Eric Larson: The Animator’s Animator

Posted on Wed, 12/19/2018 - 14:59

The year was 1905. Theodore Roosevelt was president, a quart of fresh milk cost about 7 cents, and Eric Cleon Larson was born on September 3 in Cleveland, Utah. While Disney fans know Larson as one of Walt’s famous “Nine Old Men” of animation, his path to get there was hardly a straight line. In fact, during an interview not long before his retirement, he was asked how he ended up with Disney. His reply: “This is the last place I expected to be.”

Eric Larson surrounded by animation trainees Lorna Pomeroy Cook, Heidi Guedel, Bill Kroyer, Dan Haskett, Emily Jiuliano, Henry Selick, and Becky Canfield, 1978. Courtesy of Walt Disney Archives Photo Library © Disney

Eric Larson developed his artistic talent in high school, working on the yearbook all four years, even getting bumped up to art director his senior year. His passion shifted to writing when he entered the University of Utah, where he majored in journalism. He still sketched, but he considered himself a writer, and after college took an adventure story he had written called The Trail of the Viking to KHJ Radio with the hopes of selling it as a serial. “They read it, and kind of liked the thought,” Larson remembered, “but they said I didn’t know anything about radio writing.” They sent Larson to seek help from Richard Creedon, formerly one of KHJ’s best writers, who was now working in The Walt Disney Studios’ Story Department. Creedon, a very busy man, offered to help Larson when he had time, and also mentioned, “Walt’s looking for new talent.” At first, Larson wasn’t really interested. He felt the act of animation was too mechanical, and opined, “...all you do is sit on your butt and make a drawing between a drawing that somebody else made.” He also wasn’t desperate for money, as he was able to make a living doing freelance work.

But when Creedon remarked, “The animated film will challenge any creative ability that you have or can develop,” Larson became intrigued. He submitted some of his drawings, and earned himself a tryout with Disney Animation. And after two days, he wanted to quit.

“The animated film will challenge any creative ability that you have or can develop.”

Just as Larson colorfully declared, he did indeed start out in the In-Between Department, producing drawings that went in between already completed key poses. As he feared, he didn’t love it. “It was just like I told Creedon it would be,” Larson remarked. “Monotonous and mechanical. And it wasn’t creative!” On top of that, the gentleman who ran the In-Between Department, George Drake, was difficult to get along with. Creedon urged Larson to tough it out, however, and tough it out he did. A week later, on June 1, 1933, Larson was officially hired by Disney.

After about five weeks of in-betweening (or, as Larson referred to it, “low-man-on-the-totem-pole-stuff”), animator and future Disney Legend Ham Luske requested to have Larson as an assistant. “I was just in the process of learning,” Larson remembered. “I hadn’t done any animation yet, but I worked with him [Luske] about a year, then I started animating small scenes here and there. Then Snow White came along and I moved completely into animation.” He mostly animated large groups of animals interacting with Snow White (along with fellow animator Milt Kahl), but he also worked on some of the Dwarfs. After Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), he drew more animals for the Silly Symphonies series. Then, he took another step up.

Larson became an animation director on Pinocchio (1940), and was responsible for one of the film’s most beloved characters: Figaro, the feisty feline. He worked on other characters as well, but his extraordinary ability to produce pantomime animation was on full display in the scene where Figaro, just wanting to get some sleep, has to emerge from his warm, comfy bed, and struggle to open the window for his master, Gepetto. The scene played so well it even received applause from the studio group as they screened it in its rough pencil form. “I had a lot of fun with that particular little sequence,” Larson said. According to Larson, Walt loved Figaro, and said, “Just do what you want.” So, he did. He animated and animated, to the point of running hundreds of feet of film over. In fact, most of it would have to be cut. “We cut out enough to make two shorts,” Larson remembered. “But Walt fell in love with it.”

Eric Larson at animation desk, 1951; courtesy of Walt Disney Archives Photo Library, © Disney

As the years went on, Larson would go on to animate for many of Disney’s (and animation’s) greatest features, such as Fantasia (1940) , Bambi (1942), Cinderella (1950), Peter Pan (1953), Lady and the Tramp (1955), Sleeping Beauty (1959), and The Jungle Book (1967). He worked on multiple shorts, television specials, and also animated sequences in both Mary Poppins (1964) and Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971). Later in his career, he acted as “animation consultant” for The Black Cauldron (1985) and The Great Mouse Detective (1986). As utterly impressive as his body of work was, he had something else to offer the world of animation.

Sometime in the 1970s, the Disney Studios realized that many of their longtime animators were retiring or passing away. A concerted effort was launched to attempt to attract new talent to the studio. Several of the Nine Old Men who were still in animation didn’t consider themselves the teacher type, so Larson was tapped—and he thrived. His ardent devotion to Walt fueled his desire, which in turn fostered success. “No one was more concerned with passing on the Disney legacy than Eric,” said Disney animator and former Larson pupil Andreas Deja. Regarding Disney animation, Larson declared that he was “not going to let this thing die!” He visited colleges and art schools, spreading the message worldwide: Disney was hiring. Thousands applied, but only a select few were chosen.

Not only did Larson recruit, but he mentored. Some of the more famous pupils that benefited from Larson’s tutelage were Brad Bird, Tim Burton, Glen Keane, Don Bluth, and Ron Clements, among others. And Larson was adored by his young artists. Animator Glen Keane noted how skilled Larson was when it came to calming a panicked animator. “When you came in [to see Larson], it was the end of the world,” Keane recalled. “When you left, the sun was shining, the clouds had parted and everything was possible.”

On February 28, 1986, at the age of eighty-one, Larson retired from Disney. He spent close to  fifty-three years with the company, and was responsible for some of the most memorable characters in the many of the greatest animated films of all time. His gentle nature and positive outlook endeared him to countless fellow artists. And his lifelong devotion to Walt’s legacy never wavered.

At the time of his retirement, Larson wrote in his memoir: “After fifty-two years my association with people and product, the likes and equals of which I question I could have found and experienced in any other place or vocation, comes to an end. Through my work I have, with many others and within my own limitations, communicated with people around the world. I have helped give them a wholesome, exciting, enjoyable kind of entertainment—entertainment designed to give them a release from daily pressures and fears—entertainment abounding in happy endings.” Eric Cleon Larson passed away on October 25, 1988. The following year, he was posthumously inducted as a Disney Legend.

Keith Gluck

Gluck is a contributing writer for The Walt Disney Family Museum's blog and runs thedisneyproject.com fan site. 

Image Sources*: 

  • Eric Larson at animation desk, 1951; courtesy of Walt Disney Archives Photo Library, © Disney. 
  • Larson with animation trainees Lorna Pomeroy Cook, Heidi Guedel, Bill Kroyer, Dan Haskett, Emily Jiuliano, Henry Selick, Becky Canfield, 1978. Courtesy of Walt Disney Archives Photo Library © Disney. 

*Cited in order of appearance.