This is my view as I’m sitting on a park bench outside the Animation Building at the Walt Disney Studio. The year is 2014, but the years long past are still in my head. I shared this bench with a number of Disney friends and colleagues over the years and the first name that comes to mind is famed Disney composer, Oliver Wallace. Ollie and I would sit on this bench at break time and enjoy a pleasant conversation. If you don’t know who Ollie Wallace is I’ll give you a hint. The composer scored dozens of Disney animated short cartoons and feature films. Ollie had a full head of assertive white hair much like the famous orchestra conductor, Leopold Stokowski. Well into his eighties, Ollie Wallace was always a joy to speak with. I also sat on this bench with Kay Silva. Kay was one of the many women working at Disney back in the fifties and one of the many female artists you’ll never read about. As I’ve often said, few people realize how many women worked here and the important role they played in the making of animated films. Kay had a great sense of humor and we would sit and joke as people walked past. Kay was due for open heart surgery back then and she took it all in stride. Sadly, she never survived the operation, but my memories of her remain fresh and clear as if it were yesterday.

As I sit here I suddenly realize behind me is the window of my very first Disney office. Back in February of 1956 a group of young artists were taking their first shot at becoming  Disney animators. We would have a month of training before the decision was made to keep us or let us go. The seven young hopefuls were put in a large office in B-Wing, the very same office directly behind me. Of course, there were many Disney artists who occupied 1B-1 over the years. Back in the sixties, Blaine Gibson and Jack Fergis sculpted mermaids for Disneyland in the very same space. In the seventies, the office was the home of Disney Animation Scene Planning and was run by Ruthie Thompson and Bob Ferguson. 102 years of age, Ruthie Thompson is still with us today.

My memories of Disney past is a long time ago and yet it still seems like yesterday. I can even remember the names of my pals and colleagues and the large office we shared. Tom Yakutis, Tom Dagenais, Rick Gonzales, David Michener, Jack Foster, Bob Ray and Stan Chin were my seven comrades hoping for a job at Disney. Luckily, we all made the cut and most of our group stayed in animation the remainder of our careers. Bob Ray didn’t stay at Disney for long and Stan Chin later left for an advertising career in New York. The rest of us managed to do okay. Rick Gonzales became a top character designer at Ruby-Spears and Dave Michener became a story artist, animator and director. Tom Dagenais kept his word and left the drawing board for a writing gig. Tom heard that writers were being paid more than the artists. The very funny, Tom Yakutis even became a professor at a Midwestern university before returning to cartoon world and wrapping up his career at the Walt Disney Studios in the nineties.

As I sit on this park bench I realize much has changed over the past fifty years and the Walt Disney Studio is hardly the same company it was back in 1956. Although animation’s future has never looked more promising, it’s hardly the same business I entered back in the fifties when cartoon making was considered an odd, quirky and unstable profession. However, in 2014 animation has become big time and big business and Disney’s recent movie has already netted over a billion dollars. That’s a good thing, I suppose but somehow I just can’t seem to get excited. I keep remembering the nineteen fifties, Walt Disney and a business that used to be filled with magic instead of money.

This is my view from the park bench on the Walt Disney Studio lot. I shared this bench with many a Disney Legend when I was a kid. My memories of those conversations are as fresh and clear today as they were fifty years ago.

This is my view from the park bench on the Walt Disney Studio lot. I shared this bench with many a Disney Legend when I was a kid. My memories of those conversations are as fresh and clear today as they were fifty years ago.

Posted
AuthorFloyd Norman
2 CommentsPost a comment

The animation artists arrived early at the studio to find fresh brewed coffee and platters of elegant rolls and pastries from an exclusive Beverly Hills bakery. Astonished, the animators wondered if the goodies had been accidentally delivered to the wrong address. Their employers, unfamiliar with the world of animation regarded their animators as “stars.” Stellar talents that should be regarded with the utmost respect. They knew very little about the real world of animation.

Animated cartoon makers have always been the red headed stepchild of the movie business and even though our films earn impressive amounts of money, animation artists are seldom regarded as important. Those of you old enough might even remember when animators were not invited to the premiere of the films they made. If you know your animation history you’ll remember “Termite Terrace.” It was the ratty, rundown facility where Warner Bros cartoons were created. Even when Warner animation moved to a new studio in Burbank they were still relegated to the rear of the studio lot. After all, why should animators be anywhere near the important people who made motion pictures?

