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Early Disney and a Feature Length Animation Research Paper

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Updated: Jun 16th, 2020


Animated films are popular throughout the world and they enjoy the viewership of millions of people from all age groups. Feature-length animated films evolved from the short subject cartoons that were popular from the early 1930s. The individual credited with introducing animations to the public is the renowned entertainment and media figure, Walt Disney. Disney Studios created the first ever animation feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It debuted in 1937 and the film was so groundbreaking that it received a special award from the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences in 1938. It was recognized as a significant screen innovation that created a new entertainment field for millions of viewers.

Whitley (2013) considers the move to feature length animations as Disney’s single most impressive achievement in the history of animated film. This move was an ambitious and risky step by Disney since no other studio had attempted to produce a feature-length film. The project was expensive and failure would have been catastrophic to the company. Inge (2004) reveals that before moving to animations, Disney producers had to be sure that their artists, who produced comic shorts of a few minutes duration, had the ability to stretch their talents to fill a screen for ninety minutes. In light of the significance of Disney’s creation of the first feature length animation, this paper will set out to investigate the steps Walt Disney Studio took to creating the revolutionary feature length animation.

Steps taken to Create Disney’s Feature Length Animation

Story Structure

The first and most important component of the animated film was the story. Norman Rockwell Museum (2013) states that according to Disney Studios founder Walt Disney, the story was the central and most important part of the entire animated film. With this in mind, Disney devoted significant time and resources to the development of great stories. To create a feature length animation, Disney had to come up with themes and plotlines that could captivate and entertain the audience over a longer period of time. A defining characteristic of the feature length animation was that it was longer than the short cartoons previously produced by Disney.

However, Whitley (2013) declares that moving from short cartoon to animation was not simply a matter of expansion in terms of running time. Retaining the audience attention was paramount to the success of the animation. Walt Disney’s detailed attention to the plot and character development contributed significantly to the success of feature animations. The Norman Rockwell Museum (2013) reveals that Walk Disney understood that the success of the feature animation would largely depend on the quality of the story.

For this reason, Disney set out to create animations that had the plots that could sustain the audience’s interests until the end of the movie and that contained characters that made the audience care about them. The successful story had a number of key elements that included the setting, characters, a conflict, purpose, and a resolution.

Disney writers were taxed with coming up with a script for the film. The writers ensured that the dialogue in the animation was engaging. The character development process was also undertaken during the scripting process. Significant research is undertaken to ensure that the characters feel authentic. When the animation was based on the work of other authors, the scripting process involved adjusting the story to accentuate certain themes. Inge (2004) documents that Walt Disney was famous for taking the work and writings of numerous other authors and retelling their tales through animation.

Story Board

The second step in creating an animation was the development of a storyboard. The storyboard shows the director’s vision of the animation. As such, a good storyboard is able to tell a visual story in such a way that the entire crew of production personnel knows what the director wants (White, 2006). By definition, a storyboard is a series of rough sketches that demonstrate how a particular story will play out. Storyboards are used to provide filmmakers with a visual illustration of the story’s plot.

The sketches are in sequence allowing filmmakers to visualize how the story will progress. Disney made use of storyboards to visually represent the key moments in the animated film. The storyboards were created by storyboard artists who illustrated the whole film in a series of frames similar to a very long comic strip. The storyboard artists went over the script created in the previous step to determine the number of storyboard panels needed.

In addition to the visual illustrations, storyboards also contained words. These words could be in the form of captions depicting what the characters would say. The words could also be footnotes of the actions that would be undertaken by the characters at the particular scene. According to Inge (2004), the storyboards helped Disney producers determine the coherence of the animation. Through these tools, inconsistencies in the plot could be identified easily and corrective measures taken. This greatly aided in ensuring that the stories created where not only coherent but engaging for audiences.

Concept Art

After these initial two steps had been carried out, Disney moved on to the more artistic parts of creating the feature length animation. The first artistic step was coming up with the concept art. The concept is the environment in which the film is set. The concept design is of significant importance in the design and development of the feature length animation. White (2006) notes that when audiences watch a film, approximately 95% of what they see in each scene is the background environment. This happens whether the audience is conscious of it or not. Consequently, the background art contributes significantly to the overall perception of the quality of the animation. With a rich and high quality background, an animation (even one having a mediocre character design) can be given the illusion of quality or emotional quality.

Disney has a history of spectacular background art. White (2006) confirms that the classic Disney movies are famous for their magnificent background art and their ability to set moods or themes. This reputation was achieved by the amount of effort that Disney put in the concept art process. In this state of developing the film, the skilled artists worked hard to establish the required atmosphere of the film or the particular scene.

Specifically, Disney employed a concept artist who determined the overall visual and color look for the entire project under the supervision of the animation director. After the overall look had been determined, the concept artist set out to develop, in finer detail, a stage by stage representation of all the major aspects of the storyline. White (2006) states that concept artists made use of different visual and color approaches to convey varying moods, emotions, and actions encountered throughout the storyline.

This process was based on the understanding that specific colors suggest specific moods and emotions. During the concept art stage, the key character models and their appropriate background stylings were combined. White (2006) explains that by doing this, the direct and his development team were able to acquire a better appreciation of the look and feel of the project.

Character Concept Development

Characters play a great role in a feature length animation. These are the objects though which the story is told. The characters have personalities and they are responsible for fulfilling the key elements of the story. White (2006) declares that next to the animation process, character design is the most important aspect of the film. During this stage, the artists at Disney studies endeavored to develop personality animation.

According to the Norman Rockwell Museum (2013), personality animation is a technique that results in the establishment of personality in a particular character by defining the character’s movement and his/her reactions. This technique was of great importance to Disney’s animation productions since it helped give each character a sense of individuality and uniqueness. Through this step, a character that had no obvious characteristics was able to acquire a personality through his/her attitudes and mental relationship towards other characters or objects.

