The Gang of Three from Walt Disney’s Mulan

When Harald Siepermann worked on Walt Disney’s Mulan, he also contributed visual development for the characters Yao, Ling, and Chien-Po, three soldiers that befriends Mulan, which during that time of production was also called the Three Soldiers or the Gang of Three.

The Gang of Three from Walt Disney’s Mulan

Harald Siepermann worked on and off on these characters in April and May 1995 during his stay at the Walt Disney studio in Burbank. His reference for these characters were the designs of Chen-Yi Chang, that had already established the significant different shapes of postures for each character.

Below are some designs that seems to be channelled after the character Yao:

 

… and Ling:

 

… and below are designs that resemble Chien-Po:

 

While Harald Siepermann’s designs might have been inspiring during the creative process of these characters, the final design for Yao was done by Supervising Animator Aaron Blaise, and for Ling and Chien-Po by Supervising Animator Broose Johnson.

Chen-Yi Chang

When Harald Siepermann arrived at the Walt Disney studio in Burbank to work on Mulan, he was introduced to many of the exceptional talents who were working there, and made many new friends.

One of the people he was introduced to was Chen-Yi Chang, the main Character Designer for Mulan. Both artists had a great admiration for each other’s work and they became good friends. “Harald and I first met in the midst of making Mulan through our production designer Hans Bacher,” remembered Chen-Yi Chang. “Hans and Harald had worked on the comic book, Alfred J. Kwak. It was through the comic book I got a sense of Harald’s solid draftsmanship and the incredible imagination. Harald’s gentle and down-to-earth personality made him very easy to get along with. We clicked right away, and had become really good friends since.”

After Mulan, they also collaborated on Tarzan, where Harald and Chen-Yi often interchanged tasks with each other that were given by the directors. “Harald himself is a big fan of Asterix the comic series, and his art reflect that similar aesthetics, especially when doing a more cartooning design. When we both worked on Disney’s Tarzan, his other approach showed off: a seemingly more realistic European comic book influence. He brought to the production a feel of classic European comic tradition with solidity, dimension and fluent expression.”

“I remembered Harald showed up and disappeared periodically at the studio during the development of Mulan and Tarzan. This was before the all-digital era, Harald always turned out sheets of animation paper with his beautiful design work on them. Also on them were his famous “coffee stains”, sometimes spattered, sometimes painted on, and once a while with a partial ring of the foot print of his coffee mug. He just couldn’t stop having some fun while working!”

On the photo below Harald and Chen-Yi are making dumplings at Harald’s house in Essen, Germany, when Chen-Yi stayed for a visit in 1996.

Stone Dragon from Walt Disney’s Mulan

On the project Mulan Harald Siepermann was mostly assigned to secondary characters. Following Mushu and Grandmother Fa, he continued with characters related to the temple scene when the ancestors awaken. One of them was the Stone Dragon. Here are some of Harald’s early exploration for the Stone Dragon:

 

And below are some rough sketches of funny situations between Mushu and the Stone Dragon:

Grandmother Fa from Walt Disney’s Mulan

After working for several weeks on Mulan from his studio in Germany, Harald Siepermann moved with his family to Los Angeles, to continue his work at the Walt Disney studio in Burbank. Although Harald Siepermann had worked before for Walt Disney on the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit, this was his first time at the new studio in Burbank, with the iconic blue sorcerer’s hat from Mickey Mouse. He arrived there in April 1995, and worked on the project until he was drawn away for Tarzan in July.

Grandmother Fa and Mulan from Walt Disney’s Mulan

One of the characters Siepermann focused on during his first days was Grandmother Fa. Below are some of his early designs. This was before he learned that Chen-Yi Chang, the main character designer of Mulan, had already made some initial designs and silhouettes for Grandmother Fa.

 

Harald Siepermann continued to work on other characters for Mulan, but returned to Grandmother Fa some weeks later when James Varab, the Supervising Animator of Grandmother Fa, asked him to do another take on the character. Below are some of Harald’s designs with a new approach.

 

Although Harald’s designs were very well received, James Varab continued to develop the character together with Production Designer Hans Bacher and Chen-Yi Chang, and came up with the final design for Grandmother Fa that ended up in the movie.

