Requiem for a Gagman

I was taking a noontime stroll on the Walt Disney studio lot some years ago with veteran animation writer/director, Chuck Couch when he pointed to the Studio Bungalow. "I used to work in that building on the old Hyperion lot in Silver Lake." Although Chuck had done pretty much every job in the animation business over the years, he always referred to himself as a gag man. The title, “Disney artist” seemed too lofty a term as far as Chuck Couch was concern. When colleagues introduced him as the Walt Disney artist, Chuck curtly corrected them with, "gag man!"

    In the old days of animation, being a Disney gagman was no small deal. The Old Maestro himself had great respect for his studio gagsters. They were the guys called on to pepper a cartoon in progress with humorous visuals that would plus the films' entertainment value. No doubt you've heard the names Roy Williams, Al Bertino, Homer Brightman and many others. When Walt Disney launched WED Enterprises to create theme park attractions he stole many of his funny men from the film division. Disney knew that in order for his park to be successful, his attractions would need the same entertainment value he had given his animated films.

    It was during this exciting time that I arrived at the Walt Disney studio hoping for a career in animation. During my initial training as a young animation artist I would muster up enough courage to venture upstairs to the second and third floors of the Animation Building to see the work of the Disney story artists and gag men. Unlike today, the Disney gag artists were a well-respected lot. They had the largest offices, worked their own hours, and most important of all, interacted with the boss, Walt Disney on a regular basis. In a way, the gagman was, if not king of the castle, a well-respected nobleman.

    Flash forward to the present. Every animated movie you see will probably list several screenwriters.  Gag men are rare today, and the few studios have are often considered unimportant. As expected, these talented individuals are usually ignored. When I returned to Walt Disney Feature Animation in the early nineties, the company appeared to be on a new path. The new management had decided that animated films were now to be taken seriously. Funny, zany gags were simply too crass, too witless, and yes - too Disney. Still, Feature Animation had a hand full of funny guys who continually tried to push humor into the movies. One such was story man, Don Dougherty whose offbeat, wacky cartoon sketches filled the "Tarzan" storyboards. Though, getting an occasional laugh from the directors, pretty much none of Don's work ever made it into the Disney movie. Yet, the African continent was devoid of Africans. Was this Disney’s idea of “black humor?”

    As an old school story guy I often felt out of place in the new Disney. The old Disney storytellers had mentored me, but the new crop of story artists and directors had grown up on McKee and Truby. Disney entertainment had been replaced by story structure, inciting incident and character arc. In the late nineties, I felt like a Disney dinosaur as I labored for over a year on a film entitled, oddly enough, "Dinosaur." A potentially brilliant movie, it ended up having all the entertainment value of a military training film. Before long, I began to feel like my old pal, Chuck Couch. Did I simply never leave the Hyperion Bungalow? Was I a relic from the past unable to cope with the new, hip, edgy storytelling techniques of a new generation? After four Disney features, I decided maybe this was the time to pack it in.

    Don't get me wrong. I have only the highest respect for the new generation of animation artists and storytellers. These young artists have been my friends and colleagues, and we've done some good work together. Yet, I was well aware that no one was breaking down my door trying to get me on his or her new movie. Further, few of the new films in development, with the notable exception of "Lilo and Stitch," held any excitement for me anyway. It was at this time that the past, in a very odd way, met the future. In December 1996, I found myself in a meeting that involved a new animation studio. A hot new medium and fresh story telling techniques were being pioneered by an exciting new company. Story telling, oddly enough that modeled itself on "Old Disney Visual Storytelling." It seemed the young filmmakers at Pixar Animation Studios had learned their stuff from the old Disney guys at California Institute of the Arts. Only, unlike their animated partner in Burbank - they hadn't forgotten it.

    With Pixar's string of successful movies it became popular among animation buffs to quote the familiar mantra, story, story, story. But, I remember it was no less than Walt Disney himself who chewed us out back during the development of "The Jungle Book." Because we thought we had legitimate concerns about the films' simple plot line. Well, we caught the wrath of the Old Maestro head on. "You guys worry too much about the story," Walt shouted. "Just give me some good stuff." And, what was that good stuff Walt Disney was talking about, you ask? Fun, humor, entertainment. In a word, Walt was speaking of gags. "The Jungle Book" didn't need a more involved story line because we already had great characters to work with. Let the humor come out of the situation, the characters, and the story will take care of itself. Free from Disney's pretentious film making style, guided by executive wannabe Spielberg’s, Pixar Animation Studios began churning out films that would have entranced the Old Maestro himself. It was no wonder that a small group of us gag men happily found ourselves in our element. We layered on the gags at every opportunity, and the humor came out of situation and character, not out of pop culture references. However, I confess I could not resist a gag in "Toy Story2" when Rex falls out of the toy car and gives chase. It was a cheeky nod to Spielberg’s "Jurassic Park" where the pursuing T-Rex is seen in the car's rear view mirror. 

    As I walked the hallways of our Pixar Animation Studios office in Point Richmond one evening, I wondered why everything felt so familiar. Then, I remembered how neat and tidy the story rooms were back at Disney and how discarded sketches littered the floor of Pixar's scruffy story rooms. We worked in "artistic isolation" back at the Mouse House - each in our own little cubicle. Yet here, the artists, working in groups hashed out a series of gags as we yelled and shouted at each other. It suddenly became clear what I was experiencing was exactly how the Walt Disney studio use to be. Something that would feel pretty familiar to old guys like, Bill Peet, Roy Williams, Al Bertino and Chuck Couch. A time long past when the gagman was king, and animated motion pictures were still very, very funny.

Meetings

I'm taking my morning stroll down the hallway and I’m doing absolutely nothing. 
If you didn't know better you might even mistake me for a
Disney executive. There are tables of snacks and coffee in the
hallway and all of the meeting rooms are full. That's pretty much the
way it goes in today’s business world. People are either on their way back
from a meeting or rushing to a new one. Back in the old days we
didn't have daily meetings. Heck! We didn't even have weekly or
monthly meetings. When the Old Maestro, Walt Disney wanted to
be updated on things - it was only then we had a meeting.
Unlike the rest of my colleagues I'm able to freely roam the hallways
and observe the business at hand. What I find most remarkable
is the fact that people spend so much time talking about things that need
to be done. Back in the days of Disney long past - we didn't talk
about it - we simply did it. I'll provide an example. Had you been
walking down the hallway of the Animation Building in the fifties or
the sixties you would have seen dozens of artists huddled over their
drawing boards. Upstairs on the second and third floors of the
Animation Building you'd see story artists hashing over a sequence
in the large story rooms. What you probably wouldn't see would be
a group of people sitting around a conference table engaged in
endless conversation.

Some years ago, I remember an executive who held staff meetings in
a large room without chairs. No one needed to get comfortable
because the meeting would never last more than a few minutes.
What had to be said never took longer than five or ten minutes. I'll
bet today's senior managers could easily stretch that ten minute meeting to
at least an hour or more. It's become a way of life and today it's
viewed as quite normal. Further, people are serious about their
meetings. In fact, an employee proves their worth by the number of
meetings they attend.

Of course, today’s manner of conducting business remains a puzzlement. How the heck did this amazing company thrive for decades without all those meetings? How did they manage
to accomplish so much without a bunch of managers sitting around a
table and talking endlessly? The answer is obvious. Back in the old
days people actually did the work or they were not going to remain
employed very long. Today, you can earn a pretty good salary by doing pretty
much what I do everyday. And, I don't do anything.

C'mon, you know you've attended this particular meeting. I know I have.

C'mon, you know you've attended this particular meeting. I know I have.

Trial By Fire

Back in the sixties we had hoped to launch our movie making career by partnering with a new black LA television station, but things seldom go as planned. Sadly, the Los Angeles experiment with black media fizzled out and consequently the small group of filmmakers involved in the project gave up the ghost. Leo Sullivan and I had no intention of calling it quits. We continued to produce live action and animated TV commercials for any client who could scrape up a few dollars to pay our modest fee. 

Richard Allen had been part of the original group of young film makers. When Richard heard we were still producing films, he wanted to be a part of our fledgling company. Allen had worked for years as an LA police officer and he attended the USC film school in hopes of a career in motion pictures. Another police officer named Norman Edelen was ready for a career move himself. The four of us decided to do something incredible. We began making plans to launch our own motion picture company.

