What Used to Be

As a rule, the Walt Disney Studios does not give studio tours, or so I understood. However, I’ve noticed a number of people being escorted around the Disney Burbank lot recently. I can only assume these are special guests being given an inside look at what was once Walt Disney’s magic factory. It’s worth a visit, I suppose. The Walt Disney production facility is certainly  something you’d want to see. The facility is clearly inviting with immaculate, landscape grounds and manicured lawns. As an added treat, cute, little squirrels scamper about grounds adding a distinctly Disney touch.

Back in the day, I gave an occasional tour of the Walt Disney Studio myself. As an employee of Walt’s cartoon factory I couldn’t help but be proud of this special facility. After all, this was a production facility built with the artist in mind. Walt Disney wanted to create the perfect environment for his creative staff and he spared no expense. In sharp contrast to Hollywood’s tacky production factories, the Walt Disney Studios was a perfect creative space. The lot had more in common with a university campus than the usual Tinsel Town, grungy production factory. I confess, I was proud to show off this marvelous campus. The unique location where Disney magic was created.

However, that was another time, long before the Walt Disney Company exploded and became the massive multimedia enterprise it is today. Ironically, as the studio has clearly grown, it appears there’s even less to see. Today’s Walt Disney Studio tour is more about real estate than it is about creativity. It’s a view of the buildings and facilities rather than a look at the creative individuals that once filled those special buildings. Today’s Walt Disney Studio Tour is a contrived look at, what used to be.

What do I mean by, what used to be? You can hear this for yourself as the appointed tour guide gives his or her corporate approved spiel. The Animation Building is where the Disney classic films used to be made. This is where hundreds of talented artists used to work. Across the way, inkers and painters meticulously inked and paint the thousands of acetate cells. Rather, they used to do that. Then, they were sent down the hall to the Camera Department where animation cameramen used to photograph the beautiful artwork one frame at a time. This building also housed editorial, where film editors used to cut film. The entire facility would hum with activity as talented men and women moved through the production process. That is…they used to.

Yet, “Used to Be” continues. A visit to “Recording Stage A” is a reminder of a time we recorded a full studio orchestra with stars such as Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. Of course, we used to do that. Today, film scores are recorded off site. A trip to the studio back lot will provide a view of parking structures, but there used to be movie sets in those spaces. And, let’s not forget the Disney Carpenter Shop and the Machine Shop hard at work building whatever the Old Maestro desired for a park or movie. They were there as well. At least, they used to be. As we move farther into the studio back lot you might be told about the western street that used to occupy that space. Of course, there was the famous Zorro Set and a tropical lagoon. There was a residential neighborhood and an Irish Villiage. There was a good deal more that used to be there but…you get the idea.

It would appear that today’s Walt Disney Studio is simply prime real estate ready to be leased to any production group willing to pay the freight. Of course, the deco inspired structure has its charm, and the facility retains its comfortable vibe. It’s clearly a cool option when you consider the cold, corporate spaces offered by more modern structures. Yet, there’s a tinge of sadness when I walk past the corridors once occupied by Disney’s finest creatives. Computers take the space of drawing tables, and the brilliant designers, painters and draftsmen have been replaced by corporate drones. The glow of the computer screen takes the place of the animator’s light table and the hallways of each wing remain deathly silent. There are no gags on the office walls and no person would dare engage in the wacky pranks once played by the Disney animators. Clearly, working at the Walt Disney Studio was the best job in the world. At least, it used to be.

As the tour continued on their way I couldn’t help but wonder if the visitors were somewhat disappointed  by their visit to the Mickey Mouse Factory. After all, there wasn’t a hint of magic on the excursion. They could easily have been strolling through an industrial park or a bible college. The amazing artisans and craftspeople don’t work here anymore. The storytellers and animators have long since departed. The only thing left of Walt’s amazing studio are a series of beige buildings. Buildings where everything creative, wonderful, and marvelous …used to be.

The buildings remain even though the magic is long gone.

The buildings remain even though the magic is long gone.

Retirement and Other Nonsense

It was break time at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank and most artists gathered for coffee and conversation in the Animation Building. Our little group sat in what was the former office of Disney Legend, Marc Davis. Marc had long since abandoned his animation space for a new position over in Glendale. In any case, the office provided a place for relaxed conversation and a welcome break from our animation assignments. Suddenly, the door swung open and one of the veteran Disney animators, a older guy named, John sprang into the room. “We’ve finally done it!” He smiled. “We’ve sold the house and bought one of those new things they call, Condos. My wife and I are going to kick back and enjoy life. But, first, we’re going to travel the world. I’ve been looking forward to this retirement for a long time.” 

