Last time, this column covered the making of Lady and the Tramp (1955) and this week, I want to concentrate on something most of us take for granted in the classic Disney animated features, the attention to detail in the background to create a setting for the characters that is so real and believable that we instantly become immersed in the story.
Beginning with Cinderella (1950), Walt filmed live-action reference footage on minimal sets in order to help save time with the final animation by pre-determining angles and composition.
One of Walt Disney's innovations in the making of Lady and the Tramp that few people know is that Walt had his artists construct a miniature Victorian mansion just like the one in the final film.
With Walt's love of miniatures, he made sure it was furnished to the last detail. Then, the artists used celluloid cutouts of the principal characters (especially the animal characters that were done in the appropriate scale) to move around the house to get an idea for composition of scenes and the relationship of the character to the background.
It really helped the artists get a "dog's-eye view" of going up the stairs and through doors.
It was especially important to pre-plan scenes in Lady and the Tramp, because this was the first Disney cartoon feature to use CinemaScope. With the wider screen, the characters had greater freedom to move around through alleys, streets, and even the house itself, rather than moving the backgrounds behind the figures, as had been done in previous films to give the illusion the character was walking down a street.
Unlike earlier animated features, fewer cuts and close-ups were necessary to conceal the lack of space for movement.
"Our layout men, whose work is analogous to that of set designers, had to re-scheme the staging of all action to suit backgrounds twice as long as those we had been using. In doing so, they soon made a discovery: in CinemaScope, cartoon characters move, not the backgrounds," wrote Disney Legend Ward Kimball in the March 1954 issue of Films in Review in an article titled "Cartooning in CinemaScope."
"Because there is more space, the characters can move about without getting outside the visual angle. They can also move about more in relation to each other. In CinemaScope, cartoon characters no longer perform in one spot against a moving background, but are moved through the scene.
"Fewer separate scenes and fewer cuts [are] needed, since the action takes place in continuous, unbroken movement across one wide vista, where formerly numerous cuts back and forth had to be employed. Also, panoramic backgrounds are fewer and more figures can be shown simultaneously.
"Our sound department instead of having one soundtrack to mix and re-record had three, one for each of the three speakers behind the CinemaScope screen."
CinemaScope was a relatively short-lived process (1953-1967), like Cinerama, to try and entice audiences away from their television sets at home and back into theaters for an experience they could get nowhere else.
"Visually, CinemaScope gave us the opportunity—indeed, the necessity—to experiment with action, groupings and setting. It made us re-examine many of our work habits. We were able, of course, to do more in our backgrounds and settings because we had a larger canvas on which to work," saidWalt Disney when the film was first released.
Unfortunately, Walt discovered that there were not many theaters that had the capabilities to screen the new process so he had to shoot two versions of the film: one for CinemaScope and one where the background and characters were readjusted for the regular full frame Academy ratio that was common for all films for nearly two decades before Lady and the Tramp.
A man's home may be his castle, but for his best friend and canine companion, it can be a loving playland for untold adventures.
Although an early proposed version of Lady and the Tramp was set in San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake, the familiar animated feature film classic actually takes place in a quaint unidentified New England town in 1910.
It is an exclusive upscale section of that community that includes influences from Walt Disney's memories of his childhood from that same time period growing up in Missouri.
Colorful well maintained two-story houses with neatly manicured lawns nestle cozily on quiet tree-lined cobblestone streets with a variety of fences including the traditional wrought iron and wooden picket helping to define the individual properties.
"What you see in Lady and the Tramp is a beautifully detailed real Victorian world," Imagineer Tony Baxter said
"It's almost like a Norman Rockwell painting," said Animator Andreas Deja. "It has that detail and Americana styling to it."
The primary setting for the film's story is the interior and exterior of the charming two story house belonging to Jim Dear and Darling, the owners of a loving cocker spaniel named Lady.
