The Tar Baby and Other Problems

Had you visited a black home in the nineteen forties it would not be unusual to find a copy of Ebony Magazine on the family coffee table. I never paid much attention to the monthly publication but this particular issue caught my eye. A full page photograph of actors, James Baskett, Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten were featured next to an opinion piece on Walt Disney’s new motion picture Song of the South. 

To the best of my knowledge this was the first time in my young life that I took issue with a magazine’s editorial and I regretted not having the writing chops to respond. Even though I was just a kid, I took issue with the editors for their unfair characterization of the film and Walt Disney in particular. I had recently seen Song of the South at our local theater and found the movie delightful. Had they even seen the same film, I wondered?

Many years passed, and when this young artist and others arrived at Walt Disney Studios in the Fifties, we found ourselves having access to the coveted Disney vaults. This meant any movie we wanted to see was suddenly available for screening. Naturally, one of our first choices was Song of the South. However, I took this a step farther. Because employees were able to check out 16mm prints on occasion, I set up a special screening of the Disney film in a local Los Angeles church. The screening of the Disney motion picture proved insightful. The African American audience absolutely loved the movie and even requested a second screening of the Disney classic.

I’ll admit I probably bring less baggage to the table than most. I was lucky enough to grow up in affluent, enlightened Southern California in the Forties and Fifties. My home town of Santa Barbara was hardly the segregated South and this unique environment influenced my view of society. My parents and grandparents welcomed people of all colors into their home so my perspective on race might not reflect the average African American’s view of society. 

However, I am a cartoonist - not an academic, so this will not be an in depth analysis of ethnic insensitivity. However, I have had the pleasure of speaking with filmmakers and animation old timers about this rather touchy subject. It might be interesting to note that the funny images they put on paper and on the screen were there not to denigrate - but to entertain.

It’s a long time from Song of the South’s initial release and a magazine’s strident editorial. Yet even today the film continues to be mired in controversy and that’s a shame. I often remind people that the Disney movie is not a documentary on the American South. 

The film remains a sweet and gentle tale of a kindly old gentleman helping a young boy through a very troubled time. The motion picture is also flavored with some of the most inspired cartoon animation ever put on the screen. Cynics may call the film, sappy. Those with a social or political agenda may call the movie racist. However, if you’re a fan of classic Disney storytelling, I guarantee you’ll not find a better film.

Original inked and painted Disney cels. Sadly, people bring way too much racial baggage to this very funny animated sequence in Walt Disney's Song of the South.

Original inked and painted Disney cels. Sadly, people bring way too much racial baggage to this very funny animated sequence in Walt Disney's Song of the South.

The Wonderful World of Publishing

I worked in the wonderful world of publishing back in the early eighties. We were still located on the Walt Disney Studio lot and we were conveniently located right across the street  from the Animation Building. This served us well because we still had access to the studio library and remained in touch with our animated colleagues. Suddenly, my life had veered off in a new direction. I was still a Disney storyteller, but unlike my film counterparts I no longer had executives breathing down my neck. Blessed with creative freedom I could darn near write anything I wanted. As long as the story was a Disney story, it was pretty much accepted. In time I would come to realize I probably had the best job in the world.

The early eighties ushered in many changes at the Walt Disney Company. Our little creative group located in the Roy O. Disney Building suddenly became The Disney Publishing Group. The group consisted of publishing units such as Disney Press, Hyperion Books, and Disney Comics. Big shot executives from New York took charge of the prestige units but our comic book company was so lowly regarded our editors did a lot of their early work on packing boxes and shipping crates. Disney had given the artists and editors a firm deadline on getting the books to press. However no desks were available. As expected, Disney entered the world of comic book publishing with their usual snotty attitude. The company not only paid the cheapest page rates, they also refused to allow the contracted artists to retain their original art. Word of Disney's arrogance spread throughout the comics industry and before long, many competitors were eagerly anticipating our doom.

In spite of our lackluster management, the artists and writers did their best to produce eight Disney titles a month and maintain a pretty high level of quality. I enjoyed the opportunity to write comic books again even though I continued to script the daily Mickey Mouse comic strip. Even as the Disney executives continued their "synergy" lip service, Disney Comics received little support from the rest of the company. When the publishing unit failed to meet the inflated expectations - Disney Comics was immediately shut down. Launch a company - then shut it down, would be the business pattern of the Walt Disney Company throughout the nineties.

I continued to gain confidence as a writer and managed to published several children's books during this period. I finally began to feel comfortable in the world of publishing and was convinced my days of film making were probably over. I stayed in touch with Disney Feature Animation because much of the work we did was driven by the animated product. For a time, I even had my own work station during the production of "The Lion King." Little did I know in the not too distant future I would be returning full time to Walt Disney Feature Animation. However, that’s another story.

Remembering Vance Gerry

He was my friend, mentor and personal hero. That’s Vance Gerry standing causually in front of his storyboards. I have no idea when this photograph was taken. Seventies, eighties or nineties? It really didn’t matter because Vance always looked pretty much the same whatever decade we were in. Vance had his own personal style. The sweater occasionly worn preppie style and the brown and white saddle shoes. I guess you could say Vance Gerry was pretty much his own man. Those of us who were lucky to know and work with him should be considered pretty darn lucky.

