A BLADE OF GRASS
A study within 2D background painting at the Disney Studio from 1928 through
© 2003 Ron Barbagallo
STEAMBOAT WILLIE, 1928, production number MM-3, scene #17
MASTER PRODUCTION BACKGROUND PAINTING.
Media: ink and/or watercolor wash over graphite pencil applied to one sheet of
Size: 11 19/64 inches wide by 8 29/64 inches high.
Before animation became a giant industry, it evolved like many art forms before
it, making its way from the earliest stages of an artist's innovations
to the ultimate commercial acceptance of those inventions.
Aesthetics within art can advance through broad new takes within previously
accepted styles or within small and overlooked elements. They can seen
in the manner in which color is used, or how something is drafted. Advances
can also be affected by a slow but steady evolution within the painting
style of a landscape.
A striking example of these types of progressions can be recognized
in the background paintings produced at the Walt Disney Studio
between 1928 and 1942.
A large percentage of the commercial animation produced in the 20’s showcased similarly styled, simplified backgrounds. Some studios experimented
with live or still photographic elements, but it was rare to see house interiors,
flower boxes, rocks and grass visualized with more than the use of thin hand-drawn
black ink outlines. Due to time or budgetary restraints, animated stars such
as Felix, Gertie and Oswald often performed upon a backdrop far less innovating
than the shorts which featured them.
Walt Disney's arrival on the scene changed all that. Fresh from losing his creation
Oswald the Lucky Rabbit through the now infamous double-cross by
Margaret Winkler and Charles Mintz, Disney had more than a little
incentive to reassert himself. He did so immediately with his first
Mickey Mouse short. Directed by Walt Disney Steamboat Willie made its premiere on November 18, 1928. It introduced the playful, if slightly
rebellious, character of Mickey Mouse and brought synchronized sound
to mainstream cartoons.
It also featured what was common for the day, which was simple backgrounds.
Light aqueous ink and/or watercolor washes were placed over hand drawn
pencil lines to separate sky elements from a field of grass or a lake.
Often these washes would go in and out of register. Shading, in only the
lightest of ways, was added to lend a slight sense of depth. Blades of
grass were resolved with a devil may care, freestyle north-south line,
if defined at all.
Several improvements to the art form were offered up in the Disney Studio’s Silly Symphony Flowers And Trees, which was released on July 30th, 1932 and was directed by Burt Gillett. Flowers And Trees brought the world of color to Disney animation and, from a draftsman point of
view, was a harbinger of things to come.
FLOWERS AND TREES, 1932, production number US-3, scene #51
KEY MASTER PRODUCTION BACKGROUND AND SINGLE CEL OVERLAY.
Media: Background: watercolor and graphite pencil applied to one sheet of paper,
Cel: ink and gouache applied to one cellulose nitrate cel sheet.
Size: 11 21/64 inches wide by 9 27/64 inches high.
Using a hybrid of styles, Flowers And Trees juxtaposed old fashioned 20’s vaudeville-like characters, as seen in the black-faced Yellow Flowers who dance
alongside the more naturally drafted hero and heroine of this short
-- a pair of more humanized trees. The color elements aside, the
background paintings are also slightly more evolved. They still use
the established technique of slightly out-of-register flat field
washes over pencil lines, but with the difference that distinctive
two-and three-tone values within those flat fields are added to create
a stronger sense of depth.
In addition, semi-opaque paint was applied over light washes to create highlighted
areas within the tree bark, leaves and grass. The foreground elements were
also treated with greater detail. A real effort was made within the staging
of the foreground to delineate short grass from longer grass, and flowers
from rocks and weeds. The grass, while still drawn as caricatured freestyle
blades and integrated in the bottom staging area, was painted in two separate
dark-value tones, pulling certain blades of grass forward. These innovations
gave the appearance of a more enriched landscape. Flowers And Trees went on to win Disney’s first Academy Award®.
One year after Flowers And Trees and 53 Mickey shorts after Steamboat Willie, director Wilfred Jackson's Mickey’s Mellerdrammer was indicative of another innovating step forward. Released on March 18th, 1933,
the backgrounds within this short at first might seem to be a throwback because
they are not in color, but the tonality found in the backgrounds of this period
would become a mainstay within both black-and-white and color painting technique
It is from this period of painting at Disney that one starts to see tone used
more uniformly with respect to the entire background painting. Thin pencil
lines still define the shapes of wooden floorboards and grass and thin
ink washes still fill in these shapes. However great forethought was given
to how added to how the values of these washes would work together to draw
your eye to a staging area.
MICKEY'S MELLERDRAMMER, 1933, production number UM-11, scene #12AB
MASTER PRODUCTION BACKGROUND.
Media: ink, watercolor wash and graphite pencil applied to one sheet paper.
Size: 10 5/8 inches wide by 8 25/64 inches high.
The manner in which the outlines were used changed as well. Darker, slightly
thicker outlines (similar but defined to bring greater emphasis than
those seen in the Steamboat Willie backgrounds) were drafted to pull more prevalent areas forward, as lighter,
fainter pencil lines were placed in the background where they would
not compete with foreground elements. The evolution in the depiction
of grass can still be noticed: Even in its use as a graphic element
within a theater backdrop, grass was now rendered with serenity and
some care to capture its actual anatomy.
