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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 11, 2002

Roosevelt grad coloring world of Disney

By Rod Ohira
Advertiser Staff Writer

Aside from his family and close friends from Roosevelt's 1956 graduating class, few people in Hawai'i know that Ron Dias designed a U.S. postage stamp while still in high school and has gone on to become a successful animation artist and illustrator in Hollywood.

Ron Dias' self-portrait reflects the work he did on Disney's "The Little Mermaid."
A resident of Big Sur on California's Monterey Peninsula, Dias was in Hawai'i recently for the local premiere of painter/muralist Wyland's collaboration series featuring Disney's Little Mermaid.

The collaboration called for Dias to paint specific poses of the Little Mermaid, Ariel, and her friends into six underwater scenes Wyland had already painted on canvas. While here, he visited with some high school classmates and Dias-Hanohano family members.

Dias, who celebrates his 65th birthday Friday, is a color stylist whose notable achievements in films over the past 45 years include producing background sets for "The Secret of Nimh," "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and "The Little Mermaid." He has worked for nearly all the major animation studios — primarily Walt Disney Productions but also Hanna-Barbera, Don Bluth, Warner Bros., DePatie-Freleng Enterprises and Bakshi, which produced the 1977 animated version of Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings."

In addition, Dias has been illustrating Disney classic characters such as Bambi, Dumbo, Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, the 101 Dalmatians, Little Mermaid and Peter Pan for the hardcover Golden Books since 1961.

He did the 1987 cover and pullout poster for the 50th anniversary edition of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." One of his "Beauty and the Beast" cover illustrations sold for $44,000 at an October 1992 auction to benefit the fight against AIDS.

"I was 6 years old when I saw 'Snow White' at the old Kuhio Theater," Dias recalled. "I couldn't believe they could make drawings move. But I knew that someday I wanted to work at Disney.

"From a young age, I was entranced by Disney characters. Through my high school years, I wrote to the studio. Every letter I wrote to Disney was answered."

Dias, whose family moved from 'Alewa Heights to Kailua in 1952, said his parents encouraged his pursuit of art. "As long as I kept my room neat, they let me paint the walls," he said. "At first it was all black with stars. Later, I painted it blue with clouds.

Animator Ron Dias' work has appeared on television, in commercials and in films. His favorite project is "The Secret of NIMH."

Photo courtesy of Ron Dias

"I had a train set, and I turned the tunnel into a mine for the Seven Dwarfs. I'd have to say my childhood and high school years were not normal."

While attending Roosevelt, which was then an English-standard public school, Dias started taking lessons at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. He later took an illustration correspondence course from the Famous Artists School in Westport, Conn.

"I was only interested in art, drama, band and choir at school, so I wasn't a very good student," he said.

Dias embraced a senior year art project to create a "children's friendship" postage stamp for a national contest. Notification that he had won came after graduation.

"The theme came instantly, and I had a pencil sketch done in three weeks," said Dias, whose slogan was "Friendship — the Key to World Peace." The 3-cent stamp, which was issued in 1957, featured children of the world looking at a key.

President Eisenhower and his wife honored Dias at the White House for his winning design.

"Mamie Eisenhower was the most incredible soul," Dias said. "She took me aside (after the ceremony) and asked if I would be interested in seeing their private gallery. Later on, I received a leather-bound folder in the mail with my stamp inside. There was also a note on White House stationery and a copy of the news article. I was so impressed that our first lady took the time to do this."

When he completed the "Sleeping Beauty" project, Dias knew that "I didn't want to spend the rest of my life with a graphite pencil in my hand." He turned his attention to scenic and background art. "A color stylist creates feeling and mood for a film," he said. "I love doing this."

The frenetic cartoon world of Toontown in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and serene undersea world of "The Little Mermaid" are two examples of Dias' background work. He also painted background scenes, generally on boards 50 feet high and 300 feet long, for non-animated movies like "Pal Joey," "Journey to the Center of the Earth," and "Cleopatra."

The Golden Book series is a job he enjoys. "Illustrating Disney books has been a big part of my life since 1961," he said.

Dias is able to do the voices of many Disney cartoon characters as well as Mr. Magoo. "The background department at the studio is always located near the editing department," Dias said. "So when I'm working, I have to live, sleep and eat hearing the voices."

Dias, who developed a stutter when he watched the attack on Pearl Harbor as a young child from the porch of his 'Alewa home, no longer stutters. "I do it with a mind search, replacing the word I know I'm going to stutter on with another word," he said. "It's at a point where I do it automatically now."

Information about Dias can be found on his Web site. He can be reached at (831) 625-6499.

Reach Rod Ohira at 535-8181 or rohira@honoluluadvertiser.com.