"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 21, 2017

Kindred Spirits: Ray Bradbury and Walt Disney

In 1964, two great storytellers crossed paths while Christmas shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills.  This collision of genius contradicts the pushing apart of like poles between two magnets, as Walt Disney (1901-1966) and Ray Bradbury's (1920-2012) kindred spirits certainly attracted one to the other.

As Ray Bradbury remembered the incident:  "I saw this man coming across the floor with a huge armload of Christmas gifts and his head tucked over the top.  I looked at that face and said, 'Oh my God, it's my hero.'"

The next day, and to Bradbury's delight, the two had lunch together in Walt Disney's Burbank office, followed by a personal tour of the studio lot by Disney himself.  For Bradbury, it was a childhood dream come true.  Born nineteen years later than Disney, Bradbury spent his boyhood years watching his hero's animated shorts at the Genesee Theater in his hometown of Waukegan, Illinois.  Upon seeing the 1929 animated short, "The Skeleton Dance," young Bradbury swallowed the magic of Disney hook, line, and sinker. 

Ray Bradbury knew at a very young age that he wanted to be a writer.  His love for storytelling was born from a multitude of exposures in his youth.  Bradbury's official biographer, Sam Weller, wrote:
Ray Bradbury's connections to fantasy, space, cinema, to the macabre and the melancholy, were all born of his years spent running, jumping, galloping through the woods, across the fields, and down the brick-paved streets of Waukegan.  His lifelong love of comics was born here, along with his connection to magic and his symbiotic relationship to Halloween.  Although he moved away from the Midwest for good at the age of thirteen, Ray Bradbury is a prairie writer.  The prairie is in his voice and it is his moral compass.  It is his years spent in Waukegan, Illinois...that forever shaped him.
Bradbury's combined experiences, and his natural ability as a writer, gave the 20th century The Martian Chronicles (1950), The Illustrated Man (1951), Fahrenheit 451 (1953), The October Country (1955), Dandelion Wine (1957)Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962), The Halloween Tree (1972), and hundreds upon hundreds of celebrated short stories.     

Walt Disney was another who held onto his roots.  Although born in Chicago, Illinois in 1901, Disney's family relocated to Marceline, Missouri in 1905.  It was there that Disney experienced many of the same adventures as young Bradbury.  Disney biographer, Neal Gabler, wrote, "Walt Disney would remember Marceline, Missouri.  He would remember it more vividly than anything else in his childhood, perhaps more vividly than any place in his entire lifetime."  In 1938, Disney himself wrote to The Marceline News, "To tell the truth, more things of importance happened to me in Marceline than have happened since - or are likely to in the future." 

It was in Marceline that the Disney family traded in the hustle and bustle of Chicago for the quiet openness of farm living.  Though there was laborious work aplenty for the Disneys, Walt basked in the luxury of youth that came with being a four-year-old boy.  Surrounding Walt was open land, apple trees galore, and animals he regarded as close friends.  Gabler wrote, "Walt would always recall the farm through the prism of a child's wonder and always think of it as a paradise."

Like Bradbury, Disney's combined experiences growing up in Marceline was injected into many of the films that benefited from his personal touch.  It was only fitting (no, destined!) for Walt Disney and Ray Bradbury to cross paths at some point in their lives.  In each of their respective works a piece of them is embedded.  It's not so much that you see Disney in his classic films, or read Bradbury in his short stories, you feel them.  For me, Bradbury's seminal Dandelion Wine is to Disney's So Dear to My Heart (1949), both evoking the sheer essence of both men's fond memories of childhood past in small Mid-Western towns.

Though Disney and Bradbury firmly held one foot in the past, their other was always two steps ahead of the future.  Disney's vision had no limit, and his gift as a master storyteller and leader paved the way for animation as we know it.  With any challenge that Disney took on, there were "haters" as we've coined the term today.  His vision for a feature length animated movie in the 30's and a theme park of the 50's drew a fair amount of skepticism from "sophisticates" who thought themselves wiser.  Time after time he proved them wrong, plowing ahead to something new and innovative.  A large portion of the end of his life was dedicated to the betterment of tomorrow's communities.  He surrounded himself with books on architecture and city building, and rubbed shoulders with experts of these respective fields.  Had he lived the fifteen more years that he wished for, EPCOT as we know it today would have been very different as proposed by Disney himself in the following 1966 televised program:

