When Disney lost it’s Disneyness

Today’s tea is a licorice tea. Yes, just for today I have decided to bring back the tea. It may be only because I happened to have it on me and I was thirsty but I’m damned well going to mention it! If I’m doing that then I may as well start writing about Eurovision and Ponies again. I do actually have a few episodes to catch up on with the ponies. I haven’t been as into the show recently because of the direction it’s been taking. But I’ll let them amass up and binge instead of doing it week by week like the days of old.

I was once looking through the local Big W and there was a stand of Disney books. Just the usual story book fare with a mix of Disney classics as well as more current ones. It’s a big seller for Disney and I remember books like them from my childhood. But one of them caught my eye. That was 101 Dalmatians. I was curious about some things. And I just had to flip through the pages to see if my suspicions were correct. To the usual passer by, they wouldn’t have noticed anything unusual, but to anyone who knows enough about the history of Disney animation like myself, they would see something glaringly wrong with this picture.

If you asked someone to describe a main distinction of the classic Disney artstyle, you would have so talk about it’s soft outlines. And yes, this picture has the soft grey outlines. That is exactly what is wrong with it.

Because this movie doesn’t have any soft lines.

Quite a number of Disney movies don’t actually have any soft lines in them. For example, The Jungle Book doesn’t have them either. So what exactly is going on here? What’s the story behind it?

Sleeping Beauty came out in 1959 and was, at the time, a financial flop. There was a lot of effort put into the movie as well as a lot of time and money. Each animation cell was drawn painstakingly by hand. They had always made their movies this way. It took a long time but good work takes time. But it was taking too long for Disney make their animated movies. More films on a more frequent release schedule for less money. That was what would keep the animation department financially viable.

The answer was something called Xerography. This could be simplified to, photocopying the animation cells. Instead of drawing each cell by hand, the studio could have a set of outlined master cells that could be duplicated through the photocopier in whatever size was needed. Then the colours would only need to be filled in to finish the cells. The result was a dip in quality, but hopefully the audience wouldn’t notice.

So the 1961 movie One Hundred and One Dalmatians was an experiment of sorts. Was it possible to use the cost and time cutting measures of Xerography and have a hit? It makes sense when you look at the movie. The Dalmatians are all in black and white so it lends itself to photocopying really well. There is even a scene where the dogs are all disguised in soot to make them all black. Even easier to photocopy! There was a great deal riding on the success of this movie. In fact, the entire animation studio was at the risk of closure because of how badly Sleeping Beauty had under performed. Beauty had made $51.6 million on a $6 million budget, but it had taken almost eight years to make so needed a more significant return. In comparison, Dalmatians was made with only $3.6 million and was made in less than 2 years. It made $215.8 million. The gamble had paid off! If Disney could use this technique and maintain a more frequent release schedule, it could make bank. The animation studio was saved.

I think in hindsight there was a lot more going for the two movies. For example I find Sleeping Beauty to be much more of a slog to watch. It’s a Princess movie but while Aurora, the Sleeping Beauty, is the main character, it it’s not Aurora that gets the main focus. Instead it’s the three fairies and their relationship with Maleficent that this story is about. Maleficent is truly the star and I can see why the remake does to her what Wicked does to the Witch of the west in The Wizard of Oz. I should really go and watch Maleficent to be honest. But while Beauty has a lot of detail in it’s artstyle, the film feels slow and dreary, whereas Dalmatians feels like it’s moving at a much better pace with characters that contain more depth.

But in the land of business, it’s the numbers that make the most sense. Xerography movies are a go go! They didn’t care that the quality had dipped a bit. They could make them much more easily and frequently. Two more animated movies were made during Walt’s lifetime. The Sword in the Stone and The Jungle Book. Both of these were Xerography movies as well as many more after. But not only did the visual quality go down, so did their storytelling.

Welcome to the Dark Age of Disney.

I will plan to follow up on this when I try to find where things started to turn around. Because obviously they did. Disney has it’s soft edges back to the point where they’re even drawing them in books from films that didn’t even have them. So I plan to find out when it was that they came back. But I’ll need to do my research by watching some footage. So until next time,

Have fun and stay sexy!