Book Review: 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Art and Creation of Walt Disney’s Classic Animated Film'

Fred Patten reviews the spectacular companion volume to The Fairest One of All, both commemorating the film’s 75th anniversary.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Art and Creation of Walt Disney’s Classic Animated Film, by J. B. Kaufman.  Foreword by Diane Disney Miller.

San Francisco, Weldon Owen, October 2012, hardcover $35.00 (256 pages).

This book and The Fairest One of All: The Making of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, also by J. B. Kaufman, are companion volumes published to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the premiere of the first Hollywood animated theatrical feature in December 1937.  Both are indispensable for Disney and animation fans alike. The Fairest One of All: The Making of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is indispensable also for those interested in the history of cinema in general, for those interested in pre-Disney stage and cinematic productions of the Snow White folk tale, and for those interested in the history of the Disney studio from the late 1920s to the present.

This volume, a massive hardcover 10.7” x 9.8” and weighing almost 3 ½ pounds, just concentrates on the making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, from 1934 to 1937; an expansion of the similar section in The Fairest One of All.  It is based on “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Creation of a Classic”, an exhibition of art from the Walt Disney Family Museum, the Walt Disney Animation Research Library, and art borrowed from several private collectors, from November 15, 2012 to April 14, 2013 at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco.  It presents “over 200 pieces of art, including original concept sketches, background paintings, and production cels, as well as alternate character concepts, deleted scenes, and step-by-step process shots.” (jacket text)  It is essentially the catalogue of the exhibition.

For example, the opening sequence featuring Snow White drawing water from the castle well, and first meeting the Prince while the Queen looks on, growing increasingly jealous of Snow White’s beauty, is covered from pages 38 to 61 – 24 pages devoted to one sequence.  In addition to the half-page and full-page artwork, the text describes the Disney approach to filming the sequence.  “The garden sequence, which served to introduce Snow White to the audience and depicted her first meeting with the Prince, was one of the last sequences in the picture to be developed and produced.  Walt knew that this would be one of the most difficult sequences in the picture for his writers and artists to tackle, and purposely delayed work on this section until his staff had sharpened their skills and gained experience on other, less demanding parts of the story.” (p. 39)  In addition to the concept drawings and story sketches (each of which is suitable for framing as fine art) in one and two colors, there are finished cels in full color.  (Actually, many of these are not the original production cels, but meticulous reproductions created for this exhibition and book because of the fragility of the decaying original cels.)  There is also a photograph of Snow White’s live-action model, Marjorie Belcher, in costume drawing water from the well, and three animators’ sketches of her to be used in the animation.  Kaufman acknowledges Disney’s use of the rotoscope process, invented by Disney’s rival Max Fleischer, in the filming of the human characters, but he emphasizes how Disney used rotoscoping for more subtle reference footage for his full animation rather than just tracing over the outlines of the rotoscope models as Fleischer did.

For another example, Snow White’s introduction to the Dwarfs’ house, and her decision to clean it with the forest animals’ help, is detailed from page 90 to page 105.  Kaufman describes how the animation of this sequence was assigned to two teams of animators under the supervision of Hamilton “Ham” Luske and Grim Natwick.  (Kaufman is slightly inconsistent here.  “Grim” was also a nickname; Natwick’s real first name was Myron.)  “To take advantage of the artists’ strengths, the Luske unit was assigned most of the close scenes of Snow White that expressed her personality, while Natwick was given most of the full and long shots, where his technical skill could be applied to the sheer mechanics of moving the human form.  […]  Luske and Natwick had differing approaches to the character.  Luske tended to portray her as an innocent little girl, while Natwick’s Snow White tended toward a slightly more mature young woman.  Luske’s concept was closer to Walt’s own interpretation of the character, but both the Luske and Natwick concepts survived, and two distinct Snow Whites can be seen throughout the finished film.” (p. 92)

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Art and Creation of Walt Disney’s Classic Animated Film is filled with such detail, from the beginning of production in July 1934 to the completion in December 1937 Unlikethe companion volume, The Fairest One of All, there is very little information about Disney’s other productions during this period, or the business decisions related to the film such as raising the financing.  This is a pure art book.  The animation scholar will recognize many famous animation artists’ names as they started their careers on Snow White: Ward Kimball, who began in the “animal unit” assigned to design and animate the forest animals and birds; Art Babbitt, better known for animating Disney’s Goofy cartoons; Maurice Noble, probably the most well-known of the Warner Bros. background designers, as one of the designers of the Dwarfs’ home.  This beautiful art book is also very informative.  Both books are “must have” acquisitions for the animation fan’s library.

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Fred Patten has been a fan of animation since the firsttheatrical rerelease of Pinocchio (1945).  He co-founded thefirst American fan club for Japanese anime in 1977, and wasawarded the Comic-Con International's Inkpot Award in 1980 forintroducing anime to American fandom.  He began writing aboutanime for Animation WorldMagazine sinceits #5, August 1996.  Amajor stroke in 2005 sidelined him for severalyears, but now heis back. He can be reached at fredpatten@earthlink.net.

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