Walt Disney's Magic Touches All of Us

Archive for the ‘Disney Animation’ Category

Seriously, Let’s Not Forget the Gags

Patience, they say, is a virtue. For my readers who have patiently waited for me to post – You’re all very virtuous and I’m pleased that you’ve come back again. I take my blog writing very seriously, (even if the content isn’t always serious). Part of that is an effort to not let my other life cross over into my blog world. Unfortunately, I’ve hit one of those bumps in the road of life that is making that separation difficult. But, more about that in a bit.

It usually takes me about a week to write, edit, format and add media to my posts. Because I’ve been in a bit of a funk, I’m going to do something different and just put words on the page one at a time until I’ve told you what’s on my mind. After all, every successful writer will tell you that you can’t finish something until you’ve started. Walt put it very well when he said, “The Way Get Started Is To Quit Talking And Begin Doing”. So, I’m going to start.

Life is full of complications, obstacles and unforeseen circumstances. Like, Br’er Rabbit, how we overcome life’s obstacles, in some way defines us. Br’er Rabbit escaped (sorry, there should have been a spoiler alert there) because he understood his adversaries’ weaknesses. My go to in tough times has always been humor. Laughter makes me feel better and tends to not drive away the friends and family who might be able to help me.

Many people, including his daughter and many of the talented people who worked with Walt over the years have said that one of Walt’s best qualities was his sense of humor. Walt encouraged the creation of gags, both in film and later in Disneyland. As we have just celebrated the opening of Toy StoryLand in Orlando and many changes to the theme parks in the U.S. like Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout, I’ve been thinking about whether current Disney Imagineers are still following Walt’s lead and finding ways to keep us laughing.

Even in movies that dealt with difficult ideas, like the death of a loved one such as Bambi or cruelty in Cinderella, Walt made sure that there was a heavy dose of gags sprinkled throughout the film. Sometimes the bits were focused on one character as in the scene from Snow White where Dopey chases the soap before swallowing it. There’s a moment in Bambi where after Thumper has convinced Bambi to go out on the ice, Thumper has to work carefully to get all of Bambi’s legs standing straight.  It’s an amazing scene, animated by supervising animator Travis Johnson, full of visual gags, broad expressions and situations.

In films like Cinderella and Pinocchio the Disney creative team gave us a duo to carry much of the humor. It’s likely that Walt would have seen vaudeville type shows growing up. The shows would often feature comedy teams like Weber and Fields or Smith and Dale. Much of Vaudeville humor was based on sight gags, often punctuated by one of the team getting knocked down or hit with something, and plays on words or outright mispronunciation. Gus and Jacques fill that role in Cinderella, with Jacques as the straight man and Gus providing most of the laughs. Gus struggling to pick up as many corn kernels as he can is classic visual and physical comedy. Later on, Gus’ gives us the word play angle when he yells of “Happy Birthday” instead of surprise when the mice unveil Cinderella’s dress.

I think some of the more recent animated movies provide a good mix of visual and verbal gags. Olof in Frozen gets some great mileage out of his body’s ability to break apart and come back together. And there are too many moments to list where his natural naïveté makes for some hysterical moments – “♫ I’ll be a . . .  happy snowman! ♪” “Why isn’t she knocking? Do you think she knows how to knock?” A big shout out to the animators of Hei Hei in Moana. He’s really a mime. So, everything he does is a sight gag. Dory’s different names for Nemo is a classic comedy, running gag.

I am concerned about the recent theme park trends that focus on thrills and high-tech immersive experiences. Pirates and Haunted mansion are immersive, but still have a large helping of gags. On the other hand, Guardians of the Galaxy:Mission Breakout is about great visual effects and the drops as is the original Tower of Terror. Both seem to rely on cast members to provide the fun. Which is fine. But, not all cast members are equally as adept with comedy. So, it’s a bit of a crap shoot. Nothing new in the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. It’s really about theming and animated animatronics. Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s fabulously well done and faithfully recreates moments from the film. But, the Imagineers didn’t come up with any new jokes, they just reused the gags from the film. I won’t comment on Toy Storyland, since I haven’t seen it. But I hear there are some subtle sight gags. Will the upcoming Tron and Guardians of the Galaxy attractions at Walt Disney World keep the line moving and give us some laughs along with the thrills? We’ll see.

