The Art of the Disney Poster

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

When Disney does something right, it really does it right, whether it is the Cars Land addition to Disney California Adventure or the Fantasyland expansion at the Magic Kingdom, or, more importantly, for me at least, preserving Disney history in books like the new Poster Art of the Disney Parks by Daniel Handke and Vanessa Hunt.

I grew up going to Disneyland and being enthralled by these enticing posters. When the Disney Gallery opened over the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, I was one of the first in line to buy reproductions of some of these classic pieces of art (especially of vanished attractions like the Art of Animation) to decorate my room.

However, Disney poster art really began decades earlier with Disney movie posters.

"Thrilling Beyond Words! Amazing Beyond Belief!...The all-cartoon Musical Wonderfilm!… It will live in your heart forever!… The sensational feature show with a thousand surprises!… Walt Disney's Newest, Most Wonderful Motion Picture!"

For almost a century, those extravagant phrases and more leapt off of iridescent graphic designs filled with popular Disney characters cavorting wildly to entice audiences to rush out immediately and see the latest Disney film.

Today, Disney movie posters are valuable collectibles costing thousands of dollars, but in the beginning, they were just one more way the Disney Studios tried to advertise a new animated cartoon. With their vibrant colors and images, these brilliant, exuberant works of art capture in print the magic and spirit of Disney's most celebrated characters and films and attracted millions of people into movie theaters.

World famous inventor and early filmmaker Thomas Edison was the one who set the standard size for a movie poster at 27 inches by 41 inches, known today as a "one sheet," so that it would be comparable in size to other entertainment posters for vaudeville, fairs and circuses. Since the turn of the 20th century, film posters were displayed prominently inside and outside of movie theaters and sometimes on streets or in shops for their siren call to en-trance movie goers to buy a ticket for the latest release.

Popular films could stay in circulation for quite some time moving from larger movie theaters to smaller local cinemas, so many film posters became badly worn as they were constantly relocated to new venues. In the mid-1960s, interest was sparked in collecting these old posters that had often been worn out and casually thrown away, not only to recapture treasured memories but because of the skillful and beautiful artwork displayed on them. Of course, the Disney posters were considered prize collectibles.

From approximately 1929 to 1931, it was more cost effective for the then-struggling Disney Studios to not produce individual posters for each new cartoon release but rather to create a standard "general use" poster featuring a striking image of a smiling Mickey Mouse and a blank rectangular white box for the name of the latest animated adventure to be printed in bold black letters.

A bright red poster advertising the Mickey cartoon "Wild Waves" (1929) proclaimed: "He Talks! He Sings! He Dances! The Laugh Riot in Sound and Synchrony!" and that was true for all the Mouse's classic adventures at the time so titles could be interchangable. The poster features a large image of a classic happy Mickey with his gloved left hand extended high in the air to direct attention to the title of the newest film.

That image of iconic Mickey was drawn by Disney Legend Les Clark, who became the acknowledged Mickey Mouse expert when Ub Iwerks left the Disney Studios, and was used on a variety of merchandise and publicity material over the years. The poster itself was printed by the Otis Litho Company and a new title was substituted in the little white rectangular section each time another Mickey Mouse classic premiered.

Later standard "general use" posters were done for the Disney cartoon releases by the Morgan Litho Company and Tooker-Moore Lithograph Company.

Similar standard "general use" posters were also done for the first few years of the Silly Symphony series and, like the Mickey poster, there were several different variations, although they all had a striking image as well as a section to advertise the newest cartoon. By 1932, colorful posters for individual Disney cartoons became the new standard with eye-catching pieces of artwork that year for The Whoopee Party, The Klondike Kid, Trader Mickey and others. Since Mickey's pre-1935 cartoons were in black and white, it was these theatrical posters that introduced his many fans to the brilliant reds and yellows of his costume that would become world famous.

The first Disney theatrical cartoon poster, advertising the showing of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), was the work of Swedish artist Gustaf Tenggren. This attractive poster was priced at $1.25 for theater owners to purchase for display but the original art for the poster sold two years ago for more tha $70,000 at auction. Actually, there was an unprecedented (for a cartoon) three different one-sheet posters released for Snow White, although the most popular was the group portrait by Tenggren.

As an inspirational concept artist, Tenggren set the color style for Snow White of a palette of ochers and russets with his rich muted watercolors to capture the feel of an Old World children's storybook. His evocative concept art for Snow White found its way into magazines like Good Housekeeping and books like the Grosset and Dunlap storybook promoting the film. The group portrait on the original theatrical poster for Snow White was the artwork of Tenggren, but didn't completely reflect all the changes that had been made in the final character designs during production of the film.

As Disney historian Bruce Hamilton once remarked about the poster artwork, "There certainly is more of Tenggren than Disney in the dwarfs. Gnarled hands, knobby knees, and pronounced noses mark them as traditional Swedish elves, rather than the seven little men of the film, in Tenggren's first concept sketch for the poster of the little princess and the dwarfs standing in the forest outside the cottage. A later painting used as the movie's first poster was more successful in capturing the individual personalities and generally cuter look of Disney's characters."

Even then, Tenggren's art was retouched to smooth the knuckles of Doc's hand and give Dopey a more lovable expression.

Tenggren did not produce any more theatrical posters because he left Disney in 1939, but other skillful Disney artists continued the high standards as each new film debuted.

