Sunday, 23 November 2008

ONCE UPON A DREAM

I was not quite ten when, in 1959, I was taken to the Odeon cinema, Bromley, to see the then latest Disney animated feature, Sleeping Beauty. I still vividly remember being overwhelmed by colour, music and visual richness of a kind I had never previously experienced in a movie.

Almost fifty years on, I've had the privilege of contributing to Picture Perfect: The Making of Sleeping Beauty, one of the 'extras' to Disney's latest, Platinum, DVD release.

It has to be admitted that Sleeping Beauty isn't everyone's cup of sherbet: some think it lacks originality (being too much of a re-hash of Disney's earlier princess-movies: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella), others find it's baroque style too fussily ornate; but for the true Sleeping Beauty devotee (of which - as by now you've guessed - I'm one), this lavish picture, filmed in Super Technirama 70 and with a stereophonic soundtrack featuring a score based on Tchaikovsky's ballet suite of the same name is a matchless gem!


This was the last Disney feature film to be made in the traditional ink-and-paint method that had been used by the studio since it's earliest pictures featuring Mickey Mouse and the Gang. The very next film to be released - 101 Dalmatians in 1961 - made the pioneering leap to a more economic, streamlined method of animation using a Xerox process that knocked mega-dollars off the costs and produced a look that chimed with that lively, graphic style of popular art typifying the 'sixties. What was gained was a new energy and fluidity of animated movement; what was lost was a sumptuousness that swept the viewer off into a world of pure, ecstatic fantasy.


The story in Sleeping Beauty successfully tidied-up some of the problems of the original plot (in which the princess is awoken from a hundred years sleep by a prince who wasn't born when she dozed off!), gave personality to the fairytale character-ciphers, added a measure of humour with the woodland critters (above) who are clearly children of those in Snow White and Bambi and in the persons of three Good Fairies - Flora, Fauna and Merryweather...


There is also Maleficent, the mother-of-all villianesses: a kind of animated amalgam of the nastiest qualities of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford...


And Maleficent's dramatic transformation into a fire-breathing dragon in the film's finale, is unquestionably one of the most dramatic and fantastical scenes ever animated.


The senses-embracing, wide-screen process allowed for far greater detailing and texture than had previously been seen in a Disney feature film and, under the art direction of the brilliant landscape artist, Eyvind Earle, the film took on a look that crossed the most elaborate excesses of the Hollywood set designers of the 'forties with the pictorial precision of medieval illuminated manuscripts.


There's a popular fallacy that Disney's Sleeping Beauty was a disaster but whilst it's true that it failed to recoup its huge budget, it nevertheless proved the most popular movie at the box-office in 1959 after Ben Hur.

The newly restored two-disc Platinum Edition, marking the film's 50th anniversary, includes - in addition to the aforementioned 'Making of...' documentary - a host of 'extras' among which are deleted songs, a never-before-seen alternate opening and two related Disney productions: the 1958 CinemaScope release, Grand Canyon (exquisite footage of America's natural wonder scored with Ferde Grofe's Grand Canyon Suite) and The Peter Tchaikovsky Story (originally televised on the Disneyland TV show in 1959) which is a rather more sanitised biopic than, say, Ken Russell's The Music Lovers!

There is a deluxe version of the release which comes in a faux-jewel-encrusted volume (as pictured at the top of this post) with an accompanying book full of background information on the making of the film, stills and original artwork, but Blu-ray owners will be peeved to find that this particular issue is not actually available with the Blu-ray discs!

The film itself, however you view it (but especially on Blu-ray), looks sensational: it glistens and gleams, sparkles and shimmers with gem-like brilliance that is worthy of what is, arguably, a masterpiece of Disney animation.

Images: © Disney (Click on images to enlarge)




28 comments:

Andy J. Latham said...

I can vouch for the blu-ay edition being stunning. I'm saving it for a Christmas viewing, but couldn't resist a quick look at the first few sequences. It was very hard to turn off!

I had no idea you were featured, but then I haven't watched the making-of yet. I will watch with interest! There is one special feature on there that really did catch my attention - "5 Artists Paint 1 Tree" - which does exactly what it says on the tin, so to speak. It's a fantastic little film that anyone with the DVD or Blu-ray should watch.

Brian Sibley said...

What self-control you have, Andy: waiting till Christmas! I am impressed!

