Animation great, Hans Bacher examines his own and his colleague’s work on Disney projects in Dream Worlds. Today, we are sharing an excerpt where Hans discusses the importance of research and reference materials. He also provides a brief glimpse of the reference materials, art, and team that inspired and created Aladdin’s majestic enviornment.
The research part can be very time consuming as it depends on how complicated the project is. Sometimes it is very easy to get the right reference within a short time; once in a while it is impossible.
That’s why Disney arranged for research trips for many years for some of the leading designers of a project. They went to Africa for The Lion King; to Peru for the Emperor’s New Groove; to the Greek Islands for Hercules; and to France for Beauty and the Beast, where I was fortunate enough to be able to join them. Unfortunately, I was not part of the group of artists that went to China for Mulan.
In that case you would depend on books, television documentaries, movies and the Internet. It is the time when you go back to school and learn how things look, and learn how to draw them. During this time, you create the foundation for your style of the movie. The more thorough your research is, the fewer problems you will face during production. During the last stage, there will be no time left for studying.
Case Study: Aladdin
Working on Aladdin was a good experience. Ron Clements and John Musker wrote the script and directed the movie. Some musical numbers were written by the experienced team of Beauty and the Beast, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. The story went through a lot of major changes. In the very beginning there were a few additional characters such as Aladdin’s mother, but soon the story was streamlined.
The environment was that of 1001 Arabian Nights and had to be designed well. There are a lot of movies that are set in that world, and we wanted to come up with something new. I found a lot of reference art books about the Orientalists, a group of mostly French painters around the end of the nineteenth century who concentrated on Middle Eastern themes. And I studied Persian miniature art for the palace garden. There were so many new art influences that I had never really cared about before. Among the Orientalist painters, I soon found my favorites: Jacques Majorelle and Jean-Leon Gerome.
The style that Richard van der Wende, the assigned production designer, came up with was very interesting as well, a mixture of Orientalist paintings and the cartoony style that the studio used for Peter and the Wolf and some other shorts such as Bongo from the mid-forties. I came back to these shorts when I developed the style for Mulan several years later. So, it was a great learning time.
Then Eric Goldberg arrived. I had met Eric for the first time in 1977 in London when he worked for Richard Williams Animation. Later Eric had his own studio, Pizazz, in London. He decided to close it down and to move with his wife, Susan, to LA. As far as I remember, he had had enough of the business stress. Well, Eric took care of the genie, and he just cranked out hundreds of drawings in the shortest time. He was used to a different speed from his commercial days. And the genie he developed was amazing. We couldn’t wait for the next animation tests.
Then there was Daan Jippes, a comic creator, again in story-boarding. We had worked together on Beauty and the Beast and had become good friends. He was the storyboard genius. All of his boards could be framed and hung on the wall. What a draftsman. Later, when I was in London working on Balto, I convinced him to join us and he did the most amazing sequences. They influenced the animation completely. And we worked together again on Mulan.
Together, it was a very talented group of artists; not to forget Bill Perkins as art director; Kathy Altieri, head of background; and Rasoul Azadani, head of layout, and of course a little bit later when I was already working on The Lion King, Andreas Deja who animated Jaffar, one of the best characters in the movie, Mark Henn who animated the beautiful Jasmine, and Glen Keane with Aladdin.
I got along with Richard van der Wende very well, and during the short time I worked on the movie I was able to design some interesting areas, such as the lion head in the desert, master sculpted for CG reference by sculptor Kent Melton. I was lucky enough to work with Kent for many years on a lot more movies. Then there was the whole cave sequence. It was fun to do the designs because I liked effects, and there were a lot of them: exploding lava, fire and underwater. A bit later there was the treasure cave with all the collected treasures of the world: gold and jewelry. And I worked on the styling of the palace garden. That ended up very simplified in the final version.
Richard was a master painter. He had worked at ILM before and he had some matte-painting experience. Usually he painted the key backgrounds himself, very much as Eyvind Earle had done for Sleeping Beauty. That gave the other painters a good example in which they could follow. When Richard was busy with one of his masterpieces, I had to fill the gap and design some of the missing areas. They were usually very fast felt-pen sketches. Once in a while I worked in pastel. It was an incredible learning experience to work with all these artists. And I think it was the “masterclass” in the “Film Design School” that prepared me for the upcoming projects of the following years.
Hans Bacher been a major influence on the design of Disney films for nearly 20 years. His work appears in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Lion King, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Hercules and Mulan. He won the prestigious “Annie” animation award for “Outstanding Individual Achievement for Production Design in an Animated Feature Production” for his work on Mulan.