The Greatest Job in the World

It was a late Friday afternoon when I spotted the older gentleman staring into a department store window. He was tall, gaunt and had a cigar clenched in his teeth. He noticed me and gave a nod of acknowledgement as I walked passed. I was headed back to work at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. Oddly enough, the old gentleman was a former employee, but much more than that. He was a celebrated Disney legend and one of Walt’s favorite directors. Being a Disney geek, I knew a good deal about his amazing career and I had followed his work since I was a child. I couldn’t help but think this ordinary situation seemed strangely odd. The old gentleman had been a creative force at the Walt Disney Studios for several decades. Now, he was window shopping on a Friday afternoon in beautiful downtown Burbank. I couldn’t help but wonder what was going through his mind that sunny afternoon. Was he happy with his recent retirement and an abundance of leisure time? Could anything else be truly rewarding after having what I considered, the greatest job in the world?

Being a Disney director had to be the coolest job one could ever imagine. You are the creative leader of an amazing animated enterprise and you only answer to one person. Of course, that person was the old maestro, Walt Disney. However, putting that detail aside, you remained the boss, the head honcho and the top enchilada. You sat with the story team as they crafted the films narrative and you scrutinized production design alongside your art directors. You turned up the heat in sweatbox sessions as your animators presented their footage for your approval. Finally, you joined your voice actors (usually Hollywood celebrities) on the recording stage for a spirited session. No doubt, you were working hard, but you were also having a helluva lot of fun and getting paid to do it. Remember, we’re talking about directing back in my day. The good old days before the animated motion picture became immensely popular and incredibly profitable. In many ways, the recent success of animated movies has taken a good deal of joy out of the process of creating an animated film. Sadly, that includes the work of the motion picture director. Hardly a fun job today, the director of an animated movie turns over their life to the production once they sign on. Incredibly efficient managers will whisk you to one meeting to the next and every hour of your day will most likely be spoken for. This exhausting process will begin once you assume the job as director, and won’t end until you have completed the motion picture and the tedious press junket that precedes the films release. Once it ends, you’ll be glad its over, and I doubt you’ll be eager to repeat the process.

In the good old days, graduating to director was a true promotion. A substantial bump in pay was hardly the motivation. Rather, it was the opportunity to realize your own personal vision for a new animated motion picture and leading a talented team to create something truly special. In Disney’s Golden Era, I watched a fair number of talented directors do their jobs. They were a marvelous group of animated filmmakers that included, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Lusk, Les Clark and Gerry Geronimi. Bill Justice, Jack Kinney and Jack Hannah directed the short cartoons and versatile guys like Ward Kimball handled special projects. Finally, our directors were usually accessible and you only need walk into their office to have a question answered. In today’s Hopelessly over-managed studio system you’d have to make an appointment.

I wondered about the cigar chomping gentleman starring into the department store window that sunny Burbank afternoon. I wondered if he missed his job and the creative collaboration of so many amazing Disney artists. Would he ever consider returning, I wondered? Though a life of leisure and relaxation may have sounded enticing to director/animator, Wolfgang Reitherman, it could hardly compare to having the greatest job in the world.

 Director, Woolie Reitherman (far left) enjoying a pitch by story man, Vance Gerry.

Director, Woolie Reitherman (far left) enjoying a pitch by story man, Vance Gerry.

Working with Milt

I’ve been the lucky recipient of many marvelous opportunities during my long career in the animation business. One such, happened in the summer of 1961 when my boss, Andy Engman called me into his office on the first floor of Walt Disney’s Animation Building to inform me of my next assignment. “The Sword in the Stone” will be moving into production in the next few weeks,”replied the animation boss. “It looks like you’re going to be working with Milt.” I was momentarily speechless. There was no need for last names in this particular instance. I knew full well Andy was referring to the “Terror of D-Wing,” who just happened to be one of Disney’s most demanding directing animators. Milt Kahl was a stellar animator as well as the studios finest draftsman and few could match his level of drawing. Who would make such a choice, I wondered? Considering the number of talented artists at Disney’s disposal, why choose me? I wandered back to my office in A-wing still trying to make sense of the whole thing. Perhaps this wasn’t an execution after all, I considered. Maybe it was a golden opportunity to work with one of Disney’s finest.

