STOCKBRIDGE — The artistic and technical breakthroughs of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” are so embedded in the early development of film animation that it’s easy now to take the film for granted.
The 21st-century post-everything viewer, intuitively conversant with seven types of irony, might be quicker to scoff at the heroine’s passivity and genial helplessness, traits that don’t sit as well with contemporary sensibilities.
But there’s so much “Snow White” got right.
That point is now made with vigor in an obsessively thorough museum exhibition detailing the film’s production. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Creation of a Classic” opens at the Norman Rockwell Museum on June 8 and runs through Oct. 27. This is its only engagement outside of San Francisco’s Walt Disney Family Museum.
“People were used to cartoons which were usually six to nine minutes and just gag films,” observes exhibition curator Lella Smith of the environment in 1937, when the film opened. “In order for it to be a success, people had to really fear the Huntsman, they had to fear the Queen, they had to really root for Snow White.”
The notion of coloring an animated fairy tale with a realistic emotional palette was new. Smith says an early animator summed up to her this sea change in storytelling, noting that if Goofy fell off a mountain in a short he would “dust himself off and be OK, but if Snow White fell off a mountain she would have to break her neck.”
It was the first feature-length film made entirely with the cel-animation process that would define the genre until the rise of computer-aided techniques a half century later, and so it forced the legions of staff animators at Disney’s studio to make up the process as they went along. During its three years of production, some skeptical outsiders called the project “Disney’s folly.”
For diehard fans, the exhibition should seem positively enchanted. But even those with a simple fondness for illustration or curiosity about the collaborative process of big-studio animation will find a wealth of material to gorge on.
Some of the most obviously eye-catching pieces are vividly colored cel setups (painted sheets of transparent celluloid stacked atop background illustrations), like those showing the menacing Queen staring out of her window or the very expressive seven dwarfs huddled around a table. But developmental sketches and watercolors not only offer a window into the process, they stand on their own as sumptuous specimens of illustration art.
“The artists working behind animated films, whether it’s cels or today’s computer-generated 3-D, are impeccably trained illustrators and artists,” Norman Rockwell Museum director and CEO Laurie Norton Moffatt says. “We encourage people to think about the creative process that goes into the making of a film, or just a cover you might see on The New Yorker, and realize that an artist created that.”
Story sketches show the evolution of concepts for the Queen and Snow White characters, from a “cartoony” approach (Betty Boop designer Grim Natwick submitted early takes on the title character) to their final, more realistic forms. And, yes, at one point Snow White was a blonde.
Tasked with rendering lifelike action, the animators filmed carefully staged footage of live models acting out the characters’ movements as a guide. Marge Champion, who would later star in a series of MGM musicals with husband Grover Champion, was 14 when she was hired as Snow White’s stand-in.
“They were very particular about eye lines and how I turned my head, because they wanted her to seem as much like a real girl as possible,” recalls Champion, who nowadays splits her time between New York City and Stockbridge.
She remembers the day clotheslines with ropes dangling from them were strung across a room, to simulate the scene of Snow White running, terrified, through the woods. “I had to push my way through them, and the animators were down on the floor, pulling on my dress as I ran so it was like I was being held back.”
The result of this exacting work was a film that was layered enough to interest adults as well as children. In fact, some of it is a bit intense for the kids — even Disney’s own. Diane Disney Miller, cofounder of the Walt Disney Family Museum, vividly remembers seeing her father’s new opus when she was not quite 4.
“When the Queen turns into a witch, I remember screaming in terror over and over again. I was immediately whisked out of the big old sound stage and suddenly I was blinking in the bright sun. But Dad had this theory that kids love to be scared, as long as the bad guy gets his due in the end.”
This sequence is depicted in the exhibition by background paintings and cel setups of the Queen’s dungeon, plus pencil drawings showing details of her unnerving transformation, including a close-up of her writhing, skeletal hands.
All told, the film’s overarching achievement was to meld the tools of animation with the techniques of sophisticated filmmaking.
“The film moved animation closer to live action films in terms of aesthetics and style. The camera work is fluid like in live action films, featuring long takes, parallel editing, and a large range of shots,” Roy Grundmann, director of Boston University’s graduate program in film and TV studies, writes in an e-mail. “It was also the most expensive animated film produced at that point in history, and to this day it is considered one of the most beautifully made.”
Who’s the fairest of them all? When it comes to animated films, for many fans there’s still only one answer.
Jeremy Goodwin can be reached at