Vintage Disney in Color

Digging deep into the Photo Archive (my garage) I’ve come up with another interesting photograph from Disney past. This shot is interesting because I usually photographed with black&white film. This was necessary because of the low light conditions in Walt Disney’s Animation Building. If I recall, I began using a new Japanese color film that was much faster than the usual Kodachrome. The images tended to be somewhat grainy because of the higher speed but at least I was finally able to get color photographs of my colleagues as they labored away on Walt Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty.”

The gentleman in the photograph is assistant animator, Chuck Williams. The year is 1957, and I’ve recently been added to Freddy Hellmich’s animation clean-up team. Our team occupied several offices in G-wing and I shared my office with Chuck. The offices, though separate, were all connected by interior doors. It was a very efficient way of working. Of course back then, the Disney studio was the model of efficiency. Our bosses were directing animators, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. I’ll bet those names sound familiar, don’t they? I honestly can’t remember the names of all the character animators who worked under Frank and Ollie, but they included, Hank Tanous, Hal Ambro, Jerry Hathcock and a few others. Anyway, you better believe they cracked the whip when it came to their animation clean-up. If the character animators didn’t kick our butts - then chances were pretty good that the directing animators would. I won’t tell you how many times we had to do scenes over again, but three times was not unusual.

Our team members consisted of key assistant animator, Freddy Hellmich. Two additional assistants, Chuck Williams and Jim Fletcher followed Freddy. The remaining crew members consisted of Rick Gonzales, Bob Reese and myself. This team of artists worked together for over two years finalizing the scenes of the good fairies, Flora, Fauna and Meriweather. Because of the production push we were required to crank out a set number of drawings per day. You might have thought we would have footage requirements but such was not the case. When it came to even more complicated drawings such as Briar Rose, the work proceeded even slower. Can you believe, one drawing a day? Yes, it’s true. The artists in the Briar Rose unit often completed only one drawing a day. Then again - it was a pretty damn good drawing.

Though the work was often tedious it could never be called, drudgery. Plus, we were continually learning to be better animation artists. The standards were high, and feature animation work was incredibly demanding. I still recall a number of key assistant animators who were feared because of their demand for excellence in every scene. Dale Oliver and Iwao Takamoto are two names that immediately spring to mind, but there were many others just as tough. I also recall stacks of drawings being hurled at lazy in-betweeners because of their slipshod work. The Walt Disney artists expected nothing less than stellar work from its fledgling assistants. If you failed to measure up you’d best seek work at a studio that was less demanding. In many ways it was like joining the Marines. We were the best of the best - and damn proud of it.

Looking at this 1957 photograph of Chuck Williams brings back a flood of memories. Memories of a Walt Disney studio that is no more. Memories of hard work, dedication and a tireless crew that created a Walt Disney animation masterpiece. Unlike today’s artificial, animated “puppet shows,” these Disney classics will still be watched and studied a hundred years from now.

Color photographs at fifties Disney are rare. Especially photos using natural light. I used a new high speed Japanese film to grab these rare Disney pictures over fifty years ago.

Color photographs at fifties Disney are rare. Especially photos using natural light. I used a new high speed Japanese film to grab these rare Disney pictures over fifty years ago.

Animating Characters in Drag

I’m not sure why, but we had moved our story meeting to one of the large projection rooms on the third 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. In one such meeting I remember we were sitting toward the front of the large third floor theater near the screen. Oddly enough, 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 in the first row of seats as well. Even though I had been employed by the Disney Studio for at least ten years It still felt oddly out of place. Did I really belong in the company of so many masterful Disney veterans?

I sat with our 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 radio crooner, Bing Crosby back in the forties. For those of you too young to remember, Bing Crosby was an enormous super star back in those days 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 the filmmaking process today. Just the thought of meetings with forty people in a room fills me with terror. When we met with Walt Disney usually no more than six people attended the session. The idea of a crowd of artists, writers, producers and executives making story decisions sounds insane. 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. Of course, Larry Clemmons got his wish of having a character in drag. Remember the wacky duet with King Louie and Baloo? The zany bear is wearing a skirt of palm leaves and a coconut bra. Somewhere, writer, Larry Clemmons is smiling.

It's summer 1966 and I'm sitting with Larry Clemmons and Vance Gerry. Animators, Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas decide to crash the meeting.

It's summer 1966 and I'm sitting with Larry Clemmons and Vance Gerry. Animators, Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas decide to crash the meeting.