In short order, Roy Geyser and his moving crew would be packing up my office and moving me down the hallway to D-wing. This was standard procedure at the Walt Disney Studios where animation artists were continually relocated (lock stock and barrel) when work assignments necessitated. Now, it was 1961 and the wing itself was going through a number of changes. Director, Eric Larson (after a five year stint on Sleeping Beauty) was moving back into his corner office at the West end of the wing. However, Directing animator, Marc Davis was packing up and preparing to leave for his new assignment in Glendale. Apparently, Walt Disney had other plans for Mr. Davis. Ward Kimball decided not to return to D-wing even though he had completed his assignment creating films on space exploration. Kimball had decided to make the move to live-action films and he gave up his D-wing office to animator, John Kennedy. I moved into 1D-1, a large office near the front of the wing. The large space could easily accommodate several artists, but for the next few weeks I would be the only occupant of the sizable office. I regularly kept my office door open so I could see the “Old Men” as they arrived for work each day. Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston arrived at the same time each day because the two had been “car pooling” long before the term was invented. On the other hand, Milt Kahl made an entrance characteristic of his expansive personality. The outer door would slam open with a loud bang as the tall Dutchman stomped down the corridor. When Milt Kahl arrived, everyone knew it.

Things were not totally unfamiliar in my new quarters. Stan Green had an office down the hallway and he remained Milt Kahl’s Key assistant on the new animated movie. I had briefly worked with Stan on Sleeping Beauty and we had an excellent relationship. Stan would be my buffer because he had already been working with Kahl a number of years. Before long, I received a call to pick up my first scene from The Sword in the Stone. For some reason I expected Stan to have given the scene a once over before handing it off to me. I was in for surprise, because Stan hadn’t even touched the scene. He simply handed me a stack of rough animation. I was given the rough animation of Milt Kahl, and my job was to finalize the scene. Before going further, let me explain the way we were working back in 1961 when animation had already made the move to Xerox. Since there was no longer any need for super tight clean-ups in a scene, the animation assistant could now work over the animator’s original drawings without the need to start with a clean sheet of paper. That meant I would be drawing (Oh, the horror) directly over Milt’s rough sketches. I probably sat at my desk for hours studying every Milt Kahl pose and attitude as well as his loose but confident sketches. Eventually, it was time to pick up my pencil and make a commitment. It was time to sink or swim. I’ve learned when you are afraid of something, you need to overcome the fear. You don’t run from it…you run toward it.
Milt Kahl usually scrutinized his scenes on the Moviola once they were returned from the Camera Department. He and Stan would run the clattering machine back and forth as they studied the animation. If Milt was satisfied he would turn the scene over to Music Room. That meant, director, Woolie Reitherman would cut the scene into the reel. In time, Walt Disney would gather with the animators in the Sweatbox to go over the scenes. Soon, several weeks had passed and I continued to clean-up (or should I say, touch-up) Milt Kahl’s inspired sketches. I heard not a word from the Master Animator and I considered this a good thing because Milt did not hide his disapproval. His welcomed silence meant I was doing my job to his satisfaction. When you work for Milt Kahl, it doesn’t get much better than that. 

So many memories of those marvelous days remain with me to this day. In time, I joined Milt Kahl in his office as we watched animation scenes on his Moviola. Milt took particular delight in the antics of the mad Madame Mim and he roared with laughter at his own animation. Clearly, Milt was good and he knew it. I remember our wonderful voice actors, Ricky Sorenson, Karl Swenson, Junius Matthews, Ginny Tyler and Norm Alden. I lived with their voices for two years and they felt like old friends. However, I remember the awesome opportunity to work with an Animation Master. I was taught how to create a solid drawing and how to imbue a character with life. All done without the benefit of technology, because we had none. Milt Kahl brought delightful characters to life using nothing but pencil, paper and a rich imagination. Say what you will about Disney animation, it doesn’t get much more magical than that.

 I had the opportunity to work with Milt Kahl back in 1961. It doesn’t get much better than that.

I had the opportunity to work with Milt Kahl back in 1961. It doesn’t get much better than that.

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.