They Drew As They Pleased – Didier Ghez Interview

They Drew as They Pleased is the first in what promises to be a revealing and fascinating series of books about Disney’s largely unexamined concept artists, with six volumes spanning the decades between the 1930s and 1990s.

This is a fascinating book full of incredible art. I had the opportunity to work with Didier on his Walt’s People interview series a few years ago, and I must say I haven’t met another individual with his passion and enthusiasm for animation history. It was a pleasure to sit down with him and ask him a few questions about the book, as well as what to look forward to in future volumes.

On Animation will be giving away a copy of the book to celebrate its release. Keep an eye on our social media feeds for your chance to win.

As the Walt Disney Studio entered its first decade and embarked on some of the most ambitious animated films of the time, Disney hired a group of “concept artists” whose sole mission was to explore ideas and inspire their fellow animators. They Drew as They Pleased showcases four of these early pioneers and features artwork developed by them for the Disney shorts from the 1930s, including many unproduced projects, as well as for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, and some early work for later features such as Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan.

Daniel: What was the inspiration for this series of books?

Didier: There were two marvelous book that had been published in the past. One in the forties called, He Drew As He Pleased, which was a collection of drawings by Albert Hurter released just after he passed away. It was organized by a Disney Story Artist called Ted Sears. Sears had collected quite a few of Hurter’s drawings. These drawings were absolutely fascinating. If you know that book, you know you can’t stop going back to it again and again for inspiration. I love that book, and I wanted to see more drawings by Hurter.

The other inspiration was a book by John Canemaker called, Before The Animation Begins, which focused precisely on what this book series covers now: Concept Artists; the artists that were told by Disney to inspire their colleagues by creating these crazy drawings, completely blue sky drawings, that would stimulate the imagination of their colleagues.

So those two books were really the inspiration. Now, I knew in the case of Albert Hurter that a lot of his drawings had never been released in book form, and were stored at the Disney Archives. I really wanted to see those. I thought seeing them would be great, but I would also love other people to be able to see them, and love them, and understand them as I do. I’ve always been fascinated by pre-production drawings, and I think for me the drawings that are the most interesting are those that are just pure creation, that aren’t bound by any rules, that are there to inspire and make other artists think outside the box. So this was the main inspiration for the start of the first book.

Daniel: How did you narrow down your focus to these four artists?

Didier: Actually the volume started with six artists, including Kay Nielsen and David Hall. I focused on these six artists because they were the most prominent concept artists active in the 1930s. There were practical concerns and constraints; the books were not to exceed 208 pages, which is a good amount of pages, but I would not be able to properly feature all six artists within that volume.

I focused on four that were really active in the early to mid thirties, and I left out Kay Nielsen and David Hall, deciding to cover them in volume two. Originally the series was only going to have five volumes, but once this change was made, we had to add another volume. So volume two and three will both be focused on the 1940s (one of the most creative eras at the studio) from two different angles.

Daniel: What was it about the environment at Walt Disney Animation Studios in the 1930s that contributed to this charm in the art being produced?

Didier: I think there’s a real charm to all the art from the decades I will cover in the series. In this volume I think you have two different types of artists. Albert Hurter and Ferdinand Horvath are more cartoony in their approach. They were more focused on shorts at the beginning. When you look at Tenggren and Majolie, you can see their work is a bit more elaborate and illustrative, something a little closer to fine art in a way. Majolie is a bit in the middle between Hurter and Horvath on one end and Tenggren on the other. Once we get into the forties you’ll see this difference very clearly in volumes two and volumes three.

Daniel: How much of the art featured in the books comes from Disney’s Animation Research Library and how much of it comes from private collections?

Didier: I spent hours and hours at the Animation Research Library. The focus was really to find artwork that had never been seen before, and I’m happy to say that between 80-90% of the more than 400 pieces of art in the book has never before been published in book form. I was very careful about that.

I did also find quite a bit of work in external collections. If you look at the split between what comes from the ARL and what comes from private collections, I would say about 80% comes from Disney and 20% from private collections. In volumes two and three the split will be closer to 50/50. I made massive discoveries for those volumes that come from outside collections. I stumbled upon collections that were owned by the families of the artists.

