Everyone has heard of the term “Disney style”. It’s a sort of short hand term for the cookie-cutter big eyed, cutesy characters that Disney supposedly puts in all of their animated films. Well I’m going to expose the myth of the “Disney style as entirely false. Do people actually believe that Walt Disney Animation Studios has maintained one controlled and coherent style of animation throughout its 90 year history? Even films made within the same period, like the Disney Renaissance in the 1990s, look very different from each other. Just compare the styles of The Little Mermaid and Hercules, both directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, and you’ll see exactly what I mean. In fact, no film does a better job at dispelling the myth of the “Disney Style” than Disney’s very own 1997 mythological film, Hercules. Far from conforming to some cookie-cutter house style, the artists that worked on Hercules drew their inspiration from two very distinct sources, ancient Greek art and the contemporary British artist Gerald Scarfe. The result of was a film that looked like no other within the Disney cannon.
They Slapped his Face on Every Vase
When the Disney artists and animators were searching for inspiration for the art style of Hercules they began by looking towards the most obvious source, ancient Greece itself. The artists went to museums and studied and sketched the sculptures, vases, and other artifacts on display. Disney also arranged a huge research trip to Greece and Turkey to study the ancient buildings themselves. Important members of the crew spent three weeks visiting various locations like Thebes, Mount Olympus, the Acropolis, and the Turkish coastline, to find inspiration. They brought back many photographs and sketches for the artists in California to study. These were a huge source of inspiration for the style of the film, and many of them directly influenced the background paintings.
Greek art also influenced the backgrounds in Hercules in a more subtle way. Visual development artist Bruce Zick’s initial sketches for the film’s backgrounds often utilised ancient Greek iconography. Many incorporated repetitive Greek border designs and used large column-like and vase-like shapes within land forms and buildings. He also took inspiration from the draped and pleated fabric used in ancient Greek fashion, incorporating the lines of the fabric into his drawings of natural environments. This is especially apparent in his sketches of the twisted, bulging drapery of the trees in the woods where Meg and Hercules meet, and his ideas were eventually transferred into the finished scene.
The background artists weren’t the only people to let Greek art inspire them. Lead by Mauro Maressa, the special effects animators also incorporated elements of ancient Greece into their work. All of the shapes used within the effects on Earth and on Mount Olympus came from ancient Greek artefacts. Smoke and fire were given the texture of ionic columns. Vase shapes were used to create splashes in water. Although these are small details, the designs of these effects went a long way toward creating the unique style of Hercules.
Even the designs of the characters were influenced by ancient Greek art. When developing the appearance of Hercules, supervising animator Andreas Deja looked towards Greek statues of athletes. From there Hercules got his long neck, straight nose, curly hair, and of course his long and lean muscles. As shown in the style guide made by production stylist Sue Nichols, Hercules was drawn with powerful shapes and elegant lines taken from Greek statuary, as well as with small curly defining lines influenced by paintings on Greek vases. This made his appearance very different from any Disney hero before him.
Supervising Animator Ken Duncan was influenced by ancient Greek artefacts in an even more extreme way for Meg’s design. Her long thin waist and torso were based on an Ionic pillar. The rest of her body was made up of a series Greek vase shapes stacked on top of each other. This is especially apparent in her head, bust, and hips. The sash around her hips juts out to form the “handles” of the vase. These elements of ancient Greek culture gave Meg the unique and cartoonish proportions that separate her from other Disney heroines.
God of Chaos
The other major influence on the art style of Hercules came from a much less traditional source, the British caricaturist Gerald Scarfe. Scarfe was an odd choice for Production Designer on a Disney film. He was famous for his surreal illustrations featured on the cover of the Times and the New Yorker. He also created all of the strange animated sequences used for the film Pink Floyd- The Wall. His style was very graphic, all about edges, sharp swoops, and oddly proportioned s-curves. Director John Musker was a huge fan of Scarfe’s and felt his calligraphic style would blend nicely with the Greek style already being used, so he asked him to take on the role of Production Designer. Scarfe then began drawing character design ideas in his London studio and faxing them over to the Walt Disney Animation Studio in Burbank. Unlike other Disney artists, Scarfe drew his character designs on huge pieces of paper, sometimes four feet long, and drew with his whole arm. This gave his designs unusual lines and a sense of power.
Not surprisingly Disney animators had a hard time adapting to Scarfe’s rather extreme style of drawing. Many worried that it would be impossible to make his disjointed and almost flat style of caricature translate well into animation. Eventually the directors held a retreat for the artists and animators in Santa Barbara. There they met with Scarfe himself and took some time to understand how he thought about things artistically. Scarfe would hang the animators’ drawings up on the walls and critique each one, explaining to the artists how he himself would have drawn it. Sometimes Scarfe even drew right over the drawings of the animators, as he did for Ellen Woodbury’s drawings of Pegasus. He was especially careful to correct the animators when they made anything too fluffy, as he did for Anthony DeRosa’s initial drawings of Zeus’s beard.
Thanks to the retreat and style guides created by Sue Nichols, the animators were able to create character designs that reflected Scarfe’s style. Scarfe’s style shows up very little in human characters like Hercules and Meg, with the exception of Meg’s hair. Yet, it is very present in the fantastical residents of Mount Olympus. For example, the final designs for Hera and Hermes are very close to Scarfe’s original concept drawings.
The final design of the Underworld characters take many of their elements from Scarfe’s drawings as well. The aggressive and abrupt lines of Scarfe’s style can be seen throughout Hades’ design, especially in his long sharp fingers, exaggerated nose and chin, and his flaming hair. Pain and Panic also ended up looking remarkably similar to Scarfe’s sharp and devilish original drawings. Scarfe also paid specific attention to the designs of the monstrous looking Fates, and they ended up being some of the most stylized characters in the film. He made sure the animators completely understood the strange structure of these creatures, even drawing a picture of them naked so the animators could understand their anatomy.
The Hydra ended up being the character that followed Scarfe’s style the most closely. It was the first character to have a completed design, and it helped the animators realize that it would be possible to animate characters in this graphic and non-dimensional style. The Hydra became one of the best examples of how the artists and animators at Walt Disney Animation Studios pushed the unique stylization of Hercules to the extreme.
Now you see how the myth of the “Disney style” is just a myth. The different Directors, Production Designers, Art Directors, Production Stylists, Animators, Visual Development Artists ,and others work together to give each and every Disney Animated film its own unique style. They take their inspiration for the design of the characters, backgrounds, and effects from a wide variety of often very disparate sources. For Hercules, they looked to the classic shapes of Greek art, as well as the chaotic style of Gerald Scarfe. Like Hercules, every Disney film has its own unique look influenced by the artists that worked on it, whether it be Gustaf Tenggren on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Eyvind Earle on Sleeping Beauty, or Mike Mignola on Atlantis: The Lost Empire. From this spark of inspiration, each film develops a unique and coherent look that stands out from among the other fifty-five films. To end, I leave you with another snippet from Sue Nichol’s style guide, to show you just how much effort was put into making Hercules an epic that looked like nothing audiences had ever seen before.
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