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Rhett Wickham: Remember Joe Grant
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Joe Grant, circa 1939, Working on Fantasia

© Walt Disney Enterprises.  All Rights Reserved.

Grant left the studio in 1949, returning in his early 80’s as work began on The Lion King. He brought to the new generation the same inspirational brilliance that he had brought to the pioneers of Disney. Acting not as reflective, veteran sage, but as a forward-thinking and vibrant colleague, Grant supercharged everyone who came in contact with him. Ask any director, any story artist or animator at Disney to tell you what moment or scene or sequence Joe inspired that they helmed, drew, or boarded and every one of them will have an answer. Mulan’s Cri-kee was hard won, and lives largely through the perseverance of Grant who spent months carefully chipping away at doubt and finally opening everyone’s eyes to the great possibilities in such a lucky little chap. The magic that infuses the otherwise straight-forward narrative of Pocahontas swirls about the film thanks to the same magic that stirred in Grant’s soul, all of his 70 plus years in the industry. A whimsical sketch of a yo-yo wielding flamingo was the basis for an entire sequence in what ultimately became Fantasia 2000 (little wonder it took nearly six decades for Walt’s dream of the film continuing to finally become a reality - the master imaginer of such fantasy had to come back home before it could be done properly.)

Even with an impressive list of past accomplishments, Joe Grant was not one to get wistful about “how it used to be? or turn to what worked before for inspiration on what to do next. He believed in the life of each new idea, and the most recent realization of one such idea of Grant’s is an excellent example - Lorenzo. There’s a great lesson to be learned from an artist with such extraordinary history who continued to push for ways to deliver inspirational “high-concept? work that doesn’t re-hash the last success. Joe Grant trusted himself and those with whom he worked to keep it fresh and exciting and new. At a time when so many artists were mourning the death of “traditional? animation at Disney, Grant was a great advocate for forging ahead in a digital age. Lorenzo is an outstanding (and in this writer’s opinion the best) example for how the only things that stands between visually stunning traditionally animated film and an equally satisfying computer animated work is a great idea and the willingness to find a way to make it work. The story of Lorenzo is just such an idea and Joe Grant, along with the very gifted and equally as tenacious Mike Gabriel, realized that idea without flinching at having to turn in a pencil or two in exchange for a stylus and a keyboard. The film is among the brightest, most creative and visually dynamic pieces of animation in over a decade, created using the most advanced technology and still feeling entirely hand-crafted and never even vaguely plastic. And all inspired by an artist willing to suggest something new instead of something that had been done before.

At the time of his passing Grant was actively providing inspiration for works in development, from Mr. Popper’s Penguins and Fraidy Cat to his own pet project that, with his trademark tenacity, he still peddled to executives in hopes that his inspiring (and brilliantly original) sketches based on Paul Gallico’s The Abandoned would finally spur someone brave and visionary enough to put the project into production.

JOE GRANT’S INSPIRATIONAL SKETCH FOR “THE ABANDONED?,
A STORY OF A YOUNG BOY WHO IS TURNED INTO A CAT

© Walt Disney Enterprises.  All Rights Reserved.

It’s too easy to mourn Joe Grant’s passing as marking the end of Disney’s finest dreams. Yes, when he left us - only days away from his 97th birthday - Joe Grant pulled closed behind him the final page on a chapter than can never be repeated. But it can be used as a foundation from which to build the future of the medium; a model on to which the current and coming generations can turn for inspiration and a lesson in applying some Grant-like tenacity, working to nurture every idea without ever giving up or giving in. For the founder of the Character Model Department, and the longest living graduate of Walt’s hand-selected cadre of geniuses, to know that his legacy lives from here and pushes artists on to new and exciting things would garner a closed-lipped smile and a quiet nod from the man who made a misfit elephant fly and a lazy cat’s tail take on a life of its own.

So here’s a suggestion - grab your Websters. Go on get the dictionary….good. Now, grab a pen. Got it? Okay, open the book and add the following entry: GRANT, Joe: (v) - to do; e.g. “don’t’ just dream it….draw it!? Got it? Good. Close the book…but don’t put down the pen.

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-- Rhett Wickham

Rhett Wickham is an occasional editorial contributor to LaughingPlace.com. Mr. Wickham is a creative development and story consultant living and working in Los Angeles. He is the founder of Creative Development Ink©®™ where he works coaching screenwriters, and is also the founder and owner of AnimActing©®™ through which he has spent the past ten years coaching animators, story artists and layout artists in acting, character development and story analysis. Prior to coming to CA to work for studios such as DreamWorks Feature Animation, Mr. Wickham worked as an actor and stage director in New York City. Following graduate studies at Tisch School of the Arts he was named as a directing fellow with the Drama League of New York, and in 2003 he was honored with the Nine Old Men Award from Laughing Place readers, “for reminding us why Disney Feature Animation is the heart and soul of Disney.? He lives in Los Angeles with his husband of ten years, Peter Narus. Mr. Wickham can be reached through [email protected]

The opinions expressed by our Rhett Wickham, and all of our columnists, do not necessarily represent the feelings of LaughingPlace.com or any of its employees or advertisers. All speculation and rumors about the future plans of the Walt Disney Company are just that - speculation and rumors - and should be treated as such.

-- Posted May 7, 2005

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