I don’t remember the first time I met Vance. By the time I moved upstairs to work on The Jungle Book, Vance was already a fixture in Woolie’s unit. Although he wasn’t truly one of the old timers, it almost seemed he had been there forever. If I remember correctly, Vance had originally joined Woolie’s unit as a layout man but his abiltiy to tell a story was quickly noticed. Vance soon became a story artist and began developing sequences for the film. He had the unique ability to capture the essense of a sequence and his ideas developed quickly. I loved his storytelling style because he didn’t fuss and fret over a sequence. Vance would put down his ideas in a way that was direct and simple. He seemed the perfect imbodiment of Disney visual storytelling.

In early 1966, I found myself sharing an office with Mr. Gerry. We knew each other but we had never worked together before. To be more precise, I had never done Disney story work before either. I consider myself a very lucky guy to have been partnered with Vance Gerry because he was my first story mentor and set the stage for my view of story throughout the remainder of my career. I honestly believe I gained much of my storytelling style from Vance. He taught me how to approach storytelling. The importance of a clear vision and the importance of “dreaming into a scene.” Most of all, Vance Gerry taught me that storytelling was not rocket science. In a very true sense he taught me to relax and enjoy the work. It’s no big deal, really. It’s only a movie. Being the senior member of our team, it was Vance who had to pitch our boards to Walt Disney. In this case, I was delighted to defer to Mr. Gerry. Clearly, there was nothing more terrifying than pitching to the Old Maestro himself. I had been in my share of story meetings and watched Walt Disney focus his steely glare on the story artist as he made his pitch. Pitching to Walt was not for the faint of heart, but as usual, Vance Gerry took the whole thing in stride. As I said before. Nothing - not even Walt Disney seemed to rattle Vance Gerry.

My storytelling career began back in early 1966 on Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book. I had never done the job before and I honestly have no idea why anyone thought I was qualified to work in Walt Disney’s coveted story department. In any case, Mr. Gerry was there to welcome me that amazing Monday morning when we would begin the rewrite on The Jungle Book. Vance Gerry is gone now. But, I was blessed to have him to guide me through those early terrifying days up in 2-C. I was lucky to have this delightful, talented gentleman as my friend and teacher. Thank you, Vance. Thank you for everything.

I absolutely love this photograph of my friend, Vance Gerry taken at the Walt Disney Studio. Vance was an amazing Disney story teller and taught me everything I know about story.

I absolutely love this photograph of my friend, Vance Gerry taken at the Walt Disney Studio. Vance was an amazing Disney story teller and taught me everything I know about story.

The Disney Background Artists

If there was ever a downside being a Disney animator it was not being able to work in color. Our world was a world of black and white drawings. On occasion we might use a blue or orange Prismacolor pencil but we lived in a greyscale world of graphite. I guess that’s why a few of us made visits to the background department located on the second floor of the Animation Building. There, we were swept into a wonderful world of color and I can tell you from this first hand experience it was a sight to behold.

Remember, this was a time when original artwork was not locked away in a guarded vault. Rather, it was pinned on multiple hallway storyboards for all Disney employees to enjoy. Of course the projects currently in production were on display but there were other things as well. Backgrounds and layouts from past productions were often in full view. I remember seeing one of my favorite background paintings from the Disney short, “ A Cowboy Needs a Horse.” Down the hallway I discovered another treasure. An Eyvind Earle painting from the Academy Award winning short film, “Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom.” I remember seeing this background while watching the movie as a kid in my home town of Santa Barbara. Now, here I am staring at the original painted background pinned to a storyboard. It was moments like these that made me realize how lucky I was to be working at the Walt Disney Studios.

The Walt Disney Studios could probably boast of having some of the finest artists in the world and most of them occupied the floors above us. Naturally, the doors were not locked so we had acess to an amazing display of mavelous art. Up on the third floor, artist, Art Reily was creating a series of beautiful color comps for the upcoming feature “Rainbow Road to Oz.” Sadly, the film never saw production, but I can tell you the artist’s work was stellar. For a total change of style you might wander down to Ward Kimball’s unit on the second floor and be entranced by the space art of Ken O’Conner, Gordon Legg and Bill Layne. Sadly, you won’t find the talented color stylist, Eyvind Earle on this floor any longer. Mr. Earle departed the Walt Disney Studio after the completion of “Sleeping Beauty.” However, should you moved down the hallway to 2F you’ll more than likely find Walt Peregoy working away on his impressive backgrounds for “The Sword in the Stone.” It would appear the Old Maestro has finally gotten over his complaints concerning “101 Dalmatians” color style and Mr. Peregoy and his bold new palette is back in favor at the Disney Studio. Walt Peregoy had practically painted the entire feature film by himself as we moved toward the end of production. Because the film had to be quickly wrapped, background artists, Ralph Hulett, Bill Layne and Al Dempster jumped in to help finish the film.

Finally, we cannot leave the Walt Disney background department without mentioning the talented women who helped create the beautiful animation art. Often overlooked when it comes to giving credit to the wonderful background work in the Disney films, I think it’s worth a mention before leaving this very special department. You’re probably familiar with the name, Thelma Witmer. You can see her in a photograph along with other Disney artists in the Art of Animation book. Thelma’s amazing work can be seen in several Walt Disney feature films. However, there are other names you should know. I met Barbara Begg when she was painting backgrounds back in the fifties. More recently, the names Gloria Wood and Ann Guenther come to mind. Ann didn’t think she had the chops to become a Disney background artist. However, once Disney veteran painter, Al Dempster saw her work she was immediately hired to work in Disney’s background department and she’s been doing stellar work ever since. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little bit of animation color on this black & white Monday morning.

A few of Disney's amazing background artists. There were women painters as well, in case you didn't know that well kept secret.

A few of Disney's amazing background artists. There were women painters as well, in case you didn't know that well kept secret.