Marc Davis seen here doing drawings for Disneyland’s legendary theme park attraction, Pirates of the Caribbean.
“Animation had been done before, but stories were never told.” – Marc Davis
There are pioneers and then there are pioneers like Marc Davis. Not only was he one of the legendary ‘Nine Old Men’ from Walt Disney’s group of founding fathers, he was responsible for earmarking multiple aspects of the studio’s artistry, from character design and animation, to theme park imagineer responsible for the creation of some of Disneyland’s most beloved theme park attractions.
The stunning power, design and elegance of one of Disney’s greatest villains designed and animated by Marc Davis. From Walt Disney’s 1959 animated classic, Sleeping Beauty.
When I first began my career in animation, Marc Davis instantly became one of my favorites, especially when it came to his drawings. I was always intrigued by the amount of care and poignancy that existed in any work done by him. His artistry was elegant, thoughtful and just so darn beautiful. Davis often proclaimed openly that his friend and legendary animator Milt Kahl was the greatest of all the animators:
“If it wasn’t for Milt, the rest of us would look pretty good.” – Marc Davis
But according to Disney veteran animator Andreas Deja, Kahl was equally impressed by his colleague:
“Milt often raved about Marc’s incredible draughtsmanship and his artistry in general.”
Talk about charm! The most adorable Marc Davis sketches could warm the most steely of hearts. His drawings of Thumper and Bambi showcase the essence of the characters and speak to us even without sound or movement. It was sketches like this that convinced Walt Disney himself to remark, “we have to make him animator.” He was promptly trained by Frank Thomas and Milt Kahl.
I revered Marc Davis’ artistry so much, that I went to see him in San Francisco’s East Bay, where he was giving a presentation. This was early in my career, and accompanied by my colleague Dice Tsutsumi (co-founder of Tonko House), we were drove out to meet this ‘Nine Old Men’ member for the first time. Hearing him speak and seeing the ease with which he drew was both inspiring and frightening. We often found ourselves looking at each other with our jaws dropped in absolute awe.
Rough animation drawing by Supervising Animator Marc Davis of Maleficent, the evil sorceress from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.
During his lecture, Davis presented a little seen short film, “4 Artists Paint 1 Tree.” Featuring artists Marc Davis, Eyvind Earle, Joshua Meador, Walt Peregoy, it was an intriguing glimpse of the how truly diverse and devoted animation artists are, and not just during studio hours. To see the film, go here.
Unfortunately, it turned out to be his last public showing, as he would pass away from illness, just a few short months later. As sad as that made me, I will never forget his presence. He embodied everything I hoped I could be as an artist; skilled, diverse, passionate, and completely devoted, but he also emanated something more – a presence of sincerity, kindness and gratitude – qualities that made him as remarkable as his work.
Another memorable and charming character created at the hands of Marc Davis. The list of characters he was responsible for both designing AND animating include: Aurora, Maleficent, Cinderella, Thumper, Tinkerbell, Cruella De Vil, and Alice (from Alice in Wonderland.)
During his presentation, he spoke openly about his view of the industry, and even more openly about his respect and love for his old boss, Walt Disney – a father-figure for whom he stayed loyal to for over four decades. I truly wonder if working artists today could ever have that kind of reverence for employers anymore mostly because bosses like Walt, who loved art and his artists as much as he did, are in rather short supply.
“Everybody here was studying constantly. We had models at the Studio and we’d go over and draw every night. We weren’t making much, because the Studio didn’t have much, but it was a perfect time of many things coming together into one orbit. Walt was the lodestone.” – Marc Davis
Davis described his experience working at the original Disney Studio as a place of true discovery and exploration – a place that cared for the craft and the artists who made it happen. It’s no wonder that the studio contains such a large archive of beautiful work from it’s past – work that will continue to stand the test of time. How many of today’s films do you think you’ll remember 20 or even 10 years from now?
Country Bear Jamboree, a development Walt Disney himself never got to see come to fruition in his life time. Walt would pass away just three weeks later after being shown Davis’ designs for the Disneyland attraction.
“He laughed and chuckled … as long as you got something to show him – he was happy.” – Marc Davis on Walt Disney, several weeks before Walt’s passing.*
I think that the care that Walt Disney gave to his artists, flowed into his artists’ devotion to him and the craft at his studio. Marc Davis was a perfect example of that.
Perhaps one of the most realistic and difficult characters to draw or animate in Disney’s immense archive of animated characters, Aurora must’ve been a tremendous challenge to any animator. In the hands of Marc Davis, she’s animated with technical perfection, exhibiting only her innocence, grace and beauty – the essences of her character.
In 1947, Davis was asked by Disney great Don Graham to take over teaching his drawing class at Chouinard Art Institute. His teachings, and the drawings on the chalk boards, were unique and beautiful. According to Alice Estes,* a student of Davis’:
“He never repeated a single lecture… which was truly amazing! … He drew rapidly on a blackboard and nobody dared erase his sketches.”
Concept sketches for Cruella De Vil, a character Marc Davis animated almost single-handed. The devotion to art, whether animation or painting, made Davis a modern day renaissance man.
When Walt Disney began to devote more of his time to the theme parks, he took Marc Davis with him. It was a gain for Disney in one hand, but a loss in the other.
Concept sketch of one of the most memorable set ups in Disneyland’s infamous Pirates of the Caribbean by Marc Davis.
Another delightful series of sketches by Davis for another one Walt Disney’s theme park attractions, the musical Tiki Room.
Marc Davis was brought over by Walt to help design numerous attractions throughout Disneyland – including the infamous Haunted House which was a favorite of mine when I was a kid.
Davis spent 43 years with the Walt Disney Company. A remarkable achievement anyway you look at it. And to the end of his days, he continued to create.
“You can never draw too well … I still draw everyday” – Marc Davis, 1980 in a letter to a fan.*
To date, I’m still inspired by his work and his words. And I do my best to abide by them. To conclude this tribute to Marc Davis, here’s a sequence of some of my favorites shots done by his magical hands:
Cruella De Vil, one of Disney’s best villains ever, animated with flair and bite by Marc Davis. Mixed in with controlled animation of Roger, Anita and Pongo by friend and colleague Milt Kahl, this sequence makes for beautiful animated magic that has contrast and personality. From Disney’s 1961 classic film, 101 Dalmations based on the children’s novel by Dodie Smith.
*Both quotes are from John Canemaker’s excellent book, Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men. Check it out here.