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

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!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Justice for Noah's Ark

Bill Justice and X. Atencio
Deep within the recesses of the Disney vaults, one will find an animated short-film of a different nature; a film that many people aren’t even aware exists.

Short cartoons produced by the Disney Studio in the 1950’s were being made on a limited budget.  In reality, shorts were not that cheap to make at all, and the money that the studio made, or could obtain at the time, was mostly being used to build and expand Walt’s new dream – Disneyland.  Recycled animated shorts were still prominent on his weekly television series, but as the 1950’s came to an end, theatrical shorts were sadly becoming a thing of the past; bidding farewell to the likes of Goofy, Donald Duck, and even Mickey Mouse.  Despite all this, Disney took no liberties dabbling in abstract art and limited animation, and even began incorporating stop-motion techniques into a special line of shorts.

In the technological world of entertainment that we live in today, there are numerous styles of animation used in films of all genres, teetering on the edge of perfection.  In 1959, Walt Disney Productions dove into a style of animation that was unlike anything they had ever done before, but its reign was short lived.  As Don Hahn describes in The Alchemy of Animation
Stop-motion animation is one of the oldest forms of animation.  The earliest stop-motion animators used a motion-picture camera that could shoot a puppet or an object one frame at a time, making small animation adjustments for each frame.  When played back at twenty-four frames per second, the puppet would appear to come to life.
Believe it or not, stop-motion animation played a huge part in the early years of Walt Disney’s life.  “I started, actually, to make my first animated cartoon in 1920” Walt Disney once stated.  “Of course they were very crude little things then and I used sort of little puppet things.”  This memory that Disney shared refers to his time spent at the Kansas City Film Ad Company (formerly known as the Kansas City Slide Company).  As Michael Barrier describes in his thorough and refreshing biography on Disney’s life: 
Those figures could be manipulated under the camera, their position changing each time a frame of film was shot – an arm could be raised frame by frame, say – so that when the film was projected the figure seemed to move. 
Nearly seventeen years after Disney’s experimentation with those “crude little things”, he had already become a household name.  After the success brought on by his lifelong “partner” Mickey Mouse in 1928, and the creation of the “Silly Symphonies” musical cartoons shortly thereafter, 1937 would yet again be another year when Walt Disney brought animation to new heights with the first animated feature – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  As this Golden Age of Disney animation was just beginning, so too was the career of a young animator named Bill Justice.

In an interview with Jim Korkis, Justice shed some light on his first days at Walt’s studio:
July 17, 1937 was my first day at Disney.  I showed up wearing my best suit and that was a mistake.  I wanted to make a good impression.  Los Angeles was very, very hot and there was no air conditioning at the Hyperion Studio so the other guys looked at me like I was a hick.  The next day I dressed more comfortably.
Even though Justice didn’t realize it at the time, his work would go on to leave a very lasting impression on the world of Disney animation.  He not only served as animator on Fantasia (1940), Bambi (1942), Alice in Wonderland (1951), and Peter Pan (1953) (to name a few), but also developed some of Disney’s most lovable characters like Thumper and Chip and Dale.  The 1950’s brought the opportunity for Bill Justice to try his hand at directing, and one of his greatest directorial attempts serves as the centerpiece of this post.

One year after Justice joined the Disney Studio, another youth signed on with Walt Disney’s elite.  Francis Xavier Atencio (better known as X) began his Disney career as an inbetweener and then clean-up man for legendary animator, Woolie Reitherman.  His first assignments with Reitherman included Monstro the Whale for Pinocchio (1940) and Timothy Mouse in Dumbo (1941)Just as Atencio was beginning to stretch his legs at Disney, World War II whisked him away.  “And then, after the war,” recalled Atencio, “I came back and I had to start all over again at the Studio.”  Starting from scratch could not have been easy for Atencio, but his patience would pay off in 1953 when he received his first screen credit for his animation on Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom.  Shortly thereafter, history would be made at the Disney Studio again when X. Atencio and Bill Justice crossed paths professionally to create Noah’s Ark in 1959.

