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Disney Animator Practices the Fine Art of Medicine

December 16, 1986|AMY MEDNICK | Mednick, a USC journalism student, is a Times intern. and

Artist Frank Armitage can turn a medical researcher's image of a nerve cell into an elaborate undersea fantasy in which a viewer drifts among colorful coral reefs.

With more than 36 years of experience as an artist, Armitage has incorporated his keen interest in medical art into his work as a film maker, animator, illustrator and painter.

In one series of six paintings Armitage did for UCLA, for instance, he took a textbook illustration of the cell levels of the retina of the eye and portrayed it realistically. Then, to satisfy himself as a painter, he interpreted the information and did five other paintings with non-anatomical colors in Expressionist, abstract and Cubist styles. UCLA sent these paintings to a medical convention, Armitage said, to give doctors the opportunity to see the artistic renderings of medical data.

"There are some good (medical) illustrators around who make either sharp or pretty pictures, but Frank has a flair and a great feeling for plastic, three-dimensional form," said Dr. Arnold Scheibel, professor of anatomy and psychiatry at UCLA. Scheibel, who frequently collaborates with Armitage, first worked with him on a series of illustrations on the brain that appeared in Life magazine 15 years ago.

In addition to his regular work as an animator with Walt Disney Productions, the 62-year-old Armitage has produced animated educational films and a one-man show of his medical paintings at UCLA. He has been a graphic consultant to the department of neurosciences at San Diego State University, and, most recently, produced a short educational video on cell membranes with a research scientist at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Loma Linda.

The white-haired, bearded Australian native said he was 22 and studying at a Melbourne art institute when he discovered the works of Mexican muralists who were popular at the time. After becoming enamored of the grandeur of murals by Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, Armitage decided to move to Mexico.

"I just wanted to work on a large scale and (the Mexican mural) was the most exciting image I'd ever seen, apart from things that were done in the Renaissance," Armitage said, "and that was history. This was present day and I had to be part of it."

Australia to Mexico

He traveled to Mexico City in 1948 where he enrolled in an institute to study mural painting. Impressed by the fact that education was free in Mexico, Armitage was inspired to design a mural based on this theme. In 1949, he won an international award for that design.

As an award for the contest, which was sponsored by Siqueiros, Armitage was commissioned to do a mural for a hotel in Taxco, a silver-mining town outside of Mexico City.

Noticing young Armitage's talent, Siqueiros hired him as an assistant. His two years with the famed muralist influenced Armitage's concept of art tremendously, he said. "When you're working on a mural, because of the scope of it, you feel like you're part of it. . . . I try to create that image with my medical work."

After trying in vain to start a mural movement in Australia, Armitage moved to Southern California and began working as an animator for Disney. He has been with the company ever since, working as a staff artist on such productions as "Peter Pan," "Sleeping Beauty" and "Mary Poppins."

During his first years with the company, Armitage's interest in medical art began to grow. He spent his days off observing and drawing in the dissection room of UCLA's anatomy department, and he took classes to learn more about medical subjects.

Since then, he has worked as a graphic artist, and film maker for institutions such as UCLA, USC and San Diego State. His medical illustrations have been published in Omni magazine, Geology Today, Biology Today and by the Academic Press. In 1965, he worked as a medical consultant and artist for the Academy Award-winning film "Fantastic Voyage."

He traces his curiosity about anatomy back to the Depression when, at age 9, he lived on his uncle's sheep ranch in Australia and his daily chores included skinning and butchering. "I remember the colors very vividly."

Armitage is surrounded by his colorful art in his studio at Walt Disney Imagineering, a Glendale subsidiary of Walt Disney Co., that designs and creates theme parks. Armitage said he helped design Storybookland at Disneyland, but that his other assignments have usually been small projects for various exhibits.

One major project remains incomplete, he said: the Life and Health Pavilion, a potential exhibit for Disney's Epcot Center in Florida. Armitage moved from Disney's Burbank studios to Imagineering almost 10 years ago to work on the project and its different phases of a "ride through the human body."

The latest version uses simulators, similar to those used in pilot flight training, to create the feeling of being inside the body, he said.

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