While everyone today is familiar with the names of Grumpy, Bashful, Sneezy, Sleepy, Happy, Doc and Dopey as the forest companions of Snow White in SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, Disney and his animators worked extensively to develop the dwarfs into fully realized characters for his first full length animated film. Many different names were considered originally, including Hicky, Gabby, Nifty, Sniffy, Lazy, Puffy, Stuffy, Shorty, Wheezy, Burpy, Baldy, Dizzy, Jumpy and Tubby and it was imperative that each of the Dwarfs could be distinguished from the others on screen by their own distinctive look and mannerisms, so eventually name after name was eliminated from consideration until the team at Disney arrived at the seven names that are familiar to audiences today. Looking then at the myriad of pre-production sketches the animators did to find the exact visual aesthetic of the dwarfs gives a key insight into the evolution of, and importance of, the development of character for the Dwarfs.
Lella Smith is the Creative Director of the Animation Research Library at Walt Disney Studios, a repository of over 60 million pieces of Disney animation art that dates back to the 1920s and includes early pieces for Walt’s “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” cartoons, and is home to a large number of developmental drawings of the Dwarfs. Open only to those involved in Disney Animation, the Animation Research Library has become a form of working museum, preserving delicate pieces from the company’s history while providing key insights into how other animators may have solved animation problems in the past as well as how the characters were developed. As Smith explains, “It’s pretty exciting for people to come and see the art because whether they’re looking at it for inspiration or reference or just to be reminded of how other artists worked out a difficult moment in animation, it serves as a wonderful teaching tool for everyone in the company who needs to work with animation.” Going over the plethora of drawings then involving the Dwarfs, Smith was able to see the progression the Dwarfs as characters made from their initial inception to their final screen versions. Originally inspired by the work of story illustrators such as Arthur Rackham, the Seven Dwarfs were all gnome like in appearance, but more importantly, they all looked alike. “That was one of the main frustrations that the folks working on the film had in the beginning,” Smith explains. “Dave Hand who was Directing Supervisor kept saying to the artist, ‘I can’t tell them apart, we’ve got to work on a way to tell the Dwarfs apart.’” As the final seven names for the Dwarfs each became locked, and their respective trademark traits were agreed upon, animators were free to begin to develop each as an individualized character, imbuing each with its own distinctive personality.
Having individual Dwarfs that could be differentiated from one another by an audience not only helped establish strong characters within the framework of the film itself, but it would also allow an audience to identify with a favorite Dwarf and help invite them into the story. Ask anyone today who is familiar with the film who their favorite Dwarf is and they most likely will have an immediate answer, for even with a film that was released seventy-two years ago, the characters are still what are at the forefront of the viewers’ relationships to the movie. The Dwarfs then become elevated to something beyond just being mere comic relief, and instead are fully realized characters that form the direct heart of the movie.
Walt of course knew of their potential from the start and wanted to juxtapose them against the cleanliness of the princess Snow White. As Smith describes, “Walt Disney thought it would be much funnier if they (the Dwarfs) didn’t take a lot of baths and worked in a diamond mine and their house was a mess and Snow White comes to the house and helps them get their lives together. That wasn’t the case in the Grimms’ version.” Changing the Dwarfs from how they first appeared in GRIMMS’ FAIRY TALES helped established conflict within the story of SNOW WHITE, and through this conflict, the comedic elements of the film were firmly established. As most cartoons at the time existed only in short form, with runtimes of under ten minutes, they relied primarily on the “gag” to fill the screen time and garner a quick laugh from the audience. While Walt knew that the Dwarfs should be fully developed characters for the audience to empathize with, he also realized their comic potential after each of their unique personalities became established. Walt offered five dollars to any animator who came up with a gag that was used in the final film, and for artists working during the Great Depression, when a good dinner cost only thirty-five cents, the five dollars became a substantial incentive.
What this did though was not only challenge artists to come up with funnier comedic bits, but also in the process had them truly delve into the ethos of each Dwarf individually, for the gags needed to be specific to the individualistic nature that had been established for each of the characters. Thus by having to determine a gag that would be true to a certain character, the comedy would be intensified since the audience was more invested in who they were seeing on screen. This became of paramount importance to the development of the Dwarfs as individually realized characters, for it also allowed for them to react and change. Whereas in a short film built around a gag, the character is introduced, the gag happens, the character reacts and the audience laughs. With the full length running time though of SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, the Dwarfs could not simply be the framework for gag after gag. Instead they had to grow and they had to change. Had they remained static, then their appeal would have been short lived and their impact on cinema would have been greatly diminished. Remembering that this was one of the first full length animated films, the foresight to have the Dwarfs experience change is what ultimately led to the film’s enduring success. While audiences today may take for granted that even animated characters should have distinctive characters arcs within a film, this was definitely not the case in the late 1930s and Walt’s approach was truly revolutionary.
I asked Smith what she found to be the greatest surprise to learn about the Dwarfs as she was doing her research in the Animation Research Library for the release of SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS on Blu-ray for the first time with the new Diamond Edition, and to her it was centered on the change the characters went through as they were being developed. “I think probably the fact that Doc was toned down so much because he came off as really blustery and know-it-all and people didn’t like him, so they toned him down. And then Grumpy who could have been a very unidimensional character had they not handled him with great care. Freddie Moore and Bill Tytla turned him into a pretty interesting character who probably had never cared for anyone before in his whole life and ended up caring very much for Snow White. And then the biggest surprise was how much Dopey changed. Walt Disney was very, very careful in the defining of the Dwarfs, and in defining of Dopey in particular, that no one take offense. They really wanted him to be childlike and innocent and they enlarged the size of his ears and enlarged the size of this cap so it fell down over his head. And they made him younger so that he would be a more interesting character, so that I think that was probably the biggest surprise for me.”
Each of the Dwarfs proved emphatically the importance of the development of character within any story, and had they been allowed to remain simply as gnome like creatures undistinguishable from one another, or had been simply used in a procession of gag after gag, the final product would have been greatly diluted and SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS would have lost the emotionality that exists at the core of the film and the film most likely would not have attained the iconic status that it still holds to this day. The Dwarfs ended up becoming the true heart of the film, and it was through the efforts of Walt Disney and his animators that their development as individualized characters could become fully realized and what would make SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS the classic that it is.
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For those interested in seeing some of the incredible pieces in Disney’s Animation Research Library, a new exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art will be opening next month entitled, DREAMS COME TRUE: ART OF THE CLASSIC FAIRY TALES FROM THE WALT DISNEY STUDIOS. Running from November 15 through March 10, 2010, DREAMS COME TRUE: ART OF THE CLASSIC FAIRY TALES FROM THE WALT DISNEY STUDIOS will feature over six hundred original artworks that shaped legendary animated features including SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, CINDERELLA, SLEEPING BEAUTY, THE LITTLE MERMAID and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. Also included in the exhibition will be artwork from the upcoming film THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG that marks a return to hand-drawn animation for Disney. This exhibition will also be the first time original animation for the Disney Studios will be on display in the United States in over fifty years. For more information on the exhibition and for tickets, please visit the New Orleans Museum of Art at, www.noma.org