You may find this odd, but my first thoughts were, why would anyone want to retire from the animation business? Why was John so eager to put down his animation drawing pencil and pursue a life of leisure? Keep in mind I was a young animation artist barely beginning my cartooning career at the Walt Disney Studios. Even as a lowly assistant I considered myself a very lucky kid although my vision was probably somewhat obscured by the considerable amount of pixie dust in my eyes. I thought about John’s upcoming retirement. He was an animator who had labored many years in Walt’s cartoon factory. Much like an old gunfighter, he was hanging up his six guns and riding off into the sunset. Plus, he honestly appeared to be excited about it. However, my thoughts were pretty much the thoughts of a naive kid. Why on earth, I wondered, would anybody want to retire from the best job in the world?

Okay, I can understand that some would be eager to travel. After all, what’s more fun than seeing the world and all its wonders. However, you don’t have to retire to do that. Actually, it’s a good deal more fun to do it while you’re young. My pal, Jim Fletcher advised friends not to wait until retirement before traveling. It’s a lot more fun to explore exotic places that require a good deal of walking and climbing when you’re a young man or woman. Physical stamina is a requirement should you really want to see the world. I recently enjoyed an extended walking tour of Sydney Australia and I did my fair share of wheezing along the way. And, I’m in better physical condition than most my age. You don’t have to retire to travel. Fletcher traveled throughout Europe, Africa and South America while taking breaks from his full time animation job. He proved that travel does not necessarily demand retirement.

Over the years I learned that true retirement is when you leave the job on your own terms. Many Walt Disney animation artists left the cartoon business to become successful painters or sculptors. However, there are always those who surprise you. Another celebrated Disney background painter left the studio because he wanted to grow apples. His dream of retirement was an apple orchard. Who knew? Finally, the veterans who puzzled me the most were the retirees who simply craved a life of leisure. I’m certain I’m not a normal person because nothing drives me nuts more than having nothing to do. I remember a fall vacation in the high sierras where the air was clear and the scenery was breathtaking. While our kids played outside I sat in the bedroom of our mountain cabin working on a film script. Unlike most normal people, instead of enjoying my vacation, I couldn’t wait to get back to work. Even though many years had passed, I never loss my passion for working and the challenge of solving problems. I remember trying to explain my quirky attitude to a Disney senior vice president who mistakenly thought I was having difficulty on the job. The executive couldn’t seem to wrap his head around my declaration that of all the challenges in my life, my job was actually the easiest.

Now, you probably have some idea why I was so bummed when Disney showed me the door some years ago. I had spent a lifetime learning my craft and preparing myself for more responsibilities. I had also invested in building a degree of financial security and my compensation reflected many years of climbing the studio ladder. Imagine the horror of having that financial ladder swept out from under you. It appears a corporate system decides exactly how long one should work and when it’s appropriate to relocate to the convalescent facility. I fumed in my backyard for a number of weeks before I decided I needed to return to work on my own terms. Twenty years have passed since that fateful decision. In that time, I’ve worked on several feature animated movies, television shows and special projects. I’ve appeared in a feature length documentary and lectured at universities across the country. I consider it interesting that when the Disney Company thought my career had come to a close…it was only just beginning. Of course, I’m well aware the way business works today. I should have known after experiencing my first dose of agism at Disney Animation in the early seventies. After a delightful experience on the film, “Bednobs and Broomsticks,” I decided to stick around for the next feature film. It would be an animated adaptation of, “Robin Hood.’ Much to my surprise I found I was hardly welcomed into Disney’s animation training program at the time. My age was the reason I would be excluded from the program. How old was I, you ask? I was thirty-eight years old, and my animation career was hardly over.

I can’t help but think back to that quiet summer afternoon at the Walt Disney Studios decades ago. A D-wing coffee break where a veteran Disney animator was ready to put down his pencil and ride off into the sunset. Bless that old gentleman and his plans for the future. I hope he and his wife enjoyed a lovely retirement along with some fond Disney memories. As for me, I remain at the Walt Disney Company today. As always, defying convention, defying the rules and defying damn near everything else. I haven’t retired from the business I love, and I never will.

The angry old man continues to work as always.

The angry old man continues to work as always.

