The Story of Disney 8MM Films

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Last time, former Disney Archivist Dave Smith talked about how, at the Disney Archives, one of the most frequently asked question for decades, often with multiple inquiries every single week, was about the old 8mm black-and-white cartoons that could be purchased by people to show in their own living rooms, transforming them into family screening rooms. To this day, the Archives still receives similar questions about these oddities.

The concept of 8MM Disney cartoons might be a bit confusing for younger readers who are familiar with options like DVR, TiVo, Netflix, Blu-Rays and You Tube, as well as a host of other possibilities can pretty much watch whatever Disney cartoons they want whenever they want.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, if you missed seeing the show on television, then you missed it unless it got rerun, usually during the summer, and then it was gone for seemingly forever.

Some younger readers might vaguely remember hearing of the time of VCRs and videotapes in the 1970s, where Disney cartoons could be recorded off television, especially from the Disney Channel, or purchased in compilations sold at stores.

They might not remember that Disney and Universal unsuccessfully sued Sony in 1976 for “stealing” its product (basically for creating a device that allowed copyright infringement). The California District Court ruled that videotape recording fell under “fair use.”

Before then, the only chance to watch a Disney cartoon was at a special Saturday morning kiddie matinee at a local movie theater, or by purchasing reels of film in cans through film collector magazines and newspapers, which could sometimes get to be a bit pricey, even if a color print had started to turn a reddish hue.

Fortunately, there was a less expensive way for the average citizen to obtain at least a little taste of Disney magic at home.

As a teenager, I grew up walking downtown to the local camera store and purchased Castle Films editions of clips from classic Universal Studios horror films, or Walter Lantz cartoons, to thread carefully onto my little rickety projector in order to get a very few minutes of cinema that would be shown on a outstretched white bed sheet, blank wall, or sometimes an awkwardly balanced tripod screen.

The film might break and, if so, you had to splice it back together, or it might freeze in the projector and the bulb would burn the film. If you were clever enough, you could splice several small reels together for a longer show. Eastman Kodak produced 8mm beginning in 1932, specifically for home movies.

In 1934 Hollywood Film Enterprises (HFE) exclusively licensed the use of Mickey Mouse cartoon shorts, primarily for the Keystone hand crank 16mm home movie projector. HFE was a film laboratory that went into the home movie business of releasing a variety of home movie products, including edited Westerns, comedies, cartoons, and more to keep their equipment running between their regular outside orders.

Each silent cartoon ran about one to three minutes because HFE/Cine Art would take a theatrical release of a seven-minute Disney animated short and cut it down into several different films. In the process, they renamed each of these edited cartoons, leading some current collectors to believe they had discovered a new “lost” Mickey Mouse cartoon.

Football Manglers and Forward Pass were two edited cartoons taken from Touchdown Mickey. Mickey’s Brigade Turns Out was an excerpt from The Firefighters. Donald Duck’s Trained Seals was a segment from Mickey’s Circus.

Other edited titles among hundreds included Mickey’s Little Eva, Ice Cold Mickey, Running Wild, Mickey’s Best Girl, Mickey’s Close Shave, Mickey’s Bad Dream, Mickey Plays Santa Claus, Movie Star Mickey, Donald Duck the Mechanic, Pluto Gets the Bird, Mickey in Cannibal Capers, Donald the Skater, Donald Duck in Stage Struck, Mickey’s Best Girl, Gold Rush Mickey, Mickey and the Giant, Mickey and the Lilliputians, All American Mickey, Mickey Gets Dunked, Donald Duck in Off Balance, Jealous Mickey, Donald’s Spanish Serenade, Mickey’s Air Raid, Donald Duck The Ham Actor, Engineer Mickey, Mickey Gives a Party, Mickey Saves the Air Mail, Mickey’s Trick Horse, Mickey and Simon Legree, Mickey’s Exciting Picnic, Robinson Crusoe Mickey, and Flying High.

Even from just the title alone, educated guesses could be made of the original source for the cartoon. However, in a simpler time, it is easy to see how a consumer might assume these were the actual name of the cartoon, and were unable to locate those titles listed anywhere, leading them to believe they had discovered a previously unknown Disney animated short.

