The Cinderella Year

I was just a starry-eyed little kid when I clipped this full page movie ad out of a Hollywood fanzine many years ago. It may not seem like such a big deal now, but it certainly was for this inspired kid. You see, the Walt Disney Studio had not made a feature film in years. The studio had been crippled by a World War and a divisive labor action that weighed heavily on the animation company. In a way, the war kept the studio alive during these troubled times. In spite of the challenges, Walt Disney managed to keep his company going by doing whatever he could to bring animated product to the marketplace. As always, the Disney artists continued to do stellar work although they didn’t always have that much to do. The Disney Studio had to get by producing a series of feature length anthologies and films that could utilize a good portion of live-action. Because of the cost, a feature length animated film was out of the question.

I doubt I’ll ever forget this particular year. Suddenly, it was 1950 and this delinquent kid ditched school to head for the Granada theater in downtown Santa Barbara where I was able to view the Disney masterpiece, “Cinderella” several times. The inspired animation and unforgettable music was a delight and Walt Disney’s artists were at their best. However, the color and styling by Mary Blair and Claude Coates knocked my socks off. I still remember sitting in the theater transfixed by what I saw on the big screen. Did I imagine being a Disney artist one day, and working at that glorious animation studio? My goodness, I could taste it! I left the Granada Theater with pixie dust in my eyes. There was no way I was going to do anything else with my life. “Cinderella” was a big deal for the Walt Disney Studio as well. After slogging through the war years, the animated feature film, “Cinderella” was Walt’s comeback. It proved the Walt Disney Studio had lost none of the magic that propelled the enterprise through the late thirties and early forties. With the beginning of a new decade, the Disney publicity machine announced 1950 as the “Cinderella Year.” Of course, the year was indeed magical as movie audiences flocked to the theaters once again to see what the amazing Disney artists could deliver.

I spoke about “Cinderella’s” inspired style early this morning with a Disney art director. The artist was working on a reboot of the Disney “Cinderella” storybooks and the masterful styling of Mary Blair and Claude Coates informs everything that is being done in the new “Cinderella” iteration. Every frame of the Disney motion picture was studied in an effort to recreate the art styling that remains fresh even though the film saw its completion decades ago. It’s 2015, and today’s digital technology continues to dazzle audiences with all the amazing images computers can put onscreen. However, the old fashioned hand drawn and hand painted imagery of Walt Disney’s “Cinderella” has a unique, magical sensibility and I honestly don’t think anything being done today even comes close.

I was still a kid in school but 1950 was the Cinderella Year.

I was still a kid in school but 1950 was the Cinderella Year.

The Force Awakens

Comedian George Carlin voices the VW bus named Fillmore and you'll find him in the Pixar Animation Studios film, "Cars." Like most hippie buses of the era, the vehicle is festooned with stickers of every sort. Every imaginable slogan supporting causes ranging from the environment to peace is plastered on the hippie van. However, if you look closely at the rear of the vehicle you'll find a most unlikely message. It’s a sticker which reads, "Save 2D Animation."

As might be expected, the Pixar filmmakers have always included inside jokes tucked away in their movies. Everything from book titles, street signs and names of restaurants has been fair game. It's a long-standing tradition of course. Even the early Disney cartoons featured caricatures of the animators and on occasion even the names of studio employees were to be heard on the soundtrack. However, the bumper sticker on Fillmore is a joke of a more serious nature. Sure, it's appropriate for the Hippie van to be a cheerleader of "Old School animation" but the humor in this case goes a little deeper. Does Fillmore have a legitimate cause? Does 2D animation really need saving? Let's go back a few years and see how this whole thing began. The year was 1994, and I sat in an editorial bay at the Walt Disney studio watching the story reels of a new film in development. I was up to date on all the productions being done in house so this particular film had to be the work of an outside contractor. At the time, Disney animation was going full tilt producing hit after hit. It seemed no one in town could compete with the Disney powerhouse, creative team. Yet, here was a movie being done outside of the company that was in my opinion every bit as good as anything the mouse was doing. Dare I say, perhaps better than some of Disney's recent offerings? The rough story sketches gave no clue to the production's intended medium. For all intents and purposes this was another traditionally animated film. No different than any of the other movies in production. It wasn't until a few weeks later that I discovered I had been viewing reels of Pixar Animation Studios’ first digitally animated feature film, "Toy Story."

You're all well aware of the rest of the story. "Toy Story" was released in the fall of 1995 and went on to become a box office smash. Impressed by what I had seen, I couldn't wait to work with the team at Pixar especially since the digital film I was working on at the mouse mega-studio had a story that was at best, lackluster. One child I spoke with described the movie as, "Land Before Time Without the Fun." Lucky for me, producer Ralph Guggenheim invited me up to Richmond and a position on the story crew of "Toy Story2." While working in the Bay Area, I occasionally saw members of the Disney team visiting the Pixar facility in Richmond. It was clear both companies had come together to form a friendly and profitable partnership. What could possibly go wrong? It wasn't long before cracks in the friendship began to appear. While attending story meetings we began to hear snide remarks about our partners up north As expected, the nasty swipes came not from the animation artists who were usually supportive. They were from the Disney executives who were beginning to reveal a slight tinge of jealousy. Over time, an atmosphere of competition rather than cooperation was fostered by management. much of this led by the Disney CEO, himself. It would appear, recrimination was preferable to self-examination. Walt Disney Feature Animation was suddenly on the defensive concerning their creative product. Why were the movies being developed and produced by Pixar Animation Studios eclipsing the Disney films? It couldn't possibly be the creative leadership or the weak stories being brought to the screen by the Disney creative trust, could it? The Disney executives suddenly had an epiphany. The medium was to blame! Computer generated movies was the answer to all of the studios’ failings. Hand drawn, traditional animation had outlived its usefulness. It was time to take a bold move forward and digital technology was the savior.  