The special feature, 4 (not 5) Artists Paint 1 Tree was originally televised in 1958 and is a fascinating record of - as the title suggests - the way in which four very different artists approach the painting of a tree.

The featured artists are Joshua Meador (leading Disney animation effects artist on such films as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), Marc Davis (one of Disney's legendary 'Nine Old Men' and the animator of, among other characters, Tinker Bell and Cruella De Vil), Walt Peregoy (background artist on many Disney films, notably 101 Dalmatians) and Eyvind Earle, who was responsible for the lavish styling of Sleeping Beauty and about whom I will be writing on a future blog.

Boll Weavil said...

Its interesting that you comment about 'tidying up' plot lines. I'm sure that most people now will consider Disney to be the definitive storytellers in that their versions of traditional tales become the standards.I automatically think of their version to be the correct one and I imagine, as time goes on, that will be a more widely held view as we have less and less opportunity to go back to the original.

Lisresc : The intellectual justification supplied by oneself to oneself for opening a present immediately and watching/eating just a litlle bit...

LisaH said...

As usual, a highly insightful Blog, demonstrating just why you are asked to contribute to these DVDs.
Re saving a DVD for viewing, my Special Edition of Mama Mia arrived yesterday, to much excitement. I've invited some friends over to watch it next weekend and the plan is not to look at it before then.
On the other hand, how does the title song go .... 'How can I resist you?'

Brian Sibley said...

BOLL - You are right: how many pantomimes this Christmas will depict Snow White, as being dressed - à la Disney - in a yellow dress, blue bodice, puff sleeves, a high white collar and with red ribbon in her black hair?

The Disney version of these stories has become, as you say, the authoritative version, but we shouldn't forget - in the case of the fairy-tales - that there isn't one true "original" and that what we now think of as the original was selected, edited and written down (by folklorists like Charles Perrault, Madame D'Aulnoy or the Brothers Grimm) from many very different oral versions that had been re-told over the centuries.

So, Disney's versions are, in a way, just another re-telling - with the exception that the medium of film (reinforced by commercial and merchandising campaigns) has meant that they have all but supplanted those earlier versions.

LISAH - Good luck with keeping your mitts off Mama Mia for another seven days!! :-)

LisaH said...

I suppose I could always view the extras and steer clear of the actual film......

Brian Sibley said...

The slippery slope, Lisah...

Good Dog said...

Xeroxing was certainly cheaper, and allowed for the finished artwork to be closer to the sketchier, key animators drawings – did they do away with the clean-up department? – and there was still some self-trace work involved (like on King Louie’s hands in The Jungle Book to separate different colour areas) but nothing beats the undeniable beauty of the Sleeping Beauty artwork.

Just look at how much effort went into the frame of the three Good Fairies with the different coloured trace lines of the lighter yellow in Sleeping Beauty’s hair. That’s true penmanship. Having traced scenes for Dick William’s The Thief and the Cobbler it’s not the easiest of tasks.

Although the softwares like Animo (initially used by Dreamworks and WBFA) and Disney’s own... CAPs (?) meant that once final artwork was scanned into the system, trace lines would be coloured electronically, it really wasn’t the same and didn’t require the same kind of talent.

Also, back in those days animation directors understood how long this kind of work would take and just how much colour was necessary. Using Animo, the studio’s directors used to think everything could be done instantly at the click of a button and their characters would end up with over a dozen different trace colours – hair, skin, shirts, trousers, etc... Silly really. Although those weren’t exactly the words I would use.

Still, going back to Sleeping Beauty, you can throw as many superlatives at this film and there is still room for more.

Brian Sibley said...

GOOD DOG - You're so right in your analysis of what was good about Xeroxography in animation and what was lost... I remember when The Rescuers was released being very excited by the fact that the Xerox process had advanced sufficiently to be able to reproduce lines in colour instead of simply black and thinking it was a step back to what I still considered to be the proper way of making animated films. But of course the same level of detail really wasn't there any more.

There's a fascinating moment in the 'Making of...' documentary when someone points out that an animator working on the Princess Aurora/Briar Rose would only be able to manage two animation drawings in a day! So, with 35 frames per second, it took that animator 17.5 days to animate just 1 second of film!

Anyway, I'm glad you're a fan: Sleeping Beauty does divide people and it's hard to go on loving friends who don't love Sleeping Beauty!

