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How Disney used real actors to perfect 'Alice in Wonderland'

The hand-drawn colourful creativity of Disney’s golden era makes up some of the most impressive pieces of cinema in the 20th century. Painstakingly brought to life using a vast team of enthusiastic – and likely underpaid – artists, the animation process involved several steps, the first of which often involving a live-action actor used as a reference for the animators. 

One of Disney’s most iconic fantasy adventures, featuring an eclectic landscape of vibrant characters, was 1951s Alice in Wonderland, a project that Walt Disney himself was personally attached to at the mere age of 21. Working at the Laugh-O-Gram Studio in Kansas City in 1923, Walt helped to create the unsuccessful short cartoon series named Newman Laugh-O-Grams, with its final cartoon being inspired by Lewis Carol’s novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. 

The short film featured a young girl interacting with an animated world, but due to financial struggles, the Laugh-O-Gram Studio went bankrupt in July 1923, and the film was never released. However, once Disney left for Hollywood, he used the film to show to potential distributors, with Margaret J. Winkler of Winkler Pictures agreeing to distribute. As a result, Walt partnered with his older brother Roy to form Disney Brothers Studios, and it would be the start of the company’s untouchable legacy. 

Following the great success of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, Alice in Wonderland was greenlit in 1946, with work delayed due to World War II. Kathryn Beaumont was only 11-years-old when she was cast to record the voice for Alice in the film, in addition to performing in a Live-Action Reference that would be used by the Disney animators. 

The process was the initial part of a larger rotoscoping technique, which involved animating frame by frame over to the top of the live-action footage. By tracing the exact body movements and facial expressions of Beaumont, the animators were able to accurately recreate the essence of a young human girl in a magical fantasy world. 

Essentially, animators are merely tracing over a live-action image, frame by frame, by projecting the live-action movie onto a glass panel and animating over the image. It is the projection equipment itself that is referred to as a rotoscope, with the device later replaced by computers but keeping the same name. 

The fascinating footage below shows the original live-action performance from Kathryn Beaumont during the doorknob scene, in which she pleads with a personified doorknob to be let through his tiny door. Considering the painstaking effort that goes into animating such a sequence, behind the scenes footage like this certainly makes you appreciate early Disney that little bit more.

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