Early Disney: Experiments and Novelty


Today The Walt Disney Company is associated with big advertising projects and insatiable commercial interests. However, it was not always so. In the 20s and the 30s animation didn't have its own language. So Disney had no chance but to conduct bald experiments to explore what animation was capable of. The Disney Studio used many technological innovations, experimented with themes and forms of animated films. In this material we are going to look at the early and unexpected Disney.

by Victoria Ilenko


Whistling Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie (1928) has marked the beginning of an era of a sound in animated films. In "Steamboat" Mickey and Minnie use every opportunity to create noise: they exploit a goat as a musical box, play on kitchen appliances and teeth as if they are musical instruments. Back then the Disney Studio had financial problems and hoped that animated films with synchronised sound would draw audiences' attention. Eventually, this idea proved to be justified.
Technical achievements
Color in cinematography and animation in the 1930s was something infrequent and even exotic. Disney used a brand new technique called Technicolor in its Flowers and Trees (1932). Technicolor recorded an action on three black and white negative films which captured three main colors (red, blue and yellow) to create a saturated picture. What is also unusual is that the main characters are from inanimate nature - anthropomorphic trees, mushrooms, and flowers. This experiment turned out to be successful and even got an Oscar in the category "Short Film (Animated)."
Realistic images
Most of the characters from the first animated films were made in a very rudimentary drawing style. Disney also started with plain drawings. However, as the studio evolved, its characters' appearances became more complicated and realistic. During the work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) dancers were invited. Animators somehow turned into actors; they had to understand how animation could portray emotions and studied human movements. Step by step Disney progressed from stick-like characters to what we know today as "Disney characters".
After Steamboat Willie Disney started to work on Silly symphonies (1929-1939) – a series of short animated films closely connected with music. The series is opened by a very extraordinary work called The Skeleton Dance (1929). Set in an old cemetery, the film has all elements of a classical horror story: spooky owl, dark castle, graves. The main characters here are dancing skeletons. Disney always loved playing with the audience's emotions, so those skeletons tried to scare you and make you laugh at the same time.
All innovations were shown in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – the first Disney feature film.
It quickly gained popularity and proved that animation could be a real art form, along with cinematography.
Macabric motifs
Disney hasn't created anything like Fantasia since its release in 1940. It is for sure the most experimental work of The Disney Studio. And it is also a very contradictory and eclectic film. Fantasia consists of many chapters, each based on a piece of classical music. The origins of this idea can be found in Silly symphonies, but in Fantasia music is the core of the whole film. By the word "eclectic" we mean a real diversity of animation styles. Fantasia begins with a shot of an orchestra. Shadows have various colors, the conductor is in infernal red light.
In The Haunted House (1929), another part of "Silly Symphonies", a sinister atmosphere is created. Here Mickey is trying to hide from the storm in an abandoned house. Suddenly an ominous figure with something black instead of a face appears. It can startle not only Micky. Right in the next scene skeletons start having fun with each other. One of the skeletons takes a bone out of his friend and starts playing a melody using a spine as a musical instrument.
In Night on the Bare Mountain, one of Fantasia's (see next) chapters, many ghost characters appear once again. Now it is hard to imagine how a company which made all these experiments shelved Tim Burton's Frankenweenie (1984) so as not to destroy an image of a "child-oriented" company.
The first chapter was based on J.S. Bach's famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor. It was made in the abstract style of a German director Oskar Fischinger. He used geometrical shapes to depict the flow of music. This technical solution was appropriate, because Bach's music mostly has nothing in common with program music we are used to. The usage of different shapes when new themes are introduced can somehow help the viewer "see" and understand Bach's mastership of polyphony (music which consists of more than two melodies).
However, some of the chapters evoke controversial emotions. For instance, as an illustration of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring Disney used the idea of life's evolution. Rough and wild Russian ballet can provoke thoughts about life. Still, it's odd to see childish dinosaurs in a scene called "The sacrificial dance". At that moment in a ballet a chosen girl dances to death. Later we see centaurus and mediocre Disney characters. They would suit a tv-show better - not a chapter devoted to Beethoven's Pastoral symphony...
The final chapter eliminates all negative emotions. Night on the bald mountain is based on Modest Musorgsky's music. Here animators try to portray a mysterious atmosphere of a night in a magic place. The chapter shows us how evil spirits hold a sabbath. Dim images are constantly changing: girls turn into demons, spirits fly in a big flow. Some images of Night look like they were drawn with pastels. When the morning comes and the sabbath ends, elegiac Ave Maria starts to play. The tranquill procession of wanderers with lanterns is replaced by the rising sun.
Unfortunately, Fantasia didn't pay off. This failure was due to not only the novelty of a film, but also Fantasia requiring cinemas to have special sound equipment. Later WWII began, and the world didn't have time for animation. Also, The Disney Studio grew very big, hired hundreds of employees. That's why it stopped experiments and became more cautious about their reputation.
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