Oliver & Company: hand drawn in the Disney tradition

All illustrations in this article are from Oliver & Company © 1989 The Walt Disney Company.

Set against the skylines, streets and subways of modern day New York City, Walt Disney Pictures 27th full-length animated feature, Oliver & Company is a contemporary re-telling of Dickens’ classic story.

Oliver follows the misadventures of an orphaned kitten (Oliver) who is taken in by a pack of pickpocket dogs, headed by Dodger, the coolest quadruped in Manhatten and their human master, Fagin. When a little girl from Fifth Avenue finds Oliver and takes him uptown to live with her rich family, Fagin’s evil boss, Sykes, steps in and kidnaps the pair. His plan to keep Oliver from having his customary nine lives is foiled however, when the kitten’s canine pals decide to use their street ‘savoir faire’ in order to rescue him.

Oliver features one of the largest casts in recent animation history. The models and guidelines for each of the leading characters were created by Mike Gabriel, Andreas Deja and Glen Keane.

“In designing the character of Dodger,” recalls Deja, “there was a natural tendency in the beginning to model him after Tramp since both are happy-go-lucky street dogs.

But we wanted Dodger to have a unique look, so we gave him a rougher and scroungier appearance that seemed to fit in with the city setting.”

“For Oliver, the original concept was to make him a little older, more of a gangly teenager,” adds Gabriel. “But we quickly discovered that an innocent waif on the street was more sympathetic and vulnerable if he was played younger. By studying some of the classic Disney characters like Thumper in Bambi, we learned that young characters didn’t have to be cloying or just a cute ball of fur. They worked because they were sincere and genuine. That’s what we wanted for Oliver.”

In designing the character of Sykes, Glen Keane took an unusual departure from the typical Disney villain. “We wanted him to be a solid, powerful guy who is seen mostly in shadow. He is personified by his car. We found it was much more intimidating if we didn’t show him in light all the time. Also suggesting a sense of power are his hands, which are big, meaty mitts with bratwurst-like fingers – yet they are very dextrous and delicate. In fact, his hobby is building miniature models of his car.”

For most of the 33 character animators and 72 assistants who worked on Oliver, animating dogs and cats was a new and difficult assignment. Only a few in this group had actually worked on The Fox and the Hound (1981), the last Disney project which involved predominantly four-legged characters. The two subsequent films (The Black Cauldron and The Great Mouse Detective) featured mostly creatures who walked on two legs.

In order to prepare for this challenge, regular classes in dog anatomy were held at the studio. Glen Keane shared with his fellow artists some hints he had received from one of Disney’s legendary ‘nine old men’ Ollie Johnston, during the production of The Fox and the Hound.”
“The first thing I learned from Ollie was that a dog’s body can be broken down into solids and flexibles,” explains Keane. “There is a solid head, torso and hip all connected with a flexible spinal cord. The trick is to make those three solid shapes squash and stretch in a believable manner.”

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