After the success of Steamboat Willie, Disney hired more animators and even took Steamboat Willie composer Carl Stalling’s suggestion to create a series of cartoons set to music when he created the Silly Symphonies, the first of which was The Skeleton Dance in 1929.
Both Mickey Mouse and the Silly Symphony cartoons were hits with the public but Walt and his brother Roy felt they weren’t getting enough profit. In addition to saving money by telling Ub Iwerks to animate only in key poses and let lower-paid animators fill in the animation with inbetweening, Walt asked his boss Cinephone executive Pat Powers for a raise. Instead, Powers parted ways with Walt and hired Ub Iwerks to make cartoons for him instead. Once again Walt was blindsided by his own animators betraying him, but Iwerks was feeling increasingly underappreciated by Walt, who got more credit for the cartoons than he did. Carl Stalling also left because he didn’t think Disney could last without Iwerks.
Having lost his distributor, his top animator and his musician was enough to give Walt a nervous breakdown so he took a much-needed break with his wife in Cuba. However, Walt needn’t have worried about the future of the company given Mickey’s increasing popularity. When he returned to the states in the early thirties, Walt signed a new distribution deal with Columbia Pictures.
A number of innovations took place at the Disney studio in the thirties. Never satisfied with doing the same thing over and over, the 1932 Silly Symphony cartoon Flowers and Trees was the first commercially released film to be shot using three-strip Technicolor (aka full color). Audiences loved it and so did the academy, which awarded it an Oscar.
His most successful short film at this time was the 1933 Silly Symphony cartoon Three Little Pigs. It did an amazing job cheering up depression-era audiences (who saw the Big Bad Wolf as an allegory for foreclosure) but it was also important because it was the first animated film to attempt to create characters who felt like more than a tool for comedy. The pigs were animated in a way that made them feel like they had their own personalities. Personality animation had been born, and so was the story department. Walt recognized how important stories were to resonating with the public, so he started a department dedicated solely to story development.
This was also the decade the multiplane camera was invented to give an added illusion of depth to Disney’s films. It was first used in the 1937 Silly Symphony cartoon The Old Mill (another Oscar winner) and it has been used in all of Disney’s films, and most animated films in general, ever since.
In 1934, possibly given more confidence due to the success of Three Little Pigs, Walt began work on his most ambitious project to date: a feature-length animated film. For this he sent his animators to study more realistic drawing at Chouinard Art Institute and brought all the things he learned about telling compelling stories to the forefront.
No one in Hollywood thought Disney would be able to hold an audience’s attention with a feature-length cartoon, but this proves how in-touch with the public Walt was. The film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was a monumental success with audiences and critics and was a huge turning point in the history of animation, opening the floodgates for animated films from studios hoping to release the next Snow White. Since then, feature-length animated films have never stopped being popular.