You Should Know Gerry Geronimi

As I sat at my drawing board wildly sketching away on a new feature film idea, I suddenly glanced up to see two visitors in the room. It seems they were scrutinizing the sketches, models and story boards in my cluttered office. The two older gentleman were wearing the pastel colored garb usually sported by retirees living in the nearby beach community. But, who were these codgers, I wondered? And, why would they have any interest in an obscure little cartoon studio in Newport Beach?

I could tell by their comments the two men were hardly novices when it came to the production of animated films. Could they have worked in the cartoon business at one time, I wondered? And, what would prompt their interest in our little animated venture? Since two gentlemen appeared low key and soft spoken, it took me a few minutes before I recognized the Disney veteran who had once been my boss at Walt’s mouse factory many years ago. His name was Clyde Geronimi, but friends and colleagues knew him by the nick name, “Gerry.” Gerry Geronimi wasn’t just another Disney employee, in case you’re wondering. He had been a major player in Walt’s animation department for decades and directed many of the classic Disney films I saw as a child.

It had easily been two decades since I last saw Gerry Geronimi at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. In the sixties, I remember Geronimi had traveled to Europe on a live-action film assignment for the old Maestro. Though Gerry had spent most of his career directing animated projects, Walt Disney had decided to trust his supervising director with a live-action project this time around. I never did see the completed television show Gerry supervised for Walt, and I was somewhat surprised that the Disney veteran suddenly departed the studio where he had spent so much of his career. Not long after Gerry’s departure, Walt Disney passed away and the studio had been changed forever.

However, the kids in the studio had no idea who the old gentleman was and the incredible accomplishments he had achieved while working for Disney. I still kick myself for not grabbing a tape recorder and asking the animation veteran and few hundred questions. However, we still had a job to do and I was reluctant to impose on our visitor’s time. Perhaps he had a golf game to get to - or whatever retirees do with their leisure time. After the two gentleman said their goodbyes and headed out the door I felt it was important to inform my studio colleagues who they had just met.

Gerry Geronimi was born in Italy and emigrated to the United States in 1908. He began his cartoon career in New York City working as an animator for the Hearst Studios  before heading to Southern California in 1931 to join a scrappy little cartoon studio known as Walt Disney Productions. Walt Disney had a knack for spotting potential leaders, so Gerry was told to put down his animation pencil and take on a new role as a director of Walt’s cartoon shorts. Geronimi eventually directed several shorts, and even took home an Academy Award for “The Ugly Duckling.” Before long, Gerry Geronimi had become one of Walt Disney’s trusted feature film directors along with Wilfred Jackson, Ham Luske and others. You’ll see Gerry’s name on darn near every Disney classic animated film produced in the forties and fifties. His credits, to name a few, include, “Cinderella,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Peter Pan” and Lady and the Tramp. When I arrived at the Walt Disney Studios in the fifties just beginning my animation career, Gerry was the big boss in the animation department. He was our supervising director on the Disney classic, “Sleeping Beauty,” and often his was the final word on what went into the final film. Of course, Walt Disney had the final say when it came to story, but he trusted Gerry to make the right calls when other duties had the Old Maestro’s attention.

As so often happens, Gerry Geronimi was sadly forgotten once he left the Walt Disney Studios and began his retirement. There were no awards or accolades given to the departing Disney Master for his many years of service. Although he did receive the Windsor McKay Award some years later. Adding icing to the cake, the coveted award was presented to Gerry by Cartoon legend, Walter Lantz.

Clyde “Gerry” Geronimi passed away in Newport Beach California at the age of eighty seven. His stellar career in the cartoon business reached back to the thirties and he wrapped up his Disney career in the sixties after completing work on “Sleeping Beauty.” Ironically, it was the same decade the Old Maestro left us. If you’ve ever seen a Walt Disney feature animated film it’s more than likely you’ve seen a film directed by Gerry Geronimi. The quiet, aging gentleman that stopped in my Newport Beach office that morning many years ago was a Disney veteran and pioneer. Sadly, few people besides myself were even aware we had been visited by a true Disney Legend.

The dapper gentleman speaking to his actors is our boss, Gerry Geronimi. A one time Walt Disney Studios animation director, few people even know his name today.

The dapper gentleman speaking to his actors is our boss, Gerry Geronimi. A one time Walt Disney Studios animation director, few people even know his name today.

