Marge Champion Goes Back with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

The character model for Snow White talks about working on the first Disney feature film and much more

When Marge Champion was in her teens, she did some work for an animation studio's first feature film, which is now a modern classic. The 90-year-old Champion was the character movement model for Snow White in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which makes its Blu-ray debut and kicks off Disney's new Diamond Collection Blu-ray/DVD line on October 6. I had the honor of speaking with Champion over the phone about her work on the film and this fantastic new Blu-ray release, and here's what she had to say.

Everyone I've talked to that's worked for Disney has had a fairly interesting story about how they first started working there, so can you tell us how you first became involved with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and maybe your first impressions of Walt Disney?

Marge Champion: Well, my father, Ernest Belcher, had a big, big dancing school here, when I was growing up. He knew Mr. Disney, and I guess they sent a scout around to pick out two or three girls from my father's class. We all went over to audition, and they gave us some kind of interview and showed us all kinds of storyboards. She looked just like Betty Boop, at that time, with little round eyes and eyelashes and a very tiny waist. We went through whatever they asked us to do, not all at the same time, of course. I was 13 and I hadn't even heard from them until I was 14, and then I had forgotten all about it. They said to come and get measured for a costume. I found out later that they had done the same thing with 200 or 300 other young girls and, for whatever reason, I never quite knew why, they had chosen me. Walt Disney himself had talked to my father because a couple of his daughters had went to my dad's dancing school for a few months and he knew him slightly. They weren't close friends or anything, but he knew my dad. He was very protective of me and he told me to call him "Uncle Walt," because I was too young to call him Walt, which everybody else at the studio did. That was really the beginning and from then on, I worked one or two days, maybe three, a month.

So you were essentially the live-action model for Snow White, so can you talk about the work you did for the film? Did they make you do certain actions, or pose for still photographs?

Marge Champion: They showed me storyboards and then they let me go free. Fortunately, I had a teacher at Hollywood High School who was head of the drama department, and I told him I was going out there to audition and he said they'd probably ask you to do an improvisation. I had not the slightest idea what he was talking about, and he taught me what improvisation was and doing these silly things. It got me over a certain kind of embarrassment. When they showed me the storyboards at the studio, I just didn't have any fear. It worked out so I really was able to help them and it worked out for them because they never had a full-time model for these things. The animators had mostly gotten all of those previous characters out of their own personalities. We were all learning. They were sometimes animators who were a few years older than I was or maybe 10 years older than I was and that's kind of why I'm the last one left in that whole group that worked at the Hyperion Studios.

This was their first feature film, after so many short films, so was there any pressure on the set, because this was the first actual feature, or was it still easy-going? Could you describe a day when you were working on the set?

Marge Champion: Well, when you're 13 or 14 years old, you really don't analyze things that way. I had a job where I made $10 a day, two or three times a month and that was all I was concerned with (Laughs). I know that everybody thought it was a pipe dream of "Uncle Walt" that we were going to have a full-length motion picture that was actually going to move people. I don't even know if he believed it, but all I know was that it was very dangerous, financially, for them, because at the same time they wouldn't have been able to continue doing the Silly Symphonies or Mickey Mouse, because they were shorts and they didn't make much money out of them. I don't think anyone knew until opening night on December 21, 1937, that it was going to be a smash.

You said you were working on and off, so how long were you actually working on the film, throughout the whole span of your time there?

Marge Champion: I think it was about two years. I know that it was when I was 14 and 15 and then I did The Tooth Fairy when I was 16 and I probably worked on Fantasia when I was 17. Actually, the opening night, December 21, 1937, I was 17, and I was probably still working on Fantasia at that time because that wasn't released until 1940.

So can you talk about the first time you actually saw the film? I read they actually rotoscoped some of your live-action performances into Snow White, so what was it like seeing this animated character with your mannerisms?

Marge Champion: I only saw sections of it until opening night. I never saw it all together and I didn't, at that time, understand about rotoscoping, because they had always told me that they didn't want have the audience thinking that they traced me. Well, in effect, they did trace me, and I found that out when I was up in San Francisco at a cartoon exhibition. They had gathered all the people who were still left, the animators, and they took a class picture. This man next to me said, 'I'm sure glad to meet you after all these years.' I said, 'What are you talking about?' And he said, 'Don't you know about rotoscoping?' He took me over and showed me some of the rotoscoping and they had traced every line and the animators chose whatever they wanted from that. They didn't use every frame of it, but it was a guide to their actions. It was much more inclusive than I had ever been told.

This new Blu-ray is the first in the Diamond Collection for Disney and this is the first time the film is available on Blu-ray, so I was curious if you've seen this new Blu-ray yet and if you have any favorites from the disc?

Marge Champion: I have seen the Blu-ray and it's extraordinary, especially the bonus features where you actually see backstage at Disney, you actually see all of us doing this stuff. Of course, I've seen the re-issues over the years, when she was 50 years old, they re-released it. But to see this stuff on the bonus features, that is a real joy to me because they actually show what people are doing.

So I read that after you retired from movies you were a dance teacher and choreographer, so are you still involved in the dance community these days?

Marge Champion: Yes. I go to colleges, I critique the dancers and, sometimes like at Emerson, they have an animation department and I talk to the kids there. I went down to NYU to talk to the classes and it's been wonderful. I'm still very active and I get around the world with cruises and I'll do a 39-minute film with all the different things I've done in my life and have 15 minutes of question and answers. I've been all over the world on cruises. It's a lot of fun, and now they're doing a documentary about myself and Donald Sadler, who I've been dancing with ever since we were in Steven Sondheim's Follies. I have to say that because every time I wear my Follies hat, somebody in California says, 'Oh, were you in Palm Springs Follies?' It's a totally different thing (Laughs). The documentary is about ready to be released and it's called Keep Dancing. It's more about aging gracefully and having a passion and continuing to either teach or get the same thrill out of interacting with younger people. It has enriched my older days.

So has there been a release date set for that documentary as of yet?

Marge Champion: They launched an unfinished version of it in June, and it was maybe 20 or 25 minutes long and now they've taken it back to the drawing board because some of the critiques were very good. It's coming along very very nicely and it will probably be in the festivals in 2010. They have over 100 hours of tape, so to make a 30-minute short out of 100 hours, is really a daunting task and also quite expensive, so they're raising money for that. The National Arts Society are the ones who are presenting us.

OK, well that's about all I have for you, Marge. Thanks so much for your time.

Marge Champion: Thank you. Bye-bye.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs makes its debut in the Blu-ray format with this first BD disc from the Diamond Collection line on October 6.