Stories

From Walt Disney to War Movies: Bob Broughton

December 19, 2023

What do Walt Disney Studios and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)—the predecessor of today’s CIA—have in common? Legendary camera effects artist Robert “Bob” Carey Broughton, who created award-winning films for both organizations.

During his 45-year career with Disney, Bob Broughton worked on virtually every animated movie, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Fantasia to Bambi. His specialty, however, was combining live action with animation: He made penguins dance and Mary Poppins fly.

When World War II broke out, Broughton joined OSS and used his unique talents to create documentary films about the war. His work helped institutionalize the use of film in intelligence.

Creating Magic: Reinventing Animation

In 1964, Mary Poppins flew across film screens with an enchanted umbrella and dancing penguins. This magic was made possible by Disney’s famous multiplane camera and the technical camera wizards, like Bob Broughton, who operated it. Broughton was one of the few cameramen who trained on the multiplane camera, which was used to create depth in animated feature films, including Pinocchio, Fantasia, Bambi, and many others.

Broughton—born on September 17, 1917 in Berkeley, California—got his start at Disney in 1937 after earning a BA from UCLA, where he studied chemistry, physics, mathematics, and optics. His first job at Walt Disney Studios was delivering the mail.

It was not long before he was pulled to work in the camera department. He started out as an assistant in the test camera department, where he worked on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Broughton's job was to shoot the test camera to check for continuous action of the animation before finalizing the film.

Broughton was then moved to the multiplane camera, becoming one of only two operators for the complex machine. He was credited with creating much of the magic in the classic Disney film, Fantasia, and that, along with his eye for detail, earned him a promotion to Supervisor of Special Photographic Effects.

Throughout his career, Broughton worked on virtually every Disney motion picture until his retirement in 1982.

Technological Wizardry: The Multiplane Camera

The multiplane camera was key to Disney’s animation magic.

This unique camera allowed the filming of artwork painted on glass, up to six layers deep, which gave depth and richness to animated scenes. These revolutionary special effects were accomplished by moving the various pieces of artwork past the camera at different speeds and distances from one another to create the illusion of depth.

As human and animal animated characters became more naturalistic and the scenery became increasingly detailed, the multiplane camera technology “helped create a more believable world for these objects and characters to inhabit,” according to the Walt Disney Family Museum.

The multiplane camera also allowed for “the use of new types of special effects in animated films,” according to Disney. “The movement of water and the flickering of stars or lights were made possible by the layering capability of the device.”

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) was the first full-length animated feature film to use the multiplane camera. The Little Mermaid (1989) was the last.

Oscar-Winning Espionage: OSS and WWII

With the start of World War II, Broughton answered the call to service by leaving Disney and joining the U.S. Army. He was soon transferred to the OSS, America’s first intelligence agency, and assigned to the Field Photographic Branch led by Hollywood director John Ford.

Prior to WWII, film had not been widely used during wartime. However, it soon became apparent that film could serve several purposes, including to boost propaganda and morale, train the troops, provide intelligence, and record historical events.

During his time with the OSS, Broughton worked with Ford on several documentary films about the war. The unit’s first few documentaries focused on defense preparations in Panama and Iceland, the first Atlantic convoys to Europe, and an historical account of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Their charter was later expanded; they created OSS training films and documented OSS activities in the field. Some of the activities documented included OSS Detachment 101, the paramilitary unit that operated behind Japanese lines in Burma and China, and the Allied landing in Normandy on June 6, 1944: D-Day.

The unit also accompanied the Allied advance across Europe during 1944-45. They filmed installations, topography, and combat operations.

Sometimes, while conducting these surveillance and documentary missions, the crew would also engage in enemy deception campaigns. For example, while filming aerial sweeps of the Normandy coastline before the invasion, they purposely filmed areas the Allies had no intention of landing to throw off the Nazis who were monitoring their activities.

The crew nicknamed their airborne film techniques “ippy-dippy intelligence.”

The OSS institutionalized the use of film in intelligence, establishing a worldwide photographic intelligence file of areas of strategic importance called the OSS Intelligence Photographic Documentation Project.

Perhaps the most famous use of film during WWII, however, was the creation of the Academy Award-winning documentary, The Battle of Midway (1942). Broughton photographed most of the footage and Ford directed the film.

Bringing Magic to Life: Live Action Animation

After the War, Broughton returned to Disney as an assistant to legend Ub Iwerks—co-creator of Mickey Mouse. Under Iwerks, Broughton began to work on live-action motion pictures, such as Mary Poppins.

His job, according to a profile on Disney’s Legends website, was to create spectacular effects in a subtle way.

He did so by using what is known as Color Traveling Matte Composite Cinematography (where an actor is filmed using a yellow or green screen, which allows their image to be superimposed on top of different backgrounds).

This award-winning technology allowed for the combination of live action and animation on film.

Broughton helped create the illusion that Dick Van Dyke was dancing with penguins in Mary Poppins. In The Parent Trap, he created the visual effect that made Hayley Mills appear as twins, and in Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic, The Birds, he brought to life the terrifying sequences of attacking birds.

A Legend Lives On: The Legacy of Bob Broughton

In 1982—with 45 years of work at Disney, and an impactful OSS tour, under his belt—Broughton retired.

Broughton was known for his warmth and humor, and he made friends everywhere he went. He was also remembered for his passion for Disney, and even after retiring, his enthusiasm lived on in his coordination of the retiree club, The Golden Ears, for 15 years.

Bob Broughton was honored as a Disney Legend in 2001. This annual award honors an individual whose creativity and talent have contributed to producing magical films for children of all ages. Each Disney Legend receives an award cast in bronze and a plaque bearing their name, handprints, and signature at Disney Studios in California.

Broughton passed away at age 91 on January 19, 2009 and is survived by two sons, five grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

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