Designing the Future

This is animator, director Ward Kimball. The Disney artist has put aside his zany demeanor to adopt a more serious persona as he begins a lecture on space exploration. Kimball’s “office” is actually on a sound stage on the Walt Disney Studio lot and this is the first season of the ABC television program Disneyland. As you can imagine, I was in geek heaven back then. I was able to indulge two of my passions. Disney filmmaking and space exploration. For this Disney geek it doesn’t get much better than this.

You might be surprise to know how much the Walt Disney Studio was into space travel back in the fifties. Long before NASA, Walt Disney decided to set up a unit that would deal with space travel and extraterrestrial life. Walt also knew that the quirky artist, Ward Kimball would be uniquely qualified to helm the unit. This is the multi-stage rocket ship that was featured in Walt Disney’s first science television show, “Man in Space.” The show was such a success that other space epics would follow. The shows would utilize both animation and live-action and some of the most advanced special effects for its day. In fact, visual effects expert, Con Pederson would later leave to work for Stanley Kubrick on "2001."  If you were lucky enough to score a visit to the second floor Space Unit in the Animation Building you were in for a surprise. Ward Kimball’s unit had more the appearance of a top government scientific development facility than a cartoon studio. Storyboards, graphs and scientific schematics filled the hallways and even the President of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower requested a viewing of Disney’s film.

It’s not difficult to notice how close Walt Disney was to the creation of what we now know as the Space Shuttle Program. As always, Walt Disney was out there ahead of everyone else, and that even includes the government of the United States. Had Walt Disney not been taken from us in 1966 one can only imagine what the Old Maestro might have accomplished.

Disney animator, Ward Kimball prepares to give his lecture on space exploration on the ABC television program Disneyland.

Disney animator, Ward Kimball prepares to give his lecture on space exploration on the ABC television program Disneyland.

Walt's Signature

I walked down the long, narrow hallway with a fair degree of trepidation. Like Moses, I felt I strode on hallowed ground. This was the third floor of the Animation Building on the Disney Studio lot and this hallway led to the office of Walt Disney.

Why would I put myself through this fearful task, you ask? The new book, The Art of Animation had just shipped and I was one of the eager young artists to get his hands on the first few copies that had arrived on the Walt Disney Studio lot. While a handful of us poured through the pages of the magical new book, I knew there was one thing I definitely had to do before the task became impossible. It was well known that Walt Disney seldom signed any books or documents if it wasn’t required. Walt was a busy man and so he had a few staffers who were good at faking the Old Maestro’s signature. They would tackle this redundant task for Walt and give him time for more important matters. I didn’t want a “fake Disney signature.” I wanted the real deal. I knew there was only one way to nail an authentic Walt Disney autograph and that was to go to Walt Disney himself.

And so, with book in hand I headed down the long hallway to the office of the boss. I can honestly tell you I considered turning back a number of times. How would Walt react, I wondered? Would he be upset, or annoyed that I was interrupting his busy day? There was only one way to find out. I approached one of Walt’s two secretaries and made my request. “Is Walt in?” I stammered. “I was wondering if he might have time to sign my book.” “Let me check,” said Tommi. She was Walt’s senior secretary and she knew pretty much everything. I stood in the office glancing around at the numerous Academy Awards and other tributes to the animation master. It felt like an eternity, but I waited. Suddenly, the door opened and a man wearing a grey suit emerged. He didn’t have a smile on his face but he didn’t seem angry either. This made me feel just a little bit better. “What have we got here,” he grumbled. Walt often grumbled. It didn’t mean he was angry - it was simply his manner.
“Oh! This thing. It’s about time.” I handed Walt the book and he pulled out what appeared to be a Sharpie. He signed the book and handed it back to me. “Here ‘ya go, kid!” He turned and headed back into his office before I could barely mutter, “Thanks, Walt.”

As I headed back down the hallway I couldn’t resist glancing at the treasure I had just received. I had Walt Disney’s personal autograph. Not a phony signature by one of the Disney artists, but an autograph by the Old Maestro himself. And then, I remembered one final thing. As I stood transfixed waiting for the boss autograph my book I had forgotten to give him my name. Yet, here it was in my book. “To Floyd with all Best, Walt Disney. Did Walt’s secretary, Tommi give the boss my name - or did he already know it? I’ve wondered about that every since.

Walt Disney signed this copy of The Art of Animation back in the fifties. How cool is that?

Walt Disney signed this copy of The Art of Animation back in the fifties. How cool is that?

The Future of Animation

It would appear that animated film making has evolved into a whole new breed of animal. With more and more animated motion pictures finding a home in the Academy Awards animated film category I can’t help but wonder how these so called animated movies are that different from their live action counterparts? Add such goodies as motion capture and photorealistic rendering, the lines have become continually blurred.

In years past I remember audiences going to Walt Disney movies in particular because they were NOT live-action films. And, of course audiences were well aware of this. There was something fanciful and delightful watching moving drawings spring to life on the big screen. Today, it would appear animation is moving toward increased realism with each passing year. Anything the film maker can imagined can reproduced in the computer. That’s correct, anything is possible and it would seem the sky is the limit. And that, boys and girls is exactly the problem. Those of you who remember the beginning days of digital film making probably recall the early attempts at shading, rendering and how difficult it was to create convincing imagery. Certain textures, including fur and hair pushed programmers to the limit. It’s hard to believe how far we’ve moved since those days when images in the computer looked primitive and clunky. Digital technology has taken a quantum leap and we’re still in the beginning stages of this remarkable technology. While creating storyboards for Pixar’s “Toy Story2” back in 1997, we watched with amazement as digital capability double while we were in the process of creating the movie. Early rendered scenes had to be trashed and redone because the technology had advanced so quickly while the film was in production. This is all a good thing, I would imagine. Although it sometimes feels like clinging to a high-tech tiger by the tail. When he runs at full tilt you hang on for dear life lest the beast decides to turn and eat you alive.

Today, I listen as animated film makers extoll the virtues of their new medium and all the movie making power at their disposal. They can now fold live-action techniques into animated film making that include dynamic camera movement and hand held camera simulations. They can light a cartoon much the same way the old Hollywood masters lit live-action movie classics. Animated cartoon characters will no longer be limited by drawing and caricature. Cartoons can now deliver a performance worthy of Merle Streep or Anthony Hopkins. Subtlety and nuance has now replaced broad acting and exaggeration. Yet, the new realism brings little to the table when compared with classical animation’s efforts. I don’t know about you, but I came into this zany business called animation precisely because cartoon making was not live-action filmmaking. I loved animation exactly because it was all about caricature, broad performance and the limitations of an imperfect medium. Finally and most important, the animator brought characters to life using only his skills and pencil and paper. While I appreciate the enormous range of expression digital technology has given us, I can’t help but wonder if the animated “tail” is finally wagging the cartoon dog?

While it’s true in the old days a creator named Walt Disney pushed for more “realism” in his animated motion pictures. The Old Maestro wanted more life-like performances from his animators because he knew his characters had to be believable. This was necessary for Walt’s stories to work. However, Disney’s artists were limited by what they could create on paper and restricted by the five levels of the animation camera. Yet, that very limitation enabled them to become incredibly creative and they were continually pushed to come up with unexpected and amazing solutions to problems simply because they had to. They were limited by the technology of the day. Yet, that very limitation enabled them to become enormously creative. I’m not knocking the amazing technical achievements we’ve made over the last two decades in the cartoon business. However, I am concerned we’ve become too focused on the wrong things. Technology can free us from tasks that are tedious and redundant. Images such as props, vehicles and effects are child’s play for the computer. Although, I think I’d still give a nod to analog special effects animator Josh Meader’s hand drawn pixie dust over that sparkly computer crap any day. The Disney Masters created classics and they were limited by the tools of their day. The limitation was certainly acknowledged, and they worked within those parameters. Today, the number of camera levels is virtually unlimited and the computer’s ability to replicate images knows no bounds. However, that kind of technological freedom won’t guarantee any classics, I’m afraid.

I honestly don’t expect hand drawn traditional animation to make any kind of meaningful comeback in the near future. I’m not being negative - just simply accepting reality. The “3D genie is out of the bottle” and its not going back in anytime soon. Digital movie makers can now deliver a feature length animated film in months. The same hand drawn footage would more than likely take years. Once you compare the cost, there’s no contest. And, in big time Hollywood movie making the dollar rules. Finally, this is not an appeal to dump the new technology because it has already demonstrated how successful it can be. However, I’d like to appeal to our young animation film makers to use the new technology and not be driven by it. Ultimately, the electronic marvel on your desktop will not solve your creative problems. As always, it will be your imagination and ingenuity that will create the amazing product we call animation movie magic.

We've traveled a long way from Snow White and Pinocchio. Are we headed in the right direction?

We've traveled a long way from Snow White and Pinocchio. Are we headed in the right direction?