"Get a good idea, and stay with it. Dog it, and work at it until it's done, and done right." - Walt Disney

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Disney's Lost and Found: James Lewis

(An updated edition of the article originally published on July 1, 2018)

This post marked a first in a series of articles devoted to lesser known individuals of the Walt Disney Studio.  The young man pictured to the right is Robert James Lewis of Novato, California; a onetime aspiring filmmaker and employee of the Studio from 1955-1959.  My discovery of him - like many Disney employees lost to time - was accidental.  In conducting research for my article, Perri:  A One-of-a-Kind Disney Adventure, I had learned that Lewis was an assistant to effects animator, Joshua Meador, on animated segments of Disney's Perri (1957).  With my interest piqued, I began preliminary research on Lewis and was pleased to find a string of newspaper articles published during his stint at Disney.  Here, I will share my findings, but Lewis' story is by no means complete.  Thanks to this online medium, articles such as these can be updated at anytime.  Therefore, I welcome my readers to reach out if they know anything about individuals like Lewis.  Together, we can ensure that creative individuals such as Lewis are no longer lost to the past and preserved for the future.

Robert James Lewis was born on May 13, 1936 in Sausalito, California to Robert Ernest Lewis of California and Elizabeth Gail Binford of Utah (although Robert James Lewis shared his father's first name, past articles refer to him as Jim, Jimmy, or James, so to avoid confusion, this article will now refer to the subject of this article as James Lewis and his father as Robert Lewis).

James Lewis spent his youth growing up in Marin County, California (three years of which he spent bedridden due to a heart valve defect) until his employment at the Walt Disney Studio at nineteen-years-old.  His father, Robert, was a commercial artist (according to the 1940 census, Robert Lewis was a commercial artist for a "textile manufacturing company").  James Lewis was a 1954 graduate of San Rafael High School (during which time he bought his first film camera) and studied art for a year-and-a-half at the College of Marin.  Lewis took a keen interest in film, and enjoyed shooting personal films with family and friends.

James Lewis' hiring at the Walt Disney Studio as an inbetweener on August 2, 1955 was a fortuitous one.  Kenneth Seiling was Personnel Director of the Studio at the time, and happened to be acquainted with James Lewis' Uncle George Schuchert and Aunt Gertrude Binford of Burbank, California.  A visit to a newly opened Disneyland is what brought the Lewis family to southern California the summer of 1955.  The interview with Seiling fell shortly after.  According to an August 3, 1955 Daily Independent Journal (San Rafael, CA) article:  "After more than five hours of interviews during which James exhibited his portfolio of animations, photographic work and cartoons, the youth was complimented on his general attitude and enthusiasm."  Lewis got a call 24 hours later and landed a position as an inbetweener (apparently starting on a Donald Duck cartoon).  Lewis resided with his aunt and uncle in Burbank while working at Disney.

In March of the following year, Lewis was promoted to assistant animator under Al Severance, thus bypassing the position of breakdown artist (at Severance's insistence according to a March 9, 1956 Daily Independent Journal article).  At the time of his promotion, Lewis was working on an "atom picture" (presumably the 1957 Disneyland television episode, "Our Friend the Atom") and gearing up for work on Sleeping Beauty (1959).

Lewis worked for Disney by day, but by night he exercised his interest in filmmaking in the hopes of capturing footage for Disney Studio consumption.  By the mid-50's, Walt Disney's interest in live-action films and television shows was in full swing, and Lewis saw this as an opportunity.  1957 Daily Independent Journal articles reference footage Lewis captured at various points throughout that year with the intention of showing them to Disney.  Some of the various footage included snow and ice scenery at Mammoth Lakes and Lakeport, California along with underwater shots of trout "from the fishes point of view."  One article referenced Lewis' association with a certain artist named John Noel Tucker (according to Internet databases, Tucker was an animator for several studios throughout the 30's and 40's, including Disney).  The extent of their relationship is not known, but Lewis did put together a film highlighting Tucker's watercolor technique with the intention of it being utilized during lectures. It was around this time (May of 1957) that Lewis was promoted, yet again, to effects animator under the tutelage of master effects animator of the time, Joshua Meador.  Their first noted project was Disney's one-and-only True-Life Fantasy, Perri.  Essentially, Lewis worked with Meador to create animated effects of snowflakes and sparkly transitions of animals morphing during a dream sequence.  The relationship that Lewis and Meador shared is worth mentioning.  Not only did they continue to work on projects together throughout 1957 (including work on Disney's Zorro television series), but they became quite friendly outside of the Studio.  In late November of 1957, Lewis' parents were invited on the set of Zorro and the following evening dined with Mr. and Mrs. Meador at their California residence.  James Lewis was certainly making a good impression at Disney.

