A lot of you have probably seen the live action version of Cinderella that came out last year. Well long before Lily James took on the role, another actress played Cinderella at the Walt Disney Studios, Helene Stanley. Stanley was a live action reference model for the animated 1950 film of Cinderella. She, along with several other models, acted out the entire film in costume in front of cameras so the animators could study the footage when drawing the animated characters. This technique was not a new one, but it was one that was integral to the making of Cinderella in a way it never had been for any Disney film before, or really ever would be again.
From Rags to Riches
Cinderella was made at a difficult time in Walt Disney Animation’s history. The studio had not really had an animated hit since Dumbo in 1941. During World War II, Disney survived by making training films for the U.S. military. After the war they started releasing package films consisting of a bunch of shorts stuck together, like the 1948 film Melody Time. These package films were poorly received, and for a while the studio was just scraping by money wise. Walt Disney needed a hit if the animation division of the company was going to survive, so the studio decided to try to repeat the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and place their bets on another classic fairy tale, Cinderella.
Given their lack of funds, the animators had to figure out how to make Cinderella as quickly and cheaply as possible. Their solution was to turn to live action reference footage for help. Previously the animators had used fourteen-year-old ballerina Marjorie Belcher as a reference model on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, to help them create a believably moving character. For Cinderella, animators used it in order to help keep the cost of the film from getting too high. In the past, animators would sometimes fully animate an entire scene, only to cut it when they realised it didn’t work with the rest of the film, wasting a ton of time and money. With Cinderella, the animators were able to use the live action footage to test all of the scenes before they were animated, preventing them from having to animate scenes that would only be thrown out. Unfortunately, this technique also created limitations that annoyed the animators, as they could only use camera angles in the animated film that could be replicated in the live action. Still, it helped them animate quickly, and allowed them to figure out what ideas didn’t work ahead of time, like this extended gag of Cinderella showering with a bird.
After the reference footage was recorded, stills from the film were blown up to the size of standard animation paper, making it easier for animators to study specific poses. It also allowed them to sketch their ideas out on top of the reference footage, like drawing birds next to Cinderella as in the photo above. Often they would use props to stand in for the animals in the film, and then sketch the animals on top of the prop in the photo to get an idea of how Cinderella would interact with creatures like the mice.
Since the footage was shot on a practically empty sound stage, animators often sketched out the basic setting of the scene onto the photos as well.
The animators also used the reference footage to help them draw believably moving human characters. This does not mean that the animators just traced the people in the photographs, a technique called rotoscoping. Full rotoscoping has a tendency to make animated movement look stiff and stilted and to make the characters to look flat and unnatural. Although the animators occasionally used rotoscoping, more often they used the reference footage to provide inspiration for the characters’s actions, and to study the small details of how real people and clothing move. They would then take these actions and tweak them or exaggerate them for comic or dramatic effect. Cinderella’s supervising animators, Marc Davis and Eric Larson, made her movements more graceful and poised than would be possible for her human reference model, so she would have a royal presence even as she was cleaning in rags. Ollie Johnston, the supervising animator for Anastasia and Drizella, often departed even more from the reference footage in his drawings, making the characters into silly exaggerated caricatures.
Who She is or Whence She Came, He Knows Not
So who were the models used for the live action reference footage? Well some of them are so obscure that I have yet to even discover their names. There may not be a person alive today who knows who the actors were who acted out the roles of the King and the Duke.
Others are quite famous, like Eleanor Audley, who contributed to Lady Tremaine’s imposing demeanor. She also provided the voice for the stepmother, as well as the voice and reference modelling for Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty, and the voice of Madame Leota in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion.
The most important of these actors was Helene Stanley, who acted out all of Cinderella’s scenes in the reference footage. Helene Stanley was a trained ballerina, and her influence on the animator’s drawings is what gave Cinderella her natural grace and balletic style of movement. Stanley would later go on to lend her polished technique to any even more balletic character when she became the reference mode for Aurora in Sleeping Beauty.
Helene Stanley was used extensively throughout the live action reference process for Cinderella. Not only did she act out all of Cinderella’s scenes, but she also posed for wardrobe and hair style tests like this one.
She wasn’t just talented at playing beautiful princesses, she could be a real ham too. She also played Anastasia in the reference footage, alongside the voice and model for Drizella, Rhoda Williams.
She even made promotional appearances for the film, appearing in a 1956 episode of the Mickey Mouse Club (You can watch it here, it’s wonderfully cheesy) . Helene not only danced, but also sung in her appearance on the show. Since her voice was much deeper than that of Ilene Woods, she sung an alternative version of the mice’s ‘The Work Song’ instead of one of Cinderella’s songs.
Now you know the story of Disney’s original live action version of Cinderella, the behind-the-scenes version that was used to inspire the animators, and helped the company save a lot of time and even more money. To finish off, here’s one of my absolute favourite photos from the live action reference footage. Helene Stanley and Jeffery Stone performing the ‘So This is Love’ sequence. To make the dancing look more ethereal, they were filmed dancing on top of a rotating platform that was moved by hand by an animator. Its photos like this one that have made me fascinated by the strange and wonderful process of filming live action reference footage.
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