16. Marc Davis
Many people are great animators but that’s the only thing they can do. They’re experts at expressive poses, movement with meaning, and acting but they don’t have a problem when given tasks such as story, character development, designing, and applying those principles to animation. However there are a handful of animators who can do all those things very well and can just deliver whatever you may ask of them. That would be a great way to describe Marc Davis, number 16 in the countdown and the honoree of today’s post.
“All I have to do is tell him what I want and he’ll do it he’s my Renaissance man,” said Walt Disney to Marc’s wife Alice about the animator. Davis was a natural draftsman who really understood character consistency, narrative, staging, and what makes a great, entertaining performance. He was respected as both an artist and a man by all and even became best friends with the competitive, short-tempered Milt Kahl. “Marc is one hell of an artist, damned good,” praised Kahl. Even though he had the capability to draw pretty much anything well Davis was stuck many doing realistic women throughout his career even though he did some phenomenal looser, caricatured performances such as a huge chunk of Flower in Bambi and all of Cruella de Vill in One Hundred and One Dalmatians. He also was very dedicated to the Disney studio and was very generous as well as resourceful to anyone who wanted to pursue a career in animation there.
Marc Davis was born on March 30, 1913 in Bakersfield, California. His parents were big time travelers and he moved around constantly growing up, attending 22 schools by the time he graduated from high school. To cope with the hardships of moving around and in finding friends in such a small time frame Davis turned to drawing as a way to express himself. “In a new town where I wasn’t acquainted- I would amuse myself by drawing,” he recalled in an interview. So even though he moved all around the country he had art to add a sense of stability and reliability. Marc didn’t have a ton of money growing up so he found it too difficult to afford to go to college but he did take some classes at an art school in northern California. He found that there were two great places to work on his draftsmanship: the library and the zoo. “I got to know the assistant director of the zoo and they would let me in before they let the public in,” remembers Davis. “They’d bring creatures out for me to draw. It was very exciting and sometimes a little scary. Although I was drawing them in motion I wasn’t thinking in terms of animating them. I was interested in capturing their movements in art, in the tradition of Frederick Remington’s sculptures.” Indeed the life drawings done at the zoo are very impressive and really show masterful anatomy as well as posture. Later Marc realized this experience would be a major benefit to him when he started working in animation. Soon after his father passed away leaving him as the main source of income for his mother and himself. Around the same time he say Disney’s short Who Killed Cock Robin and was blown away. Disney had been looking for jobs and everyone told Marc he better go try to get in. “I had a few contacts in the Los Angeles area and a sort of a half-promise of a job at the Hollywood Citizen, which no longer exists,” he explains. “I hadn’t been there too long when somebody said ‘You know Walt Disney is hiring artists- whey don’t you come see him?’ So I did and was accepted immediately. Most of the applicants were unsuccessful newspaper cartoonists who didn’t know anatomy. I was a newspaper cartoonist with limited success but the experiences I had at the zoo and the library made a big difference.”
When Marc Davis came to Disney he was put in the bullpen of inbetweeners but his draftsmanship got unanimous praise and pretty soon he wound up working as Grim Natwick’s head assistant on Snow White. Natwick is one of the oldest great animators in Disney history and by the time he came to Disney in 1934 he already was in his mid-40s and had accomplished great success at other studios. Like Davis he was very sophisticated and had a more wordly approach to the world making the two mesh. However the young animator found out that there was a very intense situation that he would have to be a mediator in. Although Grim did a lot of scenes of Snow White he still was under supervising animator Ham Luske, a Disney loyalist who was rather suspicious of newcomers from the east like Natwick. The two didn’t agree on the characterization and design of Snow White: Ham wanted a more charming, innocent, and youthful girl while Grim wanted a significantly more sexually-aware, colder girl. Even though Luske’s version was the one consistent with Walt’s vision the other animator wasn’t willing to adjust and there was great tension between the two men. “Grim felt very strongly about corrections he was taking on the drawing of Snow White and I kind of went along with it because I was working for Grim not Ham,” explained Marc to Michael Barrier. “I wasn’t going to make a bubblehead of her, as they were doing in the other unit. However I had to change his drawings to get a kind of feeling of the character. Grim wanted her to have a vitality and that had to be tamed.” Thanks to the hard work Davis did comprising the desires of the two men in the picture Snow White turns out consistent and true to Walt’s vision.
