"The Old Mill" (1937)
Since Hans Perk has been posting recently about the history of Disney's multiplane camera, it seemed right to begin this blog with the 1937 short "The Old Mill." This was the first short to use this new technology, but it was a departure for Disney in a few other ways as well. The Silly Symphony series had been a boon to Disney animators looking to experiment with depths of character that they couldn't achieve in the regular Mickey Mouse cartoons. (Mickey was already on his way to pretty much becoming a one-dimensional character paving the way for Donald Duck to usurp his place on the cartoon hierarchy.) And where the earlier Symphonies often featured more pastoral moods, it was usually as a showcase for singing and dancing animals.
"The Old Mill" gave Disney a chance to do a short completely based on mood, and some have gone as far to describe it as a "tone poem." There are no real "gags" in the short, although there are some humorous moments (i.e. the owl who keeps getting drenched no matter where he moves.) Everything in the short is carefully timed and laid out to achieve the eventual dramatic effect. It lures you in. The opening shot was magical, as the camera moves through a spiderweb (and not a static web either, but a moving, living object) to focus on the scene of the mill. As the short progresses, it's as if the camera is introducing us to each character so we can empathize more with their travails in the storm that is to come. The music is soft and lush, calming. It draws you into the picture.
And indeed it almost seems as if this is just going to be another "singing and dancing" short as night draws in and the frogs come out from under the lily pads and begin croaking together. But then the winds start to blow through the reeds (an effect that would be used years later in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow) which causes the music to become more dramatic as the clouds begin to envelope the sky. Notice how the action, which previously had been slow and almost lazy now begins to become more frenetic and insistent as the storm gets closer.
There is a very subtle thing going on here as well in one sequence where the birds nest is threatening to get squashed by a cogwheel when the rope finally breaks through. These scenes are intercut with the aforementioned scenes with the owl getting soaked. Disney noted that he could realize two effects at once; by cutting between the two scenes, the tension seemed more tense while the gag got a bigger laugh as if from relief from the tension of the previous scene.
Notice also how the short has been edited; where in the beginning sequences we had long, lingering and some tracking shots; now the editing is full of quick, short clips as we go from one occupant of the mill to the other. And as the storm reaches it's peak, it careens from seeing the outside of the mill itself, to flashes of the animals inside until the music crashes with the flash of the final lightning bolt that strikes the mill, almost destroying it.
The scene blacks out and the music returns to it's previous calmness as we see that none of the animals are the worse for the wear and the short is bookended by a backwards pan through the same spiderweb that opened the short.
It's a very dramatic short and a vast departure from the "funnies" that Disney had been making up until that time. And it was even a surprise for some of the Disney artists. Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson wrote (in "The Illusion of Life", p. 145):
"Our eyes popped out when we saw all of The Old Mill's magnificent innovations - things we had not even dreamed of and did not understand. We did not know how any of the effects were achieved or who had done what or how it was painted. Even the inked cels and backgrounds did not look like anything we had ever seen before."