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Remembering Marc

Chuck Jones and Charles Solomon remember Marc Davis, an animation legend.

Marc Davis. Courtesy of Walt Disney Enterprises.

In order to understand, as well as we can, the art of Marc Davis, we start by changing the single word of Mark Twain's brilliant definition of the art of writing: "The difference between the right word and the almost right word, is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug." How close to the edge between triumph and disaster is all drawing and writing; how courageously did Marc (and Mark) risk that razor's edge. Today, grossness and crudity in drawing seems to sadly prevail in animation, but they cannot ever erase the beautiful effectiveness and eventual triumph of the single line as exemplified best by the artistry of Marc Davis. Sincerely, Chuck Jones

Although I'm reluctant to follow the combined eloquence of Chuck Jones and Mark Twain, the editors of Animation World have asked me to add some of my own reflections on the late Marc Davis and his art.

Davis at work on Bambi. Courtesy of Walt Disney Enterprises.

Marc Frasier Davis was born in Bakersfield, California, on March 30, 1913. He studied fine art at the Kansas City Art Institute, the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco and the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. He began working at the Walt Disney Studio in December, 1935. His exceptional draftsmanship and knowledge of human anatomy enabled him to help create some of their most memorable characters during the 42 years he spent there.

Davis and his close friend Milt Kahl -- who was his only rival as a draftsman at the studio -- were usually assigned the realistic human characters in the Disney features. Davis later said these assignments led him and Kahl to regard their talents as "both a blessing and hellish curse. The humans basically carry the story: if the audience doesn't believe in them, it doesn't matter how funny the comedians are."

Maleficent was only one of the many female characters Davis created in his career. © Walt Disney Enterprises.

Davis' polished draftsmanship enabled him to give his characters believable personalities. Cinderella's movements reflect her gentle modesty, while Tinker Bell's saucy walk reveals her impudence. The icily beautiful Maleficent moves with a controlled, reptilian power that contrasts sharply to Cruella de Vil's flamboyant gestures. Davis' work is also distinguished by a pervasive sense of design and pattern. When one of his heroines turns, her garments and hair move in sensual arcs that emphasize her feminine grace.

After 101 Dalmatians (1961), Walt Disney moved Davis from feature animation to designing attractions for the New York World's Fair, Disneyland, Disney World and Tokyo Disneyland. He did extensive preliminary work on "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln," "Pirates of the Caribbean," "It's a Small World" and "The Haunted Mansion" before his retirement in 1978. Davis also taught advanced drawing classes for 17 years at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. His students included commercial animator Bob Kurtz, UCLA animation professor Dan McLaughlin and fashion designer Alice Estes, whom he subsequently married.

The imaginative mind of Marc Davis contributed greatly to Disneyland. © Disney. 1998 Disneyland ®

After his retirement, Davis lectured at the studio and was honored with retrospectives of his work at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Annecy International Animation Festival and a recent exhibition of drawings and paintings at the Larry Smith Fine Arts Gallery in Los Angeles.

Those of us who were privileged to know Marc, remember him as a soft-spoken and gentle man. In a discussion, Marc rarely disagreed. But a questionable idea would be met with raised eyebrows and the comment, "You think so, do you?"

His knowledge of world art was vast and eclectic; he was particularly interested in the art of Papua New Guinea. He appreciated and respected all forms of animation -- provided they were done well. He praised the work of young animators who adhered to the principles of good drawing, anatomical accuracy, appealing design and believable acting, but dismissed inferior or carelessly done work. He drew constantly, noting that if you carried a hard-backed sketch book and a fountain drawing pen, you could draw anywhere. On his visits to New Guinea, he made dazzling sketches in the rain forests; at home, he drew the animals and people he saw on TV in a few sure, powerful strokes.

Marc Davis (1913-2000). Courtesy of Walt Disney Enterprises.

To animators, historians and fans around the world, Marc Davis was a friend, a mentor and an inspiration. We won't see a talent of his magnitude again for a long time.

Ave atque vale.Charles Solomon

Charles Solomon is an internationally respected critic and historian of animation. His most recent books include The Disney That Never Was (Hyperion, 1995), Les Pionniers du Dessin Animé Américain (Dreamland, Paris, 1996) and Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation (Knopf, 1989; reprinted, Wings, 1994). His writings on the subject have appeared in TV Guide, Rolling Stone, The Los Angeles Times, Modern Maturity, Film Comment, The Hollywood Reporter, Millimeter, The Manchester Guardian, and been reprinted in newspapers and professional journals in the United States, Canada, France, Russia, Britain, Israel, the Netherlands and Japan.