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Remembering Vance Gerry (1930 - 2005)

Jim Hill

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Remembering Vance Gerry (1930 - 2005)

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You know, I could almost guarantee that Vance Gerry wouldn't have liked this column.

Why for? Because Vance really wasn't a guy who was into self-promotion. Given his druthers, Gerry would have probably opted to be self -effacing. Preferring to play down his sizable contribution to Disney Company history. Insisting that he was just one of many talented artists who worked on the Mouse's animated films.

Well, that may well be true ... But  how many people on this planet can say that they actually did layout, story, concept  and/or consulting work on "101 Dalmatians," "The Jungle Book," "The Aristocats," "Robin Hood," "The Rescuers," "The Fox and the Hound," "The Black Cauldron," "Oliver and Company," "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "The Lion King," "Pocahontas," "Hunchback of Notre Dame," "Hercules," "Tarzan," "Fantasia 2000" and "Home on the Range"?

I don't care what anyone says. That's a really  impressive body of work. But Gerry ... He never liked to make a big deal about the work that he'd done for the Mouse. The way Vance saw it, he was just a guy who was lucky enough to have been hired by Disney Studios.

Well, to my way of thinking, Mickey was actually the lucky one. Walt Disney Productions was smart enough to latch onto Gerry at the very start of his career and then not let go of this very talented man for the next 40+ years.

Which was why Vance came to play a truly crucial role at the Disney corporation. Helping to shape motion pictures that made hundreds of millions of dollars for the Mouse. More importantly, helping to bring to life dozens of Disney characters that are still loved the whole world over ...

"And just how did Mr. Gerry do this?," you ask. "What exactly did Vance do?" Well, Gerry was a story man and inspirational sketch artist. Which (admittedly) may not sound as glamorous and/or as important as being a full-blown animator. But let me tell you, folks. Story men and conceptual artists play a truly important role in the animation process. Some might argue that they have the most important role.

How come? Because the story man is usually one of the very first people to get assigned to a project as serious development of a new animated film is getting  underway. He's the guy who has to churn out hundreds -- sometime thousands -- of sketches as the production team struggles to find the proper way to tell their story.

Which is why the story man has to be the rock. That area of calm in the eye of the creative hurricane. So that -- as everyone else flails about -- he's the one who's working as quickly as he can to get all of their ideas down on paper and then up on the boards. In clean, strong presentable fashion, I might add. So that the production team can then stand back and evaluate whether a story idea is actually working.

That's why producers & directors at Disney just loved working with Vance. For here was a guy who could just churn out sketch after sketch for seemingly hours on end. Beautiful, clean, neat  work too. Drawings that quickly communicated whatever story point that the production team was trying to get across. Be it a throw-away gag, a crucial plot point and/or a heartfelt moment.

More importantly, Gerry could take their ideas and make them better. Using his skill at drawing & story to take these bare bones scenes and turn them into something really special. Or -- better yet -- take scenes that were simply unworkable and find ways to actually make them work.

And what truly amazed the folks at Disney was that Gerry would use the simplest of tools to achieve the effect he was going for. Be it a pen, a pencil or that little watercolor kit that Gerry would  paint with, he'd almost made it look easy. Spitting out sketch after sketch ...

But were you to actually examine these quickly thrown-together storyboards sketches and/or his concept paintings, you'd see that they were really models of economy. Not long on detail, admittedly. But every line that needed to be there was in that drawing.

You'd think that an artist with this much talent, that was so highly thought of by his peers, who was regularly called back to do consulting work for the Mouse even after he'd officially retired from WDFA ... could afford to be a bit vain, egotistical, aloof even.

Well, that may well be. But that wasn't who Vance Gerry was.

Like I said at the very start of this article, Gerry was self-effacing. He wasn't one to blow his own horn. Which -- again -- is probably why Vance wouldn't liked this article.

Gerry preferred to just let his work speak for itself. Like those beautiful, hand-bound books that he produced through his "Weather Bird Press" imprint. Gerry created these amazing, limited edition volumes that bibliophiles just went nuts over. They loved how each book had these wonderful illustrations and/or endpapers that Vance would often hand-color himself.

Well, now the book  has closed on Vance Gerry's career. Cancer claimed this much beloved artist this past Friday. And given how Gerry made a  point of shunning the spotlight ... My immediate concern is that this good & talented man will soon fade from memory.

Which (to my way of thinking, anyway) seems so unfair. Given what an important role Vance played in the creation of so many of the Disney films that we all love, I felt that some sort of tribute was in order. Even one that's as ham-handed and awkwardly phrased as this one turned out to be.

Well, I guess that that's what happens when you try to use mere words to try & sum up what a real artist can do. Which is why I'm going to shut up now and just fall back on Gerry's own credo: Which is to let the work speak for itself.

Below, you'll find several inspirational paintings as well as some story sketches that Vance did for Disney's "Beauty & the Beast" and "The Jungle Book." As you look over this artwork, hopefully you can see how this Gerry's very early take on the matter actually helped drive the look & the composition of the finished film.

More importantly, as you marvel at the emotion & economy, the clean line work  of these drawings ... Well, maybe now you can understand why Vance Gerry's passing is being mourned so strongly by the animation community.

A nice guy who was also a really great artist. That doesn't happen all that often in this neck of the woods. That's why we'll really miss you, Vance.

The above Vance Gerry inspirational sketches & storyboards are excerpts from Frank Thomas & Ollie Johnston's "The Disney Villain" (October 1993, Hyperion Press)

The entire JHM family extends its heartfelt condolences to Mr. Gerry's friends & family during their time of sorrow. For those of you out west who wish to pay tribute to Vance, there will a memorial held this coming Friday at the Annadale Golf Club in Pasadena, CA. For further information on the service, please call (714) 526-2523.

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