Saturday, October 23, 2010

Story and Animation

“Walt Disney Animation Studios, The Archive Series: Story,” foreword by Lassiter, John; Disney Editions, 2008. 272 pages, $50.00 U.S.

“Walt Disney Animation Studios, The Archive Series: Animation,” foreword by Lassiter, John; Disney Editions, 2009. 262 pages, $50.00 U.S.

Having a fairly large collection of Disney artifacts, collectibles, books and memorabilia, I can admit that only a few items are ones that I can describe as “must have.” My assembled set of cold cast porcelain “Show White and the Seven Dwarfs” figurine doesn’t approach that distinction. Neither do any of the lavish “art of” books, park souvenir guides or most of my laser disc and silver, gold and diamond edition DVD recordings of the feature films - much less any thing licensed and mass-marketed.

These two books deserve to share that distinction and shelf space with the second bible of the medium “The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation” by veteran animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. (The first bible is Preston Blair’s non-Disney produced school in book form “Cartoon Animation.”) Of course by definition you must be a fan of Walt Disney, Disney brand animation and its legacy of classic animated films and beloved characters. These two books are must haves for students of animation who need to know of the process that brought Pinocchio, Stitch and Bart Simpson to life.

Both present high quality full-color reproductions of artwork created in the production of films short and long, from “Steamboat Willie” (1928) to “The Princess and the Frog” (2009), all of which preserved and archived by the Disney Animation Library. The layouts are simple with generous matting, and artist credit is given as documentation allows. Other than the production titles and their release dates, the authors provide no description or commentary to the images.

- “STORY ”-

Ferdinand the Bull, 1938, story sketch by Ferdinand Horvath.

This first book, of the series, which was published a year prior to the release of “The Princess and the Frog,” ends its mostly chronological coverage with specimens from “Lilo and Stitch” (2002), an indication that the intent of the series is not to be mechanically comprehensive, but to showcase the best examples of the craft. The work of writers who tell stories with pictures is featured here. It is interesting how quickly illustrations for the written script would become the primary conveyor of the story. The lack of written description, clearly makes plain how the drawing either as singles or in series tells stories as good as those printed in newspapers or pulp comic adventures.

One of the story sketches for “Pinocchio” shows extensive layout planning with Gepetto’s worktable and shelves of various personal items. Thirteen drawings presented on four pages of a double gate-fold shows the sequence in “Dumbo” of circus roustabouts and animals working in the rain to setup the tents, which even lacking music and sound are still as evocative as the final animated sequence. While plenty of the images can be enjoyed for the artists’ talents and draftsmanship (Marc Davis’ sequence of Bambi’s and Thumper’s fun in snow and on ice are treasures), a good balance would seem less so (witness the almost unrecognizable Ariel in Joe Ranft’s series of Scuttle professorship of human objects).

But remember that all of these were meant to be invisible to any eyes outside of the studios. The lessons taught here, is how without words, sound or motion does the artist tell how characters relate to one another, and what are their intentions or deceptions which all may be referenced against memory or video playback to the final filmed sequences. The secondary lesson is how different artists are able to accomplish their storytelling goals, as seen in Chris Sander’s delicate and charming Mulan watercolor sketches, or in David Hand’s frenetic brushwork of the Hatter and the Hare madder than their counterparts in the final Disney product, or in Glen Keane’s gesture work on Tarzan drawings where you can see and sense the artist searching to find the right postures and compositions.


“Alice” by Milt Kahl.

The second book is about the cornerstone of Walt Disney’s brand of animation: character animation. It presents the final product of the animator without the filter of the intervening talents of inkers, cleanup artists or painters - at least as seen in selected samples pulled from the intended thousands to be played out in the illusion of motion. Without description or comment and with characters isolated from backgrounds and other characters and property with which they would share the screen, each image is presented without context. Even so, this volume is probably more appealing to the casual fan, in that the characters look like themselves albeit in the absence of a finished line and color.

Truly to celebrate the talents and art of the animator would be to watch pencil tests of their work in full motion (although you can get a good sense of it by watching the films with the sound turned off), over and over again. But here by effectively freezing the motion, the animators’ skills of draftsmanship are on display. Because either cel painters or clean up artists would go over these drawings to produce the more finished looking art that would be filmed, most of these drawings retain the lines incidental for the construction of the characters.

In Ub Iwerks’ drawings from “Plane Crazy” (1928), quickly outlined forms suggest that economy and efficiency was of the highest importance to the business. Jump ahead twelve years, and Ward Kimball’s solidly built Jiminy Cricket with intact contour lines demonstrates how the artists’ belief that their characters were real and existed in three-dimensions. Through four successive drawings of the prosecutor from “The Wind in the Willows” segment of “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad,” Ollie Johnston shows the animation precepts of squash and stretch used to enhance an action making it more than real but always believable. These are master lessons for the advanced art student, to be discovered individually outside of the beginner’s list of rules and the intermediate’s tips and tricks.

For the casual fan who is still appreciative of the artistic work involved in animation, enjoy that drawing of your favorite character and realize that eleven more are drawn for one second’s worth of motion, and 60 are needed for a 5 second gag, and so on for each talking dog, dancing princess, and swan diving spoon to fill out a 90 minute film.

If you like your Disney finished and polished in full-color with music and the wafting aroma of popcorn, churros or turkey legs, then I will concede that these books may NOT be “must haves” for your collection. That’s fine. I like those things too. Also, these are not historical documentaries. For more about the art and behind the scenes stories of Walt Disney and his company, you need to read the aforementioned “Illusion of Life” and “The Art of Walt Disney” by Christopher Finch. But, after those two books have primed you for Disney fandom, you’ll need these two books.

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