The Soul of ‘Hercules’


For more than 30 years, British artist Gerald Scarfe’s scabrous, swooping-line caricatures have evoked the dark side of politicians, rock stars and other public figures in the London Sunday Times, the New Yorker and other publications.

So it’s a bit unsettling to find him downright sunny about his three-year role as production designer of Disney’s 35th animated feature, “Hercules.”

“I’m the only happy man to come out of Hollywood,” says Scarfe, 61, whose calm erudition flies in the face of the wild fantasies he’s designed for projects like Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”


“I’ve worked in lots of projects where it’s bloody awful--in opera, rock ‘n’ roll. . . . On ‘The Wall,’ there was a hell of a lot of tension. But [on “Hercules”] I’m still enjoying it to this day, and it’s fatal to say that because I know something’s going to happen.”

Scarfe has reason to be as proud as Herc’s personal trainer, Philoctetes: His distinctive style survived the hands of 906 Disney animators to emerge strongly in the final film, a result, he says, of his sticking to the project long beyond the initial plan.

“It just seemed like a dream project to me, so I wasn’t going to let go of it. When I was growing up, I couldn’t wait for Disney films to come out. I was especially impressed with the evil queen in ‘Snow White.’

“And I was a great fan of the other two elements in the movie--Greek sculpture and mythology--so perhaps it was all predestined.”

If so, the Fates--who are among “Hercules’ ” cast of characters--began their work in 1993, when Scarfe came to Los Angeles to supervise his production design for “The Magic Flute.”

An invitation to tour the Disney studio led to an encounter with “Hercules” directors John Musker and Ron Clements (“Aladdin,” “The Little Mermaid”), longtime Scarfe junkies who realized that his style might give an edge to their satiric look at mythology and hero worship.


Explain Musker and Clements (whose voices tend to overlap in conversation): “We realized there was a direct correlation between Gerald’s style and the Greek vase painting style, a combination of power and elegance, very bold and dynamic but also decorative. He has these strong lines with a sudden reversal; it’s like you’re running running, running and suddenly--ERK! You put on the brakes and go in another direction.”

Adds Scarfe: “I think a lot of my drawings look like they’re in motion. There’s a fluidity; they’re not static things. In that way, I think they’re tempting to animators.”

With the blessing of the studio, Musker and Clements hired Scarfe to produce a dozen drawings. He sent back 32 and stayed involved, delivering more than 1,000 others before the project’s completion more than three years later.

“I couldn’t finish reading the script for the first time without making jottings. I could see Zeus and Hera . . . a flying horse . . . this little goat man [Philoctetes] running. Because Ron and John are artists, they know how to write to trigger the imagination, and [the characters] just popped into my mind.”

Although Scarfe worked half a planet away in London--where he lives with his wife, actress Jane Asher, and two of their three children--distance “was an advantage, because I was not influenced too much by what was happening in Burbank.”

Back in California, Musker, Clements and production stylist Sue Nichols were training their team to translate Scarfe’s plunging two-dimensional line into animation. Eventually Scarfe returned to the U.S. for a Santa Barbara retreat with the animators to analyze his style.

Although he says the collaboration was startlingly ego-free, “about a third of the way, I realized I had more power than I thought I had, and I pushed very hard to get my own way because I think that’s what they wanted me for.

“I was always pushing Ron and John in the case of the evil characters, like the Centaur, Nessus and Cerberus, saying, ‘Let’s go for it.’ If they’re wicked, they’re wicked; let’s not say, ‘Awwww, they’re not that wicked!’ ”

Scarfe’s favorite character--no surprise--is the most wicked of all: underworld chief Hades, voiced by James Woods as a motor-mouth Hollywood agent from hell.

“In some early drawings, Hades was composed entirely of fire and smoke,” Scarfe recalls. “Then I hit on this idea: Wouldn’t it be good if the fire was his temperament? When he was cool and sardonic, he’d have this little blue flame flickering and playing about him, and when he got angry and exploded it was like a fireball--boooof!--and in the movie, that’s what they’ve done.

“Then the extraordinary thing was, it transpired that James Woods would play him, and he’s a very mercurial character, very explosive. It’s strange that the design was there before the voice.”

Scarfe also fought for his touch to reach peripheral characters.

Says Musker: “Gerald would redirect us when he thought we were getting off track, and rightly so. There were some characters in the city of Thebes [sequence] talking about what a hard life they had: the floods, the earthquakes, sort of like Los Angeles.

“Our first pass at those characters was more generic, and he was adamant: ‘If you let those characters become generic, something we’re going for in this movie is going to go away.’

“So even though we’d animated the scene already, we said, ‘Here, draw this as you’d draw it.’ He did, and it was much more specific, more Scarfian, and we redrew the scene. It helped unify the film more.”

Scarfe says such policing was key to the final effect.

“I wanted to convince people that this world existed. And if you suddenly had one drawing that looked as though it was out of Mad magazine, it would jar, it would jump. I wanted it all to flow.”

The cartoonist says he’d be thrilled to work on another feature film project, after seeing how Disney’s “surrogate mothers took my babies and made them walk and talk and sing.

“I’m not the type of artist who wants to work alone. I don’t want to produce landscapes and put them up in the attic. I want show business, a reaction to my work. In rock ‘n’ roll and opera and theater, I think it’s all an effort to get applause, really.”

As for how the creator of so many primal monstrosities could be so downright affable and Disney-friendly in person, Scarfe chuckles at the familiar question.

“My answer to that is, maybe I’m getting my rocks off in the drawings! I was an asthmatic child, and my parents feared that I would die. I began to draw a lot of those fears, and I still do that in my political work. I express my horror and shock at the world.

“It’s not that I can’t be angry and unreasonable,” he adds, with a rumbling chortle. “I’m sure my wife would tell you a different story entirely.”