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The Soul of 'Hercules'

Gerald Scarfe, veteran draftsman of the dark side, gets happy at Disney.

June 26, 1997|STEVEN SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For more than 30 years, British artist Gerald Scarfe's scabrous, swooping-line caricatures have evoked the dark side of politicians, rock stars and other public figures in the London Sunday Times, the New Yorker and other publications.

So it's a bit unsettling to find him downright sunny about his three-year role as production designer of Disney's 35th animated feature, "Hercules."

"I'm the only happy man to come out of Hollywood," says Scarfe, 61, whose calm erudition flies in the face of the wild fantasies he's designed for projects like Pink Floyd's "The Wall."

"I've worked in lots of projects where it's bloody awful--in opera, rock 'n' roll. . . . On 'The Wall,' there was a hell of a lot of tension. But [on "Hercules"] I'm still enjoying it to this day, and it's fatal to say that because I know something's going to happen."

Scarfe has reason to be as proud as Herc's personal trainer, Philoctetes: His distinctive style survived the hands of 906 Disney animators to emerge strongly in the final film, a result, he says, of his sticking to the project long beyond the initial plan.

"It just seemed like a dream project to me, so I wasn't going to let go of it. When I was growing up, I couldn't wait for Disney films to come out. I was especially impressed with the evil queen in 'Snow White.'

"And I was a great fan of the other two elements in the movie--Greek sculpture and mythology--so perhaps it was all predestined."

If so, the Fates--who are among "Hercules' " cast of characters--began their work in 1993, when Scarfe came to Los Angeles to supervise his production design for "The Magic Flute."

An invitation to tour the Disney studio led to an encounter with "Hercules" directors John Musker and Ron Clements ("Aladdin," "The Little Mermaid"), longtime Scarfe junkies who realized that his style might give an edge to their satiric look at mythology and hero worship.

Explain Musker and Clements (whose voices tend to overlap in conversation): "We realized there was a direct correlation between Gerald's style and the Greek vase painting style, a combination of power and elegance, very bold and dynamic but also decorative. He has these strong lines with a sudden reversal; it's like you're running running, running and suddenly--ERK! You put on the brakes and go in another direction."

Adds Scarfe: "I think a lot of my drawings look like they're in motion. There's a fluidity; they're not static things. In that way, I think they're tempting to animators."

With the blessing of the studio, Musker and Clements hired Scarfe to produce a dozen drawings. He sent back 32 and stayed involved, delivering more than 1,000 others before the project's completion more than three years later.

"I couldn't finish reading the script for the first time without making jottings. I could see Zeus and Hera . . . a flying horse . . . this little goat man [Philoctetes] running. Because Ron and John are artists, they know how to write to trigger the imagination, and [the characters] just popped into my mind."

Although Scarfe worked half a planet away in London--where he lives with his wife, actress Jane Asher, and two of their three children--distance "was an advantage, because I was not influenced too much by what was happening in Burbank."

Back in California, Musker, Clements and production stylist Sue Nichols were training their team to translate Scarfe's plunging two-dimensional line into animation. Eventually Scarfe returned to the U.S. for a Santa Barbara retreat with the animators to analyze his style.

Although he says the collaboration was startlingly ego-free, "about a third of the way, I realized I had more power than I thought I had, and I pushed very hard to get my own way because I think that's what they wanted me for.

"I was always pushing Ron and John in the case of the evil characters, like the Centaur, Nessus and Cerberus, saying, 'Let's go for it.' If they're wicked, they're wicked; let's not say, 'Awwww, they're not that wicked!' "

Scarfe's favorite character--no surprise--is the most wicked of all: underworld chief Hades, voiced by James Woods as a motor-mouth Hollywood agent from hell.

"In some early drawings, Hades was composed entirely of fire and smoke," Scarfe recalls. "Then I hit on this idea: Wouldn't it be good if the fire was his temperament? When he was cool and sardonic, he'd have this little blue flame flickering and playing about him, and when he got angry and exploded it was like a fireball--boooof!--and in the movie, that's what they've done.

"Then the extraordinary thing was, it transpired that James Woods would play him, and he's a very mercurial character, very explosive. It's strange that the design was there before the voice."

Scarfe also fought for his touch to reach peripheral characters.

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