Mickey Mouse: From Walt to the World
Mickey Mouse is the most frequently inscribed write-in candidate in local American elections, and it doesn't appear that his status is in future danger. Diego Rivera called him a genuine hero of American art, and if the number of international posters on view at Mickey Mouse: From Walt to the World is any indication, the appeal is as globular as those beloved big black ears. Curated by animator Andreas Deja, the show, currently on view at the Walt Disney Family Museum, comprises over 400 objects, including early original sketches and modern interpretations by artists like Damien Hirst and Andy Warhol. I asked Andreas about Mickey and less charismatic characters, like Jafar and Gaston.
Disney Studio Artist, Publications model sheet, 1959 Collection of Andreas Deja, © Disney
Gwynned Vitello: Unlike many of us, your first encounter with Mickey Mouse was through comic strips, with TV coming later. Was there a difference between those two mediums in your perception of him? Shall I presume he was your favorite Disney character?
Andreas Deja: As a child, I enjoyed the Mickey Mouse comic strip stories because the world Mickey inhabited appealed to me—this drawn “cartoon land” where anything could happen. Mickey was always the good guy, figuring things out with wit and cleverness. I guess I just liked looking at him because his simple, round design is sort of magnetic to younger viewers. But when I saw Mickey in a cartoon on TV, my fascination grew immensely. He was actually moving, he was alive, and he was thinking. How could that be, and how was it done? I was mesmerized.
Different elements of how he is drawn have contributed to his appeal. Can you break that down for those of us who don't know the effects of these various drawing techniques?
Mickey's design changed over the years. For example, early on, his eyes were defined by black ovals, though for “The Sorcerer's Apprentice” in 1940's Fantasia, the animators felt it was necessary to draw him with oval white eyes and little black pupils. This change gave the character a much wider range of expression. His torso is basically pear-shaped and his arms are simple tubes. His feet are very large to place him firmly on the ground, with big hands, as well, to help strongly articulate his gestures. In fact, for simplicity, his hands show one thumb and three fingers, demonstrating animator Ward Kimball's opinion that, “It looks better that way, and it saves time and money.” Mickey's ears never turn in perspective, so that when he moves his head, the shape of the ears remains completely round. They practically slide up and down his head. Another “graphic cheat” is his nose, which points upward in profile, but turns flat and horizontal when Mickey looks into the camera. Nobody knows why these unusual drawing aspects work in motion, but obviously, audiences have long accepted those cheats.
Tom Wood, Thru the Mirror (1936) comic illustration, 1942, Featured in Good Housekeeping, Collection of the Walt Disney Family Foundation, gift of Joanna Miller, © Disney
What are some distinguishing physical traits of Mickey that we may take for granted? Maybe some that Disney used with other characters? Don Towsley's model sheet gives some good clues.
Most of Disney's “cartoony” characters have only four fingers on each hand, but the way these hands are articulated in animation is based on the study of human hands. When Mickey points or holds an object, the depiction of those particular hand positions mimics human movement. All of Disney's animators took life drawing classes, and some were taught right at the studio. Observation of the human figure creates a solid basis for believable cartoon character poses, with emphasis on the importance of a simple “action line.” During an animated run or jump, the whole figure needs to stretch out in a dynamic way in order to communicate clearly what the character is doing. Towsley, as well as Fred Moore, demonstrated those animation principals beautifully on so-called model sheets. Walt Disney asked his animators to study how a human would act out a certain movement, then go further and broader with animation.
Did the different artists who illustrated Mickey draw him in the same way, for example, with similar materials? Were they given plot lines, or did their drawings inspire stories?
The story work always comes first in an animated film, and story artists are solely concerned with sketching a story, much like a comic strip. Once the animator sees and knows the situation in a certain scene, it's up to him or her to “act out” the emotions. Actors use their own bodies to act, while animators use pencil and paper. It takes 12 to 24 drawings per second to bring Mickey to life—12 for slow movement and 24 for fast action. Animators' drawing styles differ from one to another in that some draw clean, and others, more rough. Should there be any inaccuracies in a series of drawings, it's up to the “clean-up” assistant to make any corrections while redrawing a whole scene carefully, with very thin pencil lines.
Tennessee Loveless, Monochrome Throne. Courtesy Tennessee Loveless, Mickey Mouse, © Disney
With so much material to work with, what was your strategy in putting together this exhibit? Did you have to source additional objects or need to reluctantly eliminate any?
