Charlie Thorson: Character Design In Classic Animation
Charlie Thorson wasn't the first character designer to work in America's animation factories, but circumstances, plus his own talent and adventurous spirit, made him one of the most sought after and influential.
Thorson was 45 and divorced when he left a secure position as a graphic artist and catalogue illustrator in Winnipeg, Canada to try his hand at the animation business. He was twice the age of most of his co-workers and ten years older than his employer when he was hired by Walt Disney in early 1935.
At the time Disney was fixated on "cuteness." Impossibly precocious and cherubic infants plus cuddly and charming anthropomorphized animals predominated. All his characters had large, expressive eyes for communicating wonderment, varying degrees of apprehensiveness, and sensitivity. Most of the characters had heads as big as their bodies and were built on pear-shaped or vertical dumb-bell-shaped armatures. These shapes readily connote vulnerability and equipoise, symmetry and instability and help to create overpoweringly cute characters.
Although he had a robust sense of humor, a Viking's taste for women and alcohol, and a restless, pack-up-and-leave attitude, Charlie Thorson soon became an expert at the sentimental cuteness that defined Disney in the 1930s. He could do "cute" better than anyone. For Disney he designed characters for Elmer Elephant, The Old Mill, Wynken, Blynken and Nod, Country Cousin, Toby Tortoise Returns, and most importantly, Little Hiawatha. He also worked on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, telling his friends back in Winnipeg that his design for the main character was modeled after his Icelandic girlfriend. On this is based the local legend that Snow White is Icelandic.
After Leaving Disney
Angry that he was getting neither the money nor the recognition that his contributions deserved, Thorson quit the Disney's employ and immediately went to work for Harman-Ising Studios. He then quickly switched to MGM where he was mainly charged with transforming the ill-fated comic-page characters from The Captain and the Kids into potential movie stars.
After a year at MGM, Thorson jumped to the Warner Bros. camp where he was recruited to provide characters for the young Chuck Jones and the neophyte team of Cal Dalton and Bugs Hardaway. For Jones he created the Sniffles the Mouse characters, Inki, the Little Lion Hunter, and his nemesis, the Mynah Bird, and the curious puppy and pals. Most famously, he designed the prototype for Bugs Bunny, the infamous Elmer Fudd, plus the Rainmaker and the Lady Known as Loo for Dalton and Hardaway. It was one of his most productive and influential periods. He helped initiate Chuck Jones as a director, and he played a crucial role in the creation of characters that are still with us today. But the ever-restless designer stayed at Warners for less than a year.
At first glance, the new Fleischers Studio in Miami must have looked like the best of all possible opportunities for Thorson when he moved there in 1939. His work on Gulliver's Travels was quickly followed by the redesign of all the characters from Raggedy Ann and Andy for an important film featurette and even the redesign of the studio's most famous stars, Popeye and his cohorts. His favorite commission at Fleischers, however, was for The Stone Age cartoon series. This prototype for The Flintstones was based on scores of prehistoric creatures and characters. Thorson both designed and created story ideas for the series. Made in black & white and largely forgotten today, these cartoons were the closest Thorson came to studio contentment. When the Fleischer Brothers Studio was closed, he was devastated, but not without prospects.
After Leaving Disney