First out of the Disney canon is, of course, Snow White. The Brothers Grimm story of the beautiful young princess whose only offence was being considered more beautiful than the Queen reportedly resonated with a young Walt, who was determined to use the tale to showcase the beauty of animation.
Production began in 1934. Walt estimated the film could be made for $250,000. Costs quickly ballooned to almost $1.5-million by the time it was released in December, 1937 — a staggering price for a film made in the midst of deep depression. But, as we all now know, the film was hailed as a technical and commercial success, proving animated films could be beautiful art and launching a string of some of the most beloved cinematic achievements in film history. According to Box Office Mojo, the film’s run grossed over $66-million, which has since grown to a lifetime gross of more than $184-million. In 1938, the film was awarded an Oscar for its technical achievements despite the Academy’s lack of a category for animation. Famously, the film was given one regular-sized statuette and seven miniature ones to mark the special occasion.
Walt Disney was not unlike what we know of the late-Apple CEO Steve Jobs: obsessed with perfection and able to use the latest technology to push the limits of his art. When the technology to achieve his vision wasn’t available, Walt created it. It’s no surprise, then, that Jobs’s Pixar — the modern film company doing the same thing — makes direct reference to Snow White in its corporate mission statement.
The way the film looks is equally important to sound, plot and character, something Walt understood well. Films prior to Snow White had a flat look. The entire scene moved past the camera at the same speed. It reduced the sense of depth and the immersion a film can provide all at the expense of the audience’s experience.
Disney’s solution was to invent the multiplane camera. It allowed animators to create four different layers within the shot of a film and move them past the camera at different speeds. It created an effect of depth that no other film in the world could boast.
Walt was an innovator in many ways. This is something we were lucky enough to witness first hand while visiting Epcot in Walt Disney World this past September.
The story remains one of the simplest in the canon. The art is quietly beautiful, the animals don’t talk, the songs are straight forward and even the titular character’s face is more a splash of water colour than any of the princesses that would become part of the company’s post-1985 renaissance. But despite the apparent simplicity of its surface, the deep technological contributions keep Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs among one of Disney’s — both the company and the man — crowning achievements.