Joe Grant

Character designer for Disney
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Joseph Grant, artist and writer: born New York 15 May 1908; married (two daughters); died Los Angeles 6 May 2005.

Say what you will about Walt Disney, he certainly knew how to inspire loyalty: his top character designer, Joe Grant, who first started working for Uncle Walt in 1933, was still coming up with designs and ideas for the company when he suffered a fatal heart attack at his drawing board, just a few days short of his 97th birthday. Along the way, he created hundreds of characters for the Disney Studio, most notably the wicked Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), and co-wrote Dumbo (1941) and Lady and the Tramp (1955).

Joe Grant was born in New York, but his family relocated to Los Angeles in 1910, where his father became an art editor for Hearst newspapers. Joe nurtured a gift for caricature in his father's newsroom, which led to a weekly showcase on the Los Angeles Record, where his whimsical renditions were spotted by Disney, who saw in Joe Grant just the man to supply stylised likenesses of Hollywood stars. As a freelancer, his earliest work for the studio appeared uncredited in Parade of the Award Nominees in 1932, but the following year saw his name in the credits for the cartoon Mickey's Gala Premiere, after which Disney took him on full time.

Grant was assigned, along with Albert Hurter, to design the characters for the studio's first full-length cartoon, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The question of how to follow up such a massive success led Disney to set up the Character Model Department, an in-house research and development brains trust, with Grant as its top brain. The department handled preliminary work on several projects, including Pinocchio (1940) and, especially, Fantasia (1940), where Grant, a music buff, helped Disney and the conductor Leopold Stokowski select the music.

Grant was also highly rated by his boss as a story man, and was paired with Dick Huemer to write Dumbo and created the basic story on which the film Lady and the Tramp was later based. He directed Make Mine Music (1946) and contributed plot ideas, sketches and gags to Alice in Wonderland (1951) and several of the studio's patriotic wartime shorts, including Der Fuehrer's Face (1943), which won an Academy Award.

After the war, however, increasing losses and competition forced the studio to make drastic economies, including axing the Character Model Department in 1949. Grant left and turned his talents to a variety of non-animation ventures, such as founding a greetings card company (Castle Ltd) and a ceramics studio (Opechee Designs).

In 1989 the call from the studio came again, and Grant picked up his charcoal pencil to "consult" on Beauty and the Beast (1991), after which came Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994) and Pocahontas (1995), inter alia. His creativity was undiminished: on Mulan (1998) he created the cricket Cri-Kee; on the sequel to Fantasia, dubbed Fantasia 2000, he devised the flamingo yo-yo ballet; and the Disney-distributed Pixar film Monsters, Inc (2001) owes its title to him.

His "official" recognition by the Disney organisation as a Disney Legend in 1992 led to other honours: a Ruben Award from the National Cartoonists Society in 1996, an Annie Award (animation's equivalent of an Oscar), and a lifetime achievement award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association in 2002.

Perhaps the most fun accolade, however, is the one from the Pixar artists on A Bug's Life (1998), who named the circus wagon made out of a biscuit packet after him.

Alan Woollcombe

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