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SHAPING ANIMATION | 1. Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs

Updated: Sep 30, 2019

To begin my series on Disney Animation, and how it has impacted art and myself, there is no better place to start than with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. As Walt's first full length Animated feature, it is the perfect beginning to my series discussing his films, "Shaping Animation."


When asked the question: "How is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs an impactful film to the Animation and Film Industry?" The natural answer is because it was the first full length Animated movie. But to end your knowledge of this movies creation there is to almost discredit everything that really went into this movie. It was so much more than just the first animated movie; and to learn about it, we need to go back to the beginning.

To start, the idea that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first Animated "movie", is not entirely true. While it was the first to be seen by a large audience, a few animated full length films had been made since as early as 1917. This means that, while we can credit Snow White as the first animated film seen and heard of by the majority of audiences in 1937, using the claim that it was the first as the movie's only triumph negates it's true effects on the Animation industry. This is not to say that it should not be viewed as important because it was not officially the first, but that there is a lot more to this film than its faulty claim of "first". So to discuss the true "firsts" of this movie, it's really better to look at it from the perspective of the Walt Disney Company.

In 1934, Walt pitched his story concept for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to his then team of animators. This certainly wasn't their first animated venture. Walt's company, at the time referred to as Walt Disney Productions, had been making animated shorts since 1923, the first of these being "Alice's Wonderland". While I do want to make a post discussing Walt's shorts before the release of Snow White, for now we'll skip over them. But they had already become a well known name, with animated shorts that had even won Academy Awards. This feature length film, however, was intended to be a first for the company in terms of length and story. Walt wanted to create something audiences would connect to in the way they would any live action movie. The estimated budget for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was $250,000. This was ten times the budget of one of their typical Silly Symphonies shorts. In actuality, the film would cost $1,488,422.74, which was a huge budget for any movie in 1937.

Walt struggled to get the movie produced, with the idea of it being the first feature length film in theaters scaring his brother and business partner Roy, and wife Lillian, to attempt talking Walt out of it. The Hollywood Movie Industry began to refer to the film as "Disney's Folly", convinced that the film would be a failure. However, Walt was set on its creation, even putting a mortgage on his home to help finance the film. Despite the movies challenges, Walt put everything into its creation.

Though I want to focus on Snow White's impact on Animation, I think it's important to briefly discuss it's development and production first. After all, it's audience had seen animation before. What they hadn't seen was Animation with a real story.


Development for Snow White began in 1934, and a lot of change would occur to the film's plot before it's release in 1937.

The Original concept for the films story was more comical and centered around the dwarfs. Walt's initial excitement for the story actually centered around the dwarfs and their comedic potential. The first notes for the movie discussed different situations and gags the characters could use, showing it's comedy focus. Three story meetings were held in October, reading over an outline for the film written by staff writer Richard Creedon, which heavily featured comedy as the main theme of the film. You can read full details from this outline on the Snow White and Seven Dwarfs (1937 film) Wikipedia. Eventually though, Walt began to question the direction he was taking the movie. He feared that the comedic tone would make the characters feel less real and therefore, make audiences care less. Seeing the movie now, years later, this was such an important decision. The film's tone as it is now, soft and whimsical, but still having moments of seriousness, is a large reason for it's success.

Take a look back at any of the early animated shorts from Disney before Snow White and you will notice one huge difference; the plot. You can still notice that feeling in some of his later Anthology films (Feature length movies which consisted of several shorts tied together). Why? These films, while not only focusing on pushing the limits of animation, had an overall comedic tone. They didn't need a masterfully written plot, they just needed to look interesting and keep people entertained by the movement. Walt realized that Snow White needed to be different than his previous short films. It needed a plot that would connect viewers to the story and its characters, like a live action film would do. This would spark many changes in the movie.

A new outline was circulated on November 6th, that focused on scenes involving Snow White, the dwarfs, and the Evil Queen, allowing further time to develop the personalities and goals of those characters. Disney also completely changed the concept for the Evil Queen, who was originally meant to be more eccentric and potentially less threatening. In 1935, Disney ditched his concepts for the Dwarfs as the main characters, and decided the story should focus on Snow White and the Queen, resulting in several scenes including the dwarfs being cut from the final film. This decision, however, was not taken lightly. We'll come back to it in the Animation section.

