See the Real Life Models for Your Favorite Disney Characters
The look, movements and personalities of the Disney characters come from many different sources. For some characters, actors and models are brought in to act out scenes from the film. These performances are filmed and given to the animators to study and drawn inspiration from. Here are some of the unsung talents who modeled for your favorite Disney characters.
Realistic humans are among the most difficult characters to animate. For ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,’ animators with relatively little experience animating real people had to create characters that were convincingly real. To aid in this task, Disney hired a young dancer, then named Marjorie Belcher, to act out the role of Snow White. Champion’s performance became the model for how future live-action reference was shot. Dressed in the character’s costume, she danced and pantomimed scenes from the film with stand-in props.
Champion later did live-action modeling for the Blue Fairy in ‘Pinocchio’ and Hyacinth Hippo from ‘Fantasia.’ She was briefly married to Disney animator Art Babbitt and later found fame dancing in MGM musicals alongside her second husband, the actor/dancer/director Gower Champion.
Bela Lugosi wasn’t so much a live-action reference actor as the live-action reference actor that got away. Footage of the man best known as Dracula playing the mountain sized devil from the Night on Bald Mountain sequence of ‘Fantasia’ was shot. However, animator Vladimir ‘Bill’ Tytla felt that Lugosi’s performance didn’t fit the character. He shot additional footage of fellow animator Wilfred Jackson acting out the part and used it for reference while animating Chernabog.
Disney animators often study or film voice actors as they perform to get ideas for animating the corresponding characters. Sometimes — particularly for older films — the actors would double as reference models. Audley’s stately appearance and acting chops perfectly complimented her amazing vocal performances as Maleficent from ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and the evil stepmother from ‘Cinderella.’
One of Disney’s most prolific live-action reference models, Helene Stanley began working for Disney towards the end of her film career. Stanley modeled Cinderella and her stepsister Anastasia, Princess Aurora in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and Anita Radcliffe in ‘101 Dalmatians.’ Disney also found an onscreen role for her as Davy Crockett’s wife Polly in two of the ‘Davy Crockett’ TV movies.
It’s long been rumored that Peter Pan’s pixie pal was based on Marilyn Monroe. In fact, the temperamental fairy was heavily based on the reference provided by Margaret Kerry.
With the aid of numerous oversized props, Kerry gave the animators plenty of inspiration for Tinker Bell’s movement and character. Kerry also voiced one of the mermaids in ‘Peter Pan’ and played the character in reference footage as well.
Another case of the voice actor doubling as the reference model was Hans Conried, voice of Peter Pan’s archenemy Captain Hook. A talented actor with countless voice and onscreen credits to his name, Conried dressed the part for the reference shoot. Legendary animator Frank Thomas used Conried’s pantomimed performance as a jumping off point to create one of his most memorable characters.
Conried went on to appear in a couple of live-action Disney films. You may also remember him as the title character from ‘The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T’ or as the voice of Snidely Whiplash on ‘Dudley Do-Right.’
Sherri Stoner helped to reinvent the Disney heroine by serving as the model for both Ariel and Belle. Stoner, who had previously appeared on the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ TV series, swam around in a water tank for Ariel and pantomimed Belle’s actions to prerecorded tracks of voice actor Paige O’Hara‘s dialogue.
Stoner’s connection to animation didn’t end with ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘The Little Mermaid.’ She went on to serve as a writer and producer on ‘Tiny Toon Adventures’ and ‘Animaniacs,’ voicing Slappy Squirrel on the latter. She’s currently working on a series for Disney Junior starring revamped versions of the seven dwarfs.
Animating animals, both realistic and stylized, also requires a lot of study. ‘Bambi’ featured some of the most realistic animal animation produced by Disney up to that time. To help the artists familiarize themselves with the movements and mannerisms of the creatures they would be drawing, Disney brought a number of animals to live in enclosures on the studio grounds, including two four-month-old fawns.
Disney’s animators had plenty of opportunity to study the two deer, dubbed Bambi and Faline, as they grew up. But living in such close proximity to humans stripped the deer of some of their wild nature. The animators found additional inspiration from a wild buck who found his way onto the lot, attracted by Faline.
Nowadays, Disney usually relies on trips to the zoo or visits from appropriate critters with professional handlers when artists require live animal models for their characters.
One of the early problems in the production of ‘Lady and the Tramp’ was the design of one of the stars. Lady was an upper class cocker spaniel from the beginning, but no one could seem to agree what type of dog the streetwise canine Tramp should be. Story artist Ed Penner found the answer when he spotted a stray dog with the perfect look for Tramp.
The dog could not be caught, but was discovered days later in the city pound. As it turned out, ‘Tramp’ was a female, but her look still proved to be just what the Disney artists needed for their crafty leading mutt. After she finished her modeling work, the dog lived out the rest of her days in a home for retired Hollywood pooches.