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They Drew as They Pleased: The Hidden Art of Disney’s Late Golden Age

Walt Disney always envisioned the studios that bear his name would consistently take creative risks and do the unexpected. Heading into the 1940s, he crafted an entirely new division of the studio called the Character Model Department, which focused solely on the details of character development.

This latest volume from famed Disney historian Didier Ghez—They Drew as They Pleased: The Hidden Art of Disney’s Late Golden Age (The 1940s – Part Two)—profiles six remarkable artists from that department, sharing uncommon and never-before-seen images of their influential work behind the scenes. With vivid descriptions and passages from the artists’ journals, this visually rich collection offers a rare view of the Disney artists whose work gave rise to many classic Disney characters, and who ultimately rewrote the future of character creation in animation. Here, Ghez writes about the discoveries he made while working on his book.

But first, some exciting news: we’re so pleased to announce that Didier Ghez is the recipient of the Annie Awards’ June Foray Award for his significant and benevolent or charitable impact on the art and industry of animation. Congratulations, Didier! 

They Drew As They Pleased

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This third volume of the They Drew As They Pleased book series focuses on the artists who were part of Disney’s very influential Character Model Department (CMD). There were really two separate parts of the CMD: one focused on developing model sheets and three-dimensional models of the characters, and one focused on developing new stories.

Each had a different impact on the animated features. The former helped the animators better visualize the characters in three dimensions, and therefore portray them and animate them more realistically. The latter tried to introduce the studio to more elaborate stories, and also pushed the boundaries from an art direction standpoint.

The artists of the CMD were much more aware of art history than their colleagues in the Story Department—much more aware of modernism and new art fashions and styles—and all this permeated their approach to story development, character design and concept art styling. Fantasia is one of the projects that most benefited from these new stylistic experimentations.

There are six artists featured in this volume:

Eduardo Solá Franco

…who, while at the Disney studio in 1939, created more than a thousand paintings for a proposed Don Quixote project.

The wacky Johnny Walbridge

….who designed some of the craziest characters for the clowns sequence in Dumbo and for the Tulgey Wood sequence in Alice in Wonderland (some of his creations for that sequence remind me of some of the Albert Hurter drawings featured in They Drew As They Pleased: The Hidden Art of Disney’s Golden Age).

Johnny Walbridge, Courtesy: Mike and Jeanne Glad

Courtesy: Mike and Jeanne Glad

Jack Miller

…who was the ultimate character designer in charge of more than half of the model sheets generated by the CMD.

Jack Miller: Early model sheet for Pinocchio.

Early model sheet for Pinocchio

Campbell Grant

…whose recently-rediscovered letters to his fiancée take us to the heart of the CMD.

Campbell Grant

Grant’s character designs for the ostriches in the “The Dance of the Hours” sequence in Fantasia, inspired by Edgar Degas, are undoubtedly the artist’s masterpiece.

James Bodrero

…the “man of the world”, whose absolute versatility allowed him to handle any project with ease and who knew everyone that was anyone.

 

And finally, my favorite, Martin Provensen

…whose lithe, beautiful lines fascinate me.

Martin Provensen: Model sheet for “The Dance of the Hours” in Fantasia

Model sheet for “The Dance of the Hours” in Fantasia

More than ninety percent of the art by those six artists has never been seen in book form before. The most exceptional document featured in the book, however, is not a piece of artwork, but a specific photograph.

For decades we had known that actor Bela Lugosi, of Dracula’s fame, had posed for the Disney artists when they were working on the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence of Fantasia. No one had ever seen any photographs documenting this famous event, until, in the course of my research, I discovered the only-known photo of Lugosi posing for Fantasia through the family of Disney story artist Joe Rinaldi. Both the family of Lugosi as well as Disney historians had been trying to locate such a photo for more than fifty years.

The only known photo of Bela Lugosi posing as Chernabog, on November 12, 1939, as live-action reference for the animators who were working on the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in Fantasia. Courtesy: Wiley Rinaldi.

The only known photo of Bela Lugosi posing as Chernabog, on November 12, 1939, as live-action reference for the animators who were working on the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in Fantasia. Courtesy: Wiley Rinaldi.

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For more fantastic insights into the world of Disney’s golden age, explore Didier Ghez’s vibrant series below:

Jenna Homen

Community Manager at Chronicle Books. When she's logged off, she can be found cooking, camping, or in a museum. You can follow her on Twitter at @jn_na.
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