Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Production Details that Made Disney's 1959 'Sleeping Beauty' Matchless

By: Domonique Cox-Salberg

Sleeping Beauty is timeless animation recognized most for its distinctive, sophisticated style but not so much for how Walt Disney’s production approach paved the way for an animated film like no other. Thus, Sleeping Beauty’s production details and how it developed its iconic fine art flair will be revealed here.

A Long-Awaited Fairy Tale

So, without question, a treasured Disney classic and one of the most elaborate animated features ever produced, it was also a long-awaited project for the company. Walt Disney himself once said, “From the time I started making motion pictures, I dreamed of bringing Sleeping Beauty to life through the medium of animation.” Therefore, Sleeping Beauty was a planned production title on January 19, 1950, and likely due to Cinderella’s success, which was to be released that February. Ultimately, it was released about ten years later, and as envisioned by Walt, based on the 17th-century version of the famous tale by Charles Perrault.

Artist Eyvind Earle

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Determined to make Sleeping Beauty unlike any other Disney animated feature, Walt sought artists Eyvind Earle and assigned him as production designer. What came to be was a radical departure from preceding Disney animated films. Earle joined Gothic French, Italian, and Pre-Renaissance influences combined with his own abstract style of realism to create the chivalrous elegance and stylish design seen in Sleeping Beauty.

One of Earle's early Sleeping Beauty illustrations.

To that end, the film is filled with dozens of painted backgrounds (some 15 feet long) in Earle’s distinctive style and accomplished by creating ornate stylized landscapes for its widescreen display. Additionally, there was help from fellow animation artist Tom Oreb, who skillfully combined the strong vertical and horizontal planes of the backdrops into the character design to ensure Earle’s flair.

Aurora’s Beauty

Moreover, it was essential that Aurora’s beauty be exemplified through a lovely design. Animator and designer Marc Davis explained, “We had decided to do Sleeping Beauty as what Walt called a ‘moving illustration’ so…we stylized the drawing of Briar Rose.” Furthermore, the new star at the time, Audrey Hepburn, became an influence for Aurora’s early Oreb designs and peasant persona, explicitly inspired by her graceful daintiness.

Audrey Hepburn

Walt Disney also chose to use living models more carefully than ever before to “give artists inspiration and help them shape the anatomy of movement and expression of the cartoon figures.” It should be noted; Marc Davis has said all the live-action footage was used for inspiration and was never traced. To further merge Aurora to her stylized setting, Oreb favored vertical lines into the folds of her peasant garb and decided to integrate two-dimensional swirls into Aurora’s long golden hair graphically. 

Every Frame a Work of Art

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The creators of Sleeping Beauty all had a common goal: strive for perfection. Walt Disney is quoted saying that after one story meeting, he did not care how long it took but to do it right. Ambitious and determined, Walt challenged the more than 300 Sleeping Beauty artists and technicians to make each frame an independent work of art.

But since there is an intricate stylization for the characters in the film, the work needed to be careful and exact, down to the precise thickness of the pencil lines. The creation of Aurora and the film’s colors are a great example of how much work was involved. Such as how it took one full day to create one cleaned-up animation drawing and the jewel-like colors selected by Eyvind Earle. Meaning, the Disney Paint Lab developed new hues using additives that provided the pigments a glow on the screen not seen in any animated film that had come before.

The Mistress of Evil

The other star of Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent, was designed by the directing animator Marc Davis and took inspiration from the religious painting from a Czechoslovakian art book. His process entailed artistically experimenting with flame-like shapes and patterns of triangular color and basing her headdress on goat horns and the material enclosing her face on bat wings. Additionally, Maleficent’s garment has a reptilian quality, done to foreshadow the dragon into which the Evil Fairy can transform herself.

Sleeping Beauty Ballet

Original cast members costumed for Act I. At center is Carlotta Brianza as Aurora. Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, 1890

As for the music, Walt wanted to match its eloquence with the same visual perfection displayed in Sleeping Beauty. It turned out to be the musical score in the Sleeping Beauty Ballet composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in 1890. To adapt Tchaikovsky’s melodies to use in the animated story, composer George Bruns examined the ballet’s score and every single note for just the right themes for each scene and song in the film. Hence, the music was recorded in Germany, where the best state-of-the-art six-channel stereo equipment was available. Walt made sure every facet of Sleeping Beauty became something he and fans have never seen, to where their animation could truly be called ‘the art of enlivened, moving painting.’

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