Comic-Con 2014

Lella Smith Takes Us Through the History of 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs'

The Creative Director of the studios Animation Research Library shares some rarely-seen concept art from the film and talks about this classic.
Lella Smith Takes Us Through the History of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs DV5Daca99UXS8a

The Creative Director of the studio's Animation Research Library shares some rarely-seen concept art from the film and talks about this classic.


Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs will debut on Blu-ray and kick off the studio's wonderful new Diamond Collection DVD/Blu-ray line on October 6, and I recently was fortunate enough to participate in a web event that gave this animated classic - the first feature-length film from the legendary studio - some new context. The web event was with Lella Smith, the Creative Director of the Walt Disney Animation Studios Animation Research Library, and before fielding questions from the press, she showed us a slideshow presentation filled with rare concept art images and information on the film.

We were shown images of some of the early dwarfs that didn't make the final seven, like Baldy and Jumpy and we also saw how some of the early images of the dwarves didnt exactly have an individual flair to them at the time.

"And aside from Dopey and Grumpy the others pretty much looked very much alike so you would not have been able to see them apart," Smith said. "And in a lot of the story notes Dave Hand who led the story meetings would say I can't keep them apart. We've got to have a way to tell them apart, I can't figure out who's who. So they began to meet and define and talk about the characters."

She also talked about the new Blu-ray conversion and how this film was restored in the new high-tech 1080p format.

"One of the important parts about this new film that's going to come out in Blue Ray and the restored DVD is that people working on the restoration went back to the original Technicolor strips and, you know, blew off the dust with a new technique. And then scanned the film into the computer where they were able to take off or clean up fill color of missing bits. So they scanned 361,000 frames and cleaned 120,000 of those."

"It's not unusual for a project like this to take six to nine months anyway but this one took nearly a year because the negative was 75 years old and as you know from your experience with other older films they do deteriorate. And when you open the can you can smell vinegar, you see the bits coming off, they get dirty. And this is a pretty important film to the Walt Disney Company so it was worth the effort in restoration of the film."

After the presentation, Smith opened it up to questions from journalists all over the world, and here's what she had to say.

I suppose that retrieving and revising memorable Disney cartoon characters, there are tricky issues. What are your concerns, how do you manage to preserve the soul of these characters which by now live in the hearts of millions of fans?

Lella Smith: Well one thing I will tell you about the restoration is that it hasn't changed the feeling of the film or the tenor of the film. It basically took away the dirt and the fingerprints. Actually when they began to restore it in Blu-ray you could see the fingerprints of the artist who had laid the cells down onto the camera platen. So that's the kind of cleaning that was being done but it's a cleaning that just makes it look more beautiful. So the feeling of characters has not changed and basically the colors are only cleaner, not brighter.

In terms of preserving the artwork, if you could talk a little bit about the work you do at the Animation Research Library.

Lella Smith: Glad to talk about that. Well we do take care of art as if it were in a museum. We have all the archival materials, in fact we have several materials that were developed specifically for animation. And so everything is kept in acid free boxes with acid free tissue. And we have extremely low temperatures because of course, you know, there is a little nitrate in the material that the cells were painted on so we want to make certain that those are kept very cool. And then we handle everything with gloves. So basically it's treating the art as if it's art and not drawings on paper that don't matter. And I think the challenge that we have is that the art was never intended to be put in a museum, it was created to make a film so they didn't always use, you know, the best papers, the kind of papers that Michelangelo would have used for example. So we have to take extreme care to make certain that those are carefully preserved because we want to have them around. For the artists...it's all we can do to keep them from drooling on the paper. (laughter) They love to look at the art for inspiration and to learn how the older animators would carry out a scene through their drawings. So they're for inspiration and for learning purposes.

In the first draft of the work were there characters that have been cancelled in the final version?

Lella Smith: Absolutely. I think that early on of course the characters that we were looking at like Jumpy and Baldy, those were in the early versions. But when it was determined that the character wasn't working for one reason or another then they had to revise the way that they described him or they had to find a different name that would create a different kind of characteristic. So that's why they continued to change the names.

Walt Disney managed very early in the process to give a true believability - believable personality to the seven dwarfs which is the essence of Disney's art animation, personality. Can you tell me about that aspect of the creation of the seven dwarfs? So...the question is about the personality of the dwarfs and how that shaped the characters.

