Beauty and the Beast stands at the cusp of a huge change in the world of animation: the point where traditional hand-drawn images were giving way to the almighty computer. Disney had always been part of the traditional animation crowd and, in fact, initially dismissed Pixar founder John Lasseter for backing that whole computer animation nonsense. (Lasseter sure had the last laugh in that argument.)
But, by the time Beauty and the Beast rolled around, the writing was on the wall. Even the mighty House of Mouse began to acknowledge the reality of computer animation. It's only used in a few scenes, but it's definitely there, and it makes an interesting contrast to the otherwise traditional animation style that dominates the rest of the movie. It's one of the things that makes this movie cool, though as we'll see, it doesn't come without a price.
The Old-Fashioned Stuff
Most of Beauty and the Beast was put together the same basic way they put together Snow White 50 years earlier. Images were painted onto clear, thin pieces of transparent plastic called cels, each one progressing the action a little further. Then, they were shot by a camera, one by one, to give the figures the illusion of movement.
Disney was the undisputed king of this particular world, which means they had a few more tricks up their sleeves than that. For example, individual characters each got their own team of artists to design and animate them. Each animation team brought their own little quirks and goofiness to the characters, which gave each character a unique personality. So, Glen Keane's work on the Beast made him look different in countless subtle little ways from Belle, whose chief animators were Mark Henn and James Baxter.
Then, there's the matter of the background.
Take a close look at that very first shot in Beauty and the Beast. (Here's a clip in case you don't have it handy.) Notice how the distant castle doesn't move but the plants and shrubs in the foreground do? That effect is created by something called a multi-plane camera. It contains several layers of film, each with one piece of the background on it. That way, they can move the background relative to our position and make it seem like a real, three-dimensional space. That's how they rolled back before they had computers to build virtual spaces to play in.
Today, it still looks spectacular.
But don't take our word for it. Uncle Walt himself laid down the 411 on this little piece of animation magic.
That all makes for a spectacular piece of raw artistry. (Have you seen this thing on Blu-ray? We may go blind with the sheer gorgeousness of it.) And, frankly speaking, it holds up so well because it puts such emphasis on these old-fashioned techniques. If you want to see why, take a look at the scenes where they use computer animation…and suddenly, you're aware of exactly how dated those scenes are.
Not that the computer stuff doesn't take skill and hundreds of hours of hard, hard work. It can work in the right circumstance. You can see it in the famous ballroom dance scene, where Belle and the Beast are hand-drawn, but their surroundings were created completely inside the computer.
And yet, it's jarring. Computer animation has progressed so quickly that an early effort like this one looks a little crude. It's a nice signpost to show us how far all that computer jazz has come. (Look at recent all-CG efforts like Tangled or Wreck-It Ralph.)
The good news is that it works.
The animated characters seem to fill that ballroom pretty well, and the dated nature of the room itself only draws attention to the people we should be paying attention to: that sweet couple waltzing in the middle of it all. That helps the movie overcome those little bumps in the technological road; it remains a classic despite using technology that had yet to catch up with it.