Ray Aragon, 1926-2009

Ray Aragon

Animation artist Ray Aragon passed away on Sunday, March 15, at the age of 83. He had been in poor health in recent months. Aragon was born in Boyle Heights, California on January 12, 1926, the second oldest of five children. After high school, he enlisted in the military for WWII, and served overseas in France and Germany for eighteen months beginning in March 1945. Following the war, he studied illustration on the GI Bill at Chouinard Art Institute.

Aragon was frustrated working in advertising illustration, and in the mid-1950s, he returned to Chouinard to take night classes. There he met instructor Marc Davis, who also happened to be one of Disney’s top animators. “I told him what I was doing,” Aragon said, “and he realized I wasn’t happy so he gave me a number and said, ‘Call Ken Peterson.’ I said, ‘Marc, I can’t draw Mickey Mouse. I can’t draw Donald Duck.’ But Marc said ‘Never mind.’ So I called Ken Peterson and they hired me in the layout department on Sleeping Beauty.

Mary Poppins layoutLayout sketch by Ray Aragon from Mary Poppins.

After Sleeping Beauty, Aragon continued in the layout department on 101 Dalmatians (1961) before moving on to a diverse career that included working at a wide range of LA studios (UPA, Fred Calvert Productions, Hanna-Barbera, TMS, Sanrio, Tom Carter Productions, Filmation and Warner Bros). Besides the two Disney features, his film credits include Gay Purr-ee, Mary Poppins, Yellow Submarine, Metamorphoses, Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, The Iron Giant and In the Heat of the Night. On the latter film, he worked closely with director Norman Jewison as a storyboard artist. In a recent interview, Aragon reflected on the nature of his collaboration with Jewison and how he contributed to the shot set-ups in the film:

“We were looking for locations and…we get off the main highway [onto] a small road just to explore and we come to a roundhouse for the engines. So we drove up and it’s a dead end! The place is abandoned, hadn’t been used in years. We walked in and I looked back at the sunshine, and it’s rather dark inside where we are. Then I said, ‘Mr. Jewison, what if instead of the sequence being shot by the river, Tibbs comes in here to get help [and] finds he’s trapped? He’s trapped and those guys pull up in their cars and we see them in the bright sunlight with their pipes as they come in.’ I’m not even part of the crew! This script was written by one of the top writers of the day and I’m just this guy, you know? How dare I change his script. And Jewison looked at me, just gave me this cold look, and I said to myself, ‘Oh God! He’s gonna fire my ass right here.’ And he said, ‘Alright, smartass. Board it that way.’ I did it [and] the picture was shot that way.”

In the 1970s, Aragon developed an ambitious and visually striking feature adapatation of Don Quixote while working at Fred Calvert Productions. The film was never realized. Aragon’s animation career included numerous detours into other fields, such as live-action films and theme park design. One of his favorite projects was designing the ride “El Rio del Tiempo” (The River of Time) in Epcot’s Mexico Pavilion. He was involved in every aspect of its creation from the costumes to backdrops.

Sketches by Ray AragonPersonal drawings by Ray Aragon

Director Brad Bird remembered Aragon’s work in the early pre-production efforts on The Iron Giant:

“He was a great guy, very vigorous. Though he had the draftsmanship chops to do really precise, nailed down work (see his layouts from 101 Dalmatians), his joy was from really vigorous, rough exploration, and I would classify his involvement with Iron Giant in that way. By that time in his life he had no enthusiasm for nailing it down with any tight drawings.

“At the beginning of the film, we took a small group of artists on a trip to Maine for inspiration (though it was a little too early in the year to get the foliage the way we needed it for the film) and Ray was part of that group. I just remember a bunch of us bundled up in warm clothing against the biting cold wind and here’s this old guy hiking up the cliffs wearing cargo shorts. He was funny, energetic, and passionate about drawing. Like his friend Vic Haboush, he loved being around younger people and seemed to match their vigor about life. I feel very happy that I had a chance to work with him.”

Ray also taught during the 1980s at CalArts. Art director and production designer Ralph Eggleston (Toy Story, Wall-E, Finding Nemo), who had Aragon as a life drawing teacher for three years, recalled:

“The most important thing Ray Aragon said to me when I took his first few life drawing classes at CalArts was ‘You can’t draw. And that’s a compliment.’ It wasn’t as if I didn’t know this (and I still struggle with it!), but I didn’t realize until later what he really meant: that I didn’t have any bad habits to unlearn. Ray Aragon began teaching Life Drawing classes at CalArts my first year, 1983. He didn’t rely on formulas of construction, but instead encouraged LOOKING and DRAWING WHAT YOU SEE in LINE. He really didn’t get into shading forms, but wanted us to learn how to describe form with line alone–a very difficult thing to do! I can’t say I was always the most consistent student of his classes, but what he taught me stuck, and has aided me in every project I’ve approached since, and can be summed up in one word: LOOK. The only thing I regret is that Ray didn’t begin teaching layout classes until shortly after I left CalArts–something I would have truly valued. Friends and I would run into Ray at the Sherman Oaks Galleria for years after we left school, sitting in the food court, filling sketchbook after sketchbook with sketches of people passing by…the guy loved to observe and draw, and it showed in everything he did.

Personally, I got to know Ray better than many of the veteran artists I’ve interviewed, and it was such a privilege to have known him for the time that I did. When an artist of his caliber dies, the biggest regret you have is simply not spending more time with them. Every time I visited with Ray, I learned something new, not just about his life and career, but about what it means to be an artist. I have fond memories of talking art in his studio, surrounded by his sketchbooks and artwork, as well as shelves lined wall-to-wall with books.

I remember once we were talking about crowd scenes, and he pulled out a book of Reginald Marsh drawings, and began to analyze the work by showing how every individual figure in a Marsh scene had distinctive personality and posture while still fitting within the overall composition. I also remember arriving at his house on multiple occasions during the scorching heat of the Valley summer only to find him outside working on hands and feet in the garden. Ray was a hands-on kind of guy; if he wasn’t in the garden, he might be in the garage working on his vintage car, a Triumph TR3.

His daughter Victoria remembers that, “He had an open eye for everything,” and that he taught them to “Look at all the opportunities there are out there. He came out of East LA during the Depression. This is one thing he always said, ‘If there’s a brass ring, take it, take the ride.’ Victoria goes on to describe him as an upbeat person who loved life and always remained down-to-earth. “He loved to talk to everybody,” she says. “It didn’t matter if you were the gardener or the girl at the checkout counter. He really liked to talk to people And whenever we had parties at our house, everybody would want to talk with him. He touched everybody in one way or another.”

Last month, Aragon summed up his career to an interviewer in this way: “My career in the movie business–in animation and live action–was nothing but sheer joy. I loved it! I always did! We all did, you know. It was a bunch of wonderful people.” He is survived by his wife, Lena, two daughters, Victoria and Lorena, and two grandchildren.

For more vintage images of Ray, see this set of photos he took at Disney in 1958 during production on Sleeping Beauty and 101 Dalmatians.