Giotto and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Posted inComics & Animation Design
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The Adoration of the Magi (detail), by Giotto, ca. 1305

The northern Italian city of Padua offers an elegant, leisurely setting of history and art, without the madding crowd of tourists in its more famous neighbor Venice, located twenty-two miles away. There’s a university established in 1222 that houses the observatory where Galileo tracked the stars and birthed modern science; magnificent churches, including the cavernously ornate Basilica di Sant Antonio; spacious plazas and excellent restaurants; Orto Botanico, the world’s oldest botanical garden, containing a 425-year old palm tree that Goethe admired in 1786 (!); a multitude of statues, frescos, paintings and architecture by the likes of Donatello, Montegne, Veronese, and Michelangelo.

Animators, however, are particularly interested in the Museum of Pre-Cinema—to which I will devote a future column—and one of the world’s greatest, most influential works of art: the fresco cycle of the life of the Virgin Mary in the Scrovegni Chapel, created by Giotto di Bordone (c.1267-1337).

Giotto, a farmer’s son, plowed the field of modern representational art for key figures of the High Renaissance, such as Michelangelo and Raphael; Leonardo da Vinci, born more than 100 years after Giotto died, observed that “art declined” after Giotto. After all, it was Giotto who moved painting away from symbolism and the decorative to depict a level of human feeling and psychological nuance that had never been seen before in western art. His art shines with emotional truth and humanity. His paintings are clear, economically staged compositions in natural settings, and his figures are flesh-and-blood, weighted, feet-on-the-ground individuals who convincingly express joy, anger, fear, horror, and grief. Their dimensionality and solidity make this medieval artist the patron saint of 3-D computer imagery.

The Chapel admits a limited number of visitors, by reservation only, and allows them just 15 minutes to view the recently restored frescos in a climate-controlled space. Even in that short amount of time, what’s immediately impressive is Giotto’s clarity in staging scenes, which often contain multiple figures. Unerringly, with great taste and simplicity, he focuses our eyes like a movie director.

The “Kiss of Judas” fresco, for example (left), depicts the moment just after the betrayal of Christ in the midst of a swirling, unruly mob whose spears, halberds and torches serve as directional arrows pointing toward the two men at the center. The embracing folds of Judas’ yellow cloak — whose color is a psychological tell for his cowardly act — lead to a “close-up” of Jesus and Judas: Jesus’ steady, direct gaze into Judas’ eyes is calm, compassionate and forgiving. In contrast, his betrayer is shorter or lower in position and frozen with guilt. His eyes sink into his furrowed, simian-like brow, his lips remain puckered, locked as he is in fear and self-loathing. Amid this noisy turmoil, the stare between the two men is quiet, a surreal time-stopping moment of private thoughts.

Animators (and filmmakers in general) can learn from studying Giotto’s communication techniques and applying them to their films, which is what I believe Albert Hurter did in Walt Disney’s first feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). An excellent draftsman, Hurter (1883-1942) arrived at the Disney studio in 1931 at age 48 with an extensive background in fine arts training and study in Europe. He brought an encyclopedic knowledge of art history and artists, often regaling his cartoonist colleagues with vivid descriptions of the art of Vincent Van Gogh, Herman Vogel, Honoré Daumier, Gustave Doré, Franz Stuck, and Heinrich Kley, among others. Hurter became the Disney studio’s first “inspirational sketch” artist creating hundreds of imaginative conceptual drawings for personality gags and visualizations to inspire the directors, writers, storyboard artists and animators.

Hurter’s influence is pervasive throughout Snow White. One particular sequence became a breakthrough in the art of character animation: the seven dwarfs grieving (sketch, above) over the inert body of Snow White. For Disney, it was a daring gamble. He hoped audiences would suspend disbelief and empathize with the emotions expressed by cartoon characters, who were mourning the “death” of another toon. In dozens of sketches, Hurter searched for the right body language and facial expressions for the dwarfs. He studied how to position the characters around the bier within a cottage setting. He sketched out ideas for lighting, mood, and so on. His creative search, to my mind and eye, was similar to Giotto’s process in creating the Lamentation fresco in Scrovegni Chapel.

It is reasonable to assume that Hurter knew of, and perhaps found useful, the composition, figure cluster, and gestures of the 14th century master. Giotto’s composition of individual figures each grieve in their own way—some quietly mournful, others screaming in horror—and act as guideposts, leading our eye to the prostrate Christ embraced in his mother’s arms. Above, ten angels mirror the scene, in their own distinctive mourning poses and expressions. Hurter’s dwarfs display sorrow in seven distinct ways: staring in disbelief, weeping openly, some so distraught they avoid looking at the radiant princess’ body, whose glow rivals the light emanating from the candles behind her. When master animator Frank Thomas, delicately, subtly, transformed Hurter’s idea sketches into animation drawings, audiences wept as well.

[This is the third entry in Academy Award-winning animator John Canemaker’s exclusive monthly column for entitled “John Canemaker’s Animated Eye.” His forthcoming book, Two Guys Named Joe: Master Animation Storytellers Joe Grant and Joe Ranft, will bepublished by Disney Editions in August. You can read his review of The Animator’s Survival Kit here. The first entry of “The Animated Eye,” is about Jeff Smith’s upcoming film version of his epic Bone. His second entry discussed the career of painter Charles Burchfield.]


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About John Canemaker

John Canemaker an Academy Award–winning animation filmmaker, is the author of nine books on animation history.

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