Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
‘Snow White’ Closer Look: How Early Animators Created Realism
By: Domonique Salberg
Animators have strived for realism since its inception into the realm of storytelling. Through hand-drawn, stop-motion, or computer-generated features, there has been an ongoing endeavor to capture reality. Their efforts to achieve a realistic look in the early days of animation are notably illuminated in one of the genres first: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Though it represents the beginning of animation, Snow White mirrored emerging trends in realist live-action filmmaking, including simulated camera movement and deep focus photography.
Episodic Story Structure
Even Snow White’s plot structure follows the tenants of realism when considering its casual relationship between plot events, which take on a relaxed style. One event does not lead into the other but follows a more episodic series of events. Nonetheless, there is a central narrative drive, motivated by Snow White’s escape from the Evil Queen, told in an episode way. Once Snow White is safe with the dwarfs, the main story lends itself to a series of domestic vignettes and gags (with only periodic check-ins with the Evil Queen to progress the plot).
The Multiplane Camera
But what may be the most dramatic way Snow White displays realism for its time is the multiplane camera; it is how the film mimics 3-dimensions. First used in The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), in Snow White, the multiplane was reoriented to a vertical, moving camera and accommodated up to seven layers of art, painted onto glass plates. Backgrounds and foregrounds emerge in perspective with the camera, allowing for the look of movement through space. An example would be during the Queen’s transformation into an evil witch in which the objects in the frame appear to revolve around her.
Another shot that helped create realism in Snow White and early animation is the deep focus cinematography technique. It involves keeping the entire frame in focus and arranging features of the mise-en-scene in each plane (background, middle ground, and foreground) to require a more active viewing experience. Consequently, the audience is open to interpret the scene visually, having more choice as to which elements to direct their focus.
So, we can see that the effect created by the multiplane camera in Snow White is similar to that of deep focus, especially shown in the sequence between Snow White and the Huntsman hired to kill her. The scene opens with the wide shot of a meadow: a stream roams through the foreground, Snow picks up flowers in the middle ground, while the Huntsman ominously watches her from the shadows in the background. A deep focus shot allows this scene to happen because rather than direct the eye through a series of cuts, all of the visual information necessary to make sense of the story is offered within a single frame.
Furthermore, in their quest for realism, the creators of Snow White moved beyond a traditional mode of static camera placement scene in previous Disney works. It entailed treating the camera as an object engaging a physically “real” space. Instances appear throughout the film in which the camera is strategically positioned within a scene, so characters move around it. The best application of the camera-in-space comes during the first musical number, “I’m Wishing.” As Snow White sings into a wishing well, the camera is “placed” in the well, angled up at her. Then to complete the illusion of a camera physically occupying the well, these in-well shots are animated as though the camera is underwater; the image of Snow White framed in the well is obscured by a shimmering ripple (an effect created by the multiplane).
Moreover and lastly, rotoscoping added to the film’s realism, an animation technique that involves tracing over live-action footage frame by frame to produce realistic action. The majority of the Evil Queen’s scenes use rotoscoping to capture lifelike gestures, expressions, and even costumes and hair movements. All this to say, Snow White made significant strides in attaining realism in animated films, and favorably, in a way that is hard to forget.