Lella Smith: Yes, that was really determined by the name to start with. And in those story notes that I've read, and there's just - I can't believe how many hours the story men and artists sat around talking about well how would Dopey respond, how would Grumpy respond, how would they sit down, how would they move, how would they get up. All of those things were a matter of asking 'how would somebody who was sleepy for example get up from a chair or sit in a chair waiting for conversation to happen?' So they took a lot of the characteristics from the names and then they worked out how they felt that character would respond. And depending on who was talking, if it was for example Bill Tytla, one of the greatest animators who ever worked at the company, he would say 'well what was the character thinking?' ...and that will tell us what he's working on. If it was a technical cameraman, he would be talking about '...what does a sleepy character do?' So, they came at it with different angles but the whole thing was that the name helped define how the personality was developed. And without those individual personalities, the film just would not have been as charming.

You spoke a bit about the legendary animators Fred Moore and Bill Tytla supervising the creation of the dwarfs. How do you explain that unlikely association of two very different artists, one very strong and powerful in his animation, the other being more subtle and emotional. What is this work is more Fred Moore and what is more Bill Tytla?

Lella Smith: That's a good question. Well fortunately there were different characters to draw so, you know, it was possible to have different characteristics. Interesting enough Freddie Moore was the first one to be challenged to take drawings away from a live action character and draw those in a way that represented, you know, a dwarf. So he watched a dancer on stage, went back that night, drew the animation, and for the first time they really understood squash and stretch. It was - they played the drawings in slow motion and then they knew, you know, what - how characters moved slowly and then by speeding those up they got how the dwarfs moved. So you have Bill Tytla working on someone like Dopey and the artistry of Freddie Moore, but they had different characters to work with so they were able to draw the characters to let their own style influence the character that they were drawing.

Were there any thoughts about a remake or a sequel?

Lella Smith: Yes indeed there were. There were some commercials that were done after the film was done, they were more like shorts to raise money for the war. But everyone wanted dwarfs and everyone kept saying to Walt we need more dwarfs. And Walt pretty much got fed up with it because he felt that the dwarfs should be represented just once and that they didn't need to see another film with the dwarfs. They talked about, I mean, the dwarfs were constantly being brought up as potential characters for cartoons and every time it was pretty much shot down by Walt Disney who felt we've been there, we've done that, let's move on. But they were used quite a bit in commercials and shorts.

Many legendary artists brought original and unexpected contributions to Dopey's personality, Ward Kimball, Frank Thomas, Freddie Moore of course. Can you tell me about that gathering of great artists around the character of Dopey?

Lella Smith: I think they had a lot of fun with Dopey. As I mentioned when Dopey first started out he was kind of a big gangly guy and Walt knew that they had to watch a very fine line. He didn't want people to make fun or to feel that he was making fun of the character. He wanted him to be more childlike than certainly any kind of characteristic that might be unflattering. So they talked about everything about Dopey. Through time his ears grew to a much larger size, his feet grew, and they all - they would all come together and talk about well what should the character look like, how should he move. And so together they worked out the characteristics that they wanted him to have. And he can - he changed quite a bit from the early days in his definition for that reason. It was a very fine line that Walt Disney walked just to make certain that no one thought he was making fun of them.

Can you talk a little bit about Art Babbitt and his contribution to the film, Art Babbitt and Bill Tytla in terms of their collaboration on Grumpy.

Lella Smith: Yeah, Grumpy was, as I said before, a very sophisticated character. He started out to be the one, I think they described him as -- if you showed him a doughnut he would only see the hole. And yet they needed to have someone who would stand up to the rest of the group. If you had Doc trying to talk to the group it was Grumpy who would jump in and throw his words off. And if you had all the dwarfs being silly over the princess it would be Grumpy who would call them to task for that and of course they all had to give him a bath. So he was put in there to really give a contrast to the other characters.

Can you talk a little bit about Dopey's differences from the other characters, the fact that he doesn't have a beard?

Lella Smith: Sure. Well as I was saying before, the other dwarfs were old men and they had sort of seen more of life and struggled more in life than anyone else. So that this little character needed to be more childlike and so they purposely did not give him a beard. His actions - he moves much more quickly and his actions are much more childlike than the other dwarfs. Of course you have dwarfs that have differences. Happy is the only one with his eyebrows are white and bushy. You have different characteristics to several of the dwarfs. But the whole thing with Dopey was if you made him childlike then he wouldn't be offensive and so I think that was one of the reasons he was presented in such a different way.

Digital technology nowadays allows us to realize real magic in animated movies. What is it that still makes Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs so legendary for audiences today?

