Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Tribute to Don Carson Artwork - Part One

It's with great pleasure that I introduce today in my Imagineers articles series Don Carson.

Don Carson initially trained as a commercial illustrator at the Academy of Art College of San Francisco. Launching a freelance career in the early 1980’s, Don quickly discovered he disliked working as a commercial illustrator, and much preferred designing for environmental and theatrical projects. This style of art allowed him to communicate ideas through conceptual drawings, and were not merely selling a product or illustrating an editorial.

Don also had a childhood love for Disneyland later that manifested as a series of beautiful sketches of different areas of the park. These sketches were created for a proposed book to be called “Attention to Detail, A Disneyland Sketchbook”. Although this book was never published the work created for it became the foundation of his portfolio, which led to his being hired as an Imagineer.

Here are some of the sketches from that proposed book, from the top: Adventureland, Treehouse, Fantasyland.

In 1989, Don was hired as a Show Designer for Walt Disney Imagineering and was initially assigned for two weeks to work on the Splash Mountain attraction for the Magic Kingdom in Florida. These few weeks eventually turned into two years, as Don took on the role of lead designer for the project.

During the production of Splash Mountain, Don started work with Imagineer Joe Lanzisero on the beginning phase of what would become Mickey’s Toontown for Disneyland California. Unlike his work on Splash Mountain, Toontown worked with a team of designers, including Hani El Masri, Andrea Favilli, Marcelo Vignali, Maggie Parr, Chuck Ballew, Jim Shull, and Judy Chin. Don became the Senior Show Designer responsible for the Downtown portion of the new land, and eventually participated in the construction phase of the attraction

Below, Don's rendering for a "Critter Elixer Wagon" to be located at the exterior of Splash Mountain.

At the top of this article, the rendering of Don Carson's vision for Mickey's house. Below a picture of the house built in Toon Town. Include with the next Toon Town artwork some photos of the finished Toontown buildings. It is always interesting to see just how close the final land came to those very early concept sketches. Don told me: "That is one thing I really loved about working for WDI, they bend over backwards to make the final product as close to your design as possible".

Below, an early concept for Toontown when it was still under the working title of Mickey Land. As you can see the rolling slope of the street was supposed to go up and down. Considering the problem of accessibility for some guest, the idea was later turned into the flat land you see today.

The rendering below is a Toontown elevation for the island building located in the downtown portion of the land. Some of the buildings designed by Don made it into in the final Disneyland version of the Toontown we know, others not.

Since the buildings in Toontown do not follow traditional right angle construction methods, all concepts needed to be done as both flat elevations and three quarter view sketches. Below are examples of the Barber Shop (not found in the finished land) and the Fireworks Factory. The black and white sketches were used to create construction drawings while color sketches helped communicate the desired final look for the structures.

The next rendering is of the now famous “Roger Rabbit Car Toon Spin” facade.

Although the Toontown Powerhouse facade did make it into the finished land, the elevated track depicted in the concept sketch did not. The original intent for the Roger Rabbit attraction was for it to take place on two stories. As part of the attraction, vehicles would pop out of the Powerhouse facade on a second story and crash and careen through the Glass Factory and Gag Warehouse facades. This second story feature was later cut, but the second story balcony that would have supported these vehicles remains in both the Disneyland and Tokyo parks as you will see in the pictures below.

This last sketch was one of the very first done for the project and depicts a "Piano Movers" truck, which unfortunately did not make it into the park.

Don worked on many other projects for the Disney parks, including these Adventureland themed elements, like this Elephant God, in fact a penny pinching machine - the arms of the elephant god would animate and give the illusion that it was pressing your penny! It was build at Disneyland, Anaheim

Same for this Adventureland truck with an Indiana Jones theming, which was also built.

I love this next one! Don's design for the entrance of a Hook's Tavern at WDW Magic Kingdom, with lamps based on a design that appears in Disneyland's Peter Pan attraction.

In part two of this tribute to Don Carson's artwork, we will have a look at the other projects that Don did participate during his career at WDI. Don't miss it!

All artwork by Don Carson and pictures: copyright Disney - WED enterprises


Matt said...

Oh my god... another incredible article! I love these Imagineering articles - the concept designs, and comparisons with the final product. Great work once again, alain!

And of course, Don, you're work is incredible!

RandySavage said...


Another fantastic piece on a great Imagineer and concept art. This made my day! Thank you.

john321 said...

It's indeed amazing how close some of the sketches are to the real thing.

Also, imagine how difficult it is to build such wicked buildings, since almost anything you do needs some customization. Look at the fireworks factory for example, every brick is a custom brick. Additionally, you probably need a lot of hidden iron and concrete to avoid a collapse.

Matt said...

^ I'd be really surprised if that isn't fiberglass - or at least an easily molded mesh underneath a very thinly constructed curtain wall, to make it look solid. Still, it is cool looking.

For some perspective on this style (for a building that did need to be constructed up to daily working standards, see: Frank Gehry's design for the "Vontz Center for Molecular Studies" in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Mark said...

Just when I think it cannot get better- wow!

Don Carson Creative said...

I can answer the questions regarding how Toontown was built. Since Southern California is earthquake country there were many concerned about the safety of such “non-standard” buildings. To insure they were safe, there are very sturdy right angle steel structures under each facade. The cartoony exteriors were created the same way Disney creates one of their sculpted mountains. A wire mesh cage was constructed over the internal structure and each facade was sculpted in concrete over the top. The same sculptors responsible for the beautiful work done on the trunk of Animal Kingdom's Tree of Life sculpted every brick, clapboard, and windowsill of Toontown. In fact, during construction we ended up having to abandon the architectural drawings that tried their best to depict the compound curves of the toon buildings, and ended up hand bending the mesh to duplicate by eye the detailed scale models, which we brought to the field.

Matt said...

That's amazing. Thanks so much for sharing that with us, Don - I would've loved to have been a part of that construction process!

john321 said...

Indeed, great info!

I can imagine that such kind of buildings must be every building inspectors' nightmare ;).

Compliments to everybody involved, it looks great. The beauty of it is that it looks "cartoonish" but it doesn't look like a bunch of cheap plastic mock-ups you would encounter in some other places ;).

x said...

There is a set of greeting cards or note cards stamped with "The Disney Gallery" on the back, each with a piece concept art for Toontown houses. Do you happen to have any information on why they were printed? Were they a give away? A souvenir sold in a shop? Any infor you may have would be awesome. Love love love this artwork!

Alain Littaye said...

X, I'm sorry i have no infos about these set of greeting cards.