Animation History: Disney’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’

by laurnmacsween

Following our animation talk I decided to delve into the history of one of my very own favourite animated films, Sleeping Beauty.


Released in 1959, the sixteenth animated film from Disney received mixed reviews and was a box office disappointment. That said, it was almost universally acclaimed for the stunning style developed by art director Eyvind Earle.

Though by the 50s Disney had already had considerable success, they had also suffered from a few hit and miss films. So for their next feature film Walt Disney decided to return to the format that had brought him the most success and would later become a staple of the company: the princess film.

Sleeping Beauty presented a challenge to Disney as the story shares many similarities with the studio’s first feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. As such, they decided to focus on the aesthetics more so than any of their previous films, Disney saying that he ‘wanted a moving illustration‘.

-SquirrelComparisonA side-by-side comparison of squirrels from Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. Note the leaner and taller bodies of the Sleeping Beauty squirrels, as well as their bolder colours and the textural, angular backgrounds. 


The art style of Sleeping Beauty, though the brainchild of Earle, was a culmination of several Disney figures and sources.

20John Hench, a story artist for Disney, introduced the Unicorn Tapestries to the production which was the catalyst in Walt placing Earle in the position of art director. The use of dark colour and swirling, detailed pattern-work in flora and fauna can be seen in the finished-film.

book of hoursEarle was inspired by the Christian devotional – The Book of Hours – and used it’s highly detailed and boldly coloured and patterned illuminated manuscripts as a go-to source of inspiration for his team.

mary blairThe bold, simple collage style of Mary Blair – an artist that Walt Disney made a point of wanting to have prominence in the film. I think that comparing this piece of concept art to the finished film we can see that her work had an obvious effect on the final outcome.



Above is an illustration by Eyvind Earle during the production of Sleeping Beauty. There is something fabulous in the 2-dimensionality, strong verticals and flatness of colour seen in the film’s concept art. I find these concept art Earle a medley of the contemporary and the gothic – taking colours, motifs and ideas from the tapestry and art of the Middle Ages and reinterpreting it in a graphic 50s style.

The stunning backgrounds with a combination in solid and bold colours as well as deep, dark textures are so layered and immersive in creating this strangely familiar but altogether foreign world. I love Earle’s use of dramatic shading to create the dark feel of the film.

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Discussing his work on the film Earle said:

“I’ve always been informed by pre-renaissance, medieval, gothic and here’s a movie based on that period of time. I first started with the old medieval artists and almost everything that was gothic. The tapestries were perfect examples of how foregrounds ought to be. The gothic came from the Persians and all their little details of grasses and weeds and trees fit perfectly, so I realised I could use anything that was in harmony with what I was trying to accomplish. And out of all of that a little tiny bit of myself came through.”



One of the major issues animators faced in the development of Sleeping Beauty was creating characters that not only matched the distinctive background scenery created by Earle – but also making sure that characters weren’t swamped by the detail! As a concession they developed a more angular style to fit in with the stylised look of the scenery and create a more unified final outcome.


Briar Rose had a maturity and elegance to her design and character that was lacking in her predecessors Snow White and Cinderella. She was tall, graceful and well-spoken with a beauty that matched both her live action model Helene Stanley and her stunning voice actress Mary Costa – both shown respectively below.



The fairies were the one real concession allowed to animators by Earle and they kept a more classic Disney style, with a rounder, chubby design. Originally Walt himself had wanted each fairy to keep a similar look – in a sort of Huey, Dewey and Louie fashion, however his decision was swayed after some convincing from his exasperated team of animators.



Live reference was often used in Disney films when a scene called for an animator to recreate realistic movement. Using this process they would create a primative version of the setting and have a fully-costumed actor act out the scenario the scene called for.


Helene Stanley acting as live action model for Briar Rose in Sleeping Beauty in a dress designed by Alice Davis, the wife of accomplished animator Marc. Stanley would become a Disney veteran, working in films such as Cinderella and 101 Dalmatians. As Stanley modelled, her actions would be sketched with amazing speed and precision by Disney animators.

As Stanley modelled she would be surrounded by animators creating studies of her motions as well as being filmed. The footage from her performance would then later be dissected  by the animators frame-by-frame as they worked. Marc Davis once commented: ‘Why make that stuff up when you can see it’.

A Pencil Test by Marc Davis of Briar Rose. There’s an amazing fluidity to this short piece of animation and the weight of Briar Rose’s hair as it swooshes around her shoulders is entrancing!

Production Cellprince-phillip-maleficent


The Art of Sleeping Beauty

Peter, N. (2010) Living Lines Library: Sleeping Beauty (1959) – Production Drawings

Deja, A. (2013) Deja View: The Art of Sleeping Beauty

Sporn, M. (2013) Michael Sporn Animation Inc: Sleeping Beauty Storyboard – Seq 19

Beames, R. (2010) Beames on Film: Capital and Credibility in Sleeping Beauty: Eyvind Earle and the Disney Pre-Renaissance

(2013) El Mundo de Fawn: Disney Concept Art: ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (1959)