Of Disney's many supporters, Ray Bradbury was at the front of the lines.  He, too, looked ahead to the future, and worried about it a great deal.  In respect to Disneyland, Bradbury saw Walt’s dreamland as the solution to the downfall of city organization.  On more than one occasion, Bradbury came to Disney’s rescue, defending Disneyland and its significance to society.  In the following response to one’s critical view of Walt’s fantasyland in 1958, Bradbury wrote:
I admit I approached Disneyland with many intellectual reservations, myself, but these have been banished in my seven visits.  Disney makes mistakes:  what artist doesn’t?  But when he flies, he really flies.  I shall be indebted to him for a lifetime for his ability to let me fly over midnight London looking down on the fabulous city, in his Peter Pan ride.  The Jungle Boat ride, too, is an experience of true delight and wonder.  I could go on, but why bother?
Although Disney never saw his dreams of Disney World reach fruition in 1971, Bradbury was one of many who carried Walt's torch ahead to the future.  Sam Weller wrote:
As the Disney company was moving toward bringing to life Walt Disney's vision of an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT), one of the many names that was first bandied about as a potential creative contributor was Ray Bradbury...Ray's fond attachment to the small-town Americana of yesteryear, combined with his hopes and dreams for a better tomorrow, was a perfect match for Disney.
In 1976, Bradbury was commissioned by Disney Imagineering to write a script for the commentary millions would hear on their inner tour of EPCOT's Spaceship Earth beginning in 1982.  Bradbury himself attended the grand opening in October of 1982 and walked away overjoyed with the final product.  Bradbury's personal feelings on the importance of creating EPCOT was beautifully put by the author himself in this 1982 short film (2:34-3:35 time marks):

It interests me to no end the direction these two individuals lives went through the course of history.  My love for Disney equals that of Bradbury, not only through the emotions invoked in me through their work, but by the power of their imaginations.  They were, indeed, kindred spirits, with a passion for life and firm believers in the possibilities of tomorrow.  Ray Bradbury himself once said, "I'm an optimal behaviorist, like Disney."  He explained, "With a grand sense of fun and passion, you're going to create something fine...That makes for optimal behavior."

At the time of EPCOT's grand opening in 1982, Ray Bradbury was interviewed by Larry King.  There to watch it all unfold was Bradbury's daughter, Bettina, beaming at her father with pride.  And as she basked in her father's glow, she thought, "Two amazing visionaries who created amazing tomorrows by looking backward - Walt Disney and Ray Bradbury.  If you only have two heroes in your life, you could do a lot worse." 

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Dick Kelsey's South Pacific

By January of 1943, Dick Kelsey had traded in his title as Art Director of the Walt Disney Studio for Lieutenant of the U.S. Marines. During his time in the service in World War II, Lieutenant Kelsey of the 1st Marine Division served his country from the jungles of the Southwest Pacific. Between 1943 and 1945, Kelsey would not only be promoted to Captain of the Division, but also supervise a relief map unit.

The images that you see within this post showcase an original painting that Kelsey created either during or after his war experiences. This painting became a part of my collection a number of years back as a result of an email from Bill Moore of California. His family's connection to Kelsey was made when Moore's grandparents obtained Kelsey's vacation home in Three Rivers, California in the 1950's. At some point during that time period, his grandparents obtained this painting; perhaps from Kelsey himself or as a part of the home? Almost five decades later, it was passed on to Bill by his mother.

As a person who continues to appreciate Dick Kelsey's life in art, I feel this painting is significant in a couple of ways. To begin, the creative output is that of a painter of fine art who has been influenced by the conceptual style that goes into the preliminary work of animation. The native figures alone have an almost Mary Blair quality to them; an artist who no doubt influenced Kelsey while working together at Disney. After studying many of the Little Golden Books that Kelsey illustrated in the late 40s and early 50s, the style of this painting is similar to that of a children's book illustration. This of course is not meant to demean or criticize Kelsey's skill, but to acknowledge that his style of fine art had indeed been influenced by the art of animation.

When Bill first described this painting to me through e-mail, he said it appeared to look like the scene from an African village. One couldn't blame anyone for thinking that; myself included. I'll admit that before getting the package, I secretly hoped that Bill was wrong, and that it was indeed something Kelsey created as a part of his service years. Upon receiving the painting, I immediately did an image search of the Southwest Pacific during World War II, and was very happy to see that the settings and people were extremely similar to what Kelsey included in his painting. I've included these images for those interested.

Being that Kelsey created many art pieces based on his time in the Southwest Pacific, and exhibited quite a few after his return in 1945, it's very likely that this was among the many. Whether Kelsey did or did not create this particular painting while still stationed on the islands in WWII will remain a mystery. According to his third wife, Alma, in an interview with Kathleen Brewster of the Santa Barbara Historical Museum in 1990, watercolor paints were all that was available to him while away at war. However, a visiter of this post shared that his father not only served with Dick Kelsey in the Marine Corps, but witnessed him paint in oils and draw with pastel and charcoal firsthand. In fact, Kelsey and him became such good friends, that the art pieces were given to him as gifts. If acrylic paints were made available to him too, perhaps mine was created across seas as well.

Here are three photos of the time period in native villages of the Southwest Pacific.  See the similarities?

I can't thank Bill enough for allowing me to find a loving home for this Kelsey treasure. I know how much it meant to his grandparents and his mother. This post is dedicated to them, and of course Richmond I. Kelsey.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

WIZARDS with Ian Miller

Ian Miller at work.
Touching upon Ralph Bakshi's animated film, Wizards (1977), evokes strong memories for me.  I was very young when I saw this film.  Probably, too young.  The plot centers upon two wizard brothers, Avatar and Blackwolf, and the battle initiated by the latter's desire for power through industrial technology.  Avatar's ultimate quest is to thwart his brother's evil doings through the forces of magic, and therefore save Earth from destruction.

Sounds familiar, right?

Don't bet on it.