Pencil, Paper and Not a Darn Thing More

Han Solo felt comfortable with his trusty blaster at his side. Obi Wan Kenobi however, preferred his light saber. “A elegant weapon for a more civilized time,” were the words of the Jedi Master. As an old traditional animator I fall into Obi Wan’s camp. As awesome as today’s CGI tools have become (and no doubt, they are awesome) there’s nothing more elegant than a simple pencil in the hand of a gifted artist and animator.

This thought occured to me while speaking with a young animator not long ago. The former traditional animator was currently doing battle with his CGI tools. “I know what I want,” said the distressed animator. “If only I could simply draw the darn thing.” You see, today’s digital animators work with something called a “rig.” And, amazing as these digital tools can be, artists have to learn to work with the apparatus and not the other way around. It takes some time getting used to the beast and it’s why some traditional animators have opted out of today’s animation systems. And it’s understandable, after all. Some artists simply prefer to draw.

Some years ago, I was handed a last minute animation assignment. It was late Friday afternoon and the television commercial had to be delivered (rough animation, that is) next Monday morning. It was a daunting task and I pondered my fate should I not be able to deliver the goods. All I had going for me was pencil, paper and a rich imagination. That’s it. Nothing else. It was a long weekend and I couldn’t even locate an assistant to help me complete the grunt work so I inbetweened all the stuff myself. By early Monday morning, I delivered the completed scene to the producer and felt (perhaps for the first time) like a real animator. It’s a pretty heady feeling and I’m not sure if young animators truly feel that today. You see, back in the old days an animator faced a blank sheet of paper. That means what eventually ends on that paper and ultimately on screen depends entirely on you. The only limits in place are your drawing skills and your imagination. Other than that, it’s entirely up to you. There’s something very cool about that. No digital assist of any kind. No rig or rotoscopes to lean on. It’s all you and you’re well aware of that. If you fall on your face in front of your peers everybody knows. However should you succeed, there’s no better feeling in the world.

Clearly, the amazing work we’re seeing today with CGI animation is truly remarkable. Years ago, It would have been difficult to imagined the kind of work being done today. Having said that, I wonder if our young animators will ever know the feeling of completing a scene and knowing that the scene is totally yours? It’s a feeling that every traditional animator has probably experienced - and maybe fears he or she may never feel again.

Sure, we had tools in the old days. Pencils, paper, paint and brushes. Hardly as flashy as our new digital tools but somehow, a good deal more elegant, wouldn't you say?

Sure, we had tools in the old days. Pencils, paper, paint and brushes. Hardly as flashy as our new digital tools but somehow, a good deal more elegant, wouldn't you say?

Funny Sketch, Funny Story

The cool thing about living a long life is not having to make up stories. All the stories I share here actually happened. Sometimes the stories are wacky and zany such as animator, Amby Paliwoda sawing his animation desk into pieces in order to fashion a wooden bass violin. Other stories can border on tragedy, but those are the tales I’d prefer not to tell. After all is said and done, I prefer to focus on events that brought a smile to my face even though the people involved were hardly smiling.

One such event took place in the early sixties when one of Walt Disney’s veteran story men had been given an assignment to develop a feature length animated film. Since we were dealing with cost constraints back then, the Old Maestro instructed his story guy to find a way to tell the story and keep his budget in mind. The story veteran worked in a large office on the second floor of the Animation Building. If you know your Disney history, you might remember this was the wing usually known as “Ham’s Wing.” It was the music room of veteran Disney director, Hamilton Luske. However, this was not one of Ham’s projects, and the story man had simply taken up office space nearby. I often paid an early morning visit to check out the storyboards and the progress of the propose feature length animated film. Office doors were seldom locked in the old Disney days, and one was free to wander about in the early morning hours. The veteran storyteller worked away for several months and eventually the large story room was filled with multiple storyboards all waiting the approval of the Old Maestro, Walt Disney.

