One of the Nine Old Men of Disney Animation, Eric Larson, died on 25th October 1988 at the age of 83. He joined the Studio in 1933 and worked there all his life until ill-health forced him to retire soon after I had the pleasure of meeting him in the summer of 1985. He invited me over to the Studio’s Animation Department in Burbank where he was training young animators on “The Great Mouse Detective”, writes Robin Allan.
I found him an immensely courteous, quiet and gentle man, still as enthusiastic for his art and work as someone a quarter his age.
Born in Cleveland, Utah, Eric’s parents were Danish, and his father was in turn cattle rancher, store keeper and clothing retailer. He changed the family name from Larsen to Larson and passed on to young Eric a love of comic strips. Eric graduated from the University of Utah and after some art training in Salt Lake City he began his career as a journalist. Friendship with Dick Creedon led to his introduction to the Disney Studio, where, as he put it, “I’ve been for fifty-two years. My fears of being tied down were not put to the test, as it has always been a challenge.” He was a versatile animator equally adept at bringing to life birds, animals and people. the duck Sonia and the bird Sasha in Peter and the Wolf for “Make Mine Music” as well as the demented Aracuan bird in “The Three Caballeros” and “Melody Time” are some of my favourite Larson characters. The most delightful of all is perhaps the kitten Figaro snuggling up in bed or swinging on Geppetto’s window in Pinocchio. The drawing shows great anthropomorphic skill, based on Eric’s observation of his young nephew, and is an excellent example of Disney character animation; the movements of the kitten are illustrated in Disney Animation – the Illusion of Life (Thomas & Johnston) and deserve careful study.
Eric Larson did a lot of work on the Disney features and gave generous acknowledgement to his colleagues, insisting that what he achieved was collaborative. Characteristically, he felt that he was responsible for the failures. Discussing the Beethoven section of Fantasia, he told me, “We made the mistake of putting baskets on our shoulders and we did a kind of skipping dance.., myself, Ken Anderson and a big heavy fellow. Horses have so much rhythm and style as horses, but my centaurs and centaurettes moved like human beings and it was such an asinine approach… the memory of this is a block in my life.”
On Walt Disney he said, “He was a man who had the sense to know what people might like; he had such an appreciation of linier drawing, you could caricature it and put it over more quickly. Today you just put out a picture and get your money back. Walt wasn’t interested in money except for what it could do for him. He didn’t do anything for quick bucks. ‘Let’s get it right,’ he said.”
Eric Larson so often got it right; another living door has closed on the golden age but his work remains as a shining example of animation fused with the essence of life.
Printed in Animator Issue 25 (Summer 1989)