Like so many other Disney artists, Hank Porter was enticed by a newspaper advertisement to join the Disney Studios in mid-1936 and was assigned to work on Snow White. Because of eye strain from working over a brightly lit animation disc, he transferred to the Merchandise and Publicity Art Department, where he created the art used for covers of magazines, toy box illustrations, advertisements, and movie publicity art including theatrical posters and lobby cards.

Before he left Disney in 1950, he created theatrical posters in 1938 for Donald's Better Self, Donald's Golf Game, Goofy and Wilbur, and Society Dog Show. Later, in 1939, he also did the posters for Officer Duck, Sea Scouts, The Hockey Champ, and, finally, Bone Trouble (1940). His animation training helped Porter to accurately capture the posing and comic expressions from the original source material. Creating an appropriate poster was challenging and often a design was not copied from a specific scene but was created to suggest a comic moment in the story.

For the theatrical features, often multiple different poster images were created to promote the same film, but usually in the same graphic style. However, The Little Mermaid (1989) was the first time that two distinct styles of theatrical poster artwork were created to appeal to two different demographics. A more traditional brightly colored cartoony picture featuring the entire cast of characters was released for the usual family audience, but a more subdued style with a simple silhouette of Ariel sitting on a rock and staring upward to the heavens was also designed to appeal to an age group interested in dating.

This approach proved so effective that it was also used on Beauty and the Beast (1991) with a lively poster featuring the entire cast of unforgettable personalities and another poster featuring atmospheric subtle silhouettes of Belle and her Beast waltzing beneath the tag line "The most beautiful love story ever told" painted by artist John Alvin. Alvin has said that a great movie poster should promise a great emotional experience and that is what he accomplished in this striking addition to the gallery of Disney posters.

Over the years, new artistic styles, marketing techniques and audiences' tastes have evolved dramatically so when a Disney film is re-released, an entirely new poster design taking these factors into consideration is produced. This change is noticeable not only in the many re-releases of Snow White, but also films like Fantasia and Alice in Wonderland where the text and images are tremendously different to appeal to new generations of audiences. Even foreign releases had different styles and different artwork to adapt to the tastes of those cultures.

For those who want to enjoy some of the Disney movie posters there are two out of print books: The Disney Poster Book Featuring the Collection of Tony Anselmo and a Disney miniature gift book titled The Disney Poster with text by my good friend and underappreciated Disney historian Jim Fanning.

Fans with massive personal Disney libraries like George Taylor, Greg Ehrbar and Scott Otis should think of adding to their collections a copy of the book Cartoon Movie Posters by Bruce Hershenson, which has a beautiful selection of Disney movie posters as well as incredible reproductions of a high percentage of cartoon posters of other studios, including colorful ones for silent cartoons.

It wasn't just the Disney films that benefited from these original graphic treatments and spectacular color. Walt Disney always felt that guests visiting Disneyland should feel as if they were immersed in a movie experience. What is a living cinema without dynamic coming attractions posters announcing exciting entertainment?

In the summer of 1956, Disneyland sported an exciting new visual method to entice guests to unfamiliar at the time Disneyland attractions, exhibits and restaurants: brightly silk screened framed attraction posters adorned the area below the Main Street Train Station at the entrance of the park and also along the distinctive Avenue of the Flags entrance in Tomorrowland.

The bold use of color on these 36-inch by 54-inch posters is a vivid example of an art style popular in the 1950s, mixing angular design elements with bright pigments. The original series totaled 17 designs including Peter Pan, Storybook Land, Space Station X-1, Keel Boats, and the Santa Fe and Disneyland Railroad. The artwork for this original series of posters has been credited to Disney artist Bjorn Aronson, who I would love to learn more about from someone.

The early posters with their simple but dramatic graphics were intentionally designed with limited blocks of color to keep the silk-screen process uncomplicated. A separate matte (or stencil) was cut out for each color to be used and each color was then pulled by hand to complete the poster image. The Art of Animation poster only included four colors, but the more complex 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea had 11 colors.

Over the years, talented Disney Imagineers designed attraction posters, including Claude Coats (Alice in Wonderland), Rolly Crump (Flying Saucers) and Mary Blair ("it's a small world"). Between 1956 and 1987, 32 different ride posters were created by Disney artists on large masonite panels that were used as the model for the finished silk-screened print.

Throughout the 1960s, Walt Disney himself personally approved the final posters before allowing them to be showcased at Disneyland in locations like the strong Monorail beamway pylons outside the park, the famous Main Street entrance tunnels and in the lively Penny Arcade. As the park evolved, certain attraction posters, like the one for the Monorail (done by Paul Hartley), required updated images or text and a new version was made.

Some posters promoted upcoming attractions that never materialized, like the Airboats ride that was to replace the Phantom Boats in 1957 in Tomorrowland.

While the attraction posters were only intended for display within Disneyland, over the years, reproductions have been sold to cast members and the general public, who treasured the nostalgic emotional connection that these images evoked.

The bold designs and skillful use of color on both the film and park posters that were originally intended merely as promotional vehicles are striking works of art in their own right by talented Disney craftsmen who in a few well chosen brush strokes succeeded in capturing the enchanting and timeless magic of Disney for countless generations.

Of course, in this age of the Internet, where it is equally surprising what is and what isn't on a website, there is a terrific blog devoted to Disney theme park attraction posters by Mike Cozart.



  1. By schnebs

    Excellent article on one of my favorite subjects, Jim. I'm not sure if I needed the link to the blog, though - I probably spend too much time reading about Disney on the Internet as it is!

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