For years animators have dreamed of putting depth into the flat backdrops
seen in animated shorts and a few of them found solutions in in a number
In 1934 Max Fleischer created his stereoscopic backdrop which was a miniature
set built on a 12 ft. diameter turntable (Some European studios also adopted
this approach). The following year (1935) Ub Iwerks used a multiplane camera
for his production of "The Headless Horseman" based on Washington Irving's
"The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow." (It might be interesting to compare this
short with Disney's version of the tale from "Ichabod and Mr. Toad"). The
Iwerks multiplane was a horizontally mounted fixed focus camera which Iwerks
had assembled using the chassis of a Chevrolet pickup truck all for the
cost of $750. Disney's multiplane, on the other hand was far more sophisticated,
a 14 ft. high monster that was expensive to build (Disney built two of them)
and just as expensive to operate requiring a crew of seven. (Disney built
an even larger multiplane for "Fantasia" a horizontally mounted camera that
was 60 ft.in length.)
The large size of these cameras was dictated by the camera optics that
were available in the late '30s. Later developments in camera lenses and
exposure controls would allow multiplane cameras to be built that were smaller
and more user-friendly but Disney never took advantage of these. The Disney
Studio retired the multiplanes after the "Jungle Book" was in the can, bringing
them briefly out of retirement with a few improvements for "The Black Cauldron".
These days, new technologies such as computer generated imagery now available
to all studios have made multiplane photography obsolete.
Of course, the big news of this short is the development of the multiplane camera. For those of you who do not know (and I doubt that’s many of you), the multiplane
camera was developed to help the animated films have more depth. The idea was to put each piece of the background on a separate piece, so the camera could move between them easily and show more dimension on screen.
It’s readily apparent from the beginning of the short that this is the case. The opening shot of the mill as seen through a spider weaving a web is stunning, and it continues. Later on in the short, as night creeps around the setting, we see fireflies lighting up the night. Again, the lush backgrounds feel alive in this shot.
The story of the short is also important. There are no words in this short, just music and fantastic animation to tell the complete story. It’s what the Silly Symphonies were created as – a medium to tell stories through animation and music. One can imagine Walt and his crew seeing this and thinking about making Fantasia.
The idea is that night is falling around the mill, and a storm is brewing. The animals around the mill react in different ways. What’s important to me is that the film progresses naturally. It is realistic in a way we have not seen before in these films. You can watch this short and believe that it would happen this way in nature.
There are so many little moments in this short that make it fantastic. The big drama is the blue bird that sits in the spot of a gear, and only gets a reprieve from having her babies crushed because there is a spoke missing on one of the gears.
But there are many more. Seeing the bats in the top of the mill stretch like humans when they wake up and then fly away is fantastic. The mice whose eyes stick out in the middle of the night then are illuminated by the flash of lightning are also great. My favorite is the pair of lovebirds who sit on one piece of wood towards the window, and never stop nuzzling each other throughout the whole storm, and they are there again at the end, still in love. There is a sweet, consistent message there.
The main difference between this and other Silly Symphonies is that things are so realistic. In the past, we have seen little slice of life shorts, but they have shown us that the animals are dancing and singing when we are not around. In
The Old Mill, we see an innocent, pastoral take on life that builds to a dramatic event of the storm. It’s a fantastic, Academy Award winning piece of filmmaking, and it’s unforgettable to anyone who sees it.
This isn't a cartoon I re-watch as much as I do many others. I think that's because it doesn't quite fit what I want to see when I feel like I want to watch a cartoon. However, it does something very special and, although this may make me sound stupid, I actually feel calm and peaceful when this short comes to an end. It's hard to describe.
Somehow the music and animation captures the feeling of a storm much better than any live action footage I have seen. You can almost feel that cold rain and smell that damp wood. I don't want to gush too much, but I do think that this is a special cartoon.
As the scene pans inside the mill, there lies a sparrow in its nest.
A friendly bird with a worm comes flying by and gives the worm to the
sparrow, then exchange pleasantries with one another. We continue to
two other birds flirting behind a gorgeous sunset, then to a surprisingly
awake wise owl perched on his post followed by loads of bats resting
in the darkest portions of the mill. As the bats awaken and fly out,
the camera pans to the lake and retrieves the shimmers as a leaf hits
Moving closer, the plants close up for the night, but under one of
them is a frog who "ribbits" a few times just to get the attention of
the rest of the frogs. Inevitably, they help out, and the themed "Silly
Symphony" takes on its truest meaning with a chorus of frogs, crickets,
and fireflies chirping away at a symphonic piece of animal music that
even Beethoven would have trouble understanding. The lead frog later
lassoes a firefly with his tongue and lights up (as would have been
expected). After that, it was time for every living creature (including
the audience) to take cover.
You can easily sense the score of the music leading into very dramatic
rising action. The wind begins to howl as the storm approaches, and
we take a look inside the old mill to see how our animal buddies are
doing. The owl is still perched on his post but is asleep, certainly
not making him a night owl. The sparrow begins to rock back and forth
and shows a horrific expression as the rope gets closer to breaking
off. As lightning becomes visible, the owl finally wakes up after his
post shakes, and the sparrow hangs on to her eggs for dear life as the
rope finally breaks and sets the mill in motion, slowly at first, then
at neckbreaking speeds. As the mill finally moves, and the wind fiercely
howls, the owl is getting quite a workout staying put on his perch,
but once he landed in the middle of the spinning wheel, he wisely flew
to safer ground near the top of the mill.
Once the rain finally arrives, we notice a door slamming. Behind
that door are some mice, who certainly were scared with this severe
thunderstorm. The lovebirds were still cuddling, thinking that nothing
is happening, and the owl feels a drop on his head - so he moves a few
inches. However, roof tiles get blown away and the owl gets drenched.
The howling wind gets to a tree with many open holes in it and brings
out a chorus of operatic howls. It later shows weeds hitting a fence
and more weeds splitting in half (thus the piccolo sounds). At this
point, now that everyone has been accounted for, the climax is all set
The shutter slams. The sparrow still twirls around and around. The
mice hide in fear as lightning strikes. The lovebirds hang in there
as the mill is losing piece by piece. More roof tiles patter. The door
finally breaks. A lightning strike, more pieces of the mill fly, and
the fence finally blows away. Scenes repeat faster and faster until
finally, the climax. Lightning strikes the mill, causing it to tilt.
Of course the animals went with the lean as well. The storm finally
moves away. From the weeds breaking in half to the lightning strike
lie 31 scenes in 33 seconds. No wonder Disney brought home an Oscar
for best cartoon that year.
As morning breaks with glamorous light, the bats fly back to the
mill, which noticeably was much brighter thanks to the damage it took
from the storm. The owl awakens to a hole in the mill as he was sleeping
on his perch ... and his facial expression was complete disbelief. And
then the two lovebirds ... yes, they're still going at it like nothing
happened. How long could they last? The mice crawl, and the sparrow's
eggs hatch. Mommy and Daddy come to greet their newborns with worms.
The cows head back to the farm, the ducks back to the lake ... and
it's off to another day, as the music pans us away ... at the old mill.