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

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Once Upon a Dream

Ron Dias with his sister, Yvonne,
circa 1941.
Finding Honolulu, Hawaii to be riddled with tourists in the mid-40s, a boy's father decided to move his family northeast to Kailua.  The six-year-old's last memory of living in Honolulu was seeing a reissue of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the Kuhio Theater.  “I saw it, and I was just overwhelmed by it,” he recalled as an old man.  “I just could not believe that drawings and paintings and all that could give you so much emotion…could be so warm, so real to you!”  It was in that theater where Ron Dias's dream of working for Walt Disney was born. 

Ron's neighbor had a copy of The Walt Disney Parade - a 1940 collection of Disney-illustrated stories.  Ron would go to their house often to immerse himself in the book’s illustrations.  Conceptual art by Swedish-American artist, Gustaf Tenggren, for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was prominently featured.  “And I just loved it,” Ron said.  “I didn’t realize that I was being, way back then, influenced by a person who I didn’t even know…[their] name.”  Seeing that "Ronnie" loved the book more than his own child, the neighbor’s father gave it to him.  

As a child, Bob Artz recognized in his Hawaiian cousin a true passion for Disney.  “Everything...that he did was Disney, Disney!” Artz said.  “He would watch so much of it and copy it so much that it was part of him.”  Ron painted on his bedroom walls and lampshades, and turned a train platform in his bedroom into his very own Disneyland.  “I always seemed to be having some new Disney thing that I’d be looking at and being enthused with, you know, and wanting to take another step forward just sketching or drawing,” Ron said himself.

Ron's dedication to art accelerated during his years at Roosevelt High School.  He enrolled in evening and Saturday classes at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, took commercial-art correspondence courses through the Famous Artists School of Connecticut, designed sets for the Honolulu Community Theater, and sang in the school choir.  His social life greatly suffered.  The Oriental Court of the Honolulu Academy of Arts became his place of solitude.  There he would recharge and lightly sketch for pleasure on a concrete bench that reminded him very much of the one the Fairy Godmother sat upon in Cinderella.  His dream of Disney pushed him on.
In the fall of 1955, his art teacher challenged her students to take part in a national stamp-design contest.  Contestants were tasked with creating a stamp design that focused on promoting friendship among children all over the world.  Ron submitted his design and began getting word of his placement by Christmastime.  

Ron Dias with his stamp design in 1955.
At the same time, Ron began writing letters to the Walt Disney Studio about employment opportunities.  “Every letter was answered by a different person,” he recalled.  In mid-March of 1956, it was announced that Ron had won the stamp-design contest, but word on the stamp's national release was yet to be determined.  “The thrilled high school artist said he hopes to work for Walt Disney in California after his graduation this summer," a Honolulu news columnist wrote.  “As far back as I can think I’ve always wanted to work at the Walt Disney studios,” Ron told a reporter.    

On June 18, 1956, Ron Dias crossed the Pacific with his dream.  He found work at the Studio Motel in Burbank in exchange for a room.  The motel was a two-minute walk from the Walt Disney Studio.  “It was a very shaky experience,” he said of his first lone walk there.  Somewhere on the premises, Gustaf Tenggren’s conceptual art for Snow White was kept.  Treading on what he considered sacred ground, he entered the Animation Building with his portfolio firmly tucked under his arm.  The response he received was less than enthusiastic.

His art was deemed “too Disney” as it contained Ron’s drawings of various Disney characters.  “We want to see what you do,” he was told.  To make matters worse, the studio did not acknowledge his art credits from the Honolulu Academy of Arts nor his correspondence courses with the Famous Artists School.  A newspaper clipping in Ron’s personal collection stated that “he has passed a test” with Disney “and was told to stand by for an appointment.”  Ron waited through the summer of 1956 without hearing a word.  

Returning to Hawaii was considered.  The quiet of the Honolulu Academy's Oriental Court called to him.  Ron had a decision to make.  An ocean no longer separated him from his dream.  Alone in a motel room, at nineteen-years-old, he began to slavishly work on a second portfolio into the fall of 1956.  His steadfast determination resulted in late nights sketching and painting.  Utterly consumed with summoning his art training and talent, Ron was caught off guard when the Los Angeles press showed up outside his motel room on a late September night.  The postmaster general had finally announced the national printing of Ron's stamp design.  Word spread fast.  The publicity department of the Walt Disney Studio phoned the following day.  Ron was asked to join their animation training program in preparation for work on their next animated feature, Sleeping BeautyLeaving his second portfolio in the dust, Ron Dias began as an “Apprentice Inbetweener” at the Walt Disney Studio on Monday, October 8, 1956.  

I was a trainee with 20 other…kids.  Training to go on something they had never tried before…Whenever they trained kids, they went onto featurettes or shorts, like five to seven-minute cartoons.  Never!  Never onto a feature film.  You had to graduate.  You had to learn.  You had to be trained to go onto a feature film because that really [was] quality work.  But they were so behind on Sleeping Beauty

The trainee course was taught by Johnny Bond.  “I will never forget Johnny Bond!  Think of Popeye with a cigar instead of a pipe and you’ve got Johnny Bond.  Aww!  He was wonderful!  He was a sweetheart.”      

