Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Remembering Ken O'Connor, PART 2

Original Title Card for Cinderella

This is roughly how a day in Ken's class would unfold. I dragged myself out of bed at 6:30, ate an orange and then after meeting Ken at his car, we walked to class where I would unlock the door as no one was there yet. As TA I had keys to all the Character Animation rooms which made it easier for fellow students to get access after hours.  He used a foldable rolling cart on top of which he placed items like  a converted fishing tackle box. This box held a hodge-podge of art supplies neatly arranged within its drawers. Endless goodies from pastels to paint and compasses to canvas rolls could be brought forth from that small box much like Mary Poppins did with her magical carpet bag. I would help Ken set up a still life for our first class exercise in the morning. He did the artistic placement, me the heavy lifting. These could be anything from a stuffed eagle on a branch waiting to pounce upon a equally stuffed rabbit  to an arrangement of musical instruments made of shiny brass and dark wood to a collection of old antique brass and copper lamps. 

Stepsisters by Mary Blair
In this way Ken would help us decipher how to properly translate various surfaces in our illustrations such as the metallic reflection of a trumpet, a subdued highlight on fine oiled wood,  the sheen of silk drapery to the soft fringe of a feathered wing. After lunch we would then move on to unique perspective problems that he would setup for us using handouts and the over head projector. After the head numbing problems solving missing perspectives of a cross on a hill, Ken would take pity on the class. He did this by bringing in examples from the Walt Disney Studios showing the various stages used in creating the family of famous Disney classics beginning with "Cinderella," a film he knew very well.

  Bedroom Concept,  Live Action, Layout &  Painted BG
He started off by bringing in a written treatment with concept art featuring Mary Blair, Ken Anderson, Bill Pete and John Hench followed the next week by storyboards and workbooks by talents like Bill Pete and Ken Anderson. We would then see the rough and final layouts from he, Don Griffith and Tom Codrick and others, then eventually the beautiful background paintings from Claude Coats and Art Riley including the discards such as the infamous Palace interior section that was completely discarded and had to be redone. We also studied the live action film reference from stills to the film comparing it to the animation derived from the rotoscoping of its poses until finally we watched the entire film in the theater with Ken as our MC as he made comments (some were hilarious) as to production problems and anecdotes about the film's production.  

The Disney version of the Stairway to Success
This procedure was followed on additional Disney classic films as we were exposed to more and more artists, their different styles and techniques, and the steps taken to produce these classics, including mistakes and failed attempts as well as the successful conclusion.To the left is a breakdown of an example of how the various stages of just one area, in this case the tower stairway, was developed and used in the film, "Cinderella". I wish I had the space to transfer all of my notes and photos of those sessions from my class book to these blog pages, it was a real treat for all of us. 

Ken and Mike CalArts 1976
After being exposed to the Disney classics in such illuminating detail, we could hardly wait to get back to our desks and begin sketching. Ken also introduced us to the process of adding powders to our renderings such as Graphite or charcoal. After applying that technique though, one has to "fix" it in place by using a spray so we all started using spray fixative to set the renderings. I am surprised we weren't asphyxiated if you can imagine a dozen kids spraying fixative in the hallway at the same time, phewwww. After the spray fests it was a relief just to run outside and breath in the smog! I actually switched my colon from Old Spice to Blair Fixative while attending Ken's classes.

Although I loved Ken's classes in particular, after the first semester, I ran out of money which was very embarrassing and was going to leave the school. Remarks from teachers like Ken O'Connor helped influence the Disney Studio and the Disney family who offered me a full scholarship to stay on for which I am eternally grateful to all of them. 


  1. This was a fantastic read! Cinderella is my favorite Disney film! I would like to know more about the "Palace interior section" of Cinderella that was discarded and redone, and, is apparently "infamous". I'm not sure if I've heard or seen anything from this before, I've seen discarded concept art of the palace but what you describe sounds different, like finished backgrounds? So, if you could please help me, with descriptions, story, or pictures of this work from what I feel is a Disney film not appreciated enough for its beautiful art and designs, I would be very grateful.

  2. Hello Unknown. Thank you for the kind words. Please don't be shy about adding a name to your comments, even a fictitious one.

    More than one section was affected by this painting direction as the original backgrounds employed a cooler color scheme for the interior palace walls with a "chunkier" heavy handling of the Rococo decorative architectural detailing. Since Cinderella's ball gown was an extremely light range of pastel blue it blended somewhat which is hardly what you want for the star of the film.

    The general environment was changed to an overtone range of magenta, pinks and lavender (which played beautifully against Cinderella's gown) while simplifying the Rococo flourishes which meant discarding all the finished background paintings and starting over fresh. The one with the most redos was SEQ 4, before the lights dim on the romantic couple.

    This was a very expensive "mistake" for a studio that was attempting it's first true full length feature ater the war and a welcomed return to fairy tales by staff. It also showed Walt's continued commitment to quality even if it crept into the bottom line which eventually reached 2.5 million through the six years of production from 1844 to 1950.

  3. I'm another Mike! I don't know how to fix it so that my name says "Mike Q" intead of "Unknown"! Can you help me with that?

    But wow! That's so much information, thank you! Nice to know just how much work they put into a classic, and this one especially for me! I hope to see those discarded backgrounds some day though, I'd love to see the Rococo detail they did!

    But now I'm wondering, do you have a definate answer on what color Cinderella's dress is? It looks like it's silver, and then just turns blue in shadowy areas. The prince's yellow (or gold?) tunic also turns blue whenever her dress does! The Perrault fairy tale it's based on says her dress was silver and gold. If you don't know for sure, that's okay!

    By the way, that Ken Anderson stagecoach blending into the painting is amazing, a phenomonal example of just how well he and the other Disney artists knew their perspectives and art. Pure Disney magic!

  4. Hi Mike. Not sure how to fix the name, it might be set when you originally sign up, I don't know.

I have detailed photos of the discarded backgrounds, the finals and the corresponding layouts and their revisions. When I get a chance, I'll scan and post them for you but I'm afraid it will be awhile.

    Cindy's dress was a range of color models depending on the specific sequence. For example It is whiter when first created by the Fairy Godmother and later cooler when placed within the castle interiors. The lights dim and we hit additional color models, etc. The Art Direction was superb back then and quality definitely took lead over pinching pennies with Walt in charge.

    The Ben Sharpsteen museum mural is by Ken O'Connor, not Ken Anderson although both are true deserving Disney legends that I was very fortunate to know and work with.

  5. I think I fixed my name now.

    Too bad I can't fix that I said Ken Anderson when I meant to say Ken O'Connor! And this page is about him!

    I love that they got so into detail they even used different color models in different scenes for the greatest effect! I think I noticed this in Cinderella especially. I will wait patiently for those pictures. You are very kind for trying to put them up, I thank you very much!

  6. Hi. I'm researching an article on Mary Blair's concept art for 'Cinderella.' Did Ken talk about her work on the film? - David.

  7. Hi David, Ken frequently spoke about Mary's beautiful concept work and the attempts to bring her integrity of design to the screen.