Mushu from Walt Disney’s Mulan

In March 2020, the new life-action version of Walt Disney’s Mulan will be released in theaters. 25 years ago, Harald Siepermann worked on the original animated classic Mulan, about the heroine Fa Mulan, who masquerade herself as a man to take place in the Chinese army instead of her ailing father, to fight the invading Hun army led by Shan Yu. Harald Siepermann worked on and off on Mulan from March to July 1995, when he became involved with Tarzan. The next few posts will be dedicated to Harald Siepermann’s work on Walt Disney’s Mulan.

Harald became involved with the project through Production Designer Hans Bacher. Hans Bacher was Harald’s teacher when he studied Graphic Design at the Folkwang University in Germany, and noticed Siepermann’s extraordinary talent for drawing. In 1985 they co-founded the advertisement studio Mad T Party and collaborated on many projects together, most notably the comic book and television series about the duck character Alfred J. Kwak.

In 1995 the project Mulan had been in development for about a year and the team was looking for some fresh influences from outside the studio. Hans Bacher recommended the producer Pam Coats and co-directors Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft, to hire Harald Siepermann, and showed them the Alfred J. Kwak comic books. They were immediately convinced. For Harald Siepermann it was a dream come true to work for Walt Disney. Ever since he saw Walt Disney’s classic The Jungle Book at the age of six, he knew that all he wanted to do for the rest of his life was drawing.

Mushu from Walt Disney’s Mulan

During Harald’s first weeks on the project he worked from his studio in Germany. His first task was to create designs for a little red dragon called Mushu, who in the movie has to protect Fa Mulan on her journey with the Chinese army. Mushu was voiced by Eddie Murphy, and served as the comical note in the movie. Below are several designs by Harald Siepermann of Mushu:

 

While Harald Siepermann did his exploration for Mushu, assigned Supervising Animator Tom Bancroft did his magic with the character at the Walt Disney studio in Florida, and brought Mushu to life.

Also, have a look at Hans Bacher’s blog post about Harald Siepermann’s work on Mushu.

Tarzan’s Tantor

Another character Harald Siepermann worked on for Walt Disney’s Tarzan was the neurotic elephant Tantor.

Tantor from Walt Disney’s Tarzan

Harald Siepermann first started with the character in March 1996, when he had just arrived at the Walt Disney studio in Burbank. At that time actor Woody Allen was considered as voice for the elephant. “When I started to work on Tantor, he was to be voiced by the ultimate neurotic Woody Allen,” commented Siepermann. “So I was looking for some resemblance in my first sketches.” Siepermann started with the young version of Tantor, and brought in a high cuteness factor in his designs by giving him a tiny trunk, big eyes and big ears. Below are some of Harald Siepermann’s early designs.

 

After these initial designs, Siepermann put the elephant aside and continued with other characters like Clayton, Professor Porter and Jane, but picked up on Tantor again in October 1996 from his studio in Germany. In the meantime actor Wayne Knight was cast as voice for the elephant. Again Siepermann incorporated the neurotic characteristics of Tantor in his designs, but also his kindness. In several illustrations he drew the head tilted, one eye bigger than the other, a crooked mouth, a trunk bulging at the bridge and a small curl at the end, and two tusks each pointing in a different direction. Below are some of Harald Siepermann’s designs that focused more on the adult version of Tantor.

 

Sergio Pablos was assigned as Supervising Animator for Tantor and further develop the character. “I remember talking about Tantor to him one cherished afternoon,” commented Siepermann, “and we spent hours praising the work of André Franquin and his red elephants from one of his Spirou comics.” Since Harald Siepermann worked infrequently at the Burbank studio, “Harald and I kept missing each other,” remembered Sergio Pablos. “But the day we finally met, I could not wait to tell him how much I loved his work. To my surprise, he seemed equally appreciative of my own work, and we hit it off immediately. I do remember those conversations and how we both discussed about how to make an elephant that was unique and interesting, while avoiding falling into the very tempting solutions implemented in The Jungle Book elephants.”

Tarzan’s Kala

Once Harald Siepermann wrapped up his work on the silverback Kerchak for Walt Disney’s Tarzan, he quickly moved on to Kala, the mate of Kerchak, and the protective and caring mother of Tarzan.

