June 30--Stockbridge, Mass.
There's no mistaking it. Slim, small, with a bob of black hair, Marge Champion has a finely hewn beauty that sharpens in profile. The slope to her nose, the curve to her lips -- you can't miss the resemblance. She's Snow White.
And at the moment, the former Berkshires resident is wandering around Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., taking in the concept studies, story sketches, cels and film clips on display in a new exhibit showcasing the art and history of the first -- and arguably still the greatest -- full-length animated American movie. She comes up abruptly at a video monitor showing a live-action snippet of a young girl at a well, followed by an animated sequence of same.
"There's me doing all this stuff! That's me! Then it goes to 'Snow White,' but that's at the wishing well," she says, surprised. "I have never seen that! Never! Well! I wondered what that was, flickering way."
Champion's "role" in the film -- as the human model for Disney's innocent, ageless cartoon heroine, that industrious whistler and befriender of wildlife -- is one element of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Creation of a Classic," on view now through Oct. 27. Organized by the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco and guest curated by Lella Smith, the creative director of Disney's Animation Research Library, the exhibit marks the 75th anniversary of the film's release and the painstaking creative process that led up to it.
An army of workers contributed to the film, including 32 animators, 158 painters and inkers, 65 on special effects and 107 "inbetweeners" -- i.e., the artists in charge of smooth transitions between key images. Disney's first feature-length effort after years of producing shorts, "Snow White" was the first major cartoon feature to be completed and reach wide release, following assorted lost and unfinished works and other, smaller international releases (such as a tinted 1926 German fairy tale rendered in silhouette).
"It's hard for all of us to imagine there was a time when colorful, feature-length animated films were not commonplace, but indeed, that was the case in 1937," says Smith, speaking recently at a museum press event announcing the show.
Not everyone considered "Snow White" a wise move on Disney's part; some called it his "folly." But Disney "envisioned animation as an art form -- the perfect art form for families," Smith says. In its first three months, 20 million people saw the film. By 1938, she says, it had been dubbed into 10 languages and seen in 46 countries. What's more, "Dopey got more fan mail than anyone who's ever worked at Disney."
Disney himself considered the film's commercial and critical success as "the triumphant confirmation of his creative vision," she adds. "He had proven ... that if he paired good storytelling and carefully imagined characters, that he could indeed find a place in the hearts of moviegoers young and old."
The exhibit, spread over three rooms on the museum's first floor, touches on Disney's friendship with Rockwell and on alterations made to the original Grimm fairytale: in the Disney version, the Prince enters the picture earlier rather than later, and the evil witch is Snow's stepmom, not her mom. (And, well, she doesn't dance to death in a pair of burning shoes.)
Mostly, the show tracks the metamorphosis from dream to screen, using vivid progressions from sketch to cel to illustrate the meticulous effort to breathe life into two-dimensional characters. Long before computer graphics and the advent of "performance capture" films that digitize live actors ("The Adventure of Tintin," for instance), Disney animators transformed the human Champion into the dewy maiden beloved by generations of children. But rather than exploit early rotoscoping techniques to trace the footage frame by frame, they studied it for kinetic nuances -- the movement of her limbs, the float of her skirt.
Given the craftsmanship of the film, and the humanity of its creations, is "Snow White" still the apogee of film animation? Have newfangled computer graphics advanced the art at all? "I think it's entirely possible that Walt Disney would be using CGI to make films today," Smiths says. "Because when he was around, he grasped at every single new technology."
Champion isn't so sure -- though she loved "Finding Nemo," she says.
She was just 14 when she was hired to model Snow, quickly learning how to improvise. Disney told her to call him "Uncle Walt." The gig "usually involved two or three days a month. ... I got paid ten dollars a day." Later on, she modeled the blue fairy in "Pinocchio" and the dancing hippo-in-a-tutu from "Fantasia" -- and by that point, she pulled in a whopping 25 bucks a day.
"It wasn't lucrative," she says. "But it was endlessly lucrative in the training that I got."
Champion went on to a sizable career, dancing with her then-husband Gower Champion in "Show Boat" and other splashy MGM musicals. But those days as a teenager working for Disney still resonate. She recalls Disney's omnipresence and interest in every facet of the film's production, and she remembers, too, the personalities who labored to bring his conception to life.
Moving through the exhibit, Champion drifts into another room. Again she comes up short before a video monitor. Again she blurts, "That's me!"
This time, the image that grabs her attention is a clip of the young model twirling with Oliver Wallace, the longtime Disney conductor and composer, who performs slapstick pratfalls in a long and floppy trench coat. He's standing in for two dwarves: Dopey teetering on Sneezy's shoulders as they dance with Snow White.
If you watch the live-action clip and then the finished scene, you can spot the deft artistic touches that animate (in the truest sense) these timeless cartoon characters -- the grace and softness in Snow White's gestures, the adorable klutziness of the dwarves. They're real because Champion and Wallace were real. Are real, still.
"Ollie Wallace!" Champion exclaims. "He's really funny!"
So are Dopey, and Sneezy, and Snow.
firstname.lastname@example.org, 518-454-5439, @AmyBiancolli
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