Okay, I freely admit I hardly excelled in English Literature. However, I found this particular high school English class very insightful. Clearly, I was learning a good deal about literature whether or not it was reflected in my assignments. No matter. Because of my less than stellar grades my high school counselors decided to move me to another English class. Apparently, a class that wasn’t as challenging as English Lit. Even with the best of intentions, it appears my high school counselors hardly did me a favor. By transferring me to a class that was, shall we say, less challenging, my writing career could have been permanently stalled by a poor decision. In spite of this setback I continued to write while in high school and enjoyed telling stories, if only to my fellow classmates. You can’t stop a writer from writing. It’s what writers do. It’s what they have to do.

Bill Tuning sat next to me in high school English Lit and he and I shared a love of reading and storytelling. Bill was blessed with natural talent and one day dreamed of becoming a novelist. He had a sharp wit and even dabbled in music on occasion. Bill played a mean cornet in the high school band and music was another love we both shared. While I often struggled with writing, it came easily to Bill and he was able to quickly knock out a number of papers. Because Tuning was so prolific, he even wrote for the school newspaper that was published weekly. Because we often batted ideas back and forth, we were able to convince our English Literature teacher to allow us to collaborate on a story. Luckily, she eventually agreed to let us work as a team, although we were given the feeling that somehow we were breaking the rules.

What I find especially ironic is the future careers of my fellow classmates. They were far more talented than myself when it came to writing and continually received higher grades. I’ll admit I often felt like a dunce compared to my more literate pals, but I simply never gave up on the dream of storytelling. One would assumed they had gone on to careers in journalism or some other form of writing. Heck, they could have written copy for an advertising agency or sought an editing career in a publishing house. Sadly, no one, with the exception of myself, ever dared become a writer even though most were far more talented. On a sad note, my old collaborator, Bill Tuning never achieved his goal of becoming a famous novelist. Distraught by his lack of success as a writer, he simply drowned his sorrows in booze. I learned of his untimely passing on one of my many trips to my home town of Santa Barbara.

As I said earlier, you can’t stop a writer from writing. It’s what we do. Since my high school days I’ve done my fair share of writing that has included books, films and television shows. None of it was great, mind you, but I continued to learn and move forward. I began with a yellow legal pad, migrated to an old Smith Corona, and now use an Apple laptop. Much like my Santa Barbara High School days, I’m still learning to write. Recently, I joined with my old pal, Richard Sherman to create a new book for Disney. Richard and I were lucky enough to work with another talented storyteller named, Walt Disney. As expected, our new book was inspired by our famous boss and should you be curious, our book will be introduced at D23 in Anaheim in a couple months. Stop by and say hello to Richard Sherman and myself. Bring a copy of our new book, and we’ll be delighted to sign it.

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You could say the two artists were a lot alike. Both passionate about their art and both at the top of their game at the world’s premiere animation studio in Burbank California. I think I can speak about these two Disney artists because I knew them both and we spent a fair amount of time together. Both working and in conversation. Yet, as much as these two were alike, they couldn’t have been more different. The first artist made his way to the top by being the best in his class. A fierce competitor, he often belittled his peers for what he considered their lack of initiative and a willingness to settle for less. He cut savvy financial deals that would benefit him and his family and gave little thought to those beneath him who would have to make do with a good deal less. It was clear he had total confidence in himself as an artist and a person, although, some might have substituted a different word for his attitude. Then again, what’s wrong with celebrating your own success? After all, you’ve earned it, right?

Let’s talk about artist number two. A guy who had worked a tough life as a laborer and had lived in Europe before coming to the Walt Disney Studio. He too, was an artist and extremely passionate about his work. You might even say his work was the perfect reflection of himself. His bold, dramatic brushstrokes on canvas truly revealed who he was. However, the energy and vitality of his paintings were not confined to his canvases. The same blistering passion were also part of his daily conversation. Something the casual visitor to his office would soon become aware should they offer an opinion. As expected, the gritty artist also had a social conscience and was not above speaking out for those less fortunate than himself. I guess you can probably see where this is going, right? What if these passionate artists clashed face to face? Well, one quiet day at the Walt Disney Studio that’s exactly what happened.

