#9. A Conversation with Pete Emslie

JA: You spent six years illustrating a column in The Ottawa Citizen called Brown's Beat, which eventually led you to meeting artists working at Walt Disney World in Florida; tell me about the process and experiences you had becoming an artist for Disney.

PE: It started out very informally. My family and I used to take vacations at Walt Disney World back when I was still in my early teens. I believe I was about 17 when a friend of mine who was working at WDW offered to introduce me to the fellows in Disney's art department. Two of the character artists I met were to have a major influence on my later career with Disney. Russell Schroeder was very generous in looking over my art samples of Disney characters, offering critiques and supplying me with photocopied model sheets in order to improve my abilities. I would continue to drop in with new samples in subsequent trips to Florida thereafter for several years. Harry Gladstone was impressed with my talent too, and later when he transferred up to New York to take over as art director for Disney Merchandising, he gave me a call asking if I'd like to work for him. I was now about 22 and very much hoping to work for Disney, but I had reservations about living in New York City, as I was not a "big city" type. Being born and raised in Ottawa, the capitol of Canada, yet still a small, laid back city, I was used to the comfort of suburban life.

Anyway, I went to work for Harry as a freelancer for several weeks that summer. I went back again for several weeks the following winter, but by then I'd decided that New York was not somewhere I'd want to live, and so reluctantly I told Harry that, as much as I would love to work for Disney, the thought of being in NYC didn't sit well with me. Harry was sorry to hear that but understood my feelings. He did tell me, however, that he really thought I should be working for Disney, so he put me in touch with Jim Rayburn, who ran the Disney Merchandising office in Toronto. I got in touch with Jim and made an appointment to travel to Toronto and show him my portfolio. After about six months of freelancing from Ottawa, Jim offered me a staff position as a character artist, where I ended up working for about 6 years. It was in that 6th year that an opportunity arose to go work at WDW in Florida, in the department that had been my introduction to Disney.

JA: Working for the Disney Art Department from 1990 to 1994, what were some of the projects you were assigned to?

PE: The type of projects we had fell into several main categories: 1) Art that would appear on collateral material in the theme parks, resorts, and restaurants. 2) Art used in print advertising for WDW that would appear in various magazines. 3) Art used in Character Merchandise to be sold in the parks.

I loved doing art specifically for parks, as I could then buy up samples to give to friends and family as gifts. Some of the best projects, however, were for the park restaurants. Often we'd get to illustrate childrens' menus, themed to a specific Disney film. I enjoyed working on menus themed to The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, and The Rescuers, as these were characters that we didn't often get to work with since we most often illustrated Mickey and the gang, or iconic characters like Snow White and Winnie-the-Pooh. I also enjoyed illustrating the phone book covers for the in-house directories at WDW.

JA: This position eventually led to you being offered a job by Disney Publishing in California to illustrate children's books, of which you have illustrated around 40 books so far; which books have stood out as being your favorite, and are you working on any now?

PE: My first book was Donald Duck's Christmas Tree for Golden Books, though it was arranged through my friend Russell Schroeder, who was at that time working as art director for Disney Publishing. I've done a few titles directly for Disney Publishing, but the majority of books have come through outside publishers with the Disney license, most notably Random House and Golden Books, who incidentally have merged in recent years to become one company. I've particularly enjoyed working on books that deal with the classic Disney films of the Walt era. My favourite projects have included three original stories featuring Dumbo for Golden, as well as an adaptation of my favourite film, The Jungle Book for Random House.

JA: Do you remember what first drew your attention to the art world to consider it as a career?

PE: Certainly the Disney animated features of my youth were a huge influence, as well as the theatrical cartoons that were a staple on afternoon kids' television back in the 1960s. But I also loved the print cartoons, especially the Pogo comic strip by Walt Kelly. In my early teen years I bought MAD magazine each month and was a big fan of guys like Mort Drucker, Paul Coker Jr., and the great Jack Davis. The caricatures of Al Hirschfeld have certainly been a lifelong influence too. Interestingly, it was the print cartoon world that lured me more than animation, as I tend to be a bit of a maverick, preferring to handle a job from start to finish by myself. Animation, by its very nature, requires a team effort, which really has never much appealed to me.

JA: What were your favorite animated shorts and features growing up, and how do they compare to what you enjoy today?

