You don’t have to be an animation historian to watch Disney’s 1961 animated feature 101 Dalmatians and feel that there’s something decidedly different about the style of the movie. There’s a kind of raggedness to the look of it, impacted by the loose, sketchy quality of the animators’ lines that results in an undeniably funky vibe. The aesthetic of 101 Dalmatians is noticeably different than anything that had come before it (from Disney or otherwise). The question, of course, is why it looked the way it did.
Before we get to that answer though, some background on how animated movies are made: Up until this point, animators would draw their characters on paper. 24 drawings are required for every second of finished animation, so there are beyond hundreds of drawings required for each animated film. Drawings would be transferred from the animation department to the ink and paint department first, with the animator’s lines being 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. This process made beautiful, enchanting results, but the animators were frustrated because their original images were ultimately lost to the process.
With 101 Dalmatians, all that changed.
In 1959, Walt Disney released Sleeping Beauty. This was a technically ambitious project (it was designed for 70mm, with animators working on giant pieces of paper the size of bed sheets) and a labor-intensive one, with only cursory involvement from Walt himself, who was busy with Disneyland, television, and live-action film projects.
As Floyd Norman, a veteran Disney animator who worked on a number of Disney classics including 101 Dalmatians, recently told me, “It [was] just costing too much money.” Still: As always is the case with Disney, the animators were fiddling around with new technology, and Ub Iwerks (one of Disney’s closest creative confederates), thought he had found the answer: Xerox photocopy technology.
Xerography, or dry photocopying, was a technique developed by Chester Carlson in 1942, but as Norman told me, had only been used in animation sparingly. “They had been playing around with it and they were getting it to work,” Norman said. “But never on a feature film.” But something had to be done to cut costs, and 101 Dalmatians, based on the novel by Dodie Smith, had a clean production style that would be easy to replicate with the Xerox technology (it was the first Disney animated feature with a contemporary setting). The way Norman tells it, everything came together. “We had a new film with a bold graphic look, a new production design that was totally different from what we had been doing with the European fairy tales,” he said. “So all of these elements came together. So we said – we’ve got the right story, the right process, and the fact that it fits the film’s production design. It was just perfect.”
And this was not a technology that shook up the vaulted halls of Walt Disney Animation. In fact, he says that the Nine Old Men, a legendary group of animators handpicked by Walt (who worked on additional projects in the parks and on television and whose influence can still be felt today), “loved” the new process. “For the first time ever the animators were seeing their pencil lines appear on the screen. And they loved that; they thought that was just great.” The process also had an additional benefit relating to this particular project: The spots on the Dalmatians’ fur could be faithfully replicated from one scene to the next without having to be painstakingly inked individually.
But what about the signature haziness in the images; where did those come from? As Norman says, “It was just the nature of the photocopy process.” This technology was still in its early stages and the kinks had not been worked out entirely, with Norman referring to the images as “grungy.” The grungy look comes from a couple of things: First, it’s just the sharpness of the lines, which, when transferred directly to a cel, don’t have the blobby grace of an inked line. Especially when these images are photocopied on top of one another. There is also, as Norman explains, the fact that you’re actually looking at magnetic dust. “There’s this powder and the acetate is magnetized, and that powder is drawn to the lines. Since that line is made up of a powder, there are going to be a few straggly, powdery things that are going to look messy and not quite as clean as an inker. But now working with this photocopy process, it was a little messy,” Norman said. He then added cheerfully, “But what made it work was that it fit the movie’s design sensibilities.”
This was a process that would be worked on and refined up until the late ’80s, utilized on live action/animation hybrids like Mary Poppins (1964), Pete’s Dragon (1977), and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), and fully animated confections like The Jungle Book (1967), where the line work is still quite stark, through to Oliver & Company (1988). The xerography process was jettisoned in the late ’80s in favor of CAPS, a computer-based program developed by Pixar that replaced inking and photocopying entirely. As Norman says, “By the time we got Xerox darn near perfect, we made the move to digital.”