Wizards is anything but cliche.  It is a frenetic powerhouse of fantasy, horror, and humor seemingly born from the imagination of someone on acid.  What other animated film can you watch that includes aspects of The Lord of the Rings, nuclear winter, and Nazi propaganda?  But Wizards is better watched than explained.  Contrary to creator Bakshi's labeling Wizards a family film, I wouldn't go showing this one to the kiddies.  There are some pretty strong themes presented through cartoon bloodshed and violence.  It's the film's art direction that left an indelible mark on me.  It evokes a foreboding mood that is experienced through the film's background designs by Ian Miller.  Upon discovering Miller's website, the feeling of Wizards - as experienced when I was around five - washed over me all over again.

I had to reach out to him.

The following interview was conducted via email and is presented unmolested in its original form; errors and all.  As one will read, Mr. Miller was most generous with his time, and his narrative is a pure delight!  Even better, he has allowed me to share art that he created for Wizards (copyrighted by Ralph Bakshi), along with some photographs.  Regardless of whether you watch the film or not, Miller's art represents the foreboding mood of the film as envisioned by its creator Ralph Bakshi.  It is the hope that the following interview will not only excite fans of Wizards and animation alike, but serve as a reliable source of information for the most serious of animation enthusiasts and historians.

Art design for Wizards (1977) by Ian Miller.

Ian Miller's email response to Vincent Randle on 23 July 2017:

VR:  What led you to the animation industry under Ralph Bakshi?

IM:  In the early 70’s I was asked if l would like to participate in a Fantasy calendar project being put together by Pan and Ballantine books. David Larkin, one of the best and most proactive art directors around at that time and incumbent at Pan suggested something from the Gormenghast trilogy might interest me. Having read Peake’s masterpiece and loved every word of it, I said yes without hesitation and the  Gormenghast Castle image featured  in the Fantasy calendar  was duly born.  Not long after completing this commission, my wife and I went on an extended holiday to San Fransisco;  and whilst  staying in the old Gaylord Hotel near Union Square, where the lift threatened to die every day, and the event of the week was the free doughnuts and coffee on Sunday mornings, we were  tracked down  and contacted by the Ralph Bakshi studio’s in LA.  Having seen my illustration in the Fantasy Calendar Ralph decided that I was an ideal candidate to work on his new animated  feature, which at that time was listed  I believe as War Wizards.  We were flown down to LA the day after I spoke with the Bakshi studios and I was offered a job on the spot.  Truth to tell, we had been getting rather short of money due to the value of the pound crashing against the dollar at that time, so this was nothing short of a miracle . Needless to say I said yes and the rest is history.

VR:  According to Ralph Bakshi, there is no consistent style in Wizards. What challenges or opportunities did this present as a background designer?

IM:  Ralph told me what he needed me to do, then left me to get on with it.  I was thrown into the deep end and expected to swim . Strange to say,  I managed to do this  with some measure of efficiency.  Ralph’s continual  encouragement  helped  the process immensely.  It was  a visceral whirly gig of:  “Do this, try that -"  through  the  length and breath  of the  building.  Ideas bounced off every wall,  as did the ping pong  balls in the staff area, during the rest  breaks.  I was left to work my way through a list of  scenes and suggestions Ralph thought he might need or perhaps include.   Some worked some didn’t.  When we reached parts of the film that had already be pinned down frame and  story wise, I had to design and draw within specific and designated areas . This however  was never  a problem.  The  working   atmosphere  was   always  charged  and sparky.  It was fast lane creative,  going on ‘free fall  crazy.’ Everybody  working there was at the top of their game, with me running hard to catch up. Happily, I was young, with plenty of energy.  As a point of interest, Ralph spotted a small play dough  dinosaur come lizard creature I’d made in a tea break, sitting on my desk and said “animate it!” I laughed thinking it was a joke, but he was absolutely serious, and  instructed Art Vitello, one of the animators, to do just that. It’s in the film believe it or not.  Ralph’s creative  spontaneity was sometimes startling, if not down right alarming . Anything appeared to be possible. On a whim, well that’s how it seemed at the time,  he decided I  would do a couple of  the elf voices, and took me over to the recording studios, with some of the other voice artists to do just that. I think it was at Paramount.  Heady stuff, crazy even, but  it was  a hell of a  lot of fun .
Background design for Wizards (1977) by Ian Miller.

VR:  As a background designer, how much say did you have in terms of color keying; especially in the sequences where rotoscoping was heavily used?

IM:  I don’t think that was ever a conscious issue for me, outside my remit almost. I did a great deal of the imagery in B/W and when I did use coloured washes, they went through without comment. There were some brilliant colourist /painters in the Studio who  took care of the colouring.
 If I recall correctly, and I may of course be wrong, a goodly part of the rotoscope sequences used   footage from several classic films.

VR:  What was your medium of choice when creating backgrounds for “Wizards?”

IM:  Pencil  and ink on paper -  A mix of dip pen brush and technical  pens.

One of Ian Miller's designs for Blackwolf's domain.

VR:  What set Wizards styles apart from the rest of the animated films of the time?

IM:  I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer that question, but perhaps it was down to Ralph being Ralph, the product if you will, of his wanting to break established boundaries in the quest for new and more engaging  methods of animating and story telling.

VR:  Do you have any recollections of Bill Orcutt?

IM:  Sadly I do not. Perhaps my secluded  time at the drawing table was to blame.

VR:  What interactions did you have with Mike Ploog? What did he bring to the

IM:  Meeting  Mike was one of the highlights of  working on Wizards. He’s a wonderful fellow and an  astonishingly  accomplished artist.  A book of his life and work came out recently 'The Art of Mike Ploog  FPG  and it  is well worth getting hold of a copy.  His visual  contribution, and presence in the studio, was in my opinion,  a vital part of  Wizards unique character, magic even.  Ralph held Mike in great esteem and  justifiably so. Ralph once told me that he only hired the very best, and in Mikes case that was absolutely true and Huzzah! for that.

Ian Miller (left) and Mike Ploog (right).

VR:  Did any particular artist or film influence your art on Wizards?

IM:  My mother was a theatrical milliner in London when I was young.
I went to the cinema every  Saturday afternoon with my mother, sometimes to see films she had helped dress.  Bastions and heaps of every shape and configuration abounded there. Though I knew them all, in most cases to be little more than structures of canvas and wood, paper cut-outs or paintings on glass it mattered not a jot, I willingly  filled them out with substance and imaginings all of my own. Cowboys, Knights Indians, soldiers in red coats they were all there, charging  about on the silver screen and afterwards around my bedroom walls and across the ceiling, usually in hot pursuit of the fat, green faced magician from Sinbad the sailor, who frightened me a good deal  more than the cannibal that appear nightly at my window.  My mind in truth was a visual whirligig. I bought all this to Ralph’s studio, along with the arrogance of youth and seven years of art school study.  Everything Ralph asked me to do felt  like familiar territory.  Durer, Rackham, were always close by.

VR:  When you revisit Wizards (if you do), what specific scenes are favorites of yours where your work is concerned?

IM:  I watched it recently and was surprised how engaging and relevant it all still seemed.  It sparked and vibrated with an  ageless energy, and offered up, in my opinion, a bag load of creative pointers  for  independent  minded animators working today.  As to mine own contribution, I don’t have any particular favourites. I see my work as elaborate wallpaper, and having remarked on it in passing you turn your real attention to the action unfolding in front of it.

VR:  Do you have any special memories or interesting experiences while working on Wizards? With Ralph Bakshi?

IM:  Barrel loads. I was lucky.  My association with Ralph was a dynamic and never to be forgotten experience.  Sometimes I liken it to: Trench warfare for  the artists.  You lived ever second of it, whizz bangs screams and all.  It was sometimes exhausting, but it was never ever boring, or middle of the road.  I think he sometimes thought of  me as a poisonous hobbit, a creature to be be avoided, but I choose to view this as an endearment.  In fact I have a sketch of me by Ralph in this poison dwarf / hobbit persona.  Hollywood was a sweet and sour experience for my wife and I.  It was place that seemed so familiar on the one hand but on the other  extremely alien.  Ralph was extremely generous and did everything he could to make my time in LA comfortable. There were a great many funny interludes and get togethers with Ralph but they are the stuff of quit reflection and a private titter now and then.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Art from an Ill-Fated Teddy Ruxpin Feature

Come dream with me tonight...

Children of the 1980's may recall the famous words above by the once popular talking plush bear, Teddy Ruxpin.  For those of you who are too young, or perhaps too old, a simple search of Teddy Ruxpin on Wikipedia or YouTube will give you all the information you've ever wanted (or not wanted).  I was one of those children of the 80's, and my love for my Teddy Ruxpin plush (who I still have) was rekindled after an interview with retired animation layout artist, David High. 

High was not only a concept designer on all 65 episodes of The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin animated series (1987), but acted as art director on many of the original Teddy Ruxpin books as well.  The Ruxpin plush toy was animatronic, and when activated, read stories to its young owners.  A cassette deck was housed in the doll's back, and for each cassette that was produced a corresponding hardback, illustrated storybook was included.  In fact, the map of Grundo (the land where Teddy Ruxpin lives) found on the end pages of the books was designed by David High himself.  High worked closely on the books with the late Teddy Ruxpin creator, Ken Forsse (1936-2014). 

High then shared with me:
...We were going to be doing a feature film and it was gonna be traditional, full animation with the characters with a CGI background, which had really never been done at the time.  And, so I put together a Leica reel…to try to...build money up to do the project, and which it never really happened. 
High's reference to a Leica reel may need clarification.  A Leica reel, as described by author Christopher Finch in his The Art of Walt Disney, "provided a way of projecting story continuity drawings in synchronization with whatever part of the sound track had been prerecorded, thus giving at least a rough idea of how the final movie might look and sound."

High was tasked with the creation of art for the Leica reel for the ill-fated Teddy Ruxpin feature film.  Although the film was never produced, and the Teddy Ruxpin phenomena died with the 1980's, samples of High's art for the original Leica reel survives here thanks to the generosity of the artist himself.

Click on each image to enlarge.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Moldy Fig, Anyone?

