This past week, PBS aired
a documentary about the life of Walt Disney and the evolution of Walt Disney Studios.
One of the most memorable parts of the film details the production process behind “Snow White,” which was released in 1937.
The documentary, supported by scenes in Neal Gabler’s biography “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination,” portrays Disney as a creative genius who went to extremes to ensure his vision came to fruition.
One winter night in 1934, Walt Disney gave a group of his staff 50 cents each and told them to get dinner across the street before returning to meet him at the Disney soundstage.
When they arrived, they found Disney standing alone in the spotlight on a dark stage. For the next several hours, they watched in awe as he acted out the story of “Snow White” — the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale that they would, he announced, be turning into a full-length animated feature film. In an effort to show his team exactly what would transpire on the screen, he channeled the voice and emotions of each character, from the wicked queen to the seven dwarves.
Disney and his staff had spent the last few years working on “Silly Symphonies,” a series of animated short films that earned him a reputation as the man who turned animation into a fine art. But as the documentary notes, Disney was itching for another adventure — and he managed to persuade his team that they were ready, too.
“We were just carried away,” one animator recalled of Disney’s solo performance. “I would have climbed a mountain full of wildcats to do everything I could to make ‘Snow White.'”
But the project had its critics. Disney’s brother, Roy, who managed the studio’s finances, was sceptical that the film would succeed. And throughout the production, media outlets labelled the work as Disney’s “folly.” Still, Walt was adamant about pursuing his vision.
He wanted to achieve perfection in every moment of “Snow White” and wouldn’t tolerate anything less from his staff.
To create a sense of natural realism in the film, he brought live animals into the studios; had actors impersonate different characters in front of the animators; and hired a teenage dancer so the animators could see what Snow White should look like when she leapt and twirled.
To prepare for the more dramatic scenes, Disney had his staff throw heavy objects through glass windows and watch them shatter.
Disney’s exacting demands meant that production moved at an excruciatingly slow pace.
“We’d sometimes take a whole day for a close-up of Snow White — that’s how intricate the drawing was,” an animator recalled. “It was so precise it was like making watches.”
Ultimately, more than 600 people produced upwards of 200,000 drawings, with some employees working 12-hour days. The total budget for the film was $US1.5 million — six times what the studio had anticipated.
The premiere of “Snow White” was a major success. In the first year after it was released, it grossed $US8 million ($US100 million today), making it one of the highest-grossing animated films in history.
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