-hobos-short-q-and-aMental toughness – The difference between winning a losing for tennis players of roughly equal skill is whether they can capitalize on any advantage their opponent presents or whether, when presented with a losing situation, they can continue to fight rather than giving up. Walt demonstrated this ability many times during his life and his career. Early on he had several failed attempts at starting his own business. Once he managed to succeed and build his studio, he had to maintain his positive mindset when confronted many times with money problems, intellectual property control problems with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, an animators strike, and having his studio commandeered by the US military during WWII.

Striving for excellence – The same mental toughness pushes professional tennis players Walt Disney, Filmproduzent, USAto improve their game. During daily, focused practice sessions the best players maintain the better parts of their games and try to improve upon their weaknesses. That kind of dedication is only possible if the player wants nothing more than to be the best he or she can. It also means giving up some parts of what many of us would consider a normal life. It might mean doing without personal relationships, education, strict diets, and other things most of us consider fun or important. Walt never seemed to want anything other than producing the best products he could. The only way he could know if he was achieving excellence was his own judgement, until someone would pay him for the work and/or an audience would respond positively. As a result, it seems that he developed a very for excellence. The more he succeeded, the higher his standards became. This was evident in how hard he pushed the people who worked for him and, perhaps, how stingy he was with compliments. He also spent many nights and weekends sleeping in his office and giving up time with his family.

Practice – Tennis players spent countless hours every day on the court and working on their fitness. The difference between winning and losing can be stamina and the ability to execute simple and difficult shots when arms and legs are weary. Practice also instills muscle memory, so the player to be confident executing shots and allowing him or her to focus on mental toughness rather than the physical act of hitting the ball. Disney used the Silly Symphonies shorts to help his animators and others to learn and practice the skills that he knew would be needed to finish Snow White. During Disney’s lifetime, would-be animators worked under through an apprenticeship doing clean-up cleanupwork (cleaning up the extraneous lines animators left behind), then moving on to in-betweening (animators did the key poses then the in-betweeners would fill in the drawings needed to smooth out the movements), then they might get an opportunity to draw lesser characters before moving on to lead animator. All of this work was not only necessary to complete the thousands of drawings needed to complete an animated feature, but provided practice needed to insure they had the skills to move on to more complex work.

It might be possible to compare artists to tennis players in this way. And, in a way, the comparison shows that Walt was a champion. But, Walt’s most important qualities lay in his ability: to dream big like he did with Snow White and finally Disneyland; choose the right people for the right jobs, even if they may not have exhibited all the skills required to complete the job, like he did with X Atencio when he asked him to write the lyrics for “Yo Ho, A Pirate’s Life”. But, I believe the most important part he played in his own and other’s success was his ability to inspire and lead people. He had an uncanny ability to get others to see and believe in his dreams. As a result, they probably excelled more than if someone else had asked.

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