Rouge, Mr. Thomas!
By David Johnson
Veteran Disney animator Franklin Thomas loves to tell the story of how Snow White got that “tough of color” to her cheeks. It seems that Snow White was looking rather peaked in the early color rushes and Walt was displeased. “How about if I put a little bit of rouge on her cheek,” said one of the Ink and Paint girls to Walt. But Walt demurred, citing that it would be too difficult to get the spot of rouge exactly right on each successive cell. The young lady replied that she and her colleagues would not find the task so insurmountable: they, after all, had been doing a similar routine on themselves for years.
Such is the tale that has been passed down for so many years that now, as “Snow White” is well past its 60th anniversary mark, it appears to be safely enshrined into impregnable lore, having assumed that ‘must-know’ category of anyone claiming to be an aficionado of this film. Safely until now, that it.
With the greatest respect for the genius of Frank Tomas’ artistry, I never really believed this story even when I first heard it more than 25 years ago (and then it was not new) nor can I now account for its perpetual repetition (or slight variation) even in the most latest books on the subject. I think you will agree that the application of common sense or even a slight reflection on the given explanation will make it appear dubious at best.
In the first place, how could rouge (or lipstick, as claimed in one of the more recent sources) be applied to the cheek of a Snow White cell without making her look more like a clown than a young fairy-tale princess? After all, rouge (and lipstick) is a substance whose subtlety is dependent upon the porous nature of the surface to which it is applied, like human flesh. But try it yourself on any cell and you will be very disappointed. It is impossible to ‘blend’ it, at least within the small confines of a cartoon face, even in close-up. Then again, rouge smears and it is not difficult to imagine the mess that would quickly ensue when cells are stacked on top of one another. Even a fixative (also claimed to have been added to each application) would not be much help as the slight residue left from such a spray would, when hardened, be visible and slightly discolor the area. Powdered rouge would even be more elusive: can you picture rows of women putting powder on Snow White? A vision in pink - Marie Antoniette and doughnuts!
Since any other than the above tale was never handed to posterity, much less documented, more than six decades after the fact can work against anyone trying to weed out fact from fancy, and make any attempt at finding out what really happened a difficult one. Fortunately, many years ago and only after countless inquiries and talks with those involved, I succeeded in solving one of the mysteries of the Snow White iconography.
The famous blush on Snow White’s cheeks was a rose-colored dye - not paint, which, when carefully applied, bled into the surface of the cell itself, thus producing this soft, diffused effect as the dye seeped through. This was applied to the top of the finished cell with a small piece of cotton wrapped around a tipple pencil, not unlike a Q-Tip. Just how this process was ultimately reached is more difficult to substantiate. The late Ruth Thompson, a cell painter on “Snow White” who later became a multiplane scene planner, recalled: “We tried everything - airbrush, drybrush, even lipstick and rouge, which is perhaps the basis for the legend because we did, in fact, try it. But nothing worked.”
The airbrush was difficult to control on such a small area; drybrush was too harsh; lipstick and rouge unwieldy and messy. Everything proved to be impractical and all hope seemed lost to give Snow White her little bit of color when the idea of using a dye was proposed. Again Ms. Thompson: “Someone suggested a red dye because the blue dye we added to give Donald Duck his distinctive sailor-blue never really could be washed off the cell without leaving a bluish stain where the paint had been applied.” Ever since the mid 30’s when color became the norm for all the cartoons, not just the “Silly Symphonies,” all paints and inks were made at the studio. During this period as well cells were routinely reused for economic reasons, thus the need to wash them off. Apparently Donald’s special blue color was made with a dye added to the usual powdered pigments. “So we tried that.” As the women gathered around in what must have seemed just another dead-end effort, all eyes became fixed on the red dot which soon became a small glow with no perceptible edge. The hushed silence soon gave way to sighs of relief. The method had finally been found. Now the application.
Just how this was to be achieved was no easy matter since there was no guide on the drawings themselves as to where exactly this spot of light red should go (normally such things as shadows and moldings on characters would be marked lightly by the special effects animator - usually in red pencil - on the original drawings before any inking and painting was begun; this tint, however, as well as the dry brush around Snow White’s hair, was a special case, and grew out of a dissatisfaction with the paleness and general flatness of Snow White when first viewed in the color dailies near the end of production). Who could apply it consistently to the same spot on each cell, a very difficult proposition.
Among the studio’s many inkers (an extremely demanding profession), was one young lady whose training and skill was unique: Helen Ogger. Just being an inker placed one within the elite confines of this most “holy of holies” area of the Nunnery, as the Ink and Paint Department was so called (Walt had strict and quite Victorian views that the sexes not mingle at the workplace, allowing no male personnel save the “gofer” boy and the paymaster “Mr.” Keener to enter this domain of mostly unmarried women ). But Helen was in addition a very fine cartoonist and one of the few women at Disney’s or anywhere else, who could animate.
Helen first came to the studio in 1931. Born in Caro, Michigan, she moved with her family to Glendale, California when she was 14. After graduation from Glendale Union High School in 1927 she attended USC for two years until 1930 and after that art school. A friend of many years as well as a fellow inker, Juanita Fernandez also attended the same school: “We both attended Frank Wiggins Trade School (later Los Angeles Trade Technical College) and studied art. Helen was a wonderful cartoonist who could draw very funny caricatures of all her friends (she would graduate in June of 1931 with a major in Advertising Illustration). And she could animate.”
Whether or not Helen looked back on her early training in animation as a plus in giving her an edge in performing this uniquely difficult but monotonous assignment was an opinion she never shared. However, her careful attention to detail has made her work on “Snow White” an important ingredient in the overall success of this feature cartoon and another reason for its permanence among the great works of the Twentieth Century. Such a seemingly insignificant detail might be thought not worthy of special mention (she, as well as the other inkers and painters, was given no screen credit). But when one adds up the number of footage required to be tinted freehand on each individual cell, the hours suddenly turn into weeks and months. In fact, such a treatment was never attempted again on such a scale and even today, the publicity stills from “Snow White,” most of which do not have the added blush, bear witness to how that little touch of extra care adds to the vitality we see on the screen. The work was done on all close-ups, most medium shots, and even on some long shots. The Queen was also similarly tinted. Hundreds of hours were needed to complete this task, arduous, repetitive and, of course, hard on the eyes. Ultimately a handful of other girls were needed to assist Helen as the clocked ticked toward the deadline.
Helen had to place several cells together on an animation board, one atop the other, just like in the process of animation, in order to get the ‘registration’ right (the spot of red just right in relation to the preceding and following ones) - all of this without any guide. She would work out her own extremes and then ‘animate’ the blush in inbetweens. Her work deserves admiration and gratitude and it is unfortunate that her contribution has remained unknown and her anonymity unaltered during her lifetime. She was paid, as were the rest of the Inkers, $18 a week, which included a half-day on Saturday and the many, many hours of unpaid overtime “Snow White” would require - all given unstintingly, (by everyone involved, it should be added), to a project whose joy in participating was its own reward. She eventually became head of Inking and Special Effects and even taught classes in animation at the studio. She left in 1941 (apparently part of the terrible strike that would leave the Disney Studio changed forever), taking her skills with her. She died in Glendale in February of 1980. Perhaps it is safe to say that her departure was critical to the abrupt demise of this now unique effect (it was also used, though on a much smaller scale in both “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia”). None of the other inkers or painters were animators and it is this fact, not just the factor of economy nor the changing tastes, which surely must be considered a reason why such details were never attempted again. The golden age was over.
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The author, David Johnson, wishes to thank Bob Broughton, Katherine Derwin, Ruth Thompson, Dody Roberts, Neda Fernandez, and especially Ruth Bart for their patience, assistance, and encouragement in this endeavor.
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.