Animator and story man Mel Shaw has been called one of Disney’s “elder statesmen” of animation. Walt Disney, who personally recruited Mel to join his team, observed another side.
During his early polo playing days, Mel recalled first meeting Walt at the field, who announced, “You ride like a wild Indian!” And thus, the door opened for Mel to infuse his passion into Disney animation.
Born in Brooklyn on December 19, 1914, Mel discovered his artistic bent at age 10, when selected as one of only 30 children from the state of New York to participate in the Student Art League Society. Two years later, his soap sculpture of a Latino with a pack mule won second prize in a Procter & Gamble soap carving contest, earning the young artist national notoriety.
In 1928, his family moved to Los Angeles, where Mel attended high school and entered a scholarship class at Otis Art Institute. But, the teen had an itch to become a cowboy and ran away from home to work on a Utah ranch.
After four months of back-breaking work, he returned home and took a job creating title cards for silent movies at Pacific Titles, owned by Leon Schlesinger. With help from Schlesinger, two former Disney animators, Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising, had made a deal with Warner Bros. and soon Mel joined Harman-Ising Studios as animator, character designer, story man, and director. While there, he worked with Orson Welles storyboarding a live-action/animated
version of “The Little Prince.”
In 1937, Mel arrived at Disney, contributing to “Fantasia” (1940), “Bambi” (1941), and “The Wind in the Willows,” which later became a segment in “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad” (1949).
His Disney career was interrupted by World War II, when Mel served the U.S. Army Signal Corp. as a filmmaker under Lord Lewis Mountbatten, helping produce films including a live action/animated documentary of the Burma Campaign. He also served as art editor and cartoonist for the “Stars & Stripes” newspaper in Shanghai.
After the War, he ventured into business with Bob Allen, former MGM Studios animator. As Allen-Shaw Productions, Mel designed and created the original Howdy Doody marionette puppet for NBC; illustrated the first “Bambi” children’s book for Disney; designed children’s toys, architecture, and even master plans for cities, including Century City, California.
In 1974, Walt Disney Studios called Mel to help in the outgoing transition between retiring animators and the next generation. Mel offered skill and knowledge to such Disney motion pictures as
“The Rescuers” (1977), “The Fox and the Hound” (1981), “The Great Mouse Detective” (1986), “Beauty and the Beast” (1992), “The Lion King” (1994), and more.
Mel Shaw recently completed his autobiography “Animator on Horseback” at his home in Acampo, California
Mel is and was a virtuoso in pastel. When I first worked at Disney in the mid to late Seventies, the single most powerful and inspiring art for a project in development were Mel’s pastels for The Black Cauldron. Rich in mood and atmosphere and highly evocative, they, along with Lloyd Alexander’s wonderful novels, created a Holy Grail for the young animators, myself included: a world and characters that were complex, mythic, and possessing enormous potential for a unique Disney
animated feature that would help define this new generation. The fact that the film that ultimately resulted from Mel’s thrilling drawings was, in fact, less than thrilling, does nothing to diminish these exceptional sketches. It only increases both their worth and the disappointment that they weren’t realized on film.
Mel himself is the nattiest man who ever worked in the messiest medium. He wore a smock as I recall, but I don’t think he ever had a smudge on him, despite the flurry of pastel strokes that exploded from his fingers. His pastels were unfixed so as not to diminish their vibrancy, but I lived in mortal fear that as I walked the narrow hall outside Eric Larson’s room, I might have a sudden and inexplicable fit of klutziness and brush one of the drawings and wind up with the Horned King on my t-shirt. It was a tense walk every day let me tell you.
I also recall seeing Mel and his other half of that period, Director Woolie Reitherman, at lunch at the studio commissary or playing tennis over at Burroughs High. An odd couple if ever there was one: Woolie, wrinkled, craggy, stogie chomping, tousled, tall, bandy legged and rangy, walking beside Mel, unlined, every hair in place, tastefully dressed, compact, and dapper. I can’t remember their tennis game that well, but I’m pretty sure Mel never sweated, and considering the ease with which he gave birth to his pastel masterworks, I’ll be damned if he ever sweated over one of those, either.
-John Musker, Director
Mel Shaw and Woolie Reitherman by John Musker
Mel Shaw taught me a lot about presentation. I worked with Mel for a short time around the “Black Cauldron” days at Disney. I remember walking in with a number of drawings and Mel explained to me that in presentation you have a very short time period to get your point across so pick the most clear dynamic compositions and then punch the compositions with color that will keep the attention of the person you’re showing it to. Mel used pastels to render his artwork. He felt that pastels appeared like a rendered piece of artwork without the tightness of a finished painting. It left the feeling that there was more
to be told and wanted the imagination of the viewer to complete the image and become involved with the artwork in that way. Mel showed me how to use color and simplicity of color with pastels to tell a full story with a minmal amount of drawings.
-Ed Ghertner, Art Director, Background Artist, Illustrator
In the primordial days of “Lion King” PRE-production, I would come in very early to avoid traffic; shortly after, here would come Mel, with his trusty box of pastels and soon, with deft slashes and precise dabbings, he would be busy pulling luminous images out of plain gray or white expanses of paper. I was amazed how he could endlessly depict the BRIGHTNESS of the life force in his color representations of the jungle world of the Lion King— turning it into more a Garden of Eden than any old dusty veldt. He obviously has his own kaleidoscopic inner view. I am jealous!
Artwork by Mel Shaw
Artwork by Mel Shaw
It was Mel Shaw’s pastels for the “upcoming” Black Cauldron which appeared in Life Magazine that got me interested in applying to Disney for work back in 1979.
- Eddie Goral, Fine Art Painter and Drawing Instructor
I had the pleasure of working along side Mel Shaw and Joe Grant. Both men were very humble and very much “gentlemen!” One of my favorite things to do when I started at Disney was to go into Mel Shaws office and look at the splendid pastel sketches he so effortlessly drew! He covered every square inch of his wall space with his glorious pastels. They were a great inspiraton to me as a background painter in the late 70′s, and he was always eager to share his time and talent with me. Both Mel and Joe had a great sense of “whimsey” and always drew with passion and dedication to their craft. Disney was lucky to
-Michael Humphries, Art Director, Painter