# The Multiplane Camera

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## Depth in 2-D

A fundamental hurdle that one must leap in animation is depth. The problem with animation (and film in general) is that it is often trying to represent 3 dimensional objects with only 2 dimensions. When watching a play, we can see the actors and props, and we know where these things are relative to one another; we perceive height, width, and depth. But when we look at images on a 2 dimensional screen, we loose depth. In film the image is entirely flat.

How do animators get around this? How can the viewer perceive depth if it isn’t physically there? The solution is to create an effect known as parallax. This is a concept that is familiar, but you may not have known it had a name. Parallax is simply the effect by which an object’s position or direction seems to differ depending on the position you view it from. Here is an example of the parallax effect:

As the viewpoint moves side to side, the objects in the distance appear to move more slowly than the objects close to the camera. In this case, the blue cube in front appears to move faster than the red cube.

So there are some animation techniques that allow us to create depth. In fact, most modern animation programs allow for easy layering of images, and the issue of depth is less severe in 3-D animation. But how was this parallax effect done in the past? Early animators had no fancy software to rely on. They had to hand-draw each frame of animation and record the image with a physical camera. How did the first animators create depth?

## Early Solutions

One way to achieve this effect is to simply eyeball it and draw dozens of images that slightly vary from each other. This is how some animation is done, but for certain types of shots this approach is nearly impossible or at the least impractical. The best way to create the illusion of depth is to have multiple layers that move independently of each other. This can be seen in clips such as this one from an article on IdeaRocket:

Notice how the hills in the foreground move faster than the hills far away. These two sets of hills are on different layers. This creates an effect that we’re all likely familiar with. When in a moving vehicle one can see how things that are close to you move far quicker than things that are far away. So to represent this, animators can create layers of images and move them at different speeds. But how did early animators create these layers?

The earliest technique is the one used in the oldest surviving animated film: The Adventures of Prince Achmed. The film was made by German filmmaker Lotte Reiniger in 1926. Here is a scene from the movie:

What Reiniger and her team did to create depth was to physically create individual layers. The animators cut out sheets of cardboard and lead, then moved them around while filming. This created footage with layers that were adjusted completely independently. The end result is a movie that has dynamic foreground and background images and a distinctive silhouetted style.

While this style of animation was interesting, it was limited. If one wanted to make detailed and vibrantly colored images, this approach wasn’t adequate. Animators began to test new methods of achieving a sense of depth. Then, 11 years after the creation of Prince Achmed, Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and changed animation forever.

## Disney’s Magic Camera

Snow White was a significant film for many reasons. It was the first full-length animated film, it was Disney’s earliest animated film, and it was the highest-grossing sound movie of all time (until Gone with the Wind in 1940). Though it was mocked by some as being too childish, the movie was a massive success and it became the template that animated films followed for decades after.

So how did Snow White create the illusion of depth? The team at Disney created a camera that allowed them to film multiple planes at once, aptly called the multiplane camera. Though not the first machine of its kind, the most famous multiplane camera is the one created in 1937 by William Garity for Snow White.

What exactly is a multiplane camera, and how does it work? A video released in 1957 shows Walt Disney demonstrating the device.

In this video, Walt describes how the camera is used. First, the animators take an image and divide it into separate elements. For instance, imagine a house on a hill with a fence in front and the sun shining down. The animators would take a transparent sheet or pane of glass and draw one of these elements on it. For our scene, you might have a sheet with the sun on it, a sheet with the house, one with the fence in the foreground, and one with a tree next to the fence. Each sheet would have only the one element painted on, the rest of the sheet being transparent. This example is shown here:

You can see how each sheet is placed on the rig in individual “shelves.” At the top of the rig was the camera itself, filming all the layers. The “shelves” could then be moved toward and away from the camera at different speeds to create depth. This process let animators draw each element only once, instead of drawing it over for each frame.

Operating the camera required a handful of technicians to adjust positioning, lighting, and speed for each shot it was used. Trial and error was a big part of the process, as it took time to find the desired speed and motion of the elements. Though it may sound tedious to produce, the effect speaks for itself. Disney’s multiplane camera allowed for not only realistic tracking shots, but also rotating images and special effects such as flickering lights and running water.

## Other Cameras

But what about the other attempts at multiplane cameras? Between The Adventures of Prince Achmed and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, many others created their own versions of multiplane cameras. In fact, the setup used for Prince Achmed could be considered a prototype of Disney’s final creation. This simple cutout approach was used again by Berthold Bartosch in his 1932 film The Idea.

