Friday, June 6, 2014

Book Review: The Lost Notebook

The large hardbound book of 292 pages is a facsimile reproduction of a detailed scrapbook kept by Herman Schultheis, a technician at the Disney Studios in the late 1930s, while they were developing Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and other classics of the art form.

Effects animation used in Sorcerer's Apprentice
Schultheis thoroughly documented every aspect of the production process, presumably to impress the boss someday, but the notebook was kept secret and was lost and forgotten for many years in a chest of drawers. 

Meanwhile, in another human mystery, Schultheis himself disappeared without a trace into the Guatemalan jungle, so his story hasn't been adequately told.

The scrapbook contains many photos of costumed models who provided reference footage to guide the animators. This aspect of the production process has become fairly well known.

But there are other revelations of pre-digital engineering ingenuity. For example, the movement of the fairy ballerinas in Fantasia based their movement on the workings of a contraption with steel rails and revolving spools. Snowflake cutouts were mounted on the spools and moved along the rails, creating geometry that would be impossible to accomplish otherwise at the time.

An expert camera technician, Schultheis shot many of the photos reference to guide the animators, such as the ballerinas and ostriches for the "Dance of the Hours" segment in Fantasia.

Even the mechanical clocks that appear in Geppetto's workshop (link to video clip) in Fantasia were created in workable form, so no wonder they're so convincing in the film.

The ghosts in the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence of Fantasia were shot using a distortion mirror, and thankfully, Schultheis photographed the setup and described the process.

This book should spark a lot of ideas for working artists interested in exploring pre-digital film technology, and it will offer a wealth of insights for animation history fans. Given all the painstaking work that went into them, it's no wonder that the Disney features of the late 1930s were so expensive to produce. The marginal notes by animation historian John Canemaker add a lot to understanding each of the pages.

On a broader level for any artist, the book is a testament to the value of putting time and effort into research and development.

At Amazon: The Lost Notebook: Herman Schultheis and the Secrets of Walt Disney's Movie Magic


Eugene Arenhaus said...

I read about this album in 'The Illusion of Life', I believe. Glad to see it has finally been published.

Dan said...

Apparently there was quite a bit of "stop motion" in their cel animation process, in that they didn't just photograph flat cels. It seems to me that for years Disney was on the absolute cutting edge of entertainment technology.

The level of creativity that went into these processes before everything went digital is inspiring. It was the same in audio, which is the industry I work in.

Sometimes I wonder whether we didn't get more interesting results in general when we had to tinker with physical things. Compare the first three "Star Wars" films to the "prequels," for example. Besides, tinkering is fun.

Dean Moore said...

I look forward to having a look at it.