I started the classes.  We were very heavy duty in being taught all the tricks of the trade and Johnny Bond was very, very careful about this because he knew we were going to go onto a feature film…one of the most precise films ever done.  And, we were given examinations…of three major areas:  Pretty girls – I remember doing Snow Whites and Cinderellas – and then cartoony characters, like Mickey and Minnie and Goofy, and then animal characters like Thumper and Bambi.  They were trying to see what area – they were casting us – what areas in the feature we would [do]…and I did pretty girls best, with much ease, and so I got put on Marc Davis’s unit working with Briar Rose.

Ron Dias was assigned to Marc Davis’s unit, but he had no interaction with the master animator during Sleeping Beauty’s production.  Ron was part of an orchestrated team that involved many artists.  Fellow animation artist, Floyd Norman, explained: 

Each unit was assigned a character or series of characters in the movie that would be their specialty.  Most teams would consist of a key clean-up artist (often a former animator), two additional assistant animators, two break-down artists, and finally two or three inbetweeners.  With this system in place, Disney’s master animators would move their scenes through this artistic pipeline.

One of Marc Davis’s assistants was Iwao Takamoto, and it was he who Ron worked for on Sleeping Beauty.  Takamoto was tasked with making sure all in-between and breakdown drawings of Briar Rose were clean and feathered well with Marc Davis’s extreme drawings.  “This girl was his responsibility and he took it mighty seriously and he was going to have perfection in this girl no matter what,” Ron said.

Ron describing Sleeping Beauty as “one of the most precise films ever done” is an apt and well-documented one.  Walt Disney felt strongly about using Sleeping Beauty as a tool to push the animated form further.  He wanted the film to look like nothing an audience had ever seen – a highly stylized moving tapestry.  American artist, Eyvind Earle, was tasked with establishing the style of the film, and in time, Ron placed him on a shelf beside Gustaf Tenggren.  

Ron’s primary contributions as an in-between animator on Sleeping Beauty are hidden within the film’s large Sequence 8.  This sequence contains the scenes when Briar Rose wanders the woods with its denizens singing “I Wonder,” encounters Prince Phillip, and sings “Once Upon a Dream.”  Ron completed in-between work for Scene 35 of Sequence 8.  “My major scenes are the one [sic] when she’s dangling her feet in the water,” he said.  

Another section is where she’s got a hold of the cape and she’s swinging with the animals.  There’s a lot of stuff in there; close-up stuff…where the two birds are holding the cape on the right-side and the left-side, and we [Ron's unit] did everything below the collar.  The collar was done by the people who were doing the owl and the squirrel and...they [would]...hook that collar directly into that cape and it would look like…the whole drawing was done…by one person.

Due to a flu outbreak in the Maleficent unit, Ron was asked to do in-between scenes featuring the evil fairy.  “They were all sick,” he recalled, “but we were lucky we didn’t get it and…the Maleficent stuff was beginning to pile up…so they asked us in the Briar Rose unit to double-up.”  

Maleficent made grand entrances and exits in the film, morphing from and into an abstract shape out of thin air under a hovering green orb.  Ron did in-between work on those transformations, along with close-ups of Maleficent laughing as she stood upon her castle’s uppermost turret on Forbidden Mountain during the film’s thrilling conclusion. 

Ron was also assigned work that involved "rotoscoping" scenes of the princess in her dress in Sleeping Beauty's finale.  Disney historian, Christopher Finch, wrote: “The problem with animating humans is that everyone instinctively knows how a man or woman moves, so that the least inaccuracy in the way they are drawn is immediately apparent.”  To ensure that the princess's movements were lifelike, the studio filmed a live actress for the animators to use as a reference.  That reference film was then processed in a way where animators could actually trace, or rotoscope, her movements.  Ron elaborated:

What they did…in perfect registration, was blow up each frame that was shot [of the live actress] onto very, very thin photographic paper and have it punched with the animation punch on the bottom and they would hand this whole thick scene to an animator and then he could just put it on his light board and just do what he wanted to do and trace the movement, not so much just tracing cold…it’s a tool…to help him get to the means of an end…

Working at Disney was certainly a dream come true for Ron Dias, but it wasn't without its troubles.  He was expected to complete eight in-between drawings a day.  This doesn’t sound like much to the average person, but in reality, it was quite challenging given the complexity of Briar Rose’s design.  Ron had a difficult time meeting his eight-drawing quota and was called out on it. 

Andy Engman was the production manager of our group and he was this short, little lumpy guy who sat behind a very large, wood desk and a very high chair that…had to be propped up with something because he was so short and he’d look down at you…pointing at you and said, 'You’ve…been…bad!'

…My count wasn’t eight drawings and he said, 'We’re gonna [sic] have to let him go because…he’s not keeping up to eight drawings!'  And then here came…Iwao Takamoto to my defense…he said, 'Yeah, but…look at these drawings!  Look at how this guy handles his character.  He really understands her…and I would really be at a loss if he would go and maybe his drawing count may not be the highest, but whatever he does I can use and I don’t have to go back and change and rework.' 