PE: Keeping in mind that the 1960s films of my youth were limited to periodic theatrical reissues, seeing a Disney animated feature was a real exciting event. I'd seen several of the Disney classics in reissue as a kid, but it was the theatrical debut of The Jungle Book in 1967 that I also credit as the catalyst for my wanting to become a professional cartoonist. It remains my favourite film to this day. Back in those years before the VCR came along, Disney shorts were not that accessible, being limited to the occasional one accompanying a feature, or once in awhile showing up on the Disney Sunday night show linked together with new animation of the wonderful Ludwig Von Drake. Therefore, I grew up seeing more Looney Tunes and Popeye regularly on TV. I remember being a huge fan of Popeye back then, but of the Disney characters, Donald Duck takes the spot as my all-time favourite, as I find him to be the most "human" of the Disney bunch, with all of his character flaws.

I'm not nearly so keen on the features being produced today, although I do admire The Little Mermaid very much, as I consider Ariel to be one of the most interesting of the Disney girls, again due to the humanity I see in her flawed and flighty nature, as well as a face designed for more exaggerated expression than many of the other girls. My favourite Disney feature of more recent times, though, is The Great Mouse Detective from 1986. Basil is one of the most quirky heroes I can recall, and it is one of the few Disney features where I consider the hero to be every bit as interesting as the villain. Of course, I'm also a big Sherlock Holmes fan, so that helps explain the appeal of this film too.

JA: What are your thoughts on today's animation studios and the work they are turning out?

PE: Well, I loved Brad Bird's The Iron Giant from a few years back. But, to be perfectly blunt, I am not enamored with CG animation, and many of today's releases in that medium, including Disney's, leave me cold. Computer animation has, in my opinion, blurred the line between animation and live-action and I resent that trend greatly. My interest in animation from the beginning was all about the magic of a cartoon drawing seemingly springing to life on screen. That aside, however, I do believe there have been some very well designed films in CG that are trying to incorporate some elements of traditional drawn animation. Pixar's The Incredibles benefits from a certain amount of traditional animation sensibility in the character design. Likewise, I would praise their Ratatouille, as well as Sony's Open Season as having a similar good design sense. Still, I would love to see Disney return to its roots and start back producing the type of traditionally animated cartoon features that they'd built their name upon.

JA: Since you are primarily an Illustrator, what books did you draw inspiration from? I am assuming that perhaps Golden Books may have been an influence?

PE: The early illustrated Golden Books have probably become more of an influence since I've started illustrating books myself, though my interest in them before that had been more casual. I really like the gouache painting techniques of guys like Mel Crawford and Al Dempster, who illustrated the Hanna-Barbera and Disney titles respectively. More recently I've been exploring the work of Robert McGinnis, who illustrated tons of crime novel paperbacks mostly in the 1960s, especially his covers for the Travis McGee novels by John D. MacDonald. He also works in gouache, which is my general medium too. I also love the painted work of Playboy cartoonist, Eldon Dedini, who worked mostly with watercolour and some acrylic, I believe.

JA: You've stated that you are looking to vary your artistic diet by pursuing non-Disney work, have you considered creating you very own line of children's books?

PE: I'd love to do that, but the market doesn't seem that favorable to what I do, at least not currently. Many illustrated childrens' books today strike me as mediocre in their "childlike" scrawled stylings and bland, humourless design. Polished cartoonists don't seem to be much in vogue with art directors, as far as I can see. I suspect that even the brilliant cartoonist, Dr. Suess, would have a hard time breaking into the market today. Still, market tastes can always change. I'd certainly love to hear from any publishers that do appreciate cartoons.

JA: Who are some of your favorite cartoonists working today?

PE: Well, Ronald Searle and Jack Davis by virtue of still being around, although their output has certainly decreased with age. I think Peter DeSeve, the cartoon illustrator who does a lot of covers for "The New Yorker", is great. Caricaturists like Robert Risko, John Kascht and Court Jones I admire very much. I'm not much impressed with contemporary comic strips, I'm afraid, as I don't think we've seen any more great ones since Bill Watterson retired Calvin and Hobbes a few years back. I think the best cartoonists today in North America are those doing editorial cartoons in newspapers and magazines. However, in Europe, cartoonists seem to be held in higher regard, and there's a wealth of great work still being created there in all sorts of venues.

JA: If you could sum up the personality of your work in one word, what would it be?

PE: Fun!