Inspired Sketch

I was sifting through my digital files recently. I was trying to locate a few sketches, but I came across an unexpected few. These were drawings I had completed as part of my development work at the Disney Studio. While pouring over the files I came across this long forgotten development piece. It was a color sketch I created nearly twenty years ago for an animated movie then in development. The sketch caught my attention because it was an interesting mix of old school sketching and the new emerging digital applications we would soon be using. The black&white line art was created using a Mont Blanc pen. It was then scanned into the computer and painted with Corel Painter. I chose these tools because I wanted every sketch to be energetic and vibrant. I found I was able to achieve this artistic sensibility by using these very different but very effective tools. It was an exciting way to work and I continued to use the same technique throughout the development process.

I often regret some of our best work is never seen by most people. What we do is simply part of the development process. It’s only one step in a process that moves us closer toward the finished motion picture. It’s a process that will require thousands of sketches and paintings done over time. Many of the sketches will end up on the floor or in the waste basket. However, tedious or mundane, this is how animated films are made. There will be many iterations by many talented artists. However, you, the audience will probably only see a fraction of the work created. A considerable amount of work is required to bring the animated feature film to the screen, and that path is littered with drawings and paintings. More than you could ever imagine.

I love the looseness of this particular sketch. I love how it captures a pivotal moment in the motion picture where the young calf has to conquer his fears. Up to now the young steer has been intimidated by horses. He is especially fearful of the bold stallions who rule the range. However, in this instance the feisty little steer musters the courage to block the path of western bad guys who have just knocked over the local bank. The little calf stands his ground as the angry stallions skid to a halt. It’s only one moment in an action film that will include many such moments and engage the audience as only a rootin’ tootin’ good old fashion western can. The Disney movie was a bonified hoot and I gotta confess one of the best animated projects I’ve seen in my many years in the business. You’ve never seen this film because we never made it. That’s correct. The Disney motion picture, “Sweatin’ Bullets” never made it to the big screen because of a number of reasons. However, I regret to say the number one reason we never made this animated movie is because it was good. No doubt about it, the movie would have been a smash hit. Something the Disney Company (in all its wisdom) did not want. So, the movie was scuttled. It was ambushed, and nobody will ever tell you the real reason why. Of course, no one is going to ask that question because nobody even remembers, “Sweatin’ Bullets” today. It’s simply another forgotten page in Disney history. A history that most have already forgotten. However, I’ve not forgotten and I doubt I ever will. Maybe one of these days I’ll tell you the whole sad and sorry story. Don’t be surprised. I have a habit of doing that.

 An inspired development sketch from a Disney animated motion picture we never made.

An inspired development sketch from a Disney animated motion picture we never made.

Man's World

I’ve been warned to steer clear of this subject and up to now I’ve managed to do so. However, I cannot help but think back to the nineteen fifties when a group of young kids, both men and women arrived at Walt Disney Productions to begin a career in animation. If the decks were stacked back then there is little doubt it was in favor of the men. After all, this was the nineteen fifties and hardly an enlightened time. Dads went off to work each day and moms stayed home with the kids. When a young woman did decide to choose a career it was always considered temporary. After all, it was expected the woman would eventually find a husband and become a homemaker. Heck, even high schools taught home economics back then. Girls were trained as homemakers and only a few “oddballs” would seek a career in a “Man’s World.” In spite of the time and culture of fifties America, a group of young men and women sought employment at Walt Disney Productions. You could say we were equally foolish for seeking a job that not only paid poorly, but was hardly considered stable. Animation in the nineteen fifties was more hobby than profession. Employment was sporadic and long term employment was practically a fantasy. Those who had managed to find work in the handful of Hollywood and New York studios were lucky indeed. The only positive note in this wacky scenario is the fact that competition was practically non-existent. After all, who would be willing to fight and scrap for such a crummy job?

There were a few who lined up to take the stupid in-between test at the Walt Disney Studio. And, what was that test, you ask? You had to put a drawing of Donald Duck in-between two other drawings of the famous duck. If you managed to do that, you just might qualify for the tedious, mundane and low paying job at the Burbank cartoon factory. Many of the young men and women saw the job as simply a stepping stone to something far better. Most were just out of school and eagerly seeking employment. Their career paths were illustration, fashion design and hopefully art direction gigs in media. Few considered cartoon animation a viable career and more than a few were embarrassed to admit they earned a meager living at the “Mickey Mouse Factory” in the San Fernando Valley. Yet, believe it or not, a group of young men and women actually wanted to do this odd, and quirky job. We wanted to draw princesses and bunny rabbits. We were eager to create magic on the big and small screen. During our training period, the young men and women were kept separated. I was honestly never quite sure why. However, once our training period had come to an end, we were assigned offices with the general population and both men and women shared the same space. It may seem odd, but I don’t recall any competition between the male and female artists and all got along famously. Again, it was common knowledge that animation was a “man’s game” and women had best not aspire to becoming animators one day. Even though women had climbed the ranks of animation during the war and proved they could do the job as well as any, It would appear the Walt Disney Studio had taken a step backward. There were probably many reasons for this change in attitude at the premiere cartoon studio and I would suspect the controversial forties labor action might have played a part in this mindset. Even though Walt Disney eventually forgave his animation staff for their “betrayal,” I honestly don’t think he ever forgot it. In the fifties, I was just a kid hardly knowledgable about the history of Walt Disney Productions. Yet, even I could sense Walt’s affection for his cartoon department had wained. Wary, and cautious, I don’t think Walt ever truly trusted animation again.

