November 19, 2021 posted by Jim Korkis

How Sherri Stoner Became “The Little Mermaid”

Suspended Animation #346

Disney animation has always used live action reference. Ham Luske’s wife, Frankie, modeled for Persephone in the Silly Symphony, Goddess of Spring (1934). Animator Les Clark used his sister Marceil, an ink and paint artist for the studio, as a model for the animation of Persephone as well.

Ariel the Little Mermaid – and Sherri Stoner

Actress Helene Stanley was not only the wife of Davy Crockett in the Disney live action films but performed live action reference for Cinderella, Princess Aurora from Sleeping Beauty (1959), and Anita in 101 Dalmatians (1961).

Live action reference is different from rotoscoping. Rotoscoping is the slavish tracing frame-for-frame of live action filming as in Fleischer’s Gulliver’s Travels (1939). Writer Cal Howard served as the live-action model for Prince David. He recalled that he had to have padding on his legs because they were so skinny.

Disney used live action reference to check timing, perspective and movement of the characters before animating it to save time and money as well as mimic realistic movement and determining how clothes moved on a body.

Ariel’s character animator Glen Keane told the Imagineers who were making the Disney theme park dark ride based on The Little Mermaid (1989) that Ariel’s hair should be treated as a separate character.

To animate the look and behavior of hair underwater, the animators relied on footage of astronaut Sally Ride in weightless conditions, studying how it behaved to realistically animate Ariel’s hair.

Henn said, “Ariel’s hair almost did us in. It’s very long and thick and it could move anywhere, anytime. Gravity doesn’t apply underwater…and salt water is not the same as fresh water.”

To help solve that challenge and others, Disney brought in a live-action reference model, writer and performer Sherri Stoner.

Sherri Stoner was born on July 16, 1959 in Santa Monica, California.

Stoner recalled, “I watched all the Saturday morning cartoons growing up. All the Hanna-Barbera stuff was pretty goofy, and a lot of it was there just to sell cereal. In terms of cartoons, I loved, loved, loved everything Warner Brothers and those were on Saturday mornings, too.”

She was performing as part of the famous Los Angeles improvisational comedy troupe The Groundlings.

Stoner remembered, “They had us out there at the Disney Studio to teach improvisation to the animators, and I was spotted by (co-directors) John (Musker) and Ron (Clements). They were looking for somebody petite to do the Ariel thing. They thought of me, and I came in to audition.

“First of all, when I read the script, I thought it was really good, and I thought the script was really funny. I hadn’t read many scripts up to that point, but I thought it was really good. I thought it would be a neat little trivia thing that only I would know about, and maybe my future kids would know about, right? I love Disney movies, and I thought it was super-cool. I was really happy to do it.”

She considered it merely a side gig that would be fun and earn a little extra money as she pursued a career performing in television in roles on several high profile television shows. Premiere magazine November 1991 stated that at the time of filming, Stoner was “five foot two tall, twenty-nine years old, weighed 92 pounds and had brown hair”. The Disney animators printed every sixth frame of film to study as she mimed to a pre-recorded soundtrack on a bare stage set surrounded by a grid.

Stoner performed many of Ariel’s scenes underwater over three days. The first two days were in the Glendale, California YMCA swimming pool and the third day was in an eight foot deep clear test tank at Walt Disney Imagineering.

Keane said, “Automatically – and I mean this in a complimentary way – Sherri’s face is very cartoony. She has cartoony timing. Her eyes – she has very big eyes – are more than just eyes. Her expressive hands and fingers go at awkward angles. Her hands are even more emotional than her eyes.

“The characters are real to us and Sherri takes the attitude that they’re real to her too. She doesn’t hold back anything. In animation, everything you do is based on real life. Studying models really gives you the edge because your character is then based in reality–something that really moved and existed.”

Henn credits Stoner with inspiring some of Ariel’s facial expressions as well. “She was able to bring to the character a unique and believable spark which we may not have thought of otherwise. Little things like the way she bites her lip were incorporated into Ariel’s personality and helped bring the character alive.”

However that lip biting was a disadvantage when she did live action reference for Belle and had to be reminded that was not in Belle’s character.

