The Amazing Medium

For decades, the animation industry could hardly be considered a real job. It was a strange and quirky profession that attracted odd balls who couldn’t seem to find a place in the real world. I can only imagine the many parents who reacted with alarm when hearing their son or daughter might be considering a job in the cartoon business. However, animation geeks are passionate about their art and are not easily deterred. In spite of warnings from family and friends many packed their bags and headed for the cartoon factories in New York, Florida and Hollywood.

Animation requires a measure of talent and discipline. The ability to give life to a sketch and create a stunning performance is not easy. The fact that this is accomplished using only pencil and paper is something I’ve always found incredible. It was this special magic of moving drawings that drew me inextricably into the cartoon business and the creation of motion picture animation became a part of my life forever. I’d venture most of us here have a fair knowledge of animation’s history. However, it’s the future of this incredible medium that’s a cause for concern. This is not to say that the future is bleak because that’s not exactly the case either. There are probably more animation artists employed today than at any time I can remember in my long career. Animated feature films account for more than the lion’s share of profits studios garner each year. As a matter of fact, you’ve a better chance of earning your money back if your movie is animated rather than live-action.

Animated motion pictures clearly have value. Consider the new players continually moving into the animation arena. Studios and producers who never considered this business are now rushing for a place at the table. Why? It’s because animated feature films make money. Animated properties have value. Sadly, the creators - the artists who make the product do not fare as well. Traditional hand drawn animation was the first to go and one day I fear CGI will quickly follow. It’s not difficult to see the plan. When you no longer need a Milt Kahl, Freddy Moore or a Frank Thomas to make an animated motion picture the producers have gained clear leverage. That means the animated motion picture can be outsourced to any competing studio in the world. I’ll say it again. Any studio in the world. And because it can - it will. Outsourcing might prove disastrous for stateside employment or it might be a blessing that moves animation to the next level. Once we’ve had our fill of sequels and franchises we might start being creative again. 

As much as I love this amazing medium I find myself somewhat reluctant to extoll the virtues of a profession where security is clearly lacking. A new production model has replaced the old. Today’s studios ramp up for production and downsize when the project is completed. Animators are hired only to be laid off a few months later. If you’re one of the lucky few who managed to remained employed year after year, you’re a part of a select group. In spite of this reality, eager kids continue to express their enthusiasm for animation. Maybe they see something I’ve missed. After all, the old timers told me the business was darn near dead when I entered it back in the fifites. Perhaps truly great things are still ahead and I’ve simply been wrong in my accessment.

I sure hope so.

An animated motion picture in story development. Maybe I'm crazy but I love the process.

An animated motion picture in story development. Maybe I'm crazy but I love the process.

You Missed it

I’m sitting on the patio of Walt Disney Imagineering enjoying delicious Huevos Rancheros which happens to be my favorite breakfast these days. I continue to be amazed at this marvelous enterprise and how far they’ve traveled over the years. So my thoughts wandered back to the nineteen forties when two brothers named Disney had to make a major decision that would decide the future of their company.

The war had finally ended leaving Walt Disney Productions at a crossroads. Government contracts had sustained the company throughout the forties and now all of that had come to an end. What would the future hold for Walt Disney Productions, one might ask? The “Old Maestro,” who was then a much younger studio boss, went to his older brother with an ultimatum. Walt had three animated features on the drawing board and was eager to move ahead immediately. Nervous about risking the studios’ future, Roy O. Disney was reluctant to take on the risk. Walt Disney laid it on the line. “If we don’t move forward, we’ll go backward. Let’s either get back into business - or get the hell out!” And with that, “Cinderella,” Alice in Wonderland” and “Peter Pan” moved into production. However, three animated features were only the tip of the iceberg. Walt Disney had already decided to launch a number of live-action movies putting to use his frozen assets in the U.K. The nature films, first as two reelers, then feature films were finding an audience. Clearly, Walt Disney was not trusting his company to animated feature films alone. He began to broaden his company in a way few companies were even thinking about at the time. Next, Walt set his sights on entering television when most Hollywood moguls expressed disdain for the medium. Finally, the bold idea of a family theme park began as sketches on the drawing board, and would in time be realized as “Disneyland.” I was only a kid in school during those years but I remember watching Walt Disney Productions began to experience explosive growth. Much like Bill Gates at the start of the computer revolution, I was eager to bail out of school and go to work for Disney because I feared missing out on something big. I wanted to be there when all this was happening. Before long, Disneyland open its gates in Anaheim and I was there opening week. As I stared slack-jawed at the beautiful artwork in the show, “The Art of Animation,” I had no idea I was only six months away from becoming an employee of Walt Disney Productions.

Well, like Bill Gates, I didn’t miss the revolution either. As a matter of fact, I had the opportunity to be a part of it. Time Magazine probably stated it best. Disney didn’t simply expand - it exploded! When I arrived at the Walt Disney Studio early in 1956, it was more a theme park than a job. Each day was an adventure because there was so much going on. Walt had pulled out all the stops and was roaring full speed ahead with no stop lights in view. It was a glorious time to work for Walt Disney Productions, and if you had the misfortune to arrive late and miss the adventure, I’ll have to console you with Ward Kimball’s sad and sorry words of regret.

“Walt’s gone, and you missed it.”

The Walt Disney Studio in the Fifties. If you were lucky enough to be here then, it was a glorious time.

The Walt Disney Studio in the Fifties. If you were lucky enough to be here then, it was a glorious time.

