Hazel Sewell is remembered as the sister of Lillian Disney, as one of the first audiences to a Mickey Mouse picture, a “working mother at an unusual time,” and as “the only woman who could stand up to Walt.”
But, she is much more than that. Hazel Sewell is also the woman who would redefine the artistry of animation.
Hazel escaped poverty when she married Glenn O. Sewell in 1916, at age 18. Glenn was a … and brought Hazel and her younger sister, Lillian, to Los Angeles in pursuit of a career in pharmacy during the early 1920s. Once in LA they lived with Glenn’s sister Blanche Irene Sewell – then a rising star at MGM studios and rumored to be one of legendary producer Irving Thalberg’s favorite editors. The Sewell’s lived in a house across the street from an empty lot where Walt and Roy filmed scenes for one of their earliest hybrid animation projects – The Alice Comedies. Hazel befriened the Disney boys, as well as one of their few staff members at the time Kathleen Dollard Smith. (?) These early connections would create a pathway for the Bounds sisters Hazel and Lillian to begin working for the Disney brothers.
Hazel’s first major contribution to the studio would be shrouded in secrecy – both during the 1920s and in the historical accounts we read and teach today.
Because the studio was still under contract Walt’s remaining animator Ub Iwerks would need to produce the first Mcikey cartoon – Plane Crazy – in secrecy. While in his garage at his home on Lyric Avenue, Disney installed three benches for a makeshift studio where Walt and Roy’s wives (Lilly and Edna), along with Walt’s sister-in-law (Hazel Sewell), singlehandedly inked and painted Iwerks’s drawings onto cels. With the finished project coming in at just over 6 minutes, this required inking and painting approximately 541 feet of footage – around 8,644 frames.
In the newly established house of mouse Disney placed Hazel in charge of the “blackening” for each film, making her the first woman to establish and run a major division within the animation industry. Sewell transformed and redefined the most dramatic level of artistry within Ink and Paint. She had to define and develop every part of the process she was involved with, and under Sewell’s direction, the Walt Disney Studios developed and evolved the techniques utilized to complete the final celluloid sheets that went before the camera. The “Tracing and Opaquing” realm became a “respectable” way for young woman to enter the film industry.
One of Sewell’s major contributions to the industry was the establishment of separate departments for ink and pain. This allowed for techniques to be refined. She also instituted multiple checkpoints to ensure accuracy and quality within each department’s output. While the tools that the lead animators used for each production remained the same, the complexities of Sewell’s department increased with each production and each new technological innovation. The techniques developed and applied within the Inking and Painting Department required mastery never before seen or achieved in animation and marked the most advanced development in the animated art form of the 1930s.
Besides establishing the division of labor and managing creative output, Sewell would also lead the department in the early transition to color. She was one of three people included in administrative meetings to discuss the necessary steps for transition, and under her leadership, her department would single handedly effect this change. During this time, Sewell managed color tests, hiring and education of new staff, troubleshooting problems with materials and vendors, and supply stock.
The number of women working in Sewell’s department also drastically increased as the studio saw more success – from the early days working in Walt’s garage with no more than 20 employees to the whole company, to the late 1930s when Sewell would leave Disney after managing a staff of hundreds during the production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
With this I want to move on to Hazel’s largest, and final, project for the Disney Studio: Snow White. Snow White was the first feature length animated film to be produced and released in the US.
The story of Snow White’s production honors the incredible labor output that everyone in that studio underwent to see the project to success. There are little details regarding Sewell’s individual contributions, outside of keeping supplies stocked at an unprecedented value – approximately 1,000 sheets of celluloid per day for approximately two months. However, we can infer the great task that Sewell endured on this picture because we know how effectively she managed the shorter pictures – and Snow White was no different.
In the end, Snow White produced:
Roughly 362,000 cels
One year of production, amounting to approximately 43,922 total hours of work
The creation of 1,500 shades of paint – nearly 85 gallons
1.3 feet of footage inked, per girl per day = 20.8 frames, or 0.867 seconds of film
1.1 feet of footage painted, per girl per day = 17.6 frames, or 0.734 seconds of film
A total staff of 750 – approximately 66 inkers and 178 painters
And as the final credits rolled for Snow White, the names of two women in addition to the lead female vocals were listed – Dorothy Ann Blank for Story Adaptation, and Hazel Sewell for Art Direction.
But Sewell’s work on Snow White did not come without consequence. Shortly after production, Sewell suffered a nervous breakdown, which inhibited her ability to work at the studio for a short period of time (approximately a week) – during which Walt docked her pay. Sewell was so devastated by the lack of support by the studio head – her brother-in-law- that after working at the studio for 11 years she tendered her resignation in May 1938.
Unfortunately, Sewell was not able to benefit from the union organization efforts that were stirring in the animation industry. Unions would not come to the Disney studio until the early 1940s. Very little is recorded about Sewell’s contributions to the film industry – or society more broadly – after she left the studio in 1938. She remained on the periphery of studio events because of her relation to Lilly, and her new marriage to William Cottrell in 1938 (one of the studio’s cameramen) who she remained married to until she died in January 1975.
Despite Disney’s crude and harsh treatment of Sewell at the end of her tenure, she had made her mark on the industry and rose from the conflict as a better, more patient person than Walt. Sewell supported Disney during the great animator’s strike of 1941, accompanying her sister on Walt’s Latin America tour during one of the most tenuous times in studio history.