In celebration of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs being released for the first time in digital and being the first Signature Collection blu-ray. That’s it LA was able to participate in a presentation by animator Mark Henn of the second Golden Age of animation. He worked on the 90’s princess films The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. Henn shared with us the legacy imparted to him from the animators before him who worked on the first Disney Princess Snow White and how the brand evolved from then to now.
“Snow white took this company and put it in it’s place of entertainment history of animated features and the type of animation.” Henn described as he sketched Snow on a projector for us. More than Mickey, Henn believes that our first princess really built the studio as the animation technology created to make the feature put Walt on the map as an innovator. Disney invented the technology to create an 11 ft camera that could capture the work he guided as a master storyteller with 32 animators, 1032 assistants, 107 inbetweeners, 10 layout artists, 25 background artists, 65 special effects animators and 158 inkers and painters and countless production staff. As an animator who worked with some of those folk, Henn knows, “Snow White fits that role in our legacy.” It was the first animated feature film to win an Oscar (with seven mini statuettes) for the groundbreaking work that would lay the foundation of the Walt Disney Studios.
As he sketched for us, the icon’s face began to spring to life. “Snow White really reflected her times, her design, her voice, her demeanor, all of that.” When discussing how inspiration was drawn from Snow for the princesses he worked on, Henn described the importance of the differences first, “One of the big changes is the storytelling. Our stories are deeper, have different levels and the characters have more involvement. Snow White primarily of kind of a reactor.” While Snow White stands as the first of the Disney Princess legacy, there are always the criticisms derived from women’s roles and really from the way women were portrayed in the original Grimm Fairy Tale. “The story kind of happens to her. Things happen and she’s being pulled in different directions where some of our later characters are more driving forces in the story. Ariel is faced with a decision. She makes a decision and that kind of propels her in the story. Same with Belle and Princess Tiana. They make decisions and they’re more proactive in terms of moving the story forward.”
What Snow White really started in terms of the Disney Princess legacy was sort of the iconic animation look of them. “There’s definitely a very Disney house style. If you look at everything we’ve done there’s a lot of variation but in terms of some key elements eyes are very important. The eyes are such an important part particularly for a leading lady.” Henn shared how they’re instantly recognizable and not cluttered in their look, “The other thing too particularly with drawing, and even in the CG world, you don’t want to over-design the character. As with Snow White, there’s just very few things to design: her eyes, her nose, her mouth, there’s not a lot of details. What we learned with drawing is too many lines can make it very unappealing.” So that’s why when you line up all the princesses they all fit together no matter the decade they stem from while also being representative of women of their eras.
And it takes a lot of work to find the right personality to create a new look. “Much like the animators on Snow White, you pull from whatever is gonna work for you. We continued to use live action reference whether it was an actress brought in to act things out or it’s ourselves. There are drawings after drawings of what the characters could look like. You go through a lot of meetings with the directors. You take what everybody likes and you keep refining it. I may come to the table with ideas of my own.” Henn is known for being the animator who found inspiration through a graduation picture of his sister. “Classically one of my favorite stories was that I was going through an artist block with Jasmine and I didn’t have to go any further than my hip pocket. So her graduation picture from High School became basically what got me over that writers block and helped me design Princess Jasmine.”
When talking about the Second Golden Age of Animation, Henn says they didn’t plan it that way–just that when they were done making one they moved to the other. “As the new films start and the characters start rolling in, I’m looking at it as a new acting role. How do I make sure Ariel is unique? Back to back. Belle is different than Ariel. Jasmine is different than Belle. So it’s just diving into the story, understanding their roles and what they’re supposed to do.”, he said. Henn often encounters fans who are very grateful for the work and while they treat him like a celebrity, he tries to not see it that way and looks back fondly on his work with them.
Currently Henn finds himself in the vital role of teaching not just what he learned from the Nine Old Men generation who made Snow White but from his experience with the Second Golden Age era. “It’s an acting thing. Animators are often described as actors with pencils and now as actors with a computer screen. I’m in the role of being a mentor, taking all the years of my experience, what I do as an artist and work with a CG artist and simply do what we call draw overs. I can do a digital drawing on a tablet.” he shared about passing knowledge to the current generation of men and women animators behind films like Frozen, Big Hero Six and the upcoming Disney Princess feature Moana.
“They can come to me and show me scenes. And I can do, which is what I’ve done my whole career (is) if you’re an animator, you come and bring your scene to my office and sit down and take a piece of paper and say, ‘Well this might be better this way.’ So I’m doing that with the CG artists in the digital world. It’s just a way to take my experience and infuse it to pass it on to a new generation. I essentially do these kind of digital draw overs to make the animation as strong.” he said with the sketch of Snow White completed on the projection on the wall, almost indiscernible from all the other Snow White’s we’ve ever seen yet clearly so Disney.
Snow White the beacon of the legacy that’s been passed on for ages.