In Disney’s oeuvre (body of work), Sleeping Beauty stands out for its strikingly divergent visual style. Led by supervising animator Eyvind Earle, the team emphasized detail in the backgrounds and in the expressions of the characters to such an extent that the film’s visual style intrigues almost as much as the fairy tale itself. The makers based the film’s style on an art history canon of Dutch, Italian, and Greek masters and Medieval, Pre-renaissance, and Gothic art. The optically challenging black-and-white checkered floor in the room in which Aurora sleeps recalls Dutch and Italian masters, for instance, and the grand cathedral-esque ballroom retains the style of Gothic architecture.
Many elements of the visual style merit close examination. For instance, to create the nestled, safe seclusion of Rose’s forest home, the team employed multiple, overlapping cels of animation. Painted on the deepest cel is a row of trees, and on the frontmost layer are branches from other trees. The animators tuck Briar Rose between these two layers as she walks barefoot in the woods. To further naturalize the scene and highlight the layers and depths, external light sources create diagonal shadows that softly trail shafts of light through the gaps in the clearings. The accuracy of Rose’s movements through those clearings came from live action models that were filmed for study. Multiple scenes, including Briar Rose’s dance in the woods, were choreographed and filmed with live action models for extra precision of human movement.
Strong verticals dominate the landscapes of the film. Deep rows of tall trees stretch out through the forest. In Stefan’s castle, columns, tapestries, and hanging manuscripts stretch the enormous height of the ballroom. Maleficent’s tower is a giant vertical shaft charging up into the skies. Even Briar Rose has verticals in her dress and hanging hair to emphasize her thinness in contrast to the plump fairies. These verticals emphasize the width of the 70-millimeter frame and create vast open spaces whose meaning shifts according to the context of the scene.
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