Friday, September 3, 2010

Cauldron of Chaos, PART 1

One of Mel Shaw's many inspirational masterpieces.
If you were interested in a career in art in the 1970s, you might have seen a beautiful flier created by Disney Studios that was used as a recruitment tool to attract new young talent to the Disney Animation crew. The colorful booklet featured the classic scenes showcasing Disney films along with stunning pastels from Mel Shaw that were inspirational pitch pieces for a new feature.  This new film had roots in Welsh mythology  and was based on Lloyd Alexander's "Chronicles of Prydain" book series which would eventually be called "The Black Cauldron." It was to be an epic project for Walt Disney Feature animation. The official line from the studio was that it would be in effect a "Snow White" for the new generation referring to the first animated full length feature from Walt Disney which had helped launch a veritable empire of magical entertainment.

"The Back Cauldron" was the tale of Taran, a young boy who daydreams of being a great warrior fighting the legendary Horned King. Since he lives in the peaceful countryside with a kindly old enchanter and his oracular pig, that doesn't seem to be something that will happen anytime soon, or is it? After facing witches, fairfolk, magical swords and the evil black cauldron itself, Taran eventually learns what being a real hero is all about and that some things are more important than simple glory. Well Cauldron did indeed get made and it was created during a very hectic time in the studio's history. During its early genesis we saw the exit of some of the most experienced and talented people from the Disney ranks, a industry wide Strike was called, we also witnessed a power struggle that sadly replaced studio insider Ron Miller with Paramount outsider Michael Eisner. Under Ron's leadership, a new label called Touchstone had given the studio another outlet for more mature offerings like the box office smash, "Splash". Would that label along with the animation division be in trouble? There were hushed talks of corporate raiders selling off the animation department much like MGM had been conquered and divided earlier. Thankfully Roy Disney returned to the reins and eventually helped supervise a renaissance for Disney animation. As someone who was there during all these tumultuous events, I hope you'll enjoy this bumpy road down memory lane as I recall the "The Black Cauldron of Chaos."

Just a quick sketch from the "Griff"
Although the production actually began back in 1971 when Disney Studio first purchased the rights, it would be almost 10 years later in 1980 when veteran Disney artist Joe Hale would assume command of the helm. Joe had the tough role of shrinking the sprawling story that had taken 5 volumes to unfold into a more manageable and tighter tale. One of the best things he did was to take what was a minor role of the Horned King and make him into the major villian. Joe also decided early on to open up the potential for visual design and encouraged the studio to contact accomplished artists outside the Disney realm known for creating fantasy illustrations from the Hildebrants to Frank Frazetta. Many of the top name illustrators were swamped with committed deadlines but we did bring accomplished artists such as Mike Ploog into the fold. Besides our resident master Art Director Don Griffith, the other one responsible for much of the look of the film was a talented new comer to Disney, Mike Hodgson. Mike's lush pencil renderings were reminisent of the type done by layout artists of yesterday such as Charlie Philippi during classics like Pinocchio. With Don Griffith's (whose Disney Career started with Pinocchio) keen eye to mentor him, those guys made a heck of a one-two punch for some wonderful visual storytelling.

One of the maquettes I made for the film 
Other efforts came from within the new kids on the block. Tim Burton and myself were briefly singled out to provide some conceptual inspiration for Cauldron. Tim's work was fresh and resembled what could best be described as "Beetlejuice" meets "Nightmare Before Christmas" although both wouldn't  become reality until much later under Tim's visionary direction. Joe ran films such as Warner's 1967 classic, "Camelot" for inspiration and for me it really was awesome to see it up on the screen for the first time.  I didn't want to create another Sleeping Beauty style castle but instead designed one constructed from human skeletons and other creature's bones. My character suggestions were more toward the mold of Peter Pan styling. Did I mention that I was also pushing for songs? Tim and I didn't stay long as far as doing the concepts but to Joe Hale's ever lasting credit, at least he was open to new approaches and gave us both a shot.

