Editor’s Note: Please welcome to the blog Richard Bernato. Rich may be the only blogger who; had an ORIGINAL Davy Crockett coonskin cap (and wishes he still had it); watched Disney’s Wonderful World of Color in black and white; watched the Disneyland opening ceremonies on that same black and white; AND rode the original It’s a Small World in the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. In addition he is a college professor, his own Disney blogger (http://disdoc.wordpress.com/) and a grandfather of six whom he is thoroughly dis-doctrinating as often as possible.
In addition to other topics, Rich will be examining the backgrounds and life stories of Disney Imagineers, so we can better appreciate the people behind the scenes who make the magic we all love so much. Welcome, Rich!
My favorite role for Mickey Mouse has always been when he played the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Until fairly recently apprenticeships were the path young boys took to learn an art or a specialized craft. The famous artists of the Renaissance, for example, used their apprentices to perform the more minor necessities on their murals and frescoes by having them add details to the artists’ masterpieces. That Mickey made a rather major “rookie mistake” by using his Master’s hat before he had the skills to use it, makes for one of Mickey’s most memorable roles. That this segment for Fantasia was created and animated by a man who had originally had been a kind of apprentice for Walt Disney makes for some interesting irony.
While Walt Disney never called Les Clark an apprentice, Les Clark certainly played the role when Walt Disney, impressed with Clark’s menu lettering in a local drug store’s menu offered him a “temporary” job in 1927 that lasted till 1975! In fact Les said as much himself. “I learned my craft from working with the fellas and from Walt, who was so far ahead of us even in knowing what he wanted to do.”
Les’ first contributions to Disney animation were as a camera operator and then to a certain mouse that Disney had created to take Oswald the Lucky Rabbit’s place. While Ub Iwerks animated Steamboat Willie, Clark served in the in-betweening-apprentice type role. Much like the young would be Renaissance artist apprentices, in betweening animators were responsible for taking the senior artists’ (like an Iwerks) key frames and provide supporting detail and flow to the animation.
While it might be true that Disney was his own “Da Vinci,” Walt also understood how he needed to grow and cultivate his own cadre of superior artist-animators-story tellers. And so it wasn’t long till Les became a Master himself. As such Mr. Clark became responsible for showing “subtlety and sensitivity” across a spectrum of memorable Disney shorts and animated movies. (Grayson Ponti, “Countdown of the 50 Most Influential Disney Animators.”). In addition as main animator after Iwerks left Disney, Clark’s leadership is usually credited for how we see how Mickey has evolved to this day.
The last segment of Clark’s Disney career was a director of television specials and educational films before he retired in 1975. He died in 1979.
During the 1930’s the Disney team that came to be called the 9 Old Men were the gold standard for animation. As they evolved, they developed and standardized twelve basic principles of animation that continue to guide animators’ today. As one of the 9, Les’ work, particularly in the early Mickey cartoons, in the party sequence in Snow White, in Pinocchio, the Sorceror’s Apprentice in Fantasia, Dumbo, and Lady and the Tramp, and other classics, surely demonstrate how this Old Man learned to perfect such principles as; creating anticipation, staging mood or reaction, re-twining arcs, using timing effectively, exaggerating, and fostering true appeal for the characters Disney “entrusted” to his own creations.
And for these and more we can be thankful to Walt Disney for taking on an In Betweener / apprentice named Les Clark.