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Plenty (PLENTY) of pictures below, but first a small digression on the point of design. This is a movie I saw early and often. Its pictures and sounds are in my bones. It's gorgeous, captivating, elemental; the second weirdest movie in the entire Disney animated canon, and one of the most phenomenally beautiful movies ever made. And more than any other Disney animated picture it is driven by its design in a way that echoes the slightly displaced and eerie, otherworldly and familiar, quality of a good fairytale myth. (And that's not even touching on its music, its character design, its sound design, and its voice acting, which deserve a post of their own).

Lady and the Tramp had been a financial success and Disney, whose boundary-pushing and adventurous Fantasia was over a decade in the past, wanted to pull together something just as astounding and even more beautiful, a moving illustration, a holistic artistic achievement as adventurous and revolutionary as Fantasia, but that also harkened back to the princess narratives of his early successes. And, fuck it, he thought. He'd tried widescreen with Lady and the Tramp and it worked out. Why not film in Super Technirama this time, printing in 70mm and requiring his artists work on bigger canvases, with more detail.

Mary Blair was one of Disney's favourite artists, who often contributed conceptual art to his movies and shorts in the 40s and 50s. Her art was angular, graphic and abstracted -- her work for the Cinderella story book is vastly different to the screen version. Her style is obvious in Once Upon a Wintertime, in the vivacious, bold and friendly backgrounds (the character design, unfortunately, departs starkly from her aesthetic, and is far less successful), and the angular horses (a clear predecessor of Sleeping Beauty's horses).

Disney wanted something as adventurous and modern and design-driven as her work but as iconic and ageless as The Hunt of the Unicorn. At the same time, Disney was distracted by his other dream project, building Disneyland. So, he delegated.

Disney gave Eyvind Earl, a tremendously talented background artist obsessed with "infinite detail within detail," an unusual amount of control over the look of the film -- enough power even to override successful character animators like Marc Davis. You can get a look at Earl (and Marc Davis), in this delightfully stilted and earnest Disney short film shot during the making of Sleeping Beauty, which unfortunately I cannot embed but which is well worth a look.

Earl drew, design-wise, from several sources: the castles and strong vertical compositions of medieval gothic painting; the stiffness, flatness and narrative of medieval tapestries; the costuming, landscaping and regulation of medieval illumination, particularly duc de Barry's Book of Hours; and the detailed and delicate florals, the geometry and layered perspectives of 15th/16thC Persian miniatures.

Pliny, study, and landscape - Andrea di Firenze, 1457

Yusuf and Zulaiikha - Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād, 1488

Also he decided to just go ahead and draw trees like a fucking weirdo, albeit with some precedent:

Early medieval landscape by an unkown miniaturist

Earl's great trick here was taking Charles Perrault's post-Renaissance/pre-Romantic Sleeping Beauty fable and giving the big middle finger to Renaissance perspectivalism and Romantic emotion. This is a simple story, with simple, stilted characters, with a known and unavoidable beginning, middle and end, and its princesses and fairytale rhythms are familiar; but its exteriors sometimes verge on the uncanny, with flat, skewed planes and multiple vanishing points, and its interiors are cavernous empty vaulted stone rooms or close and cluttered cottages and cages.

This is a stiff unyielding world of monarchy, betrothment, good and evil. A world in which a sixteen-year-old can grow in grace and beauty, beloved by all who know her and have that mean something, because beauty has metaphysical, quantifiable weight, an ordered place in the universe. Prophecy is a natural fit for this kind of world, because everything is static, and everything is cyclical, and what is spoken must be done.

And yet prophecy too, as inevitable as it seems, has gaps that can be exploited and mitigated, with great effort. This is Earl's other great trick: to infuse all of his medieval-era influences with the brash angularity of modernism and mid-century graphic design, with bizarre disruptive interludes of bird cutouts swimming woozily in song, with negative-image lightning flashes, with scare cuts and zooms on gargoyles and Aurora's body, with the queasy colouring of Maleficent's castle and the pink/blue smoosh of Aurora's dress, with extreme high or low angles, with a climax that dissolves geography and space into a nightmare haze of fire and clashing teeth.

a break-your-phone number of caps )

Stateliness and grace; elegance and weight; terror and peace; modernity and timelessness; violence and sleep; prophecy and disruption; detail and expanse; order and chaos. These tensions, and the sheer impeccability and beauty of their execution, are what keeps Sleeping Beauty feeling so vital and unique, over fifty years after its (unceremonious and expensive) release. Indeed, that its weakest sequence is its abrupt and empty-feeling final minute shows how little-suited Sleeping Beauty is to soothing and resolving tension. It's too strange for that; there is too much alive in its images.


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