Just when women had truly proven themselves, the opportunities for advancement were walked back. Naturally, this proved true for both men and women, and the hope of a promising future at Disney appeared grim. When “Sleeping Beauty” tanked in 1959, the Disney brothers seriously considered shutting down the animation department. Thankfully, animation managed to survive the sixties, and a new era of cartoon making began. Even better, women played a more active role during this amazing new period at Walt Disney Productions. In time, women would move back into animation, background and layout at the cartoon factory. Today, one can hardly imagine animation without the presence of women in the role of production manager, producer or director. While we still have a long way to go, I doubt we’ll ever think of the animation business as male dominated again.

When I think back on our arrival at Walt Disney Productions in the nineteen fifties, we were a unique group of young men and women eager to make our mark in the cartoon business. I honestly believe we all respected each other as artists and rarely did I ever hear of women being mistreated in the workplace. Of course, I’m not naive enough to think such things never happened. Sadly, on more than one occasion, they did. But, once we were made aware, we quickly moved to make sure such behavior did not continue. Our support for each other was important and we did not tolerate bad behavior regardless toward whom it was directed. Human Resources departments were non-existent in the fifties, so men and women had no choice but to stand up for each other. Of course, I grew up in another time where civility was considered the norm. There was an unwritten expectation when it came to behavior. Young men were raised to be respectful, kind and honest. Boorish, creepy behavior was looked upon with distain. In many ways, I honestly felt we were more mature back then. In today’s corporate world it’s all about litigation as large media companies scramble to protect themselves. I honestly miss the good old days when people confronted each other as mature men and women ready to settle a matter without a legion of lawyers. I miss the respect, honesty and maturity of days long past, and I often feel like people (both men and women) haven’t learned a damn thing.

 The lovely Jane Baer at the nineteen fifties Walt Disney Studios. It wasn't always easy being a woman in the "Man's World," but smart, resilient women like Jane always made it work.

The lovely Jane Baer at the nineteen fifties Walt Disney Studios. It wasn't always easy being a woman in the "Man's World," but smart, resilient women like Jane always made it work.

The Sound of Magic

I was a lover of movies so it stands to reason I would love movie music as well. When I was a kid I began to assemble an impressive collection of movie soundtracks and when I began my career at the Walt Disney Studios I brought my collection to the job knowing I would be spending a good deal of time at the drawing board. It turns out I was correct and I logged many hours on the feature film, “Sleeping Beauty.” One of the things that helped the long hours go by was listening to motion picture soundtracks. Back in the fifties, a select group of movie composers ruled Hollywood film music. Guys such as Alex North, Jerry Goldsmith, Dimitri Tiomkin and Franz Waxman. Max Steiner was the sound of Warner Bros. and Alfred Newman and Hugo Friedhoffer provided the musical soundtrack for 20th Century Fox. For this film music lover it was a magical time.

When I arrived at the Walt Disney Studios as a kid there was little doubt I would be seeking out Walt’s film composers as quickly as possible. In time, I met the venerable, Oliver Wallace and Paul J. Smith’s brother, Art Smith just happened to be my brother’s music teacher. Film composer, George Bruns looked more like a football line backer than a musician. George was finishing up on “Sleeping Beauty” but in time we would work together on Walt’s final film, “The Jungle Book.” The studio had hired a couple of brothers who were rock and roll song writers. However, the Old Maestro’s insights would soon prove they were much more than that. Soon, film assignments were to come for the Sherman Brothers and before long the prolific songwriters would be the “go to guys” when a new song was needed for a motion picture. However, Walt Disney had bigger plans in store. Robert and Richard Sherman would be Disney’s choice to compose the score for the live-action-animated musical, “Mary Poppins.” I didn’t know the Sherman Brothers all that well back in the sixties because we hadn’t yet worked together. In spite of that, I still showed up on Stage A on Monday morning to begin the prerecords for the new motion picture. I had already met musical director, Irwin Kostal, and we all laughed as Dick Van Dyke made his comic entrance onto the recording stage. Of course, we had a full studio orchestra onstage and the sounds filling Stage A were magical.

