Wednesday, July 17, 2013

When You Wish Upon A Character... (How Design in Disney Movies Affects the Way Fairy Tales Are Perceived & Why We Should Care)

Tangled Concept Art with earlier versions of Mother Gothel & Rapunzel
Note: This post is very image heavy and I've had a devil of a time trying to get the images to stick where I put them. As I'm now out of time, I want to apologize in advance if there are any weird formatting issues through the post!

For me, I know I just have to catch a glimpse of certain H.J. Ford drawings and I'm in love with that tale all over again. The same goes for Rackham and many other illustrator's fairy tale work.

Disney images, however, aren't as subtle as sitting in a book waiting for us to open it again. They tend to work their way into our everyday lives via toys, marketing, spreading through pop culture and social media, and, as a result, tend to be a little more insidious in making their impressions on people (especially people who have no basis for comparison because they don't read/were never read many tales). Because of this, it's a good idea to take a hard look at the difference between the characters we love in fairy tales and how Disney (and other popular entertainment - movies & TV in particular) portray them to see just how big the gap is between.

What is the pop culture impression and what's missing? Because for a lot of people that "is" the tale. Though that is never the real intent of the creators of these films, the effect can be to (almost) erase any lingering non-Disney ideas and associations, rather than the effect illustrated books used to have, which was open the world of imagination further than ever beyond the text (ie. the complete opposite).
Can you tell who these characters are from their early concept drawings?
 HERE to take the quiz...
It's one of the reasons I think it's important for concept art to get out there - to show people what could have been and, if the information is available, why these alternate/early designs were created in the first place and why they were ultimately replaced with something else.
Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty) 1
Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty) 2
The fairy aspect is a lot clearer here with the antennae
  ✒ ✒ ✒  ✒ (click the "Read more" link below this line) ✒ ✒ ✒ ✒ ✒ 

Ursula (Little Mermaid) 1
Ursula (Little Mermaid) 2
Ursula (Little Mermaid) 3

Dark haired Ariel (Little Mermaid)

Blonde Ariel (Little Mermaid)
A very different King Triton
What you're scrolling through here is partly pulled from a post on Buzzfeed (currently getting passed around Twitter and Facebook at speed) and partly from multiple other sources but all are genuine early designs for characters you will be familiar with if you watch Disney movies. I could have just pointed to the post (which essentially says: "Look at what they could have been! Whoa!" and "What the hey is going on with the antennae here?!" etc), but I think fairy tale people should be aware of the impact on story and the overall impressions the public is left with regarding these tales we love. The more we understand this - especially in an age which is becoming more and more visual-across-boundaries via social media - the better we can focus our efforts in retelling and spreading the word about tales, and hopefully get some of the ones that are falling into obscurity back out there!
Early dwarfs
Early Snow White (extra period costume)

Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) 1
Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) 2

Early Tiana (Princess & Frog) 1
Early Tiana 2

Early Tiana 3
Early Tiana 4

Early storyboard & Tiana design (The Princess & the Frog)
 It's never a surprise to find out Disney's fairy tale characters undergo quite an evolution (or metamorphosis) but you have to wonder how different the fairy tale Disney ended up telling would have been if they'd just changed (or kept) a certain look (including quirks and antics - everything that goes along with the physical). I won't go into the details of what the effect would be if design "x" were chosen over design "y", mainly because for any movie already made it's a moot point. (I would be fascinated to see, however, what the effect would be with a "typical" audience if designs were substituted for different characters. I'm pretty sure people would find a different emphasis on the story overall and while some scenes wouldn't work at all, others would blow people away...). And that's a large part of the push and pull in development - story vs appeal, practicalities vs artistic input and in the end there's always a compromise somewhere. It doesn't mean the results are bad, it just means everyone involved wishes they could have done "this", added "that", pushed a little more in "that there " direction etc but at some point you have to decide on one thing and run with it. The problem with Disney design is that it's difficult to escape it, to see anything else and it becomes the only version of that tale people know.
The Beast 1
The Beast 2

The Beast carrying an early Beauty (I LOVE this one!)

