Before the Disney name became tied to the monolithic global empire that it is today, it was solely the name of a fledging studio bent on advancing the medium of animation at every opportunity. In 1928, the Mickey Mouse debut Steamboat Willie was the first cartoon short to feature a synchronized soundtrack. Not long after, Flowers and Trees brought a forest of colors to life in the first colorized cartoon. These and other breakthroughs culminated in the world’s first animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. For nearly a century, technological innovations have been the backbone of many of Disney’s enterprises, but well before their advancements in live entertainment and theme park attractions, some of animation’s greatest technical landmarks came from under the Disney name, pioneering the industry at large along the way.
Here is a look at five of the company’s most innovative animation technologies and where they were best used.
The Multiplane Camera
Developed exclusively for use on the studio’s animated features, Disney’s Multiplane camera gave new depth to the traditional cel animation process. In a typical studio cartoon, the action of the characters was photographed one frame at a time against a stationary background painting. With this towering downward camera, individually painted background elements were layered on several sheets of glass and independently moved frame-by-frame in tandem with the painted cels of the characters. By itemizing the placement of separate background pieces, the illusion of spatial depth was given to the studio’s early golden age of feature films.
The multiplane camera was first tested in the Oscar-winning short, The Old Mill, which demonstrated the camera’s ability to explore space and create atmosphere through camera movements. After that, the multiplane camera became a standard for sweeping establishing shots and environmental effects in films like Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, and all the way up to its final use in 1989’s The Little Mermaid.
Necessity is the mother of invention, they say. Come the 1960’s, with Walt Disney’s attention split between television, theme parks, and live-action films, the studio’s animated films were no longer given the budget or schedule they had become accustomed to as the company’s top priority. Needing to cut costs and speed up production, the studio implemented the use of xerography in the animation pipeline.
Forgoing the need of individually inking animation cels by hand, the xerox process photocopied the animators’ exact drawings directly onto the cel itself, resulting in rougher and darker outlines than what had come before. While the cleanly colored outlines of the early studio films were lost with this advent, the use of the xerox machine gave the Disney films of the ’60s and ’70s a distinctly sketchy aesthetic that translated the draftsmanship of the animators and their pencil work right onto the screen. Films such as 101 Dalmatians, The Jungle Book, and Robin Hood grew a reputation of also using xerography to thriftily recycle animation to balance production costs and save time.
After over half a century of traditional cel animation, Disney Animation Studios underwent a digital revolution with CAPS (Computer Animation Production System). At the dawn of the studio’s animation renaissance of the ’90s, technicians from Disney and the newly partnered computer division Pixar developed a post-production program that digitally colored and assembled scanned-in artwork within the realm of the computer.
First tested in one of the closing shots of The Little Mermaid, CAPS not only streamlined the Disney production cycle, enabling more films to be produced and released annually, but it also revolutionized the look of the films to be cleaner and smoother than what was ever before possible. The entirety of Disney’s new wave of hand-drawn classics, from The Rescuers Down Under to Home on the Range, used CAPS to deliver a new standard of animation clarity and incorporate CGI effects and environments with greater ease, such as Beauty and the Beast’s ballroom scene or The Lion King’s dramatic wildebeest stampede.
At the turn of the new millennium, major animation studios had begun to experiment fully blending CGI effects and characters with traditional hand-drawn animation. At Disney, this manifested into the Deep Canvas software. Created during the production of the 1999 feature Tarzan, this software worked concurrently with the CAPS system as a technique to create entirely three-dimensional environments for the hand-drawn characters to inhabit. Rudimentary geometric models created in 3D space were digitally colored with a painter’s stylus and tablet to give the computerized assets a brushy look that blended with the traditionally rendered characters. This was used to construct the arboreal canopies of Tarzan’s jungle home, the steam-punk inspired vehicles of Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and the near totality of the environments and effects in Treasure Planet.
Although its use at Disney was short-lived, spanning only three animated features, the Deep Canvas program was a forerunner to the blending of digital graphics and hand-drawn draftsmanship later seen in Sony Pictures’ Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and The Mitchells vs. the Machines.
By virtue of being the pioneers of computer animation since its genesis, the advancements made by Pixar Animation are the advancements of the greater computer graphics industry as a whole. Well before even the first Toy Story landed in theaters, Pixar had spent years developing an in-house rendering software designed to bring together all their computerized elements into a cohesive and believable image.
RenderMan collects all the digital assets of a scene or effect into a single-engine and compiles them into an individual frame. Every effect, simulation, model, environment, and every bit of animation is married together on screen through a software that has become an industry favorite. During the rise of CGI effects in Hollywood, RenderMan most famously helped bring to life the liquid-metal menace of Terminator 2’s T-1000 and the reanimated dinosaurs of Jurassic Park.
Demonstrated in as recently as 2021’s Luca, RenderMan has skyrocketed the heightened believability of computer graphics to achieve artistry and realism that is left unmatched in modern computer animation. The engine is the not-so-secret ingredient to Pixar’s technical wizardry as RenderMan has been made commercially accessible for individuals and third-party companies, including Lucasfilm’s ILM and NASA.
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