The Multiplane Camera

Walt Disney (1957)

The multiplane camera is a motion-picture camera used in the traditional animation process that moves a number of pieces of artwork past the camera at various speeds and at various distances from one another. This creates a sense of parallax or depth.

An early form of the multiplane camera was used by Lotte Reiniger for her animated feature The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926).

In 1933, former Walt Disney Studios animator/director Ub Iwerks invented the first multiplane camera using movable layers of flat artwork in front of a horizontal camera using parts from an old Chevrolet automobile.

Various parts of the artwork layers are left transparent to allow other layers to be seen behind them. The movements are calculated and photographed frame by frame, with the result being an illusion of depth by having several layers of artwork moving at different speeds: the further away from the camera, the slower the speed. The multiplane effect is sometimes referred to as a parallax process.

An interesting variation is to have the background and foreground move in opposite directions. This creates an effect of rotation. An early example is the scene in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs where the Evil Queen drinks her potion, and the surroundings appear to spin around her.

The most famous multiplane camera was invented by William Garity for the Walt Disney Studios to be used in the production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The camera was completed in early 1937 and tested in a Silly Symphony called The Old Mill, which won the 1937 Academy Award for Animated Short Film. Disney’s multiplane camera, which used up to seven layers of artwork shot under a vertical and moveable camera, and was used prominently in Disney films such as Pinocchio, Fantasia, Bambi, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty and The Jungle Book.

The Little Mermaid was the final Disney film to use a multiplane camera, though the work was done by an outside facility as Disney’s cameras were not functional at the time. The process was made obsolete by the implementation of a “digital multiplane camera”. Three original Disney multiplane cameras survive: one at The Walt Disney Studios, Burbank, California, one at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, and one in the Art of Disney Animation attraction at Walt Disney Studios Park in Disneyland Paris.

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