Animation veteran Dave Brain writes of Corny Cole:
It will take a lot of different people writing a lot of individual remembrances to render a complete picture of what Cornelius Cole did in his professional life in art. I say art and not just animation because seeing Corny draw and paint and sculpt, I asked myself why he was working in animation studios for. But the fact that he was, changed and broadened the look of animation art.
That’s undeniable ...
The fun began for me when I had just been promoted to animator at Murakami/ Wolf/Swenson Studio, and assigned to follow Corny’s design and layout on a car engine cleaning product commercial. Corny’s paintings of an engine part-strewn landscape, rendered in sludge-like blue and brown with an irregular, thick black line drawn with twigs from a tree had sold the concept ... and it had to be animated that way. I couldn’t do the in-betweens with a twig, so Corny let me use a sharpened popsicle stick. Corny kept the spot on his reel for several years.
The only Oscar-winning short I ever worked on was following Corny’s design and layout. A few years later, Corny and I were doing some pro bono teaching down in South Central L.A. where a drawing workshop had been started by Frank Braxton, an animator who had subsequently fallen ill. When the comedian Flip Wilson sold a TV network an animated special project, Fritz Freleng pulled Corny in to design and direct the show. Corny brought in three of his workshop students to design and draw the backgrounds. These young men produced some beautiful, unique and authentic drawings of their own neighborhoods that built the mood of the show really effectively. One background was 12 feet long and Corny cut, panned and trucked on it for several minutes of the show. Corny gave me lots of great personality layouts, and doing the animation was pretty easy.
Corny did so many remarkable looks for hand drawn animation. I wish some compilation of them could be made. I’d like to see the Log Cabin Spot he did for Bob Kurtz at Filmfair with Alan Zazlov animating again. And "The stormy sea" sequence in the middle of Chuck Jones‘ The Phantom Tollbooth with Emery Hawkins. And all those rococo characters in Richard Williams’ Thief And The Cobbler.
Later in his career, Corny did several battle sequences for a National Geographic show about the Roman Empire, working again with Bob Kurtz. This assignment had the 2-frame x-dissolve animation system Corny liked to use. Corny often said that he was the worst in-betweener Chuck Jones ever hired, and this quick-dissolve system got Corny partially past that onerous task. Corny didn’t concern himself much with snap, overshoot and hold-pose animation. I remember a carpet commercial he did through his own company, Corny Films, that had a sophisticated caricature of an upscale female shopper, twisting and turning in the air as different carpets rolled past her. Corny’s quick-dissolve method gave the action just the dreamlike mood that was needed.
I never had a chance to see the work he did on the feature production Little Nemo following the Windsor McCay-designed character. Bill Hurtz directed the project, done for an Asian studio.
In those years, Corny and His wife Dawn raised four children in a comfortable oak and ivy-covered, Spanish-styled home in Benedict Canyon. Dawn died while their kids were young adults. Then, just as Dawn had, Corny’s kids took care of Corny's day-to-day needs.
The kids eventually found lives and pursuits of their own ... and Corny found his second wife, Linda.
When Corny wasn’t working on animation assignments he was doing fine art. It was personal expression work at a large size with elegant scale and deep, rich, full-palette color. I remember a show he had in a large space near Universal City. The paintings were 6 X 6 feet or larger. The subject was partial visions of his youth: The beach. Surfing with his twin brother. Fearsome images of police and military actions being manipulated by political figures, lots of grayed blues, greens and purples, impasto strokes drawn into with dark brown and gold line, perspective in some areas, flat graphic in others, finely noted anatomy at some points that then retreated into the ether of the paint.
There was also a few video monitors showing linear human figures in animation walking, flying, folding into lumps and unfurling into new figures. Corny told me he was talking to a gallery owner about a New york show. I don’t know if that show happened.
After Corny and I taught together, we taught drawing separately in many places. I learned that Corny had a workshop on Van Nuys Boulevard and I took some visiting Irish film students there, along with my daughter Megan, who was 15 at the time. Sometimes the class drew from the nude model and sometimes Corny would tie broomsticks, gourds and such at angles to each other with lengths of rope cord and scarves off a hatrack to simulate the physical way parts of a living body hinge to each other. Corny set Megan up on the floor to draw in front of the model stand. Over the 6 or 8 weeks we attended Corny would occasionally say a word or two to Megan or do a small addition on her work. Toward the end of our time that summer Corny said to me, “Megan is really making some progress. Have you been working with her?"
“No, Corny,” I answered, “ You have.”
Corny drew every day that he could. That’s why he liked to teach. It put him in a drawing situation. He liked to share what he had learned. He liked to encourage everyone who strove to draw better. He spoke gently, positively. It was wonderful that he was able to teach so many years at Cal Arts.
Corny was a handsome man with a generous smile and strong features. He dressed ... comfortably. He had a good wool sports coat, slacks, polished shoes and a turtleneck sweater when he needed it. But his day in, day out uniform was sandals, old chinos or levis, a faded Hawaiian shirt. In the winter there was an old army field jacket and, always, a wide brimmed and well worn straw hat. He was never visibly overweight and, as he grew older, he grew more slender.
Those wonderful years and the fun I had moving around Hollywood and the Valley animating on this project and that, and every now and then working with Corny, ended as the 1980’s proceeded. I would visit with him now and then, or see him at an animator-attended event. My last real visit with him was at his fixed-location trailer on the hill above the junction of the 118 and 210 freeways in Sylmar.
We sat in beach chairs with the hazy San Fernando Valley spread below us. He was well established at Cal Arts at this time. The trailer was loaded with piles of artwork to be culled and selected for shows while the rest would be put to a storage facility.
That didn’t happen. The Sylmar Fire the next year took 90% of Corny’s art and all his planned film material. Corny was most concerned, when I spoke to him, about the cats living with them that disappeared. He wished he knew for sure that they were alive. They must have escaped, he thought, because they didn’t find any remains in the trailer.
Corny’s youth, his years at Chouinard Art Institute and his ascension to the top of animation design are someone else’s story to tell, as are his later years teaching at Cal Arts.
He is gone now from our lives, but, not from our happy memories. If it helps, envision Corny, with his cats rubbing his legs, seated on the edge of a cloud, drawing some of the best sketches of the angels around him that they’ve had done in quite a long time.
Corny at Cal Arts, 2009 -- courtesy of Morgan Kelly.