Walt used to pay people $5, cold, hard cash for gags. That was a good sized bonus in the 30s and 40s. I wonder if current Disney management offers incentives for laughs? I’m sure there many laughs in more recent theme park additions that I haven’t thought of. I don’t get to the parks as often as I’d like. If you know of one, let me know so I can get a chuckle next time I see it.

Getting back to my bump in the road and why I’ve been thinking about humor and not blogging. The 20-year relationship with my employer ended unexpectedly due to a large restructuring in advance of being acquired by another company. I haven’t had to look for a job in a long time. Technology and social media have drastically changed the job search landscape. Reaching out to a network of people used to involve, primarily phone calls. Today, it’s LinkedIn, that drives a lot of action. The bigger your LinkedIn network, the more people will be keeping their eyes and ears open for me. So, I would be grateful to anyone who would be willing to send me a connection request so I can continue to find new sources of information about jobs or companies I might interview with in the future. The bigger your network, the better it looks to those who will, inevitably, look at it as part of the interview process. My LinkedIn profile can be found at https://www.linkedin.com/in/brad-kramer/It would be great if you could connect with a note, so I can figure out what we have in common. This concludes the self-promotion portion of the blog post. Now back to the laughs.

Ultimately, Walt liked to give us a laugh along with a tear or two. He even named his early company Laugh-O-grams. I, for one, find some of my favorite movies, even action ones, like Raiders of the Lost Arc or Mission Impossible Whichever, mix in some humor and make the movie better.

For those of you who are struggling with your own life road obstacles. Try a laugh. It works for me.  What do you do when life seems to have gotten the better of you?

As I said earlier, I’m going to forgo the usual media parts of this blog post. It’s just been too long a stretch without sharing. I’ll let you, my readers, be the judge of whether this  post maintains the standards that I have set for myself.

laughograms

 

Advertisements

The Key to Disney’s Artistic Masterpiece

pinocchio posterThere is something special about the second full length Disney animated film, Pinocchio, released 78 years ago, that is easy to forget as you get caught up in the story and characters.

There’s a critical element that makes characters like Pinocchio, Gepetto, Jiminy Cricket, Honest John, Stromboli and the detailed backgrounds so beautiful to watch. Walt recognized a key advancement in movie making before most of the film industry and it would revolutionize, not only his animated films, but all movies. . .

 

color

Seems Obvious, right? As I wrote about in Ahead of His Time . . .Again and other posts, Walt had an uncanny ability to see into the future and make decisions that others were too afraid or lacked the foresight to consider. I’ll get back to that thought.

It’s easy to understand why we take color for granted. Most of us have grown up in a world of color. Television, movies, newspaper comics, our smartphones and computers are, and have, used color for decades.

hyperionBut, let’s travel back in time to 1930. The recently created Technicolor three strip process was unproven, expensive, required specialized equipment and extremely bright light that needed to be balanced for every shot. The major studios were not  prepared to take on the cost to retool their equipment and experiment with the new technology. Imagine what a risk it was to Walt and Roy’s fledgling studio, huddled into overcrowded buildings on Hyperion Avenue. Even with the success of Mickey Mouse and the Silly Symphonies, Roy was understandably nervous, since their current contracts would not pay them additional money to offset the costs of producing in color.

Of course, Walt was undeterred, both by the technical obstacles and that other nasty annoyance – Money – or so it might seem. A couple of paragraphs back I mentioned Walt’s foresight. In most books I’ve read about Walt, he was more interested in quality and innovation than what it would cost to achieve his goals. But, don’t for a minute think that he wasn’t business savvy.

Flowers and TreesThe Technicolor people were so desperate to prove their process that they would have financed all of the changes necessary for Disney to retool for color animation. Walt was so convinced that color would make his animation more realistic and more entertaining that he decided to stop production on the Silly Symphony short Flowers and Trees and start over in color. He had the back sides of the black and white cells washed to remove the gray shades and had the Ink and Paint department redo them in color. And instead of taking that silly money from Technicolor, Walt made a deal for two years exclusive use of the Technicolor process.

