Welcome to Framed, a column at Cinematical that runs every Thursday and celebrates the artistry of cinema -- one frame at a time.
Sometimes it's hard for me to steer clear of my horror proclivities (not that I want to). Chances are, none of us popped out of the womb with an encyclopedic knowledge of all the genre had to offer -- though, how great would that be? Instead, something probably crept into our subconscious as wee tots that we haven't been able to shake since. Several classic Disney film favorites feature themes that are darker than their technicolor smiles would have you believe. This has left horror fans like me salivating over the things that lurk in the shadows since childhood.
Disney's (and America's) first animated feature, 1937's 'Snow White,' has all the makings of a great horror tale -- and not a drop of blood is spilled. For starters, a wicked queen is so enraged by her own jealousy that she nearly murders her step-daughter. A stalking huntsman, witchcraft, poison, a dark forest with wicked woodland creatures, dwarfs (see: Browning, and later, Herzog), glass coffins, and blood red lips complete the picture. There's a reason why director Dario Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli turned to 'Snow White' while crafting 'Suspiria's' overall look. It's a princess-driven fairy tale with a gothic heart, tucked neatly inside a jeweled box.
Media giant Walt Disney made many successful animated shorts before he ventured into feature film territory. Despite doubt from everyone, Disney plowed forward with the production which nearly bankrupt the Mickey Mouse visionary. The Brothers Grimm fairy tale version of 'Snow White' captured the movie mogul's imagination as a child, and after a few alterations from the original he was ready to bring his version of the storybook princess to life.
Disney recruited a team of the finest animators to assist him -- many of which were uncredited for the finished film. A 1935 memo to his crew read, "From now on Ham Luske is definitely assigned to Snow White." Disney wanted to lend a new kind of reality to his cartoon creation, so rotoscoping (the act of drawing/painting over live-action film, frame by frame) was implemented for the creation of Snow White's character, which Luske expertly directed. Animator Grim Natwick -- popular for his work on the 'Betty Boop' animations -- helped Luske mold the princess' style. He was one of only a few animators who actually had artistic training and understood the structure of human female anatomy. These aesthetic goals were so important to Disney, that he issued the following statement to his team:
"The first duty of the cartoon is not to picture or duplicate real action or things as they actually happen, but to give a character life and action; to picture on the screen things that have run through the imagination of the audience and to bring to life dream-fantasies and imaginative fancies that we have all thought of during our lives or have had pictured to us in various forms during our lives ... I definitely feel that we cannot do the fantastic things based on the real, unless we first know the real."
In turn, Arthur Babbitt -- who is most famous for creating Disney's Goofy -- organized art classes with a live-model and teacher so the animators could hone their skills and gain proper experience. Concept artist Albert Hurter oversaw 'Snow White's' entire design from start to finish. Not only was this kind of detail and diligence instrumental in the success of Disney's first animated film, it was also crucial for the longevity of the company as an animation powerhouse -- and in the building of a global entertainment economy.
As important as this newfound realism was in establishing Disney as an animation innovator, the studio is always remembered for being in the business of creating magical fantasy and making dreams (and sometimes nightmares) come true. That's where lesser-known animators Ferdinand Hovarth and Gustaf Tenggren come in. Both men -- Hungarian and Swedish respectively -- added touches of Old World, European style to the animation, giving 'Snow White' the darker edge we see in this week's frame.
Hovarth -- who was known to be a quiet, intense, gloomy gus (hey, being captured during the War and forced to live in various prison camps will do that to you ... ) -- was somewhat of a Disney studio outsider. His sketches mainly served as conceptual material for some of the movie's more terrifying scenes. Tenggren -- whose work can be seen on the poster at the top of this article -- drew from his Scandinavian heritage to create a Black Forest feel for the scene in our frame. Arthur Rackham and John Bauer were also influences on his style, which helped provide the atmosphere Disney was after. Lastly, European silent film and German Expressionist cinema -- namely 'Nosferatu' and 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' -- were key influences for the forest scene.
The sinister tree limbs clawing for Snow White as she races through the forest, fleeing for her life, is just one of the dark images that populate Disney's groundbreaking film. In the 1930s, I imagine it might have been easy to dismiss this imagery -- and animation in general -- as a cheap gag used to entertain children. Disney's film grew a reputable foundation for animation as an art form, and proved that quality scares and smiles require just as much dedication, research and attention to detail as live-action films.