Don't get this artist wrong, because I’ve no beef with technology. I can boast of being one of the first artists to bring my own personal computer into the work place while most Disney executives remained clueless about the new technology. As more and more studio artists embrace digital tools for artistic development, few remember I was storyboarding digitally nearly a decade earlier. Secondly, I regard CGI as an effective story telling medium. This has already been demonstrated by offerings from such studios as Pixar, DreamWorks and Blue Sky. In took a while, but Disney finally found sucess with their release of “Tangled,” and the rest is history. However, a CGI movie can no more guarantee box office success than a traditional film. The beautiful rendering of Blue Sky’s "Robots" did not attract an audience anymore than the beautiful traditional art in DreamWorks’ “Spirit." Is our hippie bus, Fillmore correct in his posturing? Does 2D animation really need saving? Some say, animation has simply evolved to the next level. I call that, bunk!  Because, if an artist is given a paintbrush that doesn't mean he or she will never pick up a pencil again. Further, no artist stopped painting because the camera was invented. Computer generated imagery is simply another remarkable tool added to the artist's palette. It’s a powerful tool, no doubt. However, the filmmaker gets no free pass because of the digital medium. I can guarantee they’ll work just as hard bringing their story to the screen. Should you think their production will be far lower in cost…don’t even get me started on that. After Disney dismantled their traditional animated film unit and hundreds of artists were sent packing, rumors persisted that someday Pixar would make a 2D animated film. In one case, people followed a paper trail to Northern California where stacks of punched animation paper were spotted on the Pixar shipping dock. No matter how many times Pixar denied they had a 2D film in development the rumors persisted. And, why wouldn't this rumor go away? I think it was because lovers of traditional animation felt only John Lasseter and Pixar could save the medium. Could the studio that ushered in the age of digital be the ultimate savior of traditional? Skeptics might say the "paper trail" leads nowhere and fans of traditional animation might as well pack it in because the age of traditional hand drawn animation is over.

However, as we examine things today, the rumors of 2D's death may have been greatly exaggerated. Disney and Pixar have finally become one. John Lasseter and Ed Catmull are now at the helm of Walt Disney Animation Studios. And, though it may seem like a Disney fairy tale come true, I can still walk down the hallway of Animation and see guys drawing on paper. Finally, what about that stack of punched animation paper sitting on the loading dock? What about that 2D animated film many had been hoping for? Andreas Deja and Glen Keane still maintain a relationship with the mouse house. It makes you wonder how many more of Disney's brain trust might find their way home should art, rather than technology drive the film making process. Wouldn't it be strange if that hand drawn traditionally animated film wound up on the production schedule? Wouldn't it be cool if the force truly awakened one day?

"The stories of hand drawn animation are true. All of them."

"The stories of hand drawn animation are true. All of them."

View From a Studio Park Bench

I’m sitting on a park bench outside the Animation Building at the Walt Disney Studio. Even though it’s present day and the year is 2015, the years of Disney long past are still rattling around in my head. I shared this studio bench with a number of Walt Disney Studio friends and colleagues over a period of years and the first name that comes to mind is famed Disney composer, Oliver Wallace. Ollie and I would sit on this bench at break time and enjoy a pleasant morning conversation. If you don’t know who Ollie Wallace is I’ll give you a hint. The gifted composer scored several dozens of Disney animated short cartoons and feature films. Ollie had a full head of assertive white hair and the studio musician could even be mistaken for the famous orchestra conductor, Leopold Stokowski. Well into his eighties, Ollie Wallace was always a delight to speak with. However, there were others as well. I also sat on this studio bench with Kay Silva. Kay was one of the many talented young women working at the Walt Disney Studios back in the fifties and one of the many female artists you’ll never read about. As I’ve often said, few people realize how many women worked here and the important role they played in the making of animated films. Kay Silva had a great sense of humor and we would sit and joke as people walked past. Sadly, the young artist had health issues and was due for open heart surgery. Unlike today, open heart surgery was considered very serious stuff back then, but Kay took it all in stride. Sadly, I would not enjoy her company again because she never survived the operation. An operation that in today’s world has become pretty much routine. Though the talented artist is no longer with us, my memories of Kay Silva remain fresh and clear as if it were yesterday.

