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

Friday, March 24, 2023

The Unrealized Art of Dick Kelsey - PART III

As Pinocchio’s production continued through 1938 and 1939, Walt Disney conducted meetings for Fantasia and Bambi. Dick Kelsey would return as an art director and layout artist on both films. For Fantasia, Kelsey tackled the “Rite of Spring” segment of the film – an animated, musical depiction of Earth’s cataclysmic beginnings. This cinematic tour de force showcases not only some of the film’s best animation, but also exquisite art direction and layout design by John Hubley, Dick Kelsey, and McLaren Stewart. These three artists no doubt struggled to stage a prehistoric Earth, and in doing so, sought advice from scholarly paleontologists. “So intense became this paleontological hunger,” Hubley once shared, “that contact with museums and Ph.D.s was established.”42 The result of their determination was well worth it, and for nearly thirty minutes of the film, the audience is transported to a time where Earth is anything but safe, a massive sphere forged from the fires of volcanoes, torrential floods, earthquakes, and not to mention lurking with dangers in the forms of giant lizards.

Aside from the storyline, animation, and musical timing of “The Rite of Spring,” one must not discount the importance of color and mood as utilized by the capable hands of Kelsey and his colleagues. Its strong art direction is especially apparent during transitional points of the film when color plays on color, and darkness focuses light.  From the outer limits of deep space at the segment’s introduction, feelings imparted to the viewer are wonder and anticipation accented by vibrant shooting stars and shimmering cosmic dust dancing across a blanket of black and blue. The sharp contrast of Earth’s warm colors covering its volcanic surface erupt with heat, and the intensity of light emitted from spewing deep red lava set against a sky of ash is effective.

As the camera submerges the audience in a prehistoric sea, the mood instantly cools with the shades of deep blue and purple, setting the stage for Disney’s meditation on the evolutionary process. When the creatures of the deep emerge from gray waters painted against a jaundiced sky, the contrast between light and dark is at its greatest parity. This setting evokes uneasiness, yet the use of yellow in the background tempts the dark jungle’s hidden inhabitants to stir along the shoreline. Creatures silhouetted against the yellow background belong to dinosaurs, and their presence alone moves the piece in a new direction. It is here that “director Bill Roberts, layout artist Dick Kelsey, and animators Don Patterson and Art Palmer,” elaborates animation historian John Culhane, “fashioned a whole sequence around the consonance of the swooping action of Pterodactyls and swooping sounds in the Stravinsky score.”43

The play on shadows and the reflection of light along the vertebrae and outlines of prehistoric figures only adds to the mystery, and the stately wildlife shrouded within dark greens colors of the jungle floor, under the gradual change of a stormy blue sky, seems to hint at eminent danger. A storm rages not only with the presence of rain and lightning, but with the intense musical introduction of the Tyrannosaurus Rex.

The animation of Woolie Reitherman’s Stegosaurus and T-Rex elevates this segment of Fantasia to a stately, ferocious interpretation of nature’s perpetual struggle. “When we first started on ‘The Rite of Spring,’” Kelsey once explained, “it was the general consensus that it was to be very dark and moody, but it appeared that as it progressed and they began to evaluate the animation more highly, they gradually eliminated the mood and replaced it with clarity of action.”44

In the final moments of “The Rite of Spring,” blazing reds and oranges surround the dinosaurs on their final trek toward extinction. The presence of a white-hot sun consumes the creatures with heat, and the use of reflected light on the desert’s surface, coupled with grit-laden sandy hazes, is quite effective. As an eclipse of the sun sustains the fiery red color of the sky, the animation intensifies with an onslaught of earthquakes. Flaming shades of red soon turn blue-violet as massive ocean waves cool the baked surface of the Earth. As the cycle of art brilliantly designed by the art directors comes full circle, the color and mood return to that of its introduction, placing its audience within deep space’s fitful silence.

Though these two films were animated masterpieces, Pinocchio and Fantasia failed to produce the revenue Walt Disney hoped for. Blame, however, did not fall on the shoulders of Disney or the artists themselves, but mostly with the war that had engulfed Europe. As Nazi-controlled Germany invaded France in 1940 and Hitler’s blitzkrieg tore across Europe, the market for moviegoers across the seas quickly crumbled, and financial aftershocks were significantly felt at Walt Disney’s new studio in Burbank, California. By Pinocchio’s release in February of 1940, the script for Dumbo (1941) was being developed, and by the release of Fantasia’s in November of the same year, the production schedule of Disney’s fourth film was moving along at a record pace.

