A Transformative Trailblazer
Today marks the birthday of one of the most unsung artists within animation. Walt Disney's vision of feature-length animated storytelling was realized thanks to the guided talents of hundreds of unsung artists, and within those at the top of that list stands the remarkable Hazel Sewell.
The oldest of 10 children in the Bounds family of Lapwai, Idaho, Hazel married Glenn Sewell and moved with their young daughter to Los Angeles, California. Living near the Robert Disney family in the Los Feliz area, Hazel came to know Robert's nephews Walt & Roy, who were just starting the first animation studio on the West Coast.
Hazel's presence would have a lasting impact on this burgeoning studio, as well as on the young studio head, and ultimately on the overall industry of animation. After linking the Disney brothers with their first few employees (including Hazel's youngest sibling, Lillian, who later became Walt's wife), Hazel soon began working within the medium of animation.
Hazel and Glenn Sewell
Under her guidance, the animated art form transformed from basic, crude 'blackening' to the full color fine artistry of Inking and Painting. Within the span of 10 years, animation was elevated to an entirely new level of storytelling and artistry. Mickey and Minnie Mouse first appeared on screen in black, white and three or four shades of grey. Under Hazel Sewell, the animated artform evolved into a full palette of over 1500 shades of color to convey the illustrious Rembrandt-esque artistry of The Old Mill, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs ! Hazel's impact is frequently cited throughout the production/story meeting notes, as briefly exemplified: "Hazel likes older, darker colors on all (dwarfs)."
One of only two women acknowledged within the production credits for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Hazel was a true trailblazer. She broke ground for women within industry by hiring only women within her Ink & Paint domain due to their mastery of this detailed artistry and to create a safe realm for women in industry. Hazel established the specializations of each of the Inking and Painting roles and developed the first training programs for these departments to advance the overall artistry. She established the first paint lab creating paint exclusively for cel animation, and art directed the first feature length animated film along with numerous shorts at the Walt Disney Studios.
Hazel (far left) and her husband Bill Cottrell, with Walt and El Grupo in South America!
Leaving Disney Studios in May of 1938, Hazel remained a strong presence within her brother-in-law's studio with her marriage to Disney story man, Bill Cottrell. A true trailblazer, Hazel is finally starting to get well-deserved recognition for her work and contributions! It's been a joy to cast a light on this remarkable woman whose contributions were sadly overlooked. You'll be able to learn more about her in my forthcoming young-readers book — Pencils, Pens & Brushes: A Great Girls' Guide to Disney Animation, when it releases August 13th. The next time you marvel at early Disney animation, and especially the artistry of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, remember the remarkable Hazel Sewell!