Cartoon character

Disney’s latest feature film, Hercules, credits Gerald Scarfe as its production designer. A strange choice maybe? Nick Smurthwaite finds out that it was just destiny.

Think Disney, think cutesy, cuddly, quaint, an idealised world in which good always triumphs over evil, perfect princesses are awakened by a kiss, and the virtuous live happily ever after. Think Gerald Scarfe, think spiky, twisted, grotesque, the stuff of nightmares, a world of jagged mutants and fierce distortions.

A less likely partnership is hard to imagine, but the latest Disney production, Hercules, credits Scarfe, scourge of British politics for more than three decades, as production designer. What’s going on?

Has our foremost political cartoonist gone soft? Did Mickey Mouse make him an offer he couldn’t refuse? Or did he see it as an unmissable opportunity to subvert the usual Disney formula with that anarchic take on humanity for which he is justly renowned?

I put the question to him at his Chelsea home.

“I’ve always been a Disney fan. When I was a child, the latest Disney film was a huge event for me. Though it may not be apparent, I feel there has always been a strong Disney vein running through my work, the humour, the line. Disney is partly the reason I’m a cartoonist. It certainly didn’t come from looking at James Gillray or William Hogarth, because I didn’t know anything about them when I was young.

“Being involved with Hercules was almost like one of the those pre-destined things, pulling together my love of Greek mythology, Greek sculpture and ceramics, and, of course, this childhood passion for Disney cartoons.”

In addition to his twin gifts as draughtsman and satirist, both entirely self-taught, Scarfe also has a talent for reinventing himself every few years. In the Sixties he was a dashing and prolific ornament of Swinging London, providing the then new and shocking Private Eye with outrageous covers. He began his enduring tenure at The Sunday Times way back in 1967, and soon became the best known and most talked-about cartoonist in the land. Alan Coren once said that he had the ability to capture a personality in such a way that you couldn’t remember the original person.

Scarfe made his first transatlantic impression in the late Sixties, designing a series of papier mâché figures for the cover of Time magazine. He also tried his hand at theatre design and making 3D representations of his caricatures or, to put it another way, sculpture. His first exhibitions in London and New York made him re-consider his role of satirical commentator.

“I was astounded and thrilled that people were interested enough to come to look at my pictures and sculptures. I saw them laughing out loud and realised that I was in the business of entertainment. I rather enjoyed all that.”

His first brush with animation was in the mid-Seventies, when Pink Floyd invited him to make animated films for their concerts. “I set up a studio of about 40 animators in the Fulham Road,” he says. “I tried to train them to think my way, but so many animators are trained in the ‘squash and bounce’ school, where characters walk by rising up and sinking down on every step.”

The culmination of this work, Alan Parker’s film of Pink Floyd – The Wall, on which Scarfe was production designer, contained some remarkable innovations, both in terms of animation and live action. It was not, however, an experience he recalls with a lot of affection.

“I had imagined that a collaboration between three people from different art forms (director Alan Parker and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd) would be fruitful. It was not fruitful, it was hell. But what else can you expect when you put three megalomaniacs in a room together?”

This may well explain why it took him nearly 20 years to dip another toe into the cinematic whirlpool. Yet when the invitation came to be consultant designer on Hercules, he didn’t hesitate for a moment.

“The characters didn’t have to be human so it gave me free rein to use my imagination. Disney sent me a script and said I could do what I liked with it. Once I got into it, I really didn’t want to let it go. It consumed me totally,” he says.

“As time went on they gave me the title production designer, the first time Disney has ever used an outsider in that capacity. I spent a year working alone on the designs, then I had to go and meet the animators. When I handed over my designs, I thought they’d want me to shove off and let them get on with it. But they really took me on board and tried to reproduce my style.”

Scarfe found the atmosphere at Disney’s Burbank fun factory surprisingly relaxed, with no discernible hierarchy. “The animators sit in their little cubicles all day, doing this painstaking work. It’s a strange mixture of isolation and collaboration because they’re all working towards the same goal, yet in these sealed-off units.”

It’s a feeling with which most artists, illustrators and designers can identify. Clearly Scarfe is a classic split personality himself when it comes to work. “Whenever I’m working on something on my own, like a book or a sculpture, I can’t wait to do something collaborative, like a play or a film. I find cartooning insufficient. All these other things I do are an escape from the inevitability of drawing yet another politician I can’t stand. I got bored stiff, drawing Mrs Thatcher week after week,” he says.

