Disney Visual Storytelling

Last week I sat down with a marvelous group of dedicated Disney staffers to discuss the particulars regarding the storyboarding process. Of course, we were speaking of the Disney process and its evolution over the last eighty or so years. The questions included, how has storyboarding changed since the days of Walt and how has technology impacted the development process? While we’ve seen many changes in recent years, it’s clear to this story veteran the changes have mainly been superficial. That’s because the story development process has remained consistent since the early days of Walt Disney’s Hyperion studio.

Any dedicated animation fan would immediately recognize the familiar storyboard in the drawing below. This critical component of the development process has changed little since the early thirties and continues in use today even though the physical board has been replaced by the computer screen. Young animation story artists work on a Cintiq. A digital sketchpad that cartoon veterans could hardly have imagined back in the old days. Our tools included a sketchpad and a handful of China Markers or grease pencils. Back then, our sketches littered the floors of the story rooms while today’s drawings can be erased with a simple, Command Z. Yet, with all the technological changes we’ve seen, the story development process remains unchanged. We are charged with crafting a compelling narrative while developing fascinating characters. Whether I’m staring at a blank sheet of paper or an empty computer screen, the task remains essentially the same.

I honestly don’t recall a time in my filmmaking career when I wasn’t storyboarding. After all, it was necessary to have this graphic guide when creating my own movies as a kid. While a script is key to the filmmaking process, I can’t imagine doing any movie without a storyboard. Even renown filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick was well aware that the movie script often fails miserably in conveying ideas effectively. Even so, I never saw myself as a film storyteller until I found myself a member of “The Jungle Book” story team back in 1966. It was indeed a daunting task. Especially when one considers having to pitch ideas to the Master storyteller himself. In fact, I may have the distinction of being the only story artist to pitched both to Walt Disney and Pixar’s John Lasseter. Although they were master storytellers from different generations, both had a keen sense of story and were adept at spotting weaknesses in the narrative. Both Walt and John understood the importance of character and why it was essential that the audience resonate with those characters. Sadly, not every filmmaker is blessed with a sharp sense of story. Having done this job for over fifty years, I have little difficulty spotting an effective storyteller from those who don’t have a clue.

Those attending the meeting had questions regarding the archival process. Was every iteration of the storyboard sequence photographed for archival purposes? Back in the day, the storyboards were taken downstairs to the Photostat department where copies where made. This was long before the Xerox photocopier became a part of our lives. The Disney stats were reproduced in multiple sizes and distributed to various departments. This process continued into the eighties when the production pipeline eventually began to change. Today, much of the story work is done digitally and pitches are often made electronically. While I applaud the flexibility and ease of todays digital tools, I can’t help but feel we’ve lost something in today’s high tech development process. Storytelling is hardly an exact science. One cheeky British colleague best described our quirky, colorful job as, alchemy. Crafting a compelling story is often complicated, messy and chaotic. It’s a series of loose ends, stumbles and do-overs that eventually lead you to your “perfect” narrative. That’s why I love storytelling so much. It’s always a total mess before you finally get it right. It was a delight spending a Thursday afternoon with Disney’s ARL team members. It was fun sharing my experiences and telling the stories that are such an important part of the Disney creative process.

The Disney storytelling process has been around for a long, long time. I suspect it’s not going anywhere soon.

The Disney storytelling process has been around for a long, long time. I suspect it’s not going anywhere soon.

Pencil on Paper

Back in 1956 when a group of young animation apprentices struggled to prove themselves, the Walt Disney Studios was home to hundreds of talented artists. Artists who were awesome talents in their own right. Many of these artists would eventually leave their animation desks to become impressive designers, illustrators and movie art directors. Until that opportunity came their way, many talented men and women needed a day job. Thankfully, the Disney Animation Department provided work for young artists even though the work was often tedious and uninspiring.

Animation in the fifties was a hand made product. There has always been a technological component to filmmaking, but animation filmmakers made movies in a truly unusual way. Every frame of film was drawn by hand. Consider this for a moment. Cartoon movie makers animated their stories using nothing but pencil and paper. It’s difficult enough filming a movie. Imagine drawing every frame of your motion picture. No wonder we think animators are crazy. Crazy or not, the skills required of an animator are not easily acquired. First of all, you’ll need the ability to draw and draw well. You’ll be required to convey ideas using nothing but a pencil and paper. Design skills will be required because you’ll continually be editing your sketches as you search for the most effective image. Finally, the performance given by your character will determine how gifted you are as an actor.

