INFO: Marc Davis-Walt Disney’s Renaissance man by Bill Iadonisi
Marc Davis-Walt Disney’s Renaissance man by Bill Iadonisi
Walt Disney once quoted…”You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality”. Walt knew that his draftsmanship and artistic abilities, even as his started his “Newman Laugh-O-Grams studio in 1921 was passable at best. He understood that in order to achieve his lofty dreams of a successful animation studio, he needed talented animators and workers. Any Disney fan knows that throughout the Disney Company history, Walt surrounded himself with the finest talented people he could find. Maybe Walt was not the greatest animator, but his forte was his creative genius and amazing storyteller. This combined with the vast pool of talent under his roof; he molded the most successful family entertainment empire, second to none.
The vast amount of people working for the studio over the years was like stars in the night sky, some were brighter than others, but their combined talent is how Walt found success. Walt also quoted… “We allow no geniuses around our Studio”, which reinforced Walt’s idea that no one man can do it all or is indispensible. One of the most prolific and talented artists who worked for Walt was one Marc Davis. Marc Fraser Davis was born on March 30th, 1913 in Bakersfield California. He was the only child of Mildred and Harry Davis. Because of his father’s job in the oil business, which required him to follow the new oil fields as they developed, the family moved around quite a bit as Marc was growing up. He attended more than 20 different schools during his childhood.
After graduating High School, Marc enrolled at the Kansas City Art Institute. He then enrolled in the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco and the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. Marc was also fascinated by animals, and would spend hours drawing all types. He also studied animal anatomy to further hone his skills. Zoo animals became one of his fortes. Because of this expertise, he became the “Animal Expert” at the Disney Studios and his sketches of Bambi are considered one of the finest studies of animal characters at the studio. But during 1935 at the height of the depression, jobs were hard to find, and was grateful when Walt Disney hired him on December 2nd, 1935 as an apprentice animator. Marc had little knowledge or ability in any Disney Studio projects. Despite this, he remained on the staff for 43 years, and his career spanned over 60 years. He was also the last hired among Disney’s “Nine Old Men”, the nine animators that Walt considered the “Core” group of his animation studio.
Marc started as an apprentice animator on Snow White. His major talent was quickly recognized, and his moved on to story sketch and, perhaps one of his most memorable legacies, character design. His drawing of “Bambi” as stated before is considered the best of the animal characters at the studio In addition; he was involved in Thumper and Flower. Many consider greatest gift to the Disney Studios was his drafting of some of Disney’s most famous females…Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty, Tinker Bell in Peter Pan and Cruella De Vil in 101 Dalmatians. Marc then was moved to the Disney design and development organization. It is known today as Walt Disney Imagineering. As an Imagineer, Marc contributed to the Enchanted Tiki Room, the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Jungle Cruise. He also contributed to the Country Bear Jamboree, America Sings and the Western River Expedition (Which was never Built), and the characters presented in the attractions.
It’s interesting to note that Davis his close friend and fellow animator and draftsman Milt Kahl, another member of the Nine Old Men, were both usually assigned to draft the realistic human characters. His drafting skills enabled Davis to bring out the personalities of his characters. For example Maleficent, with her controlled movements, highlighted her icy beauty. Cinderella’ modest gentleness was a complete difference from Tinker Bell’s fiery and impertinent attitude charms. Watch Cruella De Vil overstated gestures and how they stress her ostentatious personality. His sense of style is characterized, for example when in Sleeping Beauty, Briar Rose shakes her head, her hair falls in flowing curls. But both Milt Kahl and Davis both regarded their talents as “Both a blessing and a 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”
In 1961 Walt tapped Marc to assist in designing attractions for the upcoming World’s Fair, and later on he worked on Disney World and Tokyo Disneyland. He did wide-ranging initial work on "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, all before he retired from Disney in 1978. After his retirement, he remained with the Disney Company as an advisor and lecturer. He was honored with presentations of his work, which included exhibitions of his drawings and paintings at the Larry Smith Fine Arts Gallery in Los Angeles. His honors also include programs at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. His advances in new developments in animation led him to grant an annual lecture at the Motion Picture Academy. Marc taught advanced drawing classes at Chouinard Art Institute for 17 years in Los Angeles. He was awarded the prestigious International Animation Society’s Winsor McCay Award, a 1989 Annecy Film Festival honors and a Disney Legends Award from the Studio. Walt Disney once said of Marc Davis…“Marc can do story, he can do character, he can animate, he can design shows for me. All I have to do is tell him what I want and it’s there! He’s my Renaissance man.”
Interviewed several years ago, Marc explained how he learned a piece of his animation found a special place in Walt Disney’s heart. After Cinderella premiered in 1950, a woman at the studio asked…"Mr. Disney, with all the work that's been done at your studio, what is your favorite piece of animation?" Walt thought for a moment and said…"I guess it would have to be where Cinderella got her ball gown." Marc stated that…"I was pleased when I heard that," Davis said, "Because you never got compliments directly from Walt."
Many of the “New Generation” of artists today are inspired by Marc’s talent. Animator Andreas Deja, the animator of Scar in the Lion King and Jafar in Aladdin said that Marc Davis once told him that if you are going to animate Mickey Mouse, don’t think of him as just a little squashy cartoon character. All characters have an inner structure, if you don’t work with that structure you will never succeed. Marc said about his years at Disney… “I rarely felt confined to the animation medium. I worked as an idea man and loved creating characters, whether they are for animation or any other medium." One of Marc’s quotes on Disneyland rides: "We really don't have a story, with a beginning, an end, or a plot. It's more a series of experiences building up to a climax. I call them experience rides."
It is fitting that Marc met his wife, while at the Disney Studios. Alice Estes Davis was born in 1929 in Escalon California. Marc was teaching night classes at Chouinard and met Alice while attended class there. Although they did not start dating, but they both developed a respect for one another. After graduation, Alice became well-known in the fashion world for her pattern-making skills and her extensive knowledge with different types of exotic fabrics. Her career began designing women’s lingerie for the prestigious Beverly Vogue and Lingerie House in Los Angeles. In the mid ‘50’s Alice received a call from Marc. At the studios, dancer Helene Stanley needed a costume as she performed live-action footage for Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty. Marc needed to see how a skirt flowed and moved in order to draft an accurate animation. It was during the project; they fell in love and married in June of 1956.
And by sheer magic, Walt Disney joined the newly married couple at a restaurant one night and took a liking to Alice and expressed his interest in her excellent work. Walt hired her as a costume designer; her first job was designing costumes for the 1960 movie Toby Tyler. She continued to develop costumes for films, the theme parks and television.
In 1989, Marc was named a Disney Legend, and was also the recipient of the much coveted Mousecar. His wife Alice was also named a Disney Legend in 2004. Marc Fraser Davis passed away of a stroke on January 12th, 2000. That was the same month the Marc Frasier Davis Scholarship Fund was formally founded at the California Institute of the Arts. Marc Davis is truly the world's most beloved Renaissance man!