Released in 1937, The Old Mill is an Oscar winning short animated film and part of the Walt Disney Animation Studios/RKO Radio Pictures early Silly Symphonies Animated Collection.
Given that the Walt Disney Animation studios, the ‘practitioner’ chosen for closer examination as part of this Hons study, has released 50 full length animated features and numerous short animated films; the question must be raised as to why focus on The Old Mill, a short that was released over 70 years ago instead of newer releases from the studio? The answer is twofold, not only is The Old Mill the short that is most closely aligned with the Project that will be produced as part of this Hons study, but the short film also introduced many of the techniques and approaches still used in modern animation today. Although the technology may have changed in relation to layout and background design, The Old Mill is the definitive example of how backgrounds and incidental characters can progress a narrative without the presence of a central protagonist, reliance upon character or omnipresent voice over narration. This aspect of the animation corresponds directly with my own study into the importance of background and layout in progressing story as illustrated in my current research focus question:
“Aside from the omnipresent narrator, what filmic devices and visual development techniques can be employed in animated films to convey a sense of character and a progression of a linear narrative when there is an absence of a visually represented character or protagonist on the screen?’’
My research has also found that the Walt Disney Animation studios, provides the most comprehensive exploration into the techniques, practices and technological advancements associated with background and layout development. For this reason, the studio, rather than a single practitioner has been selected for study; this is also in keeping with the departmentalised production line model of traditional animation film creation wherein a collective is responsible for particular production.
The Old Mill tells the linear narrative of a single evening in the ‘life’ of an old windmill and its residents of assorted animals and birds as they face an unexpected storm that threatens their collective existence. The narrative itself is chronologically linear and written to best demonstrate environmental storytelling where the story is told through the environment and backgrounds rather than focus upon character. This story is a moment in time and its cyclical nature indicates that this has happened in the past and will most likely occur in the future. The Old Mill opens with an establishing shot of the old windmill in its current state and the film also closes with the same, albeit altered and storm lashed, windmill nestled in the landscape with life going on around and within it.
This visual ‘bookending’ of the narrative reinforces the voyeuristic nature of the short, a peek into a moment in time that is created by the foregrounding of the background and the seeming unrestrictive access that the viewer has with the environment. This is the same narrative device that I will also be using in my animation project wherein the viewer will get a definite sense that they are witnessing a moment in time through the careful placement of recurring motifs and symbols.
The short animated film, The Old Mill not only utilises a linear narrative but also cutting edge technology in the area of layout and background design; technology that was to change the role of the background and the importance of setting in animation. This was the first time that the Disney Studio had employed their multi-plane camera which for the first time enabled backgrounds to become more than simply a flat space where characters performed, the illusion of depth created by the multi-plane camera meant that the audience where able to ‘enter into’ the world of the animation with greater sense of realism and thus immersive quality.
|See Walt Disney's explanation of the multi-plane camera here|
Backgrounds could now become environments that could convey a sense of mood and atmosphere that could stand alone as a ‘real world’ environment; key in the process of environmental storytelling. The added depth and elements of forced perspective take the viewer into the action in much the same way that a point of view shot does within a live action film. Interestingly, although the mode of delivering such an effect has changed from the multi-plane camera, to the computer the essence at the core of this revolution in background design remains unchanged.
