The Storyteller

Those of you familiar with my career probably know that I worked with a talented guy named Vance Gerry. Little has been written about Mr. Gerry and it appeared he wanted it that way. Vance was one of those guys who simply arrived at work each day, created brilliant stuff and went home. He seldom, if ever gave interviews or sought the lime light. Vance was content to do wonderful visual development and create delightfully entertaining sequences for Disney movies. Vance Gerry appeared to do all this with - as Carl Barks would say - ridiculous ease. He had the unique ability to make his storytelling efforts look effortless, and he lent his considerable talents to scores of Walt Disney films over the years.

Vance Gerry was a prolific development artist and often his shelves were filled with forgotten projects and film ideas that failed to move further in development. One such was this movie idea I simply call, Vance’s Dog Story. I found it buried in a pile of sketches in his office and I regretted Disney had not shown interest in the story. I convinced Vance to let me borrow his sketches and do further development work on the project. I created additional material in color with the hope of perhaps showing the revamped project to our Disney bosses, Peter Schneider and Tom Schmacher. The story, like most Walt Disney animals stories was deceptively simple. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel this story of a man and his dog would be sure to resonate with audiences.

Here’s the story in a nutshell. It’s a small time circus, and a nice young man has been making a living doing a circus act with his group of trained dogs. The young trainer is devoted to his canine performers and they’re more a family than simply a cheap circus act. However, hard times force the circus to close down and the young dog trainer has to abandon his act along with his family of canine pals. Regretfully, they come to a parting of the ways as the dogs are all given new homes. It’s a sad but necessary solution because the young man cannot afford to support his animal family. He has to give them up, and they go their separate ways. Time passes, and one clever dog is determined to find his former owner. So begins the journey that will eventually happily reunite the young man and his talented troop of pups. Very simple story, wouldn’t you say?

As you can imagine, our Disney bosses had little interest in such a story. Too plain, too simple and worse of all - probably too Disney. As much as I respected my bosses at the mouse factory it often appeared making Disney movies was the last thing on their minds. Perhaps they were right. After all, times had changed and movie audiences were probably in the mood for something cool, hip and edgy. Vance Gerry continued to create dozens of family oriented stories during his remaining years at Disney. His stories were focused on companionship, heart and charm. And, his stories may very well have been green lit for production had a certain wise old gentleman still been in charge.

Cool, mellow and laid back, Vance Gerry represented the best of Disney storytelling. I owe this kind gentleman a debt of gratitude for his mentorship.

Cool, mellow and laid back, Vance Gerry represented the best of Disney storytelling. I owe this kind gentleman a debt of gratitude for his mentorship.

Television Cricket

Okay, you Disney geeks. Can you identify this finished production cel? If you said, it’s from Walt Disney’s “Pinocchio” you’d be dead wrong. Yes, this is a hand inked, hand painted production animation cel but it’s not from the Disney classic we all know and love. First of all, look at the hand inking. The work is well done of course. But, it’s not the delicate lyrical line of the Disney masterpiece. And, there’s little evidence of the labor intensive task required of a Disney inker. Take a closer look at the Cricket’s colors. The colors are not muted and soft. As a matter of fact it looks like paint out of the bottle. Of course, we’re not looking at Disney’s unique water based paints. What you see here are acrylics that can probably be purchased at any art store. Okay, now you know you’re not looking at a gorgeous animation cel from “Pinocchio.” This cartoon cel is from a seventies television commercial featuring the Walt Disney characters.

I’ve worked on my share of Disney television projects over the years. Everything from TV commercials to shows slated for the small screen. Even as a kid in training I was always aware of the difference between the work being done for the big screen and the rather lackluster stuff being created for the small. Back in the fifties we thought of television as a second rate display platform and the studio made its product accordingly. Animation being produced for analog, black&white television was usually considered less than the stellar work being done for the big screen. Consequently, animation drawings were inked with a thicker line and the colors chosen were hardly subtle. Should you visit Phyllis Hurrell’s television commercial unit in 2-G wing on the second floor of the Animation Building you might be surprised to see Disney background artists painting their scenics in greyscale not color. Of course, the Disney artwork was no less masterful, and I loved watching the small team of background artists at work. One of the background artist was a talented woman named, Barbara Begg. I mention this for all those who insist Walt Disney did not provide opportunities for women back in the fifties.