Boll Weavil said...

'Sleeping Beauty does divide people and it's hard to go on loving friends who don't love Sleeping Beauty!'
- OK so who'se got a Ray Bradbury Fantasia Complex !

Fonwor : An avid film buff discovered sound asleep on the settee, surrounded by chocolate wrappers whilst the extras disc of 'Lord of the Rings' is still showing Peter Jackson's cameo as Busdriver in A Short Film By Another Member Of The LOTR Cast Shot During Downtime On The Set plays merrily away to itself and the film disc itself lies neatly and obviously untouched in the box.

Good Dog said...

I think one of the last scenes to be animated of Who Framed Roger Rabbit was from the opening Maroon Cartoon. I remember Dick saying it wouldn’t take long because Roger was bouncing about all over the shop. At the time I didn’t understand what he meant, but I soon learned that if the zipping about the scene an animator can get away with absolute murder.

Years later I was working for the great Dick Purdum and saw how the animators and in-betweeners would sweat blood trying to get the cat right in the Felix cat food ads. (They were the great ones from about 10 years back before they went to a different studio around 2001). When characters are moving slowly and gracefully around the screen you can’t cheat a thing. If the lines are off by just a fraction the animation will start to boil.

So the guys working on Sleeping Beauty really need to be congratulated for the work. Hopefully, after production was over, they all got a well deserved holiday.

Brian Sibley said...

BOL - Me! [For the benefit of those who didn't understand Boll's joke, Ray Bradbury once told me that, as a boy in 1940, he'd spend his pocket money taking friends to see Disney's Fantasia and if they didn't like it then that was the end of the friendship, no more love!]

GOOD DOG - Yes, fast-moving sequences are always easier to animate successfully than those involving delicate, subtle movement - consider those scenes where Donald Duck explodes with rage or the Road Runner zips across the desert landscape - so much simpler than Bambi's first tentative steps or Dumbo cadled in his mother's swaying trunk.

Incidentally, I knew and greatly admired the two Dicks (Williams and Purdum) and, yes, those Felix commercials were beautifully animated.

Suzanne said...

Boll: thanks for "lisresc"! I bought the first LOTR DVD and waited quite a long time to watch it... until I bought a DVD player!

alex milway said...

I think Sleeping Beauty is the most beautiful Disney film - its fluidity of movement is what still surprises me today, and reminds me of what we've lost in 2D animation.

And all the creeping vines and thorns that overwhelm the castle at the end are terrifying!

Great post!

Brian Sibley said...

SUZANNE - And I recall buying laserdiscs (remember laserdiscs?) of several Disney films long before I could afford the player. Guess what? Now they just sit gathering dust... Still, I am learning: I haven't (yet) bought any Blu-ray discs!!

ALEX - Great comment, too!! :-) The scene with the thorns springing up around the castle is, as you say, superb - dramatic and genuinely terrifying - and is a good example of how the Disney story-men refined the original fairy-tale: changing the work of nature over 100 years into a single moment of powerful and vengeful magic invoked by the evil Maleficent.

Brian Sibley said...

SUZANNE came back with a PS to say...

Brian, I don't even know what Blu-ray is!

All you need to know is that you don't NEED to know!!

Boris Hiestand said...

One of my favorite Disney's.. the animation...the art direction...
As an animator I always loved the xerox line, the bubbling and boiling of the pencil, but the sheer work that went into this one.. the time, money, artistry... damn.
Does anyone know a good assistant animator these days?

Brian Sibley said...

Once again in these comments, there speaks one who knows!! I never made it into the business, Boris, but Sleeping Beauty was the film that finally tipped my ambition to be an animator over the edge...

Matt J said...

The bonus features alone make the set worth buying but alas I've been dissuaded by criticism of the poor colour transfer. Lou Romano, prod. designer of the INCREDIBLES, analysis here:

http://louromano.blogspot.com/2008/10/sleeping-beauty-closer-look.html

Brian Sibley said...

I've looked at both versions and, yes, the colour differences - particularly in the title sequence - are quite pronounced. The question is which is truer to the original...?

