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Designing and Animating Pinocchio

From Walt Disney Home Entertainment:

Arriving at the final design for Pinocchio proved to be an enormously challenging assignment for the five members of Disney's Character Model Department and the animation directors assigned to the character. Under the guidance of Joe Grant, the team began work in 1937 and initially came up with a character in a stocking cap that resembled an awkward puppet-like stick figure. Walt found this version to be too brash and lacking in appeal and halted animation until a new design could be found.

By mid 1938, a revised model sheet was prepared showing a cute puppet with wooden paddle hands. A 36-inch high model was built and photographed alongside Christian Rub, the live-action model and voice of Geppetto, to give some sense of what the design might look like on film.

Later that same year, animation directors Fred Moore and Frank Thomas had each tried their hand at redesigning Pinocchio. Moore added innocence, human proportions and replaced his paddle hands with more expressive three-fingered gloved hands. Thomas concentrated on facial expressions and came up with about 60 different related poses. The model department created a movable plaster head to help him with his research and experimentation.

In February, 1939, animation director Milt Kahl, made further improvements in the design of Pinocchio and portrayed him as a chubby na´ve little boy in a Tyrolean hat. This became the final model and animation resumed a short time later.

The assignment of turning an unappealing bug into the character of Jiminy Cricket was given to animation director Ward Kimball. According to Kimball, "Crickets are not intrinsically cute. Jiminy started out as a pretty ugly-looking insect from which all the somewhat grotesque insect appendages and characteristics ultimately had to be eliminated."

In the end, any resemblance between Jiminy and a genuine cricket was almost incidental. Much of the inspiration came from the grasshopper character in a prior Silly Symphony short called, "Grasshopper and the Ants." Kimball and his associates shortened the feelers and eliminated the thorax to make Jiminy shorter, rounder and more beetle-like.

The unprecedented worldwide acceptance of SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS as the first animated feature and its tremendous box office success gave Walt Disney the confidence and encouragement to take on even greater challenges and more ambitious projects. Over the next four years, the studio would create four of its greatest classics: PINOCCHIO, FANTASIA, DUMBO and BAMBI. The atmosphere at the tiny Disney cartoon factory was one of tremendous excitement. Relieved of the anxieties and uncertainties associated with the SNOW WHITE project, their experimentation and techniques became increasingly bolder and more self-assured. In the case of PINOCCHIO, the result was a beautiful, highly refined production.

Disney wanted PINOCCHIO to be even better than his first feature effort and strived for perfection in all areas of the production. Bill (Vladimir) Tytla, one of the film's animation directors and the animation talent behind Stromboli, summed up the exhilaration and frustration of his experience in an interview with animation historian John Canemaker: "I had to animate one sequence in PINOCCHIO and I gave it everything I had," said Tytla. "There were several scenes I showed to the other animators. They all said 'great' or 'nothing else needed' or 'don't change a thing.' I felt pretty good about it.

"Finally the time came for Walt to see it. He was subdued and even jolly in the 'sweatbox' (screening room). He said, 'That was a hellava scene, but' - there's always that cruel 'but' in there - 'if anyone else had animated it, I would have passed it. But I expected something different from Bill!'

"Well, he sunk a ship with that took a couple of weeks before I could work again. I was crushed. But one day, I took up my pencil and started to draw again, differently. It was as if something hit me and I started all over. This time, I showed it to Walt, he said, 'Great! Just what I was expecting!' He never did explain what was wrong. It was as if by some magical way, you would know."

Animation director Frank Thomas, who worked on the character of Pinocchio, told John Canemaker in a later interview that 'the big challenge was to keep him wooden and not human. He couldn't move like he had skin and bones and muscles. He had to have a certain, well, wooden quality, and this was difficult. Since the essence of animation is movement and the basis of Disney animation is an illusion of life involving 'squash and stretch' - the give and take in the structure of living things - it was a real problem."

At one point in the production, Disney actually threw out six months of extensive animation and ordered a new design for the title character. According to animator Ollie Johnston, "Walt said he needed more appeal." Another time, Disney halted production on the underwater sequence until the story was developed to his satisfaction. In an interview with Canemaker, Johnston said, "the cost of delays and starting from scratch didn't matter to Walt. He'd go to any length to get quality on the screen."

Disney's desire to push the boundaries of the medium extended to every other area of the production as well. The backgrounds in PINOCCHIO are perhaps more detailed than in any animated film before or since. The animated effects, ranging from the twinkling stars to the stunningly brilliant underwater scenes complete with ripple effects to the incredibly complex and dimensionally correct multiplane shots put the film in a class by itself.

Another example of Disney's strive for perfection can be seen in Geppetto's workshop, where a menagerie of imaginative mechanical clocks spring into action every hour on the hour. To ensure accuracy, precision and believability for these animated clocks, actual working models were designed by art director Albert Hurter and then physically built as 3D working models so that the animators would be able to study their movements.

In the realm of animated effects, PINOCCHIO continues to awe, and in some cases, confound today's filmmakers. Commenting on the achievements of the film in an interview conducted many years after its release, animation director Milt Kahl said, "No one knew how to light a scene with incandescent dewdrops, or how to animate cartoon characters walking on the bottom of the ocean. Glowing candles, flickering lamps and modeling on faces to show roundness were all new."

New ways of handling paint and pastels were explored and developed. Innovations in camera operation, lighting, unusual process shots and spectacular animated effects were made. Complex airbrush and drybrush techniques were created to capture highly detailed and colorful effects on plastic cels. The artists conceived the impossible and the technicians made it a reality, creating a fantasy world of the imagination with dramatic visual effects not possible in live-action filmmaking.

One of the most amazing visual effects in PINOCCHIO is the use of the multiplane camera, Disney's complex Academy Award-winning camera system that gave a fully dimensional quality to the flat 2-dimensional animation art. By photographing different elements of the scene on different levels or planes, and by moving the characters through these planes, the composited image would appear in proper perspective. Nowhere is this technique used to better advantage than in the scene where Pinocchio is trapped in a cage inside Stromboli's caravan. The components of this complex scene include (1) a rear plane with the Moon, shining in the night sky, (2) a level of light streaming in through the caravan window, (3) the rear bars of Pinocchio's cage, (4) Pinocchio, himself, moving independently of the swinging cage, (5) the fore-bars of the cage and (6) the puppets moving in the foreground. All of these elements are moving both dependently and independently. Add in the light ray from the Blue Fairy beaming in through the window and you have a spectacular scene. Other examples of multiplane camera usage include the film's opening sequence showing the village and in some of the dramatic underwater scenes.

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