Book Review: They Drew As They Pleased series

Hello everyone, and welcome to a special book review! This month, we’re looking at not just one book, but a whole series – Didier Ghez’s They Drew As They Pleased series, which celebrates the legacy of the entire Disney canon by focussing on a select few of its talented artists. An epic undertaking many years in the making, Ghez with this series aimed to highlight the oft-overlooked work of the people behind the scenes whose designs influenced the films we all know and love, bringing their stories to the forefront for the first time.

Ghez #1

Each of the six volumes begins with a foreword from a luminary of the animation community, followed by a preface from Ghez and an introductory section suited to the theme of each respective book. Then, in a series of biographies, we are told the tales of each artist’s life and career, accompanied throughout by photos and, of course, page after page of their beautiful drawings, sketches and paintings. The featured artists are remembered by those who knew them, or are directly quoted from letters, diaries and interviews, including some with the author himself in the case of the younger ones. Many of the artists – such as Mary Blair or Joe Grant – will already be familiar names to animation fans, but there are plenty of others here who have never before had the spotlight shone on their work.

Taken together, these six volumes make up quite an impressive collection, and following the Disney studio’s journey across the decades through the eyes of its best artists is deeply engrossing stuff. Ghez skilfully builds an impression of each personality, their strengths and weaknesses, ups and downs, friends and enemies, then weaves it all together to create a vivid tapestry of the studio’s evolution over the last century. The two 1940s volumes are a particular highlight as much of that decade tends to be overlooked in other Disney history works, despite the massive levels of creativity it contained.

The Hidden Art of Disney’s Golden Age: The 1930s

Author: Didier Ghez

Publication Date: 2015

Publisher: Chronicle Books

Pages: 208 pages

Ghez #2

To kick off the series, Ghez takes a look at some of the earliest concept artists employed at Disney, who worked on some of its first masterpieces. Featuring a Tenggren piece on its cover from the One That Started It All, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, this book opens with a foreword from Pete Docter, after which we have Ghez’s preface and a section called “Inspired!”, which discusses the sources of inspiration for these pioneering artists. The four featured in this volume are Albert Hurter (1883-1942), Ferdinand Horvath (1891-1973), Gustaf Tenggren (1896-1970) and Bianca Majolie (1900-1997). I was pleased to see the inclusion of Majolie, although I would have loved to see Tyrus Wong (1910-2016) given some space here, too.

Ghez #3

 

The Hidden Art of Disney’s Musical Years: The 1940s – Part One

Author: Didier Ghez

Publication Date: 2016

Publisher: Chronicle Books

Pages: 208 pages

Ghez #4

Next, Ghez delves into the 1940s with the first of two volumes devoted to the decade. Interestingly, his chosen cover image for this one is actually for a 1950s feature; a Hall concept work done for Peter Pan. Opening with a foreword from John Musker, Ghez then gives us a section called “Music, Maestro!”, which discusses the key role of music – both classical and contemporary – in the Disney films of the time. The selected artists this time are Walt Scott (1894-1970), Kay Nielsen (1886-1957), Sylvia Holland (1900-1974), Retta Scott (1916-1990) and David Hall (1905-1964).

Ghez #5

 

The Hidden Art of Disney’s Late Golden Age: The 1940s – Part Two

Author: Didier Ghez

Publication Date: 2017

Publisher: Chronicle Books

Pages: 248 pages

Ghez #6

Ghez’s third volume is also the longest of the series, exploring one of the studio’s busiest and most fascinating periods around the war years. Using a Bodrero work from Fantasia for its cover, the book opens with a foreword from Andreas Deja, then goes into a section called “The Storytellers” which discusses the creation of the Story Research Department and, more controversially, the short-lived Character Model Department, which was not a hit with the animators of the time. For this work, Ghez focuses on no less than six artists: Eduardo Solá Franco (1915-1996), Johnny Walbridge (1900-1964), Jack (or John) Miller (1913-2004), Campbell Grant (1909-1992), James Bodrero (1900-1980) and Martin Provensen (1916-1987).

Ghez #7

 

The Hidden Art of Disney’s Mid-Century Era: The 1950s and 1960s

Author: Didier Ghez

Publication Date: 2018

Publisher: Chronicle Books

Pages: 224 pages

Ghez #8

Moving into the 1950s, Ghez uses – of course – a Mary Blair work from Alice in Wonderland for his cover image, opening with a foreword from Eric and Susan Goldberg. He begins with one of my favourite introductory sections called “1954”, which discusses the various projects, such as television, theme parks and commercials, which were beginning to occupy the increasingly diverse studio by that time. Our featured artists this time include Lee Blair (1911-1993) – a thoughtful inclusion as his career has often been overshadowed by that of his wife, Mary Blair (1911-1978), who is also featured here. We also have Tom Oreb (1913-1987), John Dunn (1919-1983; not to be confused with the writer, born 1932), and Walt Peregoy (1925-2015).

Ghez #9

 

The Hidden Art of Disney’s Early Renaissance Era: The 1970s and 1980s

Author: Didier Ghez

Publication Date: 2019

Publisher: Chronicle Books

Pages: 208 pages

Ghez #10

This was perhaps the volume I most anticipated, as Disney’s “Dark Age” is easily the most forgotten era of Disney history except, perhaps, for the Silent Era. I was pleasantly surprised to see Ghez refer to it in his title as the “Early Renaissance” instead, lending the period a degree of retrospective dignity that it has long deserved. With that said, then, it is strange to see just two artists featured here – Ken Anderson (1909-1993) and Mel Shaw (1914-2012) – especially as their work spans roughly three decades of Disney history. Not that the choice of these two doesn’t make sense; their styles defined the look of this period more than any other artists’, so they are probably more worthy than anyone to be featured here. It was such a treat to see behind-the-scenes artwork for some of these films, as they are rarely given much attention anywhere else.

The cover image is one of Anderson’s from the production of Robin Hood, and our foreword comes courtesy of Don Hahn. Ghez’s opening section this time is one of the most interesting of the entire series, called “After Walt”, which discusses the shift in power after Walt’s passing in 1966. Woolie Reitherman, one of the Nine Old Men and a highly capable artist in his own right, took the reins and initiated the Talent Development and Character Animation programs to train up a fresh generation of talent, aware that with the aging of the old guard, there needed to be somebody to continue the studio into the future. A small subsection rather provocatively entitled “The Rebellion” also covers the infamous departure of Don Bluth and his supporters in 1979, as well as the retirements of the last of the Nine Old Men shortly thereafter, thus completing the “changing of the guard”.

Ghez #11

 

The Hidden Art of Disney’s New Golden Age: The 1990s to 2020

Author: Didier Ghez

Publication Date: 2020

Publisher: Chronicle Books

Pages: 208 pages

Ghez #12

The final book of the series brings us up through the Disney Renaissance – or the “New Golden Age”, as Ghez calls it – to the present day, beginning with a foreword by the studio’s longest-serving artist, Burny Mattinson (celebrating his seventieth anniversary there this year). Our cover image, perhaps unsurprisingly, is from Frozen, a piece by Michael Giaimo which strongly reminds me of Once Upon a Winter’s Tale from Melody Time. Strangely, this is the only book in the series that does not open with a special themed intro from Ghez, although it does still contain a preface. This is also the only book in the series to feature some artists who are still alive, so Ghez was finally able to speak to some of them himself. The four chosen ones are Joe Grant (1908-2005), Hans Bacher (1948- ), Mike Gabriel (1954- ) and Michael Giaimo (1954- ).

Now, I have to be honest: This alone among these six books was the only one that disappointed me. Perhaps because this one covered the films from my own lifetime, I was rather saddened to see such a vast period condensed into only a single volume; in fact, I got the feeling that Ghez is not very interested in these more modern works, as he seemed to rush through this period more quickly after having taken such care over the earlier decades. That’s not to say that I don’t adore the work of Grant, Bacher, Gabriel and Giaimo – of course I do. There’s just so much more to this era which Ghez left untouched. To best summarise my thoughts, here’s my Goodreads review:

“Slightly disappointing end to a wonderful series. Perhaps it was just due to the particular selection of artists that Ghez chose to focus on for this volume, but there was little to no mention of such gems from this period as The Rescuers Down Under, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tarzan, Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis, Lilo & Stitch, Treasure Planet, Princess and the Frog, or anything beyond Frozen (e.g. Big Hero 6, Zootopia, Moana).

Instead, there was excessive coverage of Pocahontas (which is far less popular these days) and, of all things, Home on the Range, widely considered one of Disney’s weakest offerings to date!

Perhaps I’m nit-picking, and the book – like the series as a whole – is still a beautiful piece for animation fans. I just would have loved the chance to see some artwork from the less famous films of this thirty-year period; could Ghez not have included the likes of Andy Gaskill, Ric Sluiter, David Goetz or Ian Gooding? That’s not to disrespect Ghez’s selections, of course, each of whom is a formidable artist in their own right (who doesn’t love Joe Grant or Hans Bacher?)

Ultimately, I just got the feeling that this wasn’t Ghez’s favourite era. After all, the 1940s got two whole volumes dedicated to them, but here, Ghez tries to cover three decades of incredible output in just the one volume. Inevitably, many fantastic films and their artists were overlooked. If Ghez ever wanted to make a seventh volume to cover some more artists of this period, it would be most welcome!”

Ghez #13

Anyway, with that nit-pick aside, I would still highly recommend the entire series – it’s truly a collector’s dream. I would just love to see a seventh volume to expand upon the last, delving into the artwork of some more of the wonderful artists from Disney’s modern era. If you don’t already have many books in your collection offering a general coverage of Disney history, this would be an excellent set to start you off, especially because it champions numerous unsung heroes alongside some of the better-known artists. Detailed, evocative and stunning in its breadth and variety, They Drew As They Pleased more than earns a place for itself among the essential pieces for any animation library.

Thank you so much for reading, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this review. There are plenty more goodies on my reading pile, but as ever, the endless quest to get back to the Pixar reviews continues in the background. Work is actually progressing, slowly but surely, so please stay tuned for updates. Until next time, take care and staaay animated!

Buy them on Amazon:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/kindle-dbs/entity/author/B001K727R6?_encoding=UTF8&node=492563011&offset=0&pageSize=12&searchAlias=stripbooks&sort=author-sidecar-rank&page=1&langFilter=default#formatSelectorHeader – author’s UK Amazon page

https://www.amazon.com/stores/author/B001K727R6?ingress=0&visitId=951555df-3124-4756-8ac9-784cc90b4fa7 – author’s US Amazon page

3 Replies to “Book Review: They Drew As They Pleased series”

    1. They’re well worth checking out, it was just the last one that disappointed me with its limited scope. The 1940s get two whole volumes, but the 30 years from 1990 to 2020 get just the one? Four people across all that time? Perhaps a seventh volume will be made eventually.

      Liked by 1 person

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