The One that Started it All: Designing Disney’s First Princess

I thought it would be fitting to make my first ever article on Disney’s first feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. There are plenty of interesting stories about Snow White’s production, you could write a whole book if you wanted to, and plenty of people have. In this particular article, I’m going to focus on one of my favourite aspects of Disney films, the princesses. You see, Snow White didn’t always look like the princess we’ve known and loved since 1937. Early on she looked pretty unrecognizable…

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So how did she evolve from these sketches into the beautiful princess in the final film? Well that story is one filled with drastic changes in appearance that were influenced by the range of talented animators, artists, and models that contributed to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Who’s the Fairest of them All?

 

From the very beginning of production, Disney animator’s knew that Snow White was going to be a challenge, as they had not yet managed to successfully animate a believable and sympathetic human woman. This was obviously an issue, as Snow White was in over half the sequences of the film. Naturally, Walt Disney put two of his top animators in charge of supervising the design and animation of the princess. The first of these was long-time Silly Symphonies animator Hamilton Luske. Though Luske was a skilled animator, even he had a hard time animating a realistically moving and pretty young women. He often turned his female characters into accidentally comic figures (for the most infamous example of this, check out Luske’s work on Persephone in The Goddess of Spring ). To deal with this problem, Luske intentionally designed Snow White to be both comedic and charming. His initial sketches depicted her as an awkward, skinny, and gangly teenage girl with the rubbery limbs and exaggerated facial features of other early animated women, like Persephone or Popeye’s Olive Oil.

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Obviously, Luske’s initial concepts for Snow White are not the design that ended up in the final film. This was because of Snow White’s second Supervising Animator, Grim Natwick, who played a huge role in her final design.  Natwick had initially worked for Fleischer Studios where he designed and animated Betty Boop. Walt Disney considered Natwick an expert on animating women and, knowing he would need him to make Snow White look pretty and believable, Disney recruited Natwick to his studio in 1935.  In many of Natwick’s sketches of Snow White, you can see similarities to Betty Boop, especially in the princess’s oversized head, round eyes, full lashes, and pouty lips. His sketches have much more in common with the princess’s final design, but there are still major differences.  One of the biggest of these differences being that Snow White was a much younger girl in these sketches, closer to seven than her final age of fourteen.

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Production notes show that eventually someone pointed out that Snow White looked a little too young to be falling in love with a prince. The order was then given to make her look older and more glamorous and to use the Academy Award winning ingénue Janet Gaynor as a model. More elements of Natwick’s Betty Boop were also incorporated into her design, especially her curvy figure and long legs. This resulted in a much older and sexier Snow White who, had she made it to the final film, would have been much more mature and aware of her beauty. This version did come incredibly close to being the final design, so close that a full colour cell was inked and painted as a test.

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When Walt Disney saw this test he decided Snow White looked too provocative. He told the animators to tone it down and make Snow White look younger. Finally, by using the 14-year old dancer Marjorie Belcher as a guide, the animators came up with the Snow White design we see in the final film. Now all that was left was to figure out what colours to paint her.

Hair as… Blonde as Ebony?

 

Snow White’s design process also involved some drastic changes in colour that can be seen in early concept art, storyboards, and colour tests. At the time, Technicolor was still a pretty new technology, it debuted in 1932 with Disney’s Flowers and Trees, and was a considered an important selling point for the film. There were also concerns that the about the bright colours of animation being too straining for audience’s eyes, leading many to believe the film would be a flop. This made colour a huge concern for the animators, and they experimented with a lot of different hair colours and dress colours for Snow White.

In the original fairy tale Snow White’s mother wishes for a daughter with skin white as snow, lips red as blood, and hair black as ebony. Yet surprisingly, Disney animators did not initially give Snow White black hair. Most of the earliest character design sketches and storyboard drawings actually showed her as a blonde.  She also did not have her signature bobbed haircut, but instead usually had long wavy hair or braids. This initial idea probably had something to with the standard image of a princess as a woman with long blonde hair, especially in German storybooks, which were the inspiration for the art design of the film. She certainly looks more like a stereotypical princess in these drawings.

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Eventually, most likely thanks to Natwick’s influence, Snow White’s hair was shortened into a bob and the animators began experimenting with other hair colours.  For a brief period Snow White actually had red hair. Finally, the animators returned to the roots of the fairy tale and gave the princess hair as black as ebony

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Snow White’s dress went through a lot of colour changes as well. Today Disney uses character designers, colour stylists, and art directors to choose unified colour schemes for each film, but this was not the case for early films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  Instead, each character’s supervising animators chose the colours of their character’s clothing themselves. This led to some interesting colour choices early on for Snow White, as her animators seemed to have not known much about women’s fashion. Luckily, they did a lot of colour tests before deciding on a final colour scheme. Some of these tests showed Snow White dressed in an orange dress with a blue bow and cloak. Others showed her in yellow, with a green bow, green shoes, and a blue and red cloak. One version of Snow White dressed in yellow, blue, and purple was even fully inked and painted. Someone eventually realised that none of these colours looked good together, and they were all rejected in favour of the dress we see in the final film.

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So now you know the story of Snow White’s development process and all the drastic changes in age, design, and colour that the team of animators made while they tried to conquer the challenges of designing and animating Disney’s first princess.  Of course this is just one part of the story of the making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I haven’t even touched on the dwarfs yet. You wouldn’t believe the amount of work that went into the naming of all seven of them, but that’s a story for another time…

 

Bibliography

Aloff, Mindy.  Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation. New York: Disney
Editions, 2008.
Bell, Elizabeth. ‘Somatexts at the Disney Shop: Constructing the Pentimentos of Women’s
Animated Bodies’.  In From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture, edited by Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas, and Laura Sells, 107-124. Bloomington, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995.
Canemaker, John and Walt Disney. ‘Audio Commentary’. Snow White and the Seven
Dwarfs. Diamond Edition. Directed by David Hand, 1937; Burbank, CA: Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2009. Blu-Ray.
Design. Walt Disney Animation Studios: The Archive Series. New York: Disney
Enterprises Inc., 2010.
Disney Electronic Content Inc. ‘Disney Animated’. Apple App Store. Version 1.0.9
(2013). https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/disney-animated/id632312737?mt=8. Accessed June, 1, 2016.
‘Hyperion Studios’. Disc 2. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Diamond Edition. Directed
by David Hand. 1937; Burbank, CA: Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2009. Blu-Ray
Kaufman, J.B. The Fairest One of All: The Making of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the
Seven Dwarfs. London: Aurum Press, 2012.
Thomas, Bob. Disney’s Art of Animation: From Mickey Mouse to Beauty and the Beast.
New York: Hyperion, 1991.
Vincent, Alice. ‘Should Snow White Have Looked Like Betty Boop?’. The Telegraph,
August 21, 2014. Accessed May 31, 2016. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/disney/11048596/Should-Snow-White-have-looked-like-Betty-Boop.html.

Image Credit

Images 1,2,3,5,9,10, and 13: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Diamond Edition
Images 6,8,11, and 12: The Fairest One of All: The Making of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Image 4: Design. Walt Disney Animation Studios: The Archive Series
Image 7: ‘Should Snow White Have Looked Like Betty Boop?’
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