Mel Shaw reviews Cauldron story
outline with animator Gary Goldman
Undoubtably the most outstanding visual guide to this film was laid out in a masterly fashion by Mel Shaw who had provided the inspiration for all of us to begin with. His room was full of glorious pastel paintings depicting the story and were the inspiring bait that had hooked all of us for the entire fishing trip. Mel had graciously come out to Cal Arts and given us a presentation of his tremendous work for "The Black Cauldron" which certainly inspired our classes. Looking back at his beautiful work I would have to credit that moment and that particular Disney artist for igniting my love for working in pastels. Don Griffith re-introduced me to Mel and Woolie Reitherman when I first started at Disney. Woolie's room was next door to my corner room and he used it as a direct route to the dripping coffee maker that steamed constantly in Don's room. I could hear Woolie and Mel discuss at length the new picture they had been developing called, "Little Broomstick". The music they were playing on their record player as background for their reel was stimulating. They had both already done a tremendous amount of visual work and had the sketches pinned up on boards surrounding the entire room.  Woolie would stop by my desk and talk every once in a while and eventually took an interest in some of my little pastels I had pinned up over my desk. Before I knew it he had  invited me to work on the flying sequence where the little girl first takes her ride up into the clouds. My proudest moment in what I call my career was having my pastels pinned up on those boards among Mel's masterworks. Woolie and Mel were 100% supportive with this fresh wide-eyed geek and I was a kid in the candy store. Before my goosebumps could settle though, I was suddenly removed from "Broomstick,"  and dipped into a scalding hot Cauldron of chaos. 


  1. Vivid as always Mike. Really excited about this series, this is such an important and overlooked part of animation history.

  2. Hi Daniel. Thanks for dropping by and letting me know you enjoyed it.

    I'm always interested to hear from people like you and agree that it was certainly an interesting era that doesn't get much attention.

  3. Joe and I just watched a check disc of the new DVD of TBC. The color was terrific, much brighter than it appeared on the screen and in the old DVD. The art work is beautiful and I enjoyed seeing it once again. The Bonus feature included a work reel from a Faire Folk sequence that unfortunately was not included in the picture. Perhaps it was ahead of its time 25 years ago.

    Beverly Hale

  4. Hi Beverly. Glad to hear the new DVD is looking good. It will be interesting to see the Faire Folk again after so many years. I worked on that section among others but I'm almost afraid to look at it. I keep having these nightmares about trying to incorporate disco into that sequence, yikes.

    It was really great visiting with you two yesterday. I had no idea Joe was such an expert with skeet shooting. I'll have to bring along my sling shot and we'll hit a range together some time.

  5. I just love to hear these stories from the Disney's studio. It's very inspirational.. I think the public for 'The Black Cauldron' was very judgmental, it's one of my favorites movies, and for sure, one of the best designed productions in the animation area.

  6. AH, and I forgot to mention the music and score, it's perfect! I just love these research you people did on Welsh folk music, and the use of the ondes martenot is really awesome. Genial.

  7. Hello Arthur,

    Whatever problems I may have with Black Cauldron I realized long ago that my opinion is not the end all of the universe and that there are always going to be people out there who like something I may not care for and vise versa. That being said I agree with you that it has some wonderful designs for layout (courtesy Mike Hodgson) as well as some well done animation, both in character and in effects. Color was also pushed in various scenes that would not have been allowed in the previous film "Fox and Hound".

    I'm glad you like it and for the record since writing this article I have been contacted by quite a few people out there that like yourself, are huge fans of "The Black Cauldron".

  8. Although I am not into Disney films, still I love The Black Cauldron. I consider The Black Cauldron as the best Disney film.

    I am sure this film will become more and more favorable among the audience in time. When Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo was released, the film was a box office failure and critics didn't like it either. But now, it is one of the greatest films of all time.

    Since Elmer Bernstein composed his cue for Fairfolk Sequence, isn't it possible that this sequence was animated? If this sequence was animated, then some scenes can be added to the released version. It will make the film more intense. It will also be great to see some of the scenes that were cut from the film.