Flowers and Trees, now in color, was a huge success and even rivaled Mickey Mouse in popularity. For his people’s efforts, Disney was awarded the first Academy award for an animated short in 1932. Proving color could work with Forest and Trees was more than just a stunt. Walt was now confident that he could began the process to develop Snow What. The films success enabled Roy to get new, desperately needed bank financing. Plus, Walt now had a two year head start using and learning about color over any other studio. And learn they would, throughout the rest of the Silly Symphonies releases.

In a previous post Inspired by Walt to get Creative, I mentioned the book Ink and Paint, the Women of Walt Disney’s Animation, as inspiration for a novel I am writing. I highly recommend the book to anyone whose interested in learning the back story of what it took to get Animated films through production. Flowers and Trees utilized about 400 different color shades.

Getting back to Pinocchio, the shades ballooned to about 1,500 shades to complete, what might be the finest hand drawn animated film ever made. That number doesn’t include special effects like water above and below, bubbles, the Blue Fairy glow and other important film elements.

Live action films have the advantage of actual colors to shoot. For hand drawn animation, the Disney Paint department had to deal with issues like colors shifting after drying or being under the not camera lights, as well as a need for wide ranges of shades depending on the action in the context of the film. The Disney Paint people ended up designing their own colors and paints to meet the increasing demands of the films. Disney hired chemists and built an entire department to create, manage and distribute paint as needed.

I chose Pinocchio as the focus of this post because I think it might be the apex of what Disney artists, including animation, background, and painting created in those early years of feature films. Keep in mind, this one only feature film #2 for the Studio and it’s an artistic masterpiece. The backgrounds are of quality found in museums around the world. The use of color not only fills the screen, but adds to the film’s mood through the use of shadows and details that might not register fully when screening the film.  But upon closer inspection the completed work reveals subtle and complex intricacies.

I believe that there are some films that are better because they are in black and white. If, for example, you watch a noir film that has been colorized, the loss of shadows and the heightened color seems to mute the overall tension common in films like The Third Man, The Big Sleep or Double Indemnity. There’s no doubt that color afforded so many possibilities to the world of Disney animation. After the richness of Pinocchio, Disney artists explored many different styles. Fantasia was a mix of realistic

rite of spring

Rite of Spring

Modern

toccato and fugue in D minor

Tocata and Fugue in D Minor

traditional animation humor

Dance of the Hours

Dance of the Hours

and Classical

The-Pastoral-Symphony

Pastoral Symphony

Bambii takes us into the realistic world of landscapes and animals.

bambii art

And, Sleeping Beauty, perhaps one of the most visually experimental and stunning films, can be seen as an end, not only of the golden age of hand drawn animation, but of the use of artistic drawing and painting styles in Disney Animated films.

sleeping-beauty

Jiminy_Cricket_standing_up_to_LampwickOverall, it’s hard to imagine any of the films, starting with Snow White, any other way, but in glorious color. I don’t think there’s any doubt that, even if Walt had gone ahead with Snow White in black and white, it might have been considered a good, maybe ground breaking film. But it would not have had the impact that the color added. It almost certainly would not have encouraged Walt to continue to explore and expand on the use of color in Pinocchio, both in character design (27 different colors were used to bring Jiminy Cricket to life) and detailed backgrounds.

Walt Disney never described himself as an artist. He didn’t draw as well as others, he couldn’t paint and he had no training in the use of color. He did, however, recognize how much color would bring to the films he was making. As with other great leaders, he surrounded himself with people who could do those things. The list of great animators, artists on all of the films during Walt’s lifetime, both conceptual and actual production is lengthy. Walt not only took advantage of their skills by constantly challenging them to do more, but he encouraged their continued growth by providing training. We’ll never understand how, but somehow, Walt could see the finished product in his mind’s eye. By any means at his disposal, like taking a leap of faith on Technicolor, he found a way to realize those dreams and ideas.

walt oscar forest and trees

 

There’s So Much That We Share

After more than a year, I decided to revisit this Blog’s mission statement. So, I went back and reread my About Brad’s Blog . Happily, I found no reason to change the tenets which prompted me to write about Walt’s legacy. While, I have strayed, from time to time, from writing specifically about how we can still find a lot Walt’s influence in Disney products, I continue to try to focus the thoughts and opinions I share with you.

