Friday, April 10, 2015


On a recent trip to Disney World I was impressed by the way Disney has adapted state of the art digital technologies for a new generation of rides and events.  Everywhere I turned there were flashing video screens and interactive robotics and music and bustling activity.

Then I unexpectedly stumbled across a quiet and nearly empty building where I had the most interesting experience of my visit: a beautiful exhibition of original background drawings and paintings from Disney's classic films.  This art exhibit, entitled "Setting the Scene," will be on display until approximately 2019. 

From Fantasia's pastoral sequenceAll images copyright Walt Disney

The show contains a rich array of paintings from movies such as Fantasia, Pinocchio, Snow White and many others.  Here you can see the fertile imaginations of the founding fathers (and mothers) at the dawn of animation.

From Sleeping Beauty

The exhibition was assembled by the Walt Disney Animation Research Library in conjunction with Walt Disney Imagineering/Florida.  It provides a good sense for the massive treasure trove of talent that made Disney what it is today.


I strongly recommend this exhibition to anyone who makes it down to Disney World.  It won't be crowded and it's worth careful study.

Disney reports it has begun curating additional exhibitions that will get its art our of the vaults and in front of appreciative audiences.  "We are currently curating two original exhibitions, one that will open this year in China entitled, Drawn from Life and a second one that will open in Europe."  Disney also plans to release several books in 2015 and 2016 making use of art from the archives.

A few of the masterpieces in the exhibition are attributed to specific artists such as Gustaf Tenggren but as Disney reports,
In the early days of the Studio, artists did not sign their names as the films were seen as a highly collaborative experience, so we can only identify those pieces as having been created by a "Disney Studio Artist....In recent years, all the artwork has been signed (or digitally catalogued with the artists' names) so we can cite the artist attribution in books and exhibitions and properly recognize the very talented individuals who contribute to the films in his or her own style. 

As I left the gallery and returned to the main park, I couldn't help thinking of the ancient Egyptian temple of Karnak.

Karnak was one of the most monumental religious sites ever built.  The majestic temple grounds took more than 2,000 years to construct and included 200 acres of buildings, sacred lakes and grand courtyards.  Its "Sacred Enclosure of Amon" alone is 61 acres, big enough to hold ten European cathedrals.  Robed priests conducted torchlight processions along a 2.5 kilometer avenue lined with a thousand ram-headed sphinxes.

But in the beginning Karnak was only a small spot in the desert where a few people with vision saw something holy.  The first structure on that site was apparently a tiny reed hut but it was enough to provide a spiritual foundation for the mighty Egyptian empire that followed.  As the centuries passed, engineers, builders and armies arrived at the site and built outward from that first sacred spot, the "Holy of Holies,"

The handful of visionaries who put pencil to paper back in the days of Snow White and Pinocchio, they provided the spiritual foundation for the Disney empire.  These small, imaginative paintings can be found in Disney's Hollywood Studio Theme Park.  They didn't attract long lines of visitors like the tumultuous Toy Story Midway Mania 4D ride, but they deserve your close attention, for they are the Holy of Holies. 


MORAN said...

I'm glad to see the old Disney artists getting credit. They wrote the book.

Anonymous said...

Those background paintings are awesome.


Unknown said...

Hello David!! I heard great things about your paintings!! I am going to organize few Art NYC events and so I want you to participate in my event. Please let me know if you are interested or not.

chris bennett said...

Nice post David, thank you.

Do you know if there is a book or catalogue related to the exhibition? I live in England, so ordering a copy would be the nearest I could get to see the works on display.

Many thanks,

Leon Ingram said...

David - Glad you enjoyed! Thanks for the write up.

Chris - you can find these layouts and backgrounds (and more!) in the Archives Collections books:


David Apatoff said...

MORAN-- Yes, those artists were really quite wonderful-- they were at the cutting edge of an important new technology. And unlike today's new technologies (such as Photoshop) that help compensate for an artist's lack of efficiency or skill, the animation technology of the 30s and 40s required these artists to start with the full complement of skill and talent, and to put those to challenging new uses.

JSL-- Wait until you see them in the flesh. They'll knock your socks off.

