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Disney Animator Practices the Fine Art of Medicine

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Artist Frank Armitage can turn a medical researcher’s image of a nerve cell into an elaborate undersea fantasy in which a viewer drifts among colorful coral reefs.

With more than 36 years of experience as an artist, Armitage has incorporated his keen interest in medical art into his work as a film maker, animator, illustrator and painter.

In one series of six paintings Armitage did for UCLA, for instance, he took a textbook illustration of the cell levels of the retina of the eye and portrayed it realistically. Then, to satisfy himself as a painter, he interpreted the information and did five other paintings with non-anatomical colors in Expressionist, abstract and Cubist styles. UCLA sent these paintings to a medical convention, Armitage said, to give doctors the opportunity to see the artistic renderings of medical data.

“There are some good (medical) illustrators around who make either sharp or pretty pictures, but Frank has a flair and a great feeling for plastic, three-dimensional form,” said Dr. Arnold Scheibel, professor of anatomy and psychiatry at UCLA. Scheibel, who frequently collaborates with Armitage, first worked with him on a series of illustrations on the brain that appeared in Life magazine 15 years ago.

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In addition to his regular work as an animator with Walt Disney Productions, the 62-year-old Armitage has produced animated educational films and a one-man show of his medical paintings at UCLA. He has been a graphic consultant to the department of neurosciences at San Diego State University, and, most recently, produced a short educational video on cell membranes with a research scientist at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Loma Linda.

The white-haired, bearded Australian native said he was 22 and studying at a Melbourne art institute when he discovered the works of Mexican muralists who were popular at the time. After becoming enamored of the grandeur of murals by Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, Armitage decided to move to Mexico.

“I just wanted to work on a large scale and (the Mexican mural) was the most exciting image I’d ever seen, apart from things that were done in the Renaissance,” Armitage said, “and that was history. This was present day and I had to be part of it.”

Australia to Mexico

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He traveled to Mexico City in 1948 where he enrolled in an institute to study mural painting. Impressed by the fact that education was free in Mexico, Armitage was inspired to design a mural based on this theme. In 1949, he won an international award for that design.

As an award for the contest, which was sponsored by Siqueiros, Armitage was commissioned to do a mural for a hotel in Taxco, a silver-mining town outside of Mexico City.

Noticing young Armitage’s talent, Siqueiros hired him as an assistant. His two years with the famed muralist influenced Armitage’s concept of art tremendously, he said. “When you’re working on a mural, because of the scope of it, you feel like you’re part of it. . . . I try to create that image with my medical work.”

After trying in vain to start a mural movement in Australia, Armitage moved to Southern California and began working as an animator for Disney. He has been with the company ever since, working as a staff artist on such productions as “Peter Pan,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “Mary Poppins.”

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During his first years with the company, Armitage’s interest in medical art began to grow. He spent his days off observing and drawing in the dissection room of UCLA’s anatomy department, and he took classes to learn more about medical subjects.

Since then, he has worked as a graphic artist, and film maker for institutions such as UCLA, USC and San Diego State. His medical illustrations have been published in Omni magazine, Geology Today, Biology Today and by the Academic Press. In 1965, he worked as a medical consultant and artist for the Academy Award-winning film “Fantastic Voyage.”

He traces his curiosity about anatomy back to the Depression when, at age 9, he lived on his uncle’s sheep ranch in Australia and his daily chores included skinning and butchering. “I remember the colors very vividly.”

Armitage is surrounded by his colorful art in his studio at Walt Disney Imagineering, a Glendale subsidiary of Walt Disney Co., that designs and creates theme parks. Armitage said he helped design Storybookland at Disneyland, but that his other assignments have usually been small projects for various exhibits.

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One major project remains incomplete, he said: the Life and Health Pavilion, a potential exhibit for Disney’s Epcot Center in Florida. Armitage moved from Disney’s Burbank studios to Imagineering almost 10 years ago to work on the project and its different phases of a “ride through the human body.”

The latest version uses simulators, similar to those used in pilot flight training, to create the feeling of being inside the body, he said.

The project has been stymied because it has proved difficult to design a ride that effectively creates the feeling of what it might be like inside a human body, said Marty Sklar, executive vice president for creative development at Disney Imagineering.

Bridging Two Worlds

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Yet from a visual standpoint, Sklar said, Armitage’s sketches have been an inspiration to continue the project. “Frank brings the preciseness of the knowledge of the human body and of medical illustrations into our fantasy world. On one hand, he is fanciful and, on the other hand, he is totally accurate. He somehow bridges those two worlds. “

Two of Armitage’s illustrations executed for the pavilion are currently on view in “The Art of Medicine” exhibit at the Museum of American Illustration in New York.

Working on set designs for animated films has influenced his concept of medical art because he imagines his paintings as a set in which he is “staging information,” Armitage said.

“The main thing you want to say becomes the dominant character and then there is support material, as in a cast,” he said. “The main character has dominant lighting like a spotlight on stage.”

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UCLA’s Scheibel said Armitage’s use of lighting is distinctive, and described him as a “visual impressionist. He gets a great deal out of the play of light and shadow. He can be just as sharp and clear as anybody but he also brings a feeling of depth into his work.”

Armitage recently began a doctoral program in traditional Chinese medicine at the Sino-American Medical Rehabilitation Assn. in Los Angeles, saying he wants to help bring about a better understanding of Chinese medicine in the West.

He will continue his studies, Armitage said, because he has no credentials in Western medicine, and because he has grown tired of depending on medical consultants for accuracy.

“I want to be my own authority,” he said.

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