Today, as a nation, we celebrate the life and work of Dr. King. I do not want to suggest that Walt’s work in the entertainment industry has had the far reaching impact that Dr. King’s civil rights continues to have on people all over the world. Nor do I want you to think that I believe a free trip to Disneyland or viewing a Disney movie will solve the problems and divisions in our complicated world.

I am still inspired when I hear or listen to the last part of Dr. King’s, now famous, “I Have a Dream” speech, written 55 years ago:

“. . .when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, August 28, 1963

mlk speech

My first thought is often – if we all thought about those things everyday, instead of just once a year, perhaps, we could change things for the better.

When Walt dedicated I’ts a Small World at Disneyland in 1966, as water from more than 15 countries was poured into the Small World river, he said:

“We wanted to foster a better understanding among nations of the world by showing the dress, the customs, the language, the music and a little of the culture of our neighbors around the world, and we wanted to show it to be a very happy one. I think it’s safe to say that having fun has universal appeal.”

Walt Disney – 1966

Dedication its-a-small-world-disneyland

So, maybe, the next time you take a ride on It’s a Small World;

MKSmallworld exit

Sample the cultures in Epcot’s World Showcase;

worldshowcasemapWalk through the Harambe Market in Animal Kingdom;

Harmabe Market at Disney's Animal Kingdom

Or watch movies like Mulan, Brave, Cocoa, Moana and even Mary Poppins;

You’ll remember the message hidden in all of the fun, and take a moment to remember what Walt and the Sherman Brothers were reminding us.

“There’s so much that we share,
That it’s time we’re aware,
It’s a small world after all.”

I think that message is an appropriate way to remember and honor Dr. King’s belief that we are all capable of treating each other with kindness and respect.

small world finale

A Snow White Winter Holiday Surprise in NYC

As I sit in my house surrounded by a frozen tundra that looks more like the arctic than Long Island, I’m reminded that one of the benefits of living close to New York City, is the holiday season festivities. Our family makes many trips into the City during the course of the year — Museums, markets, restaurants, theater, shopping to name a few. The holiday usually includes a day to enjoy the changes many of our favorite go through in the month before Christmas. For those who don’t get the opportunity to visit during this magical time of year, I’d like share some of our favorites. Some are iconic and some less known. This year included an unexpected tribute for the 80th anniversary of the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Retail stores in NY are famous for their elaborate, usually holiday themed windows

A lesser known but equally amazing site is the Metropolitan Museum’s 18th-century Neapolitan Nativity scene set under a Christmas tree populated by angels. The pictures don’t do the display justice. The front of the tree depicts the classic scene of Christ, Mary and Joseph in the manger attended by Kings bearing gifts along with elephants, camels, horses and royal attendants. All around the tree in the is surrounded by different scenes of life in 18th Century Italy from farms to merchants. The mysterious way the Angels on the tree are lit confounds even many who see it in person. The history of the display is quite fascinating, going back to a collection of figures started in 1925.

met museum tree

met museum creche

Two marketplaces have become magnets for shoppers. Both offer many artisan goods and food but very different vibes. In lower Manhattan, Union Square Park adds a holiday market to its regular farmers, green market for the holidays. The maze of vendor kiosks makes it feel like a fun scavenger hunt.

An uptown market started in 2002 at Bryant Park, behind the main branch of the NY Public Library, not only has a market but a skating rink and restaurants.

Theatrical spectacles are very much on display in NYC starting around Thanksgiving. They include famous the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular featuring the Rockettes in the iconic Art Deco building located just behind 30 Rockefeller Center.

Rockefeller Center’s iconic holiday transformation includes the area in and around the front of 30 Rockefeller center. During the summer it is home to the Today show’s concerts and a restaurant in front of the golden statue of Prometheus.

Most everyone who has a TV has seen pictures how that same space is changed for the holidays.

The crowds, especially on the weekends are massive and a bit overwhelming. But it’s hard to beat the atmosphere. This year if you could stand with your back to the tree at the ice rink (hard to do), you looked through the Rockefeller Center Channel Gardens with their angels to saw the department store Saks Fifth Avenue lit up to look like a certain iconic castle.