After Snow White and denying Joe Grant’s offer for him to join the newly-formed model department Marc Davis joined the story crew for Bambi and for three years he worked long and hard doing inspirational sketches, storyboards, and life drawing studies of different forest animals. Marc’s boarded showed an unbelievable richness and understanding of character (among the scenes he animated are the ice-skating sequence and the Twitterpatted sequence) to the point Walt Disney told Milt Kahl and Frank Thomas to teach him to animate so the master could see those drawings up on screen. “His deer looked like deer, for they had lost none of their essential animal appearance or character but they could be understood as having human thoughts and emotions,” wrote Thomas and Ollie Johnston. Davis’s animation on the film was equally fantastic and he even animated my absolute favorite scene in the film, the one where Flower falls in love. There’s just so much caricature, brilliant staging, and strong feelings of love and passion in that scene- it’s contagious! “When the thing came on the screen there the theater almost burst with laughter,” gladly remembers the animator. ”I connected with the audience for the first time. That the first feeling only happens once. “ After Bambi Marc returned to story and did great boards for Victory Through Airpower, including the eagle and octopus fight (the last scene Bill Tytla ever did for Disney.) He however was very disappointed to learn he didn’t receive screen credit on the film.
In 1944 Marc Davis returned to animation by being the first animator assigned to the ambitious but controversial Song of the South, where his animation showed brilliant characterization and personality that evens transcends his success on Bambi. He did the first scenes with Briar Rabbit as well as the amazing scene where the fox and the bear build the tar baby. “They were great characters to work with and it was interesting since it was the first feature we’d done in a while,” said Davis. After Song of the South he first did a little bit of animation on Fun and Fancy Free and then a big chunk of animation on the Wind and the Willows sequence in Ichabod and Mr. Toad including the scenes of the Toad and his horse Cyril going through the countryside and the intense scene where Mole removes a document from a sleeping villain. After that Marc was assigned to work with Eric Larson on the protagonist of Cinderella. However the two didn’t see eye to eye about the character in many ways was a more controlled and less-intense reflection of the dispute between their mentors Ham Luske and Grim Natwick. Eric (who came on the film first and did more footage) wanted a sweet sixteen-year-old girl with a pug nose while Marc wanted what Eric called a “more exotic” female. Ultimately the two meshed very well together and the two visions bring out an interesting, dynamic character: Cinderella is sweet, homely, and compassionate but also is very intelligent and knows the way she’s treated by her stepfamily is not right. I particularly like the scene Marc did where she is mopping and then receives the invitation from the prince. The gestures and posture she shows show her feelings and character very effectively. He also animated the girl in the Bibbity- Boppity-Boo sequence and in the heart-breaking scene where her stepsisters tear apart her dress.
Much to his dismay Davis wound up animating realistic women many more times that decade. “Moving a girl with rotoscope is a pretty rotten way to make a living,” he once said. “One of the things Milt Kahl and I suffered from was that we both could draw so much better than some of the others. We both had a better understanding of the human figure and there simply weren’t that many guys who could handle them”(Milt was even more frustrated and vocal about being typecast to realistic princes.) Marc did several scenes with Alice in Alice in Wonderland including her in the Mad Tea Party sequence. Then he moved on to Peter Pan where he received a more interesting, challenging assignment: to animate the majority of Tinker Bell in Peter Pan. She couldn’t speak but Davis did a great job at using body posture, walks, and expressions to make her a big presence in the feature. I also think that now is time to correct a big Disney urban legend: Tinker Bell is NOT modeled off of Marilyn Monroe but is off of actress Margaret Kelly. Marc also did a little of Wendy as well. After Peter Pan he skipped Lady and the Tramp to move on to the long and exhausting production of Sleeping Beauty so he could animate two characters, the charming Aurora and the evil Maleficent. “Sleeping Beauty is a milestone of a certain type of feature that we never did again,” Davis once explained when giving a lecture. “We did a lot more design with the characters than we had ever done before or would ever do again. Sleeping Beauty herself was more designed in two-dimensional shapes than any other character we’ve done. “ While the animator was pretty used to doing princesses such as Aurora Maleficent proved to be a challenge. “She basically stood very and talked directly to the audience,” reflected Marc. “She had very little interaction with the other characters. That’s extremely difficult to bring across. She had to be large and dominant because she frightened everybody half to death.” The problem worked out and the understated acting of Maleficent was very well done. Her reserved, creepy nature makes her a very effective villain and her devil-like design only adds to the fear she brings to audiences. That performance was particularly influential to Andreas Deja when he animated Jafar in Aladdin.