T. (Thorton) Hee
It would be foolish not to mention the contributions of Disney artist T. Hee where Noah’s Ark is concerned.  T. (Thornton) Hee began his career the same year as Atencio at the Disney Studio; largely thanks to his impressive ability at drawing caricatures of Hollywood celebrities of the time.  Within his Disney portfolio, one will find that Hee served as director on the Honest John and Gideon sequences in Pinocchio, co-directed The Dance of the Hours segment in Fantasia with Norm Ferguson, worked on the titles for The Reluctant Dragon (1941), and adapted and developed story elements for Victory Through Air Power (1943) and Make Mine Music (1946).  Twelve years after leaving the Disney Studio in 1946 to write and design for UPA , he returned just in time to collaborate with Bill Justice and X. Atencio on Disney’s Noah’s Ark; the studio’s first stop-motion animated film. 

The story T. Hee tells of the development of Noah’s Ark in an interview with Richard Hubler is enjoyable from beginning to end.  Around 1958, Walt Disney was throwing around the idea of doing a three-dimensional short entitled A Rag, A Bone, A Hank of Hair.  Hee recounts Disney saying to Justice and Atencio:  “Look, Tee makes things out of spoons, ice-cream spoons, and screwdrivers and nuts and bolts and everything.  Let’s get him in.”  Hee’s encounters with Disney make for great conversation, simply because the two at times never saw eye to eye.  In fact, Hee wasn’t particularly interested in Disney’s idea of doing A Rag, A Bone, A Hank of Hair, and had something else up his sleeve.  The only thing left to do – sell his new idea to Walt Disney.

In 1933, Disney produced a “Silly Symphonies” short entitled Father Noah’s Ark; a musical take on the biblical story.  Hee shared with Hubler:  “I recalled that he [Disney] had made a film at one time, a musical, based on Noah’s Ark, and he was very fond of it…”  Hee enlisted the help of UPA songwriter Mel Leven to present an updated version of Noah’s Ark to Walt.  As Leven played the ukulele and sang the lyrics, and Hee recited the narration, Walt ate up every bit of it.  Disney’s response:  “Well, when do we go into animation?”

With Bill Justice serving as director and stop-motion animator, along with X. Atencio, and story development by T. Hee, Noah’s Ark went on to become a rather delightful little film.  From beginning to end, I am totally floored by Justice and Atencio’s stop-motion techniques.  After the impressive animated credits are complete (introduced by a pair of hands perhaps belonging to Justice or Atencio themselves) a revolving Earth is revealed among a bluely-lit background, and our main characters enter the picture.  Noah, his brothers and wife, and the animals of the Ark are unlike anything ever seen before in the world of animation.  Every household item you could think of was used to create the body structures of all the characters, from toothpicks to erasers, spools of thread to pipe-cleaners, eggs to sporks, and clothespins to corks (just to name a few).  The storyline follows that of the Bible, and from the moment God’s voice emits from a pink cloud above, the building of the Ark - and the film’s highlights - begin.

The plot of the short is very enjoyable, and one cannot deny that the stop-motion animation is truly the backbone of it all.  Jerome  Courtland’s narration and singing is particularly fitting throughout, and the underlying message regarding procreation (“the families grew larger somehow”) within the music is amusing.  Considering the daunting and tedious task of bringing the animals on the Ark to life, Bill Justice and X. Atencio cut no corners; adding fine detail to everything from the straining chair legs beneath Mrs. Hippo to the flamingo couple lovingly knotting their necks.  It’s easy to see how a short film of this magnitude was nominated for an Academy Award at the time.

