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Awesome Facts You Can Learn From Studying Walt Disney’s Multiplane Camera

For the first two weeks of February 2016, the WDW Radio Blog Team will be reviewing great moments in Disney History. These moments have impacted the history of the company through film, parks, innovation, events and more.


“…this came out of our school of self improvement.  Here is a blueprint for a piece of equipment designed to make cartoons more realistic and enjoyable.  It’s a plan for a super cartoon camera, we call it a multiplane camera.”

Walt Disney, “Tricks of Our Trade” episode from Disneyland, February 13, 1957

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kN-eCBAOw60]


Multiplane-Camera with Walt-Disney

Walt Disney and the Multiplane Camera

What if there was a world where Walter E. Disney didn’t exist? Think about all of the movies you remember watching when you were younger. Or, maybe you would not have been able to visit one of the many Disney theme parks. You might have seen his work, but have you ever bothered to learn about his life and contributions to history?

Walter Elias Disney was born December 5, 1901, and died December 15, 1966. His life, even though it was short lived, has left lasting impressions.  In 1923 with a small amount of money and his drawings, Walt Disney moved to California.  Along with his brother Roy O. Disney, they put their money together and formed the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio (now known as The Walt Disney Studios).  In 1928, Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse with the character’s debut in Steamboat Willie, which was the first fully synchronized sound cartoon.  Over the years, Walt Disney was always looking to improve his cartoons.  Starting with “The Skeleton Dance” in 1929, he created “Silly Symphonies” which put animation to orchestrated music.   The Silly Symphony series was also used to introduce the “three color” or “three strip” Technicolor process.   This version of Technicolor was the first successful color method used in film making.  The use of original Technicolor prints is still valuable today as those films are still vibrant and able to be used as an accurate color reference for the digital restoration of the films.  Unlike still pictures and films that use color negatives, these Technicolor colors have not faded over time.

Bambi color-Disney             Sleeping Beauty color-Disney

In 1932, the first three-strip Technicolor cartoon was Flowers and Trees which won the first Academy Award given to an animated short, and was the first Disney film to win an Academy Award.  Over the next two decades Disney introduced the use of pencil test, storyboards and camera techniques.  Around this time, Walt Disney decided to try something new – a full length, animated, color feature-length film – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  But, with this decision came many challenges.

Until now, cartoons were flat, not real looking and had no “depth”, characters often did not move in a realistic way.  In animation, a character is drawn on a flat piece of celluloid and laid over a flat background that is painted.  The animation camera would photograph the entire drawing or a selected portion for a close-up shot.  The area to be photographed was known as the “field”.  If the camera had to move in for a closer shot, any character in the distance had to be drawn on at a very tiny scale.

Disney wanted the “feel” of a live action film where, when the camera moves in on a close-up shot, the view of anything in the foreground and background changes as the camera moves closer to the subject.

Walt Disney was known to employ people who had greater talents then himself and offered different backgrounds in education and technology.  Disney was also sending his artists to the Chouinard Art School in Los Angeles to learn better techniques in drawing.  Disney often had the idea or suggestion to make something better, but his staff carried out the work.  One of these employees was William Garity, the head of the studios camera department.  Garity was given the challenge of creating a camera system that would give a certain feeling of depth and realism effect through the use of color and drawings.

multiplane large-Disney multiplane fromTheo-Disney

One thing that he did that was a turning point in the history of animation was to facilitate the invention of the multiplane camera.  Walt Disney debuted the use of the multiplane camera in the animated short The Old Mill in 1937.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYEmL0d0lZE]

The Old Mill served two purposes: first to test the multiplane camera, and secondly to see how good the animators were at drawing animals since Bambi was already being considered as a future project.  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs also released in 1937, was the first full-length animated feature ever released, and the film made extensive use of the multiplane camera.  This created the appearance of depth for the first time in an animated motion picture as well as changed the way movies were shot by the Disney Company. After the multiplane camera was a success in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, other movie producers started to use this camera.  But, no one utilized the multiplane camera as well as Disney Studios.

The first major impact of Walt Disney implementing the multiplane camera was that for the first time it created the appearance of depth in an animated film. This is evident in the scene of the seven dwarfs marching across the fallen tree in the “Heigh-Ho” scene of the movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HI0x0KYChq4]

Another good scene is when the Evil Queen takes a sip from a cup and the angle of the shot moves from in front of her to behind her.  Another Disney movie that really used this camera to its full ability was Pinocchio, the scene where it appears we are “flying” over Geppetto’s village.  Several scenes in Bambi also used the multiplane camera for depth shots in the forest. The last film to use the multiplane camera was Oliver & Company.  The change in use of cameras came about when the type of film being used changed away from the more traditional “film”.


