/ 21 November 1997

Labour of Hercules

Peter Preston

Gerald Scarfe was one of the most vicious cartoonist-satirists of the Sixties. He made Harold Wilson lick LBJ’s backside, Richard Nixon wipe his with the American flag. He hacked open heads and let the cortex of politics drip to the floor. He was the scabrous spirit of a slimy age.

And now? Meet the production designer for Disney’s 35th full-length animated feature, Hercules, to be released in South Africa on November 28. How – and why -did Scarfe make the transition?

“I’m an entertainer,” says Scarfe. “I want an audience.” But he didn’t go to Disney as a retreat from supposedly loftier stuff. It came, appropriately enough, to him.

As a kid, he had two passions: illustrator Ronald Searle and the wonder of Walt. “I just couldn’t wait to see Pinocchio. And Snow White had a big effect on me. When I look at some of my shapes and swirls, I can see a direct line to Disney.”

Hercules, by these lights, wasn’t an accident; rather a conjunction waiting to happen. In 1993, along came two of Disney’s second-generation directors, John Musker and Ron Clements, creators of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. Musker fondly remembered a Time magazine cover of the Beatles that Scarfe had done two decades before. He wondered whether his erstwhile hero would care to sketch a few character treatments for Hercules and sent over the script. “Don’t expect your drawings to get into the film, though,” he said.

Scarfe sent off 30 or so sketches and reckoned that was that. But Disney came back – “encouraging and pushing”. Soon, he wasn’t the oddball on the periphery; he was deep into hundreds of detailed faxes, minor characters as well as stars, nursing 800 animators through the elements of Scarfe style. He was the first outside designer ever called in by Disney, and was production designer on the project for a full three years.

Scarfe is enthusiastic about the whole thing. Did you know that the top 15 animators are each assigned to one character and one character only? They, in effect, play Hercules or Hades or Zeus or whoever. The script doesn’t say, “Herc gets up swiftly and shrugs his shoulders”. It says, “Herc gets up.” How he gets up, what he does, the bits of business, that’s all left to the animator. He is an actor, giving a performance. So, in a way, the production designer is also a kind of alternative director.

Scarfe even got his paws on the clean-up act, the plasticating end of the assembly line when a fresh team of specialists arrive and smooth out kinks in the lines, erasing the quirks and nobbles of humanity. These spray painters, too, got a course in Scarfe swoopiness. They learned to leave some of the spikes in.

This is still, for all that, a Disney cartoon. Watch it for five seconds and you know: it could be no other. If you don’t like the genre, you will probably snooze or fret your way through much of it. But if you’re a fan, it’s the dream factory’s freshest for a long while: tons better than Pocahontas or The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with a neat undertow of adult gags. It builds to a genuinely gripping climax, reaching to Olympus then plunging into the depths of the nether world. And Scarfe has to take more than a little credit for that.

“The thought of all those talented people being got together and told, `This is a Scarfe scollop: now get the hang of drawing it’, was pretty amazing for me.”