Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Capital and Credibility in Sleeping Beauty: Eyvind Earle and the Disney Pre-Renaissance

I said, yesterday, that I would explain why it is that 'Sleeping Beauty' is one of my favourite films. The following is an essay I wrote in 2008. It explains the auteurist nature of the film and its unique place in the wider Disney canon. I was tempted to edit or improve upon it, but instead it is here warts and all. Enjoy:

1959 saw the release of one of the decade’s most highly anticipated event movies: 'Ben Hur'. However, William Wyler’s mega-hit was not the only big Hollywood event movie that year. 1959 was also the year that Walt Disney would release his long anticipated 'Sleeping Beauty' (1). Four years had passed since Disney’s fifteenth animated feature 'Lady and the Tramp' (2) had hit the world’s theatres. Disney fans had not been kept in the dark during this wait, however, as Walt promoted 'Sleeping Beauty' throughout its six year development (3 p. 299) on his weekly television show (4 p. 75) (even opening the Sleeping Beauty Disneyland attraction two years before the film’s release (5)). The film marked the studios return to the classic fairytale (6). At the beginning of the decade, in 1950, 'Cinderella' (7) had been a huge success credited with getting the studio back on their feet after financial difficulties during the war years (4 p. 75), where the studio released a series of progressively banal musical package films (3 p. 276). During a decade which had seen the success of 'Cinderella', 'Peter Pan' (8), 'Alice in Wonderland' (9) and 'Lady and the Tramp' (10 p. 9;48): 'Sleeping Beauty' “was conceived as the most spectacular of the postwar productions.” (3 p. 299) This hope is reflected in the following passage of Walt Disney’s biography by Neal Gabler: “Lady [and the Tramp], despite its long gestation period and despite the fact that it turned out well, was essentially make-work. Sleeping Beauty was something else. It was intended to be a magnum opus – ‘our most ambitious cartoon feature, to date’ Walt wrote...” (11 p. 558). But with a growth in the production of live-action films, with the creation of an ever expanding theme park empire, with aggressive interest in television programming and with ancillary revenues more important than ever to Disney (12 p. 4) (and more demanding of Walt’s attention (3 p. 300)), was there a place for art in an increasingly commercial House of Mouse?

'Sleeping Beauty' was certainly an expensive film to produce. It was the last Disney film to be hand inked before new Xerox practices were developed, which would be used on their next feature 'One Hundred and One Dalmatians' (13), saving time and money (and indeed making that film, with its hundred and one puppies, possible) (3 p. 301). The hand inked 'Sleeping Beauty' was incredibly labour-intensive as inkers had to hand paint all of the animators drawings onto each cell (it took 24 days to animate a single second of movement). This came at a great cost as the budget went through the roof. Eventually Disney spent over $6 million on 'Sleeping Beauty' (14 p. 15), although nothing in today’s Hollywood (Leonard Malton has joked that $6 million would be the “lunch budget” for a modern action movie (5)), it was a huge sum for an animated feature the fifties (indeed 'Lady and the Tramp' cost half the amount) (11 p. 557). The relative commercial failure of 'Sleeping Beauty' (11 p. 560), which “began in high hopes and ended in disaster” (3 p. 229), almost convinced Walt to scrap the production of animated feature films altogether (11 p. 559). Whilst 'Sleeping Beauty' and its relative lack of success at the box office didn’t put an end to animation at Disney, it did lead to a growth in live-action features, which continued to do well for the studio into the mid-70’s (11 p. 585). It also led to '101 Dalmatians' being made on a significantly reduced budget, which was cut even further for 'The Sword and the Stone' (15) (11 p. 620).