As the 1950’s wrapped up for Disney, the 1960’s soon brought some more of Justice and Atencio’s elaborate stop-motion work – appearing in such live-action films as The Parent Trap (1961), Babes in Toyland (1961), and Mary Poppins (1964)1962’s A Symposium on Popular Songs, however, would be the last time the two would work on an animated short together – combining the wit and egocentricities of Ludwig Von Drake (voiced by the incomparable Paul Frees) and the music of Richard and Robert Sherman.  This short is not only a treat to watch and worthy of a posting itself, but it too showcases some of the greatest stop-motion animation ever produced; earning the studio  another Academy Award nomination. 

As we watch the stop-motion animated films of the last quarter century, from The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) to Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), we mustn’t forget the pioneers who helped revolutionize this artistic and time-consuming craft.  “When I got into stop-motion stuff,” Bill Justice once explained.  “It was the hardest work I had ever done in my life.”  Noah may have built the Ark, but Bill Justice and X. Atencio brought it to life.

Watch Noah's Ark below for yourself!

Monday, May 15, 2017

Ron and Rat Finks

My father-in-law is a lover of hot rod art. Ed "Big Daddy" Roth is his own Picasso, and I must admit Roth's little creatures do hold some appeal. When I was a child, I owned a friction toy that included a rubber monster of Roth's creation. That toy is long gone, and as a child Roth's name held no meaning for me.

Shooting ahead twenty-some years, Roth, unbeknownst to me, came back into my life in the form of a Disney artist. That's right! Ron Dias. The artist and friend I have talked so much about brought me full circle to the land of Roth.

During one of our two hour phone conversations years ago, Ron and I stumbled onto a conversation about Roth's work. "I did some little things for CarToons Magazine back in the 60s," Ron told me. I was more than familiar with the magazine. My father-in-law had been watching quite a few issues on eBay at the time. Ed Roth's characters appeared on the covers of several issues. Ron went on to tell me that he not only did some of the covers (such as the title picture above), but record covers featuring Roth's monsters as well. I was floored! What a small world! Here was a man that was as Disney as you could get (picture Mr. Blue Bird on his shoulder), and I find out that he did art in the style of "Big Daddy" Roth! Father of the Rat Fink!? The degenerate, drunken relative that Mickey Mouse never talked about???

I was familiar with several record covers that Capitol released in the mid-60s featuring Roth's cartoon monsters. Ron described one with a Rat Fink riding a surfboard. "If you look closely in the waves," Ron revealed, "you will see my initials." With a quick image search on the web, I found the record art to "Rods N' Rat Finks" (1964). Within the waves is a distinct "RD". Roth didn't create the illustration, Ron Dias did! I bought a rereleased version of the record and the two others in the series. Ron recalled another record cover that he did which included the song "Termites in my Woody," This was the "Hot Rod Hootenanny" (1963) Capitol release. Ron wasn't 100% sure that this latter record cover benefited from his touch (he just remembered the "Woody" song), but I'd put my money on it. The style is so similar to "Rods N' Rat Finks" that it must be. I've looked at the cover a dozen times, but could not find the signature "RD".

The cover(s) below are a testimony to Ron's versatile abilities. He was in his late twenties at the time, and on his way to Hanna-Barbera. The first below is from 1963 and the second from '64.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

For the Love of Garfield

I knew I had found the "lid to my pot" when I met Shannon Coccie eleven years ago.  This realization hit me during our first date, actually.  We were eating at a restaurant that was far too fancy for me, but I wanted to impress this beautiful young woman.  Our initial talk was about as standard as any first date, but as we got to know each other, I felt comfortable making a confession.  I professed myself as a lover of old music and an avid collector of Dean Martin records as we finished the last bites of our dinner.  She looked at me and I held my breath...and then...she smiled.  She too had a confession.  Dean Martin was of little consequence.  She had an entire room devoted to Garfield.

We moved in together that fall, and were married three years later.

For the last ten years, we have happily spent our lives in a lovely, little townhome in Pottstown.  Having no children of our own, one bedroom was devoted to my random collectibles and the other to Shannon's Garfield "museum."  I kid you not.  She's been collecting since she was five!     

