How Live Action Helped Disney’s Classic Animation


If you are a true connoisseur of Walt Disney you know that he and his animators were innovators in the field of animation back when it was still fairly young. The concept of drawing pictures and moving them fast through a lit projector to create the illusion of life was certainly something to behold.

Mickey Mouse cartoons were constantly produced, along with other companies like Flescher producing Betty Boom and Popeye and Warner Brothers with the early Merrie Melodies. But when Disney made Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt decided to rely on an animation technique that had been just recently been created to help with the movement of the Human Characters… Rotoscoping.

Rotoscoping was a technique created by Max Fleischer, where to create the realistic movements of a human, they simply traced over live action footage frame by fame to give an almost lifelike quality. The technique was used in various Fleischer shorts and the 1940s Superman Series and in Paramount’s 1939 adaptation of Gulliver’s Travel’s. Animation Director Ralph Bakshi is well known for using this technique in many of his films.

When Walt Disney was making Snow White the decision was made that all the human characters including Snow White, the Evil Queen, The Huntsmen and Prince Phillip would be assigned live actors for the movements. 

Early Test Footage using Rotoscoping for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1939)

But when the animation was being done Walt apparently thought the realistic facial designs would be seen as too frightening for small children, so the faces were “Cartoonafied” a bit to appear less frightening. 

After Snow White the studio continued to draw inspiration from real life in films like Bambi and Fantasia, but instead of directly tracing like you usually would they opted to simply use live footage for reference purposes, which is what Disney would use going forward.

Many film productions would erect sets and have the actors dress up in costume and act out the scenes. This was done in films like Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, CinderellaSleeping Beauty etc. Then the animators would be on set to capture the movements as they drew various sketches and designs. Once all the references for that scene were drawn they would animate the scene back at the studio. The Concept was used even during the Disney Renaissance Era with films such as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin.


In recent years, with the advances in technology, Disney’s Animated films are now almost exclusively done with a computer, and whenever realistic movement is required for a certain sequence they will use a technique known a Motion Capture or “MOCAP” Technology. Motion Capture is seen as the spiritual successor to Rotoscope animation as it also involves taking movement from a real life source. However, this time it’s taken through computer software reading the movements instead of by hand.

Though the technique of Rotoscoping is somewhat a niche technique in the modern day we shouldn’t forget that without real life to inspire the early animation industry we wouldn’t have such vibrant and lifelike animation today.

If you want to see more live action references you can always find a number of images and videos on Google or YouTube. Maybe this would help if you are researching Disney’s Animation History.

Source: YouTube (videos belong to the accounts that posted them)

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