Saks from Rock Center Gardens

And perhaps, for us fans of Disney, Saks chose to use their holiday windows to pay tribute to the 80th anniversary of the premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The crowds make it really difficult to get really good pictures of the windows so I’m borrowing some great ones from TimeOut New York.

Saks Snow White 5

Saks Snow White 4

Saks Snow White 3

Saks Snow White 16

Saks Snow White 1

Saks Snow White 2

Saks Snow White 13

Saks Snow White 10

These two were the same window

Saks Snow White 11

Saks Snow White 12

Saks Snow White 9

Saks Snow White 8

Saks Snow White 15

Saks Snow White 7

Saks Snow White 17

Other windows showed designer’s re-imagining Snow White fashion

Most of the windows were animated in some way. Here’s a nice video.

It’s not Disney specific, but here’s a link to the light and music show on the front of the building.

Most of the holiday decorations go up around Thanksgiving and remain on display until early January. If you can swing it I highly recommend a magical Holiday trip to NYC, even if there’s no special Disney event.

Saks Snow White 18

 

Disney Got the Groove Right

el groupo flight

From left: Hazel Cottrell, Bill Cottrell, Ted Sears, Lillian Disney, Walt Disney, Norm Ferguson and Frank Thomas.

In the summer of 1941, at the request of the US government, Walt and a group of animators and story people took off on a good will tour of South America. The trip took them through the heart of the Inca empire, including Peru, where my wife and I recently visited. The group collected stories literature, music and customs and sketched people, clothing, buildings, animal scenes and landscapes, in addition to learning about folklore and music. Back then,Inca map the trip yielded two shorts, Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. Almost 60 years later, the Studio’s 40th animated feature would dig more deeply into the ancient world of the Inca in The Emperor’s New Groove. My wife and I explored parts of Peru, which was the center of the great Inca Empire, which spread across all the places “El Groupo” visited. Based on my ten day visit the Disney artists and director Mark Dindal nailed, not only the look of Groove, but captured the essence of the Inca world and its culture.

kuzco loungingThe beginning of the film, where Kuzco impresses on us that the story is about him, is not so far from the truth. The Sapa Inca, official title of the Incan Emperor, was considered a god whose power derived, not only, from his parentage, but from his religious status as son of the powerful “Inti”, the Sun god. So Kuzco’s attitudes are not far from the bizarre, royal world inhabited by the Inca emperors where everything they touched, wore or didn’t eat was ritualistically burned each year.

mummy on litter

Royal “mummy” carried in the Inti Ryami festival in Cusco

The Emperor would have been carried everywhere by bearers, even after death. His mummified remains would have continued to be carried during annual festivals like the Inti Raymi or Sun festival we saw in the city of Cusco. Kronk carries Yzma, the “new Emperor”, everywhere in a litter emblazoned with a snake, which eventually takes flight like a condor. The Snake and Condor both, we’ll see in a minute, are tied to Inca social and religious beliefs. And the chair inside the litter sports a diamond design that is still found on fabrics hand made by Inca descendants.

Pacha’s willingness to drop everything, trek to the palace, then, without question, hand over his family land to Kuzco is perfectly in line with the Inca culture. He doesn’t go just because the Emperor calls, but he demonstrates an example of the Inca practice of mit’a. Instead of giving money for taxes (the Inca functioned on the bartering system, no money) each Inca man and woman was obligated to give time each year to the state by doing things like farming, weaving, building or fighting in the army. It’s been described as one day for me and one day for the State or my neighbor. In return, the State would make sure everyone was clothed, fed and protected and your neighbor would help you when you were in need. Someone like Pacha would regularly leave his family farm to work communal farms needed to feed the royals and their relations, or perhaps build new cities.

winyawina

Tiered farming sites like Winyawina might have been farmed by many Pachas to feed others

Kuzco, however, embraces the opposite of the Inca’s Golden Rule, which is still widely repeated in the Andes: ana sua, ana llula, ama cheklla. It translates to “do not steal, do not lie, do not be lazy”. Pacha’s attitudes toward Kuzco over the course of their adventures, even though the Emperor demonstrates neither honesty nor gratitude, on the other hand, make perfect sense in the context of that Golden Rule.

