Suspended Animation #390
As I have grown older and re-watch some of my favorite Disney animated features, I find myself spending more time studying some of the details that I always took for granted because they were so seemlessly incorporated.
When we discuss animation, it usually revolves around the characters, animation or even the writing. However, as we all know there are many other elements important in an animated feature including the setting and the use of color.
Although an early proposed version of Lady and the Tramp was set in San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake, the familiar animated feature film classic actually takes place in a quaint unidentified New England town in 1910.
Imagineer Tony Baxter stated, “What you see in Lady and the Tramp is a beautifully detailed real Victorian world.”
Animator Andreas Deja added, “It’s almost like a Norman Rockwell painting. It has that detail and Americana styling to it.”
This ideallic turn-of-the-century location is much more detailed and delightful than the simple description from the original novel Lady and the Tramp: The Story of Two Dogs written by Ward Greene in 1953 that was the basis for the Disney film.
Author Greene wrote, “Once upon a time—a time not so long ago but a time when most people still used gaslight and preferred horses and carriages to gas buggies—there lived in a white and green house on a pleasant street, a cocker spaniel named Lady.
“It was a wonderful house. It wasn’t large but it was brand new and everything in it was new. The floors were so new and shiny that Lady slipped and slid on them. But when the rugs came, they were delightful to the paws. So was the furniture. It was soft… the beds, for instance, where it was supposed to be soft… and it was not so soft like the man’s big leather chair when a dog wanted a cool place to nap.”
In the film, the house is an accurate representation of Queen Anne architecture that was the preferred fashion from the late 1800s to around 1910. Queen Anne became the predominant style in small American towns that experienced an increase in wealth at the turn-of-the-century and wanted to capture some of the sophisticated flair of larger cities.
These expansive and expressive houses proved expensive and difficult to maintain and so fell out of favor shortly after the time period in the film.
Lady and the Tramp was the first Disney animated feature film to utilize the new innovation of Cinemascope and this presented additional problems for the talented artists. Layout artists had to extend and fill the viewing area on the right and the left of the usual frame of action.
Fortunately the intricate detail of Queen Anne architecture and the picturesque interior furnishings helped keep the background interesting without being distracting from the action.
As Imagineer Tony Baxter pointed out, “When you look at the backgrounds, they create pools of light where the action is going to take place.”
To help get a sense of the story from a “dog’s eye view”, background artist Claude Coats who supervised the art work on the house built an actual scale model of the interior. The model was built to the scale of one and a half inches to a foot. This set included painted wallpaper.
Imagineer Bruce Bushman was also involved in creating the model that was hoped to be both useful and practical in creating some animation shortcuts just as a live-action film had been for Cinderella (1950). Primarily, it solved the problem of perspective, getting just the right view, like little Lady’s first look at the Matterhorn-like stairway soaring from the floor of the front hall.
The tiny rooms helped unify the vision of all the artists so that the job of getting all the backgrounds and objects identical on the drawing board was greatly simplified. While the time period chosen was an age of cluttered furnishings, by using a model, things could be arranged so they preserved the nostalgia of the era without becoming too “busy.”
Everything from the dainty kitchen and its finely carved wooden swinging door to the imposing staircase with the stately grandfather clock anchored at the bottom were painstakingly created to stage the horizontal world seen by the canine stars of the film.
“Claude Coats was trained in architecture so was particularly good at giving credibility to the setting. Coats liked to build models so he could see how things would translate dimensionally,” remarked Imagineer Tony Baxter.
Animator Mike Gabriel who co-directed Pocahontas (1995) is a particular fan of Coats’ work on the house, “Claude Coats created detail without distracting you.”
While the interior of the house may seem overly cluttered with furniture and knick knacks, the fashion of the time was that a bare room was in poor taste so every surface was filled with objects that reflected the owner’s interests and social status.
At this time period, gas lighting had become the most common and inexpensive way to light a home with a variety of fixtures providing more than sufficient brightness. In the Jim Dear and Darling home, not only are there several graceful wall mounted fixtures and sconces but delicate overhead chandeliers. Slag glass bent panel lamps as well as enchanting cut crystal hand painted lamps sit on quarter swan round oak tables in the living room.
The living room wallpaper is green with a distinctive repeating dark green abstract floral decoration in keeping with the floral patterns in primary colors that was standard for upscale homes. Embellished hand carved wooden trim abounds in the room as well as the rest of the house.
To the right of the front doorway is the parlor, the most important room in the house since it was used for entertaining. The wallpaper is light blue with a faint laurel wreath pattern and serves as a pleasant background not only for a grand piano and artist easel but also several pets.
Around the corner from the parlor is the entrance to the kitchen. Linonelum flooring for family kitchens became popular at the end of the 1800s and in this home, it is a light green background with a pattern of white squares with a smaller interior blue square that sometimes proves a slippery surface for little Lady. A large black cast iron stove is placed to the left side of the well kept room to allow plenty of space for a Sudbury cupboard.
Just outside the kitchen’s hinged door is the classic grandfather clock that sits prominently next to a full length mirror at the bottom of the dark wooden staircase.
The stairs, with a single break for a windowed landing, are covered with a reddish patterned carpet and lead up to the master bedroom.
With casual elegance, Jim Dear and Darling’s house clearly establishes the time period and social status of the characters while at the same time presenting a warm and friendly stage with many fascinating variations for the actions needed to tell the story.