The Art of Disney’s Marc Davis in San Francisco


The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco presents Leading Ladies and Femmes Fatales: The Art of Marc Davis until November 3, 2014. The exhibit highlights 70 original pencil animation drawings, paintings, conceptual artwork and photographs of Animator-Artist-Imagineer, Marc Davis.

Artwork includes visual development for Peter Pan (1953), visual development for Sleeping Beauty, visual development for Cinderella, and concept art for Haunted Mansion, among other creations.

In 1989, the animator was designated a Disney legend, having been assigned to produce some of the most challenging animation for Walt Disney’s leading ladies and femme fatales. Davis’ mastery of the human body, character consistency and his authority on anatomy and movement generated iconic female characters in such films like Peter Pan (1953) and One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961).

With such a large body of work and accomplishments, the current Disney exhibit concentrates on Davis’ life and career with his mastery of the human body. Female characters include Tinker Bell, Cruella de Vil, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Aurora and the villain Maleficent.

As one of Disney’s “Nine Old Men” (Disney’s core animators), Marc Frasier Davis also helped with live entertainment. He created and designed attractions at Disneyland including Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean.

Davis studied at the Kansas City Art Institute, the California School of Fine Arts and the Otis Art Institute. When he was not at school, Davis was at the zoo where he would perfect his draftsmanship. At the time, he was not thinking in terms of animation but more on capturing the animal’s movement in art, “in the tradition of Frederick Remington’s sculptures.” Davis would spend 42 years at Disney Studios as animator-Imagineer, creating memorable characters, both good and evil.

Davis once expressed to an interviewer, “if you can’t draw it, you can’t animate it.” The Imagineer had a talent for dramatic storytelling combined with his ability to instill compassion, humor, and emotion into his renderings, and that was what what made his female characters stand out.


Usually assigned the realistic human characters, Davis was one of two draftsmen. He commented that have been given the role was “both a blessing and a hellish curse.” After all, the humans in the animation conveyed the story. If the character was not memorable, and the audience did not believe in that individual, “it doesn’t matter how funny the comedians are.”

Marc Davis not only had talent as a draftsman, but he had the skillfulness to give the character personality. Cinderella had a quality of self-effacing kindness while characters like Tinker Bell possessed cheeky charisma. Davis’ Cruella de Vil was showy and possessed a more tawdry personality wherein Maleficent was cool and measured in her approach. No matter if it was the leading lady or femme fatale, each was characterized with a sense of style.

In 1961, after the completion of 101 Dalmatians, the Imagineer went to work creating attractions for everything from the New York World’s Fair to Tokyo Disneyland. Before he retired, he worked on Pirates of the Caribbean, It’s a Small World and The Haunted Mansion among other attractions.

Marc Davis’ extensive work in animation and live entertainment continues to inspire the next generation of artists, such as Andreas Deja, the animator for Scar in The Lion King. According to Deja, Davis had excellent advice to pass on. He told her to think differently of her characters. For example, in order to animate Mickey Mouse, he must be thought of more than “a little squashy cartoon character.” Davis informed her that animated characters have structure, and if an animator does not work within that configuration, the character will not be believable on the screen.

Glen Keane, the Disney animator for Tarzan and Pocahontas said that no one but Davis “brought together, draftsmanship, acting and analysis the way he did.”

After creating Cruella de Vil, the animator worked for a short time developing a “scrapped-film” before designing theme park rides for Disney. After his retirement, Davis lectured at the studio and was honored with a retrospective of his work at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Larry Smith Fine Arts Gallery. Even after retirement, Marc Davis remained an active part of Disney until his death in 2000.

By Dawn Levesque

50 Most Influential Animators
Los Angeles Times
The Walt Disney Family Musem

One Response to "The Art of Disney’s Marc Davis in San Francisco"

  1. Courtney Anderson   May 31, 2014 at 4:55 pm

    Always was a fan of Eyvind Earle–another Disney artist/animator– never got into Davis until now.Thanks for this! It’s always fascinating to learn about the masterminds behind such iconic characters. Great read.

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