Friday, September 22, 2006

The Claude Coats Interview - Part One

Claude Coats was a Disney background artist -- and later WED imagineer -- who was with the company for half a century. Claude and my father were good friends, and I have vivid childhood memories of swimming in the pool at Claude and wife Evy's rambling Burbank house, of watching the elaborate narrative home movies that Claude made with his kids (they were adventure films, often with a comedic twist) and generally hanging out. I talked to Claude about his background work at Disney's in April, 1978 for a "Pinocchio" article on which I was working. Here's the first half of what transpired: CC: Gustaf Tenggren did a lot of work on "Pinocchio." He was really kind of a fairy-tale book illustrator, and a very capable guy. He had that nice style. In fact, I think I worked with him just before "Pinocchio" on "Little Hiawatha." He did some drawings on that and I did backgrounds for it. We kind of worked along with him, and we tried to get a kind of pen-and-ink style on that. It was a little bit the forerunner of the style of "Pinocchio." Tenggren's tyle was really pen-and-ink and wash. But it turned out that pen-and-ink at that time didn't feel quite right. Now we're into it with the Xerox process, but that that time it felt like it didn't have any depth to it. It had that line kind of hanging around everything. Of course, we accept it now. But Tenggren got into the style of architecture in the buildings. He was following right after "Snow White" where it had a little of the carved work, so this was a litte more colorful and a little more like the painted villages and the Bavarian architecture of a fairy-tale land. I think Gufstaf left before "Pinocchio" was finished. He didn't really get into the backgrounds at all. He was mostly involved in the early style of the picture. In background, we'd take Tenggren's reasonable ideas or concepts for a scene. The layout people had already used them in doing their work, and we'd look for coloring and ideas of deccration. He was very definitely a strong influence. Some of the buildings, like he had a beautiful little theatre building actually, a puppet theatre, but because the story got changed the theatre became a wagon, which helped the story out ar fast getting rid of Stomboli when we needed to. But the puppet theatre got dropped. Tenggren's original drawings were very good. And I think he had a lot to do with styling the figures. Some of the Stromboli drawings. There's one of those in the downstairs hall. SH: And I notice down there that the fox and Gideon in thos sketches look pretty much the way they do in the film, but Pinocchio looks a lot different. More puppety. CC: Yeah, thinner, wasn't he? A little stringier. SH: Then he became more boy-like. CC: Yeah. SH: Eric Larson was thinking you were the lead man in color on "Pinocchio." CC: Yeah, I sort of...we were over in those old boxcars that just got torn down over there...over on Hyperion. All that was on Hyperion. We'd just moved into the new studio when"Pinocchio" was released. I remember being in a meeting about Jimmy Fiedler who was a radio reviewer. And he used to comment on pictures and give them two, three or four star ratings. And he'd given "Snow White" four stars. I remember Walt had a lot of people in 3E 12, listening to Jimmy Fiedler, and Fiedler gave "Pinocchio" three stars and Walt said some kind of thing like 'goddamnit." SH: I read TIME Magaine's review and they said "Well, it's gorgeous, but it's not 'Snow White.'" CC: Yeah. But it some ways it had a lot of fantasy of its own. That was probably the most complicated inking we ever did. I remember Evy -- my wife, she was in ink-nad-paint then -- inking 22 ink lines on Jimimy Cricket. And later on, when they were doing those TV shows, it was just obvious we couldn't have that many colors. And it got down to where even then it was six or seven. Of course, now with the Xerox, maybe one color change around the face would be about it. SH: When did you come to the studio? CC: I came in 1935. I really only wanted to be a background guy. Pyil Dyke was at the studio then, and I think Walt was trying to get a renewal of talent. The early cartoons were kind of flat and the backgrounds an outgrowth of cel work. You know at first the backround and cels all looked like one, and then the backgrounds got a few tints in them, but they always were definitely cartoons. And I think Walt was always striving for "what do we do next to make these better?" and to get more reality and depth and believable light into them. And because of that, the characters' looks got more complicated. The dwarfs had roundness, and some shadows under the jowls to give them some dimension. There was an endeavor with the whole of animation. Alan Graint, who taught at Choinard, was very good at instructing a lot of animators into how to get more form into their drawin, more roundness and character. On "Pinocchio," when there were story meetings on what the sequences would look like, and Walt would have seen the story sketches, of course, and they'd have an indication of what the style might be. And the early styling drawings and a little later on Mary Blair got into that, and sent us early drawings during the story period. Mary Blair worked here with her husband (Lee) through Pinocchio", and they went down to South America with Walt. Then the war came along and Lee went into the navy, and when he got out he opened a studio in New York, an animation studio, and Mary was with him. But Mary used to send in styling ideas. But I don't believe she was on "Pinocchio" a lot. She did some work on Disneyland and Disney World. You usually worked with the layout man and the director. They were the guys you answered to. More so than Walt, I think, as far as that goes. Walt talked to them more than us. We'd have meetings with him. We'd usually do photographs of the very first scenes, backgrounds would be done, first animation, test scenes would be done. It'd finally be inked and painted, and there'd be a big meeting when the color came back and we'd look at what the first scenes looked like. And I can never remember Walt being too surprised at what they looked like.


Lisa Christine said...

Claude Coats was my grandfather, so I truly enjoyed reading this. Especially the part where you talk about going to the house and watching the home movies that they would make. My father was Lee, their second son. He passed away 4 years ago. Evelyn still lives in the same Burbank house. She will be 98 years old in June. I am going to visit her next month. I am hoping that it is warm enough for my children to swim in the pool. I would love for them to have some of the same childhood memories of that house that I do....and apparantly you do :)

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