James Lewis takes a moment to pose while
shooting footage for Disney's
"Magic Highway, U.S.A." in August of 1957.
A generous August 1957 San Rafael article was written about Lewis and his association with a Disney television project called "Magic Highway, U.S.A."  This project would go on to be an episode of Walt Disney's Disneyland television show (it would air on May 14, 1958).  Lewis' contribution to this episode (originally entitled "The Highway Story") highlights Lewis' zeal for filmmaking and the dangerous lengths he went to capture just the right shot.  The footage (as seen in the finalized television episode embedded below) was captured in and around the San Francisco area.  Shooting took place the week of August 11th 1957.  On the 11th, Lewis flew out of his hometown airport of Novato, California to capture aerial footage of the Carquinez Straits northeast of San Francisco.  On August 12th, while clinging to the fender of his father's car, Lewis shot wheel-level footage of the car speeding out of San Francisco's Walden Tunnel and various highways in the surrounding area.  James Lewis' father, Robert, was at the wheel the whole time.  During that same week, Lewis captured footage on and around the Golden Gate Bridge.  Just before scaling one of the bridge's towers to shoot footage, Lewis told a reporter:  “Disney Studios are unique for big Hollywood studios.  It’s nearly a one-man operation with Disney inspecting every foot of film that is produced.”  It was evident that Lewis idolized Disney, and was willing to go to any lengths to prove his worth at the Studio.  Actual footage shot by Lewis for "Magic Highway, U.S.A." can be seen in the embedded video below between 2:45 and 4:30:

Apart from this Disney adventure, Lewis scaled the heights of California's tallest mountain, Mt. Whitney, in 1957 and turned his experiences into a fictional story for the December issue of Walt Disney Magazine.  During the trek, James Lewis and a friend (named Don Smith in the magazine story) took many photos and filmed their experience during blizzard-like conditions on Mt. Whitney.  James Lewis' "photo-illustrated article" in Walt Disney Magazine was penned by the author himself and includes a couple of original photographs from Lewis' journey.  The entire article (entitled "Mountain Challenge") can be read by clicking on the following scanned images of the original magazine:

What's especially evident in reading past newspaper articles about James Lewis is how involved his family was in advocating his love for film.  Several of the personal films Lewis shot involved the help of various family members, including that of his parents.  His father, Robert Lewis, was often credited for the sound effects in his son's films.  On one particular occasion, while working on a personal film entitled Ghost Town, Marin County police were called to Robert Lewis' residence due to complaints of loud noises and gun shots.  Police soon discovered that the family was simply recording audio sound effects for James Lewis' movie.  In August of 1958, the Lewis and Binford families collaborated on another James Lewis project called The Death of Billy the Kid.  Lewis' own maternal grandmother, Gail Binford, starred in the film.  The movie essentially recounted the death of the American Old West's famous outlaw and gunfighter.  James Lewis' driving motivation for producing such a film was to prove to Walt Disney himself that he was capable of taking the reigns as a live-action director.  Whether Disney ever saw the finished film is unknown, but at the time, this personal film was a semi-exciting ordeal in Lewis' hometown of Novato.  

In 1959, Lewis enlisted in the Army, thus ending his short tenure at Disney.  He was assigned to the Army Dental Laboratory in Bad Kreuznach, Germany.  There he met his future wife, Ingeborg Estenfeld (a dental hygienist at the laboratory), who he would marry in late February of 1961.  After his release from the Army by 1962, Lewis decided to remain in Germany because he felt more opportunities awaited him there rather than Disney back in California.  He was quickly hired as a cameraman for a German television network out of Stuttgart.  During and after his enlistment, Lewis spent much of his free time filming his surroundings in Germany while befriending many of the locals (many of which willingly assisted him and starred in Lewis' personal films).  According to a 1962 Daily Independent Journal newspaper article out of San Rafael, California, some of Lewis' projects were financed by a "German" that he met while sketching in Bad Kreuznach.  

