No Sequel for this Rocky

When you’re a Disney story teller you know there will be good days and days that are not so good. Creating an effective storyline for a Disney feature length animated cartoon can be a daunting task. Especially if your story director happens to be the Old Maestro himself. Walt was a natural story editor with excellent instincts when it came to crafting a compelling film sequence. He seemed to know when the story was working and would resonate with audiences. However, should you fail to deliver the goods, or worse, lapse into poor taste, I guarantee you’d find yourself in a fair amount of trouble. The year was 1966 and the event was another of our many meeting with Walt Disney on “The Jungle Book.” The Old Maestro shifted uncomfortably in his chair and tapped his finger impatiently. If you’ve ever been in a meeting with Walt Disney you clearly knew this wasn’t a good sign. The story boards looked good and the new character offered all kinds of possibilities for humor. Plus, the story-men were giving the pitch their best effort. However, there was a problem. The sequence simply wasn’t working.

In the grand scheme of things this was nothing all that unusual. Sometimes, Walt Disney required convincing when something failed to please him. Director, Woolie Reitherman had one last card to play. He told Walt that Directing Animator, Milt Kahl was eager to begin animating the comical character. Once the master animator brought the quirky cartoon to life it was sure to be hilarious. Disney reluctantly gave in and allowed the storyboards to move to the next phase. This meant the rough story sketches would be assembled into what was then called a “Leica” or story reel. Once the reels were ready the Old Maestro would return for another look. The story-men breathed a sigh of relief. At least they had gotten a reprieve.

A few weeks soon passed and the Old Maestro was available for another story meeting. However, this particular meeting would take place in 3-11, the large screening room on the third floor of the Animation Building. A loud cough announced Walt’s arrival as he entered the screening room. The boss took a seat up front with director, Woolie Reitherman, Ken Anderson, Larry Clemmons and a few other animation big shots. I made it a point to sit in the rear of the screening room and a good distance from Walt Disney. On this day in particular, I decided to be invisible. I had reservations about this particular sequence and I didn’t care to take any responsibility for it. You probably don’t know “The Jungle Book” sequence I’m speaking of because you’ve never seen it. Actually, very few people have seen the “Rocky” sequence unless you were part of “The Jungle Book’s” story team. Rocky the Rhino was voiced by comedian, Frankie Fontaine who was well known for his television appearances as, “Crazy Guggenheim, a rather dim-witted bartender on the Jackie Gleason Show. However, what worked on national television was not ringing any bells with the boss and Walt hated every minute of it. By the time the projectionist in the booth switched off the machine and raised the room lights, Walt was fuming. He had already expressed his displeasure with the storyboards. Now, he had been subjected to the same painful sequence a second time. Hardly a laugh riot, the rhino sequence had been agonizing to watch. Needless to say, most of us didn’t stick around for the choice words Walt Disney reserved for our superiors. We simply shuffled out of the screening room and headed back to our office grateful we had no part in this unfortunate situation.

A few months later, we finally completed story work on “The Jungle Book,” and some people tell me it’s a pretty good little film. However, they probably never knew the story of the famous rhinoceros. The cartoon critter who for good reason - ended up on Walt Disney’s cutting room floor.

That's Rocky the Rino in the upper right hand corner. The Disney character that failed to entertain The Old Maestro. Lucky for me... I had nothing to do with the sequence in The Jungle Book.

That's Rocky the Rino in the upper right hand corner. The Disney character that failed to entertain The Old Maestro. Lucky for me... I had nothing to do with the sequence in The Jungle Book.

This Ain't Wall Street

Some animated filmmakers I know take special pride in declaring they do not make films for money. They’re artists, after all. Not filmmakers selling out for a profit. Let’s not kid ourselves because animated feature films was always about making money. It’s just that in the old days we simply weren’t that blatant about it. For us filmmakers, doing a good job was reward enough. Plus, if we were lucky enough to continue on and be blessed with another project, that was considered icing on the cake. Today, it’s about a whole lot more than simply making a motion picture. It’s all about making money. That’s because a hit animated feature film will pretty much guarantee a sequel and that sequel will engender another film. We’re no longer making movies - we’re building a franchise. And, nothing delights a corporation more than a product that will make them money forever.

