BOOK REVIEW: The Art of Disney’s Bolt

Art of Bolt

I received a complimentary copy of the The Art of Bolt in the mail recently. I’m going to ignore the fact that it wasn’t intended for me since there was a note inside of the book that was addressed to the editor of a certain other animation-related print magazine which shall remain unnamed.

In terms of text, there’s little to discuss. The book, credited to Mark Cotta Vaz, is thin in the writing department, even relative to other ‘art of’ books in my collection. It makes me wonder why I invest so much effort when I’m hired to write similar ‘art of’ books. With the exception of a dozen or so pages of text, everything else is quotes, including deep bits of insights like the following from a couple of the animators: “Animating a dog is quite complicated. Instead of two legs you have four, and the overall motion is something the audience is very familiar with, so it has to look perfect for everyone to believe in it.”

Then again, it’s called The ART of Bolt for a reason. We buy these books for the artwork and there’s plenty of that on every page. At times, the book almost feels like it should be titled “The Art of Paul Felix.” It’s dominated by the digital paintings of Felix, who was art director on the movie. I’m not complaining. Felix’s work is skillful and has a certain charm. There are also plenty of other digital paintings by artists including Greg Miller, Jim Finn, Ric Sluiter, Kevin Nelson, Sean Samuels, as well as some graphite drawings (how quaint!) by Bill Perkins.

The buzzword for the art direction of this film is “painterly.” It’s repeated frequently in the book, and they cite a desire to recreate the “painterly” feel of Edward Hopper, George Bellows and the Ashcan School artists. It’ll be interesting to see how this painterly notion appears onscreen since the treatment of light and color has been a weak point in a lot of contemporary CGI (though it is improving). There are examples in the book of render tests, and what they illustrate is that in CGI, “painterly” translates to softer textures and a brushstroke feel, but at the end of the day, the backgrounds are still controlled by the perfect geometries of a computer-generated image. It is, at best, an approximation of a painter’s work. There is no abstraction of masses or compositional decisions that are based outside the realm of the digital model. That is not a fault of the artists so much as it is asking something of the technology that it is incapable of providing. But it’s also why I find it difficult to muster enthusiasm for page after page of Disney’s attempt to codify a “painterly” approach in their films (top image) without really ever approaching anything remotely as exciting as a true painter’s work (bottom image, by George Bellows).

Art of Bolt

One area in which CGI doesn’t have to play second-fiddle to the traditional arts is in the realm of characters, and there’s plenty of character design artwork in this book. The book offers solid and appealing designs by lead designer Joe Moshier, supported by work from Jin Kim and Chen-Yi Chang. Moshier comes from the Tom Oreb school of character design, and he does the super-graphic and elegant shapes and forms as well as anybody today. I think his designs excite me even more than Craig Kellman’s designs for Madagascar, which is another heavily Oreb-influenced production. My reservations are in the obviousness of the design choices. There’s never any real exploration of the graphic possibilities, such as what one saw in Teddy Newton’s inventive character exploration work on The Incredibles.

Another thing that I don’t see in the character designs is a unified vision of the universe, especially not in the way that was evident in the work of Chris Sanders on American Dog, the earlier incarnation of Bolt. Not only is the work of Sanders absent in this book, but his name has also been entirely omitted from the production history. As a historian, this type of revisionism raises my ire, but I don’t know the behind-the-scenes story that necessitated his name being omitted from the book. In the book, Vaz writes that Paul Felix started figuring out the look of the film in 2005. Did Felix and Sanders never speak to one another during Sanders’ tenure as director? Obviously a lot of stuff was figured out when Sanders was still aboard.

In a hint at why Sanders was let go, Lasseter writes in the foreword that in Bolt, “as innovative as the production design is, the artists made sure the style was always serving the story.” My only wish is that the style they ended up using wasn’t so safe and generic. The Disney studio has built a reliable animation brand that hews to the “Illusion of Life” philosophy, but I don’t believe for one second that to achieve that, they need to dumb down their design sensibilities and regress to blandness. As is evident in films like Fantasia, Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians and Lilo and Stitch, the Illusion of Life is not tied to any set Disney style. It’s a flexible idea that can accommodate more creativity and experimentation than the artwork that’s shown in this book. This ‘art of’ book may not have the most interesting or inspiring art, but let’s hope at the end of the day, at least it serves the story, as Lasseter believes it does.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.