Visually, the film is full of Inca symbolism, architecture and references to daily life. The first thing I can tell you about the world of the Incas, is STEPS. We hiked part of the “Inca Trail”, visited many historically significant sights including Machu Picchu. Everywhere we went required climbing stairs. And these stairs aren’t the nice even, regular rises we are used to. Instead clearing areas to make steps, the way we would today, the Incas, to their credit, simply adapted existing landscapes. This often means steps like this:

steps

followed by a distance that could be flat, but might rise or fall steeply, followed by more steps and then more steps. We see the ubiquitous steps around Kuzco’s throne, as Pacha climbs up to the palace entrance and when Kronk carries Kuzco, as a llama in the sack.

Incas did indeed build some of their most amazing cities, like Machu Picchu in the craziest places – often at the top or on a mountainside. Pacha’s village sits on a mountain top.

pacha crossAs Pacha enters the palace we see the Andean cross which has many parallel meanings and exhibits the way Incas used the power of three or “threeology” in their thinking, buildings and religion. Toward the end of the film, when Yzma holds “the” vial, you can see three steps behind her. Inca historical sites are full of the “threes” as in the Andean Cross.

andean cross

The gold that adorned Inca palaces and sacred sites like Kuzco’s palace was confirmed by accounts written by Spanish missionaries in the 16th century. In fact, the Incas didn’t value gold or silver as a source of wealth, but as decoration for buildings, clothing and other items.

kuzcos gold palace.png

Doors and windows, especially in highly sacred or royal architectures have a distinct trapezoidal shape as we can see in the movie buildings as well.

There’s not a lot of actual eating in the movie, other than spinach puffs discussions, and it’s unclear how much llama meat was eaten by the Incas. So Kuzco in llama form might not have been on the menu. But, his wool would have been used for clothing, hides for shoes, and he would have hauled goods. And, oh, he might have been used for ritual sacrifice. Today, there are 16 protected llamas that roam the grounds of Machu Picchu. Unlike Kuzco, they are friendly and seem to mostly ignore photo hungry tourists.

In addition to being able to build fantastic cities in the most remote and inaccessible places, the Inca were masters of urban design. The Inca cities not only supported thousands of people, but included plumbing in the form of aqueducts. All of the aqueducts and flowing water we see in the movie are still evident and working at many Inca sites today, hundreds of years after they were designed and built. Some were used to provide drinking water.

Some were used to drain off potential flooding rains like the one Kronk throws Kuzco into and others were used to move irrigation water.

Based on what our Peruvian guides told us, there are, however, some misfires in The Groove. No women, other than perhaps the queen (Inca rulers had many wives. Some of the rulers had as many as 100 children) would have had positions of power or decision making. Sorry Yzma. But she wouldn’t have come anywhere near the throne.

no throne

Next is Pacha’s cart. No one has been able to definitively prove how the Inca managed to move the enormous stones that make up sites like the ceremonial sites of Sacsayhuaman or Ollantytambo and piece them together perfectly  with no mortar.

big stone

Some stones are over 300 tons

Some say they simply used manpower and logs to roll the stones quarried from many miles away. Others look to the stars and believe ancient aliens assisted. Either way, the Inca did not have access to the wheel so there wouldn’t have been a cart. Pacha would have just tied the sack holding Kuzco to his llama.

no wheel

I find myself laughing throughout the Emperor’s New Groove. It’s a classic buddy movie filled with snappy dialogue, crazy situations and unique characters. No one gets hurt, there’s a happy ending and the movie is filled with subtle, but, accurate representations of the Inca people and their world.

The time I spent in Peru allowed me to see and learn about a culture that encompassed a vast , well organized, culturally rich empire, populated by people skilled in astronomy, architecture, agriculture and economics. I also found their descendants to be warm, welcoming and proud to help me learn about their history.

Gettin’ into the Emperor’s Groove

My wife and I are on vacation in Peru, so this will be a real short post. We’ve come from Lima, the capital and arrived in Cusco, which is the city our favorite Incan ruler, Kuzco is named after. Then we’re headed for the Inca Trail and Macchu Picchu.

Grooveposter

Boom Baby, See ya’ll next week!

