Can You See Me at the Back? A Post About Backgrounds

The inspiration for this particular post came to me just the other day when I was out walking with a friend. We came to a long twist of road in front of us leading into the woods and I was suddenly struck with deja vu and I asked what about that image was so familiar. My friend, much to their credit, instantly recognised that the setting before us looked almost identical to the image of the terrifying woods from beauty and the beast and that was what had stuck in my mind for all of these years.

Not exactly the shot I encountered, but the right setting


As well as the instantly recognisable characters, the very background itself went into making up so much of the atmosphere of that film scene by scene. I went and did some research into it and came across a lot of artists who had a similar passion for the background art of animation. If you want to test your eye for noticing the unnoticed then allow me to play the following game. Here are several very famous backgrounds in a variety of classic styles, see if you can tell what they are from without any of the characters, if you mouse over, I’ll put the answers in the alt-text, but if you need a big clue you can read my descriptions:

Winne The Pooh

This is a very recognisable image for me and it is wonderfully enjoyable to spend some time picking apart all of the little adornments that make this image as rich as it is. All of the small toys and games in the foreground and the background make a really nice path for the characters to walk down as all around them is the idea of innocent play and adventure. The tree at the top and the branch coming down are particularly iconic for this cartoon, but it is strange because before today, if anyone had asked me what one of the most memorable elements of this cartoon was, I would never have realised it could easily be the style of the trees.


This was not the most obvious image I could have chosen for this animation, but I thought it said more about the style than some of the more stereotypical shots. These are simply meant to be bushes and trees, but the swirling pattern gives and effect of “greekness”, no doubt inspired by art and patterns used from genuine ancient art. It is fascinating to me that this sticks into the mind and creates a really believable world for the characters to live in, rather than just sticking in a bunch of statues, the landscape itself follows the same rules of the style.

Alice in Wonderland

This is one of many images that I could have chosen from this film that comes with that psychedelic quality given to everyday objects. The relevant points here are to do with the sizing of the objects within the image, that large towering chair stretches right out of shot, in fact it is enjoyable to see the character that is missing from this image, his relative size to the chair adds a certain charm. I also love the uneven floor that swoops upwards, adding brilliantly to the dream-like image.

Peter Pan

Some very interesting things are done with lighting in this image; the large open window as the door into a new world of possibility and the dingy play-room. I won’t say much more about it, but as a film with so many varied set pieces (hint:piarates), something about the play-room always stuck in my mind as a child – I think it has something to do with that carpet, it seems almost rich enough to feel.

The Lion King

This is something that struck me as very striking for an iconic image in this film. As I looked at it I suddenly thought about the artists that designed it, tasked with drawing barren rocks, they managed to create a style for the setting that is incredibly unique (I’m not suggesting that’s all the creative direction they were given, but I don’t know maybe it was).

I found this particularly dive into the world of backgrounds incredibly interesting and it really can teach us a lot about the importance of some well designed settings in animation or cartooning as a whole. All to often it seems artists will spend years and years honing their style until they have the perfect face and character that they want, then the background itself will be a single line, or some basic set-pieces.

For many many many more of these brilliant backgrounds, head over to this blog (where I borrowed these images from) by Rob Richards. It has sadly stopped updating, but it has an archive of beautiful backgrounds from almost any major animated feature you care to mention, all with the characters themselves skilfully removed with digital rendering.