The Pencil Test

What’s a pencil test? Do they still practice that ancient ritual? The pencil test was a rite of passage for young artists back in animations old days. If you were a young man or woman aspiring to become an animator at the Walt Disney Studios, the dreaded pencil test was something you knew you’d face one day. After you labored on your animation test, you packed up your drawings and exposure sheet and sent the test to Camera. The humble, lackluster drawings would be photographed by a Disney professional cameraman and the resulting footage would be sent to the lab for overnight processing. When you arrived at work the next day, Johnny Bond (Disney animation’s all around guy) would deliver your animation scene along with a processed loop of 35mm motion picture film. You’ll probably have to wander the hallways for a Moviola not in use. (you are not important enough to have your own) Once the film is threaded in the Moviola, you push the foot peddle. The ancient, mechanical “Steam Punk” device begins to whirr and clatter to a start. First, a slate appears onscreen with your name prominently displayed. This is quickly followed by your animation scene, which in all likelihood, sucks.

Listen to this very important rule of animated life. Before you are great, you probably suck. Before your work is good, it is usually very, very bad. That’s the process, and that’s what the pencil test is for. It’s so you can see with your own eyes just how very bad you are. However, be of good cheer because it’s going to get better. Yes, you are going to become an animator, and the pencil test is one of the ways this will be accomplished. Before I go further, let me share my first animation pencil test at the Walt Disney Studios. After receiving my first strip of 35mm film from Camera, I was shown upstairs to a directors unit where a Moviola was available. As my test was being threaded up, I noticed that the director in the next room was one of Disney’s legendary animators. This was a guy whose work I had long admired, and here he was standing nearby. Suddenly, the Moviola clattered to a start and my animation appeared onscreen. I looked at the scene in abject horror. Everything about the animation was terrible. The staging was poor and the drawing was worse. Finally, what truly hurt the most was my animation timing. Nothing moved as it should, and the scene was an unmitigated disaster. However, it gets worse. Looking over my shoulder was the veteran Walt Disney animator whose work I had long admired. The animator said not a word, but turned and walked away. Needless to say, I was humiliated.

As the years began to move swiftly past like a scene on ones, my many sketches and pencil tests began to bear fruit. Slowly but surely, I was beginning to feel more confident as a tyro animator, and I had overcome my fear of facing a blank sheet of paper. My breakthrough moment came while watching a dialogue scene I had animated. Onscreen, a handsome prince turns to his princess, smiles and reassures her. Suddenly, magic happened. The prince was alive as he turned and spoke confidently to his love. For the first time I could finally say to myself, “I animated that scene. I’m an animator!” In spite of my elation, animation jobs were still tough to come by in the early sixties. Aspiring animators like myself could hardly be encouraged when we saw veteran animators such as Don Lusk and George Nicholas being shown the door at Disney. While there was little chance of making animator at the Mouse House, young animation hopefuls like myself found work in the small commercial houses and the cartoon factories providing lackluster animation for the growing television market. Yet, there were still gems among the dreck. Getting to animate educational spots for shows like, “Sesame Street” was a true joy.

Suddenly, a technological breakthrough impacted the cartoon business when a modified television camera and recorder changed the Pencil Test forever. No longer dependent on motion picture film, the animator could videotape sketches and see his or her animation played back immediately. No longer would the animator have to wait 24 hours to see the result of their hard work. The scene they had just animated could be played back for an instant review on a cool device called, Lyon-Lamb. It appeared the humble pencil test had made a quantum leap forward and things would never be the same. By the early nineties, analog tech was replaced by digital, and the Moviola, along with the more advanced “Flatbeds,” were soon retired. Today’s animators, whether working hand drawn or digital, continue to pencil test their work. Animated scenes, created with pencil and paper, stop motion or digital still require testing. An animated scene often has many iterations, and it’s how we beta test our work. More important, it’s how we learn and grow.

Whether you’re an aspiring art student or a veteran Disney Master, I’m sure the pencil test continues to be an important part of your creative process. Much like live-action’s dailies, the pencil test allows us to monitor our work and see where we’re falling short. On occasion, there’s pure elation as a bit of animation looks truly marvelous onscreen. I’m reminded of my old boss, Milt Kahl laughing his ass off while watching the Mad Madam Mim back when we were making, The Sword in the Stone.” I’d never seen an animator enjoy his work so much. However, the Pencil Test is not the end of the journey, it’s merely the beginning. Perhaps one day you’ll enjoy your own pencil tests as much as Milt Kahl.

