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Monday, May 31, 2010

In praise of Chris Sanders

Do you know who Chris Sanders is? Well if you don't you should really go check out his blog and webpage. But not yet. You're here at my blog, so stick around for a bit. No? Wait, if you stay I'll tell you a little about Chris Sanders. I first heard of him way back when Disney released the Lion King and the large Art of the Lion King book. While I was mostly in awe of the art in the book, I noticed a few storyboard drawings (pg 144 for those of you playing along at home), of Simba confronting Scar, that just struck me as bizarre. For one thing, Scar looked like Shere Kahn. His jaw was overly pronounced, and his eyes were little more than slits high in his skull. I just assumed that the Shere Kahn characterization was an early idea for the character that was eventually dropped. I noted the artist's name, Chris Sanders, and moved on. It wasn't till I noticed his name on other drawings that I began to realize that his style was more pervasive than I thought. Chris' characters had a bizarre sense of proportion. They're made up of very large parts, and very small parts, but very little in between. The lions shoulders and arms are powerful, with very little taper or fine detail, large paws with toes that aren't defined very much. Then there are these rediculously thin claws, often just little torpedo shapes that come out of the big beefy toe shapes. What really struck me though were the eyes of his characters. They were always high on the head and very far apart, and a bit slanted. A character looking forward didn't look relaxed, always wide eyed and interested because both pupils were pulled to their furthest inner position.

I didn't think much of Mr. Sanders art back then. I was too enamored of some of the other animators work, which was very strong and solid. Chris's stuff seemed too whimsical and flimsy. His storyboards for Mulan which came out a few years later, struck me much as the Lion King ones did. A drawing of Mulan's father, revealed hands that looked like sausages with 5 tiny worms at the end. As anyone who is an artist knows, a well drawn hand is a wondrous thing to behold, and seeing the way Sanders did hands didn't endear me to his style. It was good enough for Storyboards, but clearly this guy didn't know how to draw in the Disney style and that's all that interested me.

Fast forward a couple of years and I start seeing promotional material for Lilo and Stitch. Every once in a while there is mention that the look of the film is a bit of a departure, having been styled by someone named... you guessed it, Chris Sanders. As soon as I saw some stills, I could tell instantly how well his designs had been adapted. All of the characters had large, but squinty eyes, beefy bodies, with tiny wormy fingers, or stick like claws. However, I very quickly came to like the look of the film. Perhaps it was that I needed to see the Sanders design ethic cleaned up and polished into a finished character to appreciate it, or perhaps I had simply grown as an artist. I think it's a little of both. As I learned more about my own developing style, I was finding it very hard to break out of certain conventions. When drawing a face, I resorted to standard proportions and placement almost without thinking. This resulted in drawings that were all very much the same, as each other, and as the source material I had learned them from, namely Disney films. Not only could I not make myself experiment with these proportions, it didn't even occur to me that I could. The eyes go halfway down the face- that's it! Suddenly though I was seeing Chris Sander's work, not as poor approximations of the characters, but as his versions- characters that had design rules he created. It really was an eye opener.

In the ensuing years, I've worked for Disney and gotten to do a lot of Stitch artwork. I can't say it's been particularly great Stitch artwork, but I have also seen some Stitch stuff that's much worse, so it's kind of fun when I do get to do a Stitch to be sure that it's really got that Sanders look and not simply a passing resemblance.

Anyway, to tie this all in to my artwork for today, Chris Sanders directed "How to Train Your Pet Dragon". I haven't seen it (yet!), but was a bit disappointed that from the trailers it didn't look like much of the film bore his design sense, except for the main black dragon, Toothless. Toothless has all of the Sanders earmarks, large slanted eyes, round head, bulbous body and tiny little claws. Anyway, I was doodling in my sketchbook and said to myself, "Self, you should try drawing something like Chris Sanders would draw,". I didn't mean to draw a dragon, it just kind happened. And by the time I realized it, I had to make some conscious decisions not to make it look like Toothless. So one part of my brain is working very hard to emulate a style that's not my own and one part is trying to not make it look like a character that's already in my head. If I got anything even resembling a decent drawing is for you to decide. I'm not claiming it's worthy of Chris Sanders, only that it's a homage, so to speak. It's a very itneresting experiment to try to emulate someone who's work you know. You find out how much you know, and how much you don't. I found that I knew the head proportions, and the arms (those are just stitch arms) but how would Chris do a tail? How would he do those little fin things on the side of the head? Anyway, that's pretty much the end of the post. You can go see Chris' stuff now. Take your time and enjoy, but don't stay up too late.


Dawn said...

Best post ever!!

Dan Alexander said...

Eric, I too noticed the "Shere Khan" Scar from that Lion King book when it debuted. Chris Sanders really shaped the look of Timon (as seen in one drawing in the book) and I loved his "Just Can't Wait to Be King" elephant . The Chris Sanders style is very unique, and he really has an eye for making a "merchandise-friendly" character. I believe his American Dog characters would have been HUGE because they were so VERY different.

Your Chris Sanders-inspired character here is great!

Shirley said...

Awesome post, Eric. I think this is fascinating! I now have to check out all of your references and compare. Great that you created an homage to Chris, to see what you know of his "design style" and what you didn't..I think when you push yourself to see and do like this, you learn so much and grow. I need to work on this (not getting into the proportion rut) and definitely push my drawing further. Thanks for this great post!

Eric Scales said...

Thanks everyone. I'm surprised everyone enjoyed this post so much. If I had my way, I would have posted all the Sanders drawings I've referred to, but can't because they are Disney. Even barring that I should have provided some of my own drawings to illustrate the various proportions I was talking about. But typing the post took me close to an hour, an hour that I should have been doing some paid work, so it finally (well after midnight) came time to just push the "Publish" button. Perhaps I'll have to add some sketches after the fact later.