One particular aspiration that Lewis had was to produce a film inspired by Schumann's Rhine Symphony.  The film was produced and depicted a collage of Lewis' personal footage such as:  clouds, rivers, German locales, and interior shots of a Baroque church on the Rhine, while driven by Schumann's music.  In a way, it was Lewis' own live-action Fantasia.  The final product was sold to the Southern Germany and Danish TV networks.   

James Lewis with his first wife, Ingeborg Estenfeld, in Germany around 1962.
Although Lewis grew homesick and wished to return to California someday with his wife, Inga, the two remained in Germany.  Throughout the ongoing years, Lewis continued to work for German television and shot and engineered the sound on his personal films.  Lewis, in fact, felt much more free as an artist in Germany than he did under the restrictions of unions back in the States.  "I have a chance to do something on my own here," he shared with Daily Independent Journal reporter, Ellen Bry, in 1962.  With a flair for Disney coupled with his love for filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, Lewis went on to create personal projects that focused on the romance of life and nature in documentary form.  Lewis told Bry that he felt there was no room for the documentary form in the U.S. at the time and that filmmaking focused more on cowboys and mysteries.  His love for life and film was palpable to the German natives he encountered.  On one particular project, citizens of a German village opened up their homes and barns to Lewis, and even assisted him in setting up shots for scenes in a film driven by the works of Beethoven.  Through his interactions with the German culture, Lewis' fluency at speaking its native tongue improved and he became more and more ingrained in the German way of life.

Apart from two of Lewis' personal films receiving attention at film festivals in France and San Francisco throughout the 60's, any documented attention regarding James Lewis' life and work reached a dead end as of July 2018.  Attempts to reach out to members of the Binford family at the time were made with no response.  The historical society of Novato, California was gracious with their time, but had no information regarding this once Novato native.  Lewis' mother, Elizabeth, passed away in 1985, and the obituary at the time listed James Lewis as still living with his wife, Inga, in Germany.  It seemed I had reached an impasse, but the 2019 Christmas season surprised me with a most welcomed and unexpected gift thanks largely to Paul F. Anderson, founder and guardian  of the Disney History Institute.  

It began as a comment on Anderson's Facebook post about the "Magic Highway, U.S.A" Disneyland episode and led to a generous email from German Disney historian, Andreas Keßler.  Keßler provided me additional information regarding Lewis on the European front.  It was met with both excitement and a tinge of sadness - James Lewis had died several months after my initial July 2018 posting of this article.

Keßler's email included a link to James Lewis' November 29, 2018 obituary by Stuttgart author, Goggo Gensch.  The article goes into detail on Lewis' filmmaking activities from the mid-60's to his retirement in 1998.  It reveals that Lewis had found what he was looking for across seas, thanks largely to his acquaintance with the recipient of the 1969 Nobel Prize for Literature, Samuel Beckett (1906-1989). 

Samuel Beckett was a renowned Irish writer of novels, short stories, poetry, and plays from pre-World War II until his death in 1989.  By the mid-60's, Beckett's writing transitioned to personal televised projects that would be filmed in a studio of the broadcast system, Süddeutscher Rundfunk (SDR), for the Baden-Württemberg region of southwest Germany.  Beckett's first foray as a writer and director for television began with the German version of his story, Eh Joe, in 1966.  James Lewis acted as lead cameraman at SDR (with a recommendation from Disney) and worked very closely with creator and director Beckett to ensure the writer's bleak vision translated seamlessly to the small screen.  Filmed by Lewis in one long camera shot, here is Beckett's original German televised work:

From Eh Joe on, a friendship was cemented between Beckett and Lewis, and the two would collaborate on television work five more times until 1985.  According to Goggo Gensch, "Jim Lewis drove regularly in Paris (Beckett's home base) to prepare the broadcasts" and "they...designed the often visually complicated solutions that Samuel Beckett had in mind."  A look at Beckett's minimalist approach to his films through the years offers one a window into an abstract world filled with darkness and gallows humor which Lewis clearly appreciated.    

Gensch's 2018 article goes on to share that Jim Lewis also did camerawork over the years for German filmmakers Tom Toelle, Franz Peter Wirth, and Fritz Umgelter.  It also reveals that Lewis took on small acting roles in various televised German films and co-created some programs of his own.  In a translated version of the article, Gensch shares that Lewis made video clips for rock bands like Deep Purple, Steppenwolf, and Savage Rose.    