Character designer, Tom Oreb created a number of, “TV ready” Disney characters to be used in commercials. Usually, the characters were stylized and simplified for the scruffy, lackluster television transmission of decades past. Naturally, the pencil animation was inked by Disney’s ink&paint department. Larger pen quills were used to create a broad, bolder outline and on occasion, the artists resorted to using a brush for their inking. It may seem odd that so much special attention was given to television production. However, fifties television never even came close to the high definition images we take for granted today. On occasion, a commercial might be produced in color. The “Alice in Wonderland” animation featuring the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle are a good example. Though years would past before Walt Disney would make his “Wonderful World of Color” deal with NBC, the Alice commercials were never broadcast in color. However, I’m certain Walt had something in mind when he decided to go with color. That was the nature of the Old Maestro, of course. Walt was always thinking ahead. And, in doing so, he continued to confound his critics.

This scruffy animation cel from the seventies is still in pretty good shape. That’s because the paint is acrylic and not water based. That, sadly was the downside of the Disney water based paints. The pigments were gorgeous, but they were never meant to last. I confess I know this from first hand experience. The few Disney cels I took home to add to my collection failed to survive. Over time, the water based pigments literally fell off the cel and my treasures were lost. In any case, this Jiminy Cricket will probably out last me, and I’ve no problem with that.

Yes, it's Jiminy Cricket, but this animated cel is not from the Walt Disney classic motion picture.

Yes, it's Jiminy Cricket, but this animated cel is not from the Walt Disney classic motion picture.

TV Guide

You may find this odd but I was a reader of TV Guide long before I owned a television set. Allow me to explain. Back in the nineteen fifties I was a starving art student attending Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. In those days money was tight and we often had to choose whether we would eat lunch or purchase art supplies. On more than one occasion, art supplies trumped lunch. This was simply the reality of being an art student in the fifties. As I made my way home from school each day I would often stop at the local drug store where magazines were sold. I’m not sure, but I think TV Guide came out either Monday or Tuesday of each week and I was always eager to get my hands on the latest copy detailing the upcoming television fare. You see, back in the fifties, television was our mass media. Much like our Internet today, television was our window to the world. The events of the day, be it across the country or around the globe could be seen and heard on television. It’s difficult to explain the impact simple black &white television had on our lives.

Of course, I didn’t own a television set back then. So, why would a young art student be so eager to purchase a magazine that showcased all the shows I would not even be watching? Oddly enough, reading about TV was almost as good as watching television. TV Guide had a clean, crisp editorial style and for its time was a pretty good looking publication. There were often articles and reviews along with synopsis of upcoming episodes of popular shows. Of course, there were the occasional television specials which allowed network executives to coin a word that added splash and dazzle to their presentations. They called their shows, “Spectaculars.” It was corny but American audiences ate it up. So, why was a starving art student reading everything about shows he would never watch? It may sound weird but I gained a certain pleasure reading what others were enjoying on television. Dave Garroway hosted an early morning gabfest on NBC and Steve Allen commanded the desk which would soon become a staple on late night talk shows. Jackie Gleason ruled Saturday night and every Sunday evening, an awkward TV host named Ed Sullivan promised you, “A Really Big Shoo.” Television was a pretty big deal back in the fifties and I didn’t even own a television set. I’m not telling you this to garner any kind of sympathy for a poor, starving art student. Actually, I was quite content doing without such goodies and concentrating on the job at hand. Unlike kids today, I never felt I deserved a television set or anything else for that matter. I was lucky enough to be going to school and that was about as good as it gets. Today, pampered kids can’t live without a cel phone, iPad or the latest Apple laptop. Of course, in their eyes it wouldn’t hurt if dad sprung for a new BMW. After all, Am I supposed to take a bus to school? Please!

