Talking Stone Film

Film Reviews & Headlines


When we hear this melody and see this logo,
we’ve come to expect a film of a certain quality rich in music, character and story,
and exceptional in its visuals. But that expectation is one built upon a tradition of innovation that often goes unheralded. When staff tell of Walt Disney declaring passionately: ‘we’re not making cartoons here, we’re making art’ it was in full knowledge of
the fact that his medium was viewed as a little more than a novelty. Reporter: ‘Remember as a kid, how you’d
make your own movies by drawing little figures on the pages of a pad’? It was in response to this that Disney had
his staff constantly push against the limitations of their medium, experimenting with sound
and colour; and pioneering new technical innovations such the use of optical printers to combine
live-action and animation, and Xeroxing to create large numbers of characters on mass. For me however, the greatest example of such
innovation is this: Or more specifically, what it was designed
to achieve – to give a sense of depth and movement to the two dimensional images that constitute the raw elements of animation. The camera was developed in order to solve
a problem that had long irked Disney’s animators: Walt Disney: ‘How to take a painting and
make it behave like a real piece of scenery under the camera. The trouble was, we were photographing a flat two-dimensional background’ When Disney first entered the field, cartoons
existed in a sort of ‘flat-world’; and whilst the idea of depth within the frame
was acknowledged, as can be seen here, it wasn’t really achieved. There is an idea of scale – Gertie is reasonably
in proportion with the tree, whilst the curving shoreline connects the foreground with the background, creating the illusion of perspective – but the overwhelming impression is nonetheless
one of flatness. Indeed, the most popular characters in early animation took advantage of this flatness, using it as part of their visual vocabulary: even Disney’s earliest efforts. Note the way the girl lifts the clearly two-dimensional hydrant. However, Disney and his staff were constant innovators; pushing against the limitations of their medium, and therefore advancing its quality. Just compare these two versions of ‘The
Ugly Duckling’. Produced at either end of the ‘30s, they are a stark demonstration of the leaps forward made in such a short period of time. In the earlier version, the story is merely
frame on which to hang a series of visual gags. and the quality of the character animation
is perfectly suited for this end. Whilst there are distinct back, middle and foregrounds, the characters seems exist atop these, not within them. Remember this flat background? This is precisely how this version was made. The characters are animated, but the background was not. The ’39 version is more involved visually. There is greater interaction between the camera, the characters and the environment, creating a more sophisticated visual experience. The depth produced by the multiplane camera creates a unique opportunity: to match the potential of the story with the possibilities inherent
in animation – to see the world from the point of view of a duck. As silly as that may sound, it speaks to something that the great Roger Ebert once said: This has always been one of the great pleasures
of Disney animation. Peter Pan: ‘It’s easier than pie’ Wendy: ‘He can fly!’ John: ‘He can fly!’ Michael: ‘He flew!’ And it is something they’ve passed onto their descendants – the ability to create sights that no audience would’ve ever had
any reason to expect they’d see. All of these experiences were made possible
by innovations such as the multiplane camera. So how exactly did this thing work? Disney: ‘The different elements in the scene were separated according to their varying distances from the viewer. This put the moon
on a plane farthest away from the camera. With our original picture broken down in this
manner, it is possible to control the relative speed with which each individual part of it moves to or away from the camera’ In other words: it creates parallax: something that was not achievable beforehand. ‘When our camera moves in closer on this
moonlight scene, you’ll notice that everything grows larger, including the moon. Now when you walk along a country road towards the moon, it certainly doesn’t larger like this. The problem was this: Unlike live-action, in animation when a camera is pushed in normally, everything grows in size – in this way, the effect is closer to what would be achieved in live-action with a zoom lens, where the camera remains static whilst it is the image itself that expands. The aim of the multiplane, however, was to approximate the effect of a dolly movement. For this to work, every image has to have
a fixed point of reference, usually the characters, in relation to which everything else appears
to move. However animators were limited, and were only able to achieve lateral movement. The multiplane camera freed them from this, so that the point of focus no longer had to be fixed, but could move freely in relation to both the things around it and the camera. Nowhere is that move evident than in is this sequence from Pinocchio. The high watermark for the multiplane camera, not only is there real depth to these images, but there is also an inherent integrity to
the space we’re moving through. By craning over of the rooftops and through
the village, this shot shows the viewer that the story doesn’t just take place in-between the edges of the frame, but in a world that is fully formed and waiting to be explored. There has often been the assumption that animation
somehow lags behind live-action – that it doesn’t have the same effect or can’t
achieve the same results, but when similar sequences are put side by side – we cansee that this is simply not true. However, the camera was only used sporadically after the ‘40s, with its last outing being The Little Mermaid in ’89. As the decades
wear on, it becomes increasingly rare to find examples of its use that matched the imaginative
heights reached in the early years. Mostly, it was relegated to establishing shots, the push-in openings that began so many Disney films in the post-war years. Indeed, the lack of exciting filmmaking and technical innovation during this time was partly the result of such ambitious films as Pinocchio, Fantasia and Bambi – masterpieces all, but financial disasters which forced the studio into years of fiscal damage control, Song: ‘dollar, ruble or yen – if they stop moving, it’s disaster until they’re moving again’ with cost-cutting policies that were most clearly felt in the features. And whilst the animators continued to perfect and excel at the exquisite character animation for which they are renowned, it would be a very long time before the films regained the spirit of innovation found in the early features. Don Hahn: ‘…not only how to make Belle and the Beast dance, but also change it in perspective. So as the camera drops from the ceiling down to the level of Belle and the Beast dancing That was dawn by a human being – a mere mortal – with pencil and a piece of paper’

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