Castaway at the Walt Disney Studio

It was another sunny summer afternoon at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. We sat on the commissary patio enjoying lunch, or at least trying to. Our little group consisted of several Disney artists along with art director, Carl Anderson who was currently working on a new Walt Disney live-action feature film. The movie starred the talented and affable Dick Van Dyke who like Tom Hanks in “Castaway,” would spend a good deal of the movie by himself. However, that movie was decades away and its story would have a far different tone. This particular story penned by the Old Maestro himself would have a comic sensibility and much of it would be played for laughs. If you’re a Disney film buff you may already know I’m speaking of the Walt Disney film, “Lt. Robin Crusoe, USN.”

However, let’s get back to lunch on the Walt Disney Studio Commissary where Anderson continued to rant about Director of Photography, Bill Snyder. “What’s wrong with that guy?” complained Carl Anderson. “We’re supposed to be deep in the jungle and Snyder is lighting the scene like we’re in Griffith Park.” Had you been able to visit stage two back in the early sixties you would have indeed found a remote tropical jungle. At least a Hollywood version of a jungle island in the Pacific. This is where Navy fighter pilot, Lt. Robin Crusoe finds himself in the movies’ first act. However, the Navy pilot played by Dick Van Dyke would spend a number of days floating in a rubber raft. Have no fear, we didn’t send poor Mr. Van Dyke out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Dick Van Dyke managed to play out his scenes in the middle of sound stage three. If you know the Walt Disney Studio you’ll know that stage three has a built in water tank. Naturally, that considerable sized water tank became our Pacific Ocean for a number of days as Mr. Van Dyke struggled to survive. In time, our hero is washed ashore on a deserted island somewhere in the South Pacific.

Most Disney film buffs visit a movie set on occasion, but I was with this film from start to finish even though I didn’t work on it. I confess I continually hung around Don Dagradi and Bill Walsh’s office while they wrote the screenplay based on Walt’s story. I was a consistent visitor to the office of illustrator, David Jonas as he developed a visual continuity for the motion picture. You can see a few of David’s sketches down below. Finally, I was able to meet director, Byron Paul who would helm the motion picture for Disney and hopefully establish himself as a movie director. In case you didn’t know…Byron Paul was Dick Van Dyke’s agent. I followed the movie through preproduction and when shooting finally began, I was a daily visitor to the set. A second unit team was busy shooting establishing shots and live-action plates in Hawaii. However, Dick Van Dyke never had to travel to the islands because all of his scenes were shot at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. Whether it was flying the Navy jet, crashing into the Pacific ocean or surviving on the deserted tropical island, those scenes were all filmed on the sound stages and backlot of the Walt Disney Studios.

My time on the Disney film was filled with delightful and unexpected surprises. Meeting the animal star of the film was fun. The clever chimpanzee eventually became a pal with movie star, Dick Van Dyke and would often join him for coffee and a cigarette. You think I’m kidding? Just ask Mr. Van Dyke. The chimp, whose real name was “Dingy” was given the name, “Floyd” in the finished movie. I’ll let you guess where that idea came from. Then there was my encounter with the beautiful island native girls and a tropical swim in an island lagoon. Once again, this lush tropical jungle was created at the magical Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. There was also a special moment with the beautiful actress, Nancy Kwan that had my heart racing. I’m too embarrassed to even talk about that. Finally, the studio special effects wizards created a tropical storm that was good enough to be the real thing. Once again, this was the special magic of movie making we seem to have lost today. Whatever distant location or special effect we needed could instantly be created by Walt’s Wizards such as Peter Ellenshaw, Ub Iwerks, Allen Maley and Eustace Lycett. Yes, boys and girls. This is when movie making was fun. Today, you’ll need 500 to a thousand visual effects people to do what these four guys did on a regular basis.

Eventually, the huge tropical jungle set on stage two was lit and ready for photography. Looming over the set was a large stone idol known as “The Great Kaboona.” Actors, Dick Van Dyke and Nancy Kwan were dragged before the island potentate. It was then character actor, Akim Tamiroff began to “chew the scenery.” Tamiroff played the island chief, Tanamashu and even Walt Disney thought the well known character actor was over acting just a little. The scene wrapped and art director, Carl Anderson was never totally satisfied with what he considered to be some pretty mediocre movie lighting. Oh, well. That’s Hollywood, I guess. Walt Disney’s “Lt. Robin Crusoe, USN” proved to be light, fun entertainment and a pretty good little film. I can tell you for a fact that Walt Disney was hardly pleased with the final film and often grumbled that he should have let his go-to director, Bob (Mary Poppins) Stevenson direct the movie. In any case, that time is past. I have my memories and a handful of story sketches reminding me of a Walt Disney Studio that once was… and can never be again.

