His name was Walt Stanchfield. In many ways you might call him the other Uncle Walt.
The names of his students are legendary. They include, in no particular order, Tim Burton, John Lasseter, Glen Keane, Joe Ranfft, Brad Bird, Don Bluth, Andreas Deja. No less an august personage as Roy Disney himself said: “For nearly 30 years, the artists that passed through the gates of Disney Animation, and even non-artists like myself, were influenced craft, skill, wisdom, writings and sketches of Walt Stanchfield.”
More important, his teachings went far beyond the outer boundaries of the MouseWorks.
“Walt Stanchfield’s renewed emphasis on draftsmanship at the Disney Studio transformed the seemingly moribund art of animation,” expressed noted animation historian Charles Solomon.
Walter Stanchfield was born in Los Angeles in 1919. In 1937, he started working for the Charles Mintz studio, then went on to Walter Lantz. After a tour of duty during World War II, he wound up working at the Magic Kingdom. The first film he animated was 1949’s Ichabod and Mr. Toad. He would continue to work on every Disney animated film up to 1986’s Great Mouse Detective.
While his artistry was never questioned, what distinguished Stanchfield from the pack was something special.
“It wasn’t only his drawings,” recalls another of his protégés, now super producer Don Hahn (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Fantasia 2000, Earth). It was also his spirit. He was always positive, always about the work and always about getting the best performance across.
“Early in my career, I was a cleanup artist on movies like Pete’s Dragon and Fox and the Hound. I would have to take my drawings over to Walt. He would go on top of them. He had a magical desk. He took drawings you thought were great and when they got on to his drawing board you found out just how awful they were. He would make you see immediately through all his corrections.”
While his on- on-one sessions with young Disney animators were influential, what really stood out were his classes. He regularly held seminars on the fine points of animation. Even more important, he made sure to publish handouts of the multiple fine points he wanted to express.
“For 20 years, he wasn’t just about teaching and then going home,” says Hahn. “Walt put these handouts together never with the idea of putting out a book. He just wanted to capture what he was talking about in the lectures he would give. He also made them to add to his classes because in his lectures he always felt he would leave something out. So he would write down what he forgot and then hand them out, too. To top it, he handed them out like Kleenex.”
It didn’t take long before the handouts became bona fide collector's items, especially after Stanchfield passed away in 2000.
“We would all collect them,” says Hahn. “Now everyone’s collection was always incomplete, but no one ever thought to put them all together. So that became the idea for the book.”
That’s right, a book. Entitled Drawn To Life: 20 Golden Years of Disney Master Classes (Focal Press), all the handouts have been compiled into two monumental tomes. Inside their 750 combined pages is an incredibly in depth look at what Stanchfield taught to inspire many of the animators who brought about the animation renaissance of the last 12 years of the century.
“When Walt passed away in 2000, I thought about how I loved the man, and we really should capture his work before it got lost or fragmented beyond repair,” says Hahn. “Thankfully, Dee, Walt’s wife, was open to the idea. So we put the book together with her encouragement.”
Don’t let the incredible number of pages scare you. Remember, this is a collection of handouts, over 200 of them. The genius of the book is that one doesn’t have to read the whole darn thing all at once, and then memorize it like some holy scroll.
Don Hahn“It’s accessible,” says Hahn. “Whether you’re an artist or not, you can keep it at your bedside and don’t have to read it cover to cover. You can crack into it anywhere, gather a piece of wisdom and move on. That’s definitely the way Walt was and the way he preferred to communicate.”
The wisdom passed on can be anything from the ramblings on the difference between doodling and drawing to the fine points of creating a gesture. Throughout it all, it’s packed with tons of illustrations and Stanchfield’s incredible sense of humor.
“He had a complete life kind of approach,” says Hahn. “He was in part about the art, but he was also about living the life of an artist. He loved to play tennis. He loved to paint. He loved to weave baskets and pick stones off of the beach. He was a true artist in terms of his lifestyle. That was why he was really inspiring.
“I never knew Walt Disney, so I don’t know what he was like. Then again, Walt Stanchfield worked for Walt Disney, admired him and they did share things in common. For instance, Walt Disney felt the studio should always be run like a college or art school. His workers should have the freedom to go to classes and he had teachers there all the time. Disney believed he should train the guys and girls in his studio to be the best they could.
“Stanchfield carried that forward. He felt that unless we carried it forward, the attitude of constantly learning, we were not going to get better. That was very much what the two had in common. That is why Walt Stanchfield is important in the latter days of animation.”
Not that Stanchfield was alone. Hahn will be the first to admit there were some other very important and wise old gents that helped inspire the next generation.
“I knew Chuck Jones very well and he always took the time to meet with people,” says Hahn. “I remember always going down to his house, talking to him. He was amazing. It wasn’t just his art and his humor. He was Mark Twain. You could sit and get this world wisdom from him. I worked closely with Chuck on Roger Rabbit. He was a funny, great communicator.
“Walt was the same way. So was Frank Thomas. So was Ollie Johnston. So was Erik Larsen. Erik was a great trainer with an open door. They were of a small handful of people who welcomed the kids and happily passed on that art. Mark Davis was one, too. Mark wrote the whole curriculum for Cal Arts. He was the first person to do that. The difference was Walt did it very much on a grassroots level. Walt could spin a story. He could talk about tennis.
“I think we barely hit the breadth of Walt’s talent,” says Hahn. “He certainly wasn’t an animation geek, although he loved animation. Some artists are so focused on animation issues they missed the bigger picture. He also did water colors, painting, architecture, and sketching; anything you can name. It made him a really interesting artist. It also made all of us want to aspire and follow his path.
“Walt taught for a long time, from the 70s,” says Hahn. “A lot of people passed through that studio. You can definitely name anyone whose ever worked in traditional animation, from Andreas Deja on to Glen Keane, Ron and John Lasetter, Brad Bird, Joe Ranft and endless others. They attended or went through his classes and collected his handouts. Basically, a lot of what Walt Disney is now can be seen in these books.
“Now what you’re seeing is that generation passing this knowledge on to the next. That’s another reason why I wanted to do it. I love the idea of not keeping this material proprietary or hidden. It’s good not only for Disney, but good for the whole industry, too. It raises the bar by letting all this information out there.
Upon looking over this book, Drawn To Life, we should be glad so many of today’s great animators did.