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Animator praises unsung artists at heart of genre

When animator Fraser MacLean thinks about his work on movies such as "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," "Space Jam," and "Tarzan," he's reminded of the Chartres cathedral, southwest of Paris.
/ Source: Reuters

When animator Fraser MacLean thinks about his work on movies such as "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," "Space Jam," and "Tarzan," he's reminded of the Chartres cathedral, southwest of Paris.

The 13th century Gothic church was idealized in "F for Fake," the 1973 Orson Welles film, during a monologue by the director.

"The premier work of man perhaps in the whole western world and it's without a signature: Chartres," Welles said. "A celebration to God's glory and to the dignity of man."

The anonymous artists of Chartres represent the idea, as MacLean put it: Art isn't about signing your name in the corner of the canvas.

MacLean began his career as an unknown artist, doing shading on the animated characters in 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which combined live action and animation.

"That idea that you would surrender your own creative abilities and your own technical mastery to something that would just be a delight to the people that saw it ... in some ways is actually liberating," he said.

MacLean, who grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland, returned a decade ago and was surprised during his guest lectures at art colleges.

Students at some schools weren't required to do observational drawing. Having a background in fine art drawing landed MacLean his first job with Disney UK.

At the same time, MacLean was hearing about animation companies looking for students with drawing skills and being unable to find them.

He decided to write "Setting the Scene: The Art and Evolution of Animation Layout" about the importance of the layout department in animated feature films.

"The entire structure and choreography of all the action in the movie stems from the way that the layout artists develop what they find in the original story sketches," MacLean said.

He presented the book alongside layout artist Roy Naisbitt at the 31st Anima film festival in Brussels last week.

First recognized as a separate department by Disney with "Cinderella" in 1950, MacLean hit on a subject that made directors such as Brad Bird ("The Incredibles," "Ratatouille") and Pete Docter ("Up") unable to hang up the phone.

"A filmmaker often tries to convey a feeling, and attempts to do so in a sneaky way of which the audience isn't even conscious," Docter wrote in the foreword of MacLean's book. "The way a subject is presented can be the difference between making a connection with the audience and having them fall asleep."

MacLean also had access to Disney's Animation Research Library for the book, which was published in September.

One day, the Disney librarian opened a drawer and took out an original watercolor painting of Geppetto's workshop from "Pinocchio," Disney's second feature-length film from 1940.

MacLean said those early Disney films, including "Snow White" in 1937, left an enormous impression on his mother, who died in 2008 soon after he proposed the book.

"My mother and father and their parents, they all stood in line to go to see Snow White when it came out," he said. "My mother, even though she had dementia, she could tell me what seat she was sitting in at (the) cinema in Aberdeen."

Holding the painting in his hands, MacLean started crying.

The librarian assured him: That happens to a lot of people.

Seeing the artwork that was photographed in a movie with so much meaning to his parents was overwhelming.

"I still cannot tell you who painted that bit of artwork and I don't care."