Finally, the ideas for the film was finalized, with the plot focused on Snow White instead of the Dwarfs. This decision to steer away from comedy and to instead put attention to Snow White and her story would eventually be a reason for the films success. Viewers were used to seeing comedy based animated shorts, but an animation that was centered around plot and story was more unique. This choice would also greatly affect the artistic tone of the film, shifting it towards realism.


The First step to exploring Snow White's Animation History is acknowledging the animators and artists who worked on the film. To start, let's discuss Albert Hurter. Hurter was the primary art authority for the film, and approved the designs of every aspect of the film before they were finalized, helping to create a sense of unity in its appearance. Hurter contributed both to the overall look of Snow White and Pinocchio, and helped to bring the European Illustration style to Disney's works, along with sketch artists Gustaf Tenggren and Ferdinand Horvath. This style of illustration, mimicking that of early fairy tale artwork, grew to be a stylistic choice for the company at the time. He would also eventually steer Walt towards a more realistic Animation style for the characters of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. However, Hurter never actually worked as an animator for the company. Walt was more interested in his concepts and ideas than his artwork. Because of this, his purpose was to "inspire" the other artists. He would create pages of sketches, which were then used as inspiration for images and jokes used in films and shorts. Albert Hurter, though never an official Disney animator, greatly affected the Animation style of the company's early films.

Tenggren and Horvath, mentioned above, were sketch artists who also worked to develop the overall feel and style of Snow White. Tenggren was a color stylist for the film, and also created the posters and the press books. Like Hurter, Tenggren's style also resembled that of European Illustrative artwork, similar to that of artists Arthur Rackham and John Bauer. Horvath was a concept artist, creating designs and ideas for the film. However, many of his designs were rejected in favor for Hurter's, and Horvath was never credited in the film, despite his early work in it's artistic development. Whether or not his designs made it into the finished movie, his credit was well deserved and should have been included. A film's development, especially in terms of artistry, is built on ideas and concepts. Even if those ideas are not in the final film, they still helped to reach the idea that was used.

Above I mentioned that many comical scenes utilizing the dwarfs were cut from the movie during production. These were not mere concepts, however. Many of them were fully animated scenes that had already had voice acting. A particular scene where Snow White taught the Dwarfs how to have better manners while eating, included an entire song called "Music in your Soup" which was also scrapped. This greatly discouraged one of the animators of the scenes, Ward Kimball.

If you're interested in Animation, Ward Kimball may be a name that stands out to you. Kimball was one of Disney's Nine Old Men, a pioneer of Animation whom Walt called a Genius in the book "The Story of Walt Disney".

This was Kimball's first time animating an entire sequence, and now it was all going to be tossed because Walt had changed his mind. In a way, its like if a commission artist finished their portrait, and after giving it to the buyer and them approving it, they came back saying that they didn't need or want it any more. Hard work, and for nothing. Even worse, he would no longer see the scene he was so proud of creating in the film. Kimball considered leaving the studio because of his discarded scenes, but Disney persuaded him to stay by promoting him to a Supervising Animator, and remained at the position until the 1970s. He would go on to design Jiminy Cricket, the Crows in Dumbo, and supervised the animation of multiple Disney films during the 1940s. Kimball also helped with the creation of "The World of Motion", an attraction for Disney's EPCOT center. Kimball contributed more to the company than I can discuss in this post. His work for the company and as one of the Nine Old Men impacted animation forever.

Other notable artists include:

• Joe Grant, designer of the Queen's witch form.

• Grim Natwick, one of few professionally trained artists in the company at the time, and a previous animator for Fleischer Studios working on Betty Boop Cartoons, and would eventually animate Snow White herself.

• Art Babbit, a Disney animator who worked on the Evil Queen, but refused to use the rotoscoping technique used for much of the movie's characters.

Now for the film's Animation process. While Snow White was not the first Animation to use all the techniques I will discuss, this will be my first opportunity to discuss them. I really want to delve into all the aspects of early Animation, so I will go in depth to these techniques and discuss them as though they are new information.

Speaking of which, let's talk about Animation cells.