The Art of Animation

tyrus-wong-bambi
Disney Legend Tyrus Wong

The recent death of Disney Legend artist Tyrus Wong and the release of Disney’s Moana have got me thinking about the state of animated feature films today. Admittedly, this is something I have thought about before. Moana is a beautiful film. Its depiction of island paradises, the ocean and god-like creatures are a joy to watch. And, the leaps that CG animators have made from films like Toy Story in the depiction of people is nothing short of amazing. However, I can’t help feel that Wong’s “re-discovered” work and contribution to Disney’s animated classic, Bambi highlights what I think is an important difference between the animation of Walt’s era and what is generally accepted as today’s the norm for modern animation. Hand drawn animated features, using Disney’s as an example, had and still have (See Hayao Miyazaki films as an example) a distinct artistic look that pulls the viewer in and brings life to the film.

moving-castle

Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle”

Considerable print, press, lectures and college film courses have discussed what many consider Walt’s most important contribution to animated films – elevation of animation to an art form. As early as 1929, 8 years before the premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt would drive some of his animators to a local art class. In 1937 he would formalize a regular training regimen for the animators (eventually it would became CalArts) The classes were not

wwow_backtoschool_bambi_447-350x274

Art Instructor with Disney Animator

just for his lead animators, but for all the animators. Walt was interested in breathing life into drawn forms, not just getting laughs. If you have the opportunity to look just at the background art for some of Disney’s early animated films, particularly Pinocchio, but even later work like 101 Dalmatians, they stand on their own as works of art, even without characters or motion. I believe Walt knew that in order to improve animation, it was necessary to improve all of the film, not just the characters who moved and got most of the attention.

He did, however, have one other trick up his sleeve. If you look at the early Disney animated features, either in individual picture form or the final movie, you can’t help but notice that each film has its own distinct artistic sensibility. Snow White, Pinocchio, 101 Dalmatians are all as different as a Monet is from a Rembrandt. The artistic quality of the films draws us in and creates a visual appeal that is as important as the differences between Mo Willems work and other picture book illustrators, making the turn of each page or the change in scene a new experience that keeps our eyes and our minds interested in the material. It’s the differences in artistic viewpoint that enable us to see the merits of both Rembrandt and Van Gogh’s self-portraits. By all standards, they are both great works of art, yet completely different in look and creative approach and tell us a great deal about the artist and any messages they are trying to convey without the use of words.


CG animation does offer us some visual differences in the complexity and style of the images. But, in in my eyes, the differences in artistic approach and style seem to be flattened out by the computer generated approach to creating them. I’m not saying that CG animation is not an art form. Far from that. I believe that CG animators still have to create, what legendary Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston called the “Illusion of life” on the screen. The complex animation skill it took to “see” Moana think and go through her internal struggle like a real actor are not different from the joy or pain we see on the face of Roger in 101 Dalmatians.

It would be hard to argue that there are no artistic differences between Moana and Toy Story 3, and I’m not going to try.

But, I do think that CG animation has removed some of the style differences we can see in earlier hand drawn animated  features. I miss the water color style of Bambi, simplistic style of Dumbo and the sweeping grandeur of Sleeping Beauty. A viewing of Fantasia is almost a primer on how different artistic styles and approaches impact the look of an animated work. The sorcerer’s apprentice and night on Bald Mountain couldn’t be any more different, while they still maintain a high degree of artistic achievement.

Fantasia 1940

I look forward to each new Pixar or Disney Animation feature. I think Walt would be proud that Disney directors still strive to be story tellers first and animate as a way of telling that story. And, I’m certain that Walt would have welcomed CG as an exciting opportunity to tell stories through a different form of animation and to animate things that might seem impossible in the hand drawn world. On the other hand, Disney animators, when challenged always seems to find a way to achieve Walt’ vision and the directors who folloeed. But, Walt did not follow the path of other animation studios and use the same artistic style for every movie. I believe that he would have seen CG as just that – another creative style, and looked for other styles to help tell a particular story. And, so, I will continue to enjoy CG animated features. But part of me still hopes that John Lasseter will someday unleash the creative talents that are out there in the world and do some more hand drawn animated movies.

Tag Cloud

%d bloggers like this: