Animation studios almost always have a signature style, and if you watch enough of their material, you’ll start to notice. With Disney, however, it goes a bit further than that. If you watch some of their more contemporary films, you might notice that some of the animation looks startlingly similar to that of their older material. And that’s no accident.
Animation is an expensive, time-consuming, painstaking process. In fact, Disney’s first feature-length animation – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – almost bankrupted the man himself, forcing him to mortgage his house just to keep the wheels turning. And in the end, it took three years and almost $1.5 million to finish.
As everyone knows, Snow White ended up being a huge success, and Disney became the leading light in animated features. The studio then followed it this hit with a string of similarly successful features released throughout the ’40s, including Dumbo, Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio and Fantasia.
As Disney released more and more features, a distinct in-house animation style was developed. In particular, a technique called rotoscoping was frequently employed. Rotoscoping involves taking actual film footage and then drawing over each individual frame.
And so in the early days, when Disney worked on the likes of Snow White, Alice in Wonderland and others, the studio would actually film rudimentary live action versions of the scenes. Then the illustrators would take the frames and trace over them.
It’s a fascinating technique, and further down the line, Disney also figured out a way they could use it to cut costs. The took animated cells from previous films and then rotoscoped a new “skin” over the top. So essentially the studio was developing fresh characters and storylines from old designs.
Robin Hood is one of the earliest examples of this. Cells from The Aristocats, Snow White and The Jungle Book in particular featured in this 1973 film. That’s because the production was running behind deadline.
One similarity is particularly striking, however. Because while Robin Hood borrows the odd cell from Snow White and The Aristocats, you might notice that Little John looks virtually identical to Baloo from The Jungle Book. In fact, the character was even voiced by the same actor, Phil Harris.
Robin Hood wasn’t even the first film to re-use Baloo. While making Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Disney started printing animation over the top of film to splice the two styles. And so in the latter film, a suspiciously familiar-looking ursine fisherman turns up.
It would be fair to assume that Disney waited a while before repurposing previous films, and only used this technique in their latter years. But in fact, the studio actually started recycling animation almost immediately after they started making animated features. For example, the 1941 film Dumbo, Disney’s fourth animated feature, contained a reused cell from the 1936 short The Country Cousin.
Dumbo only borrowed one cell from The Country Cousin though. The first real instance of heavy reuse came with Fun and Fancy Free, a kind of double feature which was heavily maligned by an animator strike and World War II. This film included recycled animation from Dumbo, Bambi, Make Mine Music, Ferdinand the Bull and Springtime for Pluto!
Pretty much every Disney animated feature after that involved some animation recycling. Typically, as with Dumbo, it would be limited to a couple of frames. Before Robin Hood came along, 1963’s The Sword in the Stone was the worst offender.
But why did the studio resort to such production tactics? Well, it would make sense to suggest that it was all about budget, but to some extent, it seems to have been more to do with the approach of the director. Wolfgang Reitherman directed The Jungle Book, The Sword in the Stone, Winnie the Pooh, 101 Dalmatians and The Aristocats, all of which heavily borrowed animation.
Now that Disney’s animation is predominantly digital, of course, animation reuse is far less common – but it still happens. In particular, the 2009 film The Princess and the Frog recycled one cell from The Sword in the Stone.
Another interesting recent case occurred in 1999’s Toy Story 2. In one shot in the first film, you can see Buzz Lightyear’s face reflecting in his helmet visor. And the same effect, and indeed the same face, was used once gain in the sequel.
Although this recycling technique recently came to greater public attention thanks to a certain YouTube video, the studio actually hasn’t weathered much criticism for it. As mentioned, animation is tough, and sometimes corners have to be cut.
Disney isn’t even the only company to do this either. Hanna-Barbera and Warner Bros., for example, would often reuse animated backgrounds, especially in early animated TV shows like Looney Tunes and The Flintstones.
Rotoscoping is still in use today, although now it’s less about being effective and more about achieving a very particular aesthetic. In particular, the technique was used in Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, which was filmed in live action and then given a kind of animated skin.
Disney doesn’t really need to use rotoscoping or recycle footage anymore, however. And since their subsidiary studio Pixar proved so successful, they’ve started focusing entirely on computer-generated animation. In some ways, Tangled was the catalyst for this. The production had originally been intended as a 2D film, but discussions with Disney execs the studio decided to recreate the time-honored Disney aesthetic with CGI instead.
Of course, now Disney have started a whole new kind of recycling. Starting with Alice in Wonderland in 2010, and then Maleficent in 2014, they began a new trend of remaking old standards in live action. In 2016, for example, we saw a new version of The Jungle Book, and in 2017 we got a new Beauty and the Beast.
Ten further live action re-imaginings have also been confirmed. Audiences can look forward to a new Mulan next year. Plus, a remake of The Lion King is also in the works. And if any kind of Disney recycling is going to bother you, a rehashing of this family favorite should probably be it.