Saving the Movie

Richard Sherman, Bruce Reitherman and myself. All the rest are gone. The animators, layout artists, background painters, musicians and voice talent of Walt Disney’s animated classic, “The Jungle Book” are no longer with us. Sadly, the Old Maestro himself never lived to see the finished motion picture. Walt Disney passed away a few weeks after we had wrapped the story. 

Back in early nineteen sixty six, it was already common knowledge that Walt Disney was not exactly delighted with Bill Peet’s adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling novel. Color stylist, Walt Peregoy had already been given the boot when Walt expressed his displeasure with the movie’s background styling. Now Walt focused on the dozens of storyboards Peet had created over the past two years. The moody sensibility of Bill Peet’s story line caused Disney to mutter something totally unexpected. “It reminds me of Batman,” Walt grumbled. Was Walt Disney a closet fan of the Dark Knight, we wondered? Anyway, it was not exactly an endorsement of Bill Peet’s adaptation. Things were hardly rosy between Bill and Walt. Peet’s latest film, an adaptation of T.H. White’s novel, “The Sword in the Stone” had stumbled at the box office and Peet had been given carte blanche on the movie. Not about to let this happen again, Disney ordered changes. Rather than change the tone of the story, Bill Peet decided to head out the door.

Walt Disney’s displeasure with Rudyard Kipling’s novel, “The Jungle Book” was hardly something that concerned me. After all, I wasn’t even on the picture. Whatever problems that had to be worked out were certainly no concern of mine. I had what I considered an animation dream job working for my favorite animator. Even better, I worked in my private office in coveted, D-Wing where no one bothered me. I do not exaggerate when I say I was living the dream. The dream ended late one Friday afternoon when my boss, Andy Engman called me into his office over in B-Wing. “Sorry to get this news to you so late,” explained Andy. “But, you’ll need to pack up your office because we’re moving you upstairs to 2-C. Why would I be going to 2-C, I wondered? That’s the directorial wing of Wolfgang Reitherman. That’s the headquarters of the feature film, “The Jungle Book.” Why the heck would I be moving up there? Andy Engman quickly answered the question before I could even ask. “You’re going to be working on “The Jungle Book” with Woolie, Andy replied. I confess I was so shocked, I could not even think of any further questions. I headed back to my D-wing office and began to pack. Why was I going to story, I wondered? The story department at Disney was a pretty big deal, and many had tried to break into story without much success. Now, I had been given a job I never even requested much less tested for. There were procedures and protocols in place. Even then, an assignment in Walt’s story department was no guarantee. How the heck had I managed to leap over the many requirements? Why had nobody dared questioned my qualifications? It would take somebody truly important to make this happen. It was then, I suddenly realized I had answered my own question.

Monday morning, I arrived in 2-C on the second floor of the Animation Building and sat down at my new desk. In true Disney story fashion, my desk was butted up against another where my story partner, Vance Gerry would be working. Thankfully, I had known Mr. Gerry for a few years, so he was hardly a stranger. Vance was wearing his characteristic saddle shoes and had a wool sweater tied over his shoulders, preppy style. He seemed absorbed in his newspaper, and work appeared to be the last thing on his mind. Naturally, I was apprehensive and somewhat nervous. After all, this was my first day in Walt Disney’s coveted story department, and I do not hesitate when I admit I didn’t know what the hell I was doing there. I grabbed a stack of story pads and a handful of grease pencils because I knew that Walt Disney loved story sketches that were broad, bold and not fussy. I looked over at my laid back partner for some sign of what to do next. “Vance, What exactly are we supposed to do” I inquired? Vance Gerry casually lowered his newspaper with a wry smile on his face and said, 

“We’re gonna save the movie.”

This guy slithered into my life fifty years ago. Actually, it seems like yesterday.

This guy slithered into my life fifty years ago. Actually, it seems like yesterday.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

On a chilly November morning in 1993 my Disney colleagues and I gathered in a Glendale meeting room. We were not alone. In the room were the Disney bosses, Peter Schneider, Tom Schumacher, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Roy Edward Disney and CEO, Michael Eisner. Can you imagine the tension in the room?

