Our Visit to Interlochen

This is our third day at Interlochen here in Northern Michigan. The weather is crisp and the leaves are turning. A gorgeous view of the sparkling lake is a special bonus and our stay here on the beautiful campus grounds has been marvelous. If you’re not familiar with Interlochen, let me bring you up to speed. Interlochen was founded in 1928 and is located in beautiful northwest lower Michigan. Each year, thousands of artists and arts patrons come to Interlochen to experience world-class educational and cultural opportunities. Students study music, theatre, visual arts, film, creative writing and dance, guided by an outstanding faculty and guest artists, and inspired by the scenic beauty of the campus.

We arrived Saturday afternoon and enjoyed a lovely dinner with facility members and special guests. The dinner was followed by a screening of the Floyd documentary produced and directed by Michael Fiore and Erik Sharkey. Two years have passed and people are still watching this amazing movie. Who knew this aging, trouble making cartoonist would one day have a fan following? The screening was followed by a question and answer period and naturally that was followed by marvelous interaction with all the kids. Adrienne and I couldn’t help be struck by the energy and enthusiasm of the students. These are young boys and girls with a passion for creativity. They are, in no particular order, actors, musicians, authors and filmmakers. It’s hardly a surprise the youthful students are bursting with creative energy and simply being around them is invigorating. Not yet college age, I couldn’t help but be impressed by their maturity and quest for knowledge.

As we strolled the scenic campus on a quiet Sunday afternoon, we happened onto a bearded gentleman who was also making the rounds. Initially, he mistook us for former students looking for our old dormitory. My wife and I explained we would have been delighted to have attended such a marvelous art facility when we were kids, but that opportunity never came our way. Before moving on, the friendly gentleman left us with a metaphor. “I’m like that old cart” he explained pointing to a plugged in electric vehicle. “I continually return to this marvelous campus whenever I need to recharge.” 

In a few hours, we’ll be returning to the Visual Arts Building where I have an afternoon class. Sadly, it will be my final class for this October visit to Interlochen and in a day or two we’ll be on our way home. The beautiful, shimmering lake is outside my window as I sit at my computer, and light rain falls on the autumn colored trees. This fall burst of color is something you expect in this part of the country. The kids have headed to the campus cafeteria for lunch and I can hear quiet the roar of students enjoying lunch. We’ll be joining them for a bite and then I’ll be headed for my afternoon film class. It’s odd. I’ve never had an interest in being an academic and the idea of teaching never seemed appealing. However, these wonderful students and a beautiful campus makes me give that notion a second thought.

The beautiful campus of Interlochen here in Northern Michigan. Simply beautiful.

The beautiful campus of Interlochen here in Northern Michigan. Simply beautiful.

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.