Scene stealers: In praise of the background artist

From the elegant landscapes of Disney fairytales to the urban backdrops of Japanese anime, the scenic art of the animated film remains an under-appreciated medium. Two new exhibitions aim to change that

Above: Sleeping Beauty Concept Painting, Eyvind Earle, c. 1959; collection of the Walt Disney Family Foundation © Disney

Animated films depend upon a legion of artists and designers. But just as big name actors will tend to dominate a film’s reception over its art direction or production design, for example, character designs – bolstered by everything from catchphrases to film tie-ins – inevitably receive more attention than background art in the world of animation.

The internet has duly celebrated this unsung area, however – from sites dedicated to recreating ‘BG’ imagery with the characters removed to blogs listing some of the most under-appreciated examples, be they from lavish Disney productions or cartoons such as Scooby Doo or The Flintstones. More recently, the work of Studio Ghibli (Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle) has kept the handmade tradition alive and met with acclaim for doing just that.

Above: both images, collection of the Walt Disney Family Foundation, © Disney

Two new exhibitions are also bringing background art some attention. A new show at San Francisco’s Walt Disney Family Museum focuses on the work of artist and illustrator Eyvind Earle – lead stylist on Sleeping Beauty (1959) – while London’s House of Illustration show Anime Architecture: Backgrounds of Japan examines the speculative, tech-heavy background art of sci-fi anime.

Eyvind Earle (1916-2000) worked at Walt Disney Studios for just seven years yet managed to leave behind a formidable body of work and is now regarded as one of the best scenic artists of 20th-century animation. Prior to creating the world of Sleeping Beauty he worked as concept artist on Peter Pan (1953) and Lady and the Tramp (1955).

Over 250 of Earle’s works are currently on show at the Disney museum, including examples of his commercial illustration and cartoons (drawn while in the US Navy), several fine art pieces (two examples of his ‘forests’ from 1989, shown above) and many examples of his beautiful landscapes that he produced for Disney.

Layout artist MccLaren Stewart, Walt Disney, and Eyvind Earle at the Disney Studio during production for Sleeping Beauty, c. 1959; courtesy of Eyvind Earle Publishing, LLC, © Disney

Earle joined the film studio as an assistant background painter in 1951 and left just as Sleeping Beauty, one of his crowning achievements, was about to be released in 1959.

He then worked for John Sutherland Productions and also set up Eyvind Earle Productions Inc. in 1961. According to the museum, Earle’s commercial talents were not confined to animation: he also designed logos, film trailers, print ads and TV spots.

“From the scratchboards, cards, serigraphs, sculptures, and awe-inspiring landscapes, you get to ponder in a meadow, perch on a hillside, or soar above the towering cliffs captured, imagined, and shared by Eyvind Earle,” says co-curator Michael Labrie, Director of Collections and Exhibitions for the Walt Disney Family Museum.

Paradise, 1973, Eyvind Earle; courtesy of the Earle Family Trust

Earle’s landscapes invited the viewer to explore a world in all its detail, rather than simply focus on the action of the main characters. It was a subject that he returned to time and again and became part of his fine art practice. Paradise (1973), above, is rendered in much more detail than his animation work but nevertheless resembles the style of his painting in that area.

“Eyvind was an honest and humble man, yet he was constantly challenging himself to push the boundaries of his own artistry with his enduring passion to explore, create and innovate,” adds co-curator Ioan Szasz, CEO of Eyvind Earle Publishing, who started working with Earle in the late 1980s.

“Whether it was through a modest snowy landscape for a Christmas card or a more intricate background concept for films like Sleeping Beauty, Earle brought magic to everything he touched.”

Sleeping Beauty Concept Painting, Eyvind Earle, c. 1959; collection of the Walt Disney Family Foundation, © Disney
Sleeping Beauty Concept Painting, Eyvind Earle, c. 1959; collection of the Walt Disney Family Foundation, © Disney

A different kind of magic is on show at House of Illustration in London as the gallery brings together some highlights from the careers of anime artists Hiromasa Ogura, Takashi Watabe, Mamoru Oshii and Atsushi Takeuchi.

Anime Architecture: Backgrounds of Japan spotlights the designs for future worlds that quickly became an integral part of anime culture – and influenced filmmaking way beyond its canon of animated classics.

Background illustration for Ghost in the Shell cut 477 by Hiromasa Ogura © 1995 Shirow Masamune, KODANSHA · BANDAI VISUAL · MANGA ENTERTAINMENT Ltd

The show includes drawings and paintings from a range of influential films such as Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2002), Patlabor: The Movie (1989) and Metropolis (2001).

Layout for Ghost in the Shell cut 341 by Atsushi Takeuchi © 1995 Shirow Masamune, KODANSHA · BANDAI VISUAL · MANGA ENTERTAINMENT Ltd

The visual look of the former not only influenced this year’s remake by Rupert Sanders (see our piece on its stunning holographic design but, along with an aesthetic brought to mainstream attention via 1988’s Akira, was seen as impacting on the look of The Matrix films.

Concept Design for Ghost in the Shell 2 – Innocence by Takashi Watabe © 2004 Shirow Masamune, KODANSHA · IG, ITNDDTD

The exhibition shows how these high-tech futures are brought to life in pencil and watercolour – and includes Ogura’s paintings for Ghost in the Shell.

“Inspired by Asia’s emerging megacities and based on photographs of Hong Kong,” say the gallery, “Ogura’s work depicts the striking contrast between a derelict Chinese town and ruthless urban development”. Having worked at Prodcution IG, Ogura now runs Ogura Koubo, a studio specialising in creating hand-painted backgrounds.

With this kind of an eye for detail – that links back to Earle’s work of the 1950s – it’s clear that while the work of the background artist is perhaps still undervalued, it remains a vital component of crafting an animated film. Next time you’re watching one, look around the characters and enjoy the world they inhabit.

Above three images are © 1995 Shirow Masamune, KODANSHA · BANDAI VISUAL · MANGA ENTERTAINMENT Ltd

Anime Architecture: Backgrounds of Japan is at House of Illustration, London from May 26 until September 10 (the exhibition is produced in association with Les Jardins des Pilotes, Berlin). Awaking Beauty: The Art of Eyvind Earle is at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco until January 8 2018. See and for more details

Eyvind Earle in his studio, Ioan Szasz; courtesy of Eyvind Earle Publishing, LLC. Earle is working on one of the forest images, shown above
Yosemite, 1994, Eyvind Earle; courtesy of the Earle Family Trust

More from CR

The best film posters of 2016

Art director Adrian Curry selects his favourite film posters from 2016, including an intricate design for erotic thriller The Handmaiden and a clever use of Photoshop for acclaimed drama Moonlight

Graphic Designer

Fushi Wellbeing

Creative Designer

Monddi Design Agency