The Departure of Ward Kimball

While we're waiting for the Ward Kimball biography to happen let's take a moment to talk about my favorite Disney Legend. I remember a conversation with Ward's son, John not long ago. We spoke about the amazing diary his dad kept and the stories it contained. I can imagine many of these insights were going to be revealed in the Kimball biography. Regretfully, that book has been delayed and now it's anyone's guess how long it will be before we'll have the opportunity to read this long awaited book. I still remember the day I learned of Ward Kimball's retirement from the Walt Disney Studio. The word hit like a ton of bricks. Somehow, it just didn't seem right that Kimball would leave the Disney Company. Sadly, since that time I've gotten used to several Disney icons suddenly departing the studio. However, back then we rushed upstairs for an explanation. The answer was simple. Kimball said the job just wasn’t fun anymore and he had made up his mind. You would have thought the studio would have begged him to stay, but such was not the case. It would appear that before long all the legendary artists and animators would be gone. And, the fact they’d given their talent and energy to the studio over the years hardly seemed to matter. However, I digress.

Back in the seventies, Ward Kimball had moved his unit to A-wing on the second floor of the Animation Building. There, innovation and creativity continued and Kimball's team generated projects that still crackled with fun and imagination. While the rest of the studio grew old and stodgy working on retreads like The Black Cauldron, the Ward Kimball unit still showed signs of creative life. A visit to the second floor was like a breath of fresh air and clever storyboards filled the hallway. Sadly, Ward walked out the door leaving brilliant film ideas behind. Ideas that would languish and eventually die. Once Ward Kimball retired from Disney in 1973 he continued to enjoy and develop his interest in trains. Ward collected trains since he was a boy and he shared the interest with his father and uncle. In 1938, Ward and his wife Betty bought their first, second-hand, full sized steam locomotive from the abandoned Nevada Central Railroad. Among Kimball's collection of full-size trains were a Baldwin coal-burning 2-6-0 (1881), a plantation wood-fired Baldwin 0-4-2T (1883), and a passenger coach. Kimball's railroad hobby was a break from work at the studio, and over time Ward's hobby grew into the Grizzly Flats Railroad. Believe it not the engine house was located right behind his home in San Gabriel.

Though I've enjoyed a love of trains myself, I really wanted to talk about animation when I had Ward Kimball to myself on weekend visits to his daughter, Kelly's Highland Park home. This was back in the sixties and our conversation included everything from animating the crows in Dumbo to Kimball's upcoming stint as a live-action director on Walt Disney's “Babes in Toyland” where Ward would be at the helm of both the live and animated portions of the motion picture. Of course, you Disney buffs know this major role for “Walt's genius” hit a major snag and Ward Kimball was removed as director. That's a pretty big story all by itself and it's a story I'll save for another day.

Disney Legend, Ward Kimball was probably the most fun guy I ever worked for.

Disney Legend, Ward Kimball was probably the most fun guy I ever worked for.

1966 Story Meeting

I’m not sure why, but we had moved our story meeting to one of the large projection rooms on the second floor of the Animation Building. I had recently joined the story team of Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book and I was still amazed that I was in such illustrious company. I remember we were sitting toward the front of the theater near the screen. I’m not sure why. It was the same location shown in the forties Walt Disney film, “The Reluctant Dragon.” In the motion picture, Walt Disney and Robert Benchley were sitting up front as well. Even though I had been employed by the Disney Studio for at least ten years I still felt oddly out of place. Did I really belong in the company of so many masterful Disney veterans?

I sat with head writer, Larry Clemmons and my story partner, Vance Gerry. We were trying to hammer out a sequence in the film while Larry seemed more interested in regaling us with tales of his show business past. Remember, Larry Clemmons had written for the popular crooner, Bing Crosby back in the forties. For those of you too young to remember, Bing Crosby was an enormous super star back then and his radio show was listened to by millions. Being a writer on the popular prime time show made Larry quite proud and he loved sharing his show business stories of “Derr Bingle” and other Hollywood stars. Vance and I tried to return to The Jungle Book’s plot line but Larry seemed more interested in coming up with funny schtick. For some wacky reason, Larry kept saying how much funnier the scene would be if the character was in drag. Vance and I looked at each other completely befuddled.

Suddenly the doors swung open and we were joined by two of our directing animators, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. The story guys grumbled a bit because they didn’t care for the animators - even directing animators encroaching on story meetings. However, Frank and Ollie were pretty important guys at the Walt Disney Studio and nobody dared kick them out of the meeting. For the most part, Frank Thomas did most of the talking and was eager to share his ideas. Looking back, I think Thomas was eager to get started animating and he was growing impatience with the progress - or lack of progress on the storyline. It would not have mattered in any case because nothing was going to move forward without the approval of Walt Disney. Once again, Larry Clemmons reiterated how funny it would be if one of the characters was in drag. Perhaps that did it, because Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston decided to leave the meeting and return to their drawing boards in downstairs D-wing.

This fanciful story from the year 1966 has a very satisfying ending. You see, the sequence we were working on was the very same sequence Frank Thomas animated. I can’t say for sure whether Frank animated every single scene, but he sure animated the lion’s share of it and his animation was masterful. I’ll bet you remember all that funny stuff between little Mowgli and Kaa the Python up in the tree? That was the sequence Frank Thomas couldn’t wait to get his hands on. It turns out that sequence was one of the best Vance Gerry and I ever storyboarded. A huge part of what makes that marvelous sequence spring to life is the brilliant animation of Disney Legend, Frank Thomas. Sure, Vance and I put the ideas on the board, but it was Thomas who gave the sequence, charm, fun and vitality. 

Thank heavens no one cared all that much about animation back in the sixties. Consequently, we were pretty much left alone to make animated films our own way and to do so without the stress and pressure of filmmaking today. Plus, we only had to answer to one man and that man was Walt Disney. In many ways it was the best job any animation artist could have wished for and we wanted it to go on forever. Naturally, no one knew it at the time, but in the next few months all this would come to an end.