This ideallic location is much more detailed and delightful than the simple description from the original novel Lady and the Tramp: The Story of Two Dogs, written by Ward Greene in 1953 that was based on the storywork at the time for the Disney film.
Author Greene wrote
"Once upon a time—a time not so long ago but a time when most people still used gaslight and preferred horses and carriages to gas buggies—there lived in a white and green house on a pleasant street, a cocker spaniel named Lady.
"It was a wonderful house. It wasn't large but it was brand new and everything in it was new. The floors were so new and shiny that Lady slipped and slid on them. But when the rugs came, they were delightful to the paws. So was the furniture. It was soft…the beds, for instance, where it was supposed to be soft… and it was not so soft like the man's big leather chair when a dog wanted a cool place to nap."
The Disney artists expanded on that much too brief description creating an authentic turn-of-the-century setting filled with numerous realistic details.
In the film, the house is an accurate representation of Queen Anne architecture that was the preferred fashion from the late 1800s to around 1910. Queen Anne became the predominant style in small American towns that experienced an increase in wealth at the turn-of-the-century and wanted to capture some of the sophisticated flair of larger cities.
It is very apparent that Jim Dear and Darling's home reflects owners who are financially well off and able to easily afford not only a well-polished grand piano in the parlor for entertaining, but a small greenhouse in the backyard to help maintain the always fresh flowers that are abundant both inside and out.
These expansive and expressive houses proved expensive and difficult to maintain and so fell out of favor shortly after the time period in the film. Cut-away bay windows, steeply pitched slate roofs, patterned shingles often called "fish scales," colorful stained glass, full porches with spindle work ornamentation, and an abundance of decorative details characterized this style of architecture and is clearly in evidence in the Disney artists' interpretation of Jim Dear and Darling's house.
The inviting front porch was an important functional element of these types of houses and, in most cases, an essential decorative feature as well to help define the home. Jim Dear and Darling's porch feature a simple wooden rocking chair, much less elaborate than the two in the living room, surrounded by potted flowers. The engraved glass front door is framed by two red, yellow and blue stained glass panels on either side of the front door that foreshadow the interior color scheme.
A small red brick walkway encircles the entire house and to the left side of the front yard is a metal hanging swing with a red and white canopied top to enjoy the summer evenings.
As mentioned, Lady and the Tramp was being filmed in CinemaScope so layout artists had to extend and fill the viewing area on the right and the left of the usual frame of action.
Fortunately, the intricate detail of Queen Anne architecture and the picturesque interior furnishings helped keep the background interesting without being distracting from the action.
As Baxter pointed out, "When you look at the backgrounds, they create pools of light where the action is going to take place."
To help get a sense of the story from a "dog's eye view," background artist Claude Coats who supervised the art work on the house built a scale model of the interior.
Everything from the dainty kitchen and its finely carved wooden swinging door, to the imposing staircase with the stately grandfather clock anchored at the bottom were painstakingly created to stage the horizontal world seen by the canine stars of the film.
"Claude Coats was trained in architecture so was particularly good at giving credibility to the setting. Coats liked to build models so he could see how things would translate dimensionally," Baxter said.
Animator Mike Gabriel who co-directed Pocahontas (1995) is a particular fan of Coats' work on the house.
"Claude Coats created detail without distracting you," Gabriel saidafter re-watching the film.
Imagineer Bruce Bushman was also involved in creating the model that was hoped to be both useful and practical in creating some animation shortcuts just as a live-action film had been for Cinderella (1950). Primarily, it solved the problem of perspective, getting just the right view, like little Lady's first look at the Matterhorn-like stairway soaring from the floor of the front hall.
The mansion was desinged and built to the scale of 1 1/2 inches to a foot. This set included painted wallpaper.
The tiny rooms helped unify the vision of all the artists so that the job of getting all the backgrounds and objects identical on the drawing board was greatly simplified. While the time period chosen was an age of cluttered furnishings, by using a model, things could be arranged so they preserved the nostalgia of the era without becoming too "busy."