Cel Animation was the main form of animation used up until the release of the Pixar film Toy Story in 1995. While the specific ways Animation cells were used changed over time, with the introduction of techniques such as xerographing and the APT Process (Animation Photo Transfer), the use of cels remained a constant in Disney's Animation up until 2005. This is when Disney made their first ever animated film using the computer Animation technique, Chicken Little. Disney's final movie to use some Cel Animation was Winnie the Pooh in 2011. Though Disney has never officially stated they will never again create a film using traditional hand drawn animation cels, it's safe to say that Winnie the Pooh's American box office failure assured the company that 2D Animation was no longer desired.

So how did these Animation Cells work? What was their purpose and process? The "cells" were sheets of transparent celluloid or cellulose acetate, that could be placed on top of Backgrounds. Originally, characters were drawn on rice paper, with backgrounds made on cells placed over the drawing. This was cheap and effective, but it meant that characters could only move in empty spaces with no background behind them, since the background objects were placed on top of the drawing. Another option was to redraw the background individually for every movement of the character, which of course took a tremendous amount of time and work. In 1914, Earl Hurd invented the traditional process of cell Animation, where characters would be drawn on to cells and placed on top of the backgrounds. This would remain the preferred and typical method of Animation until nearly 70 years later.

To create an Animation cell, a worker received a sheet of paper with the original animator's pencil drawing and a list of instructions, and would then transfer the lines onto the cell. The cell is then flipped and painted on the back, which helped the colors to look smooth and conceal mistakes in the paint. When colored paint began to be used, each character had to have a set color scheme, so that the paints could always be reproduced. These cells are then taken to their respective backgrounds and moved to create the footage.

It took 24 seperate cells to create only a second of the film. Snow White and the Seven Drawfs used about 200,000 individual Animation cells.

During the cell Animation process for the film, animators came across a problem. Both Snow White and the Queen needed a red dye applied to their face in each scene for blush. It has been said that the animators tried real rouge for the blush, but it failed. Instead, they used red dye applied by a cotton wrapped pencil. The process of applying the rouge was long and painstaking. Who would do the job? Helen Ogger. Ogger was an employee in the ink department, and was the only inker that could properly apply the dye. She repeated her process for the entire film with no assistance from other inkers.

According to Wikipedia, her process was: "[Ogger] had to place several cells together on an animation board, one atop the other, just like in the process of animation, in order to get the 'registration' right (the spot of red just right in relation to the preceding and following ones) - all of this without any guide. She would work out her own extremes and then 'animate' the blush in inbetweens." The effect she created would eventually be used on Pinocchio and Fantasia, though never at the large scale used for Snow White. When Ogger left the company in 1941, the process was never used again, as no one had the skills to replace her.

Thankfully, Ogger received the credit she deserved, as she would ultimately come to be the head of the Inking and Special effects departments.

During the conceptual process for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the character's overall designs became more and more realistic, especially in the case of Snow White. Walt wanted to move away from the more caricatured style of their previous animations, such as the silly symphonies. This wasn't just a design choice, but a deliberate intention to make Snow White feel less like an animated character, and more like a real person that audiences could empathise with. Before Snow White's release, there was much doubt that audiences would keep their interest for more than an hours worth of animated footage. Walt felt that this realism was what was needed to grab people's attention and keep them invested in the film, a sense that Snow White could really think and feel. When she's happy, you're compelled to be happy for her, and when she's sad, you feel bad for her. It's that connection to the audience that made the film stand out among other animated films and shorts.

To test out the animators skills in creating a more realistic human, a short cartoon called "The Godess of Spring" was created. This short film featured a similarly more realistic animated girl. However, her movements were not yet right. Like the more cartoony characters the animators were used to working with, the Godess had a very "rubber hose" style of moving. Walt realized that if he wanted Snow White to feel more real, something was going to need to change. So to train his animators for the more realistic human movement, actors were hired to act out scenes from the film. These recordings were then used as reference, or were rotoscoped into the film.

While the word rotoscoping today conjures up thoughts of animated films that come steps too close to the uncanny valley, rotoscoping does not always have to create such an effect. Rotoscoping's true meaning is to trace over live action footage when drawing and animating, a technique originally done by projecting live action images onto glass panels.

