This Artist Made Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” Enchanting—and Nearly Impossible to Animate
At 14, Eyvind Earle had his first gallery show. At 23, he sold a watercolor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yet even with those artistic credentials, it still took him a decade and a half to land a job at the Walt Disney Studios in Hollywood.
He finally sealed the deal in 1951, at age 35, through a friend of a friend. Earle was hired as an assistant background painter and aided in the design and creation of static backdrops—a cottage interior or a wooded glade, for example. At the time, Disney’s animations were achieved by swapping out a series of transparent, painted sheets of celluloid (or “cels” for short) in front of these background images.
Earle’s first project at Disney was Peter Pan (1953). Soon after, he was promoted to full-fledged background painter for the 1953 Goofy short For Whom the Bulls Toil and went on to make concept art for several films, including Lady and the Tramp (1955). But it was with Sleeping Beauty (1959) that Earle truly left his mark.
From the very beginning, the movie was intertwined with fine art. John Hench, a layout artist at Disney, had visited the Met Cloisters in Upper Manhattan and returned with an idea: Style the film after the medieval unicorn tapestries on display in the museum. These works, he said, “would fit perfectly with the cartoon medium. They have crisp edges, [and] the planes are not defined very well except by a kind of superimposition for distance rather than the linear perspective.”
Hench made a few drawings, which Earle translated into his own style. (“Where his trees might have curved,” he remembered, “I straightened them out.”) During an early planning meeting with Walt Disney, Earle brought in several concept paintings featuring his signature lush landscapes and strong verticals. As Ioan Szasz, CEO of Eyvind Earle Publishing, said, “Walt came in, and he looked at Eyvind’s and said, ‘Okay. That’s it. Everybody will follow Eyvind.’”
Sleeping Beauty was the first time, Szasz noted, that background paintings had determined the direction of a Disney film. During previous projects, the storyboarders and animators had done their work first, and the background painters simply followed their lead. It wasn’t an easy transition, and tensions soon ran high. The animators found it difficult, even impossible, to translate Earle’s detail-laden style into viable character designs.
Earle himself was concerned that his work might be simplified in the final product. So, instead of creating sketches to hand over to his assistants, he churned out hundreds of finished paintings that would actually appear behind the animation cels in the final film. A number of these and other works by Earle are currently on view at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, as part of their current exhibition “Awaking Beauty: The Art of Eyvind Earle.” Szasz, the show’s co-curator, said Earle was sometimes working on as many as 30 paintings at once during that time.
Although the battles between Earle and the animation department didn’t help, Sleeping Beauty had been riddled with delays from the start. Disney was thoroughly distracted by a combination of television shows, live-action films, and the ongoing construction of Disneyland. Earle himself was pulled away from the film in the middle of production to paint several murals at the amusement park. As the timeline stretched longer and longer, the production budget also ballooned—eventually reaching a total of $6 million.
Disney fired the director and replaced him with Gerry Geronimi, who soon clashed with Earle. “All that beautiful detail in the trees, the bark, and all that, that’s all well and good, but who the hell’s going to look at all that?” Geronimi later said of Earle’s designs.
Earle left Disney for another job in March 1958, a year before Sleeping Beauty was released. Geronimi ended up simplifying some of the backgrounds (Earle said that he airbrushed them to ensure they wouldn’t compete with the animation), although he couldn’t eliminate their fine artistic quality. In the end, the movie was a financial flop. Not because of its art direction—in fact, as author Bob Thomas noted in his 1976 book, “the emphasis was on visual beauty and spectacular effects.” The problems lay in Disney’s absence—the “characters lacked the human touches that Walt always endowed,” Thomas wrote.
As for Earle, he continued creating animated art until 1966, when he returned to painting full-time. He began to make serigraphs in 1974, operating a silkscreen printing studio out of various cities including Santa Fe and Monterey, California (where Szasz, answering an ad in a local newspaper, began working in 1988).
Several of Earle’s most famous works are California landscapes, reimagined in his fantastical style. But his legacy continues to be dominated by his time at Disney. In 1991, for example, one of his background paintings for Sleeping Beauty sold for $29,000.
Szasz said people sometimes dismiss his art for these Disney connotations. But Earle was an artist long before Disney—and long after, making work up until his death in 2000.
“A lot of people say ‘Oh, he worked for Disney.’ Well, yes, he did,” said Szasz. “But he and all the other artists who worked at Disney, they all brought their own style.”