Albert Hurter was the first-ever inspirational sketch artist to work at Walt Disney Productions. He is most famous for his significant contribution to the visual styles of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio. His sketches were known to reflect a morbid sense of humor.
Early Life and Education (1883-1912)
Hurter was born in Zurich, Switzerland, on May 11, 1883, nine months after the marriage of his parents, thirty-year-old Swiss mechanic Albert Hurter (senior), and twenty three-year-old German Maria Schmid. His first brother, Hugo Hurter, was born in 1884. The family lived in Kreis 5, the working-class ara of Zurich, until 1889 when they moved to the more peaceful Unterstrass; here, another brother, Ernst Hurter, was born, in 1890. Albert Hurter senior became a teacher of drawing for mechanical engineering, and the family eventually settled in a house in Gallusgasse, an alley street in Gallusgasse. During his childhood, Hurter collected stamps. His father's profession stimulated Hurter's interest in art, and he studied architecture in Zurich. During this time he was diagnosed with rheumatic heart disease - this often resulted in anti-social behavior, relapses and periods of illness. As a result, he took up the solitary hobby of stamp collecting, and drew constantly, often depicting morbid or grotesque subjects. In 1903 he moved to Berlin to study art for seven years. In 1910 Hurter returned home, to find that his father was ill. Records indicate that he moved to either America or Paris (it is unknown which) in 1912, and his father died at age 60.
Barre-Bower Animation Studio (1916-1918)
It is unknown what Hurter did, or whether he was in America or Paris, between 1912 and 1916; it is known that, by 1916, Hurter had moved to New York, and was working at the Barre-Bower studio, the first studio to produce a definite series of animated shorts. Barre-Bowers was producing shorts featuring Bud Fisher's Mutt & Jeff at the time. Hurter's accuracy, methodical manner (perhaps a result of not wishing to strain his fragile heart unnecessarily) and knowledge of art impressed his colleagues and he was considered the studio's best animator, and its only artist. However, after designing and animating a sequence in which Mutt & Jeff behead dummy figures (planted by the German Kaiser) representing President Wilson Clemenceau and others, Hurter was teased by his colleagues, who suggested that the sketch represented the views of the immigrant artist, perhaps due to Hurter's accent. This visibly upset him and may have prompted him to leave the studio in 1918.
Following his departure from the Barre-Bower studio, Hurter lived in one-room in a hotel, and wore clothes that he patched and mended more and more in order not to have to buy new ones, though he was always very clean and neatly dressed. During this period he earned money by designing direct mail ads for a printing company. While he earned little enough to be able to carry all his cash in his left shoe (he did not trust his neighbors), Hurter actually owned a valuable and extensive stamp collection. Leter, during the Depression, Hurter would continue to pursue his hobby of collecting stamps, and would be knowledgeable enough about the subject to obtain many rare and considerably valuable specimens for his collection.
Confident that he would be employed by Disney (and having just won several thousand dollars in the Chinese Lottery), Hurter was employed by Disney as an animator; at age 48, he seemed to his new colleagues (most of whom were in their twenties) to be an old man. However, Hurter was not skilled in personality animation, which was what Walt Disney was interested in. Hurter may have been made an inbetweener or a special effects animator had Walt Disney not seen Hurter's drawings, which indicated the artist's skills in humorous exaggeration and the humanizing of objects. Realizing Hurter's potential as a source of ideas, Disney employed the artist to come to the studio every day and fill sheet after sheet with drawings to inspire his other artists. Hurter had always smoked constantly, and his colleagues never saw him without a cigar in his hand.
Many of Hurter's ideas were too gruesome to be used; one sketch depicts a huge dog whose upper and lower jaw turn into another, smaller, dog, while another depicts a baby eating its own head. Sheets of paper he had drawn on were characterized by a series of nervous sketches surrounding the main drawing, often apparently completely unrelated. Among the animated shorts he had particular influence on are Babes in the Woods, Building a Building, The Three Little Pigs, The Goddess of Spring, Water Babies, and Music Land.
In putting his years of art training to use, he brought to Disney animation the more realistic, European illustration-like style that would characterize the studio's earlier features. His character designs for The Goddess of Spring follow human anatomy rather than the more conventional "rubber hose and circle" style of animation. This style was arguably instrumental to the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; where Disney artists had initially designed characters in the manner of the Silly Symphonies, it was decided that designs of a more realistic nature were needed for the main characters to carry the story and keep the audience engaged. Disney made Hurter the authority on the 'look' of Snow White: all designs had to be approved of by Hurter, from character designs to rock formations. One of Hurter's sketches for the film depicted the radiant Snow White, now in the Sleeping Death, surrounded by the Seven Dwarfs, all them sobbing; this inspired the mourning scene in the film, which famously made many celebrities at the premiere of the film break into tears. Inspirational sketch artists Gustaf Tenggren and Ferdinand Horvath helped Hurter bring the style of European Illustration to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Hurter held similar authority during production of Pinocchio, and looked to Attilio Mussino's illustrations of the 1911 edition of the story, designing Pinocchio as a rather homely wooden puppet; the titular character was later made more rounded and boyish, according to a design by Milt Kahl. Hurter's ideas, many of them inspired by Heinrich Kley, led to sequences in Fantasia, including Night on Bald Mountain's Chernabog (inspired by Kley's drawings of gigantic devils), the dancing hippos, elephants and alligators which featured in Dance of the Hours, and the mythical creatures of the Pastoral Symphony. He designed the atmosphere and props for Dumbo and contributed ideas for The Reluctant Dragon. Hurter also worked on ideas for films whose production would begin long after his death, including Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp.
Hurter died from rheumatic heart disease on March 28, 1942 - his addiction to smoking may have contributed to his death. He was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery. In 1949, over 700 of his drawings were compiled in a book by Ted Sears called "He Drew As He Pleased - A Sketchbook by Albert Hurter", with a brief tribute from Walt Disney.