For Hercules, Disney’s animated take on the ancient myth, filmmakers John Musker and Ron Clements sought inspiration in an unlikely place: the work of British cartoonist and illustrator Gerald Scarfe. Known for his energetic, ink-blotted style and sweeping line work (he memorably contributed artwork for Pink Floyd’s classic album The Wall and its subsequent tour and feature film), Scarfe was a left-field choice for Hercules, but one that ended up being a stroke of utter genius.
Musker said that he had been collecting Scarfe’s work since his “childhood in Chicago” and that Scarfe’s role in the development of the film was initially quite small, with him working out of his studio in London, but grew because “he had a real sense of what he called the power and elegance of Greek art, coupled with the rhythmic, calligraphic element in his own work.” “His graphic sense helped make the movie different from other movies that had been done earlier by Disney,” Clements explained. “On any film, everybody has his own style and yet everybody is also trying to focus on the project. The different design sense Gerald has, though, gave the project a special point of view.” And it certainly did give the movie a special point of view, as is evidenced by the concept art below (interspersed with thoughts from Scarfe himself from the period) and the fact that Disney would turn to an outside artist again just a few years later, with Hellboy creator Mike Mignola contributing designs to Atlantis: The Lost Empire.
I reached out to Scarfe to see if he wanted to talk about his time on Hercules, and the illustrator, now 80 years old, wrote me back. Here is his note: “Two students who were kind enough to say they were fans of mine when I had gallery shows and worked for Time and Fortune magazines in the United States during the late 1960’s grew up to be Ron Clements and John Musker. Much, much later Ron and John, who had just a big success with The Little Mermaid film, wrote to me and said would I like to be involved with their next movie, Hercules. Would I?! You bet! As a lifelong fan of Disney it was a dream come true. So I eventually became production designer, delivering designs for all the characters, and a year later working with all the amazing animators in an effort to make the movie have a unified style. There were direction sheets to animators called ‘Mixin’ Scarfe With Disney’ pinned over every desk. A certain amount of my style got into the movie. Naturally it was one of the best times of my life. I always say it’s the nearest I’ll get to being Tom Cruise. Thank you Ron and John.”
“In 1994 I received a call from Disney asking if I would be interested in working on their new animated feature, Hercules. This seemed perfect as I’d always been a Disney fan, and from the age of 16 I had been very interested in Greek art. They flew me to Los Angeles, and there I met the directors, Ron Clements and John Musker. John had been aware of my work since seeing the Sears Vincent Price Gallery show as a student in 1969 in Chicago. I was the first outside designer to work with Disney since Walt asked Salvador Dali in the ‘30s, but that film was never made. They gave me a brief outline of [Hercules] and a script, and I returned to London.”
“Then came the point when, after a year’s work, the designs were finished and I met the main animators in Santa Barbara, California. I was nervous about what they would make of my designs–I knew they were not used to working with an outside designer. In a luxurious hotel near the beach, I spread my drawings out on a very large table in the conference suite. They crowded round and we began to discuss what would and wouldn’t work. After the weekend I was cheered by everybody’s positive attitude and returned to London full of excitement about the project. Thereafter my job with the animators was to look at their drawings and try to keep my style on track. I flew back and forth between London and Los Angeles. When back in London I received a weekly FedEx package full of samples of the latest animation work, which it was my job to alter into my flowing line and style, by tracing over their drawings. I would then send back dozens of my versions. I remember the character of Hercules proved the most difficult character to design. The good are always harder to realize than the wicked. We all seem to enjoy the baddies best. It was suggested early on that the young Elvis Presley or the young Paul Newman could be models for Hercules but we wandered away from that and I drew him as a simple hunk. The animator, Andreas Deja, interpreted him into the figure you see in the film.”
“At Disney, each major character is animated throughout the whole film by one key animator and his or her team. So, for example, the main movements of Hercules would be drawn by the key animator and other animators, and the ‘in-betweeners’, would fill in the missing movements. In the old days, these drawings were put onto cellophane and linked by hand. The ‘cell’ was then passed to the paint department, turned face down and colored with inks and paints on the reverse, matte side. This was then filmed. Today, when the animators have finished the drawings, they are scanned straight into the computer and colored on screen.”
“My approach to these very brilliant animators was simply, ‘Listen, I’m not saying that my way is the best. It’s just my way. I’m only trying to help you.’ The animators, who couldn’t have been more gracious, kept saying, ‘Don’t apologize.’ It was like doing surgery, with animators coming in with their drawings, and I like a doctor, saying ‘Do you need the legs this long? The nose so short?’”
“You almost know when a character arrives. Various characters come in and audition on your drawing board, but they don’t look right. Suddenly one arrives and you think, ‘That’s him. That’s the guy.’ And you almost say to him, ‘I’ve been waiting for you. Where have you been?’ Hercules was most difficult—the good looking ones always are. In fact, Hercules is such a very handsome hero that with him, I could just suggest this rather hugely muscular figure who’s not the cleverest guy in the world. I do everything instinctively. I just think, What does this character look like? What does he feel like? I almost act and become the character, rather like the animators do. I just want to feel what the characters feel without working it out too intellectually.”
“With Hades, I decided that because he lived in an underworld of fire and darkness that he was a rather saturnine, sardonic creature capable of bursting into flame at any moment. He was almost the element of fire himself, able to rise from a smoldering ember into a blazing inferno. I always drew him with his hair afire, with flame flickering along his fingertips. I’m drawn to Hades. It’s human nature, but evil is always attractive.”
“When I was a child, the queen in Snow White scared me absolutely out of my wits. One of my tasks on Hercules was to say, ‘Let’s make our menacing characters truly wicked and frightening. If the centaur is a Hell’s Angel type, let’s give him real menace. I mean, we all know that good will win out and that the villains will get their comeuppance in the end, but while the wicked characters are on, let’s make them truly frightening.’”
“I had a wonderful time at Disney. I worked on the project for over three years. They treated me extremely well, especially when the film was finished and I was on the promotional tour. I traveled with my family to the Far East: Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, and it was all first class–planes, hotel suites, restaurants, and limos. After it was all over I had severe limo-withdrawal symptoms.”