Beginning in the 1940s, HFE also offered 8mm versions. Standard 8mm originally was simply double sprocket 16mm split into two prints. HFE’s releases, supplied directly from the Disney Studio negatives, were incredibly sharp and very-well-struck prints, with very good saturation of grey tones.

In 1968, the Walt Disney Company created its own 8mm division, and included this 8mm film of Donald and Pluto.

Instead of using the common Kodak color film stock, Hollywood films instead used Ansco safety films for its later color releases, but they lacked the sharpness of its original DuPont stock on the black-and-white cartoons.

These cartoons were released on 100-foot reels, meaning that the cartoons now lasted four to maybe five minutes with people unfamiliar with the originals never realizing what had been skillfully edited out. Some have suggested that Disney insisted on only edited versions so as not to infringe on the originals.

Most of these were black-and-white and silent, although, in the late 1950s, about a dozen previous black-and-white titles were offered in 16mm sound and, by the 1960s, a number were available in 8mm Eastman Color. The HFE license was terminated when Disney decided to go into the home movie business for themselves.

“In 1968, it was decided that Walt Disney Productions would form their own 8mm division," said Rand Christensen, marketing supervisor for Walt Disney 8mm division in a 1975 interview with animation historian John Cawley. "The reason was simple. If you look at our company as a whole, you’ll see that we have found that if somebody else could do it, many times we could do it just as well if not better.”

“Walt Disney 8mm used to be considered the best kept secret of the company," he said. "Originally, we sold only through camera and photographic outlets because that was how it had always been done.”

Another reason, of course, was that Disney saw there was money to be made, just as it did when it took away the popular Gladstone franchise to produce Disney comic books. Disney dropped 16mm sales entirely, added sound and color to many of its releases, and sold also through department and toy stores sparking increased sales.

Disney 8mm films went through two stringent quality-control checks before release. In addition, Disney insisted on using new stock, not “end of runs,” which were common from some other companies. Some of the releases were packaged in blister-packs so they could be hung on standing racks.

The home movie division was located in the Walt Disney Educational Media Company building in Glendale, California. Also housed in the building was the 16mm rental department for schools and groups, and the Walt Disney Music Company.

In fact, Walt Disney Home Movies division wouldn’t release any of the classic black-and-white shorts, thinking that modern audiences didn’t want to watch black-and-white cartoons, even going so far as to put an apologetic disclaimer card in the commemorative edition Mickey Mouse: The First 50 Years that included Steamboat Willie as it was in black-and-white.

The division had a small work force of only a half-dozen employees supplemented by the fact that they could utilize the services of the Disney Studios' artists, film technicians, and sound experts to produce the final product.

The Glendale office did all the cutting of the clips. Worldwide distribution was handled by offices around the world, including London, Tokyo, Paris, and many more. Those outlets offered films and differently cut versions not found in American releases.

Many things were considered in choosing a clip for release, including its final weight (because of mailing costs). Several films would reach the rough cut stage, but only a small percentage would reach the consumer.

Sometimes releases would correspond with the re-release of a Disney animated feature, although the rule of thumb of the division was never more than two clips per feature available at any one time.

So, for instance, a clip from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs might just focus on an edited version of the “Whistle While You Work” song, which turned out to be the most popular clip ever sold by Disney 8mm. Other popular clips were Cinderella getting her dress for the ball and Bambi and Thumper ice skating.

“We have determined that customers would prefer a wide selection of titles, not a lot of segments from a few films,” Christensen said. “I order a print from the 16mm rental depository and send it over to the cutting department at the studio. They return to us a silent black-and-white work print of the section that we had decided on."

“We then cut it to fit our footage requirements if necessary," he said. "It is returned to the cutting department where they sync the sound for it. They may also add or drop a scene to make sure the sound flows smoothly. After our approval, we have our master material made from which we get an answer print.”

Product supervisor Bruce Brewer added, “We use Kodak stock for our films, with most of the printing done by Technicolor. We actually use about four or five different labs throughout the country, depending on the type of film that we are printing."

"At all our labs, we specify an acetate based stock as opposed to an estar based stock," he said. "We use acetate because it is a weaker stock and will not damage the projector if threaded wrong. It is also the current standard for home movies. Estar stock is used in cartridge machines. It is very strong and can’t be broken easily, and may even break projectors before the film is damaged."