Some years later, as we worked to complete “The Jungle Book,” Walt Disney had a special request. The Old Maestro had enjoyed the sequence we put on the storyboards. It was funny and entertaining but he felt something was missing. What was missing was a Sherman Brothers song. It was as though Walt Disney had waved a magic wand because before we knew it, the completed song was ready to be recorded. My story partner, Vance Gerry and I headed over to Stage A once again. We had the opportunity to watch and listen as actor, Sterling Holloway recorded the song. Once again, Robert and Richard Sherman had delivered the goods. Hardly a surprise, the talented, prolific song writing team had brought some additional Disney magic to our little sequence, and the animated movie was made that much better.

Sadly, with the passing of Walt Disney in 1966, the studio began looking for younger songwriters. Contemporary tunesmiths more in line with the musical sensibility of the day. The Sherman Brothers were practically forgotten as the “New Disney” moved forward. As luck would have it, a new animated motion picture was being developed that would feature the music of Robert and Richard Sherman. I had returned from an assignment at Pixar Animation Studios and I would soon join my old collaborators on a new animated movie called, “The Tigger Movie.” The musical score demonstrated a charm and sweetness seldom heard today. It was music Walt Disney would have probably enjoyed. It was simple, heartfelt and totally unaffected. It was the sound of music from another time. A time I doubt we’ll ever see again.

However, my magical musical journey continued as my career pushed past fifty, then sixty years. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting composer, James Newton Howard while working on Disney’s “Dinosaur.” A few years later I shared a Legends Ceremony with Randy Newman. Newman scored practically all of the early Pixar movies and his musical contributions helped give the films their unique sensibility. Finally, only weeks ago while attending a meeting at the Motion Picture Academy I was lucky enough to chat with composer, Michael Giacchino. Giacchino had the thankless job of having to follow the master, John Williams on a Star Wars movie, “Rogue One.” Williams was not available to score the Star Wars film, so the job fell to Michael. Yet, there was another challenge. Giacchino had to score the motion picture in only a month. Finally, what could be more magical to a movie music lover than having one’s own life set to music. When production moved toward completion on my documentary I was delighted to learn the film would be scored by Ryan Shore. When I was a kid I grew up on the Hollywood soundtracks of the forties and fifties. Now, suddenly my life and career would be enriched and enhanced by music. Even better, I would be given my own theme. As an old movie music lover I can’t think of a higher compliment.

 The scoring stage. The truly magical component of movie making. There's no better place I'd rather be.

The scoring stage. The truly magical component of movie making. There's no better place I'd rather be.

Summer of 1960

What’s this vintage black & white photograph on my desktop? And, who are these two guys sharing sunflower seeds during break time at the Walt Disney Studios? I took this photograph in the summer of 1960 after we had completed the latest Walt Disney feature animated film, “101 Dalmatians.” It was hardly my intention to document history this day. Mainly, I was testing my new Nikon 35mm camera that I had purchased on a recent trip to Japan. Break time at the Walt Disney Studios seemed a good a time as any.

So, what was life like back in the nineteen sixties? And what was the mood of the Walt Disney Studios after the completion of the latest animated film and another painful employee downsizing? Those of us who had managed to dodge a bullet and once again escape another round of layoffs could thank our lucky stars. This recent cutback sent a number of Walt Disney Studio veterans packing, and I couldn’t help feeling a sense of guilt that I had somehow survived. Many of the talented gentlemen were friends and all had contributed to the Disney classics. Now, because of economic issues in the industry and belt-tightening at the studio they were without a job.

The gentleman on the left is Art Stevens, a talented animator and a veteran of many Disney motion pictures. That’s his assistant on the right dipping into the bag of sunflower seeds. His name is Chuck Williams. All of us had recently wrapped up our chores on the latest animated feature, and were busy at work completing a short animated cartoon before moving on to our next feature assignment. I had been working over in 1-A where I shared an office with my pal, Burny Mattinson. Chuck had already moved to 1-B where he would begin his new assignment in a few weeks. It was a quiet weekday morning, and Art and Chuck pondered the future as they munched sunflower seeds and enjoyed the fifteen minute break.

We didn’t have email in those days, so we waited patiently for the telephone to ring. The expected call would more than likely be our boss, Andy Engman who would inform us concerning our next Disney assignment. Not long after this picture was taken I received my call and my next assignment. Hardly a surprise, I learned the next motion picture would be the Bill Peet adaptation of T.H. White’s novel, “The Sword in the Stone.” However, the following bit of information was unexpected. Andy Engman said I would be moving to D-wing where I would be assisting the legendary directing animator, Milt Kahl. Apparently, Andy didn’t anticipate the silence on the other end of the line and he thought the connection had been lost. That was not the reason, however. You see, after learning that I would now be assisting one of Disney’s “scariest animators,” I was speechless. In time, I mumbled a few words, hung up the phone and began to pack up my office. It was the summer of 1960 and a new adventure was about to begin.

 Animator, Art Stevens and Chuck Williams share sunflower seeds at the sixties Walt Disney Studios.

Animator, Art Stevens and Chuck Williams share sunflower seeds at the sixties Walt Disney Studios.