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Obituaries

Marc Davis; Early Disney Animator, Art Teacher

January 14, 2000|CHARLES SOLOMON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Marc Frasier Davis, one of the early Disney animators--celebrated as the "Nine Old Men" of Disney--who animated such characters as Snow White, Tinker Bell, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent and Cruella de Vil, died Wednesday evening at Glendale Memorial Hospital after a brief illness. He was 86.

Besides working on such classic animated features as "Snow White," "Bambi" and "101 Dalmatians," Davis helped to create and design the "Pirates of Caribbean" and "Haunted Mansion" attractions at Disneyland.

In an interview a few years ago, Davis told how he learned that one piece of his animation had a special place in studio founder Walt Disney's heart. Not long after "Cinderella" was released in 1950, a woman visiting the studio asked, "Mr. Disney, with all the work that's been done at your studio, what is your favorite piece of animation?"

He thought for a moment and said, "I guess it would have to be where Cinderella got her ball gown."

"I was pleased when I heard that," Davis said, "because you never got compliments directly from Walt."

Davis' death leaves three surviving members of the original Nine Old Men: Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston and Ward Kimball.

Born on March 30, 1913, in Bakersfield, Davis studied at the Kansas City Art Institute, the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco and the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. As a student, he spent his days sketching zoo animals; in the evening, he studied animal anatomy at the public library.

Davis hoped to capture movement in fine art, in the tradition of the bronze sculptures of Frederic Remington, but a screening of an early Disney cartoon called "Who Killed Cock Robin?" turned his interest to animation. He went to work for Disney in December 1935.

Davis spent the next 42 years at the Disney Studios, helping to create some of their most memorable characters. Davis and his close friend Milt Kahl, another of the "Nine Old Men" and his only rival as a draftsman, were usually assigned the realistic human characters.

Davis later said those assignments led him and Kahl to regard their talents as "both a blessing and hellish curse. The humans basically carry the story: If the audience doesn't believe in them, it doesn't matter how funny the comedians are."

His skill as a draftsman enabled Davis to concentrate on bringing out the personalities of his characters. The air of unassuming gentleness he gave Cinderella contrasts sharply with Tinker Bell's saucy charm. Maleficent's controlled movements emphasize her icy, reptilian beauty, while Cruella de Vil's extravagant gestures reveal her flamboyant personality.

All his work was characterized by a sense of style: When Briar Rose shakes her head in "Sleeping Beauty," her hair falls in graceful Art Nouveau curls.

After completing "101 Dalmatians" in 1961, Davis began to design attractions for the New York World's Fair, Disneyland, Disney World and Tokyo Disneyland. He did extensive preliminary work on "Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln," "Pirates of the Caribbean," "It's a Small World," "The Haunted Mansion" and "America Sings" before retiring from Disney in 1978.

Davis also taught advanced drawing classes for 17 years at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. Among his students were commercial animator Bob Kurtz, UCLA animation professor Dan McLaughlin and fashion designer Alice Estes, whom he subsequently married. Estes, his wife of 44 years, survives him.

After his retirement, Davis continued to lecture at the studio and was honored with retrospectives of his work, including programs at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and a recent exhibition of his drawings and paintings at the Larry Smith Fine Arts Gallery in Los Angeles. His interest in new developments in animation led him to endow an annual lecture at the Motion Picture Academy.

His work continues to inspire a new generation of artists, such as Andreas Deja, who animated Scar in "The Lion King" and Jafar in "Aladdin." Davis, Deja said, "once told me that if you're going to animate Mickey Mouse, don't think of him as just a little squashy cartoon character. All these characters have an inner structure--Bambi, Tinker Bell, Mickey--and if you don't work with that structure, you aren't going to have a believable result on the screen."

Noted Glen Keane, who animated the title characters in "Pocahontas" and "Tarzan": "When I started at the studio, we had life drawing with Marc Davis; I felt as if I had died and gone to heaven, just to learn from him and watch him draw as if the figures were just flowing out of his hand.

"No one else brought together, draftsmanship, acting and analysis the way he did. His impact on my own work came from seeing that even in his old age, he was always drawing and always learning. I always have a sketchbook with me now."

Plans for a memorial service are pending. Donations can be made in Davis' name to California Institute of the Arts, c/o President's Office, 24700 McBean Pkwy., Valencia, CA 91355.

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