Stoner said, “When I do the stuff that ends up pleasing them the most, it has an emotional truth to it. They don’t just want somebody to move their arm; they want the arm to move because you’ve touched something inside. They were interested in seeing the nuances of how a young girl might move.

“I was filmed two days a week for about a year and a half and was paid $500 per session. They had a grid behind me and a makeshift set. The animator already knows the character’s personality, so I’m not there to define the character in any way.

“I provide little quirks and idiosyncrasies, personality traits that will add to the character. I think my petite size and long hair helped land me the job. When I watch the film, I can definitely see myself behind the character and friends say they can readily spot my smile and hand gestures.”

Keane stated, “We looked for an attitude, a tilt of her head or a hand movement and how she formed her mouth for the words of dialog and song. Animators tend to draw their own hands and mine have too much muscle on them. Hers had an interesting tendency of folding in on themselves at odd angles. Sherri has a very sprightly, gangly quality about her and I tried to capture that.”

Stoner stated, “She’s 16, and isn’t that what 16-year-olds do? They make impulsive decisions, especially when love is involved. It’s not like she’s this fully-formed woman who is going to make completely reasoned choices.

“With that being said, on the other side of things, doesn’t every woman have a chance to decide for herself what she wants from life? That’s why I don’t judge too harshly, because too often, I think, as a woman you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, no matter what you do. We’re constantly told what is appropriate for us lifestyle-wise, and I think it’s time we be allowed to choose for ourselves and not be judged.”

Stoner later went on to become a writer and producer for such 1990s animated shows as Tiny Toon Adventures (1990) and Animaniacs (1993). She created and voiced the character of Slappy Squirrel, a grumpy retired cartoon squirrel.

She co-wrote with Deanna Oliver Universal’s feature Casper (1995) and was on the writing staff and producer on The Spooktacular New Adventures of Casper (1997). Stoner and Oliver wrote the Disney live action film, My Favorite Martian (1999). She worked with Tom Ruegger as story editor on Disney’s animated series The 7D (2014).


  • Back in the ’90s, when commercials for phone sex hotlines aired endlessly on late night TV, it was a cliché that the women who staffed them were all elderly, overweight or repulsive. So I probably shouldn’t have been surprised to discover, around the time the Casper movie came out, that the actress who voiced crotchety old Slappy Squirrel was really a very beautiful young woman. But I was.

    Sherri Stoner has written a lot of great cartoons. I was a big fan of Tiny Toons and Animaniacs back in the day, and not too long ago I discovered the Spooktacular New Adventures of Casper, which I find much more enjoyable than any of the friendly ghost’s original cartoons. The 1990s pop-cultural references are pretty dated now, but they’re still funny.

    Who did the live action reference for Ursula?

    • I believe it was Pat Carroll, who played Bunny Halper on the Danny Thomas Show (a/k/a Make Room For Daddy).

      • Well, yes, Pat Carroll was the voice of Ursula, but I thought they might have gotten someone of more substantial build for live action reference.

        • I don’t think there was a live-action reference for Ursula. Her design was based on Divine, with a pinch of Norma Desmond.

  • She. Is. Adorable.

  • A black draw the first Ariel, look it up

    • “A black draw the first Ariel, look it up”

      That’s a rather cryptic message . He has a name: Dan Haskett. Dan is a brilliant character designer and animator. So, yes, Dan did major work on designing Ariel (although the final character model of Ariel was finalized by a combination of Glen Keane, Mark Henn, and lead Key Clean-up artist Philo Barnhart.

  • I recently read that animator Glen Keane has a condition called aphantasia, which is the inability to form visual images in the mind (sometimes called a “blind mind’s eye”). The word was coined in 2015 by a neurologist at the University of Exeter medical school, and it has received a great deal of attention since. Keane, an Oscar-winning artist, is mentioned in nearly every online article about aphantasia.

    Obviously this is no impediment to success in the visual arts; Ed Catmull, former president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, is also aphantasic. But it explains why Keane relied on such elaborately staged live action reference while animating the Little Mermaid, and it’s also an intriguing example of how the creative process is stimulated in different individuals.

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