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Not Just Your Average Joe: Disney Legend Joe Grant

At 91, Joe Grant is the only artist to have worked on both Fantasia and Fantasia 2000. Mike Lyons catches up with this special working Joe.

Joe Grant.

Joe Grant.

The dedication to John Canemaker's book, Before the Animation Begins, reads: "For Joe Grant, who continues to inspire us all." Truer words were never written. At age 91, Joe Grant serves as a bridge between Disney's illustrious past and their current successes. He began his career at the Disney studio in 1933 as a conceptual artist and story man and still works there today! During the studio's first Golden Age, Grant was head of the Character Model Department. He worked on the studio's first feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as well as Saludos Amigos, Make Mine Music and Alice in Wonderland. With Dick Huemer, Grant was in charge of story for Fantasia and Dumbo. Grant left Disney in 1949, but returned to the studio in the '90s, to contribute conceptual art for today's seemingly endless string of Disney blockbusters. In fact, one of Grant's conceptual ideas became the basis for "Carnival of the Animals," a segment in the upcoming Fantasia 2000. This makes Grant the only Disney artist to have worked on both Fantasia's. Joe Grant, who was honored as a Disney Legend in 1992, recently took time out for a very "animated" interview. Mike Lyons: Well, first off, if someone had told you, back in the late Thirties, when you were working on the original Fantasia, that sixty years later, at the turn of the century, you'd be working on the sequel, what would your reaction have been? Joe Grant: Surprise [laughs]. But, Fantasia was, more or less, destined to be repeated sometime again, because it was an extraordinary adventure. I think Roy Disney has done a remarkable job [with Fantasia 2000], which is very faithful to "the Disney plan." The original had a different approach. This one is a little more lighthearted. I'd like to see these things continue on. There's a chance that we could help to immortalize some great music, as well as some of the more modern stuff. ML: For the first Fantasia, Walt Disney placed you and Dick Huemer in charge of, not only story direction, but also charged you with picking out the music. How did you decide which pieces of music to use? JG: We played and played music, just short of lunacy [laughs]. It was really quite difficult. It worked back and forth. Either something was suggested by the drawings, or by the music itself. But, there's always a good story in a good piece of music. ML: You worked extensively with Dick Huemer at the studio. You once drew a caricature of the two of you -- it depicts a head, that's half of your face and half of Dick Huemer's face. Does that caricature sum up your working relationship with him -- sharing the same brain, so to speak? JG: Definitely. I think that explains it quite well. For Fantasia, Dick had a background in music and so did I. My grandfather was the first violinist in the L.A. Symphony. Music was played at all hours in my house. If my dad came home a little "swacked," he'd play Chopin until three or four in the morning. I had music all over me. ML: You and Dick Huemer worked on the story for Dumbo together. Where did that concept come from? JG: It came from outside the studio, in that, it was a little book that was done up in the form of a scroll. There was something like six or eight pictures in it. Walt gave it to us and said, "See what you can do with this." We took it into a room and figured that it can't be a bad idea, although it's skimpy. There was a handicapped elephant and a circus background, so we knew that there had to be a story in there somewhere. That was really how it began.

ML: I also understand that you and Dick gave Walt pages of the script a little at a time, like a chapter serial, to kind of peak his interest. JG:

Yes and I still do that today, even without Dick. You've got to stump for your ideas. You've got to be totally annoying, instead of being rude [laughs]. With little Cri-Kee in Mulan, I went around selling him for a couple of months before they finally realized that it had possibilities.

ML: You first came to the studio in 1933 and it was initially your knack for caricatures that brought you to Disney. Tell me about that. JG:

I was a caricaturist on the L.A. Record at the time. I did a full page of caricatures every Saturday. Walt saw that and decided that he wanted to use caricatures in a cartoon, Mickey's Premiere. That started me off and then one day he asked, "How would you like to work here, full-time?" And, I thought, "This is fantastic. What an opportunity. Music, art, everything in one place." So, I said, "Yes." ML: On Snow White, your conceptual art of the Queen and her alter ego, the Witch, helped form the basis for the character. Walt wanted the Queen to be a combination of "Lady MacBeth and the Big Bad Wolf," but what inspirations did you call upon for the Witch? JG: It was actually the woman who lived across the street from me. She had a basket and used to pick persimmons. I changed persimmons to apples. I didn't like to publicize that for years, but fortunately, she's gone now and I don't think there are any existing relatives, so you can print it [laughs]. ML: It was after Snow White that Walt asked you to initiate and take charge of the Character Model Department. JG: That's right. His problem was: "What do we do for an encore?" When he gave me an opportunity to get a group of artists together, we had sort of a think tank. In doing so, he would visit us two or three times a day. He seemed to be inspired and he inspired us at the same time. ML: You once called the Character Model Department a "brain trust." JG: In a way it was. But, Walt was the brain. ML: I'm sure you're asked this a lot, but, as someone who worked so closely with Walt Disney, what was he like? JG: One thing about Walt was that he wasn't that difficult to know. He was a man full of ideas. You have to remember that he was an actor. He realized how important the word "casting" was. He knew the capabilities of everybody and he did a wonderful job of casting every picture that we made. Each person was suited to the particular job that they got. ML: You left the studio in 1949 and came back in the early '90s. What was it like to come back to the studio after so many years? JG: It was like Rip Van Winkle, except that nothing had changed. It was the same thing. You really do pick it up again. Artists have been referred to as a dime a dozen, but they really don't change much over the years. ML: Just as a final question, as someone who is so passionate about animation, what has it been like for you to not only have been there at the studio when things first took off into the first Golden Age, but to have come back for this second Golden Age? JG: Well...I'd like to come back for the third. Mike Lyons is a Long Island-based freelance writer who has written over 100 articles on film and animation. His work has appeared in Cinefantastique, Animato! and The Disney Magazine.