Fascination with the computer technology in new animated films such as "Toy Story II" obscures a key fact: Behind all the electronic wizardry employed in creating Woody, Buzz Lightyear and their friends remains the acting talent of animators.
That's right, acting talent. The fact that animators must be accomplished performers as well as superior graphic artists was emphasized forcefully by the death on Jan. 12 of Marc Davis, one of the greatest practitioners of the art in the nearly 100-year history of animation.
Davis, 86, was among the last of the legendary "Nine Old Men" of Disney animation, dubbed so by Walt Disney himself, who considered Davis and eight other veterans on his staff to be the studio's Supreme Court. (Three of these men survive -- Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston and Ward Kimball.)
As CNN said in announcing Davis' death, most viewers did not know his name, but they certainly knew his creations -- among them Cruella de Vil, the extravagantly wicked fur coat fancier in "101 Dalmatians"; Bambi, the winsome star of one of Disney's most beloved features; and Tinker Bell, the coquettish fairy who by now is second only to Mickey Mouse as a corporate emblem of the Disney empire.
It may be difficult to fathom how the same man could be the creator of such disparate characters unless one considers an inescapable fact: Marc Davis was a terrific actor. Creating what he called the "unity of acting" -- a consistency of character and movement -- in animation is exceptionally difficult. Just as Ginger Rogers used to say that she performed everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels, animators have to do everything actors do -- but then transfer it to paper in slow motion, one frame at a time. Months, even years, of painstaking artistry is required.
"Walt wanted you to believe that the characters were alive," Davis recalled in a 1981 interview with The Sun. "We had to make them come alive. Regardless of the form or shape of the body, the requirement was to give them a reason for being, just as a fine actor would -- to move an audience.
"I don't mean that the figures had to imitate life, but if you look at the cartoons that they run now for children on Saturday morning TV, the characters do not exist as full personalities. But Thumper, for example, in `Bambi,' is definitely a little individual."
The crucial importance of the animator behind the cartoon character cannot be underestimated. In his comprehensive 1999 book, "Hollywood Cartoons," film scholar Michael Barrier contrasts the performances of Bugs Bunny in the cartoons directed by Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett, Bob McKimson and Chuck Jones. Each had a different way with the wascally wabbit and the results were decidedly uneven. "Putting Bugs in a Jones cartoon was like mixing gin and Coca-Cola," Barrier wrote.
Born in Bakersfield, Calif., in 1913, Davis studied at the Kansas City Art Institute, the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, and the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. He was particularly adept at capturing the anatomy and movement of animals and became an authority on human movement as well.
Like all great actors, Davis was a skillful, captivating storyteller. Although he didn't mimic the voices of others, he had an unerring eye for just the right posture, expressions and gestures to convey a character's personality. (The mannerisms of Cruella de Vil, for example, were in part based on a real woman he knew -- and heartily disliked.) He also had an astounding ability to project human emotions onto animal figures without sacrificing the integrity of their anatomy.
Glen Keane, who animated the title characters in "Tarzan" and "Pocahontas," told animation historian Charles Solomon that when he studied life drawing with Davis, "I felt as if I had died and gone to heaven, just to learn from him and to watch him draw as if the figures were just flowing out of his hand."
"No one else brought together draftsmanship, acting and analysis the way he did," Keane told Solomon. "His impact on my own work came from seeing that even in his old age, he was always drawing and always learning. I always have a sketchbook with me now."
Davis joined the Disney Studio in 1935 and soon was working on its first animated feature, "Snow White." He would recall the quiet elation of the artists at the 1937 premiere, when the audience was moved to sniffling and tears by the Dwarfs' grief over the apparent death of Snow White.
He marveled how the "Snow White" animators accomplished something that seemed inconceivable in the bouncy, black-and-white, squash-and-stretch cartoons of a few years earlier: They brought genuine emotion to the screen with cartoon characters.