Art Director, Dave Goetz began his pitch. “14th century Europe, a dark and dreary time. A time of hopelessness. A time of…” Before Dave could finish his sentence, Michael Eisner blurted out, “EuroDisney!” Suddenly, the room exploded with laughter and the tension was broken. Should you not remember your Disney history, let’s just say the Disney theme park project in Paris had not been going well. However, it was clear that the big Disney boss, Michael Eisner was willing to laugh at himself. However, it was time to get back to the business of pitching a new animated Disney motion picture. A movie totally different than anything we had tried before. Hardly a story about princesses and bunny rabbits, this story would push the animated filmmakers in a bold new direction. What were we proposing, you might ask? An animated adaption of Victor Hugo’s classic novel, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

Much like the despised, ugly hunchback, Disney animation had been lacking in respect for years. Without the support of the Old Maestro, Walt Disney, the animation department had found itself with an uncertain future. When new management came to Disney in the early eighties, animation was deemed costly and unprofitable. Without the support of Roy Edward Disney, the entire unit could have - and would have been placed on the chopping block. Finally, the beleaguered department was dumped into the hands of film chairman, Jeffrey Katzenberg. It was either fix it - or get rid of it. The artists rose to the challenge and worked harder than ever. Under the chairman’s new leadership animation was given a reboot and what was to follow proved to be amazing. “The Little Mermaid,” Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” were all critically acclaimed and profitable as well. Bolstered by incredible success, the Disney Animation Department suddenly had the feeling they could do anything.

In spite of the considerable religious overtones, the motion picture was given a green light for production to begin. The small team of development artists began preparing for the move to our new production facility, a large warehouse on Airway Street in Glendale. As the Disney story and layout team moved into the new quarters we decided our building needed a name, so one was given. It was a name more than appropriate for our animation production. Our building was called, Sanctuary. As the team settled in, I made it a point to learn the names of our new colleagues. Because Disney was already knee deep in production on another film, we had to recruit a number of new (new to Disney in any case) animation staffers to round out our team. Some of the animators were Canadian, while others, such as James Baxter relocated from the UK. Finally, two talented brothers named Paul and Gaetan Britzzi joined our production. Interestingly enough both came from the very city where our story takes place. That’s correct. Unlike the rest of us, the Britzzi brothers actually lived in Paris France. No doubt about it, this was going to be interesting. I’ll tell you all about it in part two, okay?

Quasimodo, the wretched and despised hunchback of Notre Dame. Until Disney animation became successful again we could truly identify with this guy.

Quasimodo, the wretched and despised hunchback of Notre Dame. Until Disney animation became successful again we could truly identify with this guy.

The Man on the Rooftop

Should you be one of the lucky boys and girls born recently, a look back at the nineteen fifties probably seems like a view of ancient history. In some ways I guess it is exactly that. As a twenty something just beginning my animation career I felt pretty much like a kid myself. It was a time few seldom remember as we try to navigate the complexities of todays world. There’s always nostalgia about the past, I suppose. But, I’ll have to confess the world we lived in, though not without its social problems, appeared to be a more stable place. Free from domestic and world problems we were able to concentrate on silly stuff such as the meeting of a prince and princess in a forest glen or focus on the sketching of little squirrels and bunny rabbits hopping underfoot.

It was my second year on the Walt Disney animated feature film, “Sleeping Beauty.” Our animation clean-up team consisting of Freddy Hellmich, Chuck Williams, Jim Fletcher and Bob Reese had moved from our temporary second floor digs to permanent quarters in G-wing on the first floor of the Animation Building. As an aside, this is the present location of actor, Edward James Olmos’ production company. However, more on that later. In any event, work proceeded slowly as we fine tuned the piles of rough animation stacked on our shelves. Though you’ve probably read a good deal about Disney’s Nine Old Men, there were many other animators on the film, and it was our responsibility to clean up their scenes. There were scenes animated by Hal Ambro, Hank Tanous, Don Lusk, George Nicholas, Ken O’Brien, John Sibley and Harvey Toombs to name a few. It had been a long, hard year, but hardly unpleasant. Unlike today, the Disney artists had private offices and more than a degree of privacy. Even a lowly clean-up artist like myself had a private office that not only included an animation drawing board, but a desk and lounge chair as well. I honestly can’t think of a better time to be working at Walt Disney Productions. The year was 1958 and all was well with the world. At least it was in our little world.

Freddy Hellmich’s clean-up crew continued to work away at their drawing boards as the sunny day began to move toward late afternoon. Suddenly clouds rolled in and the sky began to grow dark. Think about a Walt Disney movie when ominous music fills the air and light suddenly turns to dark. Little animals scamper for cover and you know a storm is on the horizon. It was then, brilliant lightning flashed across the sky and the roar of thunder appeared to shake the Animation Building to its foundation. More than one artist left their drawing tables and ran to the window to peer at the sky. “What the heck! Where did this come from?” One artist exclaimed, totally taken aback by the storm that appeared to come out of nowhere. Rain suddenly came down in torrents and several artists who drove convertibles left their drawing boards and sprinted to the parking lot. Employees who were caught outside in the storm hastily scampered for cover. What’s so unusual about an afternoon rainstorm, you might ask? Nothing, I would imagine if you lived in the midwest. However, this was Southern California, and such a freak storm was considered unusual. In any case we thought it was. Moments passed and the pouring rain began to diminish in strength. Darkness turned to light as the clouds suddenly began to part. Magically, if I dare use the word, it appeared the storm was over. 

