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A BLADE OF GRASS
© 2003 Ron Barbagallo
Before animation became a giant industry, it evolved like many art forms before it, making its way from the earliest stages of an artist's innovations to the ultimate commercial acceptance of those inventions.
Aesthetics within art can advance through broad new takes within previously accepted styles or within small and overlooked elements. They can seen in the manner in which color is used, or how something is drafted. Advances can also be affected by a slow but steady evolution within the painting style of a landscape.
A striking example of these types of progressions can be recognized in the background paintings produced at the Walt Disney Studio between 1928 and 1942.
A large percentage of the commercial animation produced in the 20’s showcased similarly styled, simplified backgrounds. Some studios experimented with live or still photographic elements, but it was rare to see house interiors, flower boxes, rocks and grass visualized with more than the use of thin hand-drawn black ink outlines. Due to time or budgetary restraints, animated stars such as Felix, Gertie and Oswald often performed upon a backdrop far less innovating than the shorts which featured them.
Walt Disney's arrival on the scene changed all that. Fresh from losing his creation Oswald the Lucky Rabbit through the now infamous double-cross by Margaret Winkler and Charles Mintz, Disney had more than a little incentive to reassert himself. He did so immediately with his first Mickey Mouse short. Directed by Walt Disney Steamboat Willie made its premiere on November 18, 1928. It introduced the playful, if slightly rebellious, character of Mickey Mouse and brought synchronized sound to mainstream cartoons.
It also featured what was common for the day, which was simple backgrounds. Light aqueous ink and/or watercolor washes were placed over hand drawn pencil lines to separate sky elements from a field of grass or a lake. Often these washes would go in and out of register. Shading, in only the lightest of ways, was added to lend a slight sense of depth. Blades of grass were resolved with a devil may care, freestyle north-south line, if defined at all.
Several improvements to the art form were offered up in the Disney Studio’s Silly Symphony Flowers And Trees, which was released on July 30th, 1932 and was directed by Burt Gillett. Flowers And Trees brought the world of color to Disney animation and, from a draftsman point of view, was a harbinger of things to come.
Using a hybrid of styles, Flowers And Trees juxtaposed old fashioned 20’s vaudeville-like characters, as seen in the black-faced Yellow Flowers who dance alongside the more naturally drafted hero and heroine of this short -- a pair of more humanized trees. The color elements aside, the background paintings are also slightly more evolved. They still use the established technique of slightly out-of-register flat field washes over pencil lines, but with the difference that distinctive two-and three-tone values within those flat fields are added to create a stronger sense of depth.
In addition, semi-opaque paint was applied over light washes to create highlighted areas within the tree bark, leaves and grass. The foreground elements were also treated with greater detail. A real effort was made within the staging of the foreground to delineate short grass from longer grass, and flowers from rocks and weeds. The grass, while still drawn as caricatured freestyle blades and integrated in the bottom staging area, was painted in two separate dark-value tones, pulling certain blades of grass forward. These innovations gave the appearance of a more enriched landscape. Flowers And Trees went on to win Disney’s first Academy Award®.
One year after Flowers And Trees and 53 Mickey shorts after Steamboat Willie, director Wilfred Jackson's Mickey’s Mellerdrammer was indicative of another innovating step forward. Released on March 18th, 1933, the backgrounds within this short at first might seem to be a throwback because they are not in color, but the tonality found in the backgrounds of this period would become a mainstay within both black-and-white and color painting technique at Disney.
It is from this period of painting at Disney that one starts to see tone used more uniformly with respect to the entire background painting. Thin pencil lines still define the shapes of wooden floorboards and grass and thin ink washes still fill in these shapes. However great forethought was given to how added to how the values of these washes would work together to draw your eye to a staging area.
The manner in which the outlines were used changed as well. Darker, slightly thicker outlines (similar but defined to bring greater emphasis than those seen in the Steamboat Willie backgrounds) were drafted to pull more prevalent areas forward, as lighter, fainter pencil lines were placed in the background where they would not compete with foreground elements. The evolution in the depiction of grass can still be noticed: Even in its use as a graphic element within a theater backdrop, grass was now rendered with serenity and some care to capture its actual anatomy.
All these advances were just a dress rehearsal for what was to be one of Disney’s crowning achievements. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs made its premiere in Hollywood on December 21st, 1937. Much expense and artistic expertise went into the making of Snow White and can be seen, and to a much greater extent felt everywhere -- particularly in the backgrounds, where the choices of color and tone were more fully realized than in the earlier shorts. One still sees the use of pencil lines, washes of color and even caricatured rubber sword-like blades of grass but it is the wisdom shown within the coloring of this film which sets it apart. Choice and placement of color were selected with great precision and became as integral a part of the film’s storytelling as the characters themselves.
The color palette used for Snow White’s backgrounds were intentionally less saturated than the shorts usually were. Its backgrounds and cel paintings both used Payne’s Gray as a local color. This gave every visual aspect of the film a somber, umbered earth tone setting, where more playful and sometimes dramatic colors could emerge. In essence, these grayed earth tones were used as a staging point. Their interplay was both sophisticated and subtle. It could be seen in the dramatic depths created by the more heavily painted dark browns and greens of the forest and felt in the lighter areas of the wood bark where washes of the paint’s pigment would nestle within the texture of the background paper lending the appearance of tree texture.
Additionally, the colors of the Dwarfs were chosen by extrapolating from the colors used to make the forest background paintings. Colors just left or right of the forest browns and earth tones, like ochre and light grayed blue-greens and grayed violets were selected so that the Dwarfs would rise and separate, yet still feel included within the color spectrum of the forest. The color choices for Snow White herself, represented the next level. More regal, deeper shades of red and blue placed in Snow White's dress would draw attention to her upper body. The rouge of her cheeks further served as a warm spot upon her china doll flesh tone and draw the viewer eye's upward to her face.