The Animator. He’ll soon see his animation come alive on the pencil test.

The Animator. He’ll soon see his animation come alive on the pencil test.

Black Crows and Other PC Nonsense

Stop for a moment and enjoy these iconic animated characters doing their cool, jazzy shuffle. Back in the forties, African American dancers were hired by the Walt Disney Studios to provide visual reference for the Disney animators. The result is some of the finest, funniest cartoon animation you’ll ever see in a Walt Disney animated motion picture.

I’m sure you already know the movie I’m referring to. It’s a genuine Disney animated classic and it’s already been seen by generations of dedicated fans around the globe. The movie is quintessential Disney with a plot line that will tug at your heart and put a smile on your face. Add a few jazzy tunes and it’s knock down, drag out funny. Of course, it showcases a brand of humor you could never get away today. Drunken clowns, an acid trip of a dream and a host of black crows singing scat. It’s every marvelous thing we can’t do today and we’re all the poorer for it. Walt Disney’s “Dumbo” is the kind of movie you’ll watch and rewatch as I did when I was a kid. If you’re anything like me, you’ll keep saying to yourself, I can’t believe this movie is so damn good.

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to spend a Saturday afternoon in nearby Highland Park with Disney Legend, Ward Kimball. Among the many things we spoke about was the jazzy crow sequence in the movie, “Dumbo.” Kimball’s comments were laconic and insightful. He spoke in a measured cadence that was characteristically Kimball as he took me back to the early forties when a very young Walt Disney was busy bringing the animated classic to the screen. Kimball was the animation director, and was determined to make the film’s third act the most entertaining. Inspired by the black entertainers of the early forties, and fueled by catchy tunes provided by songwriter, Ned Washington, (When You Wish Upon a Star) the sequence is pure Disney magic. If you remember the story, a group of cool crows nesting in a field decide to have some fun at the elephant’s expense. After Timothy Mouse scolds the feathered group, they soon have a change of heart and decide to encourage the little elephant. The song they sing is pure fun and entertainment and the animation is inspired. It’s the turnaround song for Dumbo and his life will never be the same. If you’ll recall, I did the same thing many years later in another Walt Disney movie called, “The Jungle Book.” Much like the black crows singing scat, we had little Mowgli encouraged by another group of cool birds who encouraged him with a song. Yet, there was no controversy over these singing birds who just happen to sound like another famous musical group from Liverpool.

However, let’s get back to the little elephant in the room. Or, in this case, the locale farmland where Dumbo finally gains the courage to soar among the clouds. Dumbo needed a “magic feather” to provide courage, and it makes one wonder if the Walt Disney Company needs a “magic feather” to give it courage as well? I knew Walt Disney and I’m convince the Old Maestro would not be keen on his animated classics being revised by the PC Police. Walt Disney was not a racist nor were his animators. Walt Disney was an entertainer and his animated motion pictures reflected and emulated the popular show business performers of his day. African American singers and dancers inspired the Disney animators and they had a ball bringing that same joy and entertainment to the big screen. Should that delightful third act of Dumbo bring you discomfort, we’d better start reediting all the live-action movies made in the early forties because they’re filled with the same. The world has changed and the culture has changed. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that. However, it is totally wrong to revise history simply because it makes you uncomfortable.

Finally, as I spoke with Ward Kimball, I told him how much I enjoyed the black crows doing that jazzy little shuffle he animated. The black crows perform, “When I See an Elephant Fly,” and I guarantee it’s Disney animation at its finest. However, should that dance offend you, I’d like to remind you that George Clooney playing a poor Southern white in, “Oh, Brother Where Art Thou,” did the same goofy shuffle and nobody found that offensive. After all, weren’t the “Soggy Bottom Boys” the white equivalent of the black crows? Alas, sarcasm seems wasted on today’s clueless generation. The reason the head crow is named, “Jim,” is Disney taking a cartoony jab at the oppressive South. Walt Disney’s animated classic is not racist, nor were the people who made the movie. I was privileged to know and work with most of them. The only thing these talented men and women wanted was to bring the very best Disney entertainment to the screen. In this crazy era of PC nonsense, I thought you should know that.

My good friend, Disney Legend, Ward Kimball animated these jazzy crows back in the forties. If you find Walt Disney’s “Dumbo,” racist, that’s your problem.

My good friend, Disney Legend, Ward Kimball animated these jazzy crows back in the forties. If you find Walt Disney’s “Dumbo,” racist, that’s your problem.