At the time of the film’s release, studios were experimenting with various widescreen aspect ratios. Sleeping Beauty was made in one of the widest: the Super Technirama 70mm format (3 p. 299). The film also took advantage of developments in sound recording, bring released in 6-track stereo sound (5). The widescreen process presented particular problems for animators, who, faced with more characters on screen at any given time, would have to spend more time animating each frame than they would traditionally. Ollie Johnston, who animated the fairies in 'Sleeping Beauty', noted this as a particular concern in regards to close-ups saying “you couldn’t get rid of a fairy” as they always seemed to co-exist within each frame. This complicated the staging of the movie in regard to the use of space, as animators had to think creatively to avoid the frame looking bare.

Though Sleeping Beauty was made by much of the same crew as those other 1950’s Disney features, celebrated Disney animator Andreas Deja describes the films style as being “more graphic than 'Lady and the Tramp'” (5). The film proved to be a break from the traditional Disney style in a number of ways. With Walt eager for the film to boast “a more unified look” (5), apparently inspired by an exhibition of medieval artworks known as the “unicorn tapestries” (fig.1) (5), he turned to background artist Eyvind Earle. Up to that point Earle’s work at the studio had consisted of backgrounds for 'Lady and the Tramp' and 'Peter Pan', as well as work on a handful of experimental short subjects, including the Academy Award winning 'Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom' (16). However, Walt was convinced of his talent and charged him with responsibility for styling 'Sleeping Beauty', with Walt’s instruction that it should resemble a “moving illustration” (11 p. 558). Ken Anderson, the film’s production designer, described Earle’s work on the film as a “strange and sterile look” given the dominance of vertical and horizontal lines and geometric shapes. Earle came to the project with a rich understanding of pre-renaissance, medieval and gothic art, which he faithfully incorporated into the look of the film:
“I’ve always been informed by pre-renaissance, medieval, gothic and here’s a movie based on that period of time. I first started with the old medieval artists and almost everything that was gothic. The tapestries [fig.1] were perfect examples of how foregrounds ought to be. The gothic came from the Persians and all their little details of grasses and weeds and trees fit perfectly, so I realised I could use anything that was in harmony with what I was trying to accomplish. And out of all of that a little tiny bit of myself came through.” (5)

Earle’s studies of Persian painting gave him major inspiration as he realised that everything was painted in focus, clear and clean all the time (5). This stylistic choice led to one of the biggest departures from traditional Disney on the movie, as Earle’s insistence on everything being in focus went against the purpose of multi-plane camera techniques Disney had made famous on previous films. The illusion of reality (by way of the presentation of depth) was being cast aside to give the film the more unified, stylised look Disney had insisted upon. The result was a series of backgrounds which were like nothing seen previously in a Disney picture, as Andreas Dejas suggests: “When you look at backgrounds from Bambi (17) and Snow White (18), as beautifully as they are painted in watercolour, but [if] you take the character level out of it they look like an empty stage set. These backgrounds [Earle’s for Sleeping Beauty] look almost like complete paintings with characters on top of them.” (5)

Pixar Animation Studios co-founder John Lasseter has been similarly enthusiastic about Earle’s backgrounds in 'Sleeping Beauty', also noting the departure from what had come before: “One thing Disney has always been good at is focussing the audience’s eye. Then here comes this film which is just gorgeous from one edge of the film to the other.” (5) This would prove to be a concern for the character animators, as it was feared it could distract an audience’s attention away from the characters themselves. Disney had become famous for their rounded and “cute” characters, from 'Steamboat Willie' (19) to 'Lady and the Tramp'; Disney characters were drawn to be appealing and warm. However, Earle was responsible, not only for the films lush backgrounds, but also in overseeing that the character animators styled and coloured characters to work with his backgrounds. This led to a certain amount of conflict between Earle and the animators, who petitioned Walt to remove him from the project, but Walt backed Earle and the animators were forced to make characters to fit the backgrounds (5), whereas traditionally the reverse would have been expected. Christopher Finch’s book The Art of Walt Disney describes this stylistic choice in unflattering terms: “unfortunately its [the films] stylised treatment tended to slow the action and interfere with character development.” (3 p. 299) He also backs up the concern of the artists that Earle’s backgrounds “are so busy they distract from the characters.” (3 p. 300) The way the characters were styled to achieve that stylistically unified look for 'Sleeping Beauty' marked another major change for Disney.

