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Hercules to Haunted Mansion: How Disney has depended on great artists

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Roxana Halls with Disney Stretching Room paintings

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movies being covered here wouldn't exist.

Written by Ruth Millington

For 100 years, The Walt Company has been telling stories on screen to entertain, enchant and, at times, scare its audiences. Like many artists, leading British figurative painter remembers watching these films as a child: “Disney offered a world of imagination, which I could step into as a child, and it's no doubt part of my visual vocabulary.” Since then, she has been heavily influenced by art-house and avant-garde cinema, frequently painting portraits of characterful women caught in moments of action — laughing, running, holding onto secrets; her theatrical scenes appear as stills from films.

Although somewhat inspired by Disney, Halls “never thought” that she'd see her own work in one of their films. However, two years ago she was invited to create a series of paintings for 2023's Haunted Mansion remake. Centrepieces in the house's ‘Stretching Room' are four uncanny, 5-foot-high paintings, created by Halls, that come to life. Her commission for the studios proves that Disney takes inspiration from artists, too. In fact, Disney has not just collaborated with, but depended upon creative talent, to continually modernise its motion pictures.

From the very start, Walt Disney was a king of collaboration — befriending many contemporary artists, he was interested in art as a broader subject, beyond the realms of animation, and needed creative partners with whom he could push the boundaries of experimentation. Early on, Salvador Dalí, who saw Walt as “a great American surrealist,”*1 produced fifteen paintings and 135 sketches for the short film, Destino.

This project, which remained unfinished for decades due to money problems, was finally completed and released in 2003. Chronos, the personification of time, and a woman called Dahlia seek each other out across surreal landscapes, reflecting Walt and Dalí's shared interest in transformation. Inspiration clearly flowed both ways between these men, as Roy Disney has pointed out, “I believe they influenced one another.”*2

Walt undoubtedly recognised, and embraced, the genius when he saw it, and gave individual artists a great deal of creative authority inside the studio. He did, undoubtedly, also like to take the credit. Walt perpetuated the narrative that he was the only man behind Mickey Mouse, when it was his close friend and chief animator, Ub Iwerks, “who was doing most of the behind-the-scenes work,”*3 as author Jeff Ryan says. Known for making up to 700 drawings a day, it was Iwerks who sketched the face of the Walt Disney Company.

Roxana Halls working on Stretching Room paintings
Roxana Halls

It was Swiss artist Albert Hurter whom Disney next brought in to work on the world's first full-length animated film ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' (1937). Halls remembers watching such early Disney films, “which had unsettling scenes, and were more pointed, drawing on the darkness of the original Grimms' stories.” Influenced by European illustrations of traditional fairy tales, Hurter brought a more adult feel and realistic approach to these animations.

With a talent for humanising inanimate objects, Hurter sketched the hostile forest branches that clawed at Snow White's dress as she ran through the forest. He also gave the Evil Queen a sinister rather than comic appearance, and sketched moving scenes, such as the ending in which Snow White, frozen in the Sleeping Death, is surrounded by the Seven Dwarfs, all of them sobbing, which brought audiences to tears. Hurter's drawings not only defined the look of this film but ensured its success.

Following Snow White, Hurter took the lead in designing characters for Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia (1940). For both of these films, Disney also took inspiration from the German-American abstractionist, Oskar Fischinger. Decades before the appearance of computer graphics and music videos, he was producing innovative abstract musical animations, including many for cinema. As he once said, “Music is not limited to the world of sound. There exists a music of the visual world.”*4

In 1931, Fischinger made an ambitious abstract film synchronized to The Sorcerer's Apprentice score. He contacted conductor Leopold Stokowski to clear the rights to use his arrangement but heard nothing back. Classed as ‘degenerate' by the Nazis, Fischinger moved to Los Angeles in 1936 and ran across Stokowski while both were employed at Paramount. He spoke again of his film idea, but behind his back, the conductor had already pitched the idea to Walt Disney, who began transforming it into Fantasia.

Invited to work on Fantasia as a motion picture cartoon effects animator, Fischinger produced concept drawings filled with geometric patterns to be used as sequences in the musical film. His previous abstractions synchronized to music were also screened weekly to instruct a wider team of animators, characterising the look of the entire moving picture. However, after his own designs were simplified and made more representational by the studio, Fischinger quit.

Roxana Halls paintings on Disney set
Roxana Halls

Another artist who quit over artistic differences, although she later rejoined the Disney Studio, was modern watercolour painter Mary Blair. First joining the studio in 1940, she started out by creating story sketches for films such as Dumbo (1941). However, she soon felt frustrated at being unable to express her own vision, and in 1941 resigned. But, upon hearing that Walt was taking a small party of studio artists to South America, Blair made an appointment with him — Walt rehired her and agreed that she could join the trip.*5

Returning to the studio, and inspired by the tropical landscapes she'd seen on tour, Blair replaced earthy browns, blues and greys with a more vivid palette. Walt was enchanted, as Blair remembered proudly: “Walt said that I knew about colours that he had never heard of before”. She presented the world as a wondrous place, where magic could be found not just in the realm of princess castles, but in the everyday.

