"Mulan" Story Sketches

Behold! Story sketches from another era. I’ll bet Disney geeks would recognize these storyboard sketches, right? They’re from the Walt Disney Feature Animation film, “Mulan.” An animated motion picture that turned out very well, if I must say so myself. Like most animated films, “Mulan” got off to a rocky start. The initial story reels lacked focus and a clear story line. After a good deal of work was completed in 1994, we found ourselves starting from square one in early 1995. Only this time around we made sure we knew what story we were telling.

The story sketches below were pulled from a series of boards I did on our “Mulan” training sequence. I began by viewing martial arts as well as Chinese action movies. Although I did a number of drawings, nothing really felt as though it was taking shape. No matter how many boards I sketched out, the sequence remained totally flat. There just wasn’t any entertainment on the screen. The young Chinese soldiers were put through their paces, but it all seemed rather dull and redundant. How do you make a training sequence interesting, we wondered? The answer was provided by song writers, Matthew Wilder and David Zippel. The song “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” seemed to bring all the elements together, and suddenly the sequence sprang to life. Mulan goes through her training exercises, but now the sequence had meaning and purpose. If you know the motion picture you’ll remember Mulan getting it together as a warrior. She even manages to climb to the top of the pole in the center of the camp. The young woman (although nobody is supposed to know) finally proves she has the right stuff and can compete side by side with any man.

Another interesting element in the storyboard sketches below is the presence of a character named, Bao Gung. Gung was a seasoned veteran who played a rather important role in an earlier iteration of the story. He was the drill sargeant. The grizzled warrior who had seen and done it all. However, Bao Gung was suddenly eliminated from the movie. It was screenwriter, Chris Sanders who decided that Mulan’s love interest, a soldier named, Chang, should be moved to the forefront and the character, Bao Gung should be scrapped. At the time it seemed like a crazy idea, but it was actually a smart one. The soldier, Chang began to assume a more important role in the films storyline, and in time he would reveal his love for Mulan. These are the things that happen when a films storyline is being constructed and major changes are made. It’s difficult to believe these storyboard sketches were made back in 1994. It was an amazing time in the animation business. The Disney Company had already released a string of hit films and no one had any idea what the future would bring. In time, the “Mulan” team would move to Disney’s Orlando studio located in Walt Disney World as the movie ramped up for full production. With my “Mulan” story chores completed I would soon be moving as well. Although not to Florida with my animation teammates. Another movie was being developed in nearby Northern California and they were nice enough to invite me to participate. The brand new animation studio would soon be making a string of animated hits on its own, so it was good to get in on the ground floor. However, we’ll talk more about that later.

I began sketching the training sequence for "Mulan" back in 1994. That seems a long time ago.

I began sketching the training sequence for "Mulan" back in 1994. That seems a long time ago.

Falling On Your Face

After their company was acquired by Disney some years ago we had a visit from John Lasseter and two hundred of his staffers from Pixar Animation Studios. The Pixar team was given a special tour of the Walt Disney Company in both the Burbank and Glendale facilities. It was good to see old friends and colleagues again and I couldn't help be reminded of how far Pixar had come since my Bay Area stint back in the nineties. Back then the studio was still a start-up with a staff of less than three hundred people. However, Pixar wasn't  always a dominant player in the animation business. Much like Walt Disney's Laugh O'Gram days in Kansas City, the guys and gals at this studio were not an overnight success.

I had the opportunity to visit Walt Disney's Laugh O'Gram studio in Kansas City a few years ago and I couldn't help wonder what would have happened if failure hadn't sent Walt Disney packing and trying his luck in California? Disney had to leave this disaster behind and prepare for a new beginning out west. Likewise, Pixar's first story pass on "Toy Story" was a bit of a disaster as well. However, John Lasseter and his crew rose to the occasion and turned the film around in record time. I know. I remember those early story reels when the movie failed to excite the Disney executives. Of course, Walt Disney was well acquainted with failure and often spoke of what he had learned from early missteps in building a business. As a matter of fact, Walt said, "everyone should experience failure early in their career." The Old Maestro certainly knew the failure factor and the positive things one can learn from falling flat on their face.

