Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Creation of a Classic Exhibition at The Walt Disney Family Museum

“Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?” The Walt Disney Family Museum’s largest exhibition to date, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Creation of a Classic” celebrates the artistry of what many believe is the greatest of the Disney animated films.

Snow White Lobby Card. Image courtesy of the Walt Disney Animation Research Library.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered at the Carthay Circle Theatre on December 21, 1937. The film cost a staggering $1.6 million dollars to make.  The film was wildly successful due, in part, to animators being able to convey emotions only previously done by live films. Audiences so closely identified with Snow White, they wept when she died. Snow White was the first film to release a soundtrack and merchandise.

The exhibition, which runs through April 14, 2013, explores every step of the animation process from the development of the key characters and scenes in the film beginning with concept art to story boards and animation sketches through cel set up. This is a process that remained the same until the making of The Little Mermaid in 1989. Although the making of the film was a collaborative effort, Walt Disney’s hand was on every single facet of the film.

Lella Smith, creative director of the Walt Disney Animation Research Library and curator of the exhibition had 400 pieces of art to show, but could include only 200 pieces in the exhibit. She managed to narrow it down to 240 pieces and through the  interactive exhibits was able to include much of these 240 pieces. The art presented includes clean-up animation, concept art, story sketches, backgrounds and re-created cels. Cels had to be re-created due to the originals being too fragile to transport. There are several rare pieces of artwork never before displayed in public.

Color Model Sheet of Dwarfs. Image courtesy of The Walt Disney Animation Research Library.

When you enter the exhibit there is a display of international film posters, lobby cards and holiday-themed posters. Since many of the international film posters were done by local artists, the characters on the posters do not always resemble those in the film. The special Oscar Walt received for the film has been moved from the museum’s main lobby to the lobby of the exhibit.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs special Oscar presented to Walt Disney by Shirley Temple. Image courtesy of The Walt Disney Family Foundation.

Each gallery centers on a key character or film sequence and through displays of concept art, character sheets, cels, backgrounds and layout shows its artistic development. A clip of the finished scene plays at the end of most galleries enabling you to see how all the artwork contributed to the completed piece of film or character’s personality.

On display are two examples showing how animators used live-action reference as an aid. For the sequences where Snow White pulls a bucket of water out of the well and the “Silly Song” dance scene, there is a film clip of the actors performing the scene with a few props, the “ruff” animation drawing of the scene and the scene as it appears in the film all playing simultaneously. To be able to study and compare these sequences is a rare opportunity.

Snow White Dancing with Dopey and Sneezy. Doc, Happy, Bashful, Sleepy Playing Music reproduction cel setup. Image courtesy of the Walt Disney Animation Research Library.

Also examined through art are the deleted scenes where the dwarfs eat soup and build a bed for Snow White. As good as these scenes were, Walt felt they interrupted the story. My favorite deleted scene is when Dopey and a squirrel are playing a classic shell game. Poor Dopey is completely perplexed at being unable to successfully find the nut due to the quickness of the squirrel as he moves the walnut shells.

Some facts I learned about the film include:

  • The early concept art showed Snow White as a young girl. Walt wanted to avoid the question of her age and instructed animators to make her appear old enough for marriage.
  • The dwarfs were the most serious departure from the Grimm Brothers fairy tale. As their role grew, much of the early work for the film was thrown out to meet Walt’s high standards.
  • The animators were fascinated by Walt’s dark expressive eyebrows, so six of the dwarfs are drawn with Walt’s eyebrows. Now picture the dwarfs in your mind. Can you tell which one does not have Walt’s eyebrows?
  • Snow White was one of the first films to interpret music to move the story along. Most films have songs as stand-alone numbers with no relation to the story. Walt used the music to relieve tension. For example, the Silly Song dancing sequence comes after the queen tries to have Snow White killed and her frightening run through the forest.
  • The most complicated sequence to animate was the Queen’s transformation into the witch. The animators looked to the 1932 film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for inspiration.
  • Some Day My Prince Will Come was originally planned as a dream sequence with Snow White dancing in the clouds with the Prince. This concept was later used in Sleeping Beauty.  Artwork for this scene of Snow White walking in clouds amidst stars is breathtaking.

Snow White and the Witch with Poisoned Apple. Book illustration by Gustaf Tenggren. Image courtesy of the Walt Disney Family Foundation.

Snow White and the Witch Offering the Poisoned Apple. This cel shows how Disney animators were influenced by Gustaf Tenggren. Image courtesy of the Walt Disney Animation Research Library.

Snow White’s happily ever after was a new beginning for the animation and storytelling tradition of the Walt Disney Studio. As the magic mirror stated, Walt Disney’s Snow White is still the fairest one of all.

For more details about the exhibition, an exhibit catalogue, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – The Art and Creation of Walt Disney’s Classic Animated Film by J.B. Kaufman, Foreword by Diane Disney Miller, is available.

You may also listen to my more in-depth report on the exhibit during my recent appearance on The DISUnplugged Podcast – Disneyland Edition, which you may download from this link:

If you have been considering visiting The Walt Disney Family Museum and you want a unique opportunity to examine rare animation artwork from a historic Disney film, plan to visit by April 14, 2013. Set aside at least 90 minutes just to see the exhibit.

The Walt Disney Family Museum has a series of special activities related to the exhibition each month. Be sure to check their website for information.

The Walt Disney Family Museum, 104 Montgomery Street, The Presidio, San Francisco San Francisco, CA 94129 415.345.6800

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Creation of a Classic

Now through April 14, 2013 | Special Exhibition Hall

Special ticket price for Snow White: $10 general | Special combination ticket which includes general museum admission: $25 adults; $20 seniors and students; $15 children ages 6 to 17.


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