Disney has become a studio synonymous with animation. For nearly a century, the studio founded by animation pioneer Walt Disney has produced some of the highest quality of imaginative films. Having been around for so long, the medium has had quite an evolution.
The early works of Walt Disney spanned a number of shorts, some of which starred Mickey Mouse. The process was pretty familiar to other animation studios at the time, relying on frame-by-frame drawings to create the illusion of movement.
While Disney was certainly not one of the grandfathers of this format, he did strive for vast improvements to the concept, including building animations around sound and relying more on live-action references for more fluid drawings.
His first major masterpiece was undoubtedly “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937), the first feature-length animated film in dazzling color. The film looked astounding for the era considering the film’s primary cast were human characters, most of which boasted realistic features and movement.
This was especially crucial for developing the titular princess and her charming heroic prince charming. To make these characters stick out in a remarkable way, both of them were filmed in live-action and traced over through the technique of rotoscoping. The result is one of the most believable animated characters of the era considering how their movements and expressions feel incredibly natural.
Another fascinating technique of the film was the use of the multiplane camera. This massive machine allowed for multiple layers that could pan across the screen and zoom in on a subject. This made the world of Snow White feel more alive, feeling as though a camera were pushing through the foliage to seek out the castle.
The success of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” had given Walt Disney and his animators such acclaim that they were able to build their own animation studio in Burbank, California. It was here where future Disney productions would take off from mere ideas to cinema delights.
The features that followed were mostly animal-based. “Dumbo” featured exaggerated figures, as with the lead elephant having ears far too big for his body. “Bambi” was a more fluid and believable take on animals as the animators took great inspiration from the grace and stumblings of deer in real life, even going so far as to have a zoo of their own right at the studio.
What was undoubtedly one of the more groundbreaking of early Disney features was “Fantasia”, an anthology of animated vignettes posed against familiar orchestral music. Take note of the revolutionary use of airbrushing during “The Nutcracker Suite” as the sugar plum fairies float across the screen.
Check out the extra reference work during the “Rite of Spring” sequence of bubbling lava during the age of dinosaurs. “Dance of the Hours” was the comedic sequence of ballet between an alligator and hippo, made possible with detailed reference from ballerinas.
Skip ahead a handful of decades and Disney had entered into a new era better known as the Disney Renaissance. It all began with 1989’s “The Little Mermaid” which not only brought a new format of Broadway-style musical numbers but fantastic new animation techniques. Hand-drawn animation was still just as impressive considering every single bubble in the underwater sequence was drawn.
But a highlight was the aid of computer graphics to create more eye-popping visuals. CAPS, developed by Pixar, was a software that was experimented with for digital painting and computer graphics were used for staging some of the castle sequences as well as the detailed ships that sailed the seas.
1991’s “Beauty & The Beast” used even more of these techniques to greater effect. The ballroom sequence of that film is a fantastic showcase of the limits of CAPS at the time, rendering an awe-inspiringly massive ballroom generated in computer animation with a traditionally-animated Belle and Beast dancing as the camera swings around them.
More immaculate colors and a grander use of scale replicated the same sweeping effect of the classic multiplane camera setup used with Snow White. It should be noted that “Beauty & The Beast” was the first Disney animated film to ever be nominated for the Academy Award of Best Picture (and certainly not the last).
While the CAPS system continued to be used throughout the Disney Renaissance of the 1990s, Pixar had some bigger plans. Having developed animated shorts with computer-generated imagery for years, the Pixar Animation Studio was finally going to sell Disney on the first feature-length animated film made entirely with CGI.
1995’s “Toy Story” was a real game-changer in animation for accomplishing this feat, thanks to the aid of their RenderMan software. The process of making the film was a long one, where it would take hours to render just one frame.
Render times not only improved with advancements in the technology of each film but so did the effects. Characters started looking less like the intended plastic of “Toy Story” and started having more texture. “Monsters Inc” (2002) and “The Incredibles” (2004) are worth noting for their detailed simulations of hair and fur, becoming the highlight of the renders.
“Finding Nemo” (2003) took great inspiration from the ocean environments that the studio’s initial renderings were too photorealistic and had to be dialed back to have a more exaggerated but still believable edge.
With Pixar’s “Brave” (2012), a new animation system entitled Presto was developed for improving productivity. Similar to Pixar’s previous system of Marionette (used in “The Incredibles”), Presto allowed animators to work in more fully rendered environments to make better changes. Typically, computer animation required a lot of guesswork while animating, as animators couldn’t see more of the rendered geometry or textures in their work environments.
Now animators wouldn’t have to do as much guessing or waiting until a final render to see if their work turned out looking good. This system was so revolutionary it would win the Academy Technical Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2018. Pixar’s Presto is more of a proprietary system that continues the tradition of Disney (or Disney-purchased studios) developing their own tools.
Disney continues to make breakthrough improvements with mind-blowing techniques as their features continue to come about, either from Pixar or from Disney’s own CGI studio. Shorts such as “Paperman” reveal a beautiful merging of cel-style animation into a computer-rendered environment and features such as “Soul” play around with the various dimensions.
Hopefully this is only the beginning and the studio has plenty of more innovative techniques up their sleeves to keep that sense of magic alive in this medium that generates the illusion of life.