Walt Disney was a restless innovator; tirelessly pushing the boundaries of whatever medium he was dabbling in, whether it was animation, live-action productions, or theme park attractions. Rarely did he settle on what was currently possible; always wanting to invent, explore, and expand upon what was considered doable.
This was especially true in animation.
Walt Disney Animation Studios has always been a leader in technological breakthroughs and inventive approaches to pre-existing methodologies. There’s a reason that animation is synonymous with Disney (and vice versa), with each of these new innovations, the entire medium is pushed forward. These following moments changed animation as an art form; they aren’t needle moving blips, they’re evolutionary leaps.
1. “Steamboat Willie” (1928)
While most remember this as the first film to feature Mickey and Minnie, the real importance of “Steamboat Willie” lies in its technological innovation. It is, after all, the first film to feature synchronized sound. This meant that, for the first time, the action and dialogue of the characters (done mostly in an unintelligible garble by Walt Disney himself) were in sync, instead of background music wallpapering the action. The nearly eight-minute-long film is a marvel, for sure, but like every other innovation listed here, its true magic is in its winning combination of humor and heart.
2. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
In the decade that followed “Steamboat Willie,” Walt and his creative confederates had mastered the short-form medium, pushing the limits of what was possible and coming up with pieces that were critically adored and publicly embraced. But that wasn’t enough. So Walt set out making the first-ever feature-length animated film. This was such unwalked territory that many in Hollywood began referring to the feature as “Disney’s Folly.” The project consumed massive amounts of time and resources at the studio, and it was unclear whether audiences were even interested in a feature-length cartoon. Well, they were. Critics hailed it as an instant classic and audiences gobbled it up; at the time it was the highest-grossing sound film of all time. (Adjusted for inflation, it would still be in the all-time top ten.) Again, technology was just one hurdle to jump; Walt and his team had to figure out a way to engage an audience for a prolonged amount of time through strong emotional undercurrents, believable characters, and an engaging narrative.
3. Sleeping Beauty (1959)
A little more than 20 years after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs revolutionized the film industry, Walt was still experimenting with how to give animated features more depth and make them contemporary. Two years before Sleeping Beauty was released, Lady and the Tramp became the first animated film exhibited in the anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio. With Sleeping Beauty, though, an even bigger breakthrough was introduced: It was the first animated film photographed in the super-wide Technirama 70mm widescreen process. (The first theatrical engagements also featured immersive 6-channel stereophonic sound.) The process of making an animated film was so time-intensive that by the time the film was finally released, many of the theaters that could have played the full 70mm version had been retrofitted. This led to the original, super-wide aspect ratio of 2.55:1 being largely truncated to 2.20:1 or the more CinemaScope-compatible prints, which had a more traditional 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Later restorations would reinstate the 70mm grandeur that Walt and his animators, who animated characters on giant pieces of paper the size of bed sheets, intended. And the effect is undeniably striking; the modernity of the 70mm aspect ratio shape perfectly highlights the graphic art style of Eyvind Earle and Mary Blair. (Disney used 70mm again for TRON but wouldn’t release another animated film in the format until 1985’s The Black Cauldron.) And the entire thing is absolutely luscious to behold. But, of course, the movie’s jaw-dropping beauty would be nothing if the characters and story weren’t so strong.
4. 101 Dalmatians (1961)
Before 101 Dalmatians, the process of animation looked something like this: Animators would draw their characters on paper (24 of these drawings are required for every second of finished animation). Drawings would be transferred from the animation department to the ink and paint department first, where the animator’s lines were meticulously traced by talented artists in that department, onto cels. These cels would then be photographed, in quick succession, and the illusion of life was born. With 101 Dalmatians, though, a new process called Xerography was introduced. This technique, developed by Chester Carlson in 1942, had only been sparingly used in animation but never on a feature film. The new process allowed a clean production style that would replicate the artists’ work via dry photocopying. Animators, for the first time, were seeing their pencil strokes appear on film. This process was so successful, and the look so charming, that it would be the standard for Walt Disney Animation Studios for decades to come (more on that in a minute).
5. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)
Walt Disney had been fascinated with combining live action and animation; years before “Steamboat Willie,” he had created a series of shorts inspired by Alice in Wonderland that featured a human child interacting with cartoon characters. Later Disney projects like The Three Caballeros, Mary Poppins, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks would feature this process extensively. But there had been nothing like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, which mixed live action and animation liberally, and with an unprecedented level of realism and interaction. Post-production on the film took more than a year, with animators having to animate around director Robert Zemeckis’ active camera movements, and compositing being finished by Industrial Light & Magic. The entire process was exhausting and, in the end, revolutionary. Not only did the film win the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound Editing, but it was nominated for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Sound and received a Special Achievement Academy Award for “animation direction and creation of the cartoon characters.”
6. The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
By the time the studio made The Rescuers Down Under, the Xerography process developed for 101 Dalmatians had been utilized and refined. (Veteran animator Floyd Norman told us that it had been pretty much perfected.) But by the end of the ‘80s a new process was being tested at Walt Disney Animation Studios: The Computer Animation Production System, or CAPS. The system (developed by Pixar, years before Toy Story) was used for digital ink and paint and for compositing purposes. It was first tested out on the rainbow at the end of The Little Mermaid, but The Rescuers Down Under was the first fully CAPS colored and composited film. Cels were now a thing of the past, with animators’ drawings being scanned and manipulated inside a computer. This allowed for more sophisticated imagery and a more artful blend of computer animated and traditionally animated elements. It also looks gorgeous and brings the audience into the story in a fuller, albeit subconscious way.
7. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Up until Beauty and the Beast, computer animated effects had been utilized mostly on scenery – the opening shot of The Rescuers Down Under, for instance, or Big Ben at the end of The Great Mouse Detective. And, yes, technically the CGI ballroom in Beauty and the Beast is a piece of stagecraft, but it was also the first time that a piece of CGI was used to elicit an emotional response. The reputation of the computer as a cold machine was still lingering but the sequence in Beauty and the Beast gave it warmth. Try thinking about Beauty and the Beast and not remembering this sequence; it’s impossible. It proved the viability of CGI as a storytelling art form instead of just a visual effects tool, and one that cannot be overstated.
8. Tarzan (1999)
The multi-plane camera, developed by William Garity for the Walt Disney Studios, was first used in the Academy Award-winning short “The Old Mill.” The camera moved through different pieces of painted glass, giving the illusion not only of motion, but of three-dimensional depth. It was later used in movies like Pinocchio, Bambi, and The Little Mermaid. And in 1999 a new version of this process was introduced, with a much cooler name: Deep Canvas. What Deep Canvas did was create 3D backgrounds that had the look and feel of traditional animation. The software keeps track of digital brushstrokes and allows for animated characters to be more fully integrated into these digitally created backgrounds. This was particularly helpful for Tarzan, since the title character does so much swinging and careening through the largely CGI background. Again, the innovation was driven by a storytelling need and rewarded accordingly, with a special Academy Award given to the creators of the new program.
9. “Paperman” (2012)
Computer generated imagery and traditional animation had, by 2012, been intermingling for decades. But never in the way that “Paperman” presented them. The Academy Award-winning short utilized software that Disney had developed, called Meander. Inspiration came from director John Kahrs watching master animator Glen Keane draw over animated images from Tangled. For “Paperman,” two-dimensional animation was mapped over 3D spaces and forms. Hair and cloth was drawn by hand, and the computer generated underpinnings of each character or environment could be manipulated or removed if the animator saw fit. The resulting film feels both organic and cutting edge, with the technology heightening the already intense emotionality of the piece.
10. Big Hero 6 (2014)
There’s so much fun and adventure in Big Hero 6 that it’s sometimes easy to overlook how many technological breakthroughs are nestled inside of it. A program called Denizen populated the massive urban cityscape, with a complementary program called Bonzai used to create the trees. But the biggest breakthrough came in the form of Hyperion, a new rendering system that allowed for complex lighting scenarios (like Baymax’s semi-translucent vinyl skin or the illumination of the entire city). Not only did it add to the adorableness of Baymax, but Hyperion gave the movie a distinctively gorgeous look that perfectly mimics big budget live-action superhero movies. Hey, it is based on a Marvel property after all.