After Sleeping Beauty, Marc Davis had the ultimate assignment: he designed and animated every scene of the flamboyant Cruella de Vill in One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Cruella is only similar to Maleficent in that they’re both villains: she’s all but reserved, explosive, short-tempered, entertaining, and constantly interacts with the other characters. “Cruella was a rare opportunity,” Davis told Michael Barrier. “We had some live action but I found you had to use it very loosely.” “Cruella was comparatively simple,” he said on another occasion. “She was always working with somebody-slamming them around or whatever. Lou Gerson’s vocalization told me this character was bigger than life, high in energy, and like a shark, always moving. I really wanted to make her move like somebody you didn’t like.” She is very effective because she’s caricatured, over the top, and has a great balance of being threatening but not being terrifying to the point she’s not entertaining. My personal favorite scene Marc did of her is the one where she forcefully grabs the beer bottle from Jasper’s hand, throws into the fireplace, and has a huge fit about how she’ll punish her if they haven’t killed the puppies by the next morning. That scene shows so much anger and you really see her explode and dominate Horace and Jasper when her frustration has been ticked to the highest possible amount. After Cruella Davis worked for a year developing a scrapped-film before leaving animation to work in WED, where he designed many theme park rides for the Disney parks. He retired in 1978 although he remained in active part of the Disney community until his death in 2000.
In terms of artistry and style what stands out about Marc Davis is his feel and understanding of character combined with his excellent, natural draftsmanship. “If you can’t draw it you can’t animate it,” the animator proudly remarked. “The importance of knowing how to draw, how to think in terms of animating, was the key to my success.” His drawings have great appeal and roundness but still have accurate anatomy and realistic movement. If you study any of his scenes you’ll notice Marc uses very believable and sincere gestures, walks, and expressions in his animation. Two great examples of this include the scene where Tinker Bell is going through the Darling house and the scene where Aurora is telling the fairies about how she’s in love. The second one is particularly brilliant in that it’s very graceful and you totally recognize that’s the way teenage girls act and talk about the feelings they have for guys they’re in love with. “The one thing we have tried to do is to create a personality that has consistency,” the great artist explained. “You know how this particular character is going to react in any given situation. You’re not going to have a rabbit be inconsistent with being a rabbit. Their motivations are consistent as well- the rabbit hops, the fox slinks. We would put a character in different situations not knowing how he would behave, and his behavior would become as clear as we imagined ourselves to be him. In animation, you’re creating a consistency between the character and the environment. I don’t think anyone can do that as well as animation. It is anything your imagination will permit you to do.” While Davis’s drawings have complicated drawing the movement in them is pretty smooth and fluid. Unlike Kahl his poses flow into each other without going crooked and his assistants had a very easy time following him up (he usually animated on the easy 4s instead of the particular 3s Frank and Milt were notorious with assistants for using.) Also staging was something that Marc Davis was an absolute master at doing. A prime example is of the scene where Bambi meets Flower. Instead of doing it from the front, he animated Flower coming out of the flowers from the back making the fact the animal is a skunk clear and showing the interaction between him and Bambi. Last Marc Davis’s creativity and versatility were vital to his success. He literally could do pretty much anything when it came to what he could draw and animate. For this to work Marc combined what he observed from life and put it together with what ideas he got from his imagination to stunning results. He sums it up perfectly, “The thing with creativity is that there’s always something new to do out there. So why not give it a try?”
Coming to influence Marc Davis has left a massive imprint on the legacy of Disney animation. His creativity, versatility, understanding of character and story, breathtaking draftsmanship, and skills as an animator and designer have inspired animators for generations including Andreas Deja, Mark Henn, Bruce Smith, and many others. In his time period Davis was significant not only because of his abilities but also because he put the picture, story, and character first. For example who knows if Snow White as a character would’ve worked if he hadn’t worked hard to comprise the differences Natwick and Luske had over the characters? Also would Bambi have turned out to be the wonderful picture it was if it weren’t for Marc’s story drawings that really showed everyone the picture and characters could work? Davis to this day is still one of the very best draftsman the Disney studio ever had and one of the best at making the human figure work. His work in story and character design also had a big impact on the pictures. Last Marc Davis brought great character consistency, brilliant performances, well-conceived and believable personalities, and beautiful animation to Disney animation that has changed the art form forever.
How do I even start in expressing how Marc Davis has influenced me. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from him it’s the importance of knowing how to draw the character and understanding their personality. Davis’s work opened my eyes to how much having the character consistent and believable has on the feel of the picture and most importantly the way it impacts how the audiences feels about the character. Also his acting and performance skills are so inspiring and studying them is a great way to learn about character animation at its best. Last I feel that Marc Davis’s versatility, hard work effort, and perfection of his draftsmanship is a great example and something that anyone who wants to do something important in animation should look up to. Thank you Marc Davis for the influence you’ve had on me and your contributions to Disney Animation!