How the Multiplane Camera Works

The camera is built with different fields that break the 2 dimensional backgrounds apart. The multiplane camera uses different fields that can be adjusted to make a shot. To operate the camera, first they place the background painted on glass and put it into one of the slots on the multiplane camera.  After you make the shot you have to adjust it again and again to make a scene.


The design of the multiplane camera is simple, yet complex at the same time. When looking at the camera from the side it looks like a tall bakers’ rack with multiple shelves stacked above one another.  The “racks” are really the different planes of fields used in creating the feeling of depth in an animation shot.  The bottom plane is the background and is usually totally covered with color, for example a scene of a mountain and sky.  While the planes above it have a layering effect with the scenery on the edges or specific areas in the middle leaving quite a bit of transparent area.  The clear areas allow you to “look” beyond to the layer below.

When developing the multiplane camera, they referenced the effect of looking at a theater stage with scenery on either side.  As you looked deeper, the scenes were painted on a smaller scale to simulate being further away.  The backdrop in a theater is painted with the full scene in mind, be it an outside view or inside a room.  This is how the multiplane camera is set up.

Once the “scene” is set with the background and side scenes, the animators can change the characters positions to make them move through the scene.  Often the sides are not changed, the camera just moves past them to the level below or beyond.  The camera would also be able to move in reverse and pull-out of a scene as if moving away from the background.  Shots could also go from side to side as if a character was looking around the area where he is standing.

multiplane b&w-Disney

The complex part of the camera is when you actually look at each level and how it works and moves.  The actual camera that takes the photo is mounted on the top, 12 feet above the ground.  Each of four planes of glass are mounted on large rollers which allow the plane to be moved out of the shot and or changed as needed.  Each plane weighs over 50 pounds and is very large.  Typically, the illusion of depth was created with the top two planes where the character moves.  The next two levels were for the side scenes with the solid background as a solid landscape.  The last level was fixed in place.  The use of moving planes took a lot of time and patience to shoot each scene required to create the illusion of movement.  This made the use of the camera very expensive, and therefore, was not used in every scene of a movie.

On May 21, 1940 Disney was granted patent 2,201,689 for the multiplane camera.  The camera was used in many Disney animated movies from 1937 to 1988.  Several well known movies that used the multiplane camera are Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Bambi (1942), Alice in Wonderland (1951), Jungle Book (1967), The Aristocats (1970), Oliver & Company (1988) and many other films.  The last movie to use the multiplane camera was Oliver & Company.  A few shots were planned for The Little Mermaid, but not used.  The camera stopped being used in part when Technicolor went out of business and Disney Studios stopped using traditional film.  Today animated movies are, for the most part, created digitally on computers.  The computers have the capability of creating the illusion of depth via animation programs.

Where would we be today without Walt Disney and his group of talented artists and Imagineers? The development and use of the multiplane camera was truly a turning point in animation in the 1930s. This simple looking camera has given the feeling of moving into a scene with the use of multiple layers of drawings layered on top of each other.  The camera was in use at The Walt Disney Studios for over 52 years.

multiplane camera - flickr

This is the remaining multiplane camera now located at The Walt Disney Studios.

Thanks to Theodore E. Gluck, Director: Library Restoration and Preservation at The Walt Disney Studios for his assistance in preparing this installment of Disney On Wheels.

(All photos ©Disney except the last multiplane camera shot which is property of HarshLight (Flikr Creative Commons), Disney on Wheels logo is from Andrew Prince personal collection.)


Disney on WheelsAndrew is an 18-year-old senior in high school from Ohio. He was born with cerebral palsy and gets around in a wheelchair.  He has been to both US Disney parks, several D23 events and is a DCL Gold Castaway Club member. If you would like to contact him feel free to e-mail him at arprince@bex.net or look him up on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.prince.7161 and on Twitter https://twitter.com/Andrew1arp  


Annotated List of Works Consulted:
Alexander, Jack. “The Amazing Story of Walt Disney.” The Saturday Evening Post (1953): 24+. EBSCOhost. Web. 7 Jan. 2013.
DizFantastic. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Dec. 2012.
Walt Disney Creator of Mickey Mouse. Springfield: n.p., 1996.
Walt Disney Family Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Dec. 2012.
Hollis, Richard and Sibley, Brian. Snow white and the seven dwarfs & the making of the classic film. The Walt Disney Company, 1994.
Inge, M. Thomas. “Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Art Adaptation and Ideology” Journal of Popular Film and Television 5 November 2012: 132-142.
The Unofficial Disney Animation Archive.
Goodison, Donna. “Disney hopes to draw ideas from Hub lab.” Boston Herald (MA) 18 May 2011: