A new week, and time for more words of wisdom from master background artist Albert Dempster, in Part III of Christopher Finch's interview...
CF: Have working methods changed a great deal since you started out at the Studio? You were saying that at one time there was a definite art director...
AD: It's still not any different. I don't think it's any different at all, because I feel that though there was an art director, there was always a director and the director was the one that had the last word. It's the same situation, only one less person with a title. That's what it amounts to. Actually, in a way, it depends upon the director. Like Woolie has very definite ideas, and he is the director of cartoon features now and that's all we're doing. In the past, there was Ham Luske and Gerry Geronimi and Wilfred Jackson years ago and a lot of the old timers and Ward Kimball, of course. Ward has very definite ideas too. He's very easy to work with, though.
He likes innovative things, which is good, and he encourages the painter to look for something new.
It's not quite that way for the features. They have to be almost straight because these pictures can't be dated. When they're re-released every six, seven years they should retain their appeal and [not] be of a passing faddish style.
CF: That brings up another point I wanted to ask you about: have there really been any stylistic changes?
AD: There have been. For shorts we used to do it quite often and they were stimulating and fun. They were short pictures and because they were of 6 to 20 minute duration people enjoyed the variety of presentation. But an hour and fifteen minutes would be a bore if it was something you didn't get with. The first big feature where we had real stylization was Sleeping Beauty.
It was a beautiful picture. Eyvind Earle was a very fine designer, and he did his own kind of thing. He did the styling of the backgrounds and he was the head background man on the picture and he was also influential in the character design because the characters had to be fitted into this type of stylization.
AD: Yes, almost tapestry-like. And Tom Oreb, who was a character designer here at the time, and a very fine one too, designed the characters.
As I recall, he did most of them principally from Bill Peet's drawings. Bill draws beautiful straight things and Tom Oreb redesigned them to fit in with the stylization of the background. Now the whole picture turned out beautiful, but it lacked a really terribly interesting story. It's one example of when you have something that's very beautiful, lacking in story or something that's even bothersome to the story. Where it becomes so pretty, so beautiful you are more aware of the art form than what's going on. The story is the thing, it really is. That is why we do it straight.
Now there was another example: 101 Dalmatians. There was another young fellow [Walt Peregoy] that did a very good job of designing backgrounds. This is the first time we used Xerox lines on the backgrounds in the cel and he had studied with a contemporary in France and he liked to work with arbitrary shapes. He did a very beautiful job… good color.
Ken [ Anderson ] was the art director on that and I thought it was a very interesting picture. I helped out a little on it. I had been working on another project but when I was through I helped paint in the picture. I thought Walt Peregoy had done a very good job on it with the arbitrary shapes held together by the black Xerox lines of the C. L. that overlay the painted background. Walt Disney did not like the handling of the backgrounds, like the pattern of colors under the Xerox line drawing. He liked to see things solid and something you could believe, not something that could disturb realism. Did you see the picture?
AD: It's a very good picture, a very handsome picture. But if you look at it from the average person's viewpoint, it would be a little bothersome at times, because of the arbitrary shapes in the backgrounds.
It seems to me that now, with Xerox in pictures like Robin Hood and Jungle Book, particularly those two, that the backgrounds are somewhat looser than in the earlier movies.
CF: Maybe it's simply that the edges are less defined, perhaps.
AD: Actually, we try to paint them, let's put it that way. There were few lines used on those backgrounds. If we had used a Xerox line on a CL on them, it would have been too hard a treatment for foliage. Because it would have everything confined with a wire. The architectural things, fine, and say in the case of tree trunks, you can use it all right some of the time. But when it comes to foliage, there's nothing more hard-boiled than leaves with lines around them.
CF: Bambi already got away from that.
AD: Oh yes, definitely. That was extremely loose, and it was not really literal. In Jungle Book, we tried to be literal up to the point of not being too foreign to the flat character, which had a Xerox line around it. And this was not easy either.
But we made the character work on the softer background without the Xerox line, by using accented lines where needed. We drew them in where we felt that they would be needed to hold the character down. And the rest of the background fell away as the background into the distance, away from the character. So it gave it a little more depth.
CF: Doesn't the softer focus give you in fact less depth?
AD: Not necessarily. If you have contrast, you don't loose depth. You can use color perspective and linear perspective and value perspective and when you have an object or character that is sharp and in focus against something that's out of focus, the character or sharp focus object is much more apparent.
Like, when I look at you, you're rather sharp, but what's behind you is fuzzy. What's behind you is sharp if I look at it and it then becomes sharp. But that's not what you're supposed to do. When you have an overwhelming bunch of material behind the character, if it is there and too noticeable, it can flatten a scene as the character and background appeared on a two dimensional surface. This is where Sleeping Beauty was at fault.
CF: Right, because everything was in focus.
AD: Too sharp. Though there were some beautiful things in it, everything was too sharp.
This scene in Robin Hood, we have Robin Hood in a tree. Now he's necessarily wearing a green outfit because this is what he wore, to blend in with the foliage. Can you imagine how the animator and the whole Studio would flip if we filled it full of green leaves and expected the green of Robin Hood to read? My gosh, millions of dollars to animate the thing and you're going to foul it up with a busy green background! We use these characters, both Little John and Robin Hood, with the green costumes against green foliage, but we have to juggle the values and hues.
CF: You put a lot of white in the background?
AD: No, but we must use the right kind of green, the right kind of value and the right kind of intensity and whether it’s cool or warm, a different green than his costume but something that will still work with it. It hasn’t been easy, but where we have to use foliage, we have to make it work with proper color and value. This is the problem with backgrounds. And it’s been a special one for Robin Hood.
Then too, sometimes we have differences of opinion (put it that way) on whether or not we can change a character now and then in value for a specific reason. We’re still with it, we know it’s the same character, but he’s in a different kind of light. And we try to sell the director on a little different kind of value set-up. He doesn't want to change anything, says it costs more to paint it different colors. Actually, it doesn’t. Only the amount of time it takes to make another color model and look at it.
Now he's afraid that people will lose the trend if the character isn’t always constantly the same, but I don’t think that’s so. Because good Lord, nobody’s ever in the same kind of light. Everybody's always recognizable, whether they’re against a window or in the light. But occasionally, we sell a director on the idea of making a little change of pace and it looks good.
CF: Do you always work in gouache?
AD: No, we work with acrylics too. Only gouaches are much easier colors to work with. We can use them as transparent color or opaque. I did not particularly like these colors when I first used them. I had been away for five years on a ranch doing children’s book illustrations and I was used to the designer colors: they're so much richer. They dry very much the same as they are when wet. These colors dry cool and light, and they are made here. They're fine colors. You can use them as transparent or opaque, but because they dry cool and light, it takes a little time getting used to them. They were very milky for a while.
CF: That's why I was wondering whether you used white in the foliage, with green in the background.
AD: It is the overall tonality of the thing, and actually, that won’t come out that way on the screen. It loses a lot of that milkiness. What it does: it creates a kind of film of atmosphere, it tends to pull distant things together. As I say, we can't paint paintings. We try to make an overall picture that will enhance the character. Because if you make a painting complete, it would quite often overpower the character.