Mar 23, 2017
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The Art of Pinocchio at SF’s Disney Museum
by Karl Cohen
Jimmy Cricket was a character Disney essentially invented to play Pinocchio's conscience. photo: Disney
“WISH UPON A STAR: THE ART OF
Pinocchio”, at the
, in San Francisco’s Presidio through January 9th, 2017, is a major temporary exhibit, including over 300 pieces of art which take you behind the scenes of this wonderful film. There are rough and finished drawings, paintings, sculptures of key characters, photos, interactive video displays, reproductions of pencil drawing sequences that you can flip through and other items.
There are lots of things on display that should fascinate you, from the second floor of the exhibit pavilion that is filled with storyboard art and inspirational images to the main floor, where they trace production from character development to finished production cel setups. The exhibit really gives an in-depth look at how the film was made.
It is full of nice surprises. While we all know what Disney’s Pinocchio looks like, the exhibit reveals some of the early studies, which made him look unappealing. The labels tell us that Walt stopped production on the film so they could redesign Pinocchio and make major script changes. The early Pinocchio looked too mean and nasty.
The original Pinocchio lacked charisma, to say the least. photo: courtesy Disney Museum
I was fascinated by the attention the studio gave to the subtle lighting of certain scenes. Like old master painters, they highlighted certain elements without being obvious. Along with Walt’s lighting concerns, the exhibit shows his dedication to excellent compositions, camera angles and other elements. One fascinating, detailed drawing is a bird’s eye view of the picturesque town that even includes looking down into a baby bird in a nest.
Walt’s attention to detail is evident throughout the exhibit. For example there are detailed drawings, paintings and wooden mockups of cuckoo clocks and studies of the other things found in Geppetto’s shop, suggesting he really cared about the looks of everything in that room.
I was fascinated by the numerous sketches of colorful evil characters, while my wife liked seeing the studies of Cleo and the other fish in the film. We both loved the long panel that showed Pinocchio exploring the skeleton of a giant whale, unaware that a giant octopus is lurking to the side of the whale’s remains.
I was familiar with Walt’s giant vertical two story high multiplane camera stand developed in the late 1930s, but I was unaware that Disney also used a horizontal multiplane system to shoot sequences in “Pinocchio” (1940). There is a simplified recreation that shows how that system was set up. It includes a cel of Jiminy Cricket about 8” or 10” in front of the background painting.
The show will be on display until January 9, 2017. If you visit the museum plan on spending several hours there as “Wish Upon a Star” is best enjoyed at a leisurely pace. There really is an awful lot to study in the exhibit. You may also want to revisit parts of the permanent collection, see what is on display in the museum’s second smaller temporary exhibit hall, stop by the restaurant which is under new management and visit their bookstore/gift shop that is full of hard to find items.
And if that was not enough Pinocchio for you, there is “Pinocchio: The Making of a Disney Epic” (2015) by J.B. Kaufman, an exceptional scholarly book, which is also easy and fun to read AND profusely illustrated. For any animation lover you should find the book a marvelous contribution to your knowledge of what went into creating one of Disney’s greatest films. It was published in time for the exhibit at our Walt Disney Family Museum.
Disney Museum shows us the new Walt. photo: courtesy Disney Museum
The book takes us back to the original pre-Disney Pinocchio whose personality was quite different from Walt’s interpretation. Walt obtained the screen rights and began to develop the story in 1937. Through a series of complex story changes Walt’s puppet slowly emerged. He was slowly transformed from a brash, cocky, rebellious, abrasive and mischievous boy into the innocent child that kids love today.
The same was true of Jiminy Cricket who first appeared as a minor character in the script as it was developing, several months into 1938. Director Ward Kimball discusses how Walt transformed him from an ugly black bug into the nice looking character that served as Pinocchio’s conscience. Not until 1939 did the team suddenly discover that the cricket could also be a narrator, a realization that meant yet another major story revision.
Using transcripts of Walt’s discussions with his staff, housed in the Disney archives and other documents, Kaufman constructed his excellent text which goes on to describe almost every step that was taken to create the film. We also get a feeling for Walt’s personality as we read transcripts of his conversations and see numerous concept drawings, model sheets, sculptures of characters and props, background studies, etc. We get a good idea of how concerned he was with each detail as the film was being put together.
I also was fascinated with many other things. The book provides information about the often painstaking work that went into perfecting some of the special effects shots. Some of those shots were created using the multiplane camera stands that Disney’s technicians created at an enormous expense. He was so proud of that technical achievement that he boasted about it when he advertised the film. A photo of the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood shows a two-story banner hanging in front of the theatre. It says “Walt Disney’s Pinocchio in Multiplane Technicolor.”
The puppeteer and gypsy Stromboli is Pinocchio's enemy and one of Disney's darkest and entertaining villains. photo: courtesy Disney
This book is really an impressive achievement. It doesn’t end with the completion of the film, but goes on to discuss the press campaign and merchandising of toys, books, sheet music, etc. that promoted it. I was surprised to learn that Walt had the final shots of the film, when Pinocchio becomes a real boy, reanimated after the film was sneak previewed. Why? The hands looked too big to Walt.
The book also covers the film’s reviews, distribution problems (including Disney not wanting first run theatres to put it on a double bill, limited distribution in Europe due to the war, etc.) and the company’s efforts to keep kids’ interest in the film alive. Want to be a member of Pinocchio’s Tell the Truth Club?
The text ends with a fine essay by Russell Merritt, who teaches animation history at U.C Berkeley, on how Walt turned Collodi’s (Carlo Lorenzini) story of a not-so-nice puppet into a beloved animated star. It is an excellent analysis that significantly adds to our understanding of Walt’s masterpiece. Bravo Merritt and the entire museum staff.
Karl Cohen is an animator, educator and director of the local chapter of the International Animation Society and can be reached
Posted on Oct 14, 2016 - 05:06 PM