Animated April: Mary Blair- Colours and Emotions

By Erica Richards

Walt Disney Animation Studios has dominated the animation industry and set standards, expectations, and provided joy for audiences for almost a century. An industry mostly controlled by men was shook up by an extremely influential woman, who would eventually become a legend in the animation world. Her name was Mary Blair. Mary Blair started as a watercolour artist before she became one of the most influential colourists and stylists of all time. She learned her craft on a scholarship at The Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles during the mid-1930s, a prestigious and bold achievement for a woman during that era. There is where she met her husband, Lee Blair, and followed in his footpaths at a job by taking a job with Disney.

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Mary quickly established herself as an innovator for her use of bold and bright colours. This did not come without controversy, though. According to the book, Pocket Full of Colors: The Magical World of Mary Blair, Disney Artist Extraordinaire, some of her supervisors rejected her work referring to her colours as “too abstract and too colorful”—can you imagine?! That is like saying the balloons in Pixar’s “Up” (2009) are too vibrant—that is not a world where anyone wants to live! This criticism frustrated Mary, who was reluctant about the animation job from the beginning, so she resigned. Soon after, though, Walt Disney himself brought her back—and that is when Mary contributed to some of the most well-known Disney classics, like “Cinderella” (1950), “Alice in Wonderland” (1951), and “Peter Pan” (1953).

“Mary quickly established herself as an innovator for her use of bold and bright colours. This did not come without controversy, though…some of her supervisors rejected her work referring to her colours as “too abstract and too colorful”—can you imagine?!”

Mary’s use of colours throughout “Cinderella” contributed to the many emotions the audience experiences. This quality of Mary’s ability to use colour is definitely most apparent in the scene where Cinderella is attacked by her step-sisters, just prior to leaving for the Grand Ball at the Kingdom’s Castle. The evil step-mother leads the way down the stairs, her daughters follow behind her. The hideous lime green and mauve and pink of the step-sisters dresses is anything but welcoming and comforting, it creates a quite an unsettling aura.

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Their stiff, deliberate posture and obnoxious shaped dresses over compensate for their lack of personality. The huge feathers that top their heads reminds the audience that these women are close-minded, yet think highly of themselves, as if the higher the headdress, the better they are as a person. The background colors on the stairs and floor foreshadow the envy the three women will have when they see Cinderella ready for the Grand Ball.

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The scene progresses as Cinderella comes down the stairs, excited and ready for the night she has earned. We see the differences of Cinderella’s peaceful presence opposite the evil step-mother and step-sisters. The background cascades a calm blue.  Her pink and white gown portrays feminine themes, as the symmetrical bows on her chest and her head display that she is packaged perfectly for the Prince. Her relaxed and effortless, yet perfect posture is pleasing to the eye, unlike the step-sisters overdone posture and bouncy gallops in their walk that leads them down the stairs toward the door. Cinderella’s step-mother approaches her and grabs hold of the necklace Cinderella wears.

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The evil step-mother attempts to show dominance and ownership over Cinderella physically, by touching the necklace (and ultimately the colour) and brings the attention to Drizella, who also has similarities in the color of her dress to the beaded necklace. Drizella exclaims that Cinderella is a thief and the necklace is hers; the camerawork and pacing begins to speed up, the music becomes harsh and tense. The camera shows a medium-shot reaction of Cinderella as he grasps her neck, now bare of the jewelry. The background of the shot is now mostly black, but there is still a remanence of Cinderella’s calm blue, a very thin strip almost unnoticeable, gone; just in the way that her necklace is gone and her hope for a pleasant night at the Ball.

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Now it is Anastasia’s turn to react, and she claims that Cinderella has stolen from her also, and she grabs at off-screen Cinderella, and tears away at her outfit.  The background has continued to change, now a deep purple that mocks the colors of Anastasia’s dress, a now purple color, morphed from the mauve/pink color at the beginning of the scene. The chaos of the attack carries on, back to Drizella, the shot now a close-up, building uncomfortable feelings to the audience with the look on Drizella’s face, but also the placement of Cinderella so far off to the left of the screen, visually cut in half. The background has started to turn from a dark purple, to a lighter, almost pink colour.

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“Mary brought so many of these early animation classics to life with her fearless use of colour, that the influence she caused was inevitably timeless.”

At this point in the scene, the music has become so harsh the words Drizella and Anastasia speak are inaudible, and the diegetic sounds of the tearing of Cinderella’s attire dominate the audio. The pace of the shots becomes even quicker, as does the color changing of the background, yet it does not feel abrupt. The background of the scene has become a complete, deep red symbolizing fear and anger. The step-sisters have literally and figuratively stripped Cinderella of her femininity and identity from her as they rip the clothes and jewelry down to rags, her normal attire. Without Mary’s use of vibrant colors, this scene would fall completely flat, lacking the heightened emotions that make it meaningful.

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Michael Giaimo states in The Art of Mary Blair that “whimsy in Walt Disney films did not exist until Mary Blair; charm, fantasy, those existed in his films but what she brought was a light touch, and yet a light touch that took you on a journey.” Mary brought so many of these early animation classics to life with her fearless use of colour, that the influence she caused was inevitably timeless. Disney’s colourful reputation and livelihood would be less if not for Mary Blair.

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