ADVENTURES IN MUSIC: MELODY (1953) was Ward Kimball’s directorial debut at Disney. I think it’s a fairly uneven film, both visually and conceptually although there’s still a lot to appreciate in it and I always enjoy watching it. Below are some frames that I scanned in from a 35mm print of the film. They were originally intended for the book, but alas, a lack of space meant they had to be cut out. It actually worked out fine because now everybody can enjoy the stills in hi-res here on the blog. Click on each image to get a supersized version of each image.
Here’s something that I’d completely forgotten I had until I was looking through some files last night. Around 1960, SLEEPING BEAUTY background stylist Eyvind Earle formed his own company Eyvind Earle Productions. The first commercial he produced was the one below for Chevrolet. He decribes the project in his autobiography HORIZON BOUND ON A BICYCLE. It was a 2-minute commercial that he made in two weeks for $16,000. Apparently, a lot of it was painted on black glass under camera, along with manipulation of photo cut-outs of the cars, according to Earle’s description. I’m assuming that the original spot is in color but having never seen it, I can’t say for sure. In any case, these stills look pretty interesting. Has anybody seen the actual commercial?
Yesterday I mentioned that I wasn’t a big fan of the early Hanna-Barbera backgrounds and I wanted to be a bit more clear about why I think those paintings are weak. I recognize that they were created under strict production schedules which limited the artists’ ability to create quality work. Even though they were created in a rushed manner, they’re still stronger than a lot of the backgrounds being painted for today’s shows. But when I discuss them, I’m looking at them in context of the period that they were created—the 1950s—and compared to the rest of that era’s modern backgrounds, they are among the most generic and boring of the bunch.
Below is an example of a late-1950s H-B TV series background. I could have chosen any other one to illustrate this piece, but this one seems like an above-average example from the period. There is nothing inherently wrong with the painting. It has the typical sponge/roller/airbrush techniques common to background painters of the time, and there’s nice bold outlines on the objects. But after one glance, you’ve seen it all. There’s nothing to it; everything is spelled out bluntly in the painting: trees are green, rocks are brown, road is mud-colored. Color and design are used in a pedestrian literal manner that removes all visual interest from the scene. Jules Engel used to say, “Good paintings make you tingle.” There’s not a tingle to be found in this painting.
Now compare it to this painting of trees by Walt Peregoy from Disney’s PAUL BUNYAN. Here is a background that’s exciting! Peregoy is working with even less than the H-B layout. He doesn’t have rocks to create contrast, just a bunch of random trees in a forest. But Peregoy attacks the concept and make it his own. I doubt he was even working from a layout here. They probably just needed a generic tree background and Peregoy was enough of a designer to run with that. Who else would have thought that sharp cutting triangular shapes, colored blue, with a crazy paint-splatter technique would create a dense, woodsy forest effect?
Or how about this painting by Peregoy. His sense of color is exciting as hell, and his smart use of values frames the scene and draws our eye to the center. Note how Peregoy doesn’t succumb to painting formulas. His approach to painting this tree scene is completely different from the prior painting. A background painter has to be as much of a designer as the layout artist that he’s following.
In PAUL BUNYAN, it’s easy to tell which backgrounds were painted by Peregoy and which were painted by Eyvind Earle. Despite the different approaches, their backgrounds work well together. Today’s filmmakers make a fetish out of consistency in production design but this film is a great example of how contrasting styles in a film can actually generate greater visual excitement.
Below is an example of an Eyvind Earle background (which I found on Michael Sporn’s blog). The composition of the village is amazing; Earle manages to create the impression of a bustling village scene with a minimalist, nearly abstract approach.
Wow, it certainly took me long enough to get around to discussing the work of Eyvind Earle (1916-2000). Earle painted and designed backgrounds for many of the Disney shorts in the 1950s, including MELODY, TOOT WHISTLE PLUNK AND BOOM, PIGS IS PIGS, THE TRUTH ABOUT MOTHER GOOSE and PAUL BUNYAN. He was also the art director of SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959) and largely set the tone for the look of the film’s backgrounds. There is no question that Earle produced some excellent work during the 1950s, particularly on the Disney shorts, but in my opinion, his art direction on SLEEPING BEAUTY was an artistic failure. It took me a long time to understand why I didn’t like Earle’s art direction on the film. That’s because in and of themselves, there are some beautiful backgrounds throughout SLEEPING BEAUTY. It’s not that Earle’s vision for the film is poor; it’s that as art director, his vision extended only as far as his backgrounds and didn’t encompass the needs of the entire film.
The costliest mistake was that Walt Disney granted an inexperienced animation artist like Earle so much control over the look of the film. When Earle was made the film’s art director in 1955, his total experience in animation totalled less than four years. He failed to understand the nature of animation production, which demands a creative give-and-take between competing artistic visions. Instead, Earle insisted that everybody follow his unwavering artistic ideas, not recognizing that his vision wasn’t expansive enough to carry an entire animated feature on its own. He ended up alienating himself from the animation crew, and didn’t pay attention to how his backgrounds worked in context of the character designs, animation and storytelling. Perhaps that’s one reason why people frequently describe the film’s look as ‘cold.’ Earle was unable to bridge the visual gap between backgrounds and characters, and there is an uneasy distance between the film’s visual elements. Granted, Tom Oreb did a commendable job of styling the character designs to fit into Earle’s visual scheme, but it is a superficial stylization that wasn’t followed through by the animation director or the animators.
The poor visual harmony of SLEEPING BEAUTY is moreso apparent when placed alongside Disney’s follow-up feature 101 DALMATIANS. Here is a terrific example of what happens when an entire crew is on the same page. DALMATIANS screenwriter and storyboard artist Bill Peet, who set the tone of the film’s design, had worked in animation for over twenty years, and he understood the type of characters that could work in animation. Peet’s direct and sketchy visual styling was picked up by the film’s art director Ken Anderson, who developed the look of the film in tandem with other artists like layout stylist Ernie Nordli, color stylist Walt Peregoy and character stylist Tom Oreb. Animator Marc Davis, who was sympathetic to the modernist qualities of the film, delivered one of the finest animation performances of his career, Cruella de Vil. 101 DALMATIANS feels solid visually because it was creatively inclusive and the entire crew was working together, unlike SLEEPING BEAUTY where a single individual took charge of the design and unsuccessfully tried to force the entire production to adapt to his stylistic eccentricities.
Below are some of Earle’s concept paintings for SLEEPING BEAUTY. The first two are extremely atypical of what we’ve come to associate with the SLEEPING BEAUTY style. One is a stark drawing of trees that recalls German Expressionist woodcuts. The other is a black-and-white painting of organic, abstract birds flying through some dreamlike space. The other two paintings, which look more traditionally Earle, are color keys from the film.