In memory of Ken Anderson: Disney Artist

By Robin Allan.

Sketch artist of genius who became Art Director and later Production Supervisor for some of the Studio’s finest animated feature films. Anderson’s architectural training and graphic skills enabled him to place characters against convincing backgrounds and he could also tell a story in pictures. His contribution to the collective art that was Walt Disney has been overshadowed by the work of his colleagues. especially the animators who developed his conceptual character designs. For example, in Jungle Book (1967), the anthropomorphic villainy of Shere Khan owes as much to Anderson’s original story sketches as to the rightly praised animation of Milt Kahl and the voice of George Sanders.

Born near Seattle in 1909, Ken Anderson was the son of an itinerant lumberman who moved with his family to the Philippines when Ken was three years old. His father died when he was ten and mother and son returned home destitute, the young Ken being farmed out to relatives where he was so cruelly treated that he ran away and lived rough in the woods. “I figured life was too damn hard,” he recalled, “so I found a log cabin and caught 127 trout for my dinner and lived there for a month before they found me.”

A printer’s “devil” at the age of twelve, he worked his way through school and university where he studied architecture. He slept above a library, read voraciously and finished his fellow students’ assignments for a fee. He was awarded an architectural scholarship to Europe, which, he said with pride “No one had won west of the Mississippi before.” In Europe he admired art deco and the illustrative tradition of Arthur Rackham and his contemporaries. He drew and painted wherever he went, relishing the warm colours of Southern Europe in general and Spain in particular.

Anderson joined Disney in 1934 and impressed Walt with his mobile perspective backgrounds for Three Orphan Kittens (1935). He provided the authentic atmosphere and colouring for the Academy Award winning Ferdinand the Bull (1938) and was one of the Art Directors on Snow White (1937). “Walt Disney lit a fire under all of us,” he said. “Every one of us was under his spell.” Anderson designed a model of the dwarfs’ cottage, with miniature props and special lighting, to assist the background and layout artists. He was Story artist and Art Director for Pinocchio and Fantasia (both 1940) and worked closely with Walt Disney on many of the post war feature cartoons, finally retiring in 1978.

Some of his best work is in the film about Uncle Remus, Song of the South (1946). His drawings for the opening credits in the style of nineteenth century vignettes have an unmatched delicacy and sense of period. Anderson was versatile too; he brought a freshness of concept and design to the perennially delightful 101 Dalmatians (1961) for which he was both sole Art Director and Production Designer. Disney however disliked the film – it was too sketchy and stylised for his taste – and he told Anderson “No more of that Dalmatians stuff.”
Ken Anderson suffered two strokes in 1962 but thanks to the devoted nursing of his wife Polly, and to his love of trees, he made a remarkable recovery. He returned again and again to Descanso Gardens, the park near his home at La Canada, California, for solace and comfort. In 1989 he insisted on taking me down to his much loved trees, where my last recollection is of him embracing a massive trunk and saying, “trees mean life to me.”

A gentle genius, totally without rancour, he recalled his last memory of Walt Disney just before the latter’s death in 1966. “I met him,” said Anderson, “on the day he escaped from the hospital … I was so glad to see him and said so. He looked at me and was forgiving me for the thing I had done on Dalmatians. I guess I knew it was all right.”

Ken Anderson, Disney artist: born 1909; married with three daughters; died La Canada, California, 13 December 1993.

Printed in Animator Issue 31 (Spring 1994)