The Real Floyd Norman

Usually known as, “Mr. Nice Guy,” few people know how crass and cutthroat a businessman, Floyd Norman can be. Over the years, Norman has managed to cultivate the phony image of a benign, benevolent Disney artist. However few people know the man behind the mask. Finally, this BusinessWeek article by reporter, Jessica Krassweiler pulls back the curtain and reveals the real Floyd Norman. It’s a sobering, eyeopening view of life in the upper ranks of the cartoon business and the ruthless tactics used to keep artists subservient to their corporate masters. The story of Norman’s climb to fame is not necessarily unique but it reveals a side of cartoon making few people ever see.

Floyd Norman began his Disney career toiling in the trenches of the animation department back in the fifties. Fed up with the long hours and low pay, Norman began to curry favor by building a relationship with the company founder. He began by bringing bran muffins to Disney’s office and eventually gained the confidence of the visionary leader. By the early sixties, Norman would enter Bill Peet’s office during lunch hour where he manipulated the storyboards. In time, this led to a falling out with Walt Disney and the veteran story man. Once Peet clashed with the boss he was immediately replaced by Norman. No one was the wiser that the ambitious young board artist had orchestrated the whole thing.

After the passing of Walt Disney, Norman found himself no longer welcome at the studio, so he left to explore opportunities outside the company. In time, Floyd returned to the studio with his old colleague, Don Bluth. However, Bluth and his followers were beginning to gain power, so Norman concocted a masterful plan to persuade Don Bluth to leave the Walt Disney Studios and launch his own company. Once out, Bluth and his minions were never allowed to return. Having successfully gotten rid of Bluth, Floyd put his next plan into action. He managed to convince Walt Disney’s nephew to replace the current management and the plan worked for a while. New life was breathed into the company and the greedy Norman acquired stock like it was going out of style. Before long he was calling the shots, yet managed to wield power without anyone knowing he was the shadow “king pin.”

By the nineties, Floyd had moved into upper management and was plotting his next move. He concocted an elaborate plan to relocate to the Bay Area where he would carefully exert his influence on a new animation studio called Pixar. He promoted an enthusiastic young man who liked to wear Hawiian shirts and appeared to be a natural leader. Floyd huddled with his moody, mercurial tech pal, and the two of them hatched a plot to eventually take over Disney Animation. However, once the deed was done, the computer guru decided to return to the company he founded and left Norman to run things. However, the ambitious Norman quickly ran things into the ground. Shortly thereafter, Norman found himself in the middle of a massive price fixing scheme that involved not only himself but several other animation companies as well. In an effort to avoid litigation and save his own skin, Norman reluctantly decided to step down. The BusinessWeek article uncovers Norman’s rapid climb and decline in the cartoon business and provides a cautionary tale that ambitious young animation executives might take to heart.

Don't let his smile fool you. Floyd Norman was never a nice guy and this article proves it.

Don't let his smile fool you. Floyd Norman was never a nice guy and this article proves it.

Family Portrait

The fun and fanciful Walt Disney and Pixar characters we see cavorting on the big screen are charming, delightful and provide loads of entertainment. Yet, they can serve another purpose you might not have considered. These wonderful animated characters often remind us of ourselves and members of our family. It seems only natural that the family members should gather for a family portrait, don’t you think?

And, that’s how this particular large format color sketch came about. A young animation artist requested I create this painting because he saw himself and his family members as Disney and Pixar characters. It was easy to picture himself as Monsters, Inc.'s “Sully,” and his lovely wife could easily play the role of, “Belle.” Naturally, I’m sure she wanted much more than this provincial life. The animation artist saw his petulant young son as “Grumpy,” while his energetic, bouncing baby boy was the perfect Jack-Jack from The Incredibles. Finally, his cute teen age daughter was perfectly characterized as, “Rapunzel.”

I realized I hadn’t shown this color sketch to anyone else since I painted it some years ago. I happened across a photograph of the painting last evening while going through a bunch of photos. I hadn’t seen the picture in years, so I thought I would share it with you. Perhaps you see yourself as a Disney or Pixar character on occasion. If that’s the case, what Disney character would you be? A hero, villain or a zany side kick? Would you live happily ever after, or fall to your doom from a high tower? It appears Disney villains often die this way. True, it may not be fun, but at least you’ll go out with a bang. Then again, I wonder if Disney or Pixar villains even die anymore? More often than not, It appears they’re required to return for the inevitable sequel.

It was fun to create this cartoon family portrait for an animation artist and his family.

It was fun to create this cartoon family portrait for an animation artist and his family.