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Former Disney animator inspires art students

Oct. 26, 2016

As a child, Breanna Cogswell watched hours and hours of Disney animated movies. An aspiring animator herself, she especially loved Ariel, from "The Little Mermaid," with her perfectly drawn underwater hair.

On Oct. 14, she stood in her IU Kokomo Illustration class just steps away from Philo Barnhart, the artist who created Ariel for the big screen, as he sketched the famous mermaid on paper.

Philo Barnhart and student

Philo Barnhart looks over the work of students studying illustration at IU Kokomo. | PHOTO BY ALISHA REFERDA, IU KOKOMO

"He did my dream job, designing character keys and animation," she said.

Barnhart is a professional film animator, known for work on "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "The Rescuers Down Under," "The Secret of NIHM" and "An American Tale." He also created special effects for "Star Trek: The Motion Picture."

Michael Koerner, assistant professor of new media art technology, said "The Secret of NIHM" was one of his favorite movies, and inspired him to pursue art as a career, while Minda Douglas, coordinator of the fine arts program, said students and faculty were excited to meet Barnhart because they are familiar with his work.

"I think it shows students they can take what they are learning in our program and make a real life out of it," she said.

Barnhart told of his childhood living five blocks from the Disney Studios, where his parents, Dale and Phyllis Barnhart, were animators. He often walked over to have lunch at the studio with his father, and would serve as an early audience for animators, who would test their pencil sketches on him.

"I knew I wanted to be an artist of some kind," he said, but he didn't choose animation until later. "We took animation for granted as a family." He often attended birthday parties for other children of Disney employees, who were allowed to borrow animated films from the catalogue to show at the events.

But when he saw the Beatles movie "Yellow Submarine," and then Disney's "Pinocchio," he knew animation was for him.

"That finally did it," he said. "I realized anything could be animated."

Philo Barnhart gives drawing demonstration

Barnhart demonstrates a few basic principles of hand-drawn animation. | PHOTO BY DANIELLE RUSH, IU KOKOMO

He studied graphics in college and then was selected for a twice-a-week "in-betweeners" class at Hanna-Barbera animation studio, learning the process of creating intermediate frames between two images to give the appearance that the first image evolves smoothly into the second image. He began his career there immediately after completing that class, and later moved to Disney Studios.

In addition to animating films, he also worked in consumer products for several years, creating artwork for Disney toys, books, clothing and posters. He left Disney in 2003, and currently is working with Silver Phoenix Entertainment Inc. His latest comic is "Whispers from the Void."

In the IU Kokomo classroom, students watched as he showed clips documenting not only animation history, but his family's history intertwined with it. He talked about early animation techniques in his father's work, which began in 1944, and included "Song of the South," "Cinderella," "Alice in Wonderland," "Peter Pan" and "Lady and the Tramp."

Barnhart also showed a clip of himself with his father, appearing as kite-flying extras in the finale of "Mary Poppins. The role was offered to them by Walt Disney himself, after learning that young Philo was upset about being passed over for the voice of Christopher Robin in a "Winnie the Pooh" film.

Animation doesn't always mean cartoons, he said, showing his own work with special effects in "Star Trek: The Motion Picture." He talked about the creativity involved in animating those effects before computers were widely in use -- for example, they used wire coat hangers to create cloud effects in one scene.

He demonstrated techniques of drawing realistic hands and feet. And finally, he sat at a desk, pen and paper in hand, to draw Ariel, Flounder and Sebastian from "The Little Mermaid," as well as a character from his new comic series, as the students gathered close to watch.

Cogswell, a senior from Walton, looked over his shoulder as he drew, and said she still couldn't quite believe he was there.

"This visit has really inspired me to do more," she said. "I'm going to create work not just thinking about the grade on it, but how it will benefit me in the future. It was incredible to meet someone whose work I admire so much."

To view more photos of Barnhart's visit, please visit IU Kokomo on Flickr.

Philo Barnhart's interaction with IU Kokomo students aligns with several priorities in the university's Bicentennial Strategic Plan, including a commitment to student success.


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