|Screenshot from Toon Boom Animate Pro which digitally recreates the multi-plane camera in 2010|
The opening shot commences with a long slow zoom through a foreground where the viewer is almost peeking through the bushes to see the windmill and it is this voyeuristic point of view shot combined with the added illusion of depth that takes the audience into the world rather than seeing it from the outside. This feeling is made evident as the viewer enters the Mill after a series of cross fades moving from the macro to the micro aspects of the story, the critters who reside in the windmill. The viewer is positioned as if looking in on the daily routine of swallows who chirp to each other animatedly (no pun intended) and we are invited to see the swallows as a family, almost as if we are peeking over the fence to listen to the neighbours who seem oblivious to our presence as they go about their routine. (@1min 3 secs)
As the camera pans up through the mill the illusion of depth intensifies and the viewer recognises that they are moving into the rafters and with this enclosing space comes a greater sense of intrusion and intimacy. (@1min 33sec)
The cooing of doves, symbolic of love are seemingly amorous in their relations with one another and the camera moves away as if not wanting to intrude on their private moment. (@1min 27sec)
We are however, as the viewer aware that we are actually in the Mill with these critters as both the mice in the rafters and the owl break the fourth wall and recognise our presence. (@1min 43sec)
These are the only critters in The Old Mill that acknowledge the viewer and it is this process of breaking the fourth wall that identifies the voyeuristic point of view camera shot rare in animation films but an integral component of environmental storytelling. As the camera pans further into the rooftop, the bats begin to leave their roosts thus signalling the start of dusk and the viewer is lead via the environment (leaves falling into the pond disturbed by the bats flying out into the night) outside the Mill.
Once outside the Mill the exploration of the micro world of the windmill continues and sound design, including a greater integration between character and music, begins to become more important. Sounds associated with the change from dusk to evening such as frogs and grasshoppers are important in demonstrating the passing of time. As with all works concerned with environmental storytelling, sound design is crucial in conveying meaning and atmosphere in the absence of a narrator or character to act as a guide through the narrative. As the impending storm begins to build the environment itself literally seems to come to life conveying a sense of fear as the colours darken and once benign trees and reeds take on a major role in the music and the action. (@4min)
The Mill heaves and rattles in time with the music and the increased number of cut shots between the various critters and the state of the building itself and the storm outside aid in creating tension as if the viewer was unsure of where to look. The use of repetition in these cut shots (section 4:22 of the film) further echoes the original action of the windmill which in turn correlates to the broader subtext of the repetitive nature of each day in the ‘life’ of the Old Mill.
The cool colour palette and employment of special effects lighting bring the outside storm into the Mill and its affect upon the Mill’s residents illuminates the temporary nature of their existence. (@6min 17sec)
These colours also evoke a sense of fear and the coldness of the storm can almost be felt by the audience as the wind howls and the rain lashes against the weakened Old Mill. The storm sequence, in every aspect from shot length to colour palette and sound design, contrasts starkly with the initial vision of the windmill as a gentle safe pastoral haven in the opening scenes. (@28sec; @4min 7sec)
In this moment, there is a sense of immersion within the environment and the rapid cut shots unnerve the audience as the point of view voyeurism of earlier is again highlighted as we see the owl from earlier again break the fourth wall and acknowledge our presence. (@5min 54sec; @7min 38sec)
The comedic anthropomorphic qualities of the owl serve to humanise the moment and his/her scowl at the storm is only what we have come to expect from this bird who does not like to be disturbed. His/her connection with the audience is key in reminding the viewer that the environment has been progressing the narrative and the fact that we can return to the owl at various moments within the story without having to rely on him/her as a central protagonist further emphasises the power and importance of the environment and the background in telling the story of this Old Mill.
In keeping with the traditional linear narrative, The Old Mill has an identifiable three act structure. As quickly as the storm eventuated, it also subsides, and life at the Old Mill returns to the way it has always been, although now more slightly on a jaunty angle.
In reverse order the bats return from the nightly routine and the residents are all present and accounted. The sound design becomes gentle and unobtrusive and the camera trucks back taking the viewer away from this glimpse into a single moment in the ‘life’ of this windmill. (@8min36sec)
The Old Mill, despite being released in 1937, is one of the few animation shorts that successfully utilises the notion of environmental story telling long before it was ever coined as a phrase in the games industry. The short does not rely upon a narrator or a central protagonist, the audience is immersed into this world through first person point of view shots and innovative layout advancements such as the multi-plane camera. My Hons project and associated research will strive to expand upon the concept of environmental storytelling and push the boundaries of background and layout design to create a truly immersive, intriguing and ultimately engaging experience for the viewer.