51 Days of Disney (Day 17): One Hundred and One Dalmatians

One Hundred and One Dalmatians marked the beginning of some big changes around the animation department of the studio. After the less than stellar performance of Sleeping Beauty in theatres, the studio was struck by the monster that is known as lay-offs once again. This, unfortunately, is what always seems to happen when companies adopt new technology, and in this case it was the adoption of the xerox method for the inking of the animation cells. In 1959, Ub Iwerks, who is credited for the creation of a large majority of the technological developments in the field of animation at the studio, modified a xerox camera to transfer the animator’s drawings directly to a cel. This sped up the process, but it also made the finished cels look much more messy than the films prior, with stray lines and fuzzy elements of the drawings throughout. This is a trend that would continue for a number of years and features.

The other major change that happened was the shift of not only time period, but the use of music that was more popular at the time. The film is set in the “modern day”, namely 1961, and is about the young Dalmatian couple Pongo and Perdita and their “pets” Roger (Ben Wright, who was also Rama in the Jungle Book and Grimsby in the Little Mermaid) and Anita Radcliffe. The movie begins with the two “pets” meeting through Pongo’s intervening and getting married. The Dalmatians have a litter of puppies and Anita’s school friend, Cruella De Vil (voiced to perfection by Betty Lou Gerson, who also narrated Cinderella) wants to purchase all of  them, but Roger puts his foot down and says no. Cruella is none-to-pleased about this and swears that she will get the puppies if it’s the last thing she does.

She naturally hires two goons, named Horace and Jasper, to have them stolen, as that is what anyone would do in that kind of situation. Pongo and Perdita use the Twilight Bark, which is mostly used as a dog barking chain, to find out the location of the puppies and they run away from home to find their litter and bring them back home safely before Cruella has a chance to carry out her evil plan to make a dalmatian skin coat.

George Bruns composed a fantastic, jazzy score that really tied the film together and genuinely emoted what was going on in the film. Easily the best pieces is the music composed for the opening sequence and the scene where the dalmatians are disguised as labradors while escaping from Cruella.

While there were some major problems with the xerox method, another of which is the fact that the lines were only printed in black and the lines became decidingly less subtle, but that problem was eventually fixed, the movie could not have been made without it. Having to ink every single Dalmatian spot by hand would have proved to be both too time consuming and too expensive to do. The xerox method also allowed for the animators drawings to reach the screen for the first time without being changed through the inking process. This made a large number of the animators at the studio very happy as some of them felt like they weren’t their drawings anymore after the inking process was finished.

The film took on a much more modern art style. The character designs became more simple and angular and even the backgrounds changed. Ken Anderson, the master of mood and colour, was put into the role of background designer and the results were stunning. Anderson painted all of the backgrounds in a very minimalist and angular style to strongly reflect the same style of the drawings for the animation. He even brought in a famous artist of the time, Walt Peregoy, to do colour studies and concept art for the backgrounds that heavily influenced Anderson’s final drawings. Peregoy had a knack for painting something that only looked like a chair in shape, but that you would look at and instantly recognize as a chair. Ernie Nordley then went back and drew over the backgrounds to add in the details which were then xeroxed and put over the finished backgrounds. Roger and Anita were even more physical with each other than previous Disney couples. They acted like modern couples act.

One Hundred and One Dalmatians is the first film in the Disney canon that used recycled animation, all of which was from Lady and the Tramp. Jaq, Peg, Bull, and even Lady can all be seen in the Twilight Bark scene. This practice would be used much more and to much infamy in the darker days of the Disney canon in the 70’s and 80’s.

My favourite piece of character animation in the entire film (that is not Marc Davis’ master work on Cruella, who he designed and animated completely by himself and was his last animation role) is the scene where Roger stands up to Cruella about the puppies. His facial expression, combined with the very odd way his head moves, and his adam’s apple movement is just perfect. It really shows that it took some great courage to stand up to the De Vil woman and the feeling that he is going through really is portrayed well on screen.

The reason that I had to specify character animation is because of how they animated the cars in the movie. Ub Iwerks had an idea to take film and run it directly through the xerox machine, so he had some of the animators built a scale replica of each car out of cardstock and cardboard and outlined all of the edges that they wanted to show up on film. They then filmed the cars using a regular camera for every shot they were in and from every needed angle and ran it through the xerox machine for inking and sent the finished cels to the painting department to be finished. All of the models were built with working shocks and wheels, but the wheels were moved by placing the car on a sheet with wooden dowels attached to the bottom and they would pull the sheet slowly out from underneath the car. This method not only kept the cars looking on model, but produced some very incredible results on screen and managed to keep the cost of production down.

The first film in the British era of Disney films is a polarizing one. It pushed the field of animation forward, but at the same time pushed it back until the technology caught up with the Studio, but at least it allowed Disney to create a genuinely heartwarming, funny, and scary story with fantastic music and one of the greatest opening sequences in film history.

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