Lella Smith: I think it comes down to the human emotions and to the fact that everyone feels such empathy for this beautiful child who is treated so badly by the queen. And I think that's one of the strongest points. I think the fact that she was so good and the queen was so evil and she could see sunshine and had hope for the future. All of those things give us - make us kind of relate to her in a way that you do as a young person reading fairy tales. The queen really was one of the most evil characters represented in animation. And the fact that here she was going after the stepdaughter. You remember in the original Grimms fairy tale, Snow White was seven and the daughter of the queen. This was one of the changes that Walt Disney made in the fairy tale. So I think we could all relate to someone who did not treat us well as a child and here is a child who triumphs over it. So I think it's a thing of human spirit. Plus it goes back to what I was talking about earlier and how real these characters were portrayed. If the dwarfs had remained gnome-like, if the huntsman had remained gnome-like as in many of the original fairy tale drawings of those characters it would not have the impact as a real man telling Snow White to run away, go protect yourself. But they gave the characters such empathy and such real characteristics, real emotions...real passions that I think affected us in a way that it still affects young people today.

What does your work at the Animation Research Library consist of on a kind of regular basis?

Lella Smith: Ooh it's so much fun. I work with all the creative projects that come out of the library. For example we're opening an exhibition on November 15 in New Orleans called Dreams Come True, Art of the Classic Fairy Tales from the Walt Disney Studio. And that is an exhibition that celebrates fairy tales, talks about how Walt Disney Studio changed them, some of the reasons they did, the elements of animation are represented in the exhibition and there will be about 800 works. So I wrote the catalog and the text labels and then we'll go there for the opening. And then we're working on books. We're just coming out with a book now the second in the animation archive series on animation. And we've just finished designing the design book which this is the third in the series of books. It's called the archive series that goes back and picks out the finest of the finest of the stories from our library, the finest animation, the finest design pieces, and puts them into a big book available on Amazon.com. But that's - those are the kinds of things I get to do and it's just great fun.

What are the early pieces that you have at the ARL and what are your most personal favorites?

Lella Smith: Well, you know, we used to say that we went back to "Plain Crazy" but then we were fortunate enough to acquire some of the early works that had been done by Walt Disney with Universal. So "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit," thank you.

Which actually goes back to Walt's first creation long before Mickey Mouse.

Lella Smith: Yes, and that was - that has just returned now to the Animation Research Library and a terrific treasure.

And your own personal favorite?

Lella Smith: I would have to say the Sleeping Beauty art is the most spectacular, the backgrounds. Certainly Mary Blair's designs for artwork, Cinderella designs, Pinocchio watercolors are a real favorite. With 60 million pieces it's kind of hard to have a real favorite but I have lots that fall within those films.

What is the difference between a story sketch and a story board or is there a difference?

Lella Smith: There's very much a difference. When the story sketches are drawn they're combined onto a board in an order, a specific order and that becomes the story board usually pinned up on a corkboard. And Walt Disney Studio was the first animation studio to do this. And the nice thing about it was that if the story changed you simply unpinned the story sketch, took that one off or moved it to later in the sequence, and it was a way to work out the details of the story before you started to film and before you started to draw the animation. The animation took many hours and so once the animation began you didn't want to be making changes. So it was felt it was very important to move these story sketches around on the board, get it in the right order, get the story set, and then do your animation.

Can you talk about a few of the differences from the Brothers Grimm? We talked a bit about it from the Brothers Grimm telling to the Disney telling.

Lella Smith: Sure, one of my favorite subjects. Well, you know, Snow White was a story that had been around for decades and decades in an oral tradition. And in many different countries there were subtle changes and not so subtle changes. In one of the stories I remember I think it was in an Italian version the huntsman was supposed to cut off Snow White's toe and use it as a stopper in a bottle of her blood. You know, there were lots of changes in the story. And Snow White who was seven years old and the daughter of the queen, that was pretty frightening to think about. So when Walt began to decide about his Snow White although she is young, I've seen his story note that says look, she has to be old enough to be able to consider marriage. So, you know, and they thought out those differences. The huntsman depending on which fairy tale you read sometimes he had to bring back the liver, sometimes the heart. So that changed with different tellings. And in some tellings the queen was to dance in the hot - shoes that had been put in the hot coals until she dropped dead. So, you know, Walt Disney said wait a minute, let's get rid of the queen earlier so that we can celebrate the happiness of the story. So in fact he had the witch fall off the cliff so that the prince and Snow White could then celebrate their happiness together in the forest. So there were lots of subtle changes but they were all done with a purpose. Another change was that in the original version you remember that the queen came three times to try to kill Snow White and each time - the first two times the dwarfs arrived home in plenty of time to save her but the third time they didn't. And so, you know, Walt said well one poison apple is enough, let's get it over with so that change was made. But there were - they were changes that were not made without a lot of thought because to him, he was taking well known stories and transferring them to a different kind of medium, the screen. And so he had to in some ways expand the story to full length film. In some ways he had to simplify the story so that it wouldn't be overcomplicated on screen. And when you think about it, these were changes that were no different from changes made in one telling to the next telling. Often when tellers told these fairy tales they would make little changes depending on how, you know, they felt the story should go. So it was continuation of the idea that fairy tales are oral tradition and until, you know, they were written down by the Grimms Brothers, you know, they were just pretty much all over the place.