Through the course of my research on animation background and layout artists, I was introduced to the term "moldy fig."  It was first offered to me during a brief phone call with Joseph De Meis.  De Meis' career in theme park art direction and design goes as far back as WED (now Walt Disney Imagineering) in 1969.  I mentioned to De Meis my research concerning the late background artist, Ron Dias (whom I'm planning to a write a biography about), and informed him of my recent interview with layout artist, Michael Hodgson.  De Meis didn't know much about Dias, but he told me to mention "moldy fig" to Michael Hodgson the next time I talk with him.

And so I did.

The term "moldy fig" - originally - refers to someone who is a purist of early jazz music.  However, the term somehow became loosely associated with animation according to artists I've talked to. When I asked retired layout artist, Michael Hodgson, about the term, he shared:
'Moldy fig' is...kind of that fat, worn, old look that Disney really captured in, well, Pinocchio (1940) would be the best example.  You know, the barrels were a little thicker and the tables were very fat and worn and stuff like that.  
Hodgson was unsure of the origin of the term concerning animation, or how well-spread it became, but knows that artists did use it.  He incorportated the 'moldy fig' style in his layout art for The Black Cauldron (1985) and in his personal pencil renderings of the past and present.

In my recent interview with animation and comic artist, Bruce Zick, I asked him about "moldy fig" and he responded, "Oh!  I haven't heard that in a long time...it's a sort of 'gingerbready' type of [style]...it's almost like a Pinocchio, Gustaf Tenggren kind of way of approaching it [layout and background styles]."

To get a real feel for the "moldy fig" style these artists were trying to describe, check out the art below from Pinocchio and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).  Observe the thick wooded furniture and architecture of the locales from the two classic films, and ask yourself, "Am I a 'moldy fig' fan?"

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Happy Birthday, Dino!!!

Fourteen years ago this month, my dad and I embarked on a journey that we never imagined we'd go on...

From the time I could crawl, my dad had "oldies" music playing in the background.  He played everything from Al Jolson to the Bee-Gees!  Classic cartoons often incorporated standards of the time, and my subconscious ate up each catchy melody.  Needless to say, I was born and bred on music of the past, and enjoy it very much today.

In high school, I discovered Dean Martin one night while watching a PBS special.  That's Amore (1999) was the title, and it featured clips from The Dean Martin Variety Show (1965-1974).  Rather than highlighting Martin's pratfalls, corny jokes, and his convincing portrayal as a drunk (which he was not), this special highlighted solo performances of his singing.  I remember being taken by Martin's energy and genuine sincerity as he sang.  He personified the ultimate crooner, but he was just so much damn cooler than the rest.  That Christmas, I found his greatest hits in our tree and have been listening to it ever since.

My parents obviously knew who Dean Martin was, but I'd like to think it was me who reintroduced Martin to them, and in turn, they found something in his onscreen presence that they never experienced before.  I went off to college and made no secret about my musical tastes.  I even got my roommate, Chod, into it, and that music laid the foundation for some incredible memories.  In fact, I was ballsy enough to hang this poster in our dormroom:

In the spring of 2003, my dad and I found out about an annual Dean Martin festival that was being held that June in Martin's hometown of Steubenville, Ohio.  Without batting an eye, we made reservations and hitched a ride west from outside Philadelphia on a Greyhound.  

Our favorite - and first memory - of that trip was that of our cab driver (I take that back, riding on a Greyhound bus is a memory in of itself).  The driver's nickname was "Crazy Horse," and let me tell you, he lived up to his name.  The stories he told of the West Virginian locals (Steubenville, Ohio is right near the intersection of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia) was enough to fill a book.  But he was our chauffeur, and he was at our beck and call whenever we needed him!

The festival itself wasn't anything to write home about; it was the history of the town, the people, and everyone's love for Dean Martin that drew us there.  I remember there was a false fire alarm in an apartment building on the main strip.  The firefighter got down from his ladder and blamed Martin's ghost for the prank.  When you walk the town, it looks like something out of Twin Peaks, and the remnance of its mining industry in the chiseled faces of the surrounding cliffs was palpable.  But there was a magic to it all, because it was Martin's hometown, and we were all there for a common reason.

Mural of Dean Martin on the side of a grocery store in Steubenville, Ohio.
We ate at restaurants, watched Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra impersonators, attended a live auction of genuine Dean Martin artifacts, visited the plot of land his home was on, and cheered at the town parade.  For me, it was an age of innocence that swept me back to a time that I always felt I missed out on.  One of the neatest experiences was visiting Steubenville's Historical Society, and running into Dean Martin's daughter, Deana - the grand marshal of the festivities.  What an experience!  I even had the chance to ask her a question at a Q&A later that day.  I asked, "How did your father react to his knocking the Beatles off the #1 spot in 1964 with 'Everybody Loves Somebody?'"  Her response, "He came home with such a 'big head' that we told him he'd never get out of his car."

My dad, Mel, Deana Martin, and me at the Steubenville Historical Society.
In all, it's a time I'll never forget with my father.  We talk about it still, and with Father's Day looming around the corner, and today being Dean Martin's 100th birthday, what better thing to write about than this journey I shared together with my dad.

We thank you, Dino, and wish you a Happy Birthday!!!

