What is this weird, tall, possibly dangerous, complicated contraption?
This is the multiplane camera, and it was responsible for the insurmountable quality of animation at the Walt Disney Studio.
It looks like a scary machine, what with the tall, imposing steel columns, the layers of glass and black metal, and the terribly bright lights, but the multiplane camera is actually quite a simple device. Each of the black steel shelves features a pane of crystal clear glass, on which backgrounds were painted. After being positioned correctly, the camera carefully calibrated above the top shelf snaps a picture. The result is an image with simulated depth. This is not a stereoscopic image, that requires glasses like at 3D movies, but one that simulates the third dimension nonetheless.
To understand why that matters, we need to think about art and film prior to this invention and then after.
When considering a piece of art, whether it is a painting, a sketch, sculpture, or a simple drawing, there are certain cues that allow you to interpret the piece. The most important is the interplay between the three dimensions. That is, length, width, and depth. A sculpture or model contends with all three. A painting or sketch is physically limited to two: the length and width. These modes of producing art deal with depth by using a variety of tricks and constructs, the optical illusion being the most common. With the introduction of cinema, and photography in general, artists had a new medium for considering the interplay of the three dimensions. When photographing live action, the illusion of depth is a given. We can assign depth based on our own experiences with the real world. But photograph a painting or, better yet, a series of paintings and suddenly depth is not so easily assigned. An animated film is just a series of photographs of paintings or drawings. While animators can use the same optical illusions that the painter does, the fact that the medium is already an optical illusion by simulating motion necessitates a custom solution to the problem.
In comes the multiplane camera.
By creating a system that incorporates actual depth to the composition by layering backgrounds and foregrounds at physically differing distances, successful simulation of depth is achieved. This elevated animated motion pictures from flat, inaccessible drawings to fully immersive, visually interactive pieces of art.
The Walt Disney Studio invented the multiplane camera, as we know it today, in 1936, just in time for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was test-driven on Academy Award winning shorts like The Old Mill. There had been prototypes and related inventions in the past (including the original version created by Ub Iwerks), but the version spearheaded by Disney technician William Garity would assist Walt in dominating the field of animation for decades. (William Garity would also design the Fantasound surround sound system for Fantasia.)
The multiplane camera would go on to be masterfully used in subsequent films like Bambi (#5) and Sleeping Beauty (#16). The final picture to use the mutliplane camera would be The Little Mermaid (#28) in 1989. By that point, Walt Disney Feature Animation was using a new computer-based ink and paint system named CAPS (Computer Animation Production System) co-developped by a no-name, little computer company named PIXAR. The CAPS system, besides making ink and paint easier, could emulate the depth of the multiplane camera digitally.
A final note: there are three original Disney multilane cameras still in existence. One is at the Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, California (as pictured at the top of the article). The second is at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, California. Finally, the third is located in the Art of Disney Animation attraction at Walt Disney Studios Park at Disneyland Paris.