On a more personal note, I’ve had my own failures as well. Some years ago, I worked for a small film production house in Hollywood. The facility produced animation as well as live-action motion pictures. On this occasion, a rather demanding client needed an animated sequence created for a segment in their live-action movie. Since all our producers were busy on other jobs, the responsibility for producing the animated sequence fell to me. Undaunted, I assembled my crew and although there were some technical glitches, we managed to complete the movie on schedule. The film was screened for the client late one Friday afternoon and to say the client was dissatisfied would have been an understatement. In truth, the client hated what we had done. As producer/director of the segment I was the one who took the heat, and rightly so. As you can imagine, I went home that Friday evening practically in tears. However, there's a silver lining to every story. The next morning I received a call from my boss and I expected another well deserved chewing out. I was taken aback to find the boss surprisingly upbeat and not upset about the situation. It appears he had had more than a few "failures" of his own and none of this came as a surprise to him. His positive manner completely lifted my spirits and the following Monday we gathered the crew together and began work on fixing the problems. The next week we went back to work generating more artwork and shooting the whole segment on an improved camera system. The new screening took place at Consolidated Film Industries, a well respected production facility in Hollywood. The screening ended and the lights came up revealing a group of smiling faces. The clients were not only satisfied - they were delighted. Like so many others, I had fallen on my face and managed to recover. Like Walt Disney, I had  clearly learned a good deal from my failure. Of course, I've plenty of company when it comes to falling on your butt. Walt Disney Animation Studios has had its fair share. "The Lion King" was a mess before it became Disney's biggest animated hit. "Aladdin" had to reboot while in story development, “Kingdom of the Sun” had a total rewrite before becoming “The Emperors New Groove” and even the classic, "The Jungle Book" was restarted from scratch when Walt Disney became dissatisfied with Bill Peet's adaptation of the Kipling novel.

Failure is not an ending. More often than not it’s really a new beginning. Even Pixar director, Andrew Stanton advises you to, “fail as fast as you can.” No less a success than Walt Disney learned that lesson early in his career and its one important lesson we would do well to learn as well.

From time to time we all fall on our... faces. It's simply the way we learn.

From time to time we all fall on our... faces. It's simply the way we learn.

Corporate Pussies

Many years ago, before management morphed into a collection of corporate pussies, bosses would sit down for a final meeting with a dismissed employee. It was often a painful transition but almost always it was an important one. In truth, it was probably beneficial for both employee and employer. Success and failure on the job could be discussed, and in many ways valuable lessons were learned by both.

Of course, this never happens today. Faceless corporations are more concerned with covering their asses than having the courage to face an employee that's being shown the door. And, I have no agenda here. Some employees need to be sacked because they clearly demonstrated their failure on the job. In other cases, competent workers have to be let go through no fault of their own. A change in company direction or a lack of financial resources may dictate such a decision. In any case, the “boss” had an obligation to face the staffers being dismissed. It was never a pleasant task, but it was always a necessary one. It was a crucial part of doing your job as a manager. It was your responsibility as the person in charge.

I've never hidden my feelings for the nefarious department known as Human Resources. And, it's not necessary to explain why corporations feel they're necessary. That's a subject for another time. More than a few friends have told me about their “exit interview” after working for decades at a particular company. The young HR person behind the desk had no idea who the person was or what they did while employed by the company. They simply followed company policy as they sifted through the folder on their desk. The former employee was being “processed out,” and it was as cold, and simple as that. Having had the same experience, no one had to convince me that this is the way it works.

In times long past, when men were men and women were women, we faced up to our responsibilities no matter how difficult the task might have been. If you were the boss, that meant you gave the decision to hire new staffers, and should things not work out, it was your responsibility to dismiss them as well. That's what being a boss meant. It wasn't all good times and fun. it was unpleasant things as well. If you're a boss, it is your responsibility to let your employee know why they're being dismissed. if it's no fault of their own, but simply a company situation - let them know that. Let them know you were impressed by the fine job they’d done and hopefully the two of you might work together again. On the other hand if the employee failed to meet expectations - they should know that as well. You have a responsibility to let them know that. It's in their best interest, of course. If they're not aware of their failings, they'll simply repeat those mistakes on their next job and that's not a good thing. If you're the boss, and you take your job seriously, then do the job of a boss.

Should you think this is a tirade against private business, please think again. I've had the opportunity to run my own business and I can honestly say it was a great learning experience. More importantly, it provided the opportunity to see business from the perspective of both employer and employee. And, for that, I've always been grateful. I don't hold a degree from either the Stanford or Harvard business school, but I have learned a thing or two about business. Probably a good deal more than some of the clueless mangers I've observed in recent years. I'd like to see managers take responsibility again and I'd like to put an end to the pointless HR exit interview and return that responsibility to the top managers where it belongs. Yet, in this world of limitless litigation, I doubt that’ll ever change. We will continue to do business as usual and we’ll all be the worse for it.

In the old days, managers did their job and we were all the better for it.

In the old days, managers did their job and we were all the better for it.

Pete Alvarado

Back in the seventies, Hanna–Barbera decided to do a reboot of “The Flintstones.” It had been years since the show had been on the air and many of the talented veterans who had worked on the first shows were no longer around. The series needed to get off to a strong start. The layouts for the show's opening required solid draftsmanship and a clear understanding of the characters. We needed someone with a flair for good animation composition and design. Hanna–Barbera was fortunate to have such an artist on their staff. The scenes were given to Pete Alvarado. Many years later, the Winsor McCay Award For Lifetime Achievement was given to Pete Alvarado at the annual Annie Awards. It was a great moment for all of us to see this animation legend honored, recognized and celebrated by the members of the animation community.

