What is it with my family and horses?
I might have mentioned my great uncle JB was hung for being a horse thief. That was in Texas back in 1927. He stole from a famous singing cowboy his equally famous horse.
For some infamous barnyard fun.
We don’t speak of it round the Pliers family table. Not in the presence of the young ones anyway.
Then my dad, when he was little, fell off a horse and broke both of his arms.
I used to love it when he told that story, because he always looked so embarrassed when he told it. Like falling off a horse and breaking both your arms was a silly thing to do. I especially liked to hear how he had to let his mother (Dad was fatherless from an early age) help him go to the bathroom.
Ha! Ha! Boy, did that make a funny image in my mind!
Like Uncle JB, Dad was from Texas, but I suppose unlike JB he wasn’t much of a cowboy. Or a horse lover. Not as a child anyway.
Then we come to me. Ironically the first time I ever sat on a horse was at the home of a Disney animator. The ranch really, of John Lounsbery (master animator and one of Disney’s original nine old men). This was in the late 1950s. My father (whose name is John Ewing, for you history buffs) had just started working for Disney and Mr Lounsbery was his new boss.
So our family was visiting his family, to get to know each other.
I couldn’t have been more than five or six years old.
It was a picnic party. After a barbecue lunch I wandered from the picnic tables to where the horses were fenced. I stood and looked at the huge glistening animals shaking their heads and snorting in the sun.
They were so big!
As I stood there my dad came from behind and lifted me up and sat me down on one of them.
I cried and cried!
Dad thought it was funny and took my photograph while Mr Lounsbery stood by in case I should fall. I suppose he didn’t want me to break my arms like father like son. I remember he wore a real cowboy hat and the most beautiful cowboy boots, red and shiny in the fine California dust.
(I’m sorry to say the photograph was lost during our move years later from California to New Zealand. I was fourteen then, and when I happened upon it quite by accident as we were packing to move… Well, let’s just say that no one has seen that photograph since. But I paid the price for my youthful vanity. My young conscience racked me for years about tearing up and throwing away that single stupid photograph!)
I sat upon the horse crying. After I’d about cried myself out, my mother came and rescued me, saying to the men they ought to be ashamed making me cry like that.
She laughed as she scolded, like she always did.
But it wasn’t the men that had made me cry.
It was the horse.
I had been terrified!
They laughed gently together, the men and my mother, so I knew I wasn’t in trouble for crying, which made me feel better so I stopped sniffling and calmed down, then my mother took me and sat me in the dust under a tree with some toy cars.
It wasn’t until I started to draw that I began to appreciate horses. Drawing opens your eyes to the world around you and the beauties of nature at every turn. Later when becoming an animator I had to study horses and their amazing poetry of motion so that I might work with them in the movies.
An animator must exercise close observation of his subject in order to analyze and later artfully reproduce its particular movements.
I mean mind-numbingly close observation! Not everyone can do it. You ever met an animator? If you have then you’ll know.
We’re a special breed.
Anyway, with my observation of horses came understanding. With understanding came appreciation. With appreciation came admiration. With admiration came love.
As an artist I’ve learned that it helps your performance if you are in love with your subject.
You should have seen all the stuff we had to learn about horses for our performance with Khan in Disney’s Mulan (1997). I say we because more than a dozen of us drew and animated Khan for the movie, under the supervision of the great Disney animator Alex Kupershmidt.
Khan was a watershed experience for me. It was my first chance to ‘lead’ a character, as we called it, in a Disney feature. That meant that I had more responsibility for my character than I had before, that I could take more ownership. Ha! Ha! That suited me! With other artists, designers and animators I helped bring Khan to life from the germ of an idea in the director’s mind about the Fa family’s old war horse to the final poster of Khan and Mulan that graced the theater marquee at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, where Mulan premiered with great fanfare.
I attended that premiere. Walked the red carpet. Hobnobbed with the big shots.
I felt like a god that night!
After being in the business for twenty-five years and working at Disney for seven, my dream of being a Disney animation artist had finally come true!
Hey world! That’s my work up there! Me! What do you think? I did that!
(Me, and well over three hundred other talented, dedicated artists and technicians let’s not forget. I'm bigheaded, but not that bigheaded!)
About artist’s reference let me say this. The trick is to learn all you can inside and out about your subject right down to the fingernails… then forget the facts and animate it from the heart!
We lived and worked with Khan for close to two years while making Mulan.
It was made the old-fashioned way.
Drawn by hand, one frame at a time.
There are sixteen frames per foot of film.
There are ninety feet of film per minute.
An animated feature film is eighty to one-hundred minutes long.
Do the math and you’ll come to the same conclusion we did.
You don’t have to be crazy to be an animator, but it helps.
It ain’t easy, as we used to say with a laugh before we worked all weekend to finish the scene.
Drawing horses till our hands ached.
Mulan was released in June, 1997.
I’m still very proud of Khan.
He is beautifully animated and exquisitely drawn.
Hard to believe that was nearly twenty years ago.
I guess it’s true that no one forgets their first great love.