The Best Picture Oscar win for Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water marked a terrific opportunity to shed some light on the woman — yes, woman — behind the inspirational designs for one of the lead protagonists of this film. This fairytale imagining of a girl who meets the creature of her dreams, features an amazonian god in the form of a creature eerily similar to the lead swamp star from Creature From The Black Lagoon! The woman who designed the look and costume for this amphibious matinee marvel was artist and designer, Mildred Rossi...but this wasn't her first monster!
A remarkable talent and a woman ahead of her time, Mildred was raised in the shadow of San Simeon while her father assisted noted architect Julia Morgan on the building of Hearst's legendary Castle. With her keen artistic skills, Mildred trained at Chouinard Art Institute and got her start at the Walt Disney Studios in early 1939. While there, she began working in the studio's renowned Paint Labs and quickly advanced to Special Effects and Color Animation.
Mildred sketching at Walt Disney's Hyperion Studios circa 1939.
Mildred's work is brilliantly showcased all throughout Walt Disney's musical masterpiece, Fantasia — from the abstract Color Animation of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor sequence, to the dramatic lighting effects within Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain. Her first monster, came in the form of the sinister Chernabog. The great Bela Lagosi (Dracula), provided live-action inspiration and reference for the artists, and Vladimir (Bill) Tytla worked with several artists on the animation, but it's Mildred Rossi's stunning Color Animation that gives this movie monster his menacing presence!
Bela Lugosi providing live-action reference for the character Chernabog from Walt Disney's Fantasia (1940).
Mildred's chalk pastel Color Animation on Chernabog from Fantasia (1940).
Working with chalk pastel, Mildred achieved the imposing light effects cast on Chernabog as he coils in repulsion from the light of the tolling bells. Disney Studio's Paint Lab helmer, Mary Weiser and her team of chemists (all women), developed a translucent adhesive solution which was sprayed onto the celluloid so Mildred's chalk pastel artistry could be applied directly to each cel. A separate application was sprayed to each finished cel to keep the delicate chalk pastel work in place as the cels made their way through Final Check and Camera. Animating the color across hundreds of cels, Mildred's monster came to life in a colorful cinematic tour-de-force.
Mildred continued to animate — with pastels and pencils — before departing Disney Studios as a result of the layoffs following the studio strike in the fall of 1941. After years of freelance work, Mildred landed a job designing another monster for a small B-Movie at Universal Studios entitled Creature from the Black Lagoon. Very little remains about the production of the film, but thanks to a number of photographs, records, and dogged research by several colleagues, Mildred has been verified as the creator behind this very creature, which later inspired elements within Spielberg's Jaws and now, del Toro's The Shape of Water. It seems, the man who ran the Universal Special Effects Dept. Bud Westmore, got a little enraged when Mildred started receiving notoriety for her work. Headlines such as: "Beauty Designs the Beast" apparently ruffled his feathers and he claimed responsibility for Mildred's work. She was quickly drummed-out of the studio. She returned to her fine art and sadly, never worked in the film industry again. Re-inventing herself through the years, and after several marriages, Mildred's name changed — Mildred de Rossi, Milicent Patrick and other monickers — and over time, her artistry and contributions were nearly lost.
Mildred (Milicent) working on the designs of 'The Creature' at Universal Studios circa 1953.
Unearthing Mildred's work within Disney Animation led me to Mallory O'Meara whose terrific research into Mildred's life and work filled in the rest of the story on this remarkable artist. You can read more about Mildred's Disney experiences in my book (Ink & Paint — The Women of Walt Disney's Animation) and her overall story will be chronicled in Mallory's forthcoming book — due out in 2019!
The lasting impact of Mildred's work within Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and its influence on The Shape of Water (2017) is undeniable. What other cinematic creatures could have been created, had Mildred been celebrated for her artistry within her time? Sadly, we'll never know, but — we can celebrate the Oscar-worthy legacy of this extraordinary artist!