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From stamps to Sleeping Beauty: Q&A with a former Disney animation artist

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ron-pic-oct-2007Ron Dias is an animation artist who worked for Disney Studios more than 50 years. He has also done extensive work for most of the other big Hollywood studios. The world first took note of Dias when, as a 19-year-old student, his work was chosen for a special children’s stamp by the U.S. Post Office. Today Dias, 72, lives south of San Francisco.

Orlando Attractions Magazine writer Mike Reilley interviewed Dias for the Winter 2010 issue. Below are some Questions and Answers that didn’t make it in print.

When was the first time you thought to yourself, “This is what I want to do with my life?”
It’s hard to say because my mom always said, “You were either born to surf, to sing or to have a pencil in your hand.” And I figured we already had all the Elvises and Perry Comos that we needed, so let’s stick to the artwork. Well, surfing and swimming are fine, but surfboarding, and being born and raised in Hawaii, you’d think that would be great. But I had three of my friends almost vanish; almost die on me while surfing. But with a pencil in my hand, my mom said I was always drawing.

Where did you get your talents?
I get it from my papa’s side. My dad could have been any of three things. He was a really good artist. I get all my talent from him. He was a tremendous carpenter – from the old school. He could build anything. But he chose being an electrician with an Hawaiian electric company because he made more money in order to raise a family. But that’s where I get my talent from, so it was kind of around me. And he liked the Tarzan, Prince Valiant kind of things and was always doing sketches and drawings. So I kind of sopped it up.

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Tell us about winning the postage stamp contest?
The stamp was my last senior project, but I never thought, with the thousands of students from around the country entering this, plus all the possessions; Puerto Rico and Hawaii, that I would ever have a chance of winning that thing.

When you started at Disney, were the other artists helpful?
Eyvind Earle (1916-2000) was one of my early mentors. He spent time with me and I’ll never be more appreciative. So did Claude Coats (1913-1992), who was a “daddy” to me. A new kid, wet behind the ears, and I was walking on exceptionally green grass, needs a helping hand like that. But I don’t think they did that with many of the kids but they could see I was very serious about this and this was really what I wanted to do. And it wasn’t just the animation part of it because I was trained more as a painter. I love to work with color and value and texture, theatrical stage and light of subject, which is exactly what they like to do at Disney. I started in 1956 and by the latter part of 1960 I was already painting backgrounds. Doing the beautiful scenery that the characters work on is as important as the characters.

What can you tell us about a movie called “Back to Neverland” at Disney-MGM Studios? You were listed as the art director.
This was at their animation walk-through. You would sit in a theater and see this wonderful, Back to Neverland, not to be confused with Peter Pan 2, which was Return to Neverland. The movie had a lot of Disney in it, including Peter Pan, Captain Hook and even Tinker Bell. They used it as a vehicle to tell the story of how really beautifully Disney quality animation is done, what made it different and special. It played in Florida forever. It’s a beautiful film and to this day I’m still trying to get a hold of a copy of that damn thing.

How have things changed?
I’ve become the mentor. Kids, students and fans come to me to ask questions and find out about things. And when I started I thought to myself how I’m just a young kid and I’m working with all these fine artists and these old men. Old men? They were only in their 40s! But even though 50 years have gone by, I still sometimes feel like I’m the young kid on the block. I can’t even fathom to put myself on a level with someone like Marc Davis (1913-2000), who was my animator.

What are you telling young artists?
I talk to the students a lot. I go to the schools. I try to give them a cross section and what I take is not only the animation stuff, I take a lot of the publicity, marketing and merchandising stuff with me. This is because my latter years, say the past nine years, have not been working on animation. My last few things have been for Disneyland and Disney Publications. It started out with Disney Art Editions, which is now Disney Classics. And if you see that wall in the Disney stores, I was the art director who put all that stuff together. I call it the Memorable or Magical Moments of Disney.

What do you talk about when you’re making a presentation about your work?
dias3I recently gave a really neat talk about the making of Sleeping Beauty. I’ve collected a whole portfolio of all kinds of artwork and photos; not only the artwork, but behind the scenes; all the layout men, the background men and so when I put on a show, I tell everything about the film. I even show a lot of the parts that were left out or were pre-production concepts that never made it to the screen and how this film would have been a completely different film if it had.

A lot of what we see today on screen comes to us through computers, right?
It came to a point when I started conceding the computer generation stuff overtaking everything. The wildebeest sequence in The Lion King was going to be half the size it was but would not work unless it was the length that it is and so that’s where computer generation started to come in, to make the thousands of wildebeests that we needed. So I could see all of it (computers) happening and beautiful downtown Burbank wasn’t so beautiful anymore and so I was purposely moving over to marketing and doing things for Disney Stores.

What would you be doing if you hadn’t had this talent?
Oh, I don’t know. I’d probably be selling my body on Waikiki Beach. I don’t know. I’d be working for the city or county in Hawaii and I’d have a wonderful tan and I’d probably be the most unhappy creature on Earth.

You can read more of our interview with animation artist Ron Dias, including his thoughts on the Magic Kingdom Fantasyland expansion, in the Winter 2010 issue of Orlando Attractions Magazine.

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