An Interview with artist Julie Svendsen

Where the original Haunted Mansion relied in large parts on the concept art of Marc Davis and Rolly Crump, Phantom Manor had Fernando Tenedora... and Julie Svendsen. Most noted for creating the new eerie “stretching” paintings, in 2003 the daughter of long-time Disney animator Julius Svendsen gave us the chance to talk to her about her connection with Disney, Phantom Manor and her other projects.

What was your introduction to the world of Disney theme parks?

I have grown up with Disney. I’m what is called here a “Disney brat”. My parents met on the Disney Studio lot. They were both working there in the late 40’s. My father was an animator who was hired by Disney while he was still attending Pratt Institute in New York. My mom worked at the studio as a tour guide at that time. She returned to work for Disney years later after raising 4 children. Upon her return, she worked at the newly created Disney Archives.

Do you remember some projects your father worked on as an animator?

Oh yes, he started with the animated features “Fantasia”, and “Dumbo”, when he was hired at the studio after attending art school. He left the studio during World War 2, then returned to work on “Cinderella”, “Peter Pan”, “Alice in Wonderland”, “Lady and the Tramp”, “Jungle Book”, “101 Dalmatians”, “The Sword and the Stone”, “Bedknobs and Broomsticks”, “Robin Hood”, “The Aristocats”, the animated sequences in “Mary Poppins”, plus “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day”.

He (posthumously) and my mom, apart from Disney, also wrote and illustrated a children’s book entitled, HULDA, published by Houghton-Mifflin in 1974. These days, my mom is searching for a publisher for their second book, OLAF, which will probably be illustrated by my friend and me.

How did you get started at Walt Disney Imagineering?

I started working for the then-named WED (Walter Elias Disney) Enterprises in 1970 as a member of the clerical staff. I thank my father and mother for getting me that job. In 1974, after working in such a highly creative atmosphere at WED, I was inspired by many artists there and felt my own creative juices stirring, quit my job and began attending art school. I graduated from Art Center College of Design in 1980 with a BFA in Illustration. I was immediately hired by Walt Disney Imagineering as a show designer. One of the first projects I worked on was the design of New Fantasyland at Disneyland.

I hear that was a really successful overhaul. If I remember correctly, Tony Baxter was in charge of this?

Tony eventually became the person in charge. If I recall correctly, Raellen Lescault, a former Disneyland Ambassador who subsequently was hired at WED Enterprises as a show set designer, started the effort to transform Fantasyland, along with Rolly Crump. Yes, it was truly a successful overhaul.

When and how did you get involved with the Phantom Manor project?

Phantom Manor came along in the late eighties. I had been doing a lot of design work for the Typhoon Lagoon waterpark and Wonders of Life pavilion for EPCOT. But EuroDisneyland was gathering momentum and needed more and more designers. Jeff [Burke, Show Producer for Frontierland] and I were good friends and he asked for my help with some parts of the attraction. I think we started with a couple of illustrations - one showing the “front yard” area of Phantom Manor and one showing the dramatic interior staircase.

The staircase is often praised, I hear from a lot of people who would love to see it at the Disneyland Mansion. Would you agree that certain elements from Phantom Manor could be used to expand on the original attraction?

Unless I’m mistaken, and Jeff would be the best person to determine this, there was such a different way of thinking for Phantom Manor. Previous Haunted Mansions were emphasizing the artistry and comic genius of Marc Davis and his team of Imagineers while Jeff’s Phantom Manor was conceived as a story that was told during the ride with the Disneyland Mansion’s wonderful gags and illusions along the way.

How did you prepare for the work on Phantom Manor? Did you look at the artwork that Marc Davis, Rolly Crump and other artists did for the Haunted Mansion?

Yes, the work of Marc Davis, Rolly Crump, Wathel Rogers, Yale Gracey, Elmer Plummer and many of the Haunted Mansion artists and effects-makers were referenced and adapted for Phantom Manor. But, Phantom Manor was a different vision deliberately. Jeff Burke wanted to make something that celebrated the work of the prior artists but also told a different story. Part of the change in the story was a factor of the western influence in Frontierland as opposed to the New Orleans locale of Haunted Mansion.

What do you think was your biggest contribution to the show?

I was privileged to be able to add my work for Phantom Manor as part of a wonderful team of artists, designers, writers and special effects wizards. Working with Jeff and the team was a dream assignment and we all felt like we were doing great work.

Just how big is the temptation for you to include little in-jokes like Hidden Mickeys?

I’ve never understood the impulse to add hidden Mickeys to project artwork. I have understood the urge to hide signatures on artwork. I have done that just to be able to prove that I’ve created something by pointing out my signature in the bushes or trees of an illustration.

Who do you count as the biggest influence to your artwork?

The major influence on my work would be my dad - I am blessed with his DNA. And, I was fortunate to have known and worked with Disney artists Marc Davis, Al Bertino, Collin Campbell, Jack Ferges, Claude Coats, John Hench, Paul Hartley, Walt Peregoy, and many others too numerous to name. Some of my teachers at Art Center were and still are huge talents - Jack Leynnwood, Joe Henninger to name two.

Were there any projects you liked working on the most, or where you were happiest with the end results?

I would have to say that the projects which gave me the most personal satisfaction were the waterparks Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach, and I liked some of the work I did for the Disney stores. I very much enjoyed the wonderful teams on these jobs. Some of the camaraderie was delightful while working on Disneyland Paris - especially that on the team that Jeff Burke pulled together for Frontierland.

From Blizzard Beach, I remember seeing the illustration of a waterpark in a snow globe that I believe was credited to you. I imagine that it must have been fun exploring the contrasts between a water park and a ski resort?

The original concept for Blizzard Beach was born in the brain of Imagineer Marshall Monroe, a mechanical engineer working in special effects, in 1992. He showed up one morning at a brainstorming session with the idea for a waterpark based on winter sports after having spent the previous evening watching the winter Olympics in his hotel room. The idea took off like an avalanche. That was a very exciting project to watch come to fruition.

Back to Phantom Manor for a bit: which aspect of the work on this project did you like best?

Looking back on the work for Phantom Manor, I think the part I enjoyed the most was working on the portraits of the bride and the stretch paintings. Those were really fun and challenging.

Did you get to see the finished attraction?

I saw the finished attraction while vacationing in Paris in 1998.

What did you think of the park? I often hear people say it’s the most beautiful of the Magic Kingdoms.

I especially love Eddie Sotto’s Main Street at Disneyland Paris - it is stupendous. That whole park is beautifully done. I don’t know about most beautiful because each park has its own beauty. Disneyland, California is the first, and in my opinion, the most wonderful and charming. The Magic Kingdom in Florida is huge and beautiful with breathtaking aspects. I’m sorry I haven’t had the pleasure of visiting Tokyo Disneyland.

Finally — can you tell us what you’re currently working on?

I’m currently working with another artist on my first graphic novel - a marathon job that will occupy my time for most of this year. It is an art form that I have a newfound respect for.

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