While the use of color in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs married the gothic quality of a European fairy tale book illustration to the drama experienced in feature film narrative, the aesthetic advances found within the background paintings created for Bambi would take that vision of the forest, turn it completely around and forever alter that way the animation industry would visualize the forest.
Directed by David Hand and premiering on August 13th, 1942, Bambi was based upon a screenplay that contained only four pages of written dialog. Its story of life, death and innocence lost and recaptured is largely communicated through its depiction of the forest and through the film’s use of music, which seemed completely attached to the film’s visuals.
This was a lot to ask of the background department, where, for the first time in a full-length animated feature, the environment was as important to the film’s storytelling as any of the main characters. Much of the credit for this breakthrough goes to the articulate pastel conceptuals of Tyrus Wong. Though he worked in animation for only a short time, Wong's contribution on Bambi was greatly responsible for liberating background painters from having to color everything from the layouts as if they were isolated objects.
Different background painting techniques were called upon to bring the sweeping elemental qualities of Wong’s pastel conceptuals to film. Opaqued paint layers of oil were traditionally applied on paper. In many places, the thinner washes of pigment suspended in linseed oil captured the texture of the paper and created the aerated amber mist effect seen in so many of these backgrounds. Semi-dry, semi-opaque layers of the more mat looking paint gouache were added to create detailed highlights.
The interplay of tone and color was also employed like never before. Not only was tone used to direct the eye and set a stage, but tone and color were also used emotionally. Blades of grass, which were still drawn slightly caricatured were fully integrated to the backgrounds. Their shapes, through their color alone, seem to suggest movement as shades of yellow-green and blue-green mixed with gray sway throughout the meadow. This ballet of color and tone was done with deep emotional accuracy, yet always felt spontaneous.
The impact of Bambi’s background paintings are long-standing and represent the ability of the artist to think beyond what was predictable within the medium. They transcend what was previously acceptable; affecting the studio and the industry itself. Aesthetic evolutions in animation like this are often the result of someone wanting to better the art form and leave their mark. They can manifest themselves as broadly as rethinking an entire genre, or can be an epiphany as simple as a painter finds within a single blade of grass.
STEAMBOAT WILLIE, 1928, production number MM-3, scene #17
MASTER PRODUCTION BACKGROUND PAINTING.
Media: ink and/or watercolor wash over graphite pencil applied to one sheet of paper.
Size: 11 19/64 inches wide by 8 29/64 inches high.
FLOWERS AND TREES, 1932, production number US-3, scene #51
KEY MASTER PRODUCTION BACKGROUND AND SINGLE CEL OVERLAY.
Media: Background: watercolor and graphite pencil applied to one sheet of paper, Cel: ink and gouache applied to one cellulose nitrate cel sheet.
Size: 11 21/64 inches wide by 9 27/64 inches high
MICKEY'S MELLERDRAMMER, 1933, production number UM-11, scene #12AB
MASTER PRODUCTION BACKGROUND.
Media: ink, watercolor wash and graphite pencil applied to one sheet paper.
Size: 10 5/8 inches wide by 8 25/64 inches high
SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, 1937
production number 2001, sequence 3B, scene 19
KEY MASTER PRODUCTION PAN BACKGROUND WITH TRIMMED AND ADHERED CELS.
Media: Background: watercolor and graphite pencil applied to one sheet of paper. Cel: ink and gouache applied to trimmed cellulose nitrate cel sheets which were later adhered to background.
Size: 14 3/4 inches wide by 8 21/32 inches high.
BAMBI, 1942, production number 2002, sequence 04.1, scene 40
MASTER PRODUCTION BACKGROUND.
Media: Oil, gouache and graphite pencil applied to one sheet of paper.
Size: 17 1/32 inches wide by 9 9/32 inches high.
All images are © Disney Enterprises Inc.
The author would like to thank the Walt Disney Archives and Dave Smith, Ray Morton and Dave Koch for their help.
This article and interview is owned by © Ron Barbagallo.
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ARTICLES ON AESTHETICS IN ANIMATION
BY RON BARBAGALLO:
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Design with a Purpose, an interview with Ralph Eggleston uses production art from Wall-E to illustrate the production design of Pixar's cautionary tale of a robot on a futuristic Earth.
Shedding Light on the Little Matchgirl traces the path director Roger Allers and the Disney Studio took in adapting the Hans Christian Andersen story to animation.
The Destiny of Dalí's Destino, in 1946, Walt Disney invited Salvador Dalí to create an animated short based upon his surrealist art. This writing illustrates how this short got started and tells the story of the film's aesthetic.
A Blade Of Grass is a tour through the aesthetics of 2D background painting at the Disney Studio from 1928 through 1942.
Lorenzo, director / production designer Mike Gabriel created a visual tour de force in this Academy Award® nominated Disney short. This article chronicles how the short was made and includes an interview with Mike Gabriel.
Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, an interview with Graham G. Maiden's narrates the process involved with taking Tim Burton's concept art and translating Tim's sketches and paintings into fully articulated stop motion puppets.
Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit, in an interview exclusive to this web site, Nick Park speaks about his influences, on how he uses drawing to tell a story and tells us what it was like to bring Wallace and Gromit to the big screen.
For a complete list of PUBLISHED WORK AND WRITINGS by Ron Barbagallo,
click on the link above and scroll down.
A study within 2D background painting at the Disney Studio from 1928 through 1942.