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Disney’s multiplane camera, an innovation in illusion

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 05, 2017

In a short film shot in 1957, Walt Disney described the multiplane camera, one of the many inventions and innovations his company had developed in order to produce more realistic and affecting animations. Instead of shooting single cels of animation on a single movable background, the multiplane camera could shoot several independently moving backgrounds, creating a sense of depth and perspective. A 1938 article in Popular Mechanics explained how the camera works.

Disney wanted to increase the eye value of the many paintings making up a picture by achieving a soft-focus effect on the backgrounds, illuminating the various levels of each scene individually, and separating” background from foreground, thus keeping background objects to their proper relative size.

His production crew labored for three years to perfect the novel picture-taking device to achieve these results. It consists of four vertical steel posts, each carrying a rack along which as many as eight carriages may be shifted both horizontally and vertically. On each carriage rides a frame containing a sheet of celluloid, on which is painted part of the action or background.

Resembling a printing press, the camera stands eleven feet tall and is six feet square. Made with almost micrometer precision, it permits the photographing of foreground and background cels accurately, even when the first is held firmly in place two feet from the lens and the lowest rests in its frame nine feet away. Where the script calls for the camera to “truck up” for a close-up, the lens actually remains stationary, while the various cels are moved upward. By this means, houses, trees, the moon, and any other background features, retain their relative sizes.

After being deployed on a short film as a test, the multiplane camera was used to film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first feature-length animated film. In the chapter on “Illusion” in his newest book Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, Steven Johnson writes that the use of the multiplane camera (along with other innovations in animation developed since the days of Steamboat Willie) had a profound effect on audiences.

All of these technical and procedural breakthroughs summed up to an artistic one: Snow White was the first animated film to feature both visual and emotional depth. It pulled at the heartstrings in a way that even live-action films had failed to do. This, more than anything, is why Snow White marks a milestone in the history of illusion. “No animated cartoon had ever looked like Snow White,” Disney’s biographer Neil Gabler writes, “and certainly none had packed its emotional wallop.” Before the film was shown to an audience, Disney and his team debated whether it might just be powerful enough to provoke tears — an implausible proposition given the shallow physical comedy that had governed every animated film to date. But when Snow White debuted at the Carthay Circle Theatre, near L.A.’s Hancock Park, on December 21, 1937, the celebrity audience was heard audibly sobbing during the final sequences where the dwarfs discover their poisoned princess and lay garlands of flowers on her. It was an experience that would be repeated a billion times over the decades to follow, but it happened there at the Carthay Circle first: a group of human beings gathered in a room and were moved to tears by hand-drawn static images flickering in the light.

In just nine years, Disney and his team had transformed a quaint illusion — the dancing mouse is whistling! — into an expressive form so vivid and realistic that it could bring people to tears. Disney and his team had created the ultimate illusion: fictional characters created by hand, etched onto celluloid, and projected at twenty-four frames per second, that were somehow so believably human that it was almost impossible not to feel empathy for them.

Interestingly, the multiplane camera also seems to be an instance of simultaneous invention (a concept also covered by Johnson in an earlier book, Where Good Ideas Come From). In addition to Disney’s multiplane camera, there were a few earlier earlier efforts and it’s unclear whether they were invented independently or how one inventor influenced another. But one thing is for certain: only Disney’s camera was deployed so skillfully and artfully that it changed cinema and our culture forever.1

  1. Without getting into it (too much), I can’t help thinking of Pixar’s push to make Toy Story. There’s always an emphasis on the technology with Pixar, but Lasseter and the rest of them were huge animation nerds…and Walt Disney nerds in particular. They were interested in telling stories and they believed, like Disney, that developing new technologies could help them do that more effectively. Toy Story was Pixar’s Snow White and their subsequent movies (Finding Nemo, Wall-E, Ratatouille) have shown how successful they were in telling affecting stories with 3D computer animation.