  • Mike

    Kind of an odd selection for the cover. If you didn’t know any better you’d think it was about the hamster.

  • Aleksandar Vujovic

    *Raises eyebrows* Oh yeah, it does look like it’s about the hamster.

    Hope the movie delivers more interest and originality than the book did to you, Amid.

  • Animation Pimp

    You bastard. That book was meant for me!

  • http://saturdaymorningcentral.com Tommy Day

    Anyone know if there will be a short before Bolt? After seeing Meet the Robinsons and my favorite part being the classic Disney short at the beginning, I was hoping they were going to make that a trend.

  • Chuck R.

    I’m glad we’re talking about “art-of” books. For me, (and I’m sure I’m not alone) getting the coffee table book of unscreened delights is a big part of the enjoyment of animated cinema. Maybe the bigger part.

    It’s disappointing that this discussion always comes up at the wrong times (Bee Movie, Bolt). Why weren’t we talking about character design when Kung Fu Panda came out? Why weren’t we talking about inspiring text when the indispensable (and unassuming) Lilo and Stitch book came out? Or about lighting and color when Pixar released The Art of Monsters Inc.?

    I’ll question Amid’s taste on several counts here: To me, Teddy Newton’s collage designs always seemed to be more for the book than the film —fun, but trendy and unserviceable. I’m also wondering why that particular Bellows painting was chosen to demonstrate what’s wrong with animation art. It’s a fairly unexceptional urban scene with drab colors. Most stills from Kung Fu Panda are far more inventive and decisive in color choices, dramatic lighting, and composition.

    I can’t argue with Amid’s assessment of this book (haven’t seen it), and I’ll absolutely agree that Sanders’ wonderful early paintings for Bolt should be included. But there’s a lot more that can be said for recent strides made in pre-production art. I feel that Amid could tell a more positive story if he cared to.

  • elan

    >>Anyone know if there will be a short before Bolt?<<

    Originally, Chris Williams’ “Glago’s Guest” was supposed to screen before Bolt, but I think they killed that in favor of one of the Cars shorts? Is that correct? Can anyone confirm?

  • http://deleted OtherDan

    Good review Amid. I’m with you- the Sanders back story would have made an interesting addition and insight into the art of Bolt. I’m sure Disney owns the art, so why it was omitted is a shame. I’m always a little annoyed about the critics of character designs, as in the recent “Up” post. I think character design is second to the overall look of a film-which is dictated by the story and tone. It’s like every animated film has to be leaps and bounds different from the most recent film. For me, if the character designs support the personalities, have appeal and meld with the environment then I don’t take issue with the designer. Stylization can be a distraction or a cheat. When it comes to the look of a film I think the onus lies with the director. Good character acting can overcome bland design.

  • amid

    OtherDan: I absolutely agree that character design is secondary to story and tone. A good design will never save a bad story. But good design can enhance the story and add to our understanding of the characters. There are so many quirks and nuances to individual human beings, and there is no reason for the blandness and lack of personality that we see in so many animation characters. Even not knowing the story of a film, a character should draw us towards it and make us want to find out more about him or her. The designs in this film don’t do that.

  • http://amymebberson.blogspot.com Amy Mebberson

    While I’m disappointed, I’m not at all surprised the Sanders version was scrubbed from the ‘official’ book. Disney have that annoying track record of completely ignoring any hint of production halt or trouble in their movies. The Art of Rapunzel is looking to be a VERY slim tome if they keep forbidding the documentation of production hiccups.

    So I guess we’ll have to wait another 15-20 years for a Solomon/Canemakeresque ‘The Disney that Never Was, Part 2′ to see any Sanders artwork.

  • a reader

    Consider this: it’s just as possible that Chris Sanders wouldn’t want to be included in an “art of” book that’s about a complete revamp of a project that was his own at one time. And this book is to feature the art of the version that was actually made and is to be released in theaters. Given the situation it’s ridiculous to think that any company, anywhere would include art that was for a different version that ended/changed as happened here. By the way, how much space was given to the pre-Brad Bird version of Ratatouille in that book? Did anyone care?

