Monday, October 1, 2012

The Stepmother

"Boy, I thought, that's a tough assignment for some poor guy. I wonder who's going to get it?"
Frank Thomas was reflecting in an interview on what he had thought about the character of Cinderella's stepmother. Little did he know that Walt Disney had Frank in mind to bring her to life.
"The Stepmother was one of the toughest characters I did" he added.
In the end Frank did enjoy animating her, and he got very strong performances on the screen. I think some of his best ever.
A character that doesn't move much at all is a challenge for any animator. The acting becomes all about subtleties, and the quality of your drawing is even more important. There needs to be some motion within the longer held key poses or the character won't look alive.
Frank got some help from actress Eleanor Audley, who voiced the Stepmother in a way that sends chills up your spine. She also provided strong live action reference.
What I love about her character concept is the fact that she never lays a hand on Cinderella, but her vicious verbal abuse makes her one of the most evil villains of all time.

Here are a few samples of Vis Dev as well as production art.
Mary Blair painted these early portraits of Lady Tremaine. They already show an icy personality, which Frank took great advantage of in his animation.



I was very surprised when I saw these design drawings by Milt Kahl a few years ago, because I had always thought that Milt had nothing to do with the development of this character.






These are a few of Frank's animation drawings from various scenes. 
Whenever the Stepmother is on the screen she is powerful, commanding and completely convincing as a real personality. She is animated Hitchcock!






18 comments:

  1. Oh man what amazing drawings. Both are truly masters!. What size are those drawings, that stepmothers face and mouth shape on Milt Kahl´s drawing, just so great!

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  2. The Stepmother creates the same kind of fear in me as Jafar does. Is this the way how the restraint acting villains work? They seem to increase the tension with each moment they are on the screen. In contrary, the broad acting villains may be scary, but they somehow break the tension with their outbursts. Like Bill Tytla's Stromboli, who can startle the audience with his sudden outburst, but it seems almost relieving in compare to the dark, conservatively moving villain. Maybe this restraint in the acting is so scary because it suggests, that the villain is hiding the truth how really bad he is?

    Was Jafar somehow inspired with the Stepmother? Their design is completely different, but their restraint and elegance have something common.

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    1. It was more Maleficent who influenced me for Jafar's concept.
      Their drawing styles aren't that far apart.
      I even gave Marc Davis an illustration I had done showing Maleficent and Jafar together. I'll post it sometime in the future.

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  3. Always enjoyed a cold, commanding, subtle-movements type villain too, animated or live. Stepmother, Jafar (especially in that first scene), uh ~mindblank~, Severus Snape...let me think...Darth Vader... :D But boy, they have the best sneers in the world ('cept that last one), haha.
    But Lady Tremaine's expression in the last drawing just sends shivers up my spine.

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  4. Totally agree! The whole movie inmy opinion is Hitchock narrative in beautiful animated action, just as mention here and on the DVD documentary. One question, was the Stepmother a character Mr. kahl wanted to animate or he was just helping his fellow colleagues?

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  5. I am not sure, but since M. Kahl helped with the design on most characters -including the ones he never animated- I think he was just helping out Frank Thomas.

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  6. I remember seeing Lady Tremaine for the first time in theaters and how much she gave me the chills. She was so believable to me even as a child. I wish Disney would do a limited release of the films back to the theaters before they come back on DVD. I know I want to see them back in the theaters and a lot of people I know want to see it back there too, were they belong on the BIG screen. It's not like they have to run film prints any more.

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    1. about a year ago the BFI in London had a screening of the entire Disney animation back catalogue. Was a treat to see so many of those on the big screen

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  7. wow! Great drawings, I love the expressions of her hands! For me she was a very recognisible character from my past life (I'm happy to say in a exaggerated way of course). Especially the expressions of her eyes. I love those strong female villans. My personal favorite is Madame Medusa from the Rescuers, but in animation she is the totally opposite of Lady Tremaine.

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  8. It's interesting that you mention the fact that the Stepmother never physically touches Cinderella, though she is still horribly cruel. Do you know, by chance, if the concept of physical cruelty was ever tossed around for this character, or did it seem like too much of a stretch? To be honest, I'm drawing a blank when it comes to trying to think of another Disney villain who didn't try to physically harm the protagonist.

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    1. She doesn't have to touch her. It's all psychological, the Stepmother already knows she has power over Cinderella. It's like the great scene where the stepsisters destroys her dress. Stepmother doesn't even have to tell her daughters to do it, she just eggs them on. "These beads give it the right touch. Don't you think so, Drizella?" She can make her own children do what she wants and never utter a word. That's scary!

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    2. I suppose this is true. Thanks for the comment! I've always loved characters with such strong personality, especially villains like the Stepmother.

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  9. I haven't seen Cinderella since I was a kid, but I still remember this character really vividly. I think that's a great indication of great storytelling and performance!

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  10. I guess I never thought about how much of a challenge she would have been . . . she was definitely a chillingly evil character.

    Thank yo so much for posting all this disney history! it's fascinating as well as helpful to me as a new artist trying to break into the industry

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  11. Andreas, I agree with the Hitchcock influence on Lady Tremaine. Do you know what Frank's inspirations were for her? She does seem influenced a little by Mrs. Danvers from "Rebecca".

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    1. Frank never mentioned Hitchcock to me.
      But he gave a lot of credit to actress Eleanor Audley, who did live action and voiced the character.

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    2. Eleanor Audley was terrific...her voice gave me chills as a kid. I heard some story that Walt never cared for Hitchcock films (too gruesome or something), so I bet it would probably annoy him if he knew one of his top animators were taking inspiration from him. Then again, how many artists didn't tell Walt where they really got their inspiration in the first place :)

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