Chris Bennett-- Disney says they are planning some traveling exhibitions in Europe and Asia. If they make it to the UK, they would be well worth your time. A catalog was the first thing I looked for.

David Apatoff said...

Leon Ingram-- If you were involved in putting this collection of art together, my hat is off to you. And thanks for the tip on the Disney Layout-Background book, I've now ordered it from Amazon and will report here on what I find when it arrives.

Tom said...

Real good drawings David. But there is something a little Jeff Koons about them, wanting to be liked a little too much. It seems to be a "spiritual foundation," of saccharin. I don't mind looking at the artwork for a little while (I can't stand watching the movies), but then it gets a little nauseating like Disney is trying too replace nature and you have to paid to get in. They don't invent something new as much as they stereotype past forms and future forms in an excessively sweet way. Like making shopping malls look like old town centers.

Tom said...

I posted this comment on your post "extreme caricature" was wondering what you thought. It even seems relevant to these landscape paintings

Don't you think all storying telling art, illustration, theater, movies, novels etc... depends on creating human "types?" You can't express an idea or criticize an idea without defining it, right? The hero, the villain, the victim, the smart one, the dumb one, etc.. all depend upon sterotyping or defining who we are or what we are. Or what we believe we are. And it works in both directions whether we glorifying or denigrating ourselves.

In Greek theater the persona of a actor is given definition by the mask he wears, the solider, the king, the wise old man.

David Apatoff said...

Tom wrote: ". But there is something a little Jeff Koons about them, wanting to be liked a little too much. It seems to be a "spiritual foundation," of saccharin."

Tom, perhaps you can help me understand something that has mystified me. I know there is a faction that turns up its nose at the art of Walt Disney or Norman Rockwell for being too "saccharin." Yet, the same faction tends to embrace art that exaggerates reality in the opposite direction-- that is, art that is cynical or dark or ironic or scatological. There seems to be an implicit assumption (not very well thought out) that the latter category must somehow be more mature or sophisticated or intelligent because it is less accessible to children.

Personally, I've never found that distinction to hold water. Quite frequently, when I evaluate art on a level playing field, the Rockwell or the Disney image impresses me as more intelligent, sophisticated and imaginative than the gloomy work of graphic novelists and nihilist painters. This latter category of artist is often so lacking in basic artistic skill, it seems that its fans must make "skill" and "ability" irrelevant in order to avoid being laughed at.

Unless you can help me out here, the only reason I can think of for placing saccharin work below nihilistic work is that as a matter of personal taste, some people are "nauseated" by sweet content. That's understandable... I felt that way myself when I was an adolescent, but I outgrew it.

Today my view is a little broader: I try to appreciate creativity in its multiple forms, without regard to whether it distorts reality toward the sunny side of the street or the shadowy side of the street. Life encompasses both extremes and there will be times when I am in the mood for one or the other.

I do not, by the way, see the connection between Jeff Koons and Disney. They both put an emphasis on technical facility but as far as I can tell, Disney has more talent (except when it comes to marketing) and certainly more integrity.

chris bennett said...

Leon Ingram - thank you very much for the link to the layout book; in fact the whole series looks rather good. I'm very tempted to order the 'story' one as well.

David Apatoff - Glad to hear they are planning a touring exhibition; I've never been to the Disneyland here - England is a bit Snow white and the seven Dwarves anyway :) - so this could be a perfect excuse. Looking forward to your review of the layout book BTW.

Tom said...

Yes I agree sour can be just as phony as sweet. And sour isn't anymore real then sweet nor superior. And I am not jumping into the dark nihlists lacking skills painters camp. I wasn’t trying to make a distinction between saccharine and dark work. It just feels too sweet like a candy store, like everything is the same taste and it will eventually make you sick.

Just to preface i have looked at a lot of Disney books on how they have produce their work including the background paintings you have posted here. It is fasnicating and very skillful stuff and fun too look at. More interesting then the finished movies.