Breathing new life into old fairy tales, Blair proceeded to work on classics from the 1940s to the 1960s. Fast becoming Disney's favourite concept artist, Blair was invited to work on one of his biggest titles, Cinderella (1950). Blair sketched ideas for the leading characters, including Cinderella and Prince Charming, as well as the film's backgrounds before these visions were sent to the team of animators. As she described, her role involved “working with the writers and helping to create the ideas of the picture graphically right from… It's very beginning.”

Not only was Blair shaping the aesthetic of Disney's films, but she was also changing the company's way of working. In contrast to earlier concept artists, she assumed a leading role in directing the animation's atmosphere, palette, character styling, and even movement. For Cinderella, she drew 24 sketches for 18 seconds of animation, during which Cinderella's rags are transformed into an exquisite ball gown, surrounded by spirals and sparkling stars. Blair was behind the film's most memorable moment and one which was apparently Walt's favourite scene.

Working next on Alice Wonderland (1951), she made hundreds of gouache studies, in which the heroine falls down the rabbit hole into a technicoloured world of unusual colour contrasts. In 2013, Halls created her own contemporary retelling of ‘Alice's Adventures In Wonderland' through a series of symbolic, narrative paintings. Dressed in the iconic Disney dress, her heroine appears in a coming-of-age borderland, surrounded by characters and props from the film, including topsy-turvy chandeliers and magic mirrors. Dark, larger-than-life shadows play on the walls of ‘Looking Glass House', foreshadowing Halls' uncanny paintings for Haunted Mansion.

Roxana Halls Looking Glass House
Roxana Halls

The Walt Disney Company has frequently called upon visual artists to exploit the darker side of stories. During the 1950s, Eyvind Earle brought sharp black silhouettes to Sleeping Beauty (1959), casting Maleficent as a terrifying black dragon. More recently, Tim Burton has brought a gothic aesthetic to live-action remakes including Alice in Wonderland (2010).

Meanwhile, the success of Hercules (1997) was largely down to the British cartoonist and illustrator Gerald Scarfe. Serving as a production and character designer, he sketched characters including Hades and the eerie Fates in his calligraphic, elongated style. Working with a wider team of animators, Scarfe had to ensure that their cartoons weren't, in his own words, “too Disney” or “cutesy.” In one interview he explained, “I was all the time pressing the directors to just go for it. If you have a bad character or a wicked character, make him truly wicked and carry it through.”*6

Working in this same vein, Roxana Halls' darkly alluring style made her the ideal painter to have collaborated on the live-action Haunted Mansion movie in 2023. Typically, Halls collaborates with live models for her portraits, but on this occasion, she simply had ghostly photographs of the original paintings and headshots of the film's actors as her source of inspiration. She pinned them to boards in her studio, an old London theatre, which she described as “a kind of Haunted Mansion itself”.

Reworking the four original ‘Stretching Room' paintings, Halls had to create new images largely of her own “imaginings”. She set about “nudging the characters towards reality”, and away from the cartoonish while paying homage to Disney's vocabulary. “Disney films refer to one another”, she explains, and this one is no different. ‘The Tightrope Walker', balanced above an open-mouthed alligator, is more than dressed for the part: she wears a beautiful gold dress and holds a matching umbrella, while her feet are turned out, much like Mary Poppins. ‘The Black Widow', on the other hand, has a wicked and conspiratorial smile, typical of an Evil Queen, as well as Halls' own female models, who cast off repression, laughingly.*7

Far from conventional portraits, Halls' four entrancing paintings quite literally stretch in the film, igniting unsettling narratives as the house transforms into a gothic, surreal set, much like the eerie ride at Disneyland. Pivotal to the action, Halls' haunting pictures are the film's largest and most significant props, proving that Disney, once again, required an artist to spellbind its audiences. From designing characters and concepts to creating atmosphere and landscapes, artists have always been behind the Disney magic; and Halls is “proud to be part of this great tradition.”

 

*All Roxana Halls quotes are from an interview conducted by the author.

*1 ‘Salvador Dali at Home', page 98, by Jackie De Burca, 2018, Quarto Publishing

*2 Tate, 1 May 2007, https://www.tate.org.uk/tate-etc/issue-10-summer-2007/uncle-walt-and-salvador

*3 A Mouse Divided: How Ub Iwerks Became Forgotten, and Walt Disney Became Uncle Walt (Post Hill Press, 2018)

*4 ‘Oskar Fischinger 1900-1967: Experiments in Cinematic Abstraction' by Cindy Keefer (Thames & Hudson, 2013)

*5  ‘The Art and Flair of Mary Blair' by John Canemaker (Disney Editions, 2014).

*6 Personal blog Tuesday, 10 October 2017: http://mjsimpson-films.blogspot.com/2017/10/interview-gerald-scarfe.html

*7 ‘Ink & Paint The Women Of Walt Disney's Animation' by Mindy Johnson (Disney Editions, 2017)