The multiplane camera, invented in 1937 for Walt Disney Studios by William Garity, was an incredible piece of technology that helped create the illusion of depth in animated motion pictures. Filmed in 1957, the multiplane camera clip above was featured in the television series Disneyland (1954–1959) in an episode titled Tricks of Our Trade.
Via Modern Mechanix, Popular Science described the multiplane camera in a January 1938 article on the making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs:
Disney wanted to increase the eye value of the many paintings making up a picture by achieving a soft-focus effect on the backgrounds, illuminating the various levels of each scene individually, and separating” background from foreground, thus keeping background objects to their proper relative size.
His production crew labored for three years to perfect the novel picture-taking device to achieve these results. It consists of four vertical steel posts, each carrying a rack along which as many as eight carriages may be shifted both horizontally and vertically. On each carriage rides a frame containing a sheet of celluloid, on which is painted part of the action or background.
Resembling a printing press, the camera stands eleven feet tall and is six feet square. Made with almost micrometer precision, it permits the photographing of foreground and background cels accurately, even when the first is held firmly in place two feet from the lens and the lowest rests in its frame nine feet away. Where the script calls for the camera to “truck up” for a close-up, the lens actually remains stationary, while the various cels are moved upward. By this means, houses, trees, the moon, and any other background features, retain their relative sizes.
When everything is ready for action, an operator takes his place at each level of the camera, adjusting the cel, lowering or raising it, top-lighting or back-lighting his part of the scene as required. Also, by moving all cels except those on which the characters are painted across-camera at the same speed, the illusion of distance is created.
The Little Mermaid was the last Disney film in which the multiplane camera was used, as computer animation technology has become the standard. From wikipedia: “Three original Disney multiplane cameras survive: one at The Walt Disney Animation Studios, Burbank – California, one at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, and one in the Art of Disney Animation attraction at Walt Disney Studios Park in Disneyland Paris.”
Next, watch The Old Mill (1937), the Academy Award winning animation in which the multiplane camera was first used.