Earle’s influence on character design is noticeable when comparing Maleficent, the villain of 'Sleeping Beauty' (fig.2), with the stepmother from Cinderella (fig.3).These two are useful subjects of a comparison as both villains were based on live-action reference footage of the same actress (fig.4) and were drawn within the same decade. Maleficent is comprised of strong and distinct vertical and horizontal lines. Even the round parts of her design, such as her facial features and her horns, are jagged and almost appear as distinct vertical lines. Her colours are more subdued in order to compliment the dark grey spaces she usually operates in. By contrast Cinderella’s stepmother is a more traditional Disney character. She has rounded facial features, hair and clothing, whilst wearing comparatively bright colours. Whilst both characters are recognisably based on the same reference actress, Maleficent emphasises her eyes and her mouth, as well as her mannerisms, but puts then firmly within the films stylised look. The stepmother, on the other hand, resembles the actress more closely, but has exaggerated her into the more rounded classical style associated with Walt Disney. Ken Anderson has criticised the Eyvind Earle style character designs as “unfortunately quite stiff”, saying it “wasn’t possible for the characters to fit the style and be attractive” at the same time (5).

The three good fairies of 'Sleeping Beauty' represented something of a compromise between Earle and their animator Ollie Johnston, who managed to strike a balance between their geometric and angular costumes and their cute and cuddly Disney faces (fig.5). Walt Disney had discussed making the fairies identical (in the mould of Donald Duck’s three nephews), but the animators ignored this direction, giving them individual looks and personalities as distinct as those of the seven dwarfs. The fairies in the film fill the established Disney role of providing comic relief. However, this role is complicated by the fact that they are also (if only by virtue of screen time) the central characters. Rather than being the subject of a wacky sub-plot, the comic relief in 'Sleeping Beauty' is always part of the action, driving the story forwards. For example, as they make the cake and the dress for Princess Aurora’s birthday they argue and end up making a mess of everything they set out to achieve, yet this scene is not superfluous. In order to make the surprises they send Aurora out of the house and into the woods, where she happens to meet her Prince for the first time. The scene also enables us to see how much the fairies have come to care for Aurora during the years they have been charged with looking after her. It therefore serves to advance the plot of the film, show the development of the characters and provides emotional weight to the rest of the film. To a 1959 audience the three fairies voice actors would also have been recognisable, being comprised of popular radio and television personalities of the day. This would bring a certain likeable quality to the characters as audience expectation of their various roles would have provided a certain amount of pleasure, as it did to a contemporary reviewer in Variety (20 p. 6), perhaps lost on a modern audience.

Other characters with a clear medieval influence might include Malificent’s demon-like henchmen (fig.6) which resemble something from a gothic rendering of hell, like in this 15th century piece by Hieronymus Bosch (fig.7). They are not human, but nor are they animal, but some strange and grotesque hybrid. Similarly the crowds in the film are unusually static for a Disney animation and blend into the background, being comprised of ‘held cells’. This economy of movement allows for the film to feel like a moving illustration, where only the principle characters are moving in the frame.

The faces of people in these crowds in 'Sleeping Beauty' are either indistinct from one another or they are without detail altogether. Whilst art of the renaissance made a feature of celebrating the human through detailed portraits of faces, pre-renaissance art came before this humanist tendancy, the result being a lack of interest in individuals and in facial expression (21 p. 106). This tendancy is, understandably, not reflected in central characters, whose faces are expressive and detailed. The presentation of people in the art of 'Sleeping Beauty' is firmly routed in western Christian tradition: in Islamic art patterns and symbols are favoured over the depiction of humans and animals, which are considered idolatry (22 p. 110). By contrast (and in Disney tradition) 'Sleeping Beauty' depicts a plethora of woodland creatures, as well as people. The Persian influence Earle mentioned is, therefore, routed mainly in the details of patterns seen in interiors and in the painting of buildings and trees (22 p. 189).