All these advances were just a dress rehearsal for what was to be one of Disney’s crowning achievements. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs made its premiere in Hollywood on December 21st, 1937. Much expense and artistic
expertise went into the making of Snow White and can be seen, and
to a much greater extent felt everywhere -- particularly in the backgrounds,
where the choices of color and tone were more fully realized than
in the earlier shorts. One still sees the use of pencil lines, washes
of color and even caricatured rubber sword-like blades of grass but
it is the wisdom shown within the coloring of this film which sets
it apart. Choice and placement of color were selected with great
precision and became as integral a part of the film’s storytelling as the characters themselves.
The color palette used for Snow White’s backgrounds were intentionally less saturated than the shorts usually were.
Its backgrounds and cel paintings both used Payne’s Gray as a local color. This gave every visual aspect of the film a somber,
umbered earth tone setting, where more playful and sometimes dramatic
colors could emerge. In essence, these grayed earth tones were used
as a staging point. Their interplay was both sophisticated and subtle.
It could be seen in the dramatic depths created by the more heavily
painted dark browns and greens of the forest and felt in the lighter
areas of the wood bark where washes of the paint’s pigment would nestle within the texture of the background paper lending the
appearance of tree texture.
Additionally, the colors of the Dwarfs were chosen by extrapolating from the
colors used to make the forest background paintings. Colors just
left or right of the forest browns and earth tones, like ochre and
light grayed blue-greens and grayed violets were selected so that
the Dwarfs would rise and separate, yet still feel included within
the color spectrum of the forest. The color choices for Snow White herself, represented the next level. More regal, deeper shades of red and blue
placed in Snow White's dress would draw attention to her upper body.
The rouge of her cheeks further served as a warm spot upon her china
doll flesh tone and draw the viewer eye's upward to her face.
SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, 1937
production number 2001, sequence 3B, scene 19
KEY MASTER PRODUCTION PAN BACKGROUND WITH TRIMMED AND ADHERED CELS.
Media: Background: watercolor and graphite pencil applied to one sheet of paper. Cel: ink and gouache applied to trimmed cellulose nitrate cel sheets which were
later adhered to background.
Size: 14 3/4 inches wide by 8 21/32 inches high.
While the use of color in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs married the gothic quality of a European fairy tale book illustration to the
drama experienced in feature film narrative, the aesthetic advances
found within the background paintings created for Bambi would take that vision of the forest, turn it completely around and forever
alter that way the animation industry would visualize the forest.
Directed by David Hand and premiering on August 13th, 1942, Bambi was based upon a screenplay that contained only four pages of written dialog.
Its story of life, death and innocence lost and recaptured is largely communicated
through its depiction of the forest and through the film’s use of music, which seemed completely attached to the film’s visuals.
This was a lot to ask of the background department, where, for the first time
in a full-length animated feature, the environment was as important to
the film’s storytelling as any of the main characters. Much of the credit for this breakthrough
goes to the articulate pastel conceptuals of Tyrus Wong. Though he worked
in animation for only a short time, Wong's contribution on Bambi was greatly responsible for liberating background painters from having to color
everything from the layouts as if they were isolated objects.
Different background painting techniques were called upon to bring the sweeping
elemental qualities of Wong’s pastel conceptuals to film. Opaqued paint layers of oil were traditionally
applied on paper. In many places, the thinner washes of pigment suspended
in linseed oil captured the texture of the paper and created the aerated
amber mist effect seen in so many of these backgrounds. Semi-dry, semi-opaque
layers of the more mat looking paint gouache were added to create detailed
The interplay of tone and color was also employed like never before. Not only
was tone used to direct the eye and set a stage, but tone and color were
also used emotionally. Blades of grass, which were still drawn slightly
caricatured were fully integrated to the backgrounds. Their shapes, through
their color alone, seem to suggest movement as shades of yellow-green and
blue-green mixed with gray sway throughout the meadow. This ballet of color
and tone was done with deep emotional accuracy, yet always felt spontaneous.
The impact of Bambi’s background paintings are long-standing and represent the ability of the artist
to think beyond what was predictable within the medium. They transcend what
was previously acceptable; affecting the studio and the industry itself. Aesthetic
evolutions in animation like this are often the result of someone wanting to
better the art form and leave their mark. They can manifest themselves as broadly
as rethinking an entire genre, or can be an epiphany as simple as a painter
finds within a single blade of grass.
BAMBI, 1942, production number 2002, sequence 04.1, scene 40
MASTER PRODUCTION BACKGROUND.
Media: Oil, gouache and graphite pencil applied to one sheet of paper.
Size: 17 1/32 inches wide by 9 9/32 inches high.
All images are © Disney Enterprises Inc.
The author would like to thank the Walt Disney Archives and Dave Smith, Ray Morton
and Dave Koch for their help
This article and interview is owned by © Ron Barbagallo. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
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BY RON BARBAGALLO:
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The Destiny of Dali's Destino, in 1946, Walt Disney invited Salvador Dali to create an animated short based
upon his surrealist art. This writing illustrates how this short
got started and tells the story of the film's aesthetic.
A Blade Of Grass is a tour through the aesthetics of 2D background painting at the Disney Studio
from 1928 through 1942.
Lorenzo, director / production designer Mike Gabriel created a visual tour de force in
this Academy Award® nominated Disney short. This article chronicles how the short was made and includes
an interview with Mike Gabriel.
Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, an interview with Graham G. Maiden's narrates the process involved with taking
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into fully articulated stop motion puppets.
Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit, in an interview exclusive to this web site, Nick Park speaks about his influences,
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to bring Wallace and Gromit to the big screen.
For a complete list of PUBLISHED WORK AND WRITINGS by Ron Barbagallo,
click on the link above and scroll down.