Lewis retired in 1998, "rediscovered painting," and married again; this time to a certain Regina Rickert.  Of all his experiences working in film, it was his work with Samuel Beckett that he was most proud of.  Lewis once said: "The greatest thing in my life was my acquaintance with Beckett."  Beckett had great respect for Lewis in return, as he dedicated a poem to him in 1979 entitled "for good and ill" which Lewis made into a 60-minute film in 2006 with Hamburg filmmaker, Rasmus Gerlach.  

Lewis did not intend to stay in Germany for nearly a lifetime, yet his creative endeavors in Europe seemed destined from the time he was a child.  While bedridden with a heart condition as a young boy, Lewis drew pictures of European cities.  "For him, these were places of longing," Gensch wrote.  James Lewis spent his final years on the island of Fehmarn in the Baltic Sea, in the small town of Burg, where he died in late November of 2018 at 82 years old. 

Please feel free to comment or reach out to me personally regarding James Lewis at vrand83@gmail.com.  

Monday, January 14, 2019

Paul Julian Background Art

Take some time to enjoy these rare Paul Julian (1914-1995) background designs, compliments of the late background artist, Ron Dias (1937-2013).  These would be lost to time if it wasn't for Ron.  Ron considered Julian one of his mentors.  I do not know which animated project(s) these pieces are from.  Perhaps someone out there does?  Ron Dias's handwriting is at the bottom of several of the images.  Click on each for a larger view.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Disney's Lost and Found: Garland C. Ladd

For your reading pleasure, I give you the second installment of my Disney's Lost and Found web series.  This one is short and sweet, as many of these individuals lost to time left little behind research-wise.  Jitterbugging above with Walt Disney's original Alice in Wonderland, Virginia Davis, is a onetime employee of the Walt Disney Studio, Garland Clifford Ladd.  I came across Ladd while browsing old newspaper articles about Sterling Holloway, the original voice of Disney's Winnie the Pooh.  I'm not sure why the article about Ladd and Davis showed up in my search results, but I'm glad it did.

Garland Ladd was born the tail end of 1917 in Stamford, Texas.  While attending Abilene High School in Texas, Ladd expressed much interest in the arts and physics.  Ladd portrayed various roles in school plays and was a playwright.  A couple of his original plays were performed at his school, earning acclaim in the local paper in the mid-30s.  Soon after the picture of him in his high yearbook below was taken, Ladd would move to Inglewood, California with his mother, Ola Ladd, and his older foster sister, Mary Alice Banks.  Ladd would attend and graduate from the University of Southern California in 1939.

Ladd's connection to Disney began in 1939 with his employment in the Studio's "traffic department."  One could guess at what that job entailed, but one thing is sure - Ladd was one helluva Jitterbugger, and so too was Walt Disney's first Alice, Virginia Davis.

Virginia Davis got her start with Disney back when Uncle Walt was not even America's favorite uncle yet.  We're talking the early 1920's, when Disney was still experimenting with animation back in Kansas City, Missouri.  In Kansas City, Walt Disney conceived of his first big breakthrough in animation - which he dubbed the "Alice Comedies."  Disney's concept for the "Comedies" was new for its time, as it placed a little girl of flesh and blood in a world of animation.  That little girl was Kansas City native, Virginia Davis (born 1918), and she would eventually follow Walt Disney to California where he continued to make more of the "Alice Comedies."  Davis starred in thirteen of the "Alice" short films and then left to further pursue her interests in film.  Her adulthood ambitions led to successful careers between interior design and real estate on the east and west coasts.  Although the "Alice Comedies" continued on without her with recasting, she would make a return to the Walt Disney Studio by 1937 in the Ink and Paint Department.  In the early half of 1940, Davis from Ink and Paint, and Ladd from the Studio's traffic department, would get to portray Donald and Daisy Duck in their own special way.

Feel free to watch Virginia Davis and a young Walt Disney himself in Disney's first "Alice Comedy," Alice's Wonderland (1923):

It was very commonplace at the Walt Disney Studio for animators to use live actors as a reference for movement when drawing such characters as Snow White, Geppetto, the Seven Dwarfs, or in this case - Donald and Daisy Duck.  By 1940, the Jitterbug dance was a national sensation that would eventually spread abroad with U.S. involvement in World War II.  This dance would be incorporated into a 1940 Donald Duck short cartoon called Mr. Duck Steps Out, but Disney animator, Paul Allen, needed a live reference to get Donald and Daisy's Jitterbug moves down just right.  A call was put out around the Studio and Garland Ladd and Virginia Davis were two of the individuals chosen.  Their contributions are forever captured in this article's title photo, but more importantly, in the finished cartoon.