Animation filmmakers have seldom gotten respect in the film industry. Remember the old joke about the starlet who was so dumb she slept with the screenwriter? Consider the animator a few rungs lower than that. Sadly, this is a position we’ve all accepted as normal so when things suddenly change it takes us by surprise. I remember being employed by producers who had never worked in animation before. They provided us with well appointed offices and private parking spaces. Assistants and toadies fetched us coffee and snacks, and we lived like stars. The artists would gather in the hallways and privately joke about our employers. Our bosses were totally naive because they had never worked in the animation business before. They didn’t have a clue concerning how producers normally treat cartoonists, and we enjoyed the good times for as long as they lasted.

Animation artists did enjoy their “star treatment” for a brief period back in the nineties. It was the “Animation Boom” and major studios eagerly sought top cartoon talent for their animated motion pictures. Soon, animators were moving into prestigious neighborhoods and driving luxury automobiles. Artists secured agents and a signing bonus became the norm. No longer restricted to the “back of the bus,” top animators could pretty much name their own price. Animated films cleaned up at the box office and it appeared the good times were going to last forever. But, surprise, surprise! Producers found they no longer needed to rely on the talents of “prima donnas” who made characters move with pencil and paper. The CGI revolution totally changed the way animated films were made and now the rest is history.

It would appear things are back to normal as animation staffers are once again relegated to the status of workers and not superstars. Impressive paychecks are few and signing bonuses are pretty much a thing of the past. In many cases, the artists are simply grateful to have a job. It’s a far cry from the days I experienced many years ago when cartoon makers were treated like Hollywood stars. No more snacks from prestigious Beverly Hills eateries or toadies fetching double expressos at our whim. It may be 2014, but I’ll tell you this. “Termite Terrace” is alive and well.

The animator as a Superstar. Oh yeah, we lived it up for a while. Usually because the producers were so inexperienced they thought we were important. Always look for a naive producer, and you'll be treated well.

The animator as a Superstar. Oh yeah, we lived it up for a while. Usually because the producers were so inexperienced they thought we were important. Always look for a naive producer, and you'll be treated well.

Posted
AuthorFloyd Norman

I'm walking down the hallway this morning with absolutely nothing to do. If you didn't know better you might even mistake me for a Disney executive. There are tables of snacks and coffee in the hallway and all of the meeting rooms are full. That's pretty much the way it goes in today's world. People are either on their way back from a meeting or rushing to a new one. Back in the old days we didn't have daily meetings. Heck! We didn't even have weekly or monthly meetings. When the Old Maestro, Walt Disney wanted to be updated on things - it was only then we had a meeting.

Unlike the rest of my colleagues, I'm able to freely roam the hallways and observe the business at hand. What I find most remarkable today is people spend so much time talking about things that need to be done. Back in the days of Disney long past - we didn't talk about it - we simply did it. I'll provide an example. Had you been walking down the hallway of the Animation Building in the fifties or the sixties you would have seen dozens of artists huddled over their drawing boards. Upstairs on the second and third floors of the Animation Building you'd see story artists hashing over a sequence in the large story rooms. What you probably wouldn't see would be a group of people sitting around a conference table engaged in endless conversation.

Some years ago, I remember an executive who held staff meetings in a large room without chairs. No one needed to get comfortable because the meeting would never last more than a few minutes. What had to be said never took longer than five or ten minutes. I'll bet today's workers could easily stretch that ten minute meeting to at least an hour or more. It's become a way of life and today it's viewed as quite normal. Further, people are serious about their meetings. In fact, an employee proves their worth by the number of meetings they attend.

Of course, it remains a puzzlement. How the heck did this company thrive for decades without all those meetings? How did we manage to accomplish so much without a bunch of managers sitting around a table and talking endlessly? The answer is obvious. Back in the old days, people actually did the work or they were not going to remain employed. Today, you can earn a pretty good salary by doing pretty much what I do everyday. And, I don't do anything.

There's very important stuff happening in this room. Of course, you really don't believe that, do you?

There's very important stuff happening in this room. Of course, you really don't believe that, do you?

Posted
AuthorFloyd Norman