What the animators of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs realized, which some modern day films do not, is that animated characters look odd when moving in the slow and somewhat boring ways real people do. The movement of the actors used in Snow White's rotoscoping was not an exact replica of how real people would move. For example, the dancing scenes of the movie were rotoscoped. By taking a look at the old live action footage used, we can see that the actors were not moving in a 100% true to life way. Their movements were exaggerated to feel more whimsical. This helped the animators to gain understanding of real life movements, while avoiding the uncanny likeness of some characters rotoscoped using computer animation today. Animators also practiced life drawings to understand better the flow of real life objects and people.

Another way Snow White achieved a more realistic feeling was by mimicking the camera positions commonly used in live action films. Using such camera angles helped the movie to again feel closer to real life. To do so however, Disney engineers had to create something completely new. This invention was the Multi-plane camera. The Multi-plane camera technique used Animation cells as normal, but instead of each cell laying flat on top of each other, each cell was suspended separately from each other. This allowed animators to control up to seven cells individually, creating the feeling of depth. To see and understand this further, take a look at the scene in Snow White where the Evil Queen transforms. You can see the seperate layers being moved, with items in front of her and behind her moving at different speeds and in opposite directions. This camera would change the way early films were animated entirely. Suddenly animated scenes were no longer stuck in one flat perspective.

Finally, all the pieces of the puzzle had been put together. A Snow White focused plot, a European Illustrative style, a sense of realism, and a newfound technique allowing different and unique camera shots to further push the film's sense of grandeur. Combined with a musical score and songs created by Frank Churchill, Larry Morey, Paul J. Smith, and Leigh Harline, the movie was ready to be shown to the public.


Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered on December 21, 1937. This Premier was held at the Carthay Circle Theater, and had a full audience, including some who had previously refered to the movie as "Disney's Folly". However, at the Movie's completion it received a standing ovation, and it's been reported that some in the audience cried during Snow White's death scene. The reception was astounding, and after the film was released to the general public in January 1938, was an immediate box office hit. Beloved by children, adults, and critics alike, the film was held in high esteem. At the 11th Academy Awards, the film was given an honorary award, depicting a full size Oscar along with 7 smaller ones, mimicking Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Snow White earned 4 times the box office money than any other film released in 1938.

The movie may have cost the Walt Disney Company $1,488,422.74, but it earned it $6,500,000 by May 1939. The movies lifetime gross is currently at $418 million, and (adjusted for inflation and re-releases) is still one of the top 10 American Film money-makers of all time. It's safe to say Walt was right; the Company did need to Branch out into film making. It was with the success of Snow White that the company had the needed money and confidence to go on making more films, with Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi all releasing only a few years after. Since the release of Snow White, the Walt Disney Company has continued creating Animated Movies, using both traditional and computer Animation, and eventually created some of the highest grossing animated films of all time, such as The Lion King, Aladdin, Frozen, and many more.


So, was it the first ever feature length Animated film? No. But it was the first to focus on it's story and emotional connection to it's viewer in equal amount as it's technical animation feats. It was the first to hold its own compared to live action films, to convince audiences that Animation could be used as a means of telling real, compelling stories. To show the world that Animation could do so much more than just entertain; it could make you feel.

More than anything, this is how Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs changed the Animation industry. Without it's touching characters and story allowing it's viewers to connect with Animation, we may still view the art form as only suitable for short films with little to no plot at all. Because of Snow White's immediate success for both audiences and the company, we in effect have the animated movies we do today. In a world where this movie had flopped, who knows how long it would be before someone else would dabble in a full length Animated film. And no matter how it would turn out, we would not have the same Disney films, if any. We may not have any of the animated films that have touched and meant so much to many throughout the years, such as Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and so on. It's Because of Snow White that we have any of it. It's possible that it's because of Snow White that there are any Animated Film Companies thriving at all.

And this is how Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs shaped the Animation Industry, and in effect, my interest in art. Without these movies, I would be a totally different person. My interest in art, animation, and film may never have been stirred up in me. Snow White was never my favorite film growing up, it never touched me personally. But in a way, it made me who I am.


Thanks for sticking around to the end of my review! If you would like to keep up to date with this series, subscribe down below. You can find my artwork on Instagram @Raineydaydoodles, and contact me at


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