Four Faces of Snow
By David Johnson
The face of Snow White seems ageless and indeed for over sixty years has commanded our attention as probably animation’s most famous heroine. Yet upon closer scrutiny, this most popular of fairy-tale females has no less than four distinct looks which only makes her over-all harmonious impression all the more remarkable. The full story of her facial quartet is one of the most interesting aspects of the film’s history and, never before given more than a passing mention, is here presented for the first time.
To the casual viewer, whether a first or multi-timer, the character of Snow White looks like “Snow White.” With a costume either in rags or in the more familiar quasi-medieval outfit of yellow dress, blue bodice flanked with small striped bell sleeves and a high back collar, the face of this most famous of animated heroines appears happily consistent throughout the film. There are few, if any, of the early critics (or later writers, for that matter) that mention anything that might suggest a different “look” to the character at various parts of the story. Of course, this was the intended result and has come to be expected even with repeated viewing of the film by most people, young or old. Walt would have been pleased. In fact, the face of Snow White is not consistent and her various incarnations and their reasons are far more interesting than if she had been.
Consistency in character drawing - particularly of humans - has been, and still is, one of the chief problems in feature animation. Because of the enormous task and the many thousands of separate drawings involved, many artists must draw the same character if he or she is to be on screen for a any length of time. Even with non-human characters, if a strong personality and/or wealth of details is needed, this can result in a distinct difference in styles and looks between artists, not only in their animating styles but in the details which are often supplied by assistants. Model sheets were thus employed even in the early days of animation in an effort to mitigate these differences, something that early producers and animators of cartoons were only too well aware of. Even with model sheets, however, this is at best only adequately achieved, especially if the character is a complex one and this only through great effort on the animator’s part.
The reason for this difficulty lies in the personality of the artist himself. In this light is interesting to note that in an interview made several years ago with animator George Rowley - a special effects animator, mind you, not a character animator, this very aspect of the animator was discussed (and not in the context of consistency). He spoke of how even in this apparently “objective” work one could see differences between the various (special effects) artists because each one “put himself into each drawing, into each drop of water,” making even this uniquely his. How much more complicated then, would it be to make consistent a figure like Snow White, surely one of the most demanding ever attempted in the cartoon medium. It is another of this film’s many and remarkable achievements that one is rarely aware of any change in the visual appearance of the face of the heroine.
For Snow White the original animator and actual designer was Ham Luske, one of the great animators at the studio (Albert Hurter, the Swiss artist hired by Walt a couple of years prior to Snow White’s actual inception as an inspirational artist, was the creator of her costume, seen throughout most of the film but the look of the character herself was done by Luske). He, according to Grim Natwick, Snow White’s other “premiere” animator (he had created “Betty Boop” in 1930), was the only other animator besides himself who could draw let alone animate a believable girl (of course Fred Moore could, and did, but this was after the early period to which Grim was referring and Les Clark’s unsuccessful foray into the unchartered realms of anatomical realism for “Goddess of Spring” left much to be desired, to say the least). Ham had superbly drawn the Mae West caricature in the 1934 hit “Who Killed Cock Robin?” but this was also a far cry from the intended real-life-looking fairy tale princess. However his expertise was evident, especially to Walt, where it mattered most, and it was thus into Ham’s lap that this most plum of all assignments fell. But disenchantment with Ham’s concept was not long in coming, at least after actual animation began.
That animation did not take place until late in 1935, a good year after the project was first announced. Although there were many suggestions by various artists, it was Ham’s that, at least at the time, must have appealed to Walt as the most desirable. Ham conceived of Snow White as a “cartoon” rather than as a realistic character as can been see from the early model sheets.
Her head was large for her body as were her eyes, large almost round-shaped orbs that would ultimately limit the expression and, strangely, even the projection of more complex human emotions. Other anatomical and facial features were likewise over simplified, not merely because of the difficulty in drawing (for Walt nothing was impossible) but simply because Ham evidently saw her that way. Ham’s art school training prior to coming to Disneys was not extensive and he, like most others at the studio, received the greater part of his anatomical studies “on the job” at Don Grahm’s famous classes, which Walt had initiated in 1932 and to this day unique in the annals of animation. Ham also had a knack with the female character that set him apart with his colleagues. It soon became apparent, however, even to Ham that the task confronting him was a colossal one and repeated attempts at early scenes were scraped. Walt was becoming more and more dissatisfied.