There's a very detailed account of the transfer process on Fulvue Drive-in:

http://tinyurl.com/5usmqc

And quite a bit of heated discussion on other sites. For what it's worth WhatDVD.net said "...the film is color-saturated, even more evidently so with the new transfer. I have never seen Sleeping Beauty so flawless, breath-taking, awe-inspiring…"

Andy J. Latham said...

Ah yes, 4 artists. My mistake!

Well whatever colour it is, I could quite happily watch a classic Disney film like this. I actually think that Disney DVDs should include a version of the film entirely in pencil tests (where they are available). That would be a joy to watch for me. Presumably for more recent offerings there are complete sets of pencil tests.

Oh, and the 35 fps thing? Shouldn't that be 24 fps like most films? So that's only 12 days to make a second of footage - piece of cake!!!

Brian Sibley said...

You say 5 artists, I say 4 artists; you say 24 fps, I say 35 fps... Let's call the whole thing off!!

Yes, bit of a gaff -- I mean typo -- for an 'Animation Historian', but I am (and always have been) numerically dyslexic: I once had to remake the ending of a radio documentary I wrote because I got Walt Disney's date of birth wrong. It also, incidentally, accounts for the size of my bank overdraft!!

Boris Hiestand said...

oh noo!!
Is it yet another release where the "artists" currently at Disney thought they needed to "colour correct" the entire thing again?!! I can't believe how they raped Bambi when they did that, trying to make everything as damn saturated as in Aladdin...
These are filmed paintings we're talking about, they were MEANT to be subtle (not to be confused with "dull", Disney colour correct team). This pisses me off. Makes me want to listen to Philip Glass for 5 hours. I have yet to buy the set so hopefully it won't be too bad...

Brian Sibley said...

BORIS - The title cards are clearly wrong, I'm afraid (the capital letter of the words 'Sleeping' and 'Beauty' are meant to be in a different colour and here you can scarcely notice that), but much of the rest of the film is subject to conjecture about what is right for the film - although there are a couple of starling moments of what one is tempted to call garishness which may be as seen in the original or, more likely, the handiwork of those colour-graders...

On the plus side, the images on this transfer are not cropped (as they were on the 2003 DVD), so there's a better sense of the Technirama scope of the picture...

Boris Hiestand said...

It's great to have the full 70 mm version uncropped. On Lou Romano's blog you can clearly see they meddled with the colors again though. It's beyond me why they would do this.
Funnily enough normally they'd up the saturation 500%, whereas this time it seems they've done the opposite.
In the haunting sequence where Briar Rose gets hypnotized and walks towards the spindle wheel, everything had this amazing green hue which used to give me goose bumps. In the new version all the colors are "normalized", giving Briar Rose yellow hair etc, really toning down the green light cast on everything. I'm perplexed. I'll see if I can find out what the deal is here.

Brian Sibley said...

It would be good to know the 'truth', Boris. It's a shame if what ought to have been a definitive release of this film has been needless marred by meddling technicians...

Chris Williams said...

Okay. I finally watch the Blu Ray version of this and I have made my opinion. The film itself looks stunning on Blu Ray, and as much as I can appreciate the effort to clean up and reduce noise, I feel that the film at times feels empty and dry. This movie was made without the modern convention of computers, so it always had a matted feel to it. It seems that this has gone right out the window. The scene that bothers me the most is the Aurora trance scene. While I agree that the last couple of editions had too much green tint, I feel that this one has lost it big time. Now, on the Blu Ray this part looks a lot better than the Standard release. The standard was never intended to be standard, as it was saturated and formatted to be viewed in Hi Def. It seems this version has, once again, tilted to the yellow and golden colors a tad too much. Those of you who have seen Peter Pan know what I am talking about. Peter Pan was destroyed by the restoration team, who was trying to find a way to tilt the colors to a more P.C. standard. The Indians lost their red color, and become brownish pink. That was intentional. I have to say that this release has its goods and bads. I think it is too bright at times, but it is also very vivid, and the detail in certain scenes is absolutely stunning. I have already heard some people talk about Pinocchio Platinum. A friend of mine saw it at El Capitan, and said that a lot of the shading has been lost in important scenes, and that it also appears too bright. Well, Im rambling now. Have a great evening.

Wobble The Witch Cat said...

It will be fascinating to see what new features will be included in the forthcoming Diamond Edition Sleeping Beauty Blu Ray when it is released in October this year! I only wish I had a new 65" Sony 4K TV to watch it on!