While I don’t remember the exact details of this particular petition, the document was being circulated throughout the Walt Disney Studios for signatures by the artists. As you can imagine, the complaint was usually about compensation. Today, such a complaint would be handled by the motion picture union. However, some years ago it was not unusual for employee complaints to be handled in this manner. So, here’s how the story goes. Artist Number Two knocked on the office door of artist Number One. “We’d appreciate your signature,” said the young progressive artist. “After all, we’re all in this together.” Artist Number One had the prestigious title of, directing animator, so you might be guessing his name about now. The smug directing animator snatched the petition from the hand of Artist Number Two and gave it a quick glance. Then, he quickly handed the petition back without bothering to sign it. Before turning back to his work, he snarled a few words I don’t think I’ll ever forget. “I got mine! You get yours!” And, with that, the second artist took his petition and headed for the door. However, before leaving, he turned toward the well heeled directing animator with a few final words. “You know what,” he said. “If your blankety-blank house was on fire I wouldn’t piss on it!” And, that was the end of the conversation.

It’s 2017, and that little Disney incident happened many years ago. Two talented Disney artists had a brief conversation. I confess I admire each of the men and had the pleasure of knowing and working with both. As I said, they were equally passionate about their work and how they lived their lives. Yet, I can’t help but wonder which side you would fall on? Do you support the “Self Made Man” who worked hard and made it to the top on his own terms? Or perhaps you identify with the socially conscious artist who felt he had a responsibility to concern himself with the needs of others even though he himself was doing well? What happened at the Walt Disney Studios so many years ago seems especially relevent today. That little incident honestly reminds me who I am. More importantly, it also informs me who you are.

A life lesson learned at the Walt Disney Studios when I was just a kid. Unfortunately, it still applies today.

A life lesson learned at the Walt Disney Studios when I was just a kid. Unfortunately, it still applies today.

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The demanding directing animator who once instilled fear in the hearts of all who assisted him seemed surprisingly benign. We sat on the commissary patio at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank on a beautiful Southern California morning. Having been retired for a number of years, the aging animator seemed remarkably quiet and relaxed. He was older now, and his vision wasn’t as stellar as it once was. Worse, his hand would shake when he tried to draw. Aging is a bummer especially if you happen to be a skilled and talented Disney animator. I was older as well, and it appeared the years had flown past at remarkable speed. We refer to it as the Disney “Time Warp.” An odd compression of time experienced by all who spend a decade or more working on Walt Disney animated feature motion pictures.

Hardly as boisterous as his outspoken colleague across the hall in D-wing, Frank Thomas was hardly reticent when it came to expressing an opinion or correcting a less than acceptable animation drawing. Milt Kahl was bombastic, while Thomas was a good deal more subtle. Should you have the pleasure of working for Frank, the experience was no less terrifying. However, I was not feeling the wrath of Frank Thomas on this quiet morning. Thomas had become a kindly, older gentleman eager to share his knowledge with a young artist. While it’s true I had the opportunity to animate a few scenes in Disney movies, no way could I accept the lofty title of, “animator.” Thomas was a master. He was Yoda while I continued my struggle to become a Jedi. I confess I felt lucky to have Frank Thomas to myself that day. Now, I might be able to ask a few of the several hundred questions I had on my mind.

Frank Thomas’ animation style was unique and the Master Animator seemed to search for the essence of the scene in the scribbles on his paper. This is what made Frank so difficult to follow should you be his animation assistant. You had to know instinctively what to include and what to leave out. What to emphasize and what to dismiss. Your draftsmanship and your knowledge of animation was critical. Should you come up short on either, you would have made the mistakes I made back in the sixties and gotten your a** chewed out. After a decade in Disney’s animation department I thought I knew a thing or two. I found out the hard way that I didn’t know squat. It was this trial by fire that made our generation of Disney animation artists so unique. We were mentored by Walt Disney’s finest, and the bar was held high. As I said in the documentary, “If you could make it through Disney back then, every other job during your career would be a cake walk.”

