The Disney Artists’ Collective (DeDisnification, Part 9D)
In making Snow White, Walt Disney proved himself a business visionary by pivoting his studio from working solely on shorts to producing feature films. But it took more than just understanding the advantages of this move and seizing the opportunity. He had a band of artists who were quite skillful, as the Oscars racked up by the studio attest, but that skill lay in clever gags for funny animals, and now something quite different was required of them, and here Disney proved no less of a visionary.
He sprang into action to create a wide-ranging program of art education, inviting writers, painters and sculptors, as well as animators, to either work or teach at the studio. The Chouinard Art Institute in particular provided instruction in a variety of areas, including drawing, action analysis, and color theory. This was the school that Walt and Roy Disney were to guide into a merger with the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music to establish the California Institute of the Arts in 1961, a school I nearly attended. Walt also showed countless films in the studio to develop a deeper knowledge of the medium, a shared understanding of the techniques and tropes employed in it, and to inspire his artists with its great works.
Loyal readers might think I’ve been hitting the Disney Kool-Aid but I do actually have nearly unmixed admiration for not only the commitment to the huge effort that this move required but also because Walt sought out not just the best fine art sources to inspire the studio’s artists, but in particular embraced the avant-garde. This again had its foundation in the business concept that the studio’s work be defensible, in the sense that someone else couldn’t easily accomplish what they had: they perceived it was in their interest to get to, and remain on the bleeding edge.
The studio carefully studied the works of illustrators like Arthur Rackham and Kay Nielsen, who were of particular interest because of their work with fairy tales, and so aligned with the direction Walt was pushing, and eventually the latter artist would come to work for Disney. Later for Bambi, they’d look at Beatrix Potter’s Benjamin Bunny drawings and Sir Edwin Lanseer’s paintings of deer, and then on The Lady and the Tramp, they’d also study Lanseer’s dog images.
Pioneering architect Frank Lloyd Wright lectured at the studio. There were also artists like Jean Charlot who came to give painting lessons. Though lesser known, Charlot was solidly in the avant-garde, working alongside Diego Rivera in the founding of Mexican muralism as well as working extensively with lithographs and woodcuts.
Then there was Heinrich Kley, who properly belongs to the Jugendstil movement (essentially Art Nouveau in Germany) but whose works of “high art” are less well known than his often darkly humorous pen drawings, published in the art magazines Jugend and Simplicissimus, which mixed art with political brashness and literature including works by Thomas Mann and Rainer Maria Rilke. Of Kley’s connection with Disney it was noted:¹
Kley’s drawings were not animated yet each drawing possessed such rhythm and humour they seemed to move. Young animators diligently studied his work to learn how to bring their characters to life. The influence of his drawing style is particularly strong in Fantasia’s Dance of the Hours.
As to filmic references, German Expressionism seems to have been at least one major influence on Disney’s artists. The image of Snow White in the glass coffin, in particular, is a clear lift from Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis. In the latter film the evil inventor Rotwang (played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge) gives his Machine-Person (Maschinenmensch) the form of Maria (Brigitte Helm) in order to sow dissent among the workers who revere her. The theme of losing one’s humanity is a common one for the interbellum, even predating Lang, in Karel Čapek’s 1920 play RUR (Rossum’s Universal Robots, Czech Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti) and is central to this scene.
Not only is the scene from Snow White similar, the mad scientist is the descendant of the wicked witch for the modern era, and Disney is simply turning the clock back on the motif. The transformation performed in the Metropolis version contains the Tesla coils seen in many a SciFi production since, replaced in the Disney version with the soon-to-become-ubiquitous kiss of true love.
The scene is reiterated yet again in the “cellular regeneration tube”, a technological glass coffin in which Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) is brought back to life in The Fifth Element, merging the two versions.
And Jean Cocteau, whom I mentioned in the context of Beauty and the Beast? A surrealist. In a documentary, David Lynch introduces Cocteau’s 1930 film Blood of a Poet (Le Sang d’un Poete) thus:²
In my opinion Cocteau is the heavyweight of surrealism.
One can see why Lynch was drawn to it: it’s a disturbing film, whose release was so controversial it was put off for a year, and even then partially censored.
In 1937, Salvador Dalí quipped to his fellow Surrealist Andre Breton about his trip to California:
I have come to Hollywood and am in contact with the three great American surrealists—the Marx Brothers, Cecil B. DeMille, and Walt Disney.
According to an article in The New York Times:³
Like his Surrealist colleagues, [Dalí] recognized that America’s animated cartoonists were unwittingly applying Surrealist principles in their films. Spontaneous subconscious association, anti-logical juxtaposition of imagery, unconnected gags and dream logic abound in the work of Max and Dave Fleischer, Tex Avery and also Disney: his “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence in Dumbo (1941) is one of American Surrealism’s most sublime moments.
I would argue that the article’s characterization of the application of Surrealism in animation as “unwitting” is the one glaring inaccuracy here. Disney and Dalí would go on to collaborate on a film called Destino, whose fate was unfortunately to stall and remain so for another 57 years until its release in 2003.
Despite all his efforts, it turned out that Walt’s vision of an unassailably bleeding-edge position was not; other animation groups could simply learn from Disney’s films the things that the studio had striven so hard to learn from the masters. Indeed, there is even a counter influence of Disney’s work on fine art, which can be seen in the works of Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Christian Boltanski, and many others.
Read Subsequent Articles in This Series
Read Previous Articles in This Series
- Bruno Girveau, Once Upon a Time: Walt Disney: The Sources of Inspiration for the Disney Studios, 2007.
- David Lynch Presents the History of Surrealist Film, 1987.
- John Canemaker, The New Season/ Film: The Lost Cartoon by Disney and Dalí, Fellow Surrealists, 2003.