As mentioned, the styling of these characters in this bold and graphic way was done in order to make them better read against Earle’s medieval/gothic influenced background paintings. The medieval influence on Eyvind Earle’s background work is visible throughout Sleeping Beauty. The films backgrounds are highly detailed (see the brickwork in fig.5 or the town in fig.9), and the colours are vibrant rather than naturalistic, with clean horizontal and vertical lines which dominate the look of the film. As Deja’s points out, there is also more than a hint of modernism: “It [Earle’s painting] takes the ideas and the colours and the motifs of the middle ages and then re-interprets them with a fifties point of view, being very graphic... it’s a modernist 20th century approach to re-interpreting pre-renaissance art.” (5) Flemish artists the Limbourg brothers, who painted the pictures for The Book of Hours (fig.8 & 11), “accomplished a revolution by introducing the landscape copied direct from nature into their painting” (22 p. 226). Earle has, similarly, taken their artwork and added a graphic modernism.

Shadows are usually absent in 'Sleeping Beauty' (with a few noteable absences such as the demonic fire dance in Malificents lair), which must be a stylistic choice rather than one based on limitation as shadows are rendered for all of the characters in 'The Lady and the Tramp'. Similarly, pre-renaissance art is usually devoid of the detailed recreation of lighting, including shadows, as can be gleened from the illustration (fig.8). Another influence emerges when you consider how the horses in the foreground in both pictures (fig.8 & 9) seem to exist on one plane. In medieval art details can exist in the foreground and the background, but without any real sense of perspective. Background objects are meerly drawn smaller and foregrounded items drawn bigger, all in sharp detail. The same can be seen in any frame from Sleeping Beauty (as in fig.9). The difference between this gothic stlyling and the art which would come later has been nicely described by Henry Focillon, who wrote:
“There are two kinds of painting: one imitates the light of the sun, with its play of brightness and shadow, and seeks to create the illusion of a complete space, modelled in depth; the other accepts natural lighting and utilises it for its own purposes, which are not those of nature, gives it a novel and perculiar character, and embodies it in a flatterned space... Gothic painting is essentially of the second category; even when it tends to give the figures the fullness of their substance...” (21 p. 110)

The gothic look is applied futher to the architecture of the film, with all of the castle interiors seen in Sleeping Beauty ressembling the interiors of great medieval Cathedrals like those at Salisbury, Troyes and Strassburg (23 pp. 45-53). If a Cathedral is “a universe devised by the power of human thought”, as Focillon suggests (21 p. 110), then a Cathedral is perhaps a fitting metaphor for the singular beauty of Eyvind Earle’s work on 'Sleeping Beauty'.

Earle’s unified styling of 'Sleeping Beauty' so impressed Disney that it came to infilrate all aspects of the project. The original plan for the film is that it would be a musical with broadway-style popular song tunes, like 'Peter Pan' and 'Lady and the Tramp' before it. However, when Walt Disney saw the elegance and refinment of Eyvind Earle’s paintings he decided that the song score had to be scrapped, with the exception of the song “Once Upon a Dream”. Instead he had a musical score composed based upon Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s ballet based on the same story (5). This move represents a huge commitment to the artistry of the project from Walt Disney, seeing as how Disney films made many millions each year from the sales of sheet music and records, based on the popular songs they featured (4 p. 77) (12 p. 4). Perhaps this was borne out of Walt’s desire to make another 'Fantasia' (24), heralded by the media as a masterpiece upon its release, in no small part down to its use of “high” art in the form of classical music (25 pp. 214-36). In Walt Disney’s biography, it is suggested that Walt’s determination to make 'Sleeping Beauty' “art” was in no small way due to a desire to prove the “superiority of the Disney style, and in doing so... would also constitute a major assault on everything [his rivals] represented” both in terms of content and form. (11 pp. 555-8).