Back in the eighties, Sony developers arrived at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank to show off their amazing new technology. Technology that was at least a decade away and couldn’t be implemented because broadcasting (in America, at least) was still analog. However, what we witnessed was jaw dropping spectacular. On view were large flat screens and pictures so high in quality we felt as though we were viewing images through an open window. “This is where television is headed,” Sony informed us. “Once digital becomes the norm, your television viewing will never be the same.” Today, a good deal of those eighties promises have finally come true and we view high definition, flat screen television transmission with the same casualness we gave cheesy, analog, images decades ago. 

I was once a fifties, starving art student unable to afford a television set, but all that has changed. I now have more television sets than I know what to do with, and I eagerly consume media using an ever growing host of digital devices. The once exciting format and brisk editorial style of TV Guide no longer thrills me, and the new, larger format is a bore. But, I’ve not forgotten my weekly visits to the magazine store back in the fifties. The latest issue of TV Guide was on the shelf and I considered this the greatest little television magazine in the world.

In time even the Old Maestro, Walt Disney would grace the cover of TV Guide. Walt's bold move to the small screen back in the fifties was a very big deal.

In time even the Old Maestro, Walt Disney would grace the cover of TV Guide. Walt's bold move to the small screen back in the fifties was a very big deal.

Forgetting History is Never a Good Idea

Even as a child growing up watching Walt Disney’s “Song of the South” I recognized actor, James Baskett performing the voice of Brer Fox. The voice actors in the Disney film included, Johnny Lee performing Brer Rabbit, along with Nick Stewart doing the voice of the slow-witted Brer Bear. James Baskett handled the fox during the cartoon sequences, but the talented actor could switch gears in a heartbeat. Baskett could perform the bear when needed and he also did Brer Rabbit when actor Johnny Lee had to be away on war time assignments. Remember, this was the forties and World War II still raged on in Europe and the Pacific. Though the film opened to a degree of controversy, the talented actor received a special Academy Award for his portrayal of Uncle Remus, the fanciful but wise storyteller in the classic 1948 Walt Disney movie. 

Today, Walt Disney’s “Song of the South continues to be a hot potato and even the Disney Company is reluctant to embrace the film. The charming tale of a wise old man using fanciful stores to help a young boy deal with personal issues. While the film may seem too melodramatic for some, the movie is enriched by inspired animation sequences that propel the story forward. Not only does each animated sequence deliver an important message for the troubled young Johnny, the animation showcases the Disney cartoon masters working at the top of their game. When I arrived at the Walt Disney Studios in the fifties, the top animators regarded their work in “Song of the South” as some of their finest. The cartoon segments are stellar and clearly Disney storytelling at its best. It is with deep regret the film remains mired in accusations of racism and insensitivity to African Americans. Those who know their Disney history know this is exactly what Walt Disney hoped to avoid.

While we patiently wait for attitudes to change, we’ll have to enjoy the Walt Disney classic motion picture on foreign DVDs and boot legged digital copies. However, I remain optimistic that we’ll one day gain a maturity regarding race and ethnicity in our media. We’ll get pass outmoded perceptions and recognize we’re all pretty much the same. Walt Disney had no racial agenda in his 1948 motion picture. The master storyteller was simply eager to dig deep into America’s rich and unique heritage. The stories thankfully preserved by Joel Chandler Harris are part of our American heritage even though a part of it deals with a period in our history we would rather forget. However, forgetting history is never a good idea. Walt Disney understood that… and so should the rest of us.

Two of the funniest characters ever created. Voices provided by James Baskett, Johnny Lee and Nick Stewart. They're all black actors, by the way.

Two of the funniest characters ever created. Voices provided by James Baskett, Johnny Lee and Nick Stewart. They're all black actors, by the way.