Walter Elias Disney was born in Chicago on December 5, 1901, to an Irish-Canadian father and a German-American mother. The family raised Walt, his sister, and his three other brothers on a farm near Marceline, Missouri. An unusually energetic boy, Walt developed a passion for drawing at an early age, along with an equally intense passion for salesmanship. He sketched relentlessly, then sold his sketches to neighbors, friends, and family. Moving back to Chicago for high school, Disney continued to draw but also took photographs, wrote for the school paper, and attended the Academy of Fine Arts in the evenings. A thirst for adventure led him to attempt military service in 1918, but he was too young to enlist. Instead, he joined the Red Cross as an ambulance driver and official chauffeur. In 1923, Walt followed his older brother, Roy, to Hollywood, carrying with him only a few drawing implements, one completed short animated film subject, and almost no money. Securing borrowed funds, he and his brother began an animated production company in their uncle’s garage. Disney’s entrepreneurial spirit and inspired imagination led quickly to the development of the Disney empire.
While Walt Disney’s success as a businessman is legendary, his artistic accomplishments should not be overlooked. Over the course of his career, he stretched the limits of animated film by constantly innovating and perfecting new methods of animation. Before he was twenty, Disney became the first animator to seamlessly combine live-action footage with drawn animation. In releasing the world’s first fully synchronized sound cartoon, “Steamboat Willie,” in 1928, Disney also introduced the public to the character of Mickey Mouse. He introduced Technicolor to his productions in the early 1930s and used a revolutionary multiplane camera technique as early as the mid-1930s. Throughout his career, Disney and his teams innovated in the realms of effects animation, special processes, multiple exposures, props, and camera tricks.
The amazing success of Disney’s early films gave him unusual freedom to expand and experiment further, despite the Great Depression and World War II. In the thirties, when the nation’s economy was at its lowest ebb, the budgets for his films seemed staggering—Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, for example, cost an astonishing $1.4 million. Still, the studio (constructed in Burbank in 1940) tightened its belt a bit during wartime, devoting much of its money and energy to the production of government-commissioned propagandist and military training films. In the 1950s, Disney created the Disneyland theme park in California and debuted the wildly successful “Disneyland” anthology series, later renamed “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.” By the time the workaholic Walt Disney died on December 15, 1966, his studio had released eighty-one feature films and won forty-eight Academy Awards. Today, the corporation which bears his name continues to expand and forge ahead in the fields of computer animation and restoration.
Sleeping Beauty was Walt Disney Pictures’ sixteenth animated feature and, at the time, the most expensive of his films to produce. Making the film took more than six years at an estimated cost of $6 million, a figure that was totally unheard of for an animated feature in Disney’s day. The lengthy production period resulted in part from the fact that Disney was preoccupied with the creation of Disneyland and the development of future projects. He rarely visited the studio, yet much of the creative process depended on his explicit approval.
The film process for Sleeping Beauty employed a new film size—Super Technirama 70. The 70-millimeter filmstrip was twice as wide as the 35-millimeter usually used both then and now and captures backgrounds with stunning clarity. It also employs a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, meaning that the width of the screen runs 2.35 times as wide as its height. Even today, 1.33:1 and 1.85:1 aspect ratios are more commonly used. The super-widescreen format allowed for the radical content and design of the film to be presented in a noticeably new way, with crystal clear focus and ultra-sharp backgrounds spread over more frame area. In contrast, other famous Disney films like Cinderella, Peter Pan, and Alice in Wonderland employ softer geometries and softer focuses.
Background painter Eyvind Earle based his radically detailed backgrounds on medieval, pre-Renaissance, and Gothic art. Artists who influenced his designs include Pieter Breughel and Jan van Eyck, as well as other Dutch, Italian, and Greek masters. The incredible detail of the art parallels the more adult content of this film as compared with Disney’s earlier animated features. Sleeping Beauty, unlike the Mickey Mouse films or even Snow White, emphasizes human characters and renders death, sadness, and longing with realistic displays of emotion. The epic widescreen style also lends to the importance of spaces in conveying the emotional temperature of a scene. Earle answered directly to Walt Disney but supervised the visual design of the film by using an assembly line to divide up the labor. For example, Frank Armitage, an acquaintance of the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, focused on the wide, sweeping backgrounds. Marc Davis supervised Princess Aurora’s and Maleficent’s characters.
Beginning in 1956, widescreen blockbusters rose in popularity, a trend that Disney attempted to capitalize on with Sleeping Beauty. Mammoth epic films shot in widescreen format changed the film world as they appeared one after another, including War and Peace (directed by King Vidor, 1956), The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. DeMille, 1956), Ben-Hur (William Wyler, 1959), and Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962). These epic films are longer than Sleeping Beauty—all of them are over three and a half hours long—but given its artistic scope and ambition, Sleeping Beauty deserves the title of epic as well.
Sleeping Beauty also stands out among other animated films because of its score. The music of the instrumentalists and singers plays for the duration of the movie. Only in rare moments does all instrumentation or song drop out. In most cases, a moving score sweeps the film along as an undercurrent. Disney chose to adapt Tchaikovsky’s music for “The Sleeping Beauty” ballet, and in choosing to draw from such a grand composer for his seemingly simple family film, Disney declared the timelessness and artistic merits of Sleeping Beauty and brashly placed it in a canonical tradition. Disney spared no expense for its technical production, either. George Bruns, who is also noted for composing original tunes for Pirates of the Caribbean, The Jungle Book, and the 1950s hit The Ballad of Davy Crockett, recorded the score in Germany with state-of-the-art equipment.
Sleeping Beauty has the distinction of being the last film that Disney personally produced. Recently, Sleeping Beauty became the second film to receive a thorough computer restoration, in which a team of forty computer technicians pored over all 108,000 frames of the film to clean and refurbish the colors. The print that the crew succeeded in creating, with its rich hues and subtle saturations, actually surpasses the print of the film’s initial 1959 release.