Disney had long felt that the wonderful concept paintings of artists like Mary Blair (whose concepts for 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Peter Pan' can be seen in fig.12 & 13) were being watered down and homogenised for the final film (11 p. 558). He had hoped that in 'Sleeping Beauty', by handing creative control of the overall design to one man, he could produce a piece of unparalleled animated art. As Walt Disney became more and more interested in theme parks and television, his interest (or at the least the time he could spend with) the animation department appeared to wane (11 p. 559) and in this period he seemed split down the middle between the hard-nosed businessman, whose empire had reached all four corners of the globe; and the young man with the wide-eyed facination of all things animated. People who worked on 'Sleeping Beauty' often recall that Walt would be enthusiastic about the artistic aims of the film on one day, and then go the other direction on the next, fretting about the mounting cost. On one of the bad days he fired Eric Larsen as director of the film because the scene he was working on (‘sequence 8’ in which Aurora meets her Prince) had run over budget and taken (literally) years to produce, and even then he hadn’t been happy with the results declaring that the scene needed “more cute animals” (5).

'Lady and the Tramp' could be seen as a more influential Disney movie than 'Sleeping Beauty', as it set a less formal tone, whilst being based in a contemporary setting, something which many of the 1960’s Disney films would seem to continue (3 p. 300). But whether Earle’s influence stayed with Disney or not, his time on 'Sleeping Beauty' seemed to stay with him after he left the studio following the films release to continue his career as an artist in his own right. His painting of northern Californian landscapes (fig.14) bare more than a passing resemblance to his work on the film, whereas his work prior to Disney had been more obviously modernist (fig.15).

Did 'Sleeping Beauty' represent a successful fusion between “high” and “low” culture as 'Fantasia' had been heralded as achieving nearly twenty years prior? Ollie Johnston never thought so, ever critical of the films style. He believed that the background paintings in a good film would “support the action by minimizing detail or bright colours that could distract from the action, thus the background palette is said to reinforce the characterization and the action’s effects subtly and plausibly.” (26 p. 109) Similarly, the faint praise the film is afforded in its highly critical entry in The Art of Walt Disney is that it features “some excellent moments”, but the characters are criticised as the “merest of ciphers... wholly compounded from clichés” whilst the backgrounds are “so busy they distract from the characters” (3 p. 300). In the 500-plus pages of Finch’s book (which only goes as far as 1973) there are only one and a half pages dedicated to 'Sleeping Beauty'.

The film did receive more encouraging contemporary write-ups though. Variety of January 21st 1959 featured a positive review which proclaimed the film as a guaranteed treat for audiences who it says may be impressed despite their familiarity with television. It also praises the characters voice work and singles out the Prince as “considerably more masculine than these Disney heroes usually are” and acknowledging that the characters “match the visual concept” (20 p. 6). In the next issue of January 28th a story expresses the excitement investors felt at a screening of the film, even going so far as to suggest the $6 million had been well spent (14 p. 15). February 4th sees an issue of Variety released which reports that the film had broken records for its opening showings in Los Angeles (27 p. 4).

Whatever the contemporary view of audiences and critics (and Disney animators) toward 'Sleeping Beauty', the fact remains that Disney has been (in the long-term) profiting from the film with endless Home Video reissues since 1986, as well as theatrical re-releases in 1970, 1979, 1986 and 1993 (with a limited release in 2008). When adjusted for inflation of ticket prices 'Sleeping Beauty' is the 29th highest grossing film of all-time in the US alone (28), earning a combined $523,267,600 domestically (making it the sixth most successful Disney film at the US box office). Recent years have also seen the film receiving greater critical attention, as more people start to appreciate the efforts made by Eyvind Earle to break from some established Disney traditions in form, whilst maintaining the fluidity of the animation itself (5). A highlight for this spectacular animation can be seen in ‘sequence 8’ (the forest dance) as Aurora’s dress moves so naturally in relation to her movements. The characters may have been stylised and vertical, to the ire of many of their animators, yet the Disney flair for animated movement still shines through and, arguably, compliments the films look far more than it hinders it.

