style 2

21 06 2009

from my experience it is a challenge to develop a style for an animated feature film, because you as the designer have to invent a unique look that fits the story, looks amazing, can be executed by the studio talent and is not too expensive ( …and fits in the marketing strategies of mc donald’s, mattel or whoever else will be involved in promoting the studio’s film ). besides that you better know what you where doing when you mixed some crazy ingredients in your first design, because you have to repeat it and you need to explain it to other artists.

china doll 5

china doll 6



once in a while a studio hires a designer to design a film for them in his/her personal style. that’s what disney did with GERALD SCARFE for HERCULES. but usually an artist within the studio, an art director or visual development artist, is selected in case he/she comes up with promising visual ideas for the new project. after the look is found and even management likes it, the toughest part starts – to keep the style consistent and under control. usually there are about 25 – 30 layout artists working on the basic linear design of the environment, and another 25 – 30 background artists to paint the layouts in color. to confront the audience with about 60 different versions of your style is not too good, as you might have seen once in a while on a cheaper DVD. a good film should look like the work of just one artist. that’s where the problems start!







I remember the major headaches I got when I needed to analyze what the hell I was doing when I painted that one landscape for MULAN and I knew – that was it. usually you don’t come up with a style like a scientist with a new chemical formula, it has a lot to do with feelings, subconscious stuff. and of course you are influenced by paintings, images, films you have seen. in this case it was of course chinese art, chinese caligraphy and a lot of two french painters of the BARBIZON school around the end of the 19th century, JEAN-BAPTISTE-CAMILLE COROT and PAUL DESIRE TROUILLEBERT. the final designer of BAMBI, TYRUS WONG, with his impressionistic and simplified interpretations of a forest-world, was a big influence as well. and then probably my amateurish way to paint with acrylics in that big 12 field size, what I had never done before. everything I ever designed before was about 20 x 10 cm, and done with feltpen. all that somehow got mixed the right way, with a lot of luck. now I had to explain the recipe to all the other artists.

mulan 1

mulan 2

mulan 3

mulan m1

we had started the film after some problems with relatively simple environments, like the army camp and mulan’s house. it was good that way, we got slowly used to a new look. later we were confronted with major problems, – the avalanche and the palace. at that point we needed to add more detail ( against the style-rules ), otherwise the mountains and the palace would have looked like toy-pieces. but it worked! because everybody went through a learning period, after a while it was everybody’s style. the mulan-look had nothing to do with my personal style, the work on it changed my understanding of design completely. even today I can see that experience in my work. the early designs were just a start, the mulan-style grew with the film. we just needed to follow the rule – poetic simplicity!

© disney enterprises, inc




9 responses

21 06 2009
Michael Sporn

Mulan is certainly one of the most beautiful Disney features. The production design was exquisite and consistent. The most original of the features since 101 Dalmatians. (Lilo & Stitch was also brilliant in its reuse of the watercolor technique from Snow White’s days.)

21 06 2009

SUPER FANTASTIC! I love the note you have posted along with these super art works….

Simply amazing!


22 06 2009
Drake Brodahl

These examples are really beautiful, Hans. Great to hear your insight into the Mulan experience as well!

22 06 2009

I was wondering, Hans, if you ever got any feedback on this film from Chinese people.
And if so, did they react favourably to your depiction of their landscapes?

from hans –
yes. when I was teaching in china the students told me it was one of their
favorite films. but then you can never be sure if they just wanna make you happy. it was nice to hear though

22 06 2009
Nancy Beiman

Hi Hans,
MULAN is a lovely film. Do you remember when some idiot reviewer mentioned the ’empty’ backgrounds? They had obviously never seen Chinese painting before!

from hans –
hi nancy, actually the reaction from management in the beginning was the same. tom schumacher, at that time sr.vice pres, asked me, if the audience might think – disney is
running out of money, because they can not afford richer backgrounds. it was for a while fighting against windmills. I treathened them twice to quit. fortunately they gave in,
otherwise I would have left the US even earlier…

22 06 2009

exception post. thanks for more info on the process of filmmaking.

22 06 2009


23 06 2009
David Wilson

Hans, what an amazing post! I can’t thank you enough for providing such rich content for me to learn from- the visuals and your writing. I am a better man and background artist for having read this post. Thank you.

What were some of the ways your original style grew from the contributions of your team? I can see the differences but want to know what things in particular you discover from others work for this project.


from hans –
everything you see and you think, that could be something useful, somehow influences you.
all the books I looked at, all the photos, documentaries. unfortunately I was not part of the
designer ‘expedition’ on a 2 week trip through china. that might have changed my ideas
about a style completely. everybody in the team was important, it was purely accidental
that I found the final look.

23 06 2009
jung etienne

Did you paint these BG with acrylic or oil or watercolor ? (sorry for this very basic question)

from hans –
it was cel-paint, what is acrylics. I took only about 10 big bottles of the basic colors and used a very big mixing palette. these were the bottom ones, the final designs. all 12 field. the others were feltpen and a bit gouache, much smaller.

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