Kala from Walt Disney’s Tarzan

In contrary to Siepermann’s designs for Kerchak with a lot of straight and angular lines, Kala consisted of curved lines and round shapes, and with big eyes that expressed her warm motherly emotions. To incorporate the warm emotions, Siepermann found inspiration close at home, “I was very lucky that my daughter was born half a year before I started on Tarzan, that was perfect reference, not only visually but also emotionally,” he commented. “It helped a lot finding that warmth and get it into Kala’s eyes and attitude. I paid great attention to warm, friendly, round lines. Can’t find a better way to say it, you have to feel it, when you draw it. At least I have to.”

 

Russ Edmonds was the Supervising Animator for Kala and made the final design. “I was given his designs by the directors as a jumping off point for animation,” commented Russ Edmonds about Harald Siepermann’s work. “I took his beautiful designs and created a version that could be turned in space and animated. He drew many different variations and was given freedom to explore the heartfelt connection between Kala and Tarzan. I tried to capture Harald’s emotional renditions in my animation.”

Tarzan’s Kerchak

When Harald Siepermann started on Walt Disney’s Tarzan in July 1995, his first task was to explore visual possibilities for the gorillas and their relationship with a young Tarzan. This was still early during the production while the story and visual language was still in development. Once that started to get shape, it was time to narrow down the characters, and by the end of 1995, Tarzan-directors Kevin Lima and Chris Buck asked Siepermann to make designs for all the main characters.

Kerchak from Walt Disney’s Tarzan

One of the first characters he picked up were Clayton and Kerchak. Both characters were actually considered villains at some point during the production. “Since Clayton – our real villain – enters the movie pretty late, we had to sell Kerchak as the villain of the first act,” commented Siepermann. “But actually he is just an austere father, trying to protect his tribe.” Below are some of Harald’s first explorations from March 1996. While he often drew Kerchak with a calm and observing expression, yet he managed to incorporate his strong and dominant personality in the designs.

 

After his first explorations he put the character aside to continue with the characters Professor Porter and Clayton, and start with Jane Porter and Tantor as well. But later that year, in October 1996, Siepermann made additional designs for Kerchak. After exploring different shapes and sizes for the gorillas, “We agreed to base Kerchak on a square,” commented Siepermann, “which is why you will find many straight lines and angles in the sketches. The rest was work and patience till you find the right balance and attitude.”

 

Below are designs from November 1996, in which Siepermann incorporated a more angular approach.

 

After a lot of exploration, Harald Siepermann hit upon a design that the directors liked, and what was handed to Supervising Animator Bruce W. Smith, who created the final design of Kerchak. Siepermann’s visual development was a great help in the right direction. “Until my work on Tarzan, I never had any animation assignments that required realistic drawings of animals,” commented Smith, “so I really gravitated to Harald’s takes on Kerchak. His knowledge in the drawings helped me tremendously.”

Tarzan’s Jane

In May 1996, Harald Siepermann started with the design of Jane Porter, the leading lady in Walt Disney’s Tarzan. Jane Porter is a 19th century young British lady raised in a high class society. She joins the Africa excursion to take care of her eccentric father, Professor Porter. She is quite shocked by the savage laws of the jungle, but with the help of Tarzan she quickly adapts to the jungle life style.

Jane Porter from Walt Disney’s Tarzan

“Jane was a though one,” commented Harald Siepermann on the design process. “All we knew at the beginning was, that we didn’t wanted to do just another one of those Disney-high-school-chicks, like Ariel [from The Little Mermaid], a kind of behaviour and speech that is, forgive me, very American. But we had no clear idea, what to replace it with, only thing we knew was that she should be very British. Kevin Lima had the rough suggestion to look at Julia Ormond in Sabrina as a guideline, but just for the character, not for the design.”

Advertisement of the movie Emma with Gwyneth Paltrow

“My first step into the character, design wise, came from a nice little movie called Picnic at Hanging Rock by Peter Weir,” continued Siepermann. “I had always loved the contrast of these young girls in their white dresses and the hot, glowing sun. It immediately came to my mind, when I started with Jane. So, I used that as a door and I began with my sketches.”

“A big step forward occurred, when a young and until then unknown actress appeared on the screen, Gwyneth Paltrow, in Emma. Not only was the setting the correct one, but also the character was kind of spot on, at least, for the stage that we were in.”