Dumbo has been noted time and time again for its creatively refreshing pacing and solid story. A plot concerning a miniature elephant (with well-endowed earlobes) learning how to fly could not have been more markedly different from its predecessors’ subject matters, both in design and storytelling. The perfection of technical detail poured into Pinocchio did not carry over into Dumbo, but the quality of its animated emotionality certainly did not dip. “Everybody working on it was such a great pro,” shares Disney animator Eric Goldberg. “And by being that strong in all of their choices; in their layout choices; in their design choices; and their animation choices, it makes what you could conceive as a very small film, very, very powerful.”45 Dick Kelsey would again return as an art director and layout artist on the film, and thus be considered one of the Dumbo pros.

The sequences to which Kelsey lent his talents bring to life the story of the young pachyderm are some of the most “cartoony” and powerful contained within the film. His work on action-packed and bold sequences in Pinocchio and Fantasia proved Kelsey could handle the staging aspects of such challenging scenes ably. These films, especially Fantasia, reveal Kelsey’s skill at staging scenes where nature’s wrath is portrayed. In Pinocchio’s case, it was the sea, whereas in “The Rite of Spring,” it was the forging of the Earth. With Dumbo, Kelsey’s versatility of design shows in both realistic and cartoon-like approaches to scenes, revealing his growth and adaptation to the animated process.

Two Dumbo sequences benefitting from Kelsey’s touch can be counted as two of the most memorable in the film, acting as prime examples of his artistic versatility. Existing draft notes, provided by Hans Perk’s A. Film L.A. blog, reveal that Dick Kelsey had a lot to do with almost all of the Casey Junior sequences. More specifically, Kelsey is credited as the layout artist for the entire train car animal-loading sequence as well as the train’s exaggerated twists and turns through the tunnels of rolling hills. The sequence entitled “Sad Casey,” with the train slowly pulling its cars through the rain, was also laid out by Kelsey. Interestingly enough, a 1945 Santa Barbara News Press article went as far as to boast that the circus train was “Dick’s idea!”46

Without a doubt, one of the many gifts Dumbo bestows to the audience is the Casey Junior vignette. From the moment the camera descends upon the train’s Florida quarters in the opening shot, the vibrant colors from the film’s opening credits are used again to bring the hustling and bustling world of the circus to visual life. Kelsey’s scene layout, groundwork, and supervision of difficult panning shots of the train’s length and surrounding environment are inspiring, and considerably daunting. Working left to right, beginning with the lovable, animated locomotive itself, the audience is treated to a sweeping shot of the train and its individually designed cars. Each train car design is singular, as if each car was designed for specific animals. Whether it is a water-filled car housing a mother hippo and her baby, or a decorative design of the gorillas’ caged car, the staging of each animal-loading scene is varied and visually pleasing.

The setting that serves as a backdrop to the loading of the animals must not be discounted as well, and in a way allowed Kelsey to inject stylistically Californian elements. The influence of the Spanish Colonial Revival art and design of Kelsey’s hometown, San Diego, was heavily utilized for the construction of the 1915 Panama- California Exposition. Kelsey’s exposure to this style while growing up in Southern California inevitably found its way into his art, especially during his training and teaching career in Santa Barbara. Luckily, the state of Florida, where Dumbo takes place, was also touched by the Spanish Colonial Movement near the turn of the 20th century, which could easily be the time period of the story. Several solid structures looming in the background of the train-loading sequence definitely portray hints of a Spanish Colonial influence in their red-colored roof, white solid structure, and curved-archway designs. They were no doubt designs Kelsey was familiar with and happy to include in the film.

As soon as Casey Junior departs from the loading area, the layout morphs into that of rocky structures and rolling hills painted in warm, earthy colors. The staging of the train’s twists and turns are cleverly executed using camera pans and lightly muted shadows. Shortly after its departure, the train disappears behind a massive hill, reappearing when the shadow of the locomotive dances across the hill’s anterior side. The following circus train shot is certainly one of the most memorable, as it winds in and out and over and under hills in what looks very much like a landscape taken directly from a children’s storybook illustration. The curving path of the railroad track along hills of green and scattered palm trees disappears into a horizon that bends with the shape of the Earth.

The following sequence casts the candy colors of the circus into darkness and rain, and the lush colors of the Earth into puddles of mud. As Casey Junior comes to a halt in preparation for the unloading of its hefty freight, including the circus tent, one of Kelsey’s boldest, yet subtlest, layout sequences contributed to a Disney film commences.