Me with Dean Martin impersonator, Tom Stevens.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Lion King Story Sketches

There are many layers to the production process of an animated movie.  It's not as simple as coming up with a story and committing drawings to paper.  It's a well thought out process; a process that involves hundreds of individuals.

One layer of the process is coming up with a solid story.  The story process itself can be broken down into several layers; one being story sketches.  For this post's purpose, let's take story artist, Thom Enriquez.  Enriquez has contributed to story elements on many of our favorite films, such as: The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Hercules (1997), Mulan (1998), and How to Train Your Dragon (2010); just to name a few.  Mr. Enriquez's impressive conceptual art for Ghostbusters (1984) was prominently presented in Ghostbusters:  The Ultimate Visual History by Daniel Wallace in 2015 (highly recommended!). 

I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Enriquez via phone from his Californian home this past week.  He talked a lot about his story contributions to The Lion King (1994).  A few days later, he followed up with an email to me that included three original story sketches he did for the film.  These sketches preceded the animation of characters.  They represent the visual elements of sequences for The Lion King in their earliest forms.  They are presented below with Enriquez's original captions intact. 

"Simba and Nala heading for the elephant graveyard."

"Scar manipulating Simba into the gorge."

"Hyenas waiting for Scars [sic] signal."

Friday, June 2, 2017

Adventures in Music and Limited Animation

Anyone who is keen on animated art certainly connects the use of limited animation with the cartoons produced by United Productions of America, better known as UPA.  For those not familiar with the term “limited animation,” it's essentially a unique form of animation that uses less drawings per frame of film.  When one watches a classic film like Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), they're viewing a film that is meticulous in movement and form, and very realistic (each second of film in Snow White amounted to 24 drawings!).  Limited animation relies on the repetition of drawings to create movement and the style is often abstract.  It's not to say that limited animation is a lesser form of art, in fact, some animators would argue that it allows for creativity that cannot be achieved in traditional animation.  UPA's 1950 animated short, Gerald McBoing-Boing is a prime example and can be viewed here:

Being more of a Disney enthusiast, I associate the beginnings of limited animation with the “Baby Weems”segment of the 1941 film, The Reluctant Dragon. 

Legendary Disney story men Joe Grant and Dick Huemer were responsible for bringing this exceptional little piece to life, and in it, the baby’s tale is mostly told with storyboard drawings rather than animation.  In an interview by Joe Adamson in the late sixties, Huemer is asked if he and Grant were fans of limited animation at the time.  Huemer responded, “Actually, Joe Grant and I invented it for ‘Baby Weems’…That was the first time that limited animation had been done.” 

One can only imagine what audiences thought of this new approach to Disney animation.  The late 30's and early 40's marked the Golden Age of the Walt Disney Studios, with the releases of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942)Moviegoers were now accustomed to seeing beautiful and expressive animation, without single breaks in fluidity.  “Baby Weems” was just a drop in the bucket for limited animation at Disney’s, however, in 1953 the studio decided to produce two films that focused on the origins of music, while utilizing the limited animation approach.  As this posting will explain, this choice of style was more for economical reasons, however, the success of the second short initially caught everyone by surprise. 

Melody (1953) is the first of these two installments in the “Adventures in Music” series, and it brings together a solid cast of Disney artists and story men; especially under the direction of legendary animator, Ward Kimball.  In addition, Dick Huemer was invited back to the studio in 1951, after being bitterly cut three years prior, to work on the story for the first special short dealing with “Adventures in Music,” along with its follow-up, Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom (1953) (Canemaker, 1999).  Huemer shared in an interview with Don Peri, “I did the story on Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, and I turned it over to Ward Kimball, who amplified what I gave him.  It was Ward Kimball’s baby then.  He greatly admired all that modern approach (Peri, 2008).”  The same was more than likely true for the initial cartoon as well.  In terms of the direction of art in these shorts, Disney could not have made two better choices. Color styles were managed by legendary artist Eyvind Earle, who would go on to implement his gothic style of art in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, and art direction was controlled by Ken O’Connor, who served as art director or layout man on thirteen features and nearly a hundred shorts (Smith, 2006).  The animators on these two cartoons included: Ward Kimball himself, the legendary Marc Davis, Julius Svendsen, Harvey Toombs, Hal Ambro, Marvin Woodward, Harry Tanous, Art Stevens, and future Imagineer, Xavier Atencio.

Looking back, Melody was actually the less successful of the two, however, it had one element that Toot did not have.  On May 28, 1953, Melody made its theatrical debut in 3D; the first cartoon of its kind in the U.S. (Smith, 2006). As I conducted research for Melody alone, I found limited information and interviews pertaining to it specifically.  More interest is aimed at Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, especially since it earned the studio another Academy Award.  Despite this, Melody is a witty little film, full of slapstick and fun.  We are introduced to Professor Owl (voiced by Bill Thompson) and his flock of feathered pupils:  Bertie Birdbrain, The Canary Sisters, Suzy Sparrow, and Penelope Pinfeather (Grant, 1993).  The cartoon’s theme revolves around its title song, The Bird and the Cricket and the Willow Tree, which is presented in a variety of pleasant musical forms throughout the film.

