LOS ANGELES — While playing polo on the fields of Southern California in the late 1930s, Mel Shaw met Walt Disney and was soon playing on his team, the Donald Ducks, that took on the president of Mexico’s personal team in 1938 — and won.
“He called me a wild Indian because I was stealing the ball from him all the time," Shaw later said of that first meeting.
But as Shaw told the story, one day Disney handed him a stack of papers and said: “You like to draw animals — read this and see what you can do."
It was the script for “Bambi," and the beginning of Shaw’s long affiliation with Disney as a visual development and design artist. He help set the style for that 1942 animated classic and many others from the studio, including what became “Fantasia" (1940), “The Fox and the Hound" (1982) and his final Disney project, 1994’s “The Lion King."
Shaw, 97, died of congestive heart failure Nov. 22 at Woodland Care Center in Reseda, Calif., said his son, Rick.
“Mel was on a short list of vanguard artists who would jump into a new film when it was still a blank piece of paper and with his stunning work he’d show us all the visual possibilities," Don Hahn, a producer who worked with Shaw on “Beauty and the Beast" and “The Lion King," said in a statement.
Outside of the studio, Shaw was perhaps best known for drawing the title sequence of the 1977 movie “The Rescuers." The animated prologue shows a character placing a plea for help in a bottle and tossing it into the high seas.
“You see these very beautiful pastel drawings, and all of them are Mel’s," said Charles Solomon, an animation critic and historian. “The producer and director of the film looked at his preliminary drawings and said, ‘That’s it, we don’t need anything else.’"
The artist was involved with practically every sequence of “Bambi," he said in “Walt’s People, Vol. 12," a newly published collection of interviews with artists who worked with Disney.