Production Designer Mike Giaimo Talks the Art of Eyvind Earle: Sleeping Beauty and Beyond
By Bill Desowitz
With Eyvind Earle's 100th Birthday on April 26th and the conclusion of the "Winter Scenes" exhibit at the Center Stage Gallery and culmination of the Eyvind Earle Xmas Challenge (http://us6.campaign-archive2.com/?u=bfc03962433f8a79d26236c9e&id=996ca01bd6), it's the perfect opportunity to dig deeper into Earle's art with Mike Giaimo, the Annie Award-winning art director of Frozen, who was subliminally influenced by Earle's elegant old world style from the moment he saw Sleeping Beauty (1959) as a youngster.
Earle joined Disney in 1951 as an assistant background painter and created the experimental background painting on the Goofy short, For Whom the Bulls Toll; two years later, he created the look of the Oscar-winning Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom. Earle worked on Peter Pan, Working for Peanuts, Pigs is Pigs, Paul Bunyan and Lady and the Tramp before his masterpiece, Sleeping Beauty. He left Disney in '61
Giaimo, who attended CalArts with both Pixar/Disney chief creative officer John Lasseter and Frozen co-director Chris Buck, first joined Disney in '78, left in '86 and returned in '92 for Pocahontas. He returned nearly 20 years later to work on the Oscar-winning Frozen, which became a billion-dollar phenomenon.
Bill Desowitz: Walt Disney shrewdly used The Art of Animation by Bob Thomas along with the traveling exhibition to help promote Sleeping Beauty. How important was that book in terms of showcasing Earle's art?
Mike Giaimo: I still say it's the best book on how Disney 2D classic animation is done. No other book comes close to capturing what it was like to be at that studio, how the process works, the departments you go through and the guiding of you through the process. He did a brilliant job. And I got the book in '67 so I knew who Eyvind Earle was because of that book. There's a small chapter devoted to him in the back. So at a pretty early age, I kind of knew who he was. I wasn't aware of style but I knew there was a distinctive touch. And that I was attracted to it?
BD: Did that get you into animation?
MG: Well, certainly the movie because (I was born in '54) and it was the first film I remember. And I remember seeing it again in the early '70s. I would sort of copy his painting as a little kid from that book, The Art of Animation. I had a set of pastels and would copy them. I had no idea.
BD: It's so deep and rich -- it does have a visceral impact.
MG: Yeah, it is his film more than anybody else's. And it's very hard to do at Disney, which is character-based. Everyone followed his tone. All other aspects of music, story, even animation. It was what I call formalized. He was blessed by Walt and I always heard this story that animators were complaining -- mostly Frank [Thomas] and Ollie [Johnston]. They complained about the fairy design being less pliable because of the design restrictions on the characters. They weren't into design like Milt Kahl or Marc Davis. And they weren't draftsmen. Any draftsman in animation loves Eyvind Earle. Any designer loves Eyvind Earle. But they didn't come from that perspective so they thought he was impeding on their classic animation style. And Walt actually had to put his foot down -- and I've heard this from several sources of animators who were there -- and say that Eyvind Earle is going to set the designs of this film and that's the way it's going to be. And he had such a long pre-production time where he could indulge. This was very different from Walt Peregoy on 101 Dalmatians, when Walt was upset about the style. He totally sanctioned Earle and that is why he gave him a very long leash.
And I understand it. You look at what was going on with live-action film at the time and he was finding ways to make more impressive films. It was about pageantry: Ben-Hur, The Robe, The Ten Commandments. It was a tone poem.
BD: Let's talk about what makes him unique.
MG: His tone is extremely austere, solitary, opulent and exquisite. But whatever Earle did, whether it was his own personal artwork later on, or Sleeping Beauty or his earlier Christmas cards, there's nothing warm about his work or something that you would call embracing.
BD: What was his upbringing?
MG: I know that his father was extremely severe and a task master. His father was an artist, too. But his father treated art in a regimented way, [demanding] that Earle do a painting every day.
BD: How do you do Christmas cards without charm and warmth?
MG: I think he supplemented it with beauty and sophistication. If you look through his Christmas card book, there are a couple of images let's say are little whimsical. But it feels more forced, more like a one-off exercise. You wouldn't call Earle endlessly inventive like Mary Blair, who was like an explosion. He was an exquisite practioner who had some beautiful design conceits. And he exploited those conceits very well throughout his whole career.
But, interestingly, even for me, to channel Mary Blair in a film would be very difficult because she's enigmatic and there's an ethereal quality. Earle is very solid in a pragmatic sense. He must get it from his father, I would imagine. His color theories were very concrete.
BD: So what did you learn from him, which formed the basis of your aesthetic?
MG: What I learned from him was the beauty of organization. His shapes are extremely organized. The most obvious is basing most of his aesthetic on horizontal and vertical conceits. That's something I always go back to -- it's ingrained in me. And I used it on Pocahontas, I used it on Frozen and other smaller projects at various commercial houses. And he was the master of color temperature. You can see it in Sleeping Beauty: warm and cool colors and how to play those values in warm and cool temperatures. I call them jewel-like colors. And that's something I've always loved. And I definitely put both theories in Frozen: horizontal and verticals and color temperature. That was big. But I only use theories if they work for the storytelling, not just because I love Earle.
BD: But you went for more color saturation in Frozen than the norm today, right?
MG: I did. I wanted very saturated colors and I wanted to use black, which is another no-no in CG.I do have to say, conversely, before the story became the story that people know, Frozen was actually more of a lighter, buoyant story about these two sisters. So my art direction was actually going to be more rounded shapes and based on beautiful S curves because that's what that earlier story suggested.
Then John Lasseter suggested that the story was fine but didn't resonate and, as filmmakers, we needed to dig deeper. Once the new story took hold, and it was rolled out to me, I then said these are the wrong symbols to use for this. So I went back to an Earle aesthetic for the sophistication of this story. We have a castle -- I know how that can look. We have fjords. Now it's perfect and we can exploit all of that design language that we just talked about in a CG film.
BD: You came full circle. What about his work post Sleeping Beauty after leaving Disney?
MG: He was such a disciplined figure and was one of the few artists that worked prolifically until the end of his life (in 2000). But he fell in love with what he loved, and he kept owning it. How many artists would paint thousands and thousands of trees? It's crazy. But that just shows his tenacity and his sense of perfection. And part of me relates to that, too. But that is his biggest contribution from a practical design standpoint. His shapes are so sumptuous and you just get wrapped up in it: beautiful, minimalistic and stoic.
Thank you Mike Giaimo for sharing your thoughts with us about Eyvind Earle.
Mike Giaimo: Production Designer Walt Disney Animation.
Bill Desowitz: is Crafts Editor of Indiewire (www.indiewire.com) and the author of James Bond Unmasked (www.jamesbondunmasked.com).
Painter, Production Designer