Enter Grim Natwick. As soon as he had heard that Walt was planning a feature cartoon, Grim knew that was where the action would be and he wanted to be in on it. There was only one problem: Walt had, it seems, a policy of never hiring anyone who had previously refused a job offer, which Grim, in fact, had done shortly after he had created Betty Boop (he had offers from virtually every cartoon studio but wanted to remain in New York with Max Fleischer). At that time Grim (like so many others “back East”) was of the opinion that Walt was primarily a businessman and that Ub Iwerks, his key animator was the real creative force behind the Disney Studio. Luckily for Grim (and, as it turned out, for Walt and the Studio as well as for posterity), their mutual friend and Walt’s key storyman Ted Sears persuaded Walt to give Grim a second chance and Grim began work at the Hyperion Studio late in 1934. As far as Walt, Grim and Snow White were concerned, there would be few future regrets. Yet all was not smooth sailing for Grim who, then in his early forties, was easily the oldest animator on the lot. From the first, Grim’s art school background (eight years of it, with three in Vienna) made him unique among his fellow artists and put him at variance with Luske as soon as animation commenced on Snow White. It didn’t take long for Grim to realize some of the sources of Walt’s dissatisfactions. As Grim’s then-assistant Marc Davis would later tell me, Ham’s lack of training would drive him up the wall. Luske’s work looked to him “like s***” and had little or no anatomical basis. The work was not “spined- based,” for Grim an important factor in realistic representation. Apparently Ham thought the same of Grim’s work, for aside from the question of ego (after all, Ham was the character’s designer and supervising animator), Grim’s concept of the character was far from the cartoony one Ham had envisioned.
No doubt Grim’s training would prevail over any “cartoony” conception, as far as anatomy was concerned. But it was also in Grim’s approach to Snow White’s face that set him at odds with the character’s originator. Partly because of the many thousands of life drawings that he had done over many years, partly because of his own attention to detail ( he was known to have one of the best pair of eyes in the business), Grim began to absorb more and more of the actual live model than from the model sheet. This happened to be one Marge Belcher, a young dancer chosen to act out and be filmed for most, if not all of the action required of Snow White, as a guide for the animators. Marge, whose father owned a prestigious dancing school in Hollywood and who would later find fame as Mrs. Gower Champion, was fourteen when she began her assignment. Naturally Grim had such a mastery of the human figure that, by his own admission, he disdained much of the “rotoscoping,” the term used for the process of photographing the human movements (the blown-up single frames of action were thus called “rotoscopes” and given to the animators as separate sheets along with the live-action movie footage which they could run on their moviola). In fact, much of his animation was done without apparent effort, something the struggling but gifted Ham did not wish to dwell upon.
By early 1936 work on Snow White was taking up more and more of the studio’s resources. Yet virtually nothing had been inked and painted. Although a considerable amount of animation had been done, mostly by Luske, in the several months prior to this, none of it had passed Walt’s severe standard as a more flowing, life-like and natural look to Snow White’s movements now seemed mandatory . Snow White’s scenes in the forest singing to her newly-befriended animals was one of the first that was finally okayed to be inked and painted but Walt soon changed his mind and the results were scrapped (this same scene would undergo at least one other complete transformation, cleaned-up and ready to be painted before Walt would again veto his decision and send it too to the trash can to be re-incarnated in its third and final version). The earliest scenes of Snow White that were allowed to remain in the film (and which Walt had also wanted to re-do yet again but was reluctantly forced to concede over his brother’s protests) comprise the sequence from her first glimpsing the dwarf’s cottage until the commencement of “Whistle While You Work.” Even here, several sections of this sequence were eventually re-animated and it is in this portion that the discrepancies between Ham’s early version and the later modified one are most obvious to the keen observer. The animation is faultless yet she appears quite cartoony with her large, round eyes and somewhat pouting mouth. This is particularly noticeable when Snow White peers through the window and she is identical here to the early model sheets (as well as some later ones showing relative sizes of characters, which, bearing a date of 1937 are obvious tracings of earlier ones and which the figure of Snow White was not bothered to be “updated”).
This article is Copyrighted © 2000 by David Johnson, and have beed printed here for the first time in Animation Artist Magazine with Johnson’s permission. David Johnson is a regular columnist for Animation Artist Magazine, and we thank him for his insight and willingness to contribute his knowledge and talent to the animation world.