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ANIMATORS NOT TAKEN FOR GRANT-ED.

Byline: - David Bloom

In 1933, Walt Disney wanted someone to help the animators of his young studio draw spoofy pictures of Hollywood's stars, for a cartoon called ``Mickey's Gala Premiere.''

He picked a young caricaturist named Joe Grant, who was publishing a page of celebrity drawings every week for the Los Angeles Record newspaper.

``I was not only the logical one, but the one close by,'' Grant cracked.

Well, 65 years later, Grant is still the one close by, slinging ink every day for the Big Mouse, helping Disney Feature Animation create some of its newest films.

Grant turns 90 Friday, though he'll mark it only with ``a quiet dinner.'' More than 70 of his caricatures are in the Smithsonian. And later this month, a collection of his work stretching back to Disney's first full-length feature, ``Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,'' will be honored at an international animation festival in France.

Not a bad gig for an old guy, he'd say with a twinkle in his eye.

Grant created the Witch and Queen characters in ``Snow White,'' using a crotchety neighbor and John Barrymore's Jekyll and Hyde for inspiration. Grant later co-wrote the script for ``Dumbo,'' created with his wife ``Lady and the Tramp'' and developed the story lines for ``Fantasia.''

He founded and headed Disney's Character Model Department before leaving the studio in 1949 to start first a ceramics business and then a greeting card company.

He was coaxed out of semi-retirement eight years ago, and soon was fleshing out the spectacular Busby Berkeley-esque ``Be Our Guest'' scene of ``Beauty and the Beast.''

Grant now forms part of a geezer brain trust of Disney veteran animators that includes another 90-year-old, John Hench, as well as Vance Gerry and Burny Mattinson, who shares a comfortable, third-floor office with Grant in Disney's Animation building in Burbank.

The old-timers provide institutional memory, ideas and feedback for the raft of young talent the studio has accreted in recent years while building up its feature animation division into a powerhouse again, Disney officials said.

Mike Gabriel, who directed ``The Rescuers Down Under'' and ``Pocahontas,'' credits Grant with regularly helping him fix thorny story and character problems.

``It's concepts and character ideas,'' Gabriel said. ``It'll be a little piece of business that solves a character personality problem. That's what Joe's good for: those little seeds that bloom.''

One example was the Grandmother Willow character in ``Pocahontas.'' The original conception had been a Tree of Life whose seasonal changes would frame the story, Gabriel said.

But Grant wanted the tree to be more of a character. He drew a stump with a face, pointing at its rings and remembering back to Pocahontas 300 years earlier, its memory pricked by a ``homeless'' animal picking at a seed caught in the ring.

The image proved too grim for former Disney studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, but from it flowered the idea of the tree as a grandmotherly spiritual adviser to Pocahontas, Gabriel said.

Grant also developed the cricket character in Disney's latest, ``Mulan,'' and now, in a fit of what he calls ``pachydermitis,'' is trying to sell his bosses on another film based on elephants.

Grant, with a self-mocking wit and light step, credits Irish oatmeal and regular hikes around his hilly Glendale home for keeping spry. That, and a few good jokes every day, even at the expense of his employer.

``There's something wrong with the place, hiring a 90-year-old man,'' he said. ``All I can say it's been a hell of a journey. I don't know what the destination is.''

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Photo: ``I was not only the logical one, but the one close by,'' cracks Joe Grant, picked 65 years ago to help the animators of Walt Disney's young studio. Grant is still the one close by, slinging ink every day for the Big Mouse, helping Disney Feature Animation create some of its newest films.

Tom Mendoza/Daily News
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

 
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 14, 1998
Words:655
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