If you’ve ever attended a story pitch with Walt Disney you’ll know it’s hardly a day eagerly anticipated. This goes double if you’re the guy on the hot spot and you can’t help feel your entire career hinges on this one meeting. Walt Disney was usually prompt and seldom kept his staffers waiting. He announced his arrival with his characteristic loud cough as he moved down the A-Wing hallway. I wasn’t in the meeting, in case you’re wondering. I was simply in a room nearby because I wanted to know if there was any chance of this project becoming our next animated feature film. The meeting wasn’t long. Only an hour had passed before the door slammed open, and a rather disgruntled Walt Disney stomped out into the hallway and back to his office. Since nobody dared carry a camera in those days, I captured this moment with a cartoon sketch which you can see below. Clearly, the meeting had not gone well, and the feature film idea pitched that morning was given a decise thumbs down. That’s one of the good things about a Walt Disney meeting. Decisions were always clear cut, and there was seldom any doubt how things had gone. This was an animated motion picture that wouldn’t be moving into production anytime soon.

Was this a career ender for the story man, you might ask? As much as we joke about a bad story meeting ending a storyteller’s career - that seldom happened. The veteran story man (who shall remain nameless) was given a reprieve and moved on to work on another assignment. He continued on at the Walt Disney Studio before announcing his retirement sometime in the seventies. However, I still remember the day Walt Disney stormed out of the storyroom with a sour look on his face. While it’s true it was hardly a good day for the Disney storyman giving the pitch, at least it provided me with a funny drawing of Walt and a day I doubt I’ll ever forget.

The story meeting gone bad. I observed my fair share of these hapless events at the sixties Walt Disney Studio. As he left the meeting, Walt's attitude told all you needed to know.

The story meeting gone bad. I observed my fair share of these hapless events at the sixties Walt Disney Studio. As he left the meeting, Walt's attitude told all you needed to know.

Chinese Year of the Bozo

I had finally completed my work on the latest Walt Disney Studios animated motion picture and had moved to Northern California to work with a small start up. The company had the crazy notion of making movies using digital technology. The idea seemed intriguing so I decided to relocate to San Rafael and join in the fun. The company had only produced one motion picture and was hard at work creating a second. In any case, it was a great place to work and so very different from my former place of employment.

One day, I received an interesting offer from one of the editors of Disney’s Publishing Group. Well aware that I had worked on the soon to be released Disney motion picture, “Mulan,” would I be interested in writing a children’s book based on the film’s principal character? I immediately jumped on the opportunity because it was too good to ignore. Even though I would be spending my days developing a new animated motion picture, I knew my evenings would be free. After work, I would usually head for San Rafael and the nearby Starbucks. Not surprising, is it? Can you think of a better place for an author to write a book? Actually, I was quite taken with the little community while living in the Bay Area. San Rafael seemed a cozy, quaint little place for creative people to settle in. There was another famous filmmaker who headquartered his staff in several nearby San Rafael buildings. I had heard he was already constructing his own filmmaking facility out in the nearby Lucas Valley. The gentleman had already acquired sufficient capital because his space fantasy movies had found an audience. They were odd movies filled with Jawas, drones, Wookies and the like. However, that’s another story.

Anyway, armed with my cup of coffee, I sat in Starbucks and worked away on my story that featured the beautiful Mulan along with her pet dragon, Mushu. It was easy getting up to speed. After all, I had just spent two years or so working on the Disney animated film. I knew the characters, the locations and the tone of the story. This assignment proved to be ideal and I felt that nothing could go wrong. However, I was about to be surprised by an unsuspecting turn of events. It would seem that the publishing bosses had been monitoring screenings of the new film. These test screenings began to reveal something no one had expected. It would appear, according to the tests that the movie was beginning to - as they put it - “skew older.” That meant children would probably not be interested in seeing the new Disney film. And, if kids would not would not care to see the Disney movie, they probably wouldn’t have an interest in a kid’s book either. I was payed a “kill fee,” and my Mulan book was tossed on the shelf never to be published.

Of course, this is why I hate focus groups, demographic tests and other surveys created by the bozo brigade. Tests that are still being done even today. Naturally, the “brilliant analysis” proved to be wrong and children everywhere fell in love with the Disney motion picture. Not surprisingly, Mushu the Dragon ended up being a very popular Disney character. My book, on the other hand was never published. Naturally, all this was based on a sage decision by some Disney executive who is more than likely no longer with the company.

Mulan and her trusty sidekick, Mushu the Dragon. Some "brilliant" Disney executive decided our motion picture had no appeal for children so they trashed the book I had written.

Mulan and her trusty sidekick, Mushu the Dragon. Some "brilliant" Disney executive decided our motion picture had no appeal for children so they trashed the book I had written.