12 October 2023

100 years of Groundbreaking Animation and VFX from The Walt Disney Company

Unravelling 100 years of VFX and Animation Innovation

On 16 October, it’s a whole century since Walter Elias Disney founded his studio. The great man’s legacy is 100 years of groundbreaking animation and VFX innovation, so in The Walt Disney Company’s honour, we’re unravelling some of its most impressive achievements in this mustard FX special centenary edition.

Alice’s Wonderland (1923)

Don’t let us catch you dissing this silent-era (AKA Prehistoric) reel, because it’s actually something rather special. Alice’s Wonderland is the pilot for Walt Disney’s series of Alice Comedies, a succession of animated/live-action shorts created by the maestro himself between 1924 and 1927. The VFX of today owes an enormous debt to Alice’s Wonderland, which features a live action little girl named Alice (played by Virginia Davis) who exits an animated train to have a bag-full of adventures with some hand-drawn animals.

This pilot is equally notable for Virginia’s co-star, Walt Disney himself (iconic moustache MIA), who joins other animators in the studio who have fun with her by bringing their creations to life … and, as they say, the rest is history.

Although Walt wasn’t the first animator to mix live action with cell animation, with the Alice Comedies, the studio took the idea to a whole new level. So, the next time you watch Dick Van Dyke dancing with animated penguins in Mary Poppins, or raise an eyebrow at Angela Lansbury tripping the light fantastic with a gaggle of underwater cartoon creatures in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, humbly consider how the seeds for that technology were sown an astonishing 40 years previously. mustard FX also takes a respectful bow to Ub Iwerks (more on him later) Rudolf Ising, Carman Maxwell and Hugh Harman, the other passionate animators who worked on this Disney fledgling first.


Steamboat Willie (1928)

Disney’s most iconic characters, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, made their big screen debuts in this innovative short, the first ever fully synchronised sound cartoon. Okay, so while the dialogue is mostly made up of mumbles and growls (recorded by Walt himself), its comic soundscape was unlike anything cinemagoers had ever experienced.

Recalling initial reactions to the cartoon, Disney said: “The effect on our little audience was nothing less than electric. They responded almost instinctively to this union of sound and motion.”

While we’re at it, we can’t carry on without a special mention to Ub Iwerks, Walt’s co-director on Steamboat Willie. Ub stands out as not only a pioneer in the world of animation, but the man who turned Walt’s original sketch of Mickey into the mouse we recognise today.


Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

As the very first full-length, traditionally animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs stands in a category all of its own. In 1936, riding on the success of Steamboat Willie and their run of Silly Symphonies shorts, the House of Mouse embarked on the inaugural, full-length cell animation feature. Weird to think now, but at the time not everyone believed it would work, as nothing like Snow White had ever been attempted before.

Disney doubters were out in force, fuelled by news that the initial budget of $250,000 had ballooned to $1.6 million. Standing at 64 times the cost of a Silly Symphony (Walt was forced to mortgage his home and seek a bank loan to help complete the film), the Snow White project was known as “Disney’s folly” during production.

But the gamble paid off. Its revolutionary camera and colour techniques helped the film to gross $8 million internationally, as well as earning Walt a special Academy Award consisting of one full-size and seven miniature Oscar statuettes.


Tron (1982)

Computer-generated imagery is so ubiquitous in filmmaking these days, that it’s hard to remember a time when it was still a novelty. Way back in 1982, however, Tron was an absolute game-changer. In a movie era when animation technology was in its infancy, Tron was the first of its type to use extensive CGI. An impressive 15 minutes of the film consists of moving images created entirely by computer, with an additional 50 minutes of backlit animation helping to drive the cost of the movie over the $20 million mark.

The work was divided between four different computer graphics companies – Digital Effects Inc., Robert Abel & Associates, Mathematical Applications Group Incorporated (MAGI), and Information International Incorporated (Triple-I).

And it wasn’t easy, either. With computer memory and storage capability that would make an iPhone 1 smirk, as well as zero computer animation ability, each frame had to be individually created. These were then captured by placing a motion picture camera in front of the computer monitor.

Its effects may look dated now, but before 1982 nobody had ever seen anything like it. The film received nominations for Best Costume Design and Best Sound at the 1983 Academy Awards, though in an epic moment of madness, it wasn’t nominated in the Best Visual Effects category.


Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

Though Disney had long been marrying live action with animation, 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit took it to cloud-scraping heights. Unlike most other live-action/animation hybrids, this Bob Hoskins and Kathleen Turner-headlining comedy has its animated characters sharing as much screen time as their live-action co-stars. And with a budget of $58 million, Who Framed Roger Rabbit stands as the most expensive film produced during the 1980s.

Director of Animation Richard Williams was the driving force behind many of the groundbreaking techniques witnessed by excited moviegoers. Apart from Williams’ insistence on extreme use of light and shadow to give depth to Roger Rabbit, he also had the toons interacting with everything around them, giving the action extra that extra oomph. The movement of the camera added an ultra-realism that breathed fresh life into the animated characters by allowing them to have convincingly tactile contact with their human co-stars.


Toy Story (1995)

Full CGI feature films are de rigueur now, but in 1995, the arrival of an entirely computer animated movie seemed as ‘out there’ as the USS Enterprise landing on the White House lawn. Made by Pixar and released by Disney, Toy Story cost $30 million to produce and ended up grossing a staggering $394 million.

Of the challenges in making the first CGI feature, Director John Lassetter was pragmatic about his vision: “We had to make things look more organic. Every leaf and blade of grass had to be created. We had to give the world a sense of history. So the doors are banged up, the floors have scuffs.”

Toy Story VFX facts:

  • A total of 27 animators worked on the movie, using 400 computer models to animate the characters
  • Each character was initially either created with clay or modelled from a computer-drawn diagram before being three-dimensionally rendered
  • Finally, in the early days hair was particularly tricky to animate, so all the human characters have short or simple styles. As animation technology grew, so did their hair!

A landmark film not only for Pixar/Disney, it was also a game-changer in cinema, and is in the DNA of virtually every animated movie that’s been made since. All hail Toy Story!


Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (2023)

With Disney having bought up Lucasfilm in 2012, the Indiana Jones films are now a treasured part of the House of Mouse and the newly acquired studio’s inaugural Indy movie, The Dial of Destiny, landed earlier this year. The Indiana Jones franchise has always been lighter on effects than Star Wars or the MCU, but James Mangold’s 2023 film showed off ILM’s latest de-aging technology to dazzling effect. We’re used to actors losing a few wrinkles and double chins for short scenes, but the Dial of Destiny shaved 30 years off Harrison Ford’s age for a chunky 20 minutes of screen time. And, boy, did it work!

“The technology has evolved to the point where to me, it seems very realistic and I know that that is my face,” the actor said at a press conference for the film. “It’s not a kind of Photoshop magic, that’s what I looked like 35 years ago because Lucasfilm has every frame of film that we’ve made together over all of these years. And this process, this scientific mining of this library was put to good [use]…”

Given how convincing these 20 minutes are, we’re surely not far from whole movies centred around photo-realistically de-aged actors. And judging by their track record in VFX innovation, Disney’s likely to be first past the post.


Looking to kickstart your VFX or Animation career?

If you’re not only wowed by these extraordinary accomplishments, but have the talent and toolkit to push new boundaries in the VFX industry, then we need to talk. The mustard FX team is regularly asked to recruit for exciting projects and job opportunities, and we’re constantly on the lookout for the pioneers of tomorrow. Call us on our hotline – 0117 929 6060.


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