Thursday, April 27, 2017

Disney’s Folly: The Making of Snow White

By Brittany Bell

Disney animated films are of the most beloved to ever grace the silver screen. The long line of these feature films dates all the way back to the 1930s when the young animator Walt Disney decided to take a leap of faith; he wanted to create a full-length, full-color animated film. Critics dubbed the film “Disney’s Folly”, for they doubted that anyone would want to see Walt’s film and that Disney had produced a flop. Audiences today now know that film as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the film that launched Walt and the Disney Studios into the realm of superior animated movies. Join us today and discover how Walt’s dream of making Snow White came to be a reality…

The Walt Disney Hyperion Studios, 1929 – 1939 where Snow White was made.

On one day in 1934, Walt gathered his best animators in a storyboard room of the Disney Bros. Studios. The Studios had seen recent success with the Alice Comedies, Steamboat Willie, and the Silly Symphonies, and Walt was ready to take yet another leap for the small studio. He told his team that they were to make the very first full-length Technicolor animated musical feature film based on the Grimm Brothers’ fairytale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. To get the animators to see his vision, Walt even acted out the entire story—from portraying Snow White to hunching over to be the Evil Queen. Apparently Walt’s acting skills payed off: the team was on board and Snow White was a go. Walt hand selected animators from the studio to begin work on Snow White while others continued to work on their hits, the Silly Symphony and Mickey Mouse cartoons, which were now produced in full color.

Walt Disney acting out the entire story of Snow White for his animators.

Walt decided upon choosing Snow White for his first animated feature film after reminiscing about the silent version of the story he had seen as a boy in Missouri. Walt also recognized that the forest setting for the film would be a natural opportunity to animate a variety of "appealing little birds and animals.” In addition, he thought that the dwarfs would make great cartoon characters. Other fairy tales that he had considered included Cinderella, Peter Pan, and Alice in Wonderland, all stories that the Disney Studios eventually went on to tell. However, Walt’s first personal touch on the Grimm Bros.’ tale came when he decided to give each of the seven dwarfs their own traits and personalities. You can see Walt discussing each dwarf's characteristic in the video below...

(For your viewing pleasure, be sure to pause the Disney Avenue Music Player at the top, left-hand corner of the page prior to playing the video below if you are on a desktop computer.)

In the previous telling of Snow White, the dwarfs had no differentiation between the seven of them—they acted as a single unit and single character. This telling was to be different, and ideas began flowing for how to characterize the dwarfs. The original list included over 40 different names, some of them being: Scrappy, Hoppy, Weepy, Snoopy, Gabby, Silly, Flabby, Daffy, Dizzy, Puffy, Biggy-Wiggy and Jumpy…just imagine trying to remember some of those names! The list, thankfully, was refined down to the seven that we know today: Dopey, Sneezy, Bashful, Happy, Sleepy, Grumpy and Doc, and animator Fred Moore was in charge of bringing these characteristics and traits to life.

Voicing the movie was a whole new challenge for Walt and the production team. While the dwarfs were to be voiced by popular radio hosts and personalities of the time, finding a talent for Snow White began as an extensive search. Casting director Roy Scott auditioned hundreds of girls in the Hollywood area, and none had sufficed Walt. In a desperate attempt to find more girls to audition, Scott made a call to Los Angeles signing coach Guido Caselotti. While on the phone with Scott, Caselotti’s daughter, Adriana, overhead the conversation and was asked to read for the role. When Walt heard her voice, he immediately knew that he had found his Snow White.

Adriana Caselotti never lost her sense of fun and enthusiasm for the Disney character she played in 1937—Snow White. At the drop of a hat, Disney’s first ingenue of the animated screen would burst into a chorus of the songs that made her famous: “I’m Wishing,” “Some Day My Prince Will Come,” and “Whistle While You Work.” At home in Los Angeles, she proudly displayed a “wishing well” on her front lawn. Reportedly, Adriana remembered every line, verse, and nuance of her most famous role.

While Caselotti voiced the princess, dancer Marge Belcher was the movement model for Snow White's animators to study. CBS News caught up with Belcher back in 2009 to discuss her work with Walt on Snow White that you can see below...

(For your viewing pleasure, be sure to pause the Disney Avenue Music Player at the top, left-hand corner of the page prior to playing the video below if you are on a desktop computer.)

For the Witch, Lucille La Verne lent her voice talents. The Evil Queen was based on the character that La Verne played in “A Tale of Two Cities”, making her the perfect choice for the role. Originally, she was to only do the voice of the Witch, but ended up voicing the Evil Queen as well after no better voice actress could be found. Even through the troubles, the voices of the film seem to be perfectly suited, even when watching the film 80 years later.

Finding voices for Snow White wasn’t the only trouble that Walt was presented with when producing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The biggest problem was that the film was way over budget…almost six times over budget! Disney had initially budgeted the film between $150,000 and $250,000, but the final cost came to nearly $1.5 million. Both Roy and Lillian had warned Walt that this film would bankrupt the Studio, and it almost did. In a desperate attempt to get a bigger loan, Roy O. Disney, Walt’s brother and business partner (and the better business mind of the two) offered a banker from the Bank of America to view the incomplete film. And, although the film was still in its “rough draft”, Disney was granted the money and the film ended up being completed on time. In total, the film's production took nearly five years, between 570 and 750 crew members (most of them animators or water-color artists), and as many as 2 million sketches and paintings. Only about 166,000 of them can be seen in the finished film.

The film also marked the first major use of a Disney-made animation innovation: the multi-plane camera. The camera gave the illusion of depth by allowing three to seven cells to be photographed at the same time. In addition, it allowed the backgrounds and foregrounds of the scene to be kept in proportion as the camera angle changed. Although Disney had used the camera in a short film before (1937’s “The Old Mill”, which won an Oscar), this was the first use of it for a feature-length film and became a necessary tool for creating animated features.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered at the Carthay Circle in Los Angeles on December 21, 1937. The biggest stars of the day were all in attendance, and Walt eagerly awaited the reaction of the audience—would his film be a hit or a miss? Walt’s fears were put to rest, however, when the audience became fully involved in the film. According to legendary animator Ward Kimball, “these were cartoons, just drawings, but they gave definite emotion and were real for the audience.” These cartoons were so real for the audience that they cried when Snow White had apparently died, screamed in fear at the Witch, and cheered for the happily-ever-after at the end of the film. The film was a success, bringing in $8.5 million on its initial release, and Disney’s Folly was no more.

Some of the success that followed the film included an honor award for “a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field for the motion picture cartoon.” Walt was presented with a custom trophy, made up of a regular Oscar on a podium, followed by seven smaller statuettes. Additionally, Snow White became the first film to have a complete soundtrack released on record with a multi-disk set, and was one of the first films to include branded merchandise.

Disney’s Folly turned out to be a keystone in the development of Walt’s career and the Disney Bros. studios. Though many ups and downs still followed, the studio proved that they were innovators in the game and were going to test boundaries and find new ways to tell stories. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a risk for Walt and Roy, but a risk that ultimately payed off and launched the line of classic Disney movies that we know today.

Be sure not to miss this special 40-minute documentary on the making of Walt Disney's first full-length feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The documentary, narrated by Angela Lansbury, is an exceptionally entertaining and informative piece which takes audiences through the early history of Disney and the original idea to start production on an animated version of Snow White. Animators and historians discuss what actually happened during the time of the film's release and how Disney's attempt to make a feature-length animated picture was met with some resistance by the media of the time. The documentary also discusses and shows visuals of how the characters and story evolved along the way. Enjoy...

(For your viewing pleasure, be sure to pause the Disney Avenue Music Player at the top, left-hand corner of the page prior to playing the video below if you are on a desktop computer.)


Brittany Bell grew up in Lewiston, Maine, about 45 minutes away from Portland. She is currently studying Public Relations and Journalism at Boston University, and hopes to one day work for the Mouse himself. She grew up in a Disney-loving home, and would watch Sleeping Beauty on repeat as a little girl. Her first trip to Walt Disney World was in the summer of 2000, at four years old. Ever since then, Brittany and her family take annual trips to the World, and have no intention of vacationing anywhere else. Her favorite places in Walt Disney World are the Animal Kingdom Lodge, the Grand Floridian, and the Magic Kingdom. She can’t go without seeing Fantasmic! at least once each vacation, even though she chokes up a little at the final scene. Brittany is fascinated by how one man’s dream became an empire—one that makes dreams come true every day.

Before she became obsessed with Frozen and Queen Elsa, her favorite Disney characters were Princess Aurora and Mulan. She loves everything and anything Disney, from the parks, to the movies, to the Broadway musicals. In the near future she hopes to participate in the Disney College Program and work as a “friend of a princess”.

You can find all of Brittany's articles here.


  1. Hi, Great article. Can I ask where you got these images from?

    1. Tumblr primarily but they are all believed to be property of the WDC as mentioned on our Contact Us page unless otherwise noted at the source.