Ward Kimball’s directorial touches are riddled with humor throughout this cartoon, especially where the areas of life, romance, and women are concerned.  At one point, Professor Owl presents the audience with the musical tones of a woman’s voice, and then other women chime in.  The musicality of their voices, however,  turns into a chorus of nagging and bickering that the Professor finally puts to an end after several attempts; the last being a poke with his pointer.  When it comes to Kimball’s view of romance in this short, it’s presented in class Kimball fashion.  As a man serenades his lover in one scene, beautiful hearts appear above, and a shotgun pans across the screen.  Quite the romantic!  Towards the middle, the meaning of life is addressed and takes a cynical and sarcastic turn as we follow the progression of a man’s life from birth to education, then marriage to raising children, and finally from hair loss to death; or to his “reward” as Professor Owl puts it.  Quite a dreary attitude if you think about it, yet Kimball and his team somehow successfully convey all of this through music and well-timed animation, and it’s hilarious! 

I couldn’t help but notice that the backgrounds at times in this picture remind me of Dali’s work; flat empty plains with single objects looming in the distance.  Between Earle’s color choices and O’Connor’s art direction, this film must have erupted from the screen once one put on their stylish 3D glasses.  Being the train enthusiast that Kimball was, there was of course a brief railroad scene (which looks as if a child drew and colored it) that Kimball could call his own.  The final piece of animation that continues to impress me is when Professor Owl cuts a piece of fabric from a graduate cap, and transforms the cloth into a conductor leading a symphony, majestically bringing the film to its grand conclusion in an abstract style.            

The ultimate Disney Historian, Dave Smith, shares some interesting facts about Melody in his Disney A to Z encyclopediaHe notes that the film was shown in the Fantasyland Theater at Disneyland as a part of the 3D Jamboree for several yearsThe 3D process, however, never really caught on with the audience because of the need to wear the polarized glasses. The attraction was eventually retired (Smith, 2006).

What many Disney enthusiasts consider to be the better of the two shorts, Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom, which was released six months after Melody, is nothing short of colorful in style and humor.  Like its predecessor, it’s amazing how Ward Kimball and his fellow staff manage to squeeze so much into a ten minute feature.  I would have loved to been a part of the story development for this particular short.

Where Melody deals with the different styles of music, Toot focuses on the birth of the sounds and instruments that bring them to life.  Once again, we are reunited with Professor Owl and his melodious flock of students.  This time around, however, what better way is there to present the dawning of musical instruments than with the use of cavemen?  It’s interesting to note how Kimball pokes fun at evolution in a scene when Professor Owl winds back his slide presentation, and accidentally rewinds too far, revealing a monkey holding a banana.  Throughout the film, as each of the four sounds (toot, whistle, plunk, and boom) are introduced, the cavemen situated side by side chant, “Ewwww – wah – gah!  Wah!”  The “toot” represents horn instruments, “whistle” woodwinds, acoustic is “pluck”, and “boom” symbolizes percussion.

As I watched this short unfold, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the background styles used in One Hundred and One Dalmations (1961) nearly a decade later.  The lines that define background objects are sharp and angular, and almost seem to have a gritty appearance.  It works well for this particular cartoon, and the vibrant choice of colors compliment the backgrounds and characters well.  I particularly enjoy how the human characters appear to be transparent and the colors of their flesh and clothing seem to spill over the outline of their figure in an abstract approach.  As John Canemaker describes, “The pared-down flat design is rich in color and detailing, and works well with the animation (Canemaker, 2001).”   Animator Art Stevens, who worked on the film, explained in Ollie Johnston's and Frank Thomas' The Illusion of Life: “The characters in Toot, Whistle…aren’t flesh and blood.  They move in a more abstract way – but you aren’t saying that one [animation design] isn’t as entertaining as the other (Johnston, & Thomas, 1981).”  This film, like Melody, screams Ward Kimball’s style, and they must have been a great release for him considering his waning interest in animation at the time.  “I was so relieved to get away from animation,” said Kimball in John Canemaker's Walt Disney's Nine Old Men book. “I knew how to do it.  I wanted to have say about the content (Canemaker, 2001).”