Ladd's tenure at Disney takes an interesting turn.  In the 1940 census, he is listed as "traffic" under employment, but a 1971 Stamford American newspaper article (Texas) says otherwise.  According to the article, Ladd was employed by the Walt Disney Studio in 1939 as a "writer trainee."  This title could lend itself to many assumptions, but the article also goes on to state that Ladd was eventually promoted to assistant director at the Studio, "first working on Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck shorts, then on such features as Pinocchio (1940), Bambi (1942), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), and The Reluctant Dragon (1941)."  This is a bold statement given that Ladd would be laid off from the Studio before U.S. involvement in World War II in late 1941.  No other evidence was found by this researcher to support the article's statement, but that doesn't mean it isn't true.

Upon Ladd's departure from the Studio, he moved on to North American Aviation (NAA) out of Inglewood, California.  He began in the "Production Control" department and was transferred to public relations with his background in writing.  During World War II, he enlisted in the Navy.  According to the 1971 Stamford American article, in 1943, Ladd "went on active duty with the Bureau of Aeronautics.  He produced motion pictures for training, indoctrination, documentary and medical use."  Ladd would advance to the rank of Lieutenant during World War II.

After the War, Ladd returned to public relations at NAA where he would go on to spearhead the corporation's documentary movie program, producing aviation documentaries that garnered national attention at the time.  Ladd's ambitions took him to NAA's atomic energy division out of Downey, California, which was eventually called Atomics International (AI) in 1955.  When AI was moved to the San Fernando Valley, Ladd "was named its first Director of Public Relations."  The 1971 Stamford American article went on to say:
During his years in the PR post, he [Ladd] has acquired numerous friends in the atomic energy field, including officials in the Atomic Energy Commission, utility companies, Congress and among publishers, editors and writers in the electric and nuclear fields...Ladd is a member of a number of state and national public information committees developing education programs on the role of the atom as a clean, safe and efficient source of energy to meet growing demand.
Ladd wasn't kidding when he listed his favorite subject in his high school yearbook as physics.

Apart from his lifelong contributions to atomic energy, Ladd was also a free-lance travel writer and  frequent commentator in the LA Times on politics up until his death in 1993.

Garland C. Ladd circa. 1971
And so this installment of Disney's Lost and Found comes to an end...for now.  As mentioned in my first installment on James Lewis, these stories never truly end.  On the contrary, I consider this article on Ladd to be a beginning.  As new Disney discoveries are continuously uncovered by Disney historians, who knows what else may turn up on Garland Ladd's brief tenure at the Walt Disney Studio between 1939 and 1941.

As always, I welcome readers to reach out to me if they know anything about individuals like Garland Ladd.  Feel free to either comment on this article or email me at vrand83@gmail.com.   

Friday, November 16, 2018

Disney Animation Special Part 1

Thanksgiving greetings one and all!

Dave Willauer, host of my school district's very own Ram Country TV show, gave me the opportunity to talk Disney Animation with him.  Each show highlights events and people within the district's community, and my being a teacher in the district, Dave thought a special on Disney would make for an interesting episode.  Those who know me are aware of my keen interest in Disney Animation.  The episode embedded below clearly speaks for itself.  This episode begins with a very brief history of aspects of the Walt Disney Studio and builds up to my relationship with the late Disney artist, Ron Dias.  A second episode is in the works, and its focus will be on Dias alone.

I feel the episode came out well, and Dave certainly kept me at ease.  When asked about the "nine old men" of Disney Animation, I knew Walt himself coined the term, while making a reference to a piece of American history.  I could not remember for the life of me while filming.  President Franklin Roosevelt had nine Supreme Court judges who he called his "nine old men."  This is where Walt Disney got the term for his nine "supreme" animators.

When watching this episode, there is one mistake.  When I'm talking about Ron Dias three quarters in, the second picture insert is of animation historian, John Canemaker, not Dias.

No matter where your love for Disney or film falls, I hope you enjoy the following Ram Country video.  It was so kind of Dave Willauer and the district's studio manager, Andrew Rothermel, to provide me this opportunity.  I look forward to showing you all Part 2 in the near future.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Walt Disney Meets Virginia Lee Burton

To help alleviate the fear brought on by World War II, and keep the public updated on current events and issues, the United States government turned to Walt Disney. At the very same time, a 33-year-old author and illustrator named Virginia Lee Burton was serving her country as well. In 1942, her newly published children’s book, The Little House, had captured the hearts of people of all ages. “At the time it was published, The Little House comforted children distressed by the uncertainties of World War II,” shares Barbara Elleman, author of Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art. 

