The art style of Disney animation

What is it that makes up the characteristic Disney art style? And, how did the magical Disney aesthetic come to be the way we now know it? 

I used to think that if I want to learn how to draw like a Disney artist, I don’t need to worry about drawing realistically at all – I just need to be able to draw in the simplified ‘Disney style’.

I was wrong..

By reading more about the development of Disney’s animation art I began to understand that there is a very strong realistic foundation underneath Disney’s art style. 

In this post I am sharing what I’ve learned so far about the Disney animation art style

What is Disney’s art style? 

Disney animation has a ‘storybook realism’ art style: a naturalistic and realistic style inspired by the aesthetic of classic European storybook illustration. This artistic style started developing when Walt Disney was working on his first feature-length animation (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs).

Disney art has a European storybook aesthetic

There are, of course, many differences between individual Disney animation movies. 

But if we look at the classic fairy tales – which are generally associated with the characteristic Disney aesthetic – their art style can often be traced back to the first Disney feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. 

The style of Snow White was inspired by the European style of storybook art

Disney’s version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs opens with a storybook and the storybook sets the tone for the general look and feel of the movie.  

To create the feeling of a ‘living storybook’, Disney had help from several great stylists of European storybook illustration (e.g. Gustaf Tenggren, Albert Hurter, Ferdinand Horvath). These European artists helped Disney to develop a style that would be familiar (and beloved) with the audience. 

The storybook became a sort of style guide for the artists working on the animated classic. The artists instilled the European storybook feel in all of the little details of the animated feature. 

It was in the intricate wood carvings, in the design of the wooden cottage of the seven dwarfs, and even in the way the trees were drawn and painted in the forest. 

And, eventually, this storybook aesthetic set the standard for the rest of Disney’s animated productions. 

Example: For the making of Tangled the creators used Disney’s Cinderella (1950) and Pinocchio (1940) as inspiration to create a style guide for the environments in Tangled (2010). This shows how the individual styles of Disney animation movies are ultimately related to Disney’s classics.

A sense of realism and naturalism

Walt Disney understood from the very beginning that for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to succeed, the audience needed a strong emotional connection to the film and its characters. He intended to establish this emotional connection by creating a sense of realism and naturalism in his animated feature. 

A few examples of how Disney created a natural and realistic style in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: 

  • Animation. Walt Disney had his animators attend life drawing classes to develop their drawing and animation skills. In their extensive training they learned how to create natural and life-like movement in animation. Disney also hired actors to create live-action sequences of scenes that had to be animated. The footage was rotoscoped or used as a reference guide for the animators to work from. These measures resulted in a much more realistic animation style. 
  • Character designs. The characters were designed more realistically and believably than ever before in animation. At the beginning of the character design process the characters looked very cartoonish, but these early designs would eventually be refined as the artists grew more used to the European illustrative look. 
  • Environment and backgrounds. The fairy tale world was designed and created to feel ‘real’ to the audience. The backgrounds, trees, and animals were all drawn and painted in a (relatively) realistic manner so that they all added to the sense of realism in the story. 
  • Film techniques. Disney used camera movements and techniques that were commonly used for live-action films. A new camera system, the multi-plane camera, was invented at the Disney animation studios to better reveal the depth and dimension of the drawings. 
  • Sound effects. Realistic sound effects were created so that the animated world of Snow White sounded like a real world. Adding believable sounds to the animation brought the story even further to life. 

By putting these and many more elements together, Walt Disney created a very convincing illusion of life in his animation. 

Conclusion

Throughout the years traditional (2D) animation at Disney has gradually been replaced with 3D animation, but the most basic look of a Disney fairy tale is still (European) storybook illustration with a realistic and naturalistic approach. 

In a 1935 memo, Disney wrote: “… our study of the actual is not so that we may accomplish the actual, but so that we may have a basis upon which to go into the fantastic, the unreal, the imaginative – and yet to let it have a foundation of fact, in order that it may more richly possess sincerity and contact with the public.” 

I think Disney’s quote explains the essence of art. Not just the essence of animation art, but art in general. It answers the question of why artists should study drawing from life and why the imagined should always be informed by the real (or, the ‘actual’). 

So, if you want to learn Disney’s art style (or any other art style there is), a very good place to start is drawing from life. Practice drawing both inanimate objects (still-life) and animate objects (figure drawing and gesture drawing) from real life references.