Mickey Mouse Model Sheet, Disney Studio Artist, Clean-up model sheet, photostat on paper. © Disney
Mickey Mouse Model Sheet, Disney Studio Artist, Clean-up model sheet, photostat on paper. © Disney
Stories & Ideas

Sat 08 May 2021

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Fiona Trigg

Senior Curator, ACMI

How simple animation techniques brought the world's most iconic cartoon character to life.

Before Mickey Mouse, there was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, created in the late 1920s by Walt Disney and his small team of animators. Oswald featured in a series of cartoon shorts that proved both popular and profitable but the company distributing the cartoons, which contractually owned the character, proceeded to squeeze Walt out of the story, luring several of his team away in the process. This turned out to be not so lucky for Oswald, who faded into obscurity, but it was a blessing in disguise for Walt, who regrouped with his brother Roy and fellow animator Ub Iwerks and set about developing a new character.

The first cartoons to feature Mickey Mouse, Plane Crazy and Gallopin’ Gaucho had been completed as silent films but not yet released, after the cinema industry was transformed by the The Jazz Singer (1927), the first commercial release featuring synchronised sound. Determined to ride this new technological wave, Disney began to work on Steamboat Willie (1928), a seven-minute cartoon in which Mickey, in typically inventive style, finds ways to turn the boat and its animal passengers into one big musical instrument: playing a cow’s teeth like a xylophone, treating a row of suckling piglets like a squeaky keyboard, and cooking up a musical storm with the galley’s pots and pans. Walt Disney himself provided Mickey’s chirpy falsetto vocalizations. The story also showcases some key Mickey characteristics, his irrepressible and cheeky optimism in the face of the mean captain, Pete, and his undying affection for Minnie Mouse.

This character model sheet of Mickey Mouse illustrates many elements of the craft of animation, which Walt and his early collaborators did so much to develop and refine. The character is shown in different poses, each representing Mickey as seen from different angles, undertaking a wide range of physical actions and expressing a variety of moods. In their fascinating book The Illusion of Life, two veteran Disney animators, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, break down the techniques that were worked up in the early days of the studio. One key concept was that of staging, which they describe as “the presentation of any idea so that it is completely and mistakenly clear. An action is staged so that it is understood, a personality so that it is recognisable, an expression so that it can be seen, a mood so that it will affect the audience. Each is communicating to the fullest extent with the viewers when it is properly staged.”

Model sheets collate all the best drawings of a character created in the studio into a central point of reference which enables different animators to present the same character in a unified way. But beyond this, the different poses also illustrate the concept of staging, and as we can see in the Mickey Mouse model sheet, each of the 33 drawings is crystal clear. With incredible efficiency and vitality, the simple lines and circular shapes pulse with personality. Each one is beautifully realised and we are never left in any doubt as to what Mickey is doing, thinking or feeling.

Other techniques described by Thomas and Johnston cover different ways of animating movement, such as how to give characters a sense of weight and physicality that is realistic, but also has the potential to be exaggerated for dramatic or comic effect. They also discuss the concept of appeal, “to us it meant anything that a person likes to see, a quality of charm, pleasing design, simplicity, communication and magnetism”. Mickey Mouse’s appeal was so great that he transcended the shorts in which he first appeared and became an internationally recognised and iconic figurehead, as the Walt Disney studio expanded into feature films, theme parks and television production.

In the late 1930s, Walt Disney created the Character Model Department, which was responsible for developing and refining characters, both in terms of their appearance and their personalities. The department collated the model sheets and sculpted actual models or maquettes, first in plasticine then cast in plaster and painted. These were shared and studied by all the artists and animators working on a film, resulting in a unified understanding of each character’s physicality and behaviour. While the Character Model Department no longer exists, the practice of developing maquettes and model sheets continues to this day.

– Fiona Trigg

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