Disney’s Snow White: The Risk That Changed Filmmaking Forever

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a risk that could have finished Disney. Instead it changed cinema.

Snow White Disney

In 2013, Walt Disney Animation Studios released Frozen, its 53rd animated feature. With takings of well over $1 billion and counting, it ranks as the most successful animated film of all time, eclipsing the previous title holder (Pixar’s Toy Story 3) by around $200 million.

For a generation who’d grown up with such films as The Lion King and Tangled, Disney probably seems like an immovable cultural force: as recognizable and unchanging as Mount Rushmore or the American flag. But Disney has survived a series of peaks and troughs since its founding in the 1920s, from its decline in the 1970s and early ’80s, its revival in the ’90s, and its second burst of creative energy in the 2010s.

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From its inception, Disney Animation Studios has moved with the times, experimented with new technology, and taken creative risks. And its first ever feature, 1937’s Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, was perhaps the biggest creative risk of all.

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Heigh-Ho…

Seven Dwarves concept sketches

One evening in 1934, Walt Disney got up on a recording stage in front of an assembled group of his animators. Over the course of about four hours, he went through the story of Snow White–the fairytale princess who earns the hatred of her stepmother, the Evil Queen, and finds refuge with seven dwarves who live in a forest.

Disney acted out the tale with his trademark enthusiasm before delivering a final, startling piece of news: Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs would be a feature-length movie. This wouldn’t just be a first for the studio–which had spent the past few years making a string of highly successful shorts–it would be the first animated feature film in the world. Simply put, nothing like it had ever been attempted before.

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Nevertheless, the belief Walt Disney showed in his 1934 presentation proved to be infectious. Although initially taken aback by the thought of drawing an 80-minute film to life, the animators were beguiled by Disney’s idea. “He was doing something no other studio had ever attempted,” art director Ken Anderson later said, “but his excitement over Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs inspired us all.”

“It took guts to do what Walt did,” agreed animator Ollie Johnston. “The story is based on the idea that the Queen is going to murder this girl. That’s one drawing killing another drawing. Walt convinced us that this could be done so that it would be believable, and we all believed him.”

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The rest of the Hollywood film industry remained skeptical. When word got out that Walt was working on an animated feature, it was widely, and smirkingly, described as “Disney’s Folly.” For Walt Disney, branching out into features may have been risky, but it was also an important progression. The studio’s short films had continued to push technical boundaries and win awards–the Silly Symphony piece, The Three Little Pigs, won an Oscar in 1934–but the cost of making them was rising. The use of short films as ‘filler’ was also beginning to fall out of favor in theaters with double features taking their place.

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All this led Walt to start thinking about taking the leap into features. After a few false starts, such as when proposed adaptations of Alice In Wonderland and Rip Van Winkle were considered, Disney pushed ahead with Snow White. The major question was whether audiences would pay to see almost 90 minutes of animation, with not a real human being in sight?

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“It was prophesied that nobody would sit through such a thing,” Disney later said. “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 […] and this was at a time when the whole country was in the midst of a crippling depression.”

I’m Wishing

Snow White and Bashful sketch

Indeed, finances would prove to be a recurring problem throughout Snow Whites production. Walt and Roy Disney had initially earmarked somewhere between $250,000 and $500,000 for Snow Whites budget–roughly 10 times the cost of a Disney short.

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“We had a little money rolling in,” Walt said, “but not enough to finance such a big deal. Our assets were pretty impressive though–we had our studio and a backlog of marketable pictures–so we could get credit backing.” This meant that Disney was literally betting everything, including his own house, on Snow White being a success. If Snow White sank, the studio would be pulled down with it.

More worryingly still, the experimental nature of Snow White made predicting its budget extremely difficult. Although the project would use many of the innovations introduced in Disney’s short films, such as the pioneering multiplane camera, which gave a sense of depth to a 2D image,  Walt wanted to bring a more realistic style to the movie.

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“I had brought in specialists to help with our composition and our use of color, but we still had a fight on our hands for better animation,” Disney told his daughter Diane, whose account was published in a 1956 edition of the Saturday Evening Post. “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.”

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To this end, Disney’s animators practiced life drawing, and spent hours, not to mention thousands of drawings, coming up with the look and movement of their characters. Footage from the period shows Disney’s artists studying how a long, flowing beard might move at the shake of a head, or how cloth billowed in the breeze.

“The first thing I did when I got a little money to experiment,” Walt explained, “I put all my artists back in school. We were dealing in motion, movement, the flow of movement. Action, reaction. So we had to set up our own school.”

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During this process, Disney’s animators brought in live actors to perform some of the characters’ actions; these sequences – such as the scene where Snow White and the dwarfs dance to the Yodel Song – were filmed and then painstakingly traced by layout artist Ken O’Connor. Although the proportions were changed in the final animated sequences, the use of live actors resulted in some of the most fluent animation yet seen.

Every stage of Snow White brought up a new technical or storytelling challenge. The look of Snow White changed radically as the animators sought to get away from a stylized, Betty Boop-like design to one more realistic and emotional. Likewise the Dwarfs went through dozens of name and character changes before the final seven–Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy and Dopey–were chosen. While casting around for voice actors, Disney had so much trouble finding a suitable personality for Dopey that he simply gave up – hence the character being silent in the finished film.