Many years have passed since that strange afternoon at the Walt Disney Studios back in 1958 and the unusual storm that ended as suddenly as it began. How it began and how it ended so suddenly remains a mystery even to this day. However, there are rumors, though unsubstantiated that a lone individual was seen on the rooftop of the Animation Building that late afternoon. An individual that some say was none other than, the boss. That’s correct. I’m referring to the old maestro himself, Walt Disney.

Can Walt Disney control the weather? You decide.

Can Walt Disney control the weather? You decide.

The Creation of a Gag Book

The meeting took place one quiet spring afternoon at Jerry’s Deli in Studio City California. John Cawley and I sat down to discuss plans for a new book. Hardly a magnificent academic tome, this was nothing but a simple gag book. A book inspired by the humorous situations at animation studios such as, Walt Disney Studios, Hanna-Barbara Productions, and the latest upcoming contender, the Tom Carter Studio. These were gags never intended for publication. Rather, the rough sketches that simply adorned the walls of cartoon studios to amuse the employees. However, John Cawley saw more than gags on a wall. He knew this material could provide a humorous look at the animation business. At the time, I knew little to nothing about the world of publishing and creating a book of any kind seemed a daunting task. Though this was a simple book of jokes, I preferred my involvement in the enterprise be limited. John remained passionate about the project and volunteered to do all the “heavy lifting” required to take a book to press. This was the early eighties, and we were still years away from the print revolution that would eventually be called, “Desktop Publishing.” Back in those days, editorial was still hammered out on a typewriter, and the finished pages were tediously constructed on paste up boards where text, photographs and art were physically pasted in place using rubber cement. This analog process was simply the way things were done prior to the digital revolution.

On the plus side, the content already existed. Over the years, I had sketched dozens - no, let’s make that hundreds of cartoon gags that chronicled the wacky activities inside Hollywoods animation studios. As far back as the nineteen sixties, I had started sketching jokes about the Old Maestro, Walt Disney. I later filled the hallways of Hanna-Barbara Productions with cartoons mocking the company founders while entertaining the cartoon makers as well. When the Tom Carter Company entered the cartoon business in the early eighties, I mercilessly hammered my boss by portraying him as a rich kid aspiring to be Walt Disney. While my gags were pointed, they were never mean spirited. In fact, I received the ultimate compliment years ago by a old Walt Disney veteran. He commended me for being able to humorously criticize people and even studio policy with a delicate balance. My gags never “attacked” anyone - I simply needled them. In my opinion, a good satirist has to be able to make his “victim” laugh even if he or she is the butt of the joke.

For the next few months, we gathered stacks of jokes garnered from the Walt Disney Studios, Hanna-Barbara and Tom Carter. Because these were rough gags never intended to be published, the originals had often been discarded. Thankfully, John Cawley was able to carry on using photocopies of the original sketches long since thrown away. Before long, Cawley had completed the tedious and meticulous job of, paste up, and the book was ready for press. A few weeks later, we had stacks of the published book ready to be distributed. I think John only ordered a thousand copies but that seemed like a huge print run at the time. Hardly a publishing masterpiece, the book had a few rough edges, yet it managed to find an audience. And, so began my flirtation with publishing so many years ago. As the years rolled past, a technological revolution took place enabling tyro publishers the ability to create books on their computer. Even though a decade had passed, I decided to utilize the new digital publishing tools and create a second book on my own. As an homage to John Cawley’s first publishing venture, I called the gag book, “Son of Faster, Cheaper.” Since those early experimental attempts at publishing I finally became legitimate when real publishers began asking me to write for them. My latest book, “A Kiss Goodnight,” a collaboration with my pal, Richard Sherman has just been released. However, I look back on those early days of print with a certain nostalgia. We’ve come a long way since that quiet afternoon lunch at Jerry’s Deli in Studio City.

"Faster, Cheaper, the Flip Side to the Art of Animation" was the gag book that started it all.

"Faster, Cheaper, the Flip Side to the Art of Animation" was the gag book that started it all.