Walt with animator models

Walt Disney and the Creation of the Character Model Department

By Nikki Nguyen, Walt Disney Archives

Disney animators have been bringing characters to life for decades, skillfully using various mediums to create exciting, immersive worlds with fully-developed characters that generations of fans have grown to love. Let’s take a peek at how Walt Disney created a department to help animators better conceptualize what would become iconic Disney characters.

In the wake of the success of Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony shorts, Walt continued to press forward in looking for ways to improve the work of his animation studio. He knew that crafting characters with interesting personalities was essential in reaching his audience:

“Until a character becomes a personality it cannot be believed. Without personality, the character may do funny or interesting things, but unless people are able to identify themselves with the character, its actions will seem unreal. And without personality, a story cannot ring true to the audience.”

To aid in this effort, in late 1937, Walt established the Character Model Department, a group that was responsible for the design, creation, and refining of characters and figural reference models for films such as Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Dumbo, amongst others. The department was under the leadership of Joe Grant, who up to that point had been a story artist known for his sophisticated taste and ability to convey personality. Joe greatly appreciated the work of master caricaturists such as Honoré Daumier, Heinrich Kley, and Gustave Doré, and shared the work of these artists with the members of his team, hoping to root the work of the Character Model Department in historical art traditions as they explored new ground in developing what would become beloved classic Disney characters.

At the Walt Disney Archives, we have some of the earliest 3-D models created by the Character Model Department for Pinocchio. During this early period, models were first sculpted in Plasticine and then cast in plaster with an underlying steel wire armature.  Models were then finished by the Ink & Paint Department using a proprietary blend of opaque watercolors. Some were left as is, while others were shellacked or lacquered.

These meticulously designed and beautifully crafted models were vitally important tools for animators. There would typically be a small run of each model, and sometimes we see identification numbers and stamped text reading “RETURN TO CHARACTER MODELING DEPT.” on the bottom of the models, helping us better understand how the department not only created the models, but also distributed and tracked them as these important tools were used by many animators.

Although the Character Model Department operated from 1937 to 1941, the impact of their early work in developing character model sheets, animator models, and other materials went on to inspire generations of Disney studio artists, creating a foundation of techniques and concepts still being utilized today.

For a behind-the-scenes look at the collections of the Walt Disney Archives, check out the new documentary Adventure Thru the Walt Disney Archives, premiering on D23.com exclusively for D23 Gold Members on June 27.