Variety 411 is transitioning to LA | NY 411. Learn more. ×

Articles >

Disney Concept Artists Behind “Peter Pan,” “Cinderella” Feted By Academy

Recently, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held a tribute to animation icon Mary Blair.  In addition to a one night only exhibit of rare stills and concept drawings of her work on films such as “Cinderella” and “Alice in Wonderland” and other rarely seen sketches, the evening included a panel discussion with Pete Docter (Oscar winner for Animated Feature ‘Up”), Michael Giaimo (development artist, “Pocahontas”, “Home on the Range”), Eric Goldberg (director, “Rhapsody in Blue” “Carnival of Animals” segment of “Fantasia/2000”), Susan Goldberg (art director, “Rhapsody in Blue” “Carnival of Animals” segment of “Fantasia/2000”), Daisuke “Dice” Tsutsumi (key colorist “Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears A Who!”, art director “Toy Story 3”), and moderator Charles Solomon (art critic and historian).

The evening commenced with an intimate discussion between Alice Davis, the costume designer who worked directly with Blair on the “It’s a Small World After All” amusement ride at Disneyland, and Maggie Richardson, Alice Blair’s niece.  They shared some of their memories of Mary Blair.

Davis spoke about the joy she experienced working with Mary Blair on the various installations of the “It’s a Small World After All” Disneyland exhibit.


“Chuck Jones would say about Mary Blair that ‘They were scraping the TOP of the barrel,’ and she really was an extreme talent,” said Davis.  “She was a true original, with her own vision.”


Davis also discovered Mary Blair’s tenacity in overcoming her personal vision limitations.

“She had extremely poor eyesight, and carried a purse full of different eyeglasses,” said Davis.  “She sometimes would have up to five pairs of eyeglasses on at a time.”

Richardson recalled yearly gifts that she received as a child, “Aunt Mary would give everyone in the family paintings that she did.  I remember thinking as a little girl ‘Oh Boy, I hope Aunt Mary doesn’t give us another painting!’ when Christmas came around.”

Attendees of the event were treat to scenes from a number of movies Blair was involved with, including “Cinderella,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Susie the Blue Coupe,” “The Little House,” and “Little Train.”  In response to her amazing work, many of the panelists spoke with 411 Publishing to further state their appreciation for the trailblazing Mary Blair set before them, as well as challenges animators face today.

Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera

411: What are some of the major challenges that face animators today?

Pete Docter:  I think, like every generation, is just staying new and original.  The more you do this, the more you tend to fall into your old ruts both in terms of looks and storytelling.  Here’s Jonas Rivera, he’s the producer of ‘Up.”

411:  We were just discussing the biggest challenges that face animators today.  Do you have any feedback on that or thoughts about that?

Jonas Rivera: Oh geez, that face animators?  I think keeping it original.

PD: That’s the problem with question answering too.  It’s OK, that’s the way I answered it too.

JS:  Is it?

PD: Yes, we know each other! I don’t know, it’s just that things get so cynical, and it’s such a big business, you can really can see it starting to respond to what the audience wants.  We work really hard to honor that and do new things too, and I suspect a lot of animators would feel the same way.

411:  A variation of that question is keeping up with the technology and how technology can both be an aid and also a hindrance.  Are there any sort of technological changes that you see as really challenging.

PD: For sure, every film there are completely new systems, new software updates that don’t coincide with the software you used last time, or you have to reinvent everything, but for us it’s like a new toy.  Every time it is like ‘New stuff?  What can I do with this that I’ve never done before that can handle this problem in a way it’s never been handled?’   I look at it less than a challenge and more as an opportunity, although there are other people that I work with that would disagree with this assessment, like the technical guys that are in charge with keeping up with all of this stuff.  It changes rapidly.

JS: When there are advancements at Pixar, what happens is that the creative appetite goes up exponentially faster than any of the technology.  I think that whatever technology presents itself, we still get more inspired by the way the animator will do a piece of acting.  There is something that’s still lights us up.

PD: Ironically, being here with the Mary Blair lecture, we are striving and grasping at the challenges of getting to where she was with her work.  She had this sense of simplicity and directness that communicates emotion which is really hard to do.  There are only a precious few who successfully consistently do that, and she was a master.

411:  What is it feel like to be involved in this sort of event?