As of two weeks ago, the home of our dreams came a-knockin', and now it's time to pack.  But for those who are collectors themselves, they understand the monumental task of protecting their treasures and readying them for a move.  Shannon braced herself today, bubble wrap in hand, with over a hundred plush Garfields staring back at her.  Before she began, I snapped a few pictures and wanted to share them with all of you.

Oh! And forgive the random Disney items...that's just my collection spilling over into hers.

Friday, May 12, 2017

David High Ain't Afraid of No Ghost!

Much like Bill Murray stumbling upon Slimer in an upper hallway of the Sedgewick Hotel in Ghostbusters (1984), I, too, recently stumbled upon some things (but far more pleasant and not at all slimy).

The art you see above was created by artist, David High, during the storyboard stages of Ghostbusters production.  High shared with me, "I did a fairly large painting of Slimer down this hall...with a cart full of trays of food...a setup to show...a director a visual of what it would kind of look like."  High emphasized that he did not design Slimer himself, as that was the work of Thom Enriquez.

When you look at High's Ghostbusters storyboard painting above, isn't it amazing how closely it resembles the final scene in the film?  Although Harold Ramis and Dan Ackroyd's story treatment contained such a scene, it was David High, among other artists, who conceived it visually before it was committed to film.  

In the midst of interviewing Mr. High, I had no idea that Ghostbusters would become a topic of discussion.  Dave - as he prefers to be called - began by sharing his artistic relationship with the late background painter, Ron Dias (which was my original reason for reaching out to him).  But, as with any friendly conversation, memories and recollections pop up, and the best of surprises spring forth. 

David High began his film career in animation at Hanna Barbera in the late 60's "in the Xerox department, in the basement, on the graveyard shift."  It was soon after that Dave got underfoot, and ended up meeting background painter, Ron Dias, in the morning after one of his nightshifts.  One thing led to another, and before he knew it, Dave was working in the background department at Hanna Barbera. 

From the late 60's on, Dave worked as a background or layout artist on such animated projects as:  Uncle Sam Magoo (1970), Charlotte's Web (1973), Heathcliff (1980-1981), Alvin and the Chipmunks (1983-1984), The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin (1987), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1988)and An Extremely Goofy Movie (2000).  Little did kids know that a guy named David High was partly responsible for bringing so much joy to their childhoods.  The scene with Slimer gorging himself on food (as seen above in Dave's storyboard art) certainly brought me a lot of joy as a youngster.

When asking Dave about his early art endeavors, he shared, "I started painting sweatshirts at car shows...when I got out of the Navy I went down and started trying making some money painting sweatshirts at the beach."  Dave's art skills were especially refined while working as a draftsman in the Navy in the mid-60s.  Airbrush was a medium he particularly enjoyed, which lent itself well to shirt design.  In fact, shirt design stuck with Dave throughout the decades, and even today, at 75 years old, he operates his very own inking business out of Simi Valley, CA.  On one particular film, his expertise at shirt design came especially in handy.

"If you remember the movie, at the very end, when they were hocking T-shirts?" Dave asked me.  "Well, I did all the T-shirts."

Guess the movie...

Monday, May 8, 2017

Michael Hodgson: Part 2

Mike Hodgson working on one of his latest pencil renderings.
A large part of my Saturday was spent interviewing retired animation layout artist, Michael Hodgson.  I recently wrote about Mike in my Finding Michael Hodgson post.  Mike has been instrumental in aiding me in my research on animation background artist, Ron Dias.  He not only provided me his history with Dias in the industry, but generously offered the names and contacts of many other retired artists; one being David High, who I plan to write about soon!

After first interviewing Mike about Ron Dias on April 29, 2017, I realized I wanted to know more about his career in animation.  My May 6, 2017 phone interview with Mike ran two hours and change, and every minute of it was a sheer delight.  Mike started at Hanna Barbera in the late 70s as a layout artist, and bounced from one studio to the next all the way up to the 2000's.  What blows me away is Mike never had any artistic training as a young man.  His gift with a pencil was self taught, and over the years he has certainly honed his craft.  Mike has graciously allowed me to share more of his pencil renderings below.

Mike's been thinking about putting his renderings on exhibit, but isn't sure.  I told him people would love to see his work.  What do you think?

I strongly encourage you to click on each rendering to enlarge.  Absolutely breathtaking!

Friday, May 5, 2017

Animation So Dear to the Heart

As I first approached the tour entrance to the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco back in 2010, I was pleased to be greeted by this quote: "The greatest wealth a man may acquire is the wisdom he gains from living..." It is the opening line from Walt Disney's film, So Dear to my Heart (1949).  My mother shared the film with me when I was a child, and for me, it is the film I think of when I think of Walt Disney.  It is the story of a young boy's life growing up in a rural Midwestern town.  Walt Disney, himself, grew up in such a town (Marceline, MO) near the turn of the century.  It was a time when steam trains skirted rural fields alive with barefooted children.  Disney once wrote, "To tell the truth, more things of importance happened to me in Marceline than have happened to me since or are likely to in the future."   

The sheer elegance and beauty of So Deart to My Heart's opening animation is the basis of this posting.  In his latest edition of interviews with Disney artists, Don Peri has - yet again - brought fresh information to the world of Disney. The many artists included in Working with Disney not only share their personal dealings with Walt (from interviews conducted nearly three decades ago by Peri himself), but provide insight into some of the specific projects they worked on. In his 1978 interview with Marc Davis, Peri reminded Davis of his involvement with story on So Dear to My Heart. Davis recalled that he did not do animation on the picture, but played a part in developing the "scrapbook" stories. The scrapbook belonging to young Jeremiah Kincaid (Bobby Driscoll's character) is what Davis was referring to, and it played a brief - yet vital - part in the film. From the very moment the film begins, we are introduced to this book of memories, and hear for the first time a grown Kincaid narrate and sing heartfelt memories of childhood past. It is here that the animation gently sweeps us away - revealing a time of early Americana when folks actually took the time to appreciate the change of seasons.

Peri's interview was just one of two reminders of So Dear to my Heart's animated introduction. The second actually came to me by mail several years back. As mentioned in previous posts, Disney artist Ron Dias often times sent me packages containing artwork of his own and samples of others. This package happened to include the image below (not done by Ron), and as one can see, it reveals how the opening autumn scene in the film was layered to create moving art with extreme depth. It's this specific segment of the opening that sets the animation in motion. As the first leaf falls, the camera slowly moves in, immersing us in the memories and surroundings of Jeremiah Kincaid's childhood.

In closing, it doesn't pay for me to describe in complete detail every piece of this animated segment. For me, this is one of those special Disney moments; a moment that somehow captures the essence of, perhaps, a better time. 

See for yourself...

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

There's a Dragon in My Garden

As a lover of dragons, I couldn't resist writing a brief post about the garden statues pictured below.  Two years ago, my wife and I were buying our spring flowers at Wendy's Flowers & Garden Center in Gilbertsville, PA.  While purusing the garden statue section, we discovered these adorable dragon statues.  They were unlike any dragon statues I had seen before.  My love of animation, no doubt, had something to do with it as these little guys look as if they flew out of a Disney film.  We purchased the momma with her baby, and this past weekend I picked up two more little ones.  

The statues are crafted and sold by Massarelli's - makers of fine stone garden accents out of Hammonton, NJ.  The statues pictured below are from my own garden, but more can be viewed HERE at Masserelli's website.  If you're interested in purchasing a dragon statue of your own, check the "Dealer Locator" search engine of the site to locate a dealer near you.

I might just "adopt" another one...