Character development also included defining looks and physical attributes. In this step, the physical features and attire of the characters were created. Significant background research might have been required to create the appropriate image for the character. White (2006) explains that in this stage, the Character artist must know the race, gender, ethnic background, attitude, and physical build of the proposed character. Disney artists also developed a unique style of movement for each character further increasing on his/her uniqueness. In addition to this, the character artist provided the set of facial expressions that could be unique to the character.

Model Sheets

After developing the character concept, the production team at Disney moved on to creating model sheets. Bancroft (2013) declares that Disney relied upon model sheets to “illustrate what a character should look like as a guide for all of the animators to follow” (124). The illustration contained in the model sheet was the final design approved by the directors in charge of the animation. Characters models sheets were elaborate illustrations of all the characters featured in the animation film. These sheets contained all the possible physical and expressive characteristics of each character once it was animated.

Each character had its own model sheet where a range of poses and different expressions that could be used by the character where illustrated. The model sheet could also show the character from varying angles. The Norman Rockwell Museum (2013) documents that sometimes a model sheet could include more than one character to assist in showing the height and girth differences among the various interacting characters. Model sheets were critical to the production process since multiple animators were used to create the feature-length film. By acting as a reference that could be used by all the participating animators, the model sheets ensured consistency throughout the film.


The next step was animation which literally means “to bring to life”. Yoon and Malecki (2009) observe that Walt Disney was able to master the business of animation, “blending richness, technical perfection, and economic power which artisans could not match” (p.244). In this step, the animators engaged in activities aimed at giving the illusion that the characters were alive. This was achieved by photographing the drawings and viewing them in rapid succession.

This created the illusion of lifelike motion in the drawing. Each drawing used in the animation process is presented in a single frame. To create the illusion of movement, the animation requires a number of frames to be shown each second. For a good quality animation film, the frame rate is 24fps. This means that 24 individual drawings will be photographed and shown in quick succession within the time frame of one second. Each different drawing would have a subtle difference from the previous one in order to create the illusion of seamless motion. This process was therefore very time-consuming and labor intensive.

Disney developed the cel animation process, which was a great advance in animation. This method increased the speed with which animations could be created. Through cel animations, animators were saved the effort of having to draw each entire frame. Instead, the animator could simply draw the part of the frame that changed. Typically, the animation drawings were made using pencil and paper. However, the final animation drawings could include color lines to ensure that the personnel in the next step knew what ink color to use.

A key objective of Disney during the animation process was to create movements that closely mimicked those made by humans or animals in the real world. To achieve this, artists at Disney sometimes relied on reference drawing during the animation process. Reference drawing involved using live actors to model the actions that the animation characters would perform. The animators observed the live actors performing and then used this as a reference for realistic movement for the animated characters. The Norman Rockwell Museum (2013) records that through reference drawing, the animators in Disney studios were able to mimic realistic movements and therefore create impressive animations.


Once the animation drawings had been drawn, the production cel stage followed. A cel (known as a celluloid) was a blank clear plastic sheet and the artists painted the animated drawings on this. The painting was done on top of the original pencil drawing provided by the animator. The inking and painting stage was very important since it produced the images that would be seen by the audience in the final film.

According to the Norman Rockwell Museum (2013), the best artists were used in this stage to produce high quality paintings. This step was very labor intensive and Disney had an entire department of artists working at this stage. Once the cels had been created, they were placed over the background created in the concept art stage. This was then photographed in a sequential order creating the illusion of motion in the complete feature film. This final product was packaged in reels and distributed to cinema halls for public viewing.

The success of the first feature length animation produced by Disney led to the growth of an animation film industry. There was a demand for animations of feature-length and many production companies moved in to fulfill the demand. However, Disney remained the most prominent studio, producing high quality films for decades since the first animation feature film was produced in 1937.


This paper set out to provide a detailed description of the steps that Disney historically used to create feature length animations. The paper began by acknowledging the great significant of Disney’s first feature length animation in the history of the animation industry. It then proceeded to highlight the various steps undertaken in creating a feature length animation film. Disney began by creating a story structure and then proceeded to create a story board which told the story in a visual way. The concept environment was then created after which the characters were developed. This was followed by the creation of model sheets from which the animation pictures could be made. The final step was inking and painting and it created the final product that would be seen by the audience.

Through this paper, the distinctive difference between the animation production system and the film production system has been demonstrated. The paper has discussed the different technologies and labor skills that Disney relied on in the production of its feature length animation. The paper has demonstrated how Disney relied on artists and animators for its production process. The animation industry has evolved significantly over the last few decades due to the technological developments experienced during this time. Particularly, there has been a move from hand-drawn cel techniques to computer graphics imagery. The steps taken by Disney to create its early feature length animations are therefore no longer used today. However, one can develop a better appreciation of the various involving activities that went into creating a traditional Disney animation through this research.


Bancroft, T. (2013). Directing for Animation: Everything You Didn’t Learn in Art School. NJ: CRC Press. Web.

Inge, M.T. (2004). Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Journal of Popular Film & Television, 32(3), 132-142. Web.

Norman Rockwell Museum. (2013). Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Creation of a Classic. MA: Norman Rockwell Museum. Web.

White, T. (2006). Animation from Pencils to Pixels: Classical Techniques for Digital Animators. NY: Taylor & Francis. Web.

Whitley, D. (2013). The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation. NY: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. Web.

Yoon, H., & Malecki, J. (2009). Cartoon planet: worlds of production and global production networks in the animation industry. Industrial and Corporate Change, 19(1), 239–271. Web.

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