Suspended Animation #388
When I taught animation classes at the Disney Institute, I often had to explain to those taking the classes the difference between live action reference that Disney did for its animated features and rotoscoping.
Life drawing sometimes known as figure drawing is the act of drawing a living person of animal either posing or in movement. It is the foundation of most artists’ training. The artists at the Disney Studio often took life drawing classes at the studio to improve their skills.
One of Walt Disney’s innovations when he started doing animated feature films was to bring in dancers, actors, models to perform some scenes in front of a motion picture camera so that his animators could study the movement, how clothes moved, what happened with the folds on the clothes and more to try to capture a more believable realistic figure.
For Bambi, Walt even brought in live animals for the artists to draw and study.
For all the Disney animated feature films, the artists depended upon live action reference. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), dancer Marge Belcher (later Champion) performed some scenes as Snow White in full costume and with makeshift props as well as some of the animators standing in for the dwarfs. She also was the live action reference for the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio (1940) and Hyacinth Hippo in Fantasia (1940).
Actor Bela Lugosi, best known as Dracula, was brought in to pose as Chernabog the massive, all-powerful demon who appears as a villain in the “Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria” segment of Fantasia. Later Bill Tytla who animated the character, upset that Lugosi failed to follow his directions also used film footage of animator Wilfred Jackson doing some of the actions.
Actress Eleanor Audley was the voice of Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty and Lady Tremaine in Cinderella and she was filmed in full costume for reference especially her expressive face.
Actress Helene Stanley became the live-action reference model for many Disney animated feature characters including Princess Aurora from Sleeping Beauty (1959), Cinderella, her stepsister Anastasia and Anita Radcliffe from 101 Dalmatians (1961). Walt also cast her as the wife of Davy Crockett in the television series.
As actress Kathryn Beaumont who did live action reference for Alice in Alice in Wonderland and Wendy in Peter Pan told me, “They wanted me to do the live-action reference. That was more like live-action that I had done in the past. But it was different again, because rather than memorizing lines and then going through your scenes, the recording was already done. So, when you did your scenes, you had to speak in synchronization with what was on the recordings. They would play back the recording when the scene started, and you mouthed those lines over again.
“There wasn’t much in terms of set decoration, hardly anything, in fact, just enough for a reference that I could therefore use as part of a prop. It was an odd set up where in some cases it was nothing more than two wood boards nailed together. You really had to use your imagination. Otherwise, the stage was pretty well bare. You had to use your imagination a lot about who you were speaking with.”
Live action performers acted out scenes in front of a camera that was set up at the same angle as the storyboard drawings of the prospective animated sequence.
This technique was not rotoscoping which is a time consuming animation technique where animators slavishly trace over the filmed movement of live performers frame-by-frame from a live action film.
It was used as a shortcut to try to achieve realistic looking action but often resulted in characters and movement that differed significantly when combined with the more exaggerated hand drawn cartoon characters.
The Disney Studio did use rotoscope on some of the key frames of live performers for Snow White and the Prince in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) but Walt Disney did not care for the final results feeling it made the characters look stiff and unnatural.
Unfortunately after the animated feature was released, these live action films were for the most part destroyed but many still photographs from the filming exist.
Director Hamilton Luske told Aline Mosby of UPI: “Cartoonists just like any artist must have living models to draw from. Otherwise they’d be drawing what they think certain characters would do in a situation, not what they would really do.
“We could, of course, have live models act out a scene on a stage. But then the animators would have to trust their memories when they go back to their drawing boards. A film is easier as it can be run over and over for the artists. And they can correct any mistakes in a scene before the drawing is made.”
Animator Frank Thomas stated in 1993 when I talked with him at an animation gallery signing event, “Walt was desperate for money at the time and he said, ‘We’ve got to find the cheapest possible way to make this picture’. Doing animation over again if it was done wrong was terribly expensive so we had to figure out some way to do it right the first time.
“By shooting the live action, the director and animator could look at the footage and say, ‘This part is right; this part is not right; it needs to be faster’ and so on. And if you had good live action to start with, it would make your job a whole lot easier to get some imagination out of it.
“No matter how good they are, actors can seldom give you what you want. You can talk to them and get them thoroughly immersed in the character, but when they do the action, it’s not what you have in the back of your mind but it gets you much closer.
“If you’re starting from scratch without any help, you have an awful time digging out that kernel in the back of your mind. If you have something that’s nearly there that reminds you specifically of what’s missing, it’s a much easier step to come closer to that dream which is seldom if rarely achieved.
“That’s why an artist is driven to drink and everything else because he cannot capture that thing that is in his mind. I think it would be a tedious, terrible job to try to do it all by yourself without any help.”
Animator Ollie Johnston added, “The real value in shooting the live action was being able to get stimulation from actors doing tricks and using different timing that you may not think of yourself. The animator knows overall what he wants to do but you want to get a little something extra in it that you maybe can’t draw out of yourself.”