The major discoveries in volume one come in the text. I was able to re-discover the diaries of Ferdinand Horvath, along with all of his correspondence with his wife in 1933 where he talks about everything that’s happening at the studio. At the time he was there, and she was still in New York. His work status at the time was not yet permanent. The diaries are in German and all the letters to his wife are in Hungarian. So with help from friends and volunteers I was able to translate the letters. My good friend Hans Perk helped me to translate all of the relevant parts of the diaries. It was really a bit like detective work.

Daniel: Can you tease us with some of the artists to look forward to in future volumes?

Didier: Yes, absolutely. In volume two there will be five artists. The first is one most people don’t know anything about yet. He is called Walt Scott. When you see his work you’ll know why I wanted to add him to the book. The work he created for Pinocchio and Fantasia is absolutely stunning.

The sub-titles of volumes two and three will be a little different. Volume 2 will be titled, “The Hidden Art of Disney’s Musical Years.” There’s a big focus on Fantasia along with the musical package features. In Volume 3 there’s also a big focus on Disney’s Character Model Department. Volume 3 will be titled “The Hidden Art of Disney’s Character Model Department.

After Walt Scott there’s a chapter on Kay Nielsen, and there will be some really big surprises in that chapter. I made a few discoveries while researching that chapter. Following that we have two chapters about women story artists. One of them is a person called Sylvia Holland, and 100% of the art in that chapter will be seen for the first time, most of which comes from her family. There are some really stunning pieces from Fantasia, Bambi, and from later projects that were abandoned. In addition to this I also found all of her correspondence from the time, so it’s literally like taking a time machine and looking over her shoulder when you read that chapter.

The fourth chapter is about Retta Scott, who is known for her animation work on Bambi. But the reality is when you look at her career, 95% of what she did at Disney was focused on story art and not so much on animation. So this chapter is all focused on her work as a Story Artist, and again 100% of the art has never been seen before. The family didn’t realize they had it in the attic.

The last chapter will be about David Hall. We’ve already seen a lot of his work on Alice in Wonderland, and there will be a little more of that in this chapter. The main focus will be his work on Bambi and Peter Pan. I’m excited to say that just three weeks ago, when we were finalizing the contents for volume two, I managed to stumble upon a masterpiece by David Hall from Peter Pan, and I’m hoping to use it for the cover of the book. It shows Peter at the helm of the pirate ship. Many people have seen this piece in black and white. My top wish for this book was to find the original in color, which I thought would be impossible because nobody had seen it before. A friend of mine stumbled upon a collection nobody knew about from a family of one of the artists, and one of the pieces was the one I was looking for in color. I started to cry; it had finally been found in color. Hopefully it will be the cover of volume two.

Volume three will be mostly focused on members of Disney’s Character Model Department. At this point we’re not one hundred percent sure how many artists will be featured, but some of the artists I’d like to feature include Martin Provensen, Campbell Grant, Johnny Walbridge, and Eduardo Sola Franco, who many people haven’t heard of. He was from Ecuador, and he worked on Don Quixote. His art is amazing. He was a pretty famous fine art painter in Ecuador after his years at Disney. I discovered all of his correspondence and his autobiography, along with many other documents. It’s going to be a really fun chapter.

Volume four will be focused on the fifties. Volume five will be the sixties and seventies. Volume six will be the eighties and nineties.

Daniel: What can today’s concept artists learn from the artists featured in this book? What are their most endearing qualities in your opinion?

Didier: Just how much they can inspire the artists of today. If you go back and look at Hurter’s work, not just the art he produced for specific shorts or productions, which is in itself fascinating, but in the margins of his work he would doodle. He was always doodling. In the book there are four or five pages of Hurter’s doodles, and they are nuts. The guy was crazy. It’s like getting in his head and watching him literally draw as he pleased. He had no barriers or constraints. He would draw and draw and draw. Some of his work was impossible to use, and some others would only be used years later because they were so far out. In fact, you have Walt in one of the Alice in Wonderland story meetings suggesting that they use Hurter’s ideas from five and ten years prior that they didn’t know what to do with at the time. I think it’s the free flow of ideas like this that will still inspire artists today.