Virginia Lee Burton in her Gloucester, Massachusetts home studio.
Although the exact year is not known to this author, according to Elleman, “Walt Disney personally invited Burton to California to talk about making a film of the Caldecott Medal-winning book, royally wining and dining her…” When it came down to business, however, Disney directly made a deal with the book’s publishing company, obtaining licensing rights to The Little House for a mere $1,000. The deal, needless to say, put a bad taste in Burton’s mouth, and the finished Disney product in 1952 didn’t do much to improve things.

Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House continues to be an American classic in the world of children’s literature, and her illustrations are nothing short of precious. As an educator, one of my greatest joys is sharing this timeless book with my students, and listening to their interpretations of Burton’s work. The ideas they share do not necessarily stem from her text, but from her vivid illustrations. The change of time and the dawning of industry in The Little House are even apparent to the youngest of my pupils. Barbara Elleman elaborates, “The circular patterns that flow through the first thirteen pages, shaped to fit the page, suggest the harmonious values of country life. When change occurs, diagonal lines and drab grays and browns portend the coming industrialization.” Burton’s choice of colors burst from the pages of her book as each season changes, and the presence of time is evident in every detail of her drawings. With the beauty of her illustrations and the weaving of her words, the reader connects emotionally with the little house as they watch the city limits move in, casting its darkness around the tiny structure. The story itself is so rich, and begins and ends in the happiest of places - on a little hill way out in the country.

Illustration from Virginia Lee Burton's original book.
Disney’s little house was not the little pink and curvy house depicted in Burton’s illustrations, but was instead more angular and Victorian in appearance. There’s a scene in Disney’s version where children deface the house with red paint and even shatter one of its window panes.  As the city limits closed in on the little house, sidewalks and lampposts rise from the ground like flowers and buildings forcefully erect upwards like mighty oaks. In various scenes, looming towers catch on fire, slightly burning the little house, while others are destroyed by wrecking balls, chipping away part of the little structure’s chimney. Much like Burton’s ending, the little house makes it back to the country to perch upon her little hill.

Storyboard designed by Bill Peet for Walt Disney's The Little House.
Master storyteller Bill Peet (along with Bill Cottrell) was responsible for adapting Burton’s story, and in his autobiography he described her original work as “a gem of a book.” The prolific Mary Blair served as art director to the short film. Despite the creative leadership of these artistic forces, Virginia Lee Burton herself was extremely disappointed by the change of text and images, and “she felt that using a bride and groom at the story’s beginning and end moved it beyond the young audience she had worked so hard to capture."  In Burton’s defense, one can understand the heartache she must have felt as she watched her story change before her eyes. To her credit, Mary Blair, however, does an exquisite job at making the house seem extra pathetic and lonesome in her preliminary paintings, and as always, her art is so unique. In a lot of ways, Bill Peet’s version holds true to Burton’s.

Mary Blair's interpretation of The Little House for Walt Disney's version.
It’s only fair to consider both sides of the situation however, and in Disney’s defense, if you completely separate their story from Virginia Lee Burton’s, it is a rather charming little tale. The city’s invasion of the countryside is very effective, and the presentation of sheer scale and depth among the little house and the ominous towers work very well. The city heights hide the sun from the world, and the only source of light is emitted from building windows or the orange glow of fire. The use of warm colors in the countryside and cool colors in the city compliment the various moods of the story. Limited animation for use in the countryside and the chaos it brings to the inner city clearly represents the movement of each locale. To compliment Burton’s version, the use of personification is fantastic; convincing the audience to agree that the little house seems to live and breathe on its own.

Virginia Lee Burton's little house (left) and Mary Blair's (right).
In the end, we are left with two marvelous little tales, each pulling at the audience’s heartstrings in their own special way. However, one cannot deny where this story was born, or the individual who brought it to life. As of almost ten years ago from this posting’s publication, an article by Judith Rosen revealed that Virginia Lee Burton’s two sons bought back the rights to their mother’s beloved story. One can’t help but feel that the return of The Little House to its rightful place is as momentous of an occasion as Oswald the Lucky Rabbit’s return to the Disney name.

