I've been wanting to answer this amusing question since my third grade students asked it about a month ago in response to a scene from 101 Dalmatians. The occasion was the 101st day of school, and in addition to the many curricular activities that were implemented that week, watching Walt Disney's 1961 classic was a traditional must. We gathered around the Smartboard in the classroom, ate our homemade trail mix (consisting of 101 hand-picked goodies) and watched as Cruella De Vil's maniacal scheme of puppy obliteration, in the name of fashion, unfolded and fell apart.
As De Vil's car skids off the road into a snowy ravine located under a bridge, my students and a fellow coworker of mine quickly noticed something that didn't settle well with the naked eye; a scene I've always remembered since I was a kid myself. The second her car plows head first into a deep mound of snow, the texture and quality of the animation seems to change almost for the worst. The classroom audience immediately identified that the consistency of the snow had changed to that of a gritty salt or white sand. As you watch carefully, the snow seems to separate itself completely from the film and takes on a form and shape that rests awkwardly on the background. De Vil's struggle to get out of the ravine did nothing to improve the scene. As the car inches quickly up the snowy embankment, the heavy and sandy appearance of the snow rolls down the hill in a most unnatural way. As quickly as it occurred, the questions started, and at the time I didn't have the words and resources prepared to answer them in a way where I thought everyone would understand. This post attempts to answer that fated question, and shine some light on the magic that went on behind Disney's closed doors.
To begin, animated films during the time of Walt Disney's life were put together in a way that is very different than today. Computers have changed everything, and the process of incorporating movement, color, background, and sound (to name a few) into a feature length animated film has become somewhat easier to a certain degree.
In the olden days, Mickey Mouse was first drawn onto animation paper (very similar to drawing paper) a bunch of times in different positions. If you stacked those drawings together and flipped the pages, it seemed as if he was moving. In fact, twenty four Mickey Mouse drawings flipped together equaled one second of film, so it took a lot of drawings to bring an eight minute cartoon to life. Once the eraser and stray pencil markings were cleaned up on all of those drawings, it was time for the next step.
Every one of those drawings were then traced onto celluloid paper (basically like a sheet of transparency paper that teachers use on overhead projectors) using special ink pens. A steady hand and a lot of patience was required to do a job like this, and from the late 1920s to the late 1950s, this was a job for the women of the Walt Disney Studio. Once all of Mickey drawings were traced in ink onto the celluloid paper, it was time to add some color. You guessed it! Every single one of those sheets were hand painted with beautiful, vibrant colors, left to quickly dry and ready to be filmed using a special camera. If you do the math, altogether that's about 11,500 drawings of Mickey Mouse to be inked and painted for an eight minute cartoon. Now, could you imagine how many drawings that would be for a Disney movie that's over an hour long?
Not only were the short Mickey Mouse cartoons made this way, but so were movies like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Bambi, Dumbo, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, and Sleeping Beauty. Even though these movies were beautiful and visually stunning to watch, they were also very expensive to make. During the making of Sleeping Beauty in the late 1950s, a man named Ub Iwerks (who actually drew the first Mickey Mouse cartoons for Walt Disney in the 1920s) constructed a new machine that changed the way Disney movies were made, and in the end saved some money too. Instead of having every animated drawing traced with ink onto celluloid paper by hand, what if a machine could copy those drawings onto the celluloid for you? That's exactly what Mr. Iwerks' new invention did (it was called the Xerox process), and 101 Dalmatians was the first Disney movie to make use of that machine for the entire making of the film (note: this machine just copied the lines of the characters - the colors were still painted on by the ladies of the studio).
So as the animators finished the drawings of Pongo, Perdita, Roger, Anita, Cruella De Vil, the puppies and all of the other furry characters of the movie, each one was sent off to Iwerks' machine, copied, painted in color by hand and then filmed on top of a painted background. A lot of people at the Walt Disney Studio loved how this machine sped up the animation process, and began to think of how else it could help them.
If you ever noticed, there are a lot of cars and trucks that appear in 101 Dalmatians, whether it's Cruella's car or Jasper and Horace's rinky-dinky truck. To give the animators more time to focus on the more difficult drawings (such as the movement of the animals and people) other artists at the Walt Disney Studio used the new Xerox machine to film scenes involving the vehicles - like the one involving Cruella's car stuck in the snow. These artists soon figured out - if you can copy a drawing of a Dalmatian puppy onto the celluloid paper, why can't you copy a photo of Cruella's car onto it as well. That's exactly what they ended up doing!
The team of artists began by building a small, cardboard model of Cruella's car and outlining every edge of its body with heavy black lines (these lines acted as the pencil lines you would see on a drawing). With the exception of these lines, the rest of the car's surface was white in color. As you can see from the images below, this is what the model car looked like when you took a picture of it with a camera.
After they built the model car, they put it into different positions (just like the drawings of Mickey Mouse) and took pictures of it every time it moved. If you flipped the pictures of the model car in your hand, it would look like the car was moving on its own. When all of the photos of the model car were developed, each one was copied onto clear celluloid sheets. In other words, instead of drawing Cruella's car from scratch on animation paper first, the artists skipped that step by taking pictures of a cardboard model being pushed around a bunch of times. After the photos of the model car were copied onto celluloid, the white areas of the car's body were painted by hand like any normal drawing. Knowing this will now help answer my third grade students' question - why does the snow look so fake in the final shot?
Just as they took pictures of the model car driving along a bumpy road, the artists also snapped photos of the same car crashing into a mound of snow - which was represented by a white, sandy grain. As you see in the archived photos below, every time the model car was moved in the sandy pile (whether in reverse or attempting to climb the bank) a picture was taken. After every picture of the car in the sand was printed onto clear celluloid, it was time to paint the white areas again by hand. The reason why the snow looks to be bogus in this particular scene is because you're actually looking at sand that had been painted and enhanced by the Ink and Paint Department of the Walt Disney Studio. You're essentially seeing a tracing of the model scene on celluloid paper, colorfully painted and with a snowy landscape background underneath. The snow looks different in this specific scene because in other scenes it was drawn and hand painted. It's only here where this sandy approach was used and what you see are all of those model pictures moving at twenty four frames per second in true Disney color.
Now let's watch the scene as it appears in the film. Try to visualize the cardboard model car as it appears in the photos above instead of what you see in the final, colorful product:
In the end, we may be left with a scene that is inferior to the technological advances of today's age, but it was a product of its time. A scene of this cailber was considered to be something new and exciting for its time, and it worked. As awkard as it may look today, I can't help but gain a greater appreciation and respect for a time period in Disney Animation where effects were made by hand. A truly dying art.