Joe Grant was the spirit of the old Disney studio incarnate.
He was ‘the old guy at the end of the hall’ who sat for months, and years, in an office on the third floor of the Disney studio, working on ideas for new animated pictures.
One of his ideas was made into a short film called LORENZO which was nominated for an Academy Award when its creator was 96 years old.
In 1931, Walt Disney hired a young newspaper cartoonist named Joe Grant to design caricatures of Hollywood movie stars for a Mickey Mouse cartoon, MICKEY’S GALA PREMIERE. Joe designed caricatures of Wallace Beery, Charlie Chaplin, and Greta Garbo and liked the work so much he stayed on at Disneys for the next seventeen years.
Joe noticed that characters would change shape and volume from scene to scene in the early shorts. He created the Character Models department at Disney and introduced the concept of maquettes—three dimensional statues of the cartoon creatures that would enable animators to draw them correctly from all angles.
A list of Joe’s accomplishments would be far too long to include here. He designed the Queen and the Witch in SNOW WHITE. He wrote the story for DUMBO.
Some of his best work can be seen in THE RELUCTANT DRAGON, whose BABY WEEMS sequence, done entirely in storyboard, revolutionized animated storytelling.
In 1948 Joe had a falling out with Walt Disney over credits on the films and he left the studio for forty years.
During this time, he and his wife produced elegant ceramics and graphic art.
In 1988 Joe Grant was called back in to Disney’s to work on concept art for THE LITTLE MERMAID.
This time, he never left.
Joe continued to turn out concept art for every Disney film made since 1988. He sat in the office that he shared with Burny Mattinson and drew elegant pictures of cats and elephants and Indian gods and monsters. His colleague Vance Gerry, who also left us this year, worked just down the hall.
The younger animators were a little afraid of Joe. Most of it was awe of what he’d done. And there was always the notion in the back of our heads that this old guy could draw rings around any and all of us. It was a notion that was perfectly true.
“I know what will break the ice,” I told a friend.
I went straight to Joe’s office, knocked on the door, introduced myself, and said “I bet I’ve got some cartoon books that you don’t have.”
“SIMPLICISSIMUS, a Munich satirical magazine—the 1975 museum catalogue.”
“I’ve got the complete run of SIMPLICISSIMUS right here!” Joe said, indicating a row of browncoated, dusty books on a nearby shelf.
“I’ve got some Ralph Bartons and T. S. Sullivants that I don’t think you have. I’ll trade copies.”
“Bring ‘em in!”
So I did, and the ice was well and truly broken. We became friends and I would often stop by to see how things were going with Joe’s projects, and discuss my own.
I once asked Joe why he continued to work at Disney’s. We would often discuss the current state of the studio. Joe thought that it definitely had once been better.
“The old man doesn’t work here any more!” he said brusquely. “As for me, coming in here beats staying home looking at the dog!”
When the DUMBO special edition disc came out, I phoned Joe to tell him that I’d seen him onscreen doing an interview with Leonard Maltin in the ‘extra features’.
“WAS I ALIVE?” Joe asked brusquely.
“You photographed better than Leonard did.”
We were discussing 3D animation a few weeks ago and Joe was terribly excited to hear that a system had been invented in Rochester which did not require special red and green glasses for the three dimensional effect, and one of the systems was installed on the campus of RIT.
“I’ve been predicting this thing for forty years. I have to read about it!” Joe said.
And I got the paperwork that I had promised him and had it all ready for download this weekend. But it’s too late to mail it to him now.
Joe was working right up to the end, which came on May 6, 2005, a few days short of his 97th birthday.
I feel privileged to have known him for ten years and to have been able to work with, and learn from, a damn fine artist who was also one of the last living links with the early years of the Disney studio.
And I imagine that Joe’s getting proper credit, now that he’s working with the Old Man on his next picture.