    Give the people who did this movie and made it theirs their due. Chris has moved on, at least.

  • Charles

    Oh cool, there is a lightning bolt on the dogs side, and his name is bolt! I guess thats so I don’t forget the dogs name, and that the movie is about him. Genius design work, cause you know, we’re too stupid to get it otherwise. Good lookin out lasseter.

  • Hulk

    Hey Charles

    “Oh cool, there is a lightning bolt on the dogs side, and his name is bolt! I guess thats so I don’t forget the dogs name, and that the movie is about him. Genius design work, cause you know, we’re too stupid to get it otherwise. Good lookin out lasseter.”

    See the movie. You’re missing the point.

  • Graham

    I was a bit concerned that Chris Sanders would be omitted from the project. But till we know the real story I don’t think we’ll ever have answers to any of the “whys”.

  • Tom Pope

    Just imagining timing all the people in that Bellows painting. Ouch!

  • rhinotonight

    i think amid chosse that painting because of its resemblance to the setting of the movie.

  • slowtiger

    I wonder if anyone could point me to a list of (american) painters devoted to depicting cityscapes. This subject isn’t covered in our very european-biased libraries.

  • http://www.cementimental.com Tim Drage

    Just imagining timing all the people in that Bellows painting. Ouch!
    Imagine an American feature animation with the cinematic guts to animate a proper crowd scene, as opposed to a particle system of motion capture loops.

  • Gobo

    Actually, since Chris Sanders is currently doing a weekly comic strip, Kiskaloo, which features the kitten with a pirate eyepatch from the American Dog concept art, I’m assuming he owns the copyright on the characters he designed, not Disney. He likely didn’t want to be included in the Bolt book.

  • dan

    Man if this book is HALF as good as the movie it will be worth it! And I LOVE Joe Moshier’s designs! He’s wicked awesome!

  • http://deleted OtherDan

    Amid, point taken. But, the designers are ultimately dictated to. So, I’d fault the director.

  • Jen

    Charles,

    Oh cool, there is a letter “i” on the man’s chest, and his name is Mr. Incredible! I guess thats so I don’t forget the guy’s name, and that the movie is about him. Genius design work, cause you know, we’re too stupid to get it otherwise. Good lookin out lasseter.”

  • Fred

    Nice to see commenters like “A reader” and Gobo put some thought into what they said about Sanders, and nice to see that Amid has since altered his review, to reflect a little bit more thoughtfully. As a historian, I’m sure he realizes it’s good to get the facts before writing, or to be extremely thoughtful and fair-minded if he cannot get the facts.

    Tim – I agree it’d be cool for the handful of us geeks who watch for this sort of thing to see every single individual in a massive crowd scene be individually animated! But I think anyone who budgeted for that would be out of their mind, and job. Crowd animation is getting much better, and still beats the old way: still images.

    For what little it’s worth, I agree with OtherDan’s original point about design.

    Mike: It’s possible you’ll have a different opinion when you see the actual book. I did. Don’t judge by the image above, it’s near-impossible to do a faithful reproduction on a lighted screen, the contrast and saturation are different here from the print version. On the book itself, Bolt seriously pops, it’s obvious he’s the dude. The cat and hamster blend into their backgrounds much more than it appears above. Also, since the book is large, you can more easily see the hamster is looking away at nothing, deflecting what focus he has. But you’ll see, the light and tones are different.

  • Tsimone Tse Tse

    Painterly? Gee-I’d say more Photorealism than Ashcan.
    In the Eighties I remember seeing Clampett’s Tarzan vine swing & thinking THAT looked Ashcan. Is that available anywhere?

  • eggman

    “I’ll question Amid’s taste on several counts here: To me, Teddy Newton’s collage designs always seemed to be more for the book than the film —fun, but trendy and unserviceable.”

    I won’t quibble with all of your points about timing in regards to what aspect of production is brought up when by whomever.

    But on the quote above, I can honestly tell you that Teddy Newton’s (among many others) collage designs (on the Incredibles and elsewhere) are fun, infintetly imaginative, and undeniably “servicable.”