The Disney Studios break time was 10:00 in the morning and 3:00 in the afternoon. Most headed out of the wing for coffee, but a few of us eager to learn more stayed in the wing and wandered down the hallways. We were hoping to get a glance at the drawing boards of the Disney veterans. Keep in mind this was the nineteen fifties when all animated filmmaking was done by hand. Where every frame of film was drawn by talented artists. I was in the group that wandered through the offices of B-Wing checking out the work of our talented peers. The animation sketches often appeared different depending on the animator or the key who was assisting the animator. Some of sketches were roughed with a Blackwing pencil while others liked the soft thickness of an orange Prismacolor. Of course, the refillable mechanical pencil and Magenta lead seemed popular with others. Whatever the choice, the drawings were a wonder to behold. The hand drawn animation process is what most of us found special. The pencil drawings seemed to resonate life and energy. The pencil on paper process was organic, tactile and most of all, human. What was even more impressive was the fact we were not even in a feature film unit. The artwork we observed was simply for shorts and television. Work most Disney artists would hardly deem special. Even so, we returned to our drawing boards inspired by what we had seen during our short morning break.

I miss the amazing simplicity of the animation drawing. The pencil sketch that seems to have been drawn effortlessly. I miss the sketchy underdrawing, the clean-up line and the spontaneous life the animator would breathe into a drawing using only a stick of graphite. Much like this marvelous sketch by Master Animator, Freddy Moore, the art remains a wonder. Call me old fashioned, I still miss the animation notes and the timing chart on the right of the page. The field guide and the inking notes clutter the page, but I gotta admit, it’s a marvelous clutter. It has been many years since my early morning breaks when I moved from office to office absorbing the impressive work of my peers. Hoping that one day I would qualify to work on their level and bring animated life to a host of Disney cartoon characters not yet imagined. Eventually, a goodly number of animation artists did move on to do other things, but I decided to stay. I was hooked on animation art and the special vibe I always felt when I looked at an animation sketch by Freddy, Milt, Ward or Frank. I don’t feel that vibe so much these days. I wonder why?

A delicious sketch by the amazing Freddy Moore. These simple sketches knocked me out when I was a kid beginning my animation career. They still do.

A delicious sketch by the amazing Freddy Moore. These simple sketches knocked me out when I was a kid beginning my animation career. They still do.

A Forgotten TV Commercial

Back in the fifties, our little animation team was tasked with creating a series of television commercials for Walt Disney’s Commercial Unit. Actually, the order came from the woman Walt had put in charge of his profitable division. The formidable Phyllis Hurrell was the executive in charge. Stop and think about this for a moment. Way, way back in the nineteen fifties, Walt Disney had chosen a woman to head up his commercial division. The man often reviled as a “gender bigot” was years ahead of most Hollywood studios when it came to giving opportunities to women. However, we can talk more about that later.

When Walt Disney decided to make the move to television back in the fifties, decisions were made about the use of the classic Disney characters. Because there were still questions regarding the new electronic medium, it was decided Walt’s world famous characters would not immediately appear on the television screen. This explains the use of Jiminy Cricket instead of Pinocchio. That’s why Tinkerbell appears on the Disneyland TV show and not Peter Pan. So, when it came to hawking Peter Pan Peanut Butter, Tinkerbell, not Peter became the “pitch person.” I was assigned to work with my old pal, Freddy Hellmich on the Peanut Butter spots. A Disney veteran, Freddy and I would later be teamed up to complete the fairy animation on Walt Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty.” However, this group of television spots was our current assignment. I still remember Freddy’s choice of drawing tools and how those choices influenced me. He roughed his animation using a mechanical pencil filled with magenta lead. Working over the rough magenta sketches, we would finalize our drawings with a 2B or HB pencil. Every lead animator had his or her own way of working. I remember adapting my drawing style and pencils I used depending who I was following.

In one particular television commercial, the little sprite, Tinkerbell was required to skip across the screen clapping her hands to a delightful little tune. I remember it was difficult to animate the magical little sprite and have her hit her marks just right. We quickly decided we needed live-action reference to make our animation convincing. Well, lucky for us, the live-action model for Tinkerbell was still available, so we quickly brought in actress, Margaret Kerry to film the cute little action we needed for our animation. Decades later, Ms Kerry was visiting the Walt Disney Studios and much to our delight she was able to remember and perform the same little dance as though it was yesterday. I found a stack of those animation drawings in my garage. The same animation sketches we did back in the fifties for the Peter Pan Peanut Butter commercial.

Finally, some might wonder why the drawings differ so much from the original models used in the feature films. That’s easy to explain. Because of the poor resolution of most television reception back in the fifties, our animation drawings were usually simplified to accommodate television’s less than stellar resolution. All the Disney characters were simplified in order to appear sharper and clearer on TV. Most of this Disney design makeover was the work of character designer, Tom Oreb. Tom had a way of simplifying every Disney character including Mickey Mouse. You may even remember Mickey with the odd, squared off ears. For the most part, Tom created a design that worked. Our Tinkerbells were somewhat stylized and simplified even though we were able retain the look and appeal of the magical little sprite. You might also wonder why directing animator, Marc Davis wasn’t involved with the commercial spots. If you remember, Marc Davis was already hard at work on another Disney animated feature that featured two important women. A lovely princess named, Aurora and an evil fairy we all know as, Maleficent. So, you see. Marc had little time for TV commercials. 

