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I usually leave Star Wars stuff alone on this page lately, having overdosed on it during the prequel era, but I can’t help but note the sad passing of Ralph McQuarrie. While notable as an accomplished artist in his own right, he will always be remembered as the conceptual artist on Star Wars who more than anyone other than George Lucas helped crystallise the Star Wars “look.” He was crucial to shaping the quasi-mythical, lived-in, timeless aesthetic of the series; there’s also little doubt that his early paintings were pivotal in helping Lucas to sell the scope of the Star Wars vision and hence getting the movie made.
Noted film composer John Barry, best known for his work on the James Bond series, has died at age 77.
I’m not qualified to write a really full analysis of his non-Bond work. Jaime Weinman has a nice little appreciation here.
Because of his association with the Bond series, Barry is sometimes assumed to have written the James Bond theme. That was the work of Monty Norman, although its authorship has literally been the subject of litigation: a defamation case a few years back was fought around the suggestion that Barry (who arranged the composition and whose orchestra played it) deserved more credit for the theme than Norman. While it seems clear that the basic melody was Norman’s work, there is also no doubt that even if Barry contributed no more than the arrangement, that was a mighty contribution. That work certainly crystallised the Bond sound.
The sound John Barry brought to those early Bonds combined a strident, almost lurid quality (most evident in the title themes), with a sweeping sense of epic adventure. The latter quality is very evident in Barry’s “007″ theme, which he wrote for From Russia With Love and which became effectively the alternate Bond theme (no doubt preferred by Barry since he was 100% responsible for it).
While I was on holiday a couple of big names passed away. One was Cyd Charise, but I’d never try to pass myself off as qualified to write about her: I did enjoy Jaime Weinman’s commentary though, with some great YouTube clips, here.
Special effects artist Stan Winston, however, has his fingerprints all over the post-seventies Hollywood that I find so interesting. The market for special effects is so big now that nobody can really stamp their name on it the way old-school artists like Willis O’Brien or Ray Harryhausen did, but Winston was as close as we had to that kind of iconic effects artist in the past few decades. He was also the last of a breed, in that he was a master of physical creature effects – achieved through make-up, puppetry, robotics, and the like – in an age where such creatures are increasingly being done by computer. His career paralleled another great effects artist, Rick Baker, but where Baker was probably best known for make-up effects (as with his work on all those films where Eddie Murphy plays multiple characters) and had a sideline in creature work, Winston’s emphasis was the other way round.
Just a quick post to note the passing of Norm McCabe, who died on 18 January aged 94. McCabe was the last of the directors from the Warner Bros animation studio in its classic era: a handful of animators are left alive (Bill Melendez pops up looking very sprightly in interviews on the Looney Tunes DVD sets, for example) but now all the directors and notable story artists are gone.
I’m not terribly familiar with McCabe’s cartoons: he certainly wasn’t a major director, and like Arthur Davis only got a short spell as director (he left the position for military service). Unlike Davis, who is pretty well regarded by Warners fans, his cartoons aren’t very frequently revived. However, like Joe Grant, the guy had staying power: he was doing work on Tiny Toon Adventures in his eighties.
Trust Michael Barrier to step in and complicate the Joe Grant story by bringing up the question of whether what is being written about him in the current round of obituaries is actually true. Barrier was prompted by the following over-the-top passage in the obituary by LaughingPlace:
Joe Grant will forever haunt animation, move audiences to tears, and swirl about our hearts like bright autumn leaves, reminding us that those who have come before us are not to be discarded and forgotten, but to be used as a source of courage and inspiration. True inspiration. Never has anyone so unassuming, so gracious and so gentle walked the halls of Disney Animation. Never has any one person – outside of Walt himself – inspired so much creative magic at Disney.
Websters would do well to slip his portrait neatly beside the definition of ‘gentleman.’ It would have to be a lively caricature that emphasized the snowy wave of hair and apple blush cheeks that framed those jewel-brilliant eyes. Joe Grant’s face shined with a Father Christmas sort of secret knowledge of exactly what you were wishing in your heart, and for decades he granted those wishes.
I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to think I could write an obituary of Joe Grant, the veteran Disney artist who died on Friday: try Jim Hill Media or LaughingPlace for that. But I did want to write a little bit about what a symbolic moment this is, particularly coming so soon after the death of legendary animator Frank Thomas (the second-last of Disney’s so-called “Nine Old Men”) last September.