    Artwork for animation films during pre-production is created NOT just to explain what will be, but what COULD be. To excite the imagination and spur other, sometimes better ideas, in the minds of the director, story crew, animators, designers, td’s, and the entire crew, by exploring as wide as possible the many visual possibilities of a world being created entirely from scratch.

    Artwork meant ONLY to be servicable to the production is a disservice to the film; the practical realities of production (story adjustments, design changes, technical difficulty, acts of god) are so difficult, expensive, and time consuming that having “inspirational” artwork around helps remind everyone of what excited us all about the idea[s] in the FIRST place! It’s also a practical tool, for the same reason: when production problems arise, this artwork can help us remember what is and what isn’t important by offering sometimes simple solutions to vexing problems.

    The immediate, visceral, visual impact of strong images such as these are an endless well of inspiration during the slow, detailed, often difficult days of production. If you aim for the stars, your chances of getting there are far greater.

    I’m looking forward to seeing Bolt. And everything I’ve seen of Paul Felix’s work is simply stunning.

    Kendall Cronkite’s gorgeous inspirational artwork in the “Art of Madagascar 2″ book is very inspiring as well, as were Ramon Zibach’s designs for “Kung Fu Panda.” And I sure hope there’s an “art of” book for the upcoming “Coraline.”

  • upanova

    I saw a preview of BOLT yesterday. I won’t review it here to prevent spoilers. I saw no artistic resemblance to the work of any member of AshCan school of painting, though Paul Felix’s art direction is pleasant and pretty.

  • http://www.spiteyourface.com Tim Drage

    Crowd animation is getting much better, and still beats the old way: still images.
    I had Akira in mind really… but then I usually do when thinking about the shortcomings of any given animated feature.

  • Chuck R.

    Eggman, I can’t thank you enough for your comment. It’s probably worth noting the subtle differences between “production” art and “inspirational” art, even though I find most production art inspiring, and (as you noted) any art that inspires is good for the production.

    What instigated my comment wasn’t so much that Newton’s work is so different from what we expect to see on screen, but the fact (and I’m working from memory here) that the book showed perfect character lineups in Newton’s collage style that suggested the heavy lifting of sketching and exploration had been done and a lot of the decisions had been made. I got the impression that the art was a re-interpretation of the cast for another purpose, perhaps a short subject or a book. Again, my apologies if I’m wrong.

    This brings me to another general point. To me, the interest of an art-of book is seeing the behind-the-scenes evolution of a film, which is why the Lilo and Stitch book is my hands-down favorite. It has personal testimonials by artists working in various departments and it dares to show very rough storyboard drawings and early exercises in watercolor —the work of talented artists trying to hit their stride. Maybe it’s the illusion of good storytelling, but the book makes me feel like a fly on the studio wall.

    As excellent as it is, the Kung Fu Panda book never gave me that feeling. It showcases a lot of masterful designs, layouts and renderings, but has none of the rough stuff that sheds light on the entire creative process. Even the beautifully sketchy drawings of Nico Marlet are so perfectly uniform I feel we’re getting the presentation the execs got when they approved various stages, not what you’d get looking over the shoulders of the artists as they work out the problems.

    I think my skepticism is understandable. We now know upfront that for every big studio production the companion coffeetable book will go into a parallel production. I can’t believe that during the long hours of production, the chance to make it into the book isn’t at least in the back of the minds of every artist on the team. At the same time, the need to make an exciting book has to be in the minds of the creative directors.

    I’m a fan, not an insider. At the risk of being corrected, I’d love to hear from anyone with more insight into how these books are made than I have.

  • Chuck R.

    Amid, please don’t give up on text! Some of us actually really do read these things cover to cover. As far as quotes are concerned: getting insight right from the artist’s mouths is greatly appreciated, but yes like any good writing, quotes from artists should be used with discrimination.

  • http://parkablogs.blogspot.com Parka

    It’s the text that gives these artbooks the depth. It’s the depth that makes good books great. I’m currently waiting for my copy to arrive before I review it too.

  • Jon

    Book sounds really good and full of the animation and sketches I’m looking for.