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Background painting for Disney by Eyvind Earle

Background painting for Disney by Eyvind Earle

Background painting for Disney by Eyvind Earle

I’ve been watching old Disney films of late, reveling in those hand-painted backgrounds and the shimmering subtleties of each individual cell.
Every five years or so, I get a craving to watch Fantasia, and it recently inspired me to watch Sleeping Beauty, that gorgeously over-sweet 1959 fairytale. It was super-ambitious on the studio’s part – work on the story began in 1951, animation took six years and it cost them six million dollars. The best part about it is that the scene designer and colourist, Eyvind Earle (pronounced “Eye-vand”) was given an incredible amount of freedom, painting every scene by hand in minute detail.

Earle was reportedly inspired by the flattened perspective of Renaissance painters, aiming to create a classically-inspired scene with a highly modern aesthetic. It is interesting to observe his elongated forms and use of horizontal and vertical line.

Maleficent concept art by Marc Davis c 1953

The concept art of the character designer Marc Davis demonstrate the way in which the character artists had to work to a similar grid system in order to naturalize the characters into Earle’s modernist sceneries.

Samurai Jack background paintingSamurai Jack background paintingSamurai Jack background painting

Still from The Last UnicornStill from The Last Unicorn

The legacy of Earle’s work can be seen in things like Genndy Tartakovsky’s Samurai Jack, or the 1982 film The Last Unicorn. The latter, while it lacks the elegance and mastery of Disney or anime artists, has gorgeous backgrounds (most of the scene designers and painters were Japanese artists) and a soundtrack by smooth folk-rockers America…

**postscript** – In some further research into the scene designers for The Last Unicorn, I learned that these artists later became the core artists for Studio Ghibli after they were hired to work on Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind by writer/illustrator/anime extraordinaire extraordinaire Hayao Miyazaki (of Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away fame). Also, I decided to include this image of the first-edition dust jacket for the 1968 novel upon which movie was based, because of it’s deliciously retro-fantastical typography and colour scheme. 🙂

Dust Jacket for The Last Unicorn

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