But the eagerness to please the viewer, to be liked, to be part of the family seems to me to be a common trait of both Koons and Disney. The two feel more similar than different to me in their desire to please and their desire to be loved. The excessive soft curves of the trees,(in the temple backdrop you posted) the empty covextiy of the cherry tree(?) which represents the leaves of the tree looks like the cheap forms of Las Vegas architecture. A nice easy "space age" surface finish that doesn't have time to dive very deep. It has the same feel as Jeff Koons sculptures like the Pink Panther and Michael Jackson, as you get closer and closer to them, their is a lack of substance that is immediately felt which causes a kinda of revulsion at discovering the works drippy intentions. (Yes the Disney artist are infinitely more skillful.)

If Disney is American culture I guess I would have to say I would prefer Kyoto or Venice over Disney World. As an Scotsman we once said “Why would we want Disney, we have real Castles."

My question would be why would you think Disney has more integrity then Jeff Koons? Both want to sell their product, so they can be fabulously wealthy, both want your full attention. Is Disney telling us of anything of vital importance? They are luring you in with the elements of art. They want children to fall in love with their characters before they can even speak. And is their business run with the same reality as their movies? I think their marketing skills far excel Jeff Koons.

chris bennett said...

Hey Tom, I understand where you are coming from, but I don’t think it’s really possible to see the Disney art without the general scenario of the stories themselves as an eminence gris at the back of one’s mind while looking at them – and since you do not seem that keen on the Disney movies maybe this is what is troubling you.

I don’t know if you have seen ‘Bambi’, but there is a sequence in it showing the death of the young deer’s mother after being shot by the hunters. There is nothing in Keff Koons (or all of post modernism for that matter) that comes anywhere close to touching one’s heart as deeply as that scene. Yet all we have witnessed is thousands of drawings appearing to move within a made-up story about animals that can talk which has been deliberately designed for the entertainment of a family demographic. My point is that whatever the remit, art can appear within any form, even a sentimental one.

Richard said...

Part of why they may seem saccharine is because they all have uniformly soft edges, and large passages of the paintings are completely blurred away.

In standard landscape painting, those two things are normally things bad painters do to add some sentiment to a painting, and hide their mistakes. I read some landscapist describe it recently as the "nature through the shower glass" effect.

Anyway, in Disney's case, the background edges are soft because they're supposed to suggest an out of focus lens. Keep in mind when looking at a Disney background that the intended focal-length is roughly 5-10 feet from the viewer, even when there are massive backgrounds.

Second, large areas of the paintings are blurred out to give characters areas to move around, where they won't be competing with many details.

The design constraints of an animation background are wholly unlike your normal landscape, but if you're not watching the films you may be missing the intended effects.

Richard said...

Oh, and of course, they push the saturation on their backgrounds tremendously. That's a simple necessity when dealing with colorful front-lit cell-shaded characters.

Lady and The Tramp was forced to lower the saturation on their backgrounds (because dogs are brown, and don't wear clothing, and spend most of their time indoors), and the films suffered for it tremendously.

As the saturation decreases, chroma is less of a useful tool in separating objects visually. The scenes become very difficult to read. E.g. this shot from the Aristocats.

The high saturation levels in a Disney background should not be understood to be serving the same purpose as Thomas Kinkade's high saturation levels, they're not.

Richard said...


David Apatoff said...

Tom wrote: "My question would be why would you think Disney has more integrity then Jeff Koons?"

Tom, here are my top 5 reasons. If there's nothing on my list that impresses you, I'll give you my next five, until I find one that resonates.

1. Both Koons and Disney are protective of their copyrights, but only Koons became famous stealing and exploiting other people's copyrighted material. When Koons is sued for copyright infringement he becomes indignant, yet he is quick to sue others when he feels his own work has been infringed. It takes a special brand of hypocrite to sue people for doing what you have repeatedly done.

2. Koons' clients are wealthy institutions and status-seeking hedge fund managers who compete for art as trophies. (Nobody spends $60 million for a balloon dog merely because they love the color.) Disney's clients are a far wider swath of humanity who get honest, guileless pleasure from the pictures-- the colors, the designs, the costumes and songs. Their reaction-- previously known as genuine artistic gratification-- strikes me as a more admirable response to art.

3. Disney's artists generally have artistic skills and talents I admire. They are good draftsmen with a sense of composition, color and design. They are good story tellers. Koons can't draw well enough to get a job sharpening pencils at Disney. He is a "concept" guy, great at procuring precision services from subcontractors, foundries and craftsmen-- all excellent traits in a CEO-- but lacks the strengths of an artist who reacts to the world with hands and eyes.