“I feel secure in my diversification. I’ve never gone out of my way to shock. I’ve just drawn what I felt like. When people said my drawings were shocking, I was stunned. I suppose some people will say I’ve gone soft doing a Disney film, but I’ve never tried to be fierce.”

Whatever the critical verdicts are on Hercules, there is no disputing the fact that it signifies a new, more abrasive, direction for Disney, thanks largely to Scarfe’s contribution. Whether or not they give him another crack of the whip probably depends on its performance at the box office. But he is in no doubt that he’d like to have another go.

“Animation is magic. To make a static drawing move and come to life is an artist’s dream. Yet it has been so unexplored as an art form. There is no reason why it should all be cute little ducks and big bad wolves. You can’t help wondering what Picasso or Matisse would have done with this medium. The possibilities are limitless,” he says.

The making of Hercules

Hercules may not be quite as innovative as Disney claims, but there is no avoiding the impact of Gerald Scarfe. His richly malevolent imagination hovers over this otherwise wholesome Disney feast like a beady-eyed vulture. Scimitar noses swoop across the screen, eyes bulge to bursting point, and a many-headed monster looks unnervingly like Ridley Scott’s Alien.

It is the villain of the piece, Hades, king of the underworld – the best baddie since Jungle Book’s Shere Khan – who steals the show, with his shark-like teeth, oily voice (of actor James Woods), and hair permanently aflame.

The reason the credits for a full-length animation take almost as long to roll as the film itself is that each character is assigned his or her own animator. So, for two years, Hades was the plaything of Disney stalwart Nik Ranieri, who worked on Beauty and the Beast and Pocahontas.

While he drew inspiration from Scarfe’s ‘concept drawings’, Ranieri says it was the voice work of James Woods that made the character come alive. ‘I couldn’t wait to get back to the drawing board and try to bring some of his expressions and features to the character.’

So many creative sensibilities and egos are involved in producing an animated feature, it’s something of a miracle when, as with Hercules, all the leading players emerge from it not only speaking to each other, but singing each other’s praises. Clearly, there were tensions in the initial stages of animation, Scarfe having submitted a year’s worth of ‘concept’ material from the glorious isolation of his Chelsea studio.

Art director Andy Gaskill says, ‘In the beginning we looked at his drawings and said “These are really preposterous”. His characters are so sharp, you could cut yourself on them. We’d never seen anything like them for an animated film. But once the animations started to come back and I saw that his designs were reflected in the work, I knew we had something that broke all the rules and stretched us in ways that were challenging for a lot of people.’

Though he remained based in London, Scarfe made a number of sorties to Disney’s nerve centre in Burbank, California, where he worked closely with Andy Gaskill and the team to ensure a unified look. ‘I wanted it to look like a world of its own, so I worked on every aspect of character and concept, from Hercules and Hades to passers-by in Thebes. Each animator wanted to know what his character looked like from the back, the side, whether he had pointy ears, how long his legs were. They imagine themselves as the characters and make them come alive. They have to be actors as well as artists.’

Five seconds of film requires 60 drawings, so you can imagine why it takes three years to produce a feature-length cartoon. Most of Hercules was hand-drawn, with computers only used for one or two special effects sequences.

A self-confessed techno-phobe, Scarfe did not involve himself in the computer graphics, even though they are used to stunning effect in a scene in which the monstrous Hydra, locked in combat with Hercules, grows back three heads for every one our hero slices off. At the climax of this terrifying tussle, his opponent has 30 heads, all snarling simultaneously.

Disney’s computer graphics wiz Roger Gould had the challenge of choreographing the movement of the heads. Bringing the Hydra to life required a staggering 23 392 custom-made animation controls. ‘We had to teach the computer to “draw” each frame in a hand-drawn style. The difficulty was dealing with the equivalent of 30 characters and keeping the viewer focused on the main action,’ says Gould.

Despite the effectiveness of the Hydra sequence, Scarfe has his doubts about the use of computer graphics in the creative process. ‘As an artist I doubt its validity. It doesn’t allow for the element of accident in art that is part of its uniqueness, the human element that differentiates one work of art from another,’ he says.

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