It’s not that I have anything against sequels, mind you. I’ve worked on a few myself and one of them was especially good. On occasion, a sequel based on a darn good idea is more than welcome and that can be a win win for all concerned. These days, I’m afraid the opposite is true and more than a few sequels are simply cash grabs. I suppose one can hardly blame the studios. They’re just trying to grab the maximum out of their already sizable investment. Even in the old days, Walt Disney knew he had to make money. However, the Old Maestro had an agenda. Sizable profits simply enabled Walt to pour more cash into innovative new projects. Walt Disney wasn’t about profitability - he was about creativity. The gobs of money his films earned allowed that marvelous creativity to continue.

I’m an animation guy from another time and I continually grow weary of the “profit reports” from each new animated film being released. I would welcome a discussion about the new film and its effective production values or compelling storyline. Sadly, the discussion always begins with opening week end box office numbers and how many millions the movie earned. What’s even sadder is, the impressive numbers really don’t mean much to the people who created the film. If you’re really, really lucky you might garner a bonus. However, unless you backed the movie with real hard cash you can pretty much forget about that new sporty Mercedes or the Malibu beach house. Animated feature films make bank these days. Yet in spite of the massive profits, Animation studios continue to struggle to stay alive today. And, more than a few never make it. In the past few years I’ve seen a progression of savvy studio managers fall on their face. Why? It’s tough working in a business where nobody really knows what they’re doing. In time, your luck and your money eventually runs out and you have to look for a real job.

If you think this is a diatribe against the studios, think again. We workers want studios to be successful. A healthy profitable studio means more jobs for all of us workers and we take no delight when a production house begins to stumble. I’d also like to return the discussion to creating better product because if the product sucks there will be no profit and all will suffer. Perhaps it’s time to get our minds off profitablility and focus instead on creating something special. The Old Maestro, Walt Disney was certainly aware of that. Create something special and the dollars will follow. It’s time for studio bosses to start thinking like creators instead of Wall Street brokers.

The Disney Studio was at a cross roads in 1958 and money was tight. Yet Walt knew if he created something great - the money was sure to follow. Sound advice for today's filmmakers.

The Disney Studio was at a cross roads in 1958 and money was tight. Yet Walt knew if he created something great - the money was sure to follow. Sound advice for today's filmmakers.

I Wish I Didn't Love You So

Vintage fifties music wafted from the outdoor speakers as I enjoyed the early morning sun on the patio of Walt Disney Imagineering. “I Wish I Didn't Love You So,“ was the name of the song being sung by a vocal group whose name I'd long since forgotten. I recall hearing the tune when I was just a kid dreaming of a job at the Disney Studio. Now, here I was inside Walt's magic kingdom enjoying a tall latte as the music suggested another time and place. I looked up to see an older gentleman make his way down the path at the Imagineering facility. He was wearing a light grey suit and though he was older in years he moved with the determined stride of someone a good deal younger. He had a full head of greying hair and a cigarette dangled from his hand. As the gentleman approached, I thought to myself, "could that be who I think it is? Is that Walt Disney?”

Indeed, what would the Old Maestro think of his company should he suddenly return today? Would he be overwhelmed at the sheer size of his once modest enterprise? I suppose Walt would immediately wonder where was Marty, John, Marc or the Disneyland wizard, Bob Gurr. I can imagine Walt trying to enter the Imagineering building only to find the doors not accessible because he didn't have a company key card or a name badge. And, should he desire a hot cup of coffee He'd wonder why the heck the coffee was suddenly being called, “Starbucks?”