4. If you read the extensive quote from Koons in my previous blog post ("April Fools") you will see a prime example of the dishonesty I find at the core of his work. His concept is quite frequently pseudo-intellectual bullshit. The Disney company makes all kinds of corporate compromises but I've never seen them commit the kind of overt fraud that I see from Koons.

5. Disney markets aggressively, but it is a rank amateur compared to Koons, who started out selling products door to door and found he had a real knack for persuading people to buy things. Disney's profit margin is pathetic compared to the windfall profit that Koons reaps with smoke and mirrors, selling odd looking products that are not intuitively attractive.

Chris Bennett wrote: "...without the general scenario of the stories themselves"

We often hear a related point about more conceptual art-- that the idea or the philosophy behind the picture is the important thing, and that you won't "get" the art if you're looking for traditional beauty. If you go to the new Triennial exhibition on the future of culture at the New Museum in Brooklyn, you'll find electronic and video art accompanied by long written explanations and documentation that must be absorbed to make sense of otherwise incomprehensible sights and sounds. I think these artists would fault Disney for the opposite of your point-- that it is too accessible, too obviously pretty, and doesn't require an accompanying explanation or narrative.

chris bennett said...

That's true David. I'm at fault for not making my point clearly enough. What I meant was that the artwork is perhaps better seen within the general sense of being part of the overarching world that is Disney; a hermetically sealed neverwhere in which the concerns of the real world are transposed.

Richard said...

> "Koons can't draw well enough to get a job sharpening pencils at Disney."

I'm sure Bob Iger can't draw either.

Shiny Popeye is just good stupid fun. Most of Koons' work is good stupid fun, like eating a hotdog at a labor day parade.

It's not Art, but it's fun, and that's worth something.

And the fact he spouts progressively sillier art-speak and the dickheads in the art establishment buy it up is both funny and illuminating. In that sense he's a performance artist, and his performance is showing how monumentally dumb the art establishment has become.

I'd rather Koons soak up the dumb-money with farce than Andres Serrano, Marina Abramović, or Ai Weiwei soak it up with savage nihilism.

At least with Koons it is clearly a farce. It's way too easy for young people to take Piss Christ, Abramovic's cutting herself, or Ai Weiwei's smashing Han Dynasty vases seriously.

Tom said...

Sorry David,, I on the run my point is that there is a lot of similarity between Koons and Disney. They choose well known forms that are already loved by the public, beautiful woman, nice sweet dogs, forms from the past, the medieval village etc and exploit them to their extremes.

Koons interviews where he presents himself remain me a lot of Walt's interviews from his office in Disney world telling the public about the latest and great mechanical device to be created for his theme parks. They both want to be loved, they both want to please their audience at the lowest common denominator.

I wasn't saying one is better then the other, in fact I agreed that Disney artists had lots more skill then Jeff Koons. But Jeff is the head of the studio like Walt, and I my be wrong, but Walt did not have much art skill either and it is his name on the final product.

Your five reasons are plenty, but I am sure Disney who owns ABC news etc doesn't know how to market aggressively and doesn't really have a dark side.

Sorry I just feel in outlook and expression their is a lot of similarity between the two.

Allen Garns said...

Some interesting thoughts!!
Here are a few of my own.
Certainly both Koons and Disney are trying to make a lot of money and want to be liked. (Actually, I can't imagine someone making a film for the public and not wanting to be liked.) And they both take existing material and use it, maybe you could even say exploit it.
But I also see some major differences.
Disney is not pretending to be high art. All along, it has been entertainmnet for the masses. And in their first few decades, culture was much different than it is now. What seems a little saccharine to us was viewed much differently then. Taking into account the aesthetics of the 30's - 50's, the backgrounds of Snowhite, Pinocchi, Sleeping beauty and others are absolutely stunning. Looking at the backgrounds for Snowwhite compared to 101 Dalmations with it's jazz albumcover style is indicative of Disney's (to a degree) being a reflection of it's times. Disney's genius and innovation was not so much in the content of it's stories, but in technology and process.
It's true that Walt cleaned things up quite a bit, both picture and story wise, but in some of his comments, it's apparent he felt a responsibility towards children (a major part of his audience) and wanted them to have good "clean" fun. Obviously, that is not the thoughts of the children's entertainmnet industry today. Disney may have been a bit too far to the clean side of things for many of today's tastes, but as I watch my young grandchildren growing up today, I think I would rather the industry error on the side of Disney.
Disney's intent was to provide fun, engaging entertainment for families and make a lot of money doing it…and they have done both by the boatload.
Koons' intent was…I'm actually not sure. If it was to be liked by the elite and make a lot of money, then he too has done both by the boatload.
I guess we can all take our pick.

