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.
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.
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.
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.
Another character Harald Siepermann worked on for Walt Disney’s Tarzan was the neurotic elephant Tantor.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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 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.”
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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…”
“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.
When Harald Siepermann started to work on the production of Walt Disney’s Tarzan in July 1995, his job was to explore visual possibilities for the gorilla family, and their relationship with a young Tarzan. Once that task was completed, the directors Kevin Lima and Chris Buck set Siepermann on another path, to create visual development for the characters in the movie.
Harald Siepermann started with this task in January 1996, and the first characters he worked on was Professor Archimedes Porter. The first direction in exploring this character was somewhat odd. Since the movie was animated and it dealt with a primate world, the directors thought it would be fun if Porter had some resemblance of a monkey himself. Harald took that task to his hart. Below are some of these studies:
Despite Harald’s well received designs, the directors decided to keep Porter more in human form, and Siepermann started to look for a more realistic approach. “It was his first time in the jungle and he was to be completely overwhelmed by what he saw and found,” commented Siepermann on the character. “Things and animals he so far had encountered only in the books he had studied and written. He would get lost in some small detail, a frog or a bug, and he would overlook the gorilla behind him. He needed Jane to take care of him. I thought a lot of Catweazle, a character from an English TV-series from the seventies, which nobody in the states knew about. Another big influence was Jack MacGowran in his role as Prof. Abronsius in Roman Polanski’s Vampire Killers, a movie only Kevin Lima knew about.”
A big breakthrough with the character came when Harald Siepermann thought of Albert Schweitzer, a German philosopher, humanitarian, and musician. “I didn’t know where to go visually with this character, because I didn’t want to use other cartoon-professor as reference,” commented Siepermann. “I wanted to get away from that cliché and was looking for some other kind of inspiration. Then it hit me. Some sketches I had done reminded me of Albert Schweitzer, a philosopher, doctor, musician and humanist, who founded a hospital in the jungle at the beginning of the last century. Always very much a gentleman, always in a white shirt and a bowtie.”
This was April 1996 and during that time Harald was working for 6 months at the Walt Disney studio in Burbank. “Again, when I told that to the team, nobody had heard about him,” continued Siepermann. “There was no google at the time, so I was more than lucky to find a German book about Schweitzer in a second-hand bookstore in St. Monica. I made a board and sold the idea to the directors.” Siepermann continued to develop Professor Porter in this direction. His designs where very much appreciated by the directors and were the starting point for Dave Burgess, the Supervising Animator, who brought Porter to life on the screen.
In August 2003 Harald Siepermann created character design for a project called Miss Mary Poppins, that was slated to be an animated feature film. The story treatment was developed by Greg Manwaring and Patrick Gleeson, and was a prequel to the beloved Walt Disney movie from 1964. It tells the story about a young Mary Poppins, and how she came to be the magical nanny.
The project was developed for the Walt Disney studio. Harald Siepermann was asked by Greg Manwaring, with who he befriended since the days of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, to create character design for a young Mary Poppins, to have some visuals for the pitch of the project.
While the people at the Walt Disney studio really liked the project, it was never green lit because at that time the Travers Estate did not allow the studio to develop anything further with the property.
Below you’ll find some of Harald Siepermann’s designs.
Visual development art by Harald Siepermann for Walt Disney’s Tarzan. When Harald Siepermann started on Tarzan his job was to explore visual possibilities for the gorillas and their relationship with a young Tarzan.