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.