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Even the formulation of paint required special consideration. According to issue 36 of Cinemagic magazine, 1500 shades of paint were created over the course of several months.

Whistle While You Work

Happy and Grumpy

All told, Snow White required the work of 750 artists: 32 animators, 25 background artists, and 102 assistants, and the creation of thousands of drawings. Unsurprisingly, the commitment to quality and detail soon took its toll on the budget. And as the three-year production went on and costs continued to soar, Walt Disney began to worry about the possibility of making Snow White a success. “As the budget climbed higher and higher, I began to have some doubts too,” he said.

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There was worse news to come. The project was way over budget, but the cash Disney had still wasn’t enough. Roy Disney estimated that Snow White would need another $250,000 before it could be completed–thus pushing the overall cost to a then exceedingly high $1.7 million. Clearly the bank would take a great deal of convincing before it lent the production anymore money, so Roy had a potentially risky plan: “I’m afraid you’re going to have to show the bankers what you’ve done on the picture so far, Walt.”

Despite his initial resistance, Walt knew that he didn’t have much of a choice. A private screening was duly arranged for Joseph Rosenberg, the Bank of America’s vice president, which amounted to an assemblage of pencil tests and snippets of recently-completed footage. Understandably, Walt was nervous; if Rosenberg was unmoved by what he saw, he could easily refuse to hand over the extra money.

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Throughout the screening, Disney tried to explain what Rosenberg was seeing. “When we’re through, that scene is going to be beautiful,” he said of a sketchy pencil test sequence.

“Uh-huh,” Rosenberg replied.

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“I sat alone with Joe Rosenberg of the Bank of America, watching those bits and pieces on a screen, trying to sell him a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of faith,” Disney recalled. “After the lights came on, he didn’t show the slightest reaction to what he’d just seen. He walked out of the projection room, remarked that it was a nice day… and yawned! Then he turned to me and said, ‘Walt, that picture will make a pot full of money.'”

What Disney didn’t know at the time was that Rosenberg, still unsure as to how profitable Snow White could be, had rung around a few industry contacts in Hollywood. “What do you think of this feature cartoon Disney’s doing?” Rosenberg  asked.

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“I wouldn’t put a dime in it if I were you,” was one response.

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Fortunately, one of the other people Rosenberg called up was Hollywood producer Walter Wanger. Wanger told Rosenberg, “Joe, millions of people are going to like it. If Disney does as well as I know he’ll do, they’ll go for it.”

A further ray of hope came from one WG Van Schmus, the owner of the Radio City Music Hall in New York. He turned up at Disney’s studio while Snow White was still being finished, and on the strength of Disney’s track record, booked the film for his theater. “I’ll book Snow White for the Music Hall, sight unseen,” Schmus told Walt. “When can I have it?”

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Some Day My Prince Will Come

Snow White lost in the woods

From our vantage point in history, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs looks and sounds so effortless and fully formed that it’s easy to overlook the effort that went into making it. Even today, the animation, overseen by supervising director David Hand and designed by concept artist Albert Hurter, positively sparkles with life. The songs, written by Frank Churchill and Larry Morey, are timelessly catchy.

But the finished film only gives a hint at the enormous behind-the-scenes work that went into Snow White. For every one of the roughly 362,000 cels that made it into the finished film, there were thousands more drawings and tests that never saw the inside of a theatre. Two sequences were conceived but later cut from the production – one saw the dwarfs build a bed for Snow White, while the second was a musical number called “Music In Your Soup.” These still exist in pencil test form.

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The pressure of getting the film made meant that Snow White‘s now familiar songs were recorded quite quickly. Adriana Caselotti, immortalised as the voice of Snow White herself, was only at Disney’s studios for a few days. As she later told Cinemagic, “All the dialogue and musical portions were done in a rather short period of time, then there was a little dubbing to do after the animation was finished. But I always felt very much a part of the Disney family, even though I probably didn’t work at the studio more than a week or two.”

Pressure continued to mount as Snow White‘s release date approached. Walt Disney’s daughter Diane later recalled, “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.”

Layout artist Ken Anderson concurred. “Everyone was putting in overtime to get the picture finished,” Anderson said. “As I recall, the print from Technicolor arrived at the theatre only a few hours before show time…”

With A Smile and A Song

Snow White waking up

Through sheer determination, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs met its winter deadline, and held its premiere on Dec. 21, 1937 at the Cathay Circle theater in Los Angeles. The response was little short of rapturous. And as history records, Snow White would soon go on to become the most profitable film of all time. When adjusted for inflation, Snow White‘s gross of more than $1.7 billion puts it comfortably ahead of 2013’s Frozen.

In risking so much when making Snow White, Disney not only established itself as a major force in Hollywood – paving the way for such future hits as Pinocchio, Bambi, and Dumbo – but also established the creative possibilities of the animated feature. Without Snow White, we wouldn’t have modern hits like Tangled or Frozen, but it’s also possible that we wouldn’t have very different, equally boundary-pushing animated features, such as Akira or Waltz With Bashir, either.

When Walt Disney took to his little recording stage in 1934, he carried Snow White from concept to completion through sheer belief and enthusiasm. In the process, he changed the face of filmmaking forever.