“Technicolor does all of our silent color film, and about 90% of our color sound," Brewer said. "The black-and-white is done mostly on the East Coast, but Technicolor even does some of that. In fact, most people don’t realize that Technicolor still does black-and-white. Technicolor uses the Eastman color process in lieu of the IB process because of cost.”

The introduction of Super 8 film in the late 1960s, where the dimensions of the perforations are smaller than those on older 8mm film allowing the exposed area to be made larger, was adopted by Disney Home Movies in the mid-1970s. The film also had an oxide stripe on which magnetic sound could be easily recorded. Disney used optical (rather than magnetic) sound on its releases, again positioning itself from other companies and suggesting greater quality.

By the 1980s, Disney phased out selling 8mm and Super 8 films.

There were so many Disney home movies created that the company created a catalog.

“I grew up with Walt Disney. My father had a 16 millimeter movie projector, and the only thing I wanted to watch were Mickey Mouse cartoons,” said American Bandstand producer and entertainer Dick Clark in 2001.

Songwriter Richard M. Sherman recalled that his earliest Disney memories were these home movie versions: “My memories go back to when my dad would run black-and-white short films of Mickey Mouse on the wall of our New York apartment. The images filled the room. Mickey was my best friend. One day, part of the film burned in the projector and it broke my heart. Dad spliced the film but there was always a skip. I still watched it over and over.”

As Dave Smith mentioned last week, there is no sense in collecting these films, except for the box art or as a curiosity. They have no intrinsic value.

“The old 8mm film versions of Disney cartoons are practically valueless today. Few people have projectors, the films have gotten brittle and practically all the films have been released on video cassette or DVD,” Smith wrote to one person who six years ago asked him about the films.

However, HFE and Walt Disney Home Movies also produced and released home movie editions of Disneyland and the early days of Walt Disney World, and these would indeed be worth tracking down and uploading to YouTube for all of us to enjoy.

Documentation about these films is slight to non-existent, but here is a list of some of them and their original number for those who have more energy and time than I do.

701 Vacation Wonderland at Disney World (200ft Silent)
702 Day at Disneyland (200ft Sound)
703-710 UNKNOWN
711 "it’s a small world" – Disneyland (50ft Color)
712 Pirates of the Caribbean – Disneyland (50ft Color)
714 The Magic Kingdom – Walt Disney World (200ft Color Sound)
715 Haunted Mansion – Disneyland (50ft Color)
716 Country Bear Jamboree – Disneyland (50ft Color)
717 Jungle Cruise – Disneyland (50ft Color)
718 Disneyland After Dark (Color Silent)
719 Pirates of the Caribbean (50ft Color)
720 "it’s a small world" – Walt Disney World (50ft Color)
721 Country Bear Jamboree – Walt Disney World (50ft Color)
722 Haunted Mansion – Walt Disney World (50ft Color)
723 Jungle Cruise – Walt Disney World (50ft Color)
725 America on Parade at Disneyland (200ft Color Sound)
726 An Evening at the Magic Kingdom – Walt Disney World (200ft Color Sound)
727 An Evening at Disneyland (200ft Color Sound)
728 Disneyland Attraction Highlights No. 1 (200ft Color Silent)
729 Disneyland Attraction Highlights No. 2 (200ft Color Silent)
730 Main Street Electrical Parade (200ft Col Sound/Silent)
731 Vacation Kingdom at Walt Disney World (200ft Color Sound/Silent)
732 Walt Disney World Attraction Highlights No. 1 (200ft Color Silent)
733 Walt Disney World Attraction Highlights No. 2 (200ft Color Silent)
735 Fantasyland at Disneyland (200ft Color Sound/Silent)
736 Disneyland: From Dream To Reality (200ft Color Sound/Silent)
737 Fantasyland at Walt Disney World (200ft Color Sound/Silent)

And while I am writing my Christmas wish list to Santa that someone locates and shares these film excerpts, I would also love for someone to make still photos of the individual frames from all the classic Disney Viewmaster reels and Disney Tru-Vue cards that show the parks. (I would even love some shots from those three-dimensional cartoon figures that were sometimes used to tell a cartoon story. Years ago, I saw two of the actual figures at the Disneyana Dayton Ohio Show and Sale and they were pretty amazing.)