'Sleeping Beauty' is a triumph of art, produced in a commercial setting. Whilst it has been exploited for theme park rides, dolls, home videos, recorded music, books, costumes, bedding and even video games, these things are irrelevant to Eyvind Earle’s art. There is a difference between the Disney Corporation and animators and artists whose life and vocation is animation, just as there was a difference between Walt Disney the businessman and Walt Disney the animator. Of course, this essay has ignored many things which would seem to criticise the art of Disney; namely gender politics. But whatever the politics of the Disney canon at large, 'Sleeping Beauty' is secure as the last classical Disney film: the last to be hand-inked and the last (for better or worse) to be so two-dimensionally embedded in a fairytale past. It was also the first (and possibly the last) Disney film to so wholeheartedly embrace the notion of animation as art: and there cannot be a better epitaph, for it or Earle, than that.

1. Clark, Les, et al. Sleeping Beauty. Disney, 1959.
2. Geronimi, Clyde, Jackson, Wilfred and Luske, Hamilton. The Lady and the Tramp. Disney, 1955.
3. Finch, Christopher. The Art of Walt Disney. Burbank, CA : Walt Disney Productions, 1973.
4. Gomery, Douglas. Disney's Business History: A Reinterpretation. [book auth.] Eric Sooodin. Disney Discource. New York : Routledge, 1994.
5. Dejas, Andreas, Lasseter, John and Maltin, Leonard. Audio Commentary. Sleeping Beauty: 50th Anniversary Edition. [Blu-ray Disc] s.l. : Disney Studios/Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2008.
6. Perrault, Charles and Translation by Carter, Angela. Sleeping Beauty & Other Fairytale Favourites. London : Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1982.
7. Geronimi, Clyde, Luske, Hamilton and Jackson, Wilfred. Cinderella. Disney, 1950.
8. —. Peter Pan. Disney, 1953.
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12. Disney Profits Continue to Rise. Variety. January 14th, 1959, Vol. 213, 7.
13. Geronimi, Clyde, Luske, Hamilton and Reitherman, Wolfgang. One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Disney, 1961.
14. Investors Predict Disney Growth. Variety. January 28th, 1959, Vol. 213, 9.
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16. Kimball, Ward and Nichols, Charles A. Toot, Whilstle, Plunk and Bloom. Disney, 1953.
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21. Focillon, Henry. The Art of the West: Gothic Art. New York : Phaidon Publishers, 1963.
22. Bazin, Germain. A History of Art from Prehistoric Times to the Present. London : Bonanza Books, 1958.
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30. Kühnel, Ernst. Islamic Arts. London : G. Bell & Sons, 1970.
31. Canemaker, John. The Art and Flair of Mary Blair. Burbank, CA : Disney Editions, 2003.

1. ‘The Unicorn is Found’, ca. 1495-1505. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image obtained from
2. Malificent in Sleeping Beauty. See (1). Image obtained from DVD.
3. The Stepmother in Cinderella. See (7). Image obtained from DVD.
4. Eleanor Audley. Image obtained from
5. Three Good Fairies in Sleeping Beauty. See (1). Image obtained from DVD.
6. Maleficent’s Goons. See above.
7. ‘Hell’, Hieronymus Bosch, ca. 1490-1500. Akademie der Bildenden Künste, Vienna. Image obtained from
8. Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, Limbourg Brothers, ca.1485-1489. Musée Condé, Chantilly. Image obtained from
9. Sleeping Beauty. Image obtained from DVD.
10. Sleeping Beauty. Image obtained from DVD.
11. Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, Limbourg Brothers, ca.1485-1489. Musée Condé, Chantilly. Image obtained from
12. Concept for Alice in Wonderland, Mary Blair, Image obtained from
13. Concept for Peter Pan, Mary Blair, Image obtained from
14. Gothic Forest, Eyvind Earle, 1999, Gallery 21, California. Image obtained from
15. Deer, Eyvind Earle, Image obtained from
16. Various Home Video Boxes, found on

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