The “Roustabouts” sequence of Dumbo is visually communicative and emotionally moving for a variety of reasons, including its initial storyboard work, background paintings, and finally, incredible animation. Dick Kelsey’s art direction and layout work serve as the skeletal structure of the sequence and are essential to the scene’s heft. The rapid pace of character and effects animation is sharp and reads well against the dark colored backgrounds of Kelsey’s layouts. Little Dumbo seems lost among the hustling men and his fellow elephants, yet manages to stand out the most in the mélange of pelting rain, mired earth, and cloudy sky. The roustabouts themselves seem almost one with the darkness; swift shadows of the night effortlessly working to raise the tent before morning light. Subtle detail easily taken for granted, such as the tent’s open canvas seams, the circular-waved mud patterns, the suggestive placement of the train cars and tent poles, and even the stormy sky all warrant investigation. Kelsey’s staging is not forced or prominent, and takes a backseat to the animation, but only to cleverly accent it. Dumbo revealed Dick Kelsey’s able skill at stage supervision, augmenting his already impressive animative adroitness.

By the time Disney began initial story work on Dumbo in early 1940, relocation to the new Burbank studio was a mere few months away. Production on Bambi crawled along as delays, due to challenges in staging the forest animal’s animation, in particular, the realistic locomotion of deer, were mounting. In-depth training courses were conducted, and wildlife experts were brought on studio grounds to aide animators in developing the template.

Beautiful conceptual art created by watercolor artist Tyrus Wong served as the film’s inspiration and set the standard for artistic design. From there, it was up to art directors, like Kelsey, not only to utilize Wong’s preliminary work in executing appropriate staging for key scenes, but to incorporate the mood and feel of his inspirational watercolors into the final film.

Though no written documentation concerning Kelsey’s contributions to Bambican be located, it is no great leap to assume that Kelsey continued to work as a layout artist and/or color stylist given the prior films in his repertoire. As animation historian J.B. Kaufman has stated, “A big part of the problem is that term ‘art director.’ On a live-action film the function of an ‘art director’ is more or less quantifiable…in animation it gets a lot more nebulous.”47 A January 1943 Santa Barbara News-Press article stated Kelsey “created the forest-fire background in the Disney picture Bambi.”48 This piece of the puzzle may hold some merit, as Tyrus Wong attests to the article’s veracity. “Dick Kelsey did work on Bambi and it appears he did paint some background paintings for that film at one point,” conveyed Fox Carney, Research Manager of Disney’s Animation Research Library. “This was according to Tyrus Wong – the main artist credited…with the look of Bambi. Alas, the artists did not sign the backs of their works at the time – even if only to document who painted what. So we don’t have any physical evidence in our facility.”49 Steven M. Vagnini of the Walt Disney Archives also confirmed that “after an exhaustive search through our Bambi historical and production materials, we have not been able to find information on Dick Kelsey.”50

Existing visual development art completed in watercolor, mixed with dry brush and pastel for the “Little April Shower” sequence, feels like Kelsey’s handiwork as the approach is somewhat similar to the style he would utilize in the late ‘40s. Veteran animator and Director of Animation on Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Richard Williams, shared briefly, “I know nothing else about him [Kelsey’s work at Disney] other than he designed the raindrop sequence in Bambi.  Wonderful.”51 Williams’ claim should not go unwarranted given his personal connection to Kelsey, which is recounted in the introduction of the book, The Animator’s Survival Kit (2002). In fact, this piece of the puzzle seems to make sense when considering Kelsey’s work on similar sequences in prior Disney films, and Kelsey’s influence on the “Trees” segment of the 1948 animated- packaged film, Melody Time. However, with little evidence, and no substantive proof, this area of Kelsey’s career at Disney remains a mystery, hidden within the hundreds of pieces of conceptual art.

 42 John Culhane, Walt Disney’s Fantasia, (New York: Abradale Press/Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1983), 120.

43 Ibid., 115.

44 Ibid., 121.

45 Goldberg, Eric, "Taking Flight: The Making of Dumbo," Dumbo: 70th Anniversary Edition, Audio clip of Eric Goldberg, Blu-ray.

  46 Paulding, Litti. "About People You Know." Santa Barbara News-Press, sec. Town Chatter, February 18, 1945.

47 J.B. Kaufman, e-mail message to author, November 7, 2012.

48 "Lieut. R.I. Kelsey Creates Disney Backgrounds." Santa Barbara News-Press, January 7, 1943.

49 Fox Carney, e-mail message to author, December 3, 2012.

50 Steven M. Vagnini, e-mail message to author, January 17, 2013.

  51 Richard Williams, e-mail message to author, February 23, 2011

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