To say Pete is a layout artist isn't nearly enough. He's worked in almost every area of the business, including animation, styling, and character design. You might not have known that Pete was a talented background painter as well. Pete migrated to sunny, Southern California from Colorado. In his younger years he had hoped to become a painter. Because of his talent he was able to attend Chinouard Art Institute on a scholarship. It was during this time that he studied with renowned artist Rico LeBrun. Animation buffs are probably familiar with the famous artist who spent some time teaching at Walt Disney Studios in the forties. Pete tells of a life drawing class where the students were frantically sketching away at their easels. The colorful and flamboyant LeBrun strode into the room, dramatically raised his arms into the air and shouted, “cease!” LeBrun was intent on his students thinking things through before launching into a drawing. An important lesson Pete would remember. Like so many young artists, Pete tried out for a job at the Walt Disney studio's animation department and worked on the studio's first feature film, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” However, Pete didn't stick around for "Pinocchio.” He moved to the Warner Brothers cartoon department and that legendary Hollywood facility known as “Termite Terrace.”

The days at Warner Brothers cartoons are still the days Pete remembers most fondly. Though some may have considered this the perfect place for a psychiatrist's case study. “Termite Terrace” was a unique gathering of extemely talented people. Though there were many different personalities in the studio, Pete remembers that they all respected each other as professionals. The “Porky Pig” shorts were still being made in black and white when Pete started working for Bob Clampett. A union man, Pete was even made the shop steward. He tried his best to improve the less than ideal working conditions at the studio. Pete tells of a time when studio boss, Leon Schlesinger called one of his many cost consciousness meetings. “Boys and girls,” said the parsimonious businessman, “we gotta start cutting corners.” The boss was taken at his word. From then on, the staff began clipping corners off the animation paper. Some even sawed chunks of wood off their drawing boards. You might find it interesting that studio managers were talking about cutting costs as far back as the thirties. Things haven’t changed much, have they? Eventually, Pete joined the Chuck Jones unit and tried his hand at doing layout. He took over as background painter when Maurice Noble became ill. His design skills and fine background work helped Jones win two Academy Awards. Pete also worked with Chuck on the very first “Roadrunner” cartoon. His desertscapes expressed a brilliant use of color as well as a strong sense of depth and distance in the film, “Fast and Furry–ous.” It was during this time that Pete began a long relationship with Western Publishing, where he worked on a number of Golden Books. It was the hey day of the western craze, and Pete found himself penciling and inking western heroes' Red Ryder, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. The country couldn't get enough of the cowboys, so Pete did comic strips as well as comic books. Eventually, he just did the pencils, and still managed to keep two inkers busy. Pete was just as ease doing funny animal characters, and the work he did touched on nearly every cartoon character one could think of. Not just Disney characters, but Warners and MGM's as well. One of the few artists put under contract, Pete has been doing work for Western for over forty years. That's a lot of books!

Pete has always said he never liked to stay at any one place too long. In the forties he move to New York hoping to illustrate pulp novels. Oddly enough, he ended up doing comics because it paid more. Pete did work for Fawcett and Funnies, Inc. One of the characters Pete worked on was "Dick Cole,” an all American military cadet. Pete tells of a strange story where the wacky American hero tries to talk Adolph Hitler out of invading Europe. Pete also did “Blue Bolt,” another superhero. While working in New York, Pete did whatever was needed. He penciled, inked, and even did backgrounds, everything except letter, although he could have done that as well. As nice as it was working in the east, Pete found that the weather left a lot to be desired, so he decided to return to the milder climate of southern California. He divided his time doing children's story and coloring books for Western and working on Saturday morning cartoon shows for Hanna–Barbera, Ruby–Spears, Warners and UPA.

At a time when younger men seem to be thinking of retirement, Pete continued doing what he does best. He worked on Hanna–Barbera's “Jetson” feature film, as well as penciled the “Donald Duck” comic strip for Disney. Pete regarded his career as very satisfying. He recalled that the best part of being in the business was the friends you work with and learn from. “Our work may not hang in the Louvre,” says Pete, “but more and more, the public seems to be recognizing animation as a true art form.” As far as the future of the business is concerned, Pete feels there will always be a need for artists, At least,“ says Pete, until they can get computers to round off the corners.” Recalling his days at Chinouard Art Institute, Pete speaks of his instructor, Rico LeBrun, who told his students, "Animation is an okay job, as long as one moves on to do something more significant.” All of us who love the wonderful world of comics and the art of animation can be thankful Pete never took Rico LeBrun's advice.

I couldn't find one photograph of my old friend and colleague, so I made this quick sketch.

I couldn't find one photograph of my old friend and colleague, so I made this quick sketch.