David Apatoff said...

Richard wrote: "The design constraints of an animation background are wholly unlike your normal landscape, but if you're not watching the films you may be missing the intended effects."

An interesting point, Richard, and one I hadn't focused on. A good landscape painter will often give some parts of the painting a softer focus than others, depending on what he or she wishes to prioritize. But in most cases these animation backgrounds are only half the picture. The priority focus is on action that is taking place in the foreground, sharper edged drawings and paintings on clear cels.

In the early years of animation represented here, the action in the foreground was necessarily drawn and painted in a different style than the backgrounds. (They usually had black outlines and were painted in flatter colors than the backgrounds because it was impossible to use the full painter's bag of tricks on the moving characters.) Later, computer animation eliminated the disparity between the animated characters in the foreground and the stationary backgrounds. Today we can see individual hairs on a character swaying in the breeze.

But I'd make two observations about these early backgrounds: 1.) The artists back then deserve credit for being pioneers, inventing a new art form which required them to convert traditional art training to create two tiered, moving pictures; and 2.) Even though these backgrounds were designed to be only half the picture they stand up pretty darn well alone.

Chris Bennett-- My copy of the book, Walt Disney Animation Studios' Archive Series on Layout and Background, arrived today and I was extremely pleased with it. It is a substantial book, 280 oversized, quality pages (including some fold outs). There are about 8 pages of old photographs at the end and a three page introduction by John Lasseter at the beginning. The rest is wall to wall pictures, which is the right ratio as far as I'm concerned. They are mostly color images, but also some and black and white pencil drawings.

The one draw back, from my perspective, is that the book strives to show a few backgrounds from every film. I could've used a whole book devoted to Fantasia and slightly less attention to Oliver & Co.

David Apatoff said...

Tom wrote: "There is a lot of similarity between Koons and Disney. They choose well known forms that are already loved by the public, beautiful woman, nice sweet dogs, forms from the past...."

Well, sometimes yes, but would you describe the Koons painting in my previous post that way? He did some more inaccessible work, and even some of his familiar work (such as his Michael Jackson sculpture) has a creepy undertone.

As for Disney's ownership of ABC, I'm not trying to bless (or even pass judgment on) Disney's conglomerate interests. It's all that I can do to compare these background paintings with art that purport to be "fine."

Richard wrote: Most of Koons' work is good stupid fun, like eating a hotdog at a labor day parade. It's not Art, but it's fun, and that's worth something.

I would feel better about Koons if I shared your view that his work is "clearly a farce." I've previously written on this blog that I approve of the Koons who is having fun, peddling photographs of himself having sex and collecting all kinds of great art with his ill gotten gains.

But I think Koons wants to have it both ways. He sues people who he believes have infringed upon his copyrights-- not exactly a happy-go-lucky act. He works aggressively with auction houses to peddle his stuff and he was all over that Whitney retrospective designed to show what an important and serious artist he is. I've attended his lectures and listened to him rationalize his work in somber tones. I didn't sense anything farcical about it.

Allen Gams-- I generally agree with your analysis, and I admit that while I have no objection to artists making as much money as they possibly can, I'm generally more sympathetic to people who want to get rich providing "fun, engaging entertainment for families." I have an adverse reaction to Koons' pretentiousness, particularly because I think it is so unwarranted.

chris bennett said...

Thanks for the feedback on the book David; much appreciated.

Matt Dicke said...

I saw this exhibit when i was there in Feb. but what i noticed is that most of the art there were reproductions and not originals alas. Was a cool exhibit though.