The Beast 3

The Beast 4

Belle 1 (period French)
Belle 2 (very French!)
Early Gaston
Gaston 2

Some of the sculptures seen in the castle are early concept version of the Beast.
We all know that in the process of developing any project, the main characters will often change  - whether in appearance or key attributes. It gets more interesting when you're dealing with characters that people already have an impression of, say, when you're trying to visualize a fairy tale character. Admit it. One of the things you are most curious about with the multiple live action Beauty & the Beast interpretations in development or production right now is, how will The Beast look and move? Correct? Whatever you end up with will be judged by many people and will also give very distinct impressions of one aspect of that character/person (and you want to make sure it's the right one for the story you're telling).
Mother Gothel 1
Mother Gothel 2

Kai & Gerda (early Snow Queen)
Early Gerda 2
Early Gerda 1 (now Anna - Snow Queen/Frozen)
Early Gerda/Anna 2 (Snow Queen/Frozen)

2d Elsa, Anna & Kristoff (before back to CG) - Frozen 
Take any of the early designs here: imagine, if you will, how a story would have been different if you saw these characters playing the parts of their respective fairy tale. Would the story emphasis have changed? Would it have given more gravity as a movie overall? Less? What could you have seen these characters do (in the context of the fairy tale you know) that their eventual counterparts didn't?
3 headed genie
Creepy (more traditional)genie

Aladdin 1
Aladdins 2 & 3

Jasmine 1
Jasmine 2
Jasmine 3
I am developing a real appreciation for cosplayers (costume players) who bring specific designs to life and put these "pop-cultured characters" into different situations (famous places, outdoors etc) and revisions; from steampunk to unhappy endings to changing the main character's  heritage. The historical Disney costume cosplayers that have become so very popular, are a good example (see below).

Shoomlah (deviantArt) began researching and drawing Disney Princesses in historically accurate costumes and now tsu-yaa (tumblr) brought her Snow White design to life (tsu-ya in her created costume, shot at Schloss Puchberg - Wels (Austria) by Martina Pöll). 
Not only are these people replicating costumes (ie constructing wearable clothes from drawings) and photographing scenes of the tales like this but they, too, are giving them new life and using their own form of storytelling - one that spreads very, very quickly. (And is proving extremely popular!) I think it again, reflects something about how people, current society, are connecting to these fairy tales and that people WANT to find new socially shared forms. I say "socially shared" because people want to share their experience of connecting with a tale, which is why memes are so popular (and why fan bases for shows like Once Upon A Time are so active). Most people see them (the memes, shows, hear the quotes etc), they're instant fodder for references elsewhere in pop-culture (eg comedy shows etc) and it doesn't have to be explained. It's quick, easy and people love the shorthand of sharing tales this way.
An early  blue Tinkerbell 1
       Tinkerbell 2

Tinkerbell 3


As far as Disney final designs go, there are many factors that have to be taken into account: the style of design and whether it fits with the story being developed, how "animate-able" it is (for whatever technique they're using or developing), how well it works in combination with other character designs and, these days, is it "toyable" (yes, I believe that's an actual word now.)

Tinkerbell 4
Tinkerbell 5
Tinkerbell 6

For my part I wish there were a way to capture that "bring a story book to life" essence the earlier films had (and Beauty & the Beast did at times as well). The result of this effect is that people go back to reading the tales, to finding different retellings and to exploring the concepts and story of the fairy tale itself. There are only two instances in which I now feel I get close to that again:
1) looking at the concept art books (aka "Art Of" books). It's only then that the worlds and potential of the story open back up to me and free my way of thinking again.
2) the fan art being made by people everywhere from screencaps (screen captured images) combining images, effects and text to tell their own impressions or insights into a story. Because the images have already been seen by others who have connected with the material (and tales) in their own way, its' the new combination/presentation that grabs people's attention and gives the story another dimension, giving it new life. (And yes, some of that makes us cringe but the important thing is that people are talking tales and sharing.)

What about you? If you could choose, what would you have done differently regarding character designs in Disney movies?

You can see more "what could have beens" of these characters and others at the Buzzfeed post (meme?) HERE.

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