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Disney's Folly: The Profound Importance of 'Snow White'

A Brief Insight into the Impact Disney's 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' Had on the Entertainment Industry We Know Today

Photo by Travis Gergen on Unsplash

Released in 1937, Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the world’s first full-length cel animated feature film and the beginning of booming success for the Disney company. The feature film, based on a German fairy tale written by the Brothers Grimm, was adapted by storyboard artists such as Ted Sears and Richard Creedon (just to name a few) and was directed by supervisor David Hand and his team. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs first premiered at the Carthay Circle Theatre on December 21 of 1937, but was actually not released to the nation until the following February. The film was vital to the survival of the company as Disney had been through several highs and lows since its establishment in 1923. Prior to the creation of Snow White, Walt had been focusing on cartoon animations. Disney had been among the first to use sound within their picture cartoons. However, the Disney company was the first to incorporate the sound into the cartoon, rather than just using the music to act as an overlay over the animation as silent films were becoming a thing of the past. The Walt Disney Company’s use of sound in their cartoons gave life to the characters and enhanced the storytelling aspect of the shorts. He was also among the first to use full colour in his early cartoon animations. After delving into the use of colour within his animations alongside the use of emotion in the portrayal of characters, Disney felt that his next step to success and the only option for his company was to use their skills to create the world’s first feature film animation. Snow White quickly became known as "Disney’s Folly" as it was their biggest creative risk to date. From the beginning, Disney had been known for their experimentation with new technology and risks with their cartoons… Snow White was their biggest experiment yet.

Once Walt had latched onto the idea of Snow White, he couldn’t wait to showcase his plan to the rest of his team. One night, over the course of approximately four hours, Walt told the story of Snow White from beginning to end and in true Walt Disney fashion, he missed no details. Whilst telling the story, he was not shy about acting out what he was explaining, he would jump across the recording stage, act out facial expression and mimic the voices he imagined for each character. It was clear that Walt was extremely excited about this new endeavour. However, many of the team were overwhelmed, wondering how they could possibly bring an animation of that duration to life, and more importantly, how they could keep viewers interested enough to stay till the end of the animated feature. Ensuring that viewers felt emotionally attached to both the story and the characters was vital in the success, but managing this task was easier said than done. Despite how big of a task this felt to all involved, it was clear the Walt’s idyllic visionary and passion rubbed off onto the rest of the crew, with art director Ken Anderson later saying "[Walt’s] excitement over Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs inspired us all."

Of course, once the word got out about the creation of a full-length feature film animation, competitors scoffed and were extremely skeptical. This had never been achieved or even thought about before and even Disney himself later said, "It was prophecised that nobody would sit through such a thing, but there was only one way we could do it successfully and that was to plunge ahead and go for broke — shoot the works. There could be no compromising on money, talent, or time." It was not uncommon for The Walt Disney Company to come across extreme money problems in their early days, with Walt demanding Roy Disney, his older brother, to extend their loans with the bank multiple times to allow Walt to continue his foray with new technology and ideas. The creation of Snow White was no different, the Disney brothers had estimated their budget at approximately $250,000, although that kept rising to around $400,000 to $500,000. Nevertheless, Walt continued to funnel ideas directly to his group of story men consisting of Dick Creedon, Larry Morey, and Harry Bailey. Some of the initial ideas for the story that came from the original fairy tales included scenes where the Prince was imprisoned by the Queen, a scene where the Queen actually made three attempts on Snow White’s life, and another scene where the Queen could be seen dancing herself to death in red-hot shoes. There was also a debate as to whether the Queen should be portrayed as the stereotypical "fat cartoon" type or a more "high collar – stately" type. Of course, they chose the latter which indeed ended up being highly effective and crucial to the story’s plot. This experimental nature adopted by Walt did nothing to help the company’s budget. At the time, the famous multiplane camera was already being used on their shorts (as tests for Snow White) but Walt wanted even more realism and depth to his movies. Walt had told his daughter Diane, "I had brought specialists to help with our composition and our use of colour, but we still had a fight on our hands for better animation. The kind of animation we were after was entirely new. Before that, it had been done by stunts: limber legs moving in trick runs like egg beaters. But in Snow White we wanted our action believable. We were after drama and pathos as well as laughter. You can’t pull a tear from an audience with legs whirling like windmills." In order to ensure that his films were branching on the more realistic side, the believable side, he sent his animators back to school where they learnt in depth about movement, motion, and the flows and reactions of movement. This allowed the look of Snow White to change dramatically, steering violently away from the more stylised cartoons that were prevalent at the time.

Another hurdle that had to be crossed during the production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the creation of the dwarves themselves. It took quite a while for Walt and his team to settle on the final names of the dwarves: Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Dopey. Both the names and indeed the designs of the dwarves went through several iterations before Walt was even remotely happy with the finished outcome. He would seldom see just one design and be happy with it going into his movie, he always wanted it to be just right, to be perfect. Other names considered for the dwarves included Wheezey, Lazy, Jumpy, Dizzey, Hickey, Gabby, Nifty, Sniffy, Swift, Puffy, Stuffy, Burpy, and most controversial of all Tubby, Baldy, Deafy, and Shorty. All of these names were considered by Walt himself and were not seen to him as too offensive, just good descriptions of how the dwarves looked and acted. However, in the modern day, some of these names would be highly looked down upon. In terms of the animation of the dwarves, it was said that Dopey was the most challenging to bring to life as Walt had described him as the dwarf "we are depending on to carry most of the belly laughs." They eventually decided on treating him as if he were a dog, transforming his human actions into dog-like actions that gave him that silly yet cute and lovable nature.

Fast forward from 1934 to 1936 and over 362,000 cels of hand drawn and painted animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was finally completed. Throughout the entire process, the company’s budget and deadline were always tight. Walt’s daughter Diane later said, "Dad says that while Snow White was fun, it was a ding-dong, photo-finish race with their budget. He was running out of money, and still had a lot to do when his deadline loomed up in December." It was said that the final print of the film from Technicolor arrived at the theatre only a few hours before the show was scheduled to begin. Despite all of the setbacks, the trials and the errors and the sheer amount of grueling work from the Walt Disney Company, Snow White met its deadline and premiered December 21, 1937 with a reception from the public that was nothing short of euphoric. Snow White had become the most profitable film of all time, with a gross of over 1.7 billion dollars, boosting the success of the Walt Disney Company up and through the roof and securing their place in Hollywood.

Walt Disney changed the face of filmmaking forever. It is easy to take Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for granted, seeing the animations as being crude and outdated in modern society but the influence it had on the world of entertainment is absolutely profound. The skills and experience gained from the creation of Snow White led onto other Disney hits such as Pinocchio and Bambi and of course, led to the Disney we all know and love today, where dreams can be a reality and where nothing is impossible. 

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