JS:  It’s so cool, I’ll tell ya.  It’s fun at Pixar where there is so much technology and super smart people; we sit and we look at the old films and the old art direction.  I remember one time we watched “Bambi” and I looked around, and there are the smartest people you could ever imagine at Pixar, these geniuses, and everyone’s got their hands on their face looking at the screen going “How did they do that?”  There’s some voodoo to the old stuff, the designs of Mary Blair and the animation of the old timers that still eludes us a little bit, to be honest.

411:  Pete, I see there are a lot of students, or the next breed, here tonight that are eager to learn.  What are some of your thoughts that you have about staying in tune with what the innovators in the field have done?

PD: Well, next breed nothing.  I’m here to learn myself.  I feel that we are still catching up to what those guys did, as Jonas said.  In some ways what the computer does easily or well is almost opposite of what Blair did in her work.  We are all about fine detail, hair cloth, texture, lighting cues, and Mary Blair had such an amazing way of making things bold, simple, direct, you know, really gutsy, and we looked to Blair in “Monsters, Inc.” as well as “Up.”  It’s subtle but it’s reflected in the imagery that the art department produced.

411:  Do you think Mary Blair would have embraced the technology of 3D?  Do you think that’s something that would have been appealing to her sensibility?

JS: Hmm, that’s a really great question.

PD: Yeah, I wonder.  3D computer animation?  Yes, I think she would have.

JS: Well, she kind of did it with “A Small World,” right?  It’s sort of an analogy version of a 3D CG movie, like a 3D world, right?

PD: Due to the time restrictions that they had in those days, it’s sort of like 2 and 1/2 D where there are these planes that are in space.  She was just a great designer, I have no doubt that she would have just mastered at anything that she turned her mind to.

Eric Goldberg and Susan Goldberg

411:  What does it feel like to be involved in an evening like this that recognizes such an innovator in animation?  And maybe what are some of your thoughts of the course of Animation over the years?

Eric Goldberg: The first thought is in my mind is “We‘re not worthy!”  Mary Blair was so good, such a unique talent, that it’s an honor to be able to talk about her and what’s she’s done. She’s been hugely influential to many of us, and even to this day, many animation artists still look to her as one of the prime animation artists and art directors.  They still utilize a lot of her principles.

Susan Goldberg:  I think it’s great to honor women in animation, because it just doesn’t happen that much, and a woman who’s just had such an impact on not just her generation, but a younger generation.  We’ve seen so many young people that are suddenly discovering her and pulling her into their world, which is great.  Animation now with CGI is so complicated looking.  Her work is built on such a strong structure of simplicity that it is really.  I think it is really fascinating.  When we were in Japan they did a wonderful exhibition of her work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, and the lines for it were around the block.  You saw all these young women who were like “It’s a woman, and look at her work!”  I think it is great to see a woman in this kind of position and actually being honored.   I think it is really important, and I’m really delighted for I’m the only woman on the panel.

411: I wonder if you see any big challenges for animators today, or if you see any problems with technology that are relevant right now.

SG: For us it is the fact that what we do, which is hand drawn, is being shoved aside.  I think for me, it’s really difficult for me making the transition of doing everything by computers.  I think the computer is very limiting in color, I find the computer is very difficult to use.  I mean, OK, I have trouble with email, I admit it.

EG:  I think some of the challenges are keeping things as simple, direct and beautiful as the kind of work that Mary Blair did, especially when technology is so popular, and you can see every blade of grass rendered.  It’s refreshing to look at her work and realize just how much it communicated with very simple, graphic shapes, and exquisite color choices.  And non realistic color choices.  That’s another thing.  She would use color for emotional value, and these days, we’re looking to see if it looks like 2:00pm in the afternoon, on a foggy day, you know.  The lighting is so important in many CG films , that people kind of have lost the ability to stylize, if you know what I mean, actually be free-er with color.  So, that’s one of the challenges.

411:  It’s really interesting to speak with someone who’s involved in hand drawn animation.  Do you find that there is a way to incorporate both elements of animation, hand drawn and computer, and they marry them nicely?

EG: Um, yeah!  You know, it doesn’t have to be parallel play, as we used to say when our kids were young!  It can be blended, and I know there are various studios, Disney is amongst them, that are making experiments in that area.  That’s all I can say.

For more information about Academy events, please visit: