Less is More

Last evening I was watching what I thought was a fascinating new network show. I mistakenly thought I was enjoying the premiere episode of a new television series. However, it turns out the show is already on its second season. How the heck did I not know this? It would appear television content is coming at us faster and faster. I’m forced to admit I’m not able to keep up with the barrage of content available these days and I almost feel overwhelmed by what one might call, a glut of entertainment.

However, this would apply to most content these days. There’s so much of it and it’s filling multiple platforms. From theatrical distribution to Internet streaming we’re overloaded with content. The latest example would be Hollywood’s current obsession with superhero movies. Add the Star Wars saga to the mix and you’ve got non stop entertainment with no end in sight. I’m sure young people love this stuff and cannot get enough. Yet, all this makes me realize I’m getting old. After all, I’m a movie geek who grew up on this stuff. I loved cowboys, cheesy science fiction movies and Saturday afternoon serials that entertained us as kids. For those of my generation, this was our obsession. The advent of network television some years later would captivate the next generation. They would consume Scooby Doo, Space Ghost and Superfriends as they were being sold sugared cereals and overpriced toys each Saturday morning. However, there was a time when things moved a little bit slower.

When I was a kid we enjoyed the eager anticipation of a new Disney movie. Each Walt Disney feature film was separated by years not weeks. Production of animated feature films required time to produce and market. Even Walt’s existing library was kept under wraps until a new generation of kids provided a fresh audience. Naturally, this meant a new Walt Disney feature animated film required a waiting period that would take years. Naturally, as a kid I enjoyed the delicious anticipation of the next Disney animated movie. More often than not, all we had to go on back then was a title. Inside information on Disney’s latest feature was non-existent with the notable exception of a movie magazine blurb or a media story in the Los Angeles Times. I still remember waking up to the news that the LA Sunday section had an article on Walt Disney’s upcoming feature film, “Peter Pan.” Included in the media piece were photographs taken inside the Walt Disney Studio of animator, Ward Kimball, director, Ham Lusk and layout artist, Thor Putnam. There was a shot of director, Wilfred Jackson conferring with background artists, John Hench and Claude Coats. For a kid like me, this information was pure gold, and it provided a rarely seen view of the Disney Studio. Naturally, I waited on pins and needles for the release of “Peter Pan.”

It would appear no one has time to wait on a new movie today. Almost before you know it, a new Hollywood blockbuster is ready to hit the silver screen and demand our attention. We’ve barely had time to flush the last movie from our brain before we’re hit with a new trip into space or engage in a fresh battle with the forces of evil. It’s way too much space adventure, superhero conflict and cartoony sequels. Yes, I admit I’m showing my age and sounding like an old timer unable to keep pace with the rapidly changing world of content avalanche. It’s just I miss the good old days of looking forward to an upcoming motion picture. Part of the joy was the eager anticipation and the thrill of knowing something awesome was on the way. I miss marking my calendar and counting the days. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge fan of movies but I miss the wait that made a new animated feature film so very special. I truly believe in the old adage that less is more. I don’t know about you…but these days I could do with a little less.

Ka-Boom! Ka-Blam! EeeeYow! Aaaaarrrrgh! Can we slow it down just a little bit?

Ka-Boom! Ka-Blam! EeeeYow! Aaaaarrrrgh! Can we slow it down just a little bit?

My Hero, Fred Crippen

Here’s how the story goes. A new animation production company suddenly found itself in a heap of trouble in their first few months of production. Call it a blessing or a curse, the young company had formerly operated as a compact, boutique animation production house. Now, suddenly they found themselves with more work than they could ever have imagined. After years of producing commercials and other short form animated content, two half hour animated network shows were dropped into their laps. You might consider this a dream come true. In reality it was becoming a nightmare. Consider this. Normally, the company ran efficiently with a half dozen people handling everything from business, production and post. Now, the tight, efficient little group had expanded to nearly a hundred or more and occupied a much larger facility. Writers, directors, producers and artists faced a production crunch and looming deadlines. Air dates were set in stone and huge fines were levied for missing a deadline. Because of the dreaded circumstances the studio boss decided to make a radical decision. He would set up small production units to create shows outside of the main facility. One might compare these teams to “shock troops” in a war situation. This tightly knit group of professionals could do every necessary job and deliver a show on time and on budget. This was a risky move, but the only way the studio could save itself from a total meltdown.

As shows were being parceled out to independent producers, two young black animation professionals decided to throw their hat into the ring. As expected, the studio production manager scoffed at our proposal. “What do you guys know about producing an animated show? I’ve got animation veterans who can’t get the work done. What makes you think you could do any better?” My partner, Leo Sullivan and I had produced motion pictures in our own shop some years earlier and knew the job better than most. However, being black in the nineteen sixties hardly guaranteed job opportunities and work was hard to come by even if you knew your stuff. Young white filmmakers struggled to prove themselves in this very competitive business. Imagine what you faced if the color of your skin was black. We were about to throw in the towel when the big boss suddenly spoke up.“Give them the show,” he said, quietly. “Let them do it.” Suddenly taken aback, the production manager took a nervous drag on his cigarette and complied with his boss’s orders. Leo Sullivan and I had instantly become television producers because one man decided we could do the job and do it well. In a world where young black men had to prove themselves daily, this exceptional gentleman didn’t need any proof. Our work spoke for itself and the color of our skin mattered little. If that doesn’t seem all that insightful today, remember this was the nineteen sixties and a very different world.

Who was the gentleman who made that remarkable decision many years ago? Probably a name you wouldn’t recognize unless you’re a serious student of animation. His name is not on the hallowed walls of Disney, nor is he considered one of the icons of Warner Bros Animation. Yet, his amazing animation and his delightful wit helped define midcentury cartoon making. After leaving art school, Fred Crippen and his wife headed for New York to begin a career in the animation business. Almost immediately, Crippen scored a job at United Productions of America where the innovative cartoon company was producing television commercials for the then growing television market. However, success at UPA wasn’t enough, so Fred Crippen packed his bags and headed west. He opened his own shop, a studio he called, Pantomime and began creating clever and funny television commercials. Every studio tends to have downtime, and Fred found a way to utilize the time when the little studio wasn’t cranking out ads for the small tube. He came up with a TV series called, “Roger Ramjet.” The hero, voiced by LA radio announcer Gary Owens proved that you didn’t need lots of money to be delightfully entertaining. The episodes were only about five minutes in length, but honestly had more wit and charm than an hour of the animated dreck being cranked out by the big time competitors down the street. It was around this time I was chasing my dream of becoming an animator but nobody in the industry would give me a shot. Not surprisingly, my first animation gig was a gift from Fred Crippen. Children’s Television Workshop had a New York show in development and they needed animation content. My first assignment was animating short segments for the critically acclaimed children’s program, “Sesame Street.”

After his experience with network television, Fred Crippen decided the “big time” just wasn’t for him. He went back to doing television commercials with a small reliable crew and a much simpler life style. The big time and the big bucks seem to have little appeal for Fred Crippen. He found he was happier creating animated product that was not only appealing to audiences, but had wit and intelligence as well. There was a purity in Crippen’s animation. An honesty often lacking in big studios where artists seemed more concern with impressing others. Fred made what he did seem easy and his inspired sketches were the perfect example of everything cartoon animation is lacking today. When we were doing “Sesame Street” many years ago I was given an assignment to animate the show opening for the letter, “F.” I arrived at the studio late one Friday afternoon as Fred Crippen was watching my animation on the Moviola, (an editing machine of the day) and was laughing his head off. I can’t tell you the enormous sense of satisfaction and pride that filled me that evening. Here was one of the Masters of animation watching with approval the material I had animated. I drove home that evening feeling on top of the world.

I’ve been told a good deal of Fred Crippen’s work can now be seen on YouTube. It is well worth a visit to the website where you’ll see the work of a Master Animator. His impressive work includes TV commercials and UPA’s “The Boing Boing Show.” His short form material and titles done for various clients include, “The Edifice” seen in the Saul Bass film, “Why Man Creates.” Always busy as heck, Fred Crippen still found time to enjoy life and he did it with the same exuberant enthusiasm that characterized so much of his career. However, I’ll mostly remember Fred Crippen as the outrageous Democrat who fought for fairness for all people and demonstrated that by the way he lived his life and conducted his business. Fred Crippen was a Master animator and a gentleman. He was my hero and there will never be another like him.

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The Way Things Work

The lights came up in the small screening room where we had just viewed several clips of impressive movie footage. In this particular instance our visual development artwork had been scanned into the computer and effectively manipulated to create some pretty cool visual effects. Since our producer and directors were present I wanted to show my appreciation and enthusiasm for the film we were creating. Like a Disney fan boy I turned to the development team seated behind me and gushed, “I really want to see this movie!” 

I may have wanted to see the animated movie we were developing, but that day would never come. The movie was everything I loved about animated filmmaking and it was the reason I came into this crazy business. For the past year we had been creating a fun story, compelling characters along with an awesome visual sensibility. Because the motion picture was everything an animated movie should be, I knew we would have no problem engaging an audience and I couldn’t wait to bring this animated film to the big screen. However, you don’t always get what you wish for and in this particular case this notion proved to be true. I often remind my young students that while they love animated filmmaking, this magical medium remains a business and should be regarded as such. As much as we might enjoy creating wacky and zany cartoon characters, this unique art form is still about commerce. And, commerce is subject to all the machinations of the corporate world and the market it serves. Goofy cartoons are still a product that is marketed and sold to consumers. We would do well not to forget that. We’re the filmmakers and we create the finished product. Yet, we’re not the ones making the important calls. Business choices determines whether a movie lives or dies. While such decisions appear to be made by caprice, it’s usually driven by corporate strategy and a deliberate plan. Sometimes the decisions made are well informed and often times they appear to be downright foolish. In any case, none of this is our concern. We are simply the cartoon makers.

Anyone who has been in this fascinating business for forty or fifty years or more has experienced the pain of seeing a beloved project crash and burn. You watch in sheer horror as the movie you’ve poured your heart and soul into be ripped from the production schedule and shoved onto the shelf to be revisited another day. More often than not, that day never comes. I’ve watched movies big and small sent to the motion picture trash heap. These were projects we loved. Movies we were invested in. After months, or on occasion, years of work, we had little choice but to walk away. When you’re a professional you dry your tears and move onto your next project. Thankfully, your enthusiasm for the new project helps erase memories of the old, and you pour your heart into the new adventure in this amazing world of animated filmmaking. I think I’ve been luckier than most. The majority of movies I’ve developed have actually made their way through the production process and come out as real films. Not all were great, mind you, but at least they got made. I remember the LA screenwriter who had several scripts optioned. Yet, none ever made it to production. The poor screenwriter had the distinction of being the author of several films that were never made. Welcome to Hollywood.

I was sincere many years ago when I said, “I really want to see this movie.” I did want to bring that particular film to the big screen because I thought it would be awesome. Little did I know plans were being made to move in a totally different direction. And, the scuttling of the animated movie was part of that plan. Whether you call it a devious plot or a well planned conspiracy, it all came to pass. The premiere animation unit was turned on its ear and artists numbering in the hundreds were sent packing, never again to return. Of course, this was an insightful business decision and we’re all the better for it, right? Well, at least a handful were the beneficiaries, and the rest … not so much. I’ve had to learn the hard way that’s the way things work in the wonderful world of animation and probably always will.

Making an animated motion picture is great fun...except for all the other stuff.

Making an animated motion picture is great fun...except for all the other stuff.

Sketching Fairies

It started with drawing lessons, and our animation boss was determined we learn the characters inside and out. Long before we began our task of final clean-ups of the animated art we had to first prove ourselves as artists. Sure, we were simply doing in-betweens and clean-ups, but our work had better be on the mark since it would be scrutinized by the animators and the directing animators as well. In time, our work would have to past muster in sweatbox sessions with the director before being given the final once over by none other than the boss himself, Walt Disney.

Back in 1957, I was given my feature animation assignment and I joined the“ Fairy Unit” lead by animator, Fred Hellmich. The team consisted of Disney veteran, Chuck Williams and Jim Fletcher doing lead clean-up. Rounding out the team were, Rick Gonzalez, Bob Reese and myself. We would spend the next two years pounding out footage for the feature animated Disney classic, “Sleeping Beauty.” Of course, there would be a number of character animators “looking over our shoulders” during the process. As expected, several veteran Disney artists were assigned to animate the fairies and I’m afraid I can’t remember all their names. On a side note, a number of these talented artists never received their well deserved screen credit on the movie but that’s the way things were back then. Talented guys like Hal Ambro, Hank Tanas, Don Lusk, Jerry Hathcock and George Nicholas would be going over our fairy drawings, but the heat would really be on when these sketches were handed to directing animators, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston.

Our animation unit moved into offices on the second floor of Disney’s Animation Building. We shared the upstairs unit with sequence director, Les Clark who had been handed the opening sequence of the film. Layout artists, Homer Jonas and Jack Huber shared an expansive office down the hall from us as they began sketching the triumphant opening sequence of the motion picture. In case you didn’t know, that marvelous opening of the movie is largely the work of Homer and Jack. These talented guys managed to pull off a spectacular film opening with very little animation. Should you study the colorful sequence you might notice that most of the movement is being created with selective camera pans and trucks over static artwork. On another note, the wing was also the home of Mickey Mouse Club director, C. August (Nick)Nichols and writer, actor, Bob Amsberry. It was a fun place to be but eventually we had to leave our upstairs office and relocate to G-wing on the first floor of the Animation Building. This wing remained our home throughout the remainder of the movie. Our young colleague, Bob Reese always managed to befriend the “kids” on the Disney movie sets and he would sometimes bring them to our offices over in animation. We had visitors such as Annette Funicello and Tim Considine in our offices on occasion and that was a pretty big deal.

Of course, most of our time was spent doing the difficult and challenging work of creating finished drawings of the three good fairies, Flora, Fauna and Merriweather. The drawing lessons Freddy Hellmich put us through early on truly paid off when we found ourselves in the thick of production. Creating the art for Walt Disney’s masterpiece “Sleeping Beauty” was a challenge to be sure. However, it remains one of the best experiences of my animation career.

We spent most of 1957-1958 drawing these three wonderful ladies. It was my first Walt Disney feature film and it's an experience I'll never forget.

We spent most of 1957-1958 drawing these three wonderful ladies. It was my first Walt Disney feature film and it's an experience I'll never forget.