I wanted to cover all aspects of Mickey's career. There are his early black-and-white films and his appearance on the Mickey Mouse Club in the 1950s. We covered his worldwide popularity through international movie posters, stills, comic strips and magazine stories. I also thought a drawing station, where visitors could learn for themselves how to draw Mickey, would be fun. To start, we had an enormous amount of vintage Mickey merchandise from around the world, from toys to figurines to tea sets. Ultimately, we selected pieces that represent each decade, including the most unusual and interesting. We actually had to cut back on the original artwork, as there was just too much to include in this exhibition.
How did Disney come up with the idea of using sound in his cartoons? How did the conductor Leopold Stokowski collaborate on Fantasia? And who thought of the scary brooms?
Walt believed that added sound for his planned Mickey short, Steamboat Willie (1928), would thrill an audience, and he was right! That film became Mickey's debut in theaters, and it was an instant success. Sometime in the late 1930s, Walt had dinner with Leopold Stokowski, and came up with the idea of an extravagant cartoon using Paul Dukas's “The Sorcerer's Apprentice.” Stokowoski offered to conduct the piece, and this collaboration resulted in more films with classical music, and Fantasia (1940) started to take shape. The idea of the brooms coming to life goes way back to Wolfgang Von Goether, who wrote a poem about this story in 1797. This must have appealed to Walt and his animators because it could be portrayed perfectly in animation.
Walt Disney inspecting a filmstrip with an animated Mickey Mouse (1939) Exhibition Graphic. Courtesy of the Walt Disney Archives Photo Library, © Disney
I was surprised to learn that Charlie Chaplin, rumored to be a Communist sympathizer, was a strong champion of Walt and Mickey, both considered to be kind of straight and narrow guys.
Walt was a fan of Charlie Chaplin's work, who, in turn, loved Disney cartoons. One of Walt's painful, early experiences had been the loss of rights to the pre-Mickey character he created, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Walt didn't own the character, so distributor Charles Mintz announced that he would produce Oswald films without Walt. Chaplin was very instrumental in helping Walt secure rights and ownership to all of his future projects, like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).
I can't let you get away without mentioning some of the great villains you have created, namely Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, and Jafar from Aladdin?
I was very lucky to have had the opportunity to work on three villains. After my work on King Triton for The Little Mermaid (1989), I was asked if I would be interested in animating Gaston for Beauty and the Beast (1991). The directors explained that there would be similar drawing challenges, such as overall male anatomy, expressive hands, and somewhat realistic animation. I remember having trouble designing Gaston because he needed to be handsome, even though he was the story's villain. Animating a handsome character, who is also very expressive, is not easy! You end up walking a fine line between realism and cartoony acting. I loved the challenge, but looking back, I have to admit that Gaston was my most difficult Disney character.
In contrast, Jafar in Aladdin (1992) was a breeze. I designed him with a face like a mask, his mouth set very low on his face, much more caricature and easier to draw. I loved animating the sequence where Jasmine confronts Jafar about Aladdin's arrest. He justifies his action in such an oily way. He even puts his spider-like hands on Jasmine's shoulders, pretending to comfort her. I loved all that stuff because of the contrast between these two characters. I really didn't think I would get yet another villain assignment when we started work on The Lion King (1994). Word got out that Jeremy Irons had just been cast as the voice of Scar, so I couldn't resist and asked for the assignment. Luckily, the directors said they had me in mind all along. Irons brought such a level of intelligence to Scar, which made him seem so dangerous. His dialogue readings were phenomenal, and as I've said before: If Irons were to read the Burbank telephone book, I would want to animate that!
Damien Hirst (United Kingdom, 1965), Gold Mickey, 2014, Household gloss and gold leaf on canvas, ©Damien Hirst/Science Ltd. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019, © Disney
Can you try and sum up what you most love about cartoons?
I am all about traditional pencil animation. It's the ultimate magic trick. You stare at a blank sheet of paper until you see something is happening; you start feeling the characters emotions and start scribbling an acting pattern over several sheets. It's such a form of self-expression, so if someone else had animated Gaston, he would have ended up being completely different. If I had animated the Genie in Aladdin, he would have been very different, and not as good as Eric Goldberg's masterful version. After all these years, I still wonder. Everybody knows that these are just a bunch of drawings, yet to audiences, these characters are alive. Like I said, the ultimate magic trick.
Mickey Mouse: From Walt to the World is on view at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco through January 6, 2020.