Ron hard at work at the Walt Disney Studio, circa 1956.
When Ron Dias wasn’t animating, his spare time was spent giving himself a personal tour of the Animation Building.  This also got him into trouble with Andy Engman, but Ron knew it was worth the continuous slaps on the hand. 

The unit system kept you from mingling…In fact, when you started to wander from your unit, they would get upset.  They got upset with me a number of times by the way.  I would get called on the carpet for wandering around…You see, I was already beginning to realize that animation...was not going to be for me because this just drove me bonkers.            

"Inbetweening" drawings day in and day out became rather tedious for Ron.  His love for Disney was rooted in Gustaf Tenggren’s conceptual art and styling for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  It wasn’t the movement of characters that intrigued Ron; it was the stylized backgrounds that they moved across.  He was reminded of this upon seeing Tenggren’s original Snow White art displayed in a hallway of the Animation Building during one of his forbidden treks.  Ron's days of merely admiring Tenggren's work on the printed pages of The Walt Disney Parade were over.

Cloistered away in his small in-between unit, Ron was not privy to Eyvind Earle’s on-going design work for Sleeping Beauty, but he found time during his breaks to search it out.  Ron vividly remembered the long hallway that led to Earle’s room, and on the walls was conceptual art for Sleeping Beauty.  “I would always look at the artwork and he [Earle] would see me...and he would let me actually come in and stand over his shoulder and watch him paint." 

These secret treks to the background department added fuel to the fire that was already burning in Ron Dias’s heart.  He was determined to become a background painter, but due to a massive layoff, Ron was let go from the Disney Studio on April 5, 1957.  Before his departure, he did encounter Walt Disney in a hallway of the Animation Building.  Walking toward Ron, deep in thought, Disney looked up long enough to greet him with a “Good morning, Ronald.”  It wasn't a bad parting gift.


Ron Dias did follow in the footsteps of Tenggren and Earle and became a background artist in his own right.  The decades following Sleeping Beauty took him to Hanna-Barbera, Warner Bros., U.P.A., Don Bluth Productions, and Bagdasarian Productions.  He persisted in returning to Disney throughout the 1980s, creating conceptual art for The Black Cauldron and The Little Mermaid, but received credit for neither.  Who Framed Roger Rabbit? marked his return after 30 years, but he did not find the studio he knew in 1956.  Ron found Roger Rabbit to be created in a political vacuum fueled by egos, and he never watched the final film.

Ron had every right to be disappointed, but his unwavering passion for the romantic styling of the Disney classics pushed him on.  His love for Disney was employed in numerous Little Golden Books, countless magazine covers, theme park designs, PC games, Blu-ray menus, and Disney commemorative art.  

Beginning in the late 90s, and up until his passing in 2013, Ron became a self-appointed ambassador to the art of Disney classics.  As he witnessed the phasing out of hand-drawn animation in the early 2000s, his personal mission to honor traditional animation intensified.  He spoke at Disney conventions about the art of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, and spent much of his time creating personal Disney art in his home studio, often in the style of his heroes, Gustaf Tenggren and Eyvind Earle.  His art was exhibited and sold in well attended one-man shows near his home in Monterey.  A website was designed to celebrate his work and all were welcomed to call his home telephone number to talk Disney.

My finding a friend in Ron was a beautiful accident.  My writing on Californian artist, Richmond Kelsey, was responsible.  Research revealed that Kelsey was a mentor to Ron in the 1960s.  I wrote Ron a letter and he responded with a phone call.  That call led to a phone interview about Kelsey in January 2011, and from there, a burgeoning friendship.  The three thousand miles between our homes didn’t stop us from talking on almost a weekly basis.  We shared an appreciation for the unsung heroes of animation and loved to talk Disney.  Coming home to one of Ron’s packages on my front porch was like Christmas.  Within each came a crash course on Ron’s adventures in art and animation followed by an accompanying lecture on the phone.

The timing of our friendship was felicitous.  Where my life at twenty-eight was just beginning, Ron was in the twilight of his years.  He was seventy-four, undergoing cancer treatment, and reflecting often on his life and artistic endeavors.  I’d remain quiet on the phone as the spoken words of his amazing life’s story traveled cross country to me.  He was patient with my questions, generous with his answers, and recognized my genuine interest in him.  Ron gave so much to all of his fans.

In one of my interviews with him, he talked not only of his seeing Snow White as a child, but the book that meant so much to him.  Battered and beaten over the years, Ron's copy of The Walt Disney Parade was given a new lease on life with a repaired spine, but his childhood neighbor's crayon scribbles remained on the pages.  They angered him as a boy, but he found the markings endearing as an old man.  Where his neighbor saw the pages as a canvas, Ron found inspiration, and from there, a dream that came true in 1956 with Sleeping Beauty.     

Ron Dias at his home studio in August, 2012 (photo by Vincent Randle).

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