 

Slue-Foot Sue from Walt Disney’s Pecos Bill

In addition to the design of Jane’s face and posture, also her dress was an important asset, since it says a lot about where she comes from, but also about the transformation she makes throughout the movie. “Jane’s dress reminded me of Slue-Foot Sue and that fantastic Milt Kahl walk in Pecos Bill. We wanted her dress, as she herself too, to adept very quickly to the jungle. Less and less Victorian, or is it Edwardian, in a short time.” Below are designs by Harald Siepermann of Jane and her torn dress after the baboon attack.

 

Around July 1996, it was announced that the British actress Minnie Driver was cast as the voice of Jane. “Minnie Driver – I had the pleasure to give her a studio-tour – added a completely new attitude to Jane. She was very helpful and brought a lot of character to the… ahm, character. Just imagine an American actress doing a cockney impression instead, that would have been horrible!!!!”

“But the real breakthrough came with Jane Goodall and a lecture she was giving at the studio about her apes and their family life. What a charming, interesting, warm person. Not at all like in that Simpsons episode!!!! From that moment on, it was clear, that Jane had to be based on her, a young Jane Goodall, my God, even the name was right.”

Jane Goodall

Below are some of Harald Siepermann’s designs inspired by Jane Goodall.

 

At a certain point Ken Duncan, Supervising Animator of Jane, took over the design, and further developed the character.

Tarzan’s Clayton

In January 1996, besides to the character Professor Porter, Harald Siepermann also started visual development for the character Clayton for Walt Disney’s Tarzan. Harald had just received his new assignment from the Tarzan-directors Kevin Lima and Chris Buck, which was to create visual development for all the characters in the movie.

Clayton from Walt Disney’s Tarzan

In Walt Disney’s Tarzan, the British Clayton was hired by Jane and Professor Porter as guide and protector, during their excursion in Africa. However, Clayton has a second agenda, and that is to hunt gorillas.

 

“When we started with Tarzan, we were aiming at the impossible, by not giving away that Clayton was the villain of our movie, but using Kerchak as a kind of a red herring instead,” remembered Siepermann. “That of course couldn’t work, but we tried anyway. The idea behind it was that not too long ago, in the history of Hollywood movies, the great white hunters were the heroes in these kind of movies. And who would make a better great white hunter than Clark Gable. In fact, he played these kind of roles. So I looked at him a lot.”

Harald Siepermann first look at the actor Glark Gable for inspiration.

By that time the actor Brian Blessed was already cast as the voice of Clayton. Harald actually was not familiar with Brian Blessed, and therefor didn’t model his design after the actor, “…to the great surprise of the directors,” remembered Siepermann, “who were expecting a kind of caricature of Brian Blessed, the wonderful voice of Clayton. I just had a tape with some of his lines but in my ignorance, didn’t know what he looked like, and worked only from what I was hearing. When I had my first sketches ready, I had to board them and run the voice tape to the directors to convince them that it would work, even if there was no resemblance.”

 

“Gable as Clayton was too ‘American’ for my taste, so I looked a lot at J.C. Leyendecker’s work to get a feel for the ‘English Gentleman’: well educated, ready to kill, but deciding against it,” continued Siepermann. “I found out, that Leyendecker’s favorite model was the actor John Barrymore, grandfather of Drew, so I went directly to the source. You’ll find more Barrymore in Clayton than Gable.”

Actor John Barrymore served as an inspiration for Harald Siepermann for the character Clayton.

But while there is the resemblance of Gable and Barrymore in Clayton, Siepermann used several other sources as reference. “I wanted Clayton to be ‘English’, so I tried everything I could, using the likes of David Niven as reference, Errol Flynn, even Prince Charles and Prince Phillip, basically everything I could get hold off…”

Sir Richard Burton

“I never miss out to look not just at other (animated) movies, but at the historical real thing and get familiar with it, doing my research,” continued Siepermann. “This is Sir Richard Burton – not the actor – the first and only non-Muslim, who ever was inside the Kaaba, who first translated the Kamasutra and The Arabian Nights, who discovered the Victoria Falls and the source of the Nile. The blueprint of any generic explorer.”

The directors liked Haral Siepermann’s design for Clayton, and it became an important reference for Supervising Animator Randy Haycock, who brought the character to life.