Disney’s silver age of animation

Films such as Snow White and Pinocchio marked Disney’s golden age. But Mark argues that the animation that came in the decades after was just as good…

Animators, on the whole, are generally in awe of much of the work that Disney animators created during their classic thirties and forties period. Their adulation mostly stems from the attention to detail that was applied to these productions, the time available to work and rework the drawings, and the revolutionary knowledge they acquired in creating those iconic works.

But deep down, they also know that, as amazing as the likes of Dumbo and Pinocchio were and still are, producing films of that visual density using just pencil, ink, acetate and acrylic paint wasn’t very practical then, and it certainly isn’t now.

It’s been said by a number of movie experts that, if Walt had any idea how much time, effort and money it would take to create his first feature, Snow White, he’d have probably never started the project. I suspect he still might, as at his heart he was an incurable film romantic, and knew he was on the very cusp of a creative epoch. And as such, he was determined to prove the naysayers wrong and that people would sit through 80 minutes of animated adventure.

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As I mentioned in my previous article about Alice In Wonderland, in the forties he was forced to finally confront the economics of feature production, and the advanced guard of that generation was Cinderella, closely followed by Alice.

In many respects, the new, more frugal approach to animated feature production has, in retrospect, been called the ‘silver age’, in contrast to the golden one that proceeded it. What segments these productions is that Disney introduced many innovations designed to reduce the cost of a production, but also to speed up the whole process.

One of these was cel xeroxing, where animators’ pencil renditions were transferred to the production cel using a photocopy process instead of tracing. This was first used in 101 Dalmatians (1961), and gave a distinctive new feel and freedom, contrasting strongly with the hard demarcation lines that defined animated characters previously.

Without the motivation to make things cheaper, none of these and many other techniques would ever have been considered, and they breathed new life into each production, along with markedly different styles.

The silver age, for me, is like walking though an especially striking art exhibition, which aims to represent as much diversity in the styles of representation as it can muster. But it’s not just the visual differences. It’s also about how they move in new and interesting ways, alongside the styling.

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Walt, unfortunately, died during the making of A Jungle Book, and partly because of that it bookends this era in some eyes. Although I’d suggest that the real end comes with The Aristocats, a project that was started before Walt passed away.

So, why doesn’t it include Robin Hood? For me, the death of Walt was actually symptomatic of a sea change that was sweeping Disney in the sixties, where many of the stalwarts of animation from the earliest days of the company either retired at this point or died out. What’s now most disturbing about this period is that some of the most incredible animation knowledge that these people learned making the golden era movies was essentially lost at this time.

Disney had become a massive organisation, employing tens of thousands of people in the studio, theme parks, TV production and elsewhere. The value of the animation craft wasn’t considered vital, and as such, it withered on the vine without his personal sustenance.

I recall being quite shocked when I took some time to analyse the animation in Robin Hood, as it didn’t exhibit the trademark polish that I’d come to expect from Disney. I could also see that some character animation had been pilfered directly from A Jungle Book, and re-rendered after being copied by young animators from the source material. It was a low point for me, and the box office returns for it reflect the loss of quality it represents.

What’s also forgotten is that the silver age wasn’t just about Disney. It was also about Warner Brothers and MGM, the amazing work of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Tex Avery and Robert Clampett.

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It’s because they existed, and the quality of their work was so exceptionally high that Disney was forced to up their game in terms of characterisation in response, that makes these movies so interesting.

I’ve seen it argued that the silver age really extends to all the way to The Rescuers, and I can support that view as far as this was the last production that called on the extensive skills of Disney veteran animators Milt Kahl, Ollie Johnston, and Frank Thomas. But the company that produced that movie was a shadow of the one that generated Lady And The Tramp, and this was reflected in the dramatic reduction in output.

In the fifties, Disney released five feature animations, where in the sixties and seventies they managed just three. The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh (1977) was cobbled together from previous short movies. So, as good as it certainly is, it doesn’t count as a true feature in my book.

If you ask animators which is their favourite of this era, you’ll probably get as many answers as there are filmmakers. Many consider Sleeping Beauty to be the creative pinnacle, where others can’t resist the consummate story telling of The Jungle Book. I enjoy Alice In Wonderland for the energetic use of colour and The Sword In The Stone, for just being plain wacky in places. But they’re all worth watching and often more than once.

The golden age is often seen by purists as the Disney that everyone looked up to, but the truth is that many of their better movies are actually from the silver era. And it was their success that allowed Walt to build Disney into the organisation that he always imagined it could be.

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Alice In Wonderland is available now on Blu-ray.

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