The nineteen fifties was a magical time at the Walt Disney Studios. My career was only beginning but everything that came my way was a challenge and a joy. The assignments, whether big or small were opportunities for learning and I look back on those marvelous days with a profound sense of delight. Every time I open a tattered box or a worn folder from days past, it sparks wonderful memories of a Disney that once was… and can never be again.

My original animation sketches from a fifties Disney television commercial. Margaret Kerry was our model.

My original animation sketches from a fifties Disney television commercial. Margaret Kerry was our model.

Fat Albert Part Two

Bill Cosby’s “Fat Albert” television special was something I’ve written about in times past. However, I’ll bet you never knew there was a second “Fat Albert” animated television special you never saw. That’s the story I’m going to share with you today. If you remember, my partner, Leo Sullivan and I made our initial contact with Bill’s production company, Campbell, Silver, Cosby back in the late sixties. It took some doing because this was pre-Internet and tracking down information and addresses was not always easy. However, in time we were able to locate Bill’s production offices in nearby Beverly Hills. Although Leo and I had done early development work, Bill Cosby had already made his decision on who would direct the animated television special. The artists name was, Ken Mundie and he and Cosby had worked together some years earlier. However, Leo and Ken were also pals having met before at the Bob Clampett Studio on Seward Street in Hollywood. Partnering with his old pal, Ken Mundie, Leo joined the “Fat Albert” team while I moved on to ABC to join the writing staff of a new television show. The producers of the new sketch comedy show had already proven themselves on their hit NBC show, “Laugh In.” They were ready to become even more irreverent and outrageous with their new network offering. However, we’ll save that weird story for another time.

NBC had made a deal with Bill Cosby’s production company to create two animated cartoon specials for the network. The first special you already know. It was broadcast in the summer of 1968 and featured a lovable animated character named, “Fat Albert.” Production on the show had been interrupted by a riff between Bill Cosby and his partners, Bruce Campbell and Roy Silver. The team split and went their separate way leaving the second animated special in the hands of Cosby, Mundie and the creative team. Because of the break up, the animation team found themselves without a home. This allowed Bill Cosby to make a problematic decision. He told the animators to temporarily move into his Los Angeles home and use the family room as a work space. Well, Cosby’s wife, Camille was having none of this. Animators may be a fun group but you sure don’t want them in your home. Before long, Mrs. Cosby had had enough of the zany cartoonists and the animation unit was kicked out of the Cosby home.

The homeless cartoon unit eventually found a home in the bungalows of the Studio City commercial production house known as, FilmFair. The successful commercial studio was started by former Disney animator, Gus Jekel and went on to produce a series of successful TV ads such as Keebler Cookies and Charlie the Tuna. I spent a fair amount of time working at FilmFair as well. I animated Tony the Tiger, and a host of other cartoon ads. I had the pleasure of working with talented guys such as Bob Kurtz, Ken Champin and Dale Case. The compact Studio City facility had a few small buildings on the studio property. Because of his relationship with studio boss, Gus Jekel, Ken Mundie was able to move the animation unit into one of bungalows for the remainder of production. Work would continue on the second animated special for the next few months. Yet, somehow this second cartoon special was never seen. That is, except for a few of us. And that, my friends brings us to the end of this odd tale.

One afternoon, I arrived at the Studio City facility to find noted jazz musician and composer, Julian “Cannonball” Adderly watching scenes on the Moviola. Bill Cosby was a huge jazz fan and had hired Herbie Hancock to score the first “Fat Albert” special. Bill intended to follow up with another jazz great. Unfortunately, Cannonball Adderly seemed perplexed by what he saw on the screen. It would appear the animated cartoon made absolutely no sense whatsoever. If he didn’t understand the film, how could he create an effective film score? In a misguided attempt to be provocative and innovative, the movie fumbled a creative opportunity and the second animated film was deemed not worthy of completion. I never saw the famous jazz musician after that odd afternoon. I can only guess Mr. Adderly contacted Bill Cosby and asked out of the deal. And, what was so odd about the film, you might ask? Well, there’s a term we use in the animated cartoon business. Sometimes a flawed film can best be described as a locomotive that has completely run off the rails. Sadly, this film had left the tracks and even Bill Cosby could see that.

At least this quirky story has a happy ending. In time, Bill Cosby took the “Fat Albert” character to the West Valley cartoon studio known as, Filmation. There, under the guidance of studio boss, Lou Scheimer, the studio produced the hit television series we know as, “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.” I still regretfully look back at a missed opportunity. When the first “Fat Albert” animated show made such a promising television introduction in the summer of 1968, one might ask, what the hell happened? Why wasn’t the second animated special a huge success? After all, it had everything going for it. How could you blow it?Remember, it was the late sixties, my friends. A time when a lot of weird and wacky things were going on in Hollywood. Some of that weirdness even affected animated cartoon making. I won’t bother going into detail here. However, in light of current events I’m willing to bet you have some idea what I’m talking about.

Don't blame this jolly fat fellow. A lot of weird stuff was going on in Hollywood back in the late sixties.

Don't blame this jolly fat fellow. A lot of weird stuff was going on in Hollywood back in the late sixties.