Walt Disney’s ‘The Rule of Three’ Technique

I am not influenced by the techniques or fashions of any other motion-picture company.”

– Walt Disney

So just what is ‘The Rule of Three’ technique? If you revisit the old cartoons of the Walt Disney Company, you’ll find that most gags were repeated three times in a row. Although this isn’t a hard and fast rule, it was used more often than not.

One of the earliest examples is in a Silly Symphony cartoon from 1934 called The Wise Little Hen. This was not only the first appearance of Donald Duck, but also showcases The Rule of Three. As the old Hen is looking for someone to help her plant her corn, she asks a neighboring pig. When she arrives at his home, he is doing a little dance. In this dance is a step that he, you guessed it, repeats three times. When the pig refuses to help, she next visits the home of Donald Duck to ask for his help. He too is doing a dance, the Hornpipe to be exact, with steps he repeats three times.

Why would the Disney animators do this? It was expensive to create animated films in the early days and time was also at a premium. By repeating a funny scene or gag you could simply photograph the same artwork multiple times and recycle it in a loop. This way the animator could draw one sequence but get three times the value out of it.

FUN FACTS: Just as an aside, it’s also interesting to note that this Short is divided into three acts. In Act 1 the hen asks for help to plant her corn. In Act 2 she asks for help to harvest her corn. And in Act 3 she asks for help to eat her corn. Even today, most films (even live-action) are divided into three Acts.

If a Short had too many gags this technique could be shortened to The Rule of Two. This is evident in the 1929 Silly Symphony entitled The Skeleton Dance where four skeletons dance and cavort around in a graveyard at night. Almost every action they take is done twice. Although missing one repetition, the reason for the double takes would be the same: To save time and money.

The Rule of Three comes up in other ways. For example, some characters were created in sets of three, such as The Three Little Pigs (and later the Three Little Wolves, Three Blind Mouseketeers, The Three Caballeros, etc.) and Donald Duck’s nephews, Huey, Louie, and Dewey.

One could even argue that this became an unconscious rule when later Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy were thrown together in numerous Shorts as almost a kind of Three Musketeers team.

I began this post with a quote from Walt Disney where he states that he never looked to other studios for ideas on how to improve his creative output. So why can we see The Rule of Three followed in cartoons done by other studios? The answer is simple: Most studios saw Disney as the benchmark for animated filmmaking and tended to copy the studio whenever they could. That is why you will see characters that looked suspiciously like Mickey Mouse in other cartoons, such as Betty Boop Shorts and much of the other output from the Fleischer Studios.

Animation was very crude before Walt Disney polished it up in the late 20s. Techniques to make better cartoons faster and cheaper were developed and everyone adopted them. It may be impossible to pinpoint the very first cartoon to showcase The Rule of Three. It may not be a Disney cartoon, but I think it’s likely.

You won’t find The Rule of Three in cartoons today. Other techniques to keep costs down, like limited animation, have made the rule obsolete. Like everything else, things have moved on and improved. But if you pay attention to the old cartoons, I think you’ll notice The Rule of Three popping up quite often!

FUN FACTS: Another ‘rule’ to look for is the Synchronized Bouncing technique. Again, pay attention when you are watching old black and white cartoons, from any studio. There will be multiple scenes where the entire cast of characters bob up and down in unison to the musical track. Even when it makes no sense for them to do so. This technique was used especially when there were large crowds of characters in the shot. It would add energy to the cartoon. But even to this day, it makes me go ‘Why are they doing that?’

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