Dainty little Lady lives and frolics in this beautiful late-19th century home rich with countless individual items that create a warm, welcoming environment that is subtly authentic. Interior design during this "Gilded Age" was noted for its ornamentation but also for its orderliness.
While the interior of the house may seem overly cluttered with furniture and knick knacks, the fashion of the time was that a bare room was in poor taste, so every surface was filled with objects that reflected the owner's interests and social status. To the left of the doorway entrance is the comfortable living room.
Jim Dear and Darling have decorated their living room with many framed photos that cover the walls, the fireplace mantle and the various side tables, although none of the images in those photos are clearly seen in the film. Darling also fills space with fresh flowers and ferns that she so carefully cultivates in her outside garden that demonstrates "carpet bedding" which is same-height flora, a hallmark of Victorian gardening.
Much of the furniture has the typical straight, turned legs replaced with more graceful cabriole legs where the leg had an out-curved knee and an in curved ankle. Near one wall, is an oak roll top desk with leather writing surface patiently awaiting the business of the day. Two different styles of rocking chairs are placed close to the marble fireplace with its castellated elements not only for warmth but illumination.
At this time period, gas lighting had become the most common and inexpensive way to light a home with a variety of fixtures providing more than sufficient brightness. In the Jim Dear and Darling home, not only are there several graceful wall mounted fixtures and sconces, but delicate overhead chandeliers. Slag glass bent panel lamps as well as enchanting cut crystal hand painted lamps sit on quarter swan round oak tables in the living room.
The living room wallpaper is green with a distinctive repeating dark green abstract floral decoration in keeping with the floral patterns in primary colors that was standard for upscale homes. Embellished hand carved wooden trim abounds in the room as well as the rest of the house.
A curved window seat appropriately covered with plush pillows allows Lady to easily look out the multipanelled window for the arrival of her master or her canine friends, Jock and Trusty.
To the right of the front doorway is the parlor, the most important room in the house since it was used for entertaining. The wallpaper is light blue with a faint laurel wreath pattern and serves as a pleasant background not only for a grand piano and artist easel but also several pets.
Apparently, Lady shares her home with other animals. The Siamese troublemaking cats, Si and Am, peer hungrily from the curved opening at the top of an authentic Queen Anne high chest at a tropical Angelfish swimming below in a bowl. From a tall, twisting white stand hangs a simple birdcage that houses another tasty treat for the curious felines, a small yellow canary.
Around the corner from the parlor is the entrance to the kitchen. Linonelum flooring for family kitchens became popular at the end of the 1800s and in this home, it is a light green background with a pattern of white squares with a smaller interior blue square that sometimes proves a slippery surface for little Lady. A large black cast iron stove is placed to the left side of the well kept room to allow plenty of space for a Sudbury cupboard.
Just outside the kitchen's hinged door is the classic grandfather clock that sits prominently next to a full length mirror at the bottom of the dark wooden staircase.
The stairs, with a single break for a windowed landing, are covered with a reddish patterned carpet and lead up to the master bedroom.
The large bedroom is bright and airy with the same mixture of blue, purple, and violet colors found throughout the rest of the house, although, at one point, a fluffy yellow comforter with light blue highlights decorates the rich mahogany bed. The lush bed includes a half canopy covering at the headboard. Of course, this spacious room also intially serves as the location for the new baby in his blue cradle overflowing with frilly fabrics and ribbons.
With casual elegance, Jim Dear and Darling's house clearly establishes the time period and social status of the characters while at the same time presenting a warm and friendly stage with many fascinating variations for the actions needed to tell the story.
As Disney fans watch the classic Disney animated films, it is important to remember the attention to authentic detail that was contributed by so many talented artists who worked on the backgrounds to provide an appropriate stage for the characters.
Hopefully, the next time any of you watch the film, you will pay a little attention to the magnificent setting that the talented Disney artists took great pains to create.