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Balthasar

Disney's Multiplane Camera (1937) Small Wonder

Disney's Multiplane Camera (1937) Small Wonder
Balthasar, Aug 9, 2018
    • Balthasar
      The first well-known, documented use of a multiplane camera in animation was not in the United States; it was in Germany. Charlotte “Lotte” Reiniger produced the 1926 color-tinted animated film Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed, (in English, The Adventures of Prince Achmed) using a tabletop multiplane camera set-up. While not demonstrating the sophistication of later multiplane cameras, the film definitely shows overlaying animation on multiple levels. Berthold Bartosch, who worked with Reiniger, used a similar setup in his film L'Idee (1932).

      Back in North America, Disney's long-time friend and partner Ub Iwerks - who had left the Disney Studio for his own independent studio in 1930 - had developed and begun using his own multiplane camera in 1933. Disney may have started working on their camera first. There is a story that as soon as Iwerks heard about the Disney plan to build a multiplane camera, he stopped animating at his studio and locked himself in the basement. After a couple of weeks, he emerged, and invited his whole staff down into the basement where he unveiled a multiplane camera - that he had built on a Chevrolet chassis. Iwerks’ camera was horizontal and long, so the cameramen could work the camera and easily walk over to adjust the multiple planes. Don Quixote (1934) was probably the first film the Iwerks camera was used on. Within two years, however, Iwerk's studio was defunct - just as Disney's Multiplane camera was being completed.

      The technicians at Fleischer Studios created a distantly related device, called the Stereoptical Camera or Setback, in 1934. Their apparatus used three-dimensional miniature sets built to the scale of the animation artwork. The animation cels were placed within the setup so that various objects could pass in front of and behind them, and the entire scene was shot using a horizontal camera. The Tabletop process was used to create distinctive results in Fleischer's Betty Boop, Popeye the Sailor, and Color Classics cartoons.



      The Disney multiplane camera was designed by William Garity, an engineer who had first come to Disney through the studio's association with Cinecolor, and was first used on the Disney Silly Symphony short, The Old Mill (1937). The film's impressive depth and visuals created a big stir in Hollywood, and won the film an Oscar for Best Short Subject and an Academy Award (Scientific or Technical, Class II) for the invention and use of the Multiplane Camera. Disney's multiplane camera used up to seven layers of artwork (painted in oils on glass) shot under a vertical and moveable camera, which allowed for more sophisticated uses than the Iwerks or Fleischer versions. The camera was used during the making of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, but not extensively, because animation for the movie had already begun while the Multiplane was still being built - some scenes in the movie were later re-animated using the Multiplane before the movie's release. The Multiplane's true potential was finally seen by audiences in the jaw-dropping opening shot of Disney's next feature film, Pinocchio.

      So why did Disney get so much attention and recognition for an idea that wasn't at all new? U.S. patent 2,201,689 is in the name of Walter E. Disney for improvements in the “Art of Animation” that include the Disney multiplane camera. Disney's innovation wasn't just the machinery itself, but also the process by which that machinery was used to create animation. Perspective in animation wasn't new, but Disney's animators used the Multiplane camera to simulate a virtual 3d space, which allowed them to move their virtual camera through and around in a scene just as a real film camera could in a live action movie, and in fact, to have more freedom of movement than any real world camera would be capable of. The multiplane camera also made new types of special effects possible in animated films, such as moving water and flickering light.

      The Little Mermaid (1989) was the final Disney film to use a multiplane camera, though the work was done by an outside facility as Disney's cameras were not functional by that time. The process was made obsolete by the implementation of a "digital multiplane camera" feature in the digital CAPS process used for subsequent Disney films and in other computer animation systems. Three original Disney multiplane cameras survive: one at The Walt Disney Studios, Burbank, California, one at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, and one in the Art of Disney Animation attraction at Walt Disney Studios Park in Disneyland Paris.

      Ub Iwerks returned to the Disney studio in 1940, and mainly thereafter worked on developing special visual effects. He is credited as developing the processes for combining live action and animation used in Song of the South (1946), as well as the xerographic process adapted for cel animation. He also worked at WED Enterprises (now Walt Disney Imagineering), helping to develop many Disney theme park attractions during the 1960s. Iwerks did special effects work outside the studio as well, including his Academy Award nominated achievement for Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963).

      Engineer William Garity also developed Fantasound, an early stereophonic surround sound system for Disney's Fantasia in 1940. After leaving the Disney studio, Garity later became vice president and production manager for Walter Lantz Productions. He was inducted in the Disney Legends program in 1999.
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