Monday, March 5, 2018

A Closer Look at Background Paintings

Ending credits for The New Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
In my published essay on layout and background artist, Richmond "Dick" Kelsey (1905-1987), in Volume 14 of Walt's People (2014), I go into detail about Kelsey's approach to background paintings, but without the support of visuals.  This blog allows me to do so, and for this occasion, I have chosen specific backgrounds of Injun Joe's cave that Kelsey did for Hanna-Barbera's The New Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1968-1969).

Ron Dias (1937-2013) was instrumental in helping me dissect his mentor Kelsey's approach to backgrounds and illustrations in children's books.  The background art images shared here were stored away in Ron's garage for years, and thanks to his partner, Howard, they were rescued and copies were sent to me via Ron before his passing in 2013.  Here's what Ron had to say about Kelsey in one of my interviews with him in 2011:
Well, Dick Kelsey worked with pastels even in final backgrounds…and people used to kind of be upset about [this] because they said you know all that pastel is picking up on the cels and the camera…but he would have a big brush, he would dust it, dust it, dust it...he would lay something in and then he would come back with a...shadow with pastel – a little here, a little there and you see it a lot in his book illustrations too.  Nobody else...would use pastel like he would do for the book illustration and especially for the final animation background.  I learned so much from him.  He would...lay in a flat color...[for] a trunk of a tree and a block for a hedge, and then he would come with the darker pastel and do a little bit here and on the shadow side of a tree then he’d tint it with a few highlights and put a little drawing back into it and spark it with a few little really warm highlights, and then walk away.  The damn thing was all done!  And, he attacked it like no other painter I had ever worked with.  Most painters paint in areas and flat end sections and then come back and render.  He would use a brush almost as a pencil.  And if there was grain in something he’d separate the bristles of the brush and come back with just a few strokes – all of a sudden all of the grain would be drawn into something; not literally painting each little piece of grain – he would let the brush work almost as a pencil and he’d draw with it.  He had a really different approach and different way of painting and handling, and you see it…you see it in his book illustrations a lot.  Like the background tree or something is a brush stroke and then the branches…
To support Ron's observations of Kelsey's work, here are scans of the copies that he sent me in the mail with Ron's notations:

If it hadn't been for Ron saving these treasures, they may have been lost forever.  At the time that these paintings were made, Ron was a little over thirty-years-old, and still absorbing advice from artists like Dick Kelsey and Paul Julian.  When Ron spoke of mentors like Kelsey and Julian, he said, "...They really were treasures in my life.  They were just incredible on every level.  They will never know that they taught me more than four and a half years of art training ever did." 

Friday, March 2, 2018

Mary Blair Through the Eyes of a Child

To launch Women's History Month, my third grade reading class has put together a Mary Blair exhibition right outside our classroom door.  As a way of introducing my students to Blair and her singular style of art, I read to them Pocket Full of Colors:  The Magical World of Mary Blair, Disney Artist Extraordinaire by Amy Guglielmo and Jacqueline Tourville with illustrations by Brigette Barrager.  This delightful book's recounting of Blair's barrier-breaking role as a female artist at the Walt Disney Studio bursts rainbow bright with each turn of a page.  Through it, my students were offered a special glimpse into Blair's world of art while stepping into her shoes.  The wonderment of children knows no bounds, and within each of my students a secret world was revealed upon seeing Blair's conceptual art displayed in our hallway.

Each child was given the opportunity to select a conceptual piece for themselves.  For both boys and girls alike, I challenged them to look beyond pieces that were considered "girly" or "boyish" and to choose something that called to them.  The art selections ranged from conceptual art that Blair did for The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949), Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), The Little House (1952), Peter Pan (1953), illustrations from children's books, and designs for it's a small world.  The students dived in eagerly; inspecting their respective piece through the wonderment of their eyes.  They were tasked with describing Blair's art from their perspective and to elaborate on feelings invoked by her original style and choice of color.  Their attempts, and finished writings (as you will see below) are not only commendable, but inspired.  In a society where children bear the brunt of national standards that are developmentally inappropriate and data reigns supreme, this sojourn into Blair's world provided my students a meaningful escape.

On behalf of myself, my assistant Jill, and all the boys and girls in my reading class, we hope you enjoy our labor of love.  Each writing is preceded by the conceptual art that a specific child chose.  As you read each narrative, keep in mind that they were penned by eight and nine-year-old children.  I hope you enjoy the journey as much as we did.