I snap out of my morning reverie as the fifties vintage music continues to fill the morning air. The older gentleman in the grey suit proves to be a vendor making an early morning visit to the Disney facility. My brief visit to 1962 had come to a close and I looked around to find myself in 2015. The glorious rule of The Old Maestro remains only a series of memories and the amazing enterprise Disney built continues on without him. Yet, knowing the boss, I know he would be totally dumbfounded at the sheer size of the company. On the other hand, He’d definately not be pleased with some aspects of this massive enterprise. The Walt Disney Studio is not the company it once was, and despite the lip service given to legacy, it never will be again. The song playing on the outdoor speakers is somehow eerily appropriate. A vintage pop tune that totally sums up my feelings on a cool January morning.

Pencils, Paper and Other Supplies

Animated filmmaking has clearly changed in recent years and along with that change our tools have been revised as well. However, there was a time animation artists worked with the simple tools of pencil and paper, and it might be fun to look back on that time.

When I began my career at the Walt Disney Studios many years ago, the artists picked up their supplies from the supply room located on the first floor of the Animation Building. The small room was across from 1-F, and should you need pencils and erasers that’s where you would pick up your supplies. Johnny Bond was the man in charge of animation paper, and you could pick up reams of punched paper from him down in D-wing. Of course, back in those days the paper was punched to fit “Disney Pegs.” Something our glorious leaders in the eighties considered decidedly old fashioned. I wonder what Walt Disney would have thought of their brain dead decision, but that’s another story. As young animation artists we would naturally choose our pencils depending on what our bosses used. In those days, animators had their preference and you would be wise to know what pencils they were using. After all, an animated scene should look as though it was done by one person and not by a crew of five or six. Drawing with the same pencil your animator and his assistant used only made good sense. Remember, this was back in the old days when the animation drawings were inked by hand so it didn’t matter what pencil an animator would use to complete his scene. Certain animators loved to rough with a blue pencil while others preferred an Orange Prismacolor. Then, there were those who loved roughing out their scene with a grey pencil. In any case, we lowly assistants always matched what our bosses were using.

While art supplies at the Walt Disney Studios were plentiful, I can’t say the same for Pixar Animation Studios back in the nineties. When I arrived at the Point Richmond facility to begin work on “Toy Story2,” I couldn’t believe how meager our supplies were. It all makes sense, actually. Pixar was a digital studio where most employees worked on a computer. Story artists like myself were still doing storyboards on paper back in those days so all we needed were pencils and paper. One day, I pulled open the “supply drawer” at Pixar to glance down at the rather limited selection of pencils and erasers. After being indulged at Disney for several years, I couldn’t believe how under supplied Pixar was in those early days. Rather than make a fuss, I simply drove to an art supply store in San Raphael where I regularly bought my own supplies. Naturally, things like this still make me laugh today. Our feature film must have had millions of dollars in the budget, yet I was buying art supplies out of my own pocket. I’m not complaining, mind you. I simply find such things hilarious. I look back on those early Pixar days and remember how different it was compared to the massive supply room we had at the Walt Disney Studios. I haven’t had the opportunity to check it, but I’m willing to bet Pixar Animation Studios has a pretty good art supply room today.

And, so it goes. I rarely see pencil and paper today as more and more of our work is being created digitally. It’s very efficient and great work is still being done. Even as I create images on a Macintosh computer and draw with a stylus on my Cintiq Tablet I still remember those trips to the Disney supply room on the first floor of the Animation Building. I remember walking away with handfuls of pencils and knowing there was more there should I need them. Walt Disney was generous with art supplies because he knew his artists needed tools to do their jobs. It was simply good business sense - and good common sense to make sure his artists had everything they needed to get the job done. 

Finally, If there are any managers out there, I encourage you to make sure your team has the tools to get the job done. Whether your staff is using pencil and paper or high tech computer equipment, please be advised that pinching  pennies is foolish and you’re only hurting yourself in the long run. Your “supply room” should be loaded with everything your artists need. If it’s not, I’m willing to bet the Old Maestro would consider you a moron.

Vintage tools of the trade. Though I often use a computer for artwork these days, I still manage to find time for pencils, paper and my trusty Mont Blanc drawing pen.

Vintage tools of the trade. Though I often use a computer for artwork these days, I still manage to find time for pencils, paper and my trusty Mont Blanc drawing pen.