Before our mid morning coffee came to a close, Frank Thomas volunteered some unexpected advice. “Don’t expect your retirement to be easy,” smiled the Directing Animator. “I work harder today than I ever did at the drawing board. Coming to work at Disney each day was easy. Now, I have to travel, lecture and author books. I’m working harder today than I ever have.” I wondered why Frank would mention that? At the time I was hardly anyone important, nor did I expect to be. Who would seek my advice or ask me to lecture on the subject of animation? Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston might be lecturing at universities or traveling the world, but they were famous Disney artists. A marginal animation artist like myself was hardly in their class. This mid morning conversation took place on the outdoor commissary patio of the Walt Disney Studio many years ago. I can’t help but reflect on it today as I prepare for a master class at a local midwestern university. The wise words of Frank Thomas keep coming back to me. “Get ready to teach, travel and work harder than ever,” said the Master Animator. “That’s retirement for guys like us.” It appears Frank Thomas had already seen my future. Who knew?

Yes, he did smile on occasion. Over time, the directing animator I feared the most became a good friend. He's truly a Master and I have nothing but admiration and respect for this stellar Disney talent.

Yes, he did smile on occasion. Over time, the directing animator I feared the most became a good friend. He's truly a Master and I have nothing but admiration and respect for this stellar Disney talent.

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It’s funny how a simple photograph can completely capture a view of the recent past. I think this image would appear almost foreign to people working in the animation business today. It almost seems quaint and slightly crude. It’s the way animated films were once made. It’s a view of a time few would recognize today.

Of course, those of you old enough already recognize the animator’s desk. That big silver platter in the center is called a disk. Drawings were affixed to it on pegs and the device could even rotate. For many years, artists managed to draw on these devices, and although it took some getting used to - over time it became comfortable. That’s a model sheet above the sketch. Artists kept these images nearby for continual reference as they went about their work. The yellow paper on the right is known as an exposure sheet. Critical in the animation process, it contained all the information needed in a particular scene. This fact filled sheet would also be used by the camera department when they photographed each individual drawing. In the world of animation, this was pretty much our bible.


That white object in the animator’s left hand is called a cigarette. That’s pretty much a thing of the past as well. We’ve since learned to do without these items because smoldering ashes could land on the sketches and edges of the scene could be accidentally burned. Of course, That wasn’t the only damage they could do. They could also kill you. I might add that the sketch on the animators desk is not an animation drawing or a layout. It was something called a, “blue-sketch,” and several young women used to trace these things as part of the production process. Naturally, it’s simply another job that has been totally forgotten today.


If you’re old enough and lucky enough to have labored on these ancient devices you may have fond memories of the forgotten process. There was something unique about being an animation artist and the fact that you were making a movie by hand. That’s correct. The process was totally analog and the human touch was felt every step along the way. Naturally, the physical process had its limitations and we were restricted to five levels because of the density of the animation cel. Even the camera had its limitations and that even included the mighty Multi-plane once considered a technological marvel. Despite these obvious handicaps, we were able to create magical worlds where elephants flew, and princesses were given life with a kiss. Worlds were created with watercolor and gouache and the animator’s pencil brought amazing characters to life. The pre-digital animation process for Walt Disney animation was clunky, crude and coarse. But, by god - it was magical and nothing like it is being done today. Today’s animation studios dismiss traditional hand drawn animation as inefficient and costly. That’s all bullsh*t of course, but the studios make the rules, and things are not about to change. As Frank Sinatra once said, “You can wait around and hope - but you’ll never see the likes of this again.

The desk of a Disney animator. Compared to digital, the work was coarse, crude and clunky - but by god it was magical.

The desk of a Disney animator. Compared to digital, the work was coarse, crude and clunky - but by god it was magical.

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