It was the summer of 1965. As the four of us pondered a move into film making, Los Angeles suddenly erupted into flames. The Watts Riot captured the attention of the world, and in a bold, crazy move we decided to capture it on film. The local news media was terrified of going into the riot area. And, who could blame them. Watts had become a war zone. I remember hearing a news crew pinned down in the riot area calling for help and Los Angeles police unable to quell the violence. It was clear no white camera crew considered themselves welcome in the Watts area as rioters roamed the streets smashing vehicles and burning buildings.

For us youthful filmmakers, it provided a golden opportunity for our fledgling production company. Leo Sullivan and Dick Allen took our 16mm Bolex film cameras (one recently purchased from Roy Edward Disney) along with packs of high speed film and headed into the riot area. I remember buildings burning as LA policemen cowered in their patrol cars. It was an incredible weekend and no one knew how it would end. After a long night of filming Leo and I took our 16mm riot footage to the NBC studios in Burbank Calfornia. Newsman, Tom Pettit was busily preparing a news special that would be telecast nationwide that afternoon. Our little film company had produced film footage that millions of people across the nation would be watching. There was hardly a doubt in our minds that now we were clearly in the business of making movies.

Remembering the streets of Watts in 1965 Los Angeles. We were young filmmakers in a war zone.

Remembering the streets of Watts in 1965 Los Angeles. We were young filmmakers in a war zone.

Making the Sequel

What were you doing in March 1997? I was at Pixar Animation Studios in Northern California working on an animation feature motion picture called, “The Sequel.” At least that’s what it was called at the time. I was lucky enough to be invited to the cartoon factory in Point Richmond to be a part of a cool new enterprise. Some might think it fool hardy to leave the premiere animation studio in Burbank for a new untried studio. After all, they had only made one feature film and had a second in development. Though the first film did well, some considered it a fluke. Hardly competition for the professionals in Burbank. Back then, Walt Disney Feature Animation could do no wrong. They were the hit makers of the nineties and every time they came to bat they knocked it out of the park. If you wanted to play with the big boys of animation, Walt Disney Animation was the place to be.

Yet, this fledgling animation studio managed to do quite well with their first movie back in 1995 and it was enough to motivate me to move north. I honestly wanted to work with these guys. Was it their cutting edge technology that caught my attention? Hardly. The tools animators use never mattered that much to me. No, it was their storytelling that caught my attention. It reminded me of an old gentleman I used to work for back in the sixties. He recognized the need for appealing characters and a solid story. Remember, I said, “solid story,” not great story. The story doesn’t have to be great to make the film work. If you’re wondering how I know this, it’s because the old gentleman told me this himself. It’s rare I’m convinced I’m working on something great. More often than not, you really don’t know the outcome of a motion picture. I often tell people we work just as hard on the flops as we do on the smash hits. After all is said and done, it’s the audience that tells you whether you have a hit or a miss and most of the time we have no idea of the final outcome. Yet, this time it was different. When the producer and director pitched the story to us in the third floor story room in Burbank I immediately felt this was a motion picture I had to be a part of. I felt in my gut this movie was going to be a hit and a big one at that. All we had to do was not screw it up.

Perhaps you’ve seen the film. In time, the sequel was given a name and that name was, “Toy Story2.” The animated film was blessed with great characters and a solid story line. I’ll confess the story development process wasn’t the easiest I’ve experienced in my long career. We storyboarded the movie at least three time with many headaches and train wrecks inbetween. In the third year we were blessed with brilliant storyman, Joe Ranft and director, John Lasseter and the story moved through another complete pass. However painful and exhausting, the final result was well worth the ordeal. “Toy Story2” opened in November 1999 to rave reviews and impressive box office. Having done my job, I was ready to pack up and move back to Southern California. However, my old high school pal, Dave Doctor had a son who worked at Pixar Animation Studios. Pete Doctor would be making his feature directing debut on a film called, “Monsters, Inc.” How could I leave Pixar at a time like this? I decided to return to Pixar Animation Studios and get to know Mike Wozowsky, James P. Sullivan and see what these crazy guys were up to. However, that’s a story for another time.

An early screenplay by Steve Boyett. We were only a handful at the time but something great was in the works. It would be another two years before we would know the answer.

An early screenplay by Steve Boyett. We were only a handful at the time but something great was in the works. It would be another two years before we would know the answer.