The Fairest One of All. Tomorrow I will also interview JB about the catalog of the exhibition, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Art and Creation of Walt Disney's Classic Animated Film.
Didier Ghez Why and how did you decide to work on a new book about the making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?
JB Kaufman: I think I had always had the idea in the back of my mind. There have been some very good books about Snow White, but I always had a feeling there was a lot more to the story that hadn’t been recorded yet. Then when I was in San Francisco, talking with Diane Disney Miller about another Walt Disney Family Foundation project, we started discussing the idea of pursuing this in a serious way. I think she thought of the idea and she thinks I thought of it, so let’s compromise and say we both thought of it at the same time. But no matter who thought of it, I think we were both excited right away about undertaking this project.
DG: What were some of the most interesting documents and sources of information you uncovered while conducting research for the book?
JBK: On one hand, there’s such a tremendous wealth of Snow White documentation that it’s hard to single out individual documents—the impressive thing is just the sheer volume of material. It took literally years to go through it all, but it was definitely worth it, because when you start with the ideas discussed in story conferences and follow them all the way through production—by way of the drafts, the sweatbox notes, the exposure sheets, sometimes the retake orders, and everything in between—you get a real sense of how they developed and evolved on the way to the screen. The Walt Disney Archives and Animation Research Library were indispensable sources for this information, of course (a big selection of the Snow White cutting records was unearthed while I was doing my research, so I latched onto those too). And the Walt Disney Family Foundation’s own collection was also invaluable, and filled in a lot of gaps in the production story.
On the other hand, I wanted to reconstruct the context of the movie by tracing the history of the “Snow White” story before Walt tackled it, so I wound up getting a crash course in the history of folklore. And some wonderful documents turned up in that part of my research, too. Maria Tatar, an internationally known folklore authority, gave me her very kind assistance in tracing the roots of the story, and other specialists illuminated specific aspects of it. And I learned a lot about the various stage versions at some of the theatrical archives in New York. Along with that, my friends at some of the major film archives helped me turn up some wonderful documents and images from earlier film versions of the story.
DG: Over the years, did you interview any of the artists who had worked on the movie?
JBK: Yes, as a matter of fact. I’m amazed to realize that it’s been over 30 years (!) since I first started seriously researching film history, and at that time several of the key Snow White artists were still alive and happy to talk about their experiences. At the time I wasn’t actively pursuing the idea of a Snow White book, but several of the Disney artists I interviewed—in particular Bill Cottrell, Grim Natwick, Ken O’Connor and a few others—had some extensive and insightful comments on this feature that had been such a major event in their lives. So when we did decide to undertake this book project, those interviews were invaluable.
DG: What are some of the key discoveries you made while tackling this project?
JBK: There were quite a few, but I think the main thing that impressed me was watching Walt’s creative process at work. It’s one thing to be told that Walt Disney had a creative mind, but it’s a different thing to see it in action. At the beginning of story development he really is open to any and all ideas, and his own ideas evolve considerably in the course of production. As they do, they get increasingly elaborate and ambitious. And as he sifts through this incredible wealth of ideas and settles on the direction he wants to go, he gets very specific and detailed, and constantly refines and perfects every aspect of the picture as he goes along. He can shift instantly between the grand overall view and the meticulous, painstaking details, and he manages to stay focused on both at the same time.
DG: What are the most important chapters in the book from your point of view?
JBK: They’re all important! There’s one very long chapter that examines the film in detail, section by section, delving into the production of each sequence and the finished result on screen. That one chapter by itself accounts for nearly half the page count of the entire book, so it will probably be a key chapter for most readers. In the last section of the book, about the aftermath of Snow White, there’s a chapter about return appearances by the Seven Dwarfs—their scenes in public-service shorts produced during the war, and so on. I love to find the unexplored nooks and crannies of film history, so that’s a pretty important chapter for me.
DG: Are you working on any other books about Disney at the moment?
JBK: Yes, actually I’m neck-deep in researching a followup book on the making of Pinocchio, and that’s turning out to be a fascinating subject too. Stay tuned!