The most notable predecessor of Disney’s multiplane camera was coincidentally created by ex-Disney animator and director Ub Iwerks. Iwerks had worked with Walt Disney for many years, and even co-created Mickey Mouse. Iwerks left Disney in 1930 to create his own studio. It was here that he developed his own version of a multiplane camera. This device allowed for a number of images to be placed horizontally and moved toward the camera. Iwerks used parts of an old Chevrolet to construct his original machine. This is considered by historians to be the first true (albeit primitive) multiplane camera.

Around this same time Fleischer Studios used a similar device called the Stereoptical camera. With this setup, animators would create physical 3-dimensional objects and sets. The camera would sit horizontal and aim at standing images. The objects and props could then be moved in front of and behind the images. This approach was used by Fleischer Studios to create Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons .

## The Multiplane Camera Through Time

So why was Disney’s camera more famous than the competition? First, it was the largest and most complex device made at that point. This design had seven individual layers and the ability to adjust the position of the camera itself, making it technically superior. Second, it was the first multiplane camera to have a vertical setup. The previous designs had used horizontal images, which limited the types of shots possible. Finally, it was the most reliable and professional design. While other studios had dabbled in the technology, Disney was at this point trying all kinds of new and interesting things. They came up with the idea and put significant time and money toward the device.

When Garity created the now-famous camera, it wasn’t immediately used for Snow White. Instead, the Disney crew decided to test in on one of their short cartoons: The Old Mill. The short film begins with a tracking shot that brings the audience into the rural setting and ends with a reverse shot that backs away from the mill. The short went on to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Subject in 1937.

With the success of The Old Mill, Disney then used the multiplane camera for the aforementioned Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which is where people really began to take notice. The studio was awarded a Scientific and Engineering Academy Award for the ingenuity of the camera. The studio then produced more cameras and used them for a significant number of their films including Pinocchio, Cinderella, Bambi, Alice in Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty, The Jungle Book, and more.

The final film that Disney’s multiplane camera was used for was The Little Mermaid in 1989. At this point 2 dimensional animation had begun to transition from purely physical to a mixture of physical and digital techniques. With the advent of the Computer Animation Production System (CAPS), the multiplane camera became obsolete. Though Disney only used CAPS for a single shot in The Little Mermaid, their next film, The Rescuers Down Under was entirely digital.

There are only three original multiplane cameras that have survived the years. One is at an attraction in Disneyland Paris. Another is located at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. The last is at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California.

## End of the Multiplane Camera

The necessity of the multiplane camera is a thing of the past. What has replaced it? When it comes to 2-dimensional animation, movies are made almost completely digitally. Even if they are hand-drawn they are often drawn on electronic drawing pads or tablets. The software available now also contains layers as a standard feature. All it takes is a few clicks to make as many layers of images as you want. What was once a massive technological feat of engineering now takes literal seconds.

Of course, 2-dimensional animation has mostly fallen by the wayside. Since the mid-nineties computer animated films have grown in popularity. Because these films are created in virtual space there is no need for layers. Objects and backgrounds are placed in a digital simulation of space. Depth is a given.

This isn’t to say that the end of the multiplane camera is a bad thing. The ability to easily create an effect that once took extreme manpower and money is greatly significant and should be applauded. Software developers have spent hours programming and experimenting and have made it possible for anyone to create realistic animation effects without a hassle.

The multiplane camera was an amazing invention that led cartoons into a wonderful era of feature films. It took teams of engineers and technicians to build and operate. This technology led to some of the greatest animated films ever made. The multiplane camera was of course only one innovation made in the animation process. Countless shortcuts and new technologies have shaped the industry as it’s grown. The level of creativity and intelligence on display for the pursuit of art is inspiring. The multiplane camera was created during a time of exciting new ideas at Disney, and I believe that the animation industry will continue to thrive if it continues to allow for people’s innovation and creation.

Works Cited:

“Cinema: Man & Mouse”. TIME.com. 27 Dec 1937. Retrieved 3 July 2019.

Family, Disney. “Walt Disney Introduces the Multiplane Camera.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 4 Feb. 2011. Web. 3 July 2019.

Fisher, Dave. “The Adventures of Prince Achmed clip.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 13 Nov. 2015. Web. 3 July 2019.

“Multiplane Educator Guide” (PDF). Retrieved 3 July 2019.

Musker, John and Ron Clements, directors. The Little Mermaid. Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, Inc, 1989.

Onorato, Amy. (9 Oct. 2018). Multiplaning: How Animators Create Depth Out Of Flatness. Retrieved from https://idearocketanimation.com/20009-multiplaning-animation-history/

Pat Williams and Jim Denney (2004). How to Be Like Walt: Capturing the Disney Magic Every Day of Your Life. HCI. p. 133. ISBN 978–0–7573–0231–2.

Reiniger, Lotte, director. The Adventures of Prince Achmed. Reiniger, Lotte, 1926.

Unkrich, Lee, director. Toy Story 3. Walt Disney, 2010.