As mentioned earlier in this post, the decision to use limited animation in these shorts was more for economical reasons.  Kimball explained in an interview with Thorkil B. Rasmussen, that Toot was originally supposed to be an educational film used in schools.  Kimball shared:
And since it wasn’t supposed to be for theatrical release, I wanted to cut corners, to make it cheap.  By limiting the animation, you cut your cost.  We cut it in half.  But after Walt saw it he thought it was a keen little picture…   
Melody was special because it was presented in 3D, but Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom is significant because it was the first animated film to be presented in Cinemascope.  Ward Kimball continued the story of Toot’s production:
Darryl F. Zanuck called him [Walt] up – Darryl was promoting Cinemascope – 'Have you got anything that would do in Cinemascope?'   And Walt said, 'Well, I’ll look around,' and then he called me up and said, 'What do you think?  Should we put that picture in Cinemascope?'  'We’re almost finished with it,' I said, 'but OK, I’ll go back and redesign some of the gags for the bigger screen.'  He [Walt] then said, 'Give it the 3D sound too,' and then it went up and got an Academy Award!  And it was just supposed to be a thing for the schools.
In John Canemaker’s book on Walt Disney’s “Nine Old Men”, he makes reference to the fact that critics were comparing Kimball’s two films to that of a UPA production.  Canemaker writes, “Kimball was sensitive about comparisons of his work to that of the studio that gave the world Mr. Magoo (Canemaker, 2001).”  Kimball in his interview with Rasmussen shared:
I understand what UPA was doing and the only comparison there is:  there is more full animation on Toot, Whistle…than UPA ever had.  You look at the owl:  that’s full animation.  It’s just when he starts talking about a subject, he goes to the blackboard, we used limited animation to give it different texture, to separate the subject matter he was lecturing about (Ghez, 2006)…
To add to the critical views of Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom, fellow Disney artists were rather upset, or even jealous of Kimball’s choice of animation style according to Canemaker (Canemaker, 2001).  Ward Kimball quoted, “You can’t imagine the contrast it had to what we were doing when it came out (Canemaker, 2001).”  In my opinion, it’s a shame that more cartoon shorts in this series were never produced, however, in his interview with Joe Adamson, story man Dick Huemer made reference to a third installment of this series that actually made it to the preliminary stages.  Huemer shared:
I was getting up another one about the nostalgia of music, with the same characters…I got the whole board up and presented it publicly in the Penthouse Club to Walt, Roy, and several others and it went over great.  Then they suddenly decided not to make it.  And I did a very bad thing:  I figured they didn’t want it, so I took it down and carelessly left it somewhere, and it was thrown out.  It’s one of the lost stories…
In conclusion, it’s amazing to think that two little cartoons could have raised such a stink, or more importantly, claimed success!  The “Adventures in Music” series marked a new beginning for Disney animation, and the experimentation of style continued into the 1960's.  Sometimes these changes displeased Disney veterans (Walt included), however, I feel they were necessary in order to expand Disney’s horizons and adapt to the times.  Walt Disney’s classic animation, presented in its lush and romantic form, will always be my favorite, however, it is incredible to see what else the studio was capable of thanks to unique and creative artists like Ward Kimball.  At one time, he looked back on these two cartoons and stated in Canemaker's Nine Old Men, “We broke all of the rules (Canemaker, 2001).”

We thank you Ward!

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Metamorphoses and the Art of Ron Dias

For those who are just seeing my blog for the first-time, I'm currently in the process of researching the art and life of the late animation artist, Ron Dias.  Ron and I became good friends via telephone years back, and we got to meet once in person.  His art, perhaps, has even made an impact on your childhood without your even knowing it.  Did you watch Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!,  Johnny Quest, or The Secret of NIMH (1982) as a child?  If so, Ron's art is hidden in there somewhere in the form of bright and colorful background paintings.

There is an animated film, however, that next to no one has heard of that Ron designed and created background paintings for.  It is called Metamorphoses (or Winds of Change), and it was released in 1978 by Sanrio (yes, the creators of Hello Kitty).  According to animation historian, Fred Patten, Metamorphoses was "a theatrical animated feature then in production that Sanrio advertised would be the Japanese equivalent of Disney’s Fantasia (1940)."  Patten continues:

Actually, Sanrio had commissioned Metamorphoses to be produced in Hollywood by an experienced American animation staff, directed by Takashi (an artiste; he only used his first name) Yanase. The movie was a 70mm adaptation of five of Ovid’s Roman tales (Actaeon, Orpheus & Eurydice, Perseus, “The House of Envy”, and PhaĆ«ton) with cute cartoon characters, and a pop-rock score orchestrated from original rock tunes commissioned for the movie by such big-name composers as Mick Jagger from the Rolling Stones, Joan Baez, and the Pointer Sisters...

Below are several examples of design and background art that Ron Dias did for this forgotten film.  Ron's signature color style is most evident.  His notes to me, penned in white ink, reveal specifics pertaining to this art.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

"It's the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man!"

I recently published an article on layout artist, David High, and his uncredited contributions to 1984's Ghostbusters.  If you haven't read it, and you're a diehard Ghostbusters fan, I encourage you to read about Mr. High HERE.

I unabashedly admit that I am a devoted Ghostbusters fan.  My introduction to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man at four-years-old made an indelible mark on my budding love of fantasy.  In my recent interview with David High, he told me he created conceptual storyboard-art depicting Slimer (which has been shared in the aforementioned post).  What I didn't mention in that original post was High was also responsible for a T-shirt design of Mr. Stay Puft.  He promised to dig it out of his files and share it with me via email, and last night, I finally received it.  In his message to me, High wrote, "In going through my flat files, I came across some early development art from different artists and the art I did for a  T-shirt of 'Stay Puft' that was never to get printed..."  High explained that this art was never used because someone at the time claimed they owned the rights to this character.  This T-shirt was not meant to be part of the film, but a side product for advertising.


Saturday, May 20, 2017

Rover Dangerfield Background Styling

The art you see below was brought to life by animation artist, Ron Dias, for the animated film, Rover Dangerfield (1991).  The movie may be forgotten, by Ron's art lives on here.  He acted as background color stylist on the film.  The images below appear as they do in my personal files on Ron.  They were originally mailed to me by Ron years back.  The messages and notes written on each were personally penned by him.

Enjoy these lost treasures!