The other night I found myself watching Walt Disney’s 1951 animated feature “Alice in Wonderland.” Throughout the movie I kept seeing scenes I recognized as the work of Josh Meador.
Meador was born in Greenwood, grew up in Columbus and graduated from Lee High. At Disney, for almost 30 years he supervised effects animation. He was best known for his creative visual effects in Walt Disney productions such as “Bambi,” “Fantasia,” “Cinderella” and “20,000 Leagues under the Sea.” Meador was a sequence director for “Make Mine Music,” which won the 1946 Cannes Film Festival and was co-winner of the 1954 Oscar for special effects for his work on “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”
Meador was considered one of Disney Studio’s most talented artists and has been called one of the five “most notable effects animators in history.” Besides his work for Disney he enjoyed painting landscapes, and his paintings were collected by Disney and Fred MacMurray. (A painting he did for Walt Disney of Disney’s Smoke Tree Ranch that once hung in Disney’s house now hangs in the offices of Visit Columbus.) Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson both had a painting by Meador in the White House.
Meador went to work for Walt Disney in 1936. His talent quickly showed up as evidenced by the spider web in the rainstorm which he animated in the “Old Mill.” His early credit included animation in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” for which he worked on the scene where the witch climbs the mountain during a storm. Disney recognized Meador’s talent, and he quickly advanced in position. In early 1939 Meador was working on “Pinocchio,” creating the ocean effects around the whale. By the end of the year, he was head of the Effects Department.
After “Pinocchio” Meador began working on the preliminary design of a feature to be the story of the Little Mermaid. However, that feature’s production was shelved to concentrate on another feature, “Fantasia.” As work began on that film, Meador as head of the Effects Department supervised more than 100 people working on the new feature.
In the production of “Fantasia,” he played a very active role. Meador served as animation supervisor for the “Rite of Spring” segment, animator for the “Toccata” and “Fugue in D Minor” segments, special animation effects for the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment, and (though unaccredited) he created some of the water effects in the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment and the lightning bolts in the “Pastoral Symphony.” He was most proud of the bubbling volcanic mud sequence produced for the “Rite of Spring.” To develop the proper effect he ran air through a mixture of mud and coffee and then drew it as it bubbled.
Meador’s creativity in designing animation effects such as the bubbling mud sometimes took strange but effective turns. Josh’s son Phil once told me a story about how one day his father came home with a bottle of bubble solution with a plastic wand. He handed it to his wife and asked her to get on her hands and knees and crawl around on the floor blowing bubbles so he could draw her picture as she crawled around. I asked Phil if she did that and he said yes. As she was on the floor blowing bubbles Josh drew her image and the appearance of her reflection in the bubbles. Phil said his mother knew it had something to do with creating an animation effect and didn’t mind doing it. It did have something to do with an animation effect. Josh’s image of his wife and her reflection in the bubbles she was blowing became the iconic image of Cinderella scrubbing the floor with her image reflected in the bubbles surrounding her.
In 1942 Disney released the animated feature, “Bambi.” As one of the movie’s animators Josh was justly proud of his water effects in the storm scene and his fire effects in the forest fire. In “Song of the South” and in “Darby O’Gill and the Little People,” he perfected merging animation and live action. His handy work is seen throughout Cinderella including the bubbles and the magical pumpkin carriage, and in the water scenes of Disney’s 1951 animated “Alice in Wonderland.” In “Sleeping Beauty” and “Peter Pan,” Meador created the fairy dust. He also created the slashing Z for Zorro.
In 1954, MGM Studios contacted Walt Disney and asked him to lend them his “best effects man” to help with the special effects in a ground-breaking soon to be made science fiction movie, “Forbidden Planet.” The movie would combine animation with live action. Disney sent Meador. Meador created the animated “Id creature” for the movie, a creature considered so frightening at the time that in some states its image was edited out of the film. That movie and its special effects inspired later science fiction from the Star Trek series to the movies of Spielberg.
In 2016 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the Oscar people) celebrated the innovative special effects and technology of “Forbidden Planet.” There was a program that focused on “the film’s breakthrough effects sequences” including how Joshua Meador “created his animated Id monster effect” and “combined it with live-action photography.” It is no wonder that Josh Meador is considered one of the most significant effects animators in the history of animation.
I once asked Dave Smith, the archivist for Disney Studios, why Meador was not better known. He replied, “Josh Meador was not who drew Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck and that’s what people remember. What Josh did was make them come alive on the screen.” Josh Meador brought life to so many films that are still loved today.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at email@example.com.
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