Can you talk about the European influences on the artwork?

Lella Smith: Sure. Walt Disney went to Europe in I believe it was 1934 and was astounded at what he saw. He wasn't a particularly well educated man in terms of formal schooling because he of course had to work to support his family. And he had not been exposed to a lot of literature. But when he went to Europe and discovered the books, the artists, the illustrators, people like Arthur Rackham and Kay Neilson, he began to open up to the possibility of using all of this information to develop fairy tale films. You know, he had already established a tradition of using well known stories whether they be fables or nursery rhymes or folk tales. He already knew that was a good to do because they were familiar stories, you didn't have to spend a lot of time on character development and all that. But when he discovered the great illustrators of Europe and he discovered European architecture, art, and literature, he brought home many items, many, many books, set up a library at the Disney Studios that the artists could go and study in so that they could be inspired by these influences. And he also hired many artists to come to the studio from Europe. I even read once that he offered a job to Arthur Rackham because at that time Rackham was retired and living happily in the English countryside and declined his offer. So, you know, he knew that these people could bring an artistry to the film which was something he really wanted.

My question comes about real life live action character reference, we can talk very quickly about the fact that they were the inspiration for the movements of the characters of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Lella Smith: Okay. You know, the artists are very sensitive about this live action reference thing. They did not copy the actors or singers or dancers who performed these things. They actually drew without the copy. The important thing is that they watched the dancing, they watched the movements of the live action reference characters and really gained an insight into how flesh moves, how fabric moves. When you see Snow White's dress moving in the dance scene they actually watched an actress moving around and that was Marge Champion. They watched her moving around, watched her dress flowing, they watched the way that she moves her arms and they used that as a reference to the way that Snow White actually moved. She was a beautiful young girl and was able to inspire them with the action. And it really was important. They had done a little bit of this before Snow White but they really gained great knowledge by watching dancers and actors perform as the characters, both the dwarfs, the witch, Snow White.

How many drawings does it take per one minute of film? We have 24 drawings per second of film are required so multiply that by 60, whoever is quick at math. So when you consider the fact that it's 24 individual drawings for each second of film on that we see going through the camera, pretty voluminous work.

Lella Smith: Yes and that is without considering the final work. Don't forget before that you had story artists, then you had concept artists presenting that scene, then you had a rough animator presenting that scene, you had a cleanup animator presenting that scene, and then all of that was inked and painted by an ink and paint artist. So although you can count the number of animation drawings that were in that scene, there were literally millions of pieces of art that went into the making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Can you talk a little bit about in terms of the studio history and the importance of preserving the production process and history of this landmark film? And what kind of efforts are being done certainly at the ARL to ensure that will be available for future generations?

Lella Smith: Well certainly the preservation makes it available. I forgot to mention that when they began to work on restoring the film the first place they come is the Animation Research Library. They come to look at the backgrounds and the cells and they look at the color. They compare the color to the final film and they begin to establish just how much they might have to change it. They call in a team of specialists. One of the artists, Andreas Deja comes in, and they begin to study the colors and see what needs to be done. Now that's the "looking to see what needs to be done" phase. There is also an important team of people whose sole job is to restore the film. And if you've seen the latest releases of Sleeping Beauty and Pinocchio and their efforts on that -- it's an effort of again going back to the film, cleaning it, putting it in the computer, cleaning it off, in painting, doing a lot of things that make the film look better. And so it's been a company initiative to pursue these even though it costs enormous amounts of money. It's so important to the company to keep these films available. Now they're available digitally so that this will not be an issue in the future. We have something to go back to for the film.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs will make its debut in the Blu-ray format with the brand new Diamond Collection Blu-ray/DVD combo pack on October 6.


Sources: Brian Gallagher

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