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Saturday Matinee

Saturday Matinee #62: Fantasy Comes to Life (1937 to Present) - published March 10, 2012

by Albert Gutierrez

The line between fantasy and reality is often blurred in animation. After all, an entire world must be created through pencil and paper, and in such a way that - to paraphrase Walt Disney - the impossible is now plausible. One of the helpful ways that animators create these worlds is to study our own. Movement is one of the key factors of good animation. It needs to be believable and fluid, but not necessarily lifelike. After all, the animated world has its own rules. This is a place where someone can walk on air for five seconds before realizing they'll fall. You can pull a character's nose until it stretches beyond belief. The animators can study intensely the movement and form, but sometimes still need a little help here and there. Even the simplest of movements cannot be pulled out of the animator's magic hat. This week at Saturday Matinee, we'll look at some examples of fantasy coming to life in the little-seen art form known as the "live-action reference footage."

As far as I'm aware, Disney was the first to pioneer this idea for animation. When he announced plans to release a full-length animated feature, human movement was not as refined or up to the standards to sustain such a length. The animators got on fine with the movements of anthropomorphized animals, but humans were tricky. It was tough to make it believable, especially when you look at one of their early efforts, "The Goddess of Spring," which had a very rubber-like Persephone prancing about while Hades made strange gesticulations with his pointed hands.

Disney hired several actors to be filmed doing various movements: dancing, walking, jumping. These films were made available to the animators to reference when they needed to look at a particular movement. On the Platinum Edition DVD of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, we can see some of the surviving reference footage used. One of the highlights of this footage is Marge Champion as Snow White. She runs around the room, dances with a fellow actor, and even wears a dress patterned to the one Snow White wears. The movement is incredibly similar to - while still unique from - the final animation as seen in the film.

Notice how the live-action reference features Marge Champion holding her dress as she dances, while the animator instead keeps her hand up in the air.

Even when not filming, Marge has time to smile for the camera!

Lots of discussion has been made about whether or not Snow White was rotoscoped or merely referenced during production of the film, although Champion explained her point of view on the topic. In a 2008 interview for the Archive of American Television, Champion spoke about how one of the animators told her that his job would be to trace her footage onto paper for the animators to use. They would page through this - when not viewing the actual film - to see how a rotoscoped performance would look. What's important, however, is her explanation after being rotoscoped:

"And I said, 'But I didn't know.' That was the one thing that Disney was afraid of: is that people thought they traced certain characters. Now, it isn't absolutely true. The animators make judgments about what they would use and what they needed to trace and how many frames they could leave out, or even add to. But the thing is, they really did use my image. [...] Particularly with the dance sequences, and a lot of the action sequences too when she really gets frightened and stuff."

The full interview can be seen here:

In short, it was the animator's prerogative as to how much of the rotoscoped material they would use, if any at all. They could make enhancements, change some movements, enough so that the final animation can still be considered original, and not a simple tracing. Disney would continue to use live-action reference footage, even to this day. Most of this footage never sees the light of day (as it is not intended to), although select portions often may make an appearance as bonus material on a DVD or Blu-Ray. Below are five of my favorite examples.

Fantasia (1940): "Pretty funny when she sags that way!"

A humorously scripted scene from an episode of "Disneyland" entitled "The Tricks of Our Trade." Walt Disney explains how one of the key ingredients to animation is the "trick of caricature," which is featured in Fantasia. Dancer Helene Stanley (also the reference model for Cinderella and Princess Aurora), thinks she's being insulted when animators Marc Davis, Milt Kahl, Ollie Johnston, and Frank Thomas refer to her sagging body, knobby knees, and big feet. In actuality, they were using her ballet movements as a basis for the dancing hippopotamus, elephant, and ostrich in "Dance of the Hours." Fortunately, she sees their caricatures, and is happy to then pose as the alligator, cape and all. This footage is available in the "Fantasia Legacy" Bonus Disc, which is included in the "Fantasia Anthology" Box Set.

Peter Pan (1953): You Will Believe A Boy Can Fly

Sadly, no actual footage is currently available, although we do have several stills that show the art of animating flight. Choreographer Roland Dupree and voice actor Bobby Driscoll both perform as Peter Pan when filming the live-action reference, with Dupree being used primarily during sequences in flight. Driscoll would reprise his role of Peter in 1951's "The Walt Disney Christmas Show," a television special that also featured Kathryn Beaumont, Paul Collins, and Tommy Luske as the Wendy, John, and Michael Darling. And we can't have Peter Pan without Tinker Bell! Also included are stills of Margaret Kerry in one of her most iconic roles. These stills are included in the Platinum Edition DVD of Peter Pan.

Sleeping Beauty (1959): Prince Phillip fights the Dragon

In this example from Sleeping Beauty, we see Ed Kemmer as the live-action model of Prince Phillip. The strange ball on a stick represents either the Dragon Maleficent, or the fire she had just breathed into his shield. Either way, his pose is similar in both versions, while still wholly original. When watching this footage on the DVD and Blu-Ray, you'll notice some of the reference footage is actually made up of the surviving photographs, some of which include the animator's own drawings of Phillip's cape. You can watch this footage on both the 2003 Special Edition DVD and the 2008 Platinum Edition DVD & Blu-Ray of Sleeping Beauty.

The Little Mermaid (1989): Ariel's Fascination with a Fork

Sherri Stoner, an animator herself, plays Ariel here. As such, she knew the importance of live-action referencing, which supervising animator Glen Keane was keen (pun intended) to study. In these shots, we see a grid background, which helps drawing the animation in scale with Stoner. Eventually, even traits from Stoner made its way into Ariel, a key moment being when she blows her hair out of her eyes. This material can be found in an easter egg on the Platinum Edition DVD of The Little Mermaid.

Aladdin (1992): "One Jump Ahead"

The entirety of the song and dance was staged and studied. Like with The Little Mermaid, we see grids in the backgrounds to help with scale. The costumes aren't as detailed as seen in the Snow White reference footage, but its bright colors and wavy style does help emulate what we see in the film. IMDB credits Peter Fitzgerald, Lance McDonald, and Jamie Torcellini among the live-action models for this sequence, although it does not note which one played Aladdin. This is one of the bonus features on the Platinum Edition DVD of Aladdin.

Even little Abu gets his own reference model!


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