While sitting on the park bench I suddenly realize that behind me is the window of my very first Disney studio office. Back in February of 1956 a group of young artists were taking their first shot at becoming Disney animators. We would have a month of training before the decision was made to keep us - or let us go. The seven young hopefuls were put in a large office in B-Wing, the very same office directly behind me. Of course, there were many Disney artists who occupied 1B-1 over the years. Back in the sixties, Blaine Gibson and Jack Fergis sculpted mermaids for Disneyland in the very same space. In the seventies, the office was the home of Disney Animation Scene Planning and was presided over by the amazing Disney Legend, Ruthie Thompson and her associate, Bob Ferguson. A remarkable trouper at age 103, Ruthie Thompson is still with us today.

My memories of Walt Disney Studios past is a long time ago and yet it still seems like yesterday. I can even remember the names of my pals and colleagues and the large studio office we shared. Tom Yakutis, Tom Dagenais, Rick Gonzales, David Michener, Jack Foster, Bob Ray and Stan Chin were my seven comrades hoping for a job at Walt Disney Studios. Luckily, we all made the cut and most of our group stayed in animation for the remainder of our careers. Our pal, Bob Ray eventually departed Disney for a better paying gig and Stan Chin left for an advertising career in New York. The rest of the motley crew managed to do allright. Rick Gonzales became a top character designer at Hanna-Barbera and Ruby-Spears studios and Dave Michener became a story artist, animator and director. Tom Dagenais kept his word and left the drawing board and became a screenwriter because it paid a good deal more than drawing for a living. Tom heard that writers were better compensated for their work, so he carved out a new path for himself. The very funny and talented Tom Yakutis continued to surprise us and even became a college professor at a Midwestern university before returning to cartoon world many years later. Tom managed to wrap up his remarkable career at the Walt Disney Studios where it began so many years ago.

As I sit on this studio park bench today I realize much has changed over the past sixty plus years and the Walt Disney Studio is hardly the same company it was back in 1956. Although animation’s future has never looked more promising, it’s hardly the same business I entered back in the fifties when cartoon making was considered an odd, quirky and unstable profession. Today, animation has become big time and big business. Disney’s recent movies have already netted billion of dollars and the future of animation looks bright. That’s a good thing, I suppose. Yet, somehow I just can’t seem to get excited about the whole darn thing. Am I an old-timer stuck in the past? Why do I keep remembering the nineteen fifties when hardly anyone knew about this goofy little business? Walt Disney Animation was once a dynamic, enchanting enterprise filled with wonder and magic. Now, we just make money.

While sitting on a studio park bench I find myself filled with memories of Walt Disney Studio past.

While sitting on a studio park bench I find myself filled with memories of Walt Disney Studio past.

Pixar's Early Days

It was on the other side of the tracks…literally. You had to walk across the railroad tracks that separated the two buildings in the nondescript industrial park. This was in the quiet little town of Point Richmond California. Not far from nearby Berkley, you’d probably never know this town existed. After all, why would anyone want to go to Point Richmond California?

We did, of course. Richmond was the location of a boutique Northern California animation company called, Pixar. After making an impressive screen debut with their animated film, “Toy Story,” the spirited team of young filmmakers were hard at work on a followup movie called, “A Bug’s Life.” However, their eager distribution partner to the south wanted even more. What about a third film? What about a follow-up to the successful first film? Clearly, dollar signs were in their eyes, and that explains the immediate greenlight for a third feature film even as the second was still in production.

Pixar Animation Studio in the nineties was not the blockbuster producing mega-hit animation company it is today. When we arrived, the little start-up had only one movie under it’s belt and in many ways was still an unproven enterprise. Had the first animated movie been a fluke, some wondered? Could the little company continue to be successful making movies with computers? Only time would tell. We arrived from Southern California to help with the development of film number three. Stretched thin, the modest size film company was in need of help. Unlike today, young artists were not pounding on the studio doors hoping for a job. Needing back-up, the company looked south to their producing partner for some needed help. Luckily, I was one of the artists selected to travel to Northern California to join the new studio.

The staff of Pixar Animation Studios numbered less than three hundred back in the nineties and the special vibe of being a start-up could still be felt. It was not unusual to walk past studio owner, Steve Jobs chatting with John Lasseter in the hallway and the cool, casual vibe was everywhere. Of course, there was free fruit juice in the fridge and studio caps and t-shirts were given away with no charge. Unlike slick and polished corporate Disney, the Pixar screening room had the look of a garage sale in progress. The room was filled with mis-matched sofas and chairs were usually cast-offs brought from home by studio employees. Not surprising, it was this special start-up vibe and creative energy that would propell the studio forward and in time, leave everyone, including Disney, in its wake.

Sadly, there’s no stopping progress and today Pixar Animation Studios feels slick, polished and as corporate as their producing partner to the south. Time marches on, and there is no way one can remain a start-up forever. Nothing unique, this is the ultimate fate of every company no matter what they produce. Having said that, I will never forget my ninties arrival at Pixar Animation Studios and what I felt during those early days. The days when Pixar the company was still unproven, untried and incredibly brilliant.

The Steve Jobs Building is really cool...but I still miss the early days of Pixar.

The Steve Jobs Building is really cool...but I still miss the early days of Pixar.