There is a lot of truth to this first, but the stories have just gone a bit too over the top to be taken as totally true any longer. There are some instances that credit Walt Disney (the person) with inventing the multiplane camera! [about.com, MIT] While there is no denying that U.S. patent 2,201,689 is in the name of Walter E. Disney for improvements in the “Art of Animation” that include a multiplane camera, to think he invented the special camera rig is ludicrous. Did someone at Walt Disney Productions design a multiplane camera? To be sure…. but don’t think for a minute they invented the concept, or (wait a second while I stop laughing) that it was Walt himself engineered the idea into reality…
What is a multiplane camera? As the name suggests, it is a camera that shoots into many different planes. But what it is to animation is visual magic. By animators separating scenes into multiple levels, the can animate each level at different speeds, or at differing levels of focus or light. Typically, the level furthest from the camera is not moved, and each successive layer closer to the camera moves across the view of the camera at a faster speed. In the process, an illusion of three-dimensionality is created. Picture looking out your car as you speed down the freeway; the guard rail is a blur, the houses next to the freeway move by fast, those in the distance seem to move slower and the mountains in the distance hardly move at all. This is what was being duplicated in animation on a multiplane camera.
The first well-known, documented use of a multiplane camera in animation was not in the United States; it was in Germany. Charlotte “Lotte” Reiniger (and yes, she will be back again!) produced the 1926 color-tinted animated film Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed, or, in English, The Adventures of Prince Achmed. While not demonstrating the sophistication of later multiplane cameras, the film definitely shows overlaying animation on multiple levels. Her assistant Berthold Bartosch expanded on the multiplane techniques in his film “L’Idée” (The Idea- 1932), using up to four levels of animation and up to eighteen camera super-impositions in some scenes.
Back in North America, Ub Iwerks- who had left the Disney Studio for his own independent studio in 1930- had developed and begun using his own multiplane camera in 1933. Disney may have started working on their camera first. There is a story that as soon as Iwerks heard about the Disney project, he stopped animating at his studio and locked himself in the basement. This went on for a couple weeks, and when he emerged, he invited his whole staff down and unveiled the multiplane camera. Famously, this camera rig was built on a Chevrolet chassis. Iwerks’ camera was horizontal and long, so the cameramen could work the camera and easily walk over to adjust the multiple planes. Don Quixote (1934) was probably the first film the Iwerks camera was used on.
The Disney multiplane camera was first used on The Old Mill (1937). A definite late-comer to the game, it created a big stir in Hollywood, and won an Oscar for Best Short Subject and an Academy Award (Scientific or Technical, Class II) for the invention and use of the Multiplane Camera. The camera would go on to great use in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs as well as the jaw-dropping opening shot of Pinocchio. They may not have been first (again), but their press agents fixed that in the minds of many.