These are a few of the continuity sketches for the live-action Walt Disney movie. Brilliant illustrator, Dave Jonas must have done hundreds of these for the film. Even Walt's live-action films were storyboarded. Hardly a surprise, right?

These are a few of the continuity sketches for the live-action Walt Disney movie. Brilliant illustrator, Dave Jonas must have done hundreds of these for the film. Even Walt's live-action films were storyboarded. Hardly a surprise, right?

Hand Drawn Lunch

As we sat around a dining table at a local valley restaurant, an old animation veteran reached into his grab bag and pulled out a series of lost treasures. We immediately recognized the stacks of drawings and the punched animation paper. These were animation scenes created by the animation masters we had worked with decades ago. I doubt you’d even know their names, but anyone well schooled in the art of animation would immediately recognized the work of the brilliant artists who brought characters to life using only drawing skills and a rich imagination. The animated scenes were passed around the table for each artist to study. Holding the scene in our right hand, we “rolled” the drawings to study the animation. This was the real deal. This was animation decades before the digital revolution.

Naturally, the subject of traditional hand drawn animation became the center of our conversation. We spoke of the talented animators who have been lecturing in an attempt to bring a hand drawn sensibility to the CGI animated motion pictures now in production. We spoke of the simple charm of a hand drawn sketch and the wonder of seeing a drawing come to life. We believe that audiences still marvel at the magic of a moving sketch even though producers would have us believe that nothing less than a photo real digital animated movie can make money today. And, don’t even get me started on the old canard that hand drawn motion pictures are inherently more expensive than CGI with its massive infrastructure and the considerable expense that comes with it. Were I ever to be blessed with sufficient funds to make an animated film I could have a studio up and running in a matter of weeks. The facility would be as simple as a rented warehouse with rows of drawing tables loaded with pencils and paper. Start up costs would be next to nothing and what little computer equipment needed would be used for post production which is mainly a mechanical process anyway. Plus, I doubt dedicated staffers would be difficult to find. Eager young students ready to bring back a lost art along with a host of marginalized veteran animation professionals who have been waiting on the sidelines for something great to come along. 

While it’s true I’ve often been accused of bashing CGI filmmaking, the charge is hardly legitimate. I’ve always been on the cutting edge of technology and I’ve owned more computers and drawing tablets than most people would ever have a need for. However, I will confess that I’m growing weary of digital films even though the images sent to the screen are often impressive. However, this animation veteran is getting a little tired of being dazzled and would like the joy of seeing a simple drawing spring to animated life on the big screen again. A simple, inspired drawing sketched into brilliant life by a unique artist we once called, an animator. Gifted women and men who create magic using nothing less than pencil and paper. They would carry on in the tradition of Art Babbitt, Milt Kahl and Freddy Moore. And, the new generation of masters including, Glen Keane, Andreas Deja and Eric Goldberg. Some of you may disagree with my assessment of animation in 2016. After all, aren’t today’s animated films better than ever? Don’t audiences turn out in droves for each new animated movie? Well, you’d be correct on every count. Today’s films are surely dazzling and the digitally generated images are jaw dropping. Could things be better?

As we passed the time worn scene pages around the lunch table there was not one of us who didn’t feel a tinge of nostalgia for our animation days long past. Back then the job categories consisted of, story, layout, animation and background. Add, ink&paint, camera and you’re done. At times the work seemed clunky and crude and the production process was often messy and difficult to control. Yet, out of that chaos came stories and images that would remain with audiences for decades. Films were created back then. Today, I’m afraid they’re simply manufactured.

There's No Money in Animation

There’s no money in animation. You might as well know that from the start. While it’s true a handful of our colleagues have made a few bucks over the years, I assure you they’re the exception, not the rule. This is not a complaint, however. Making money in the cartoon business was never a goal I eagerly sought. As a matter of fact when my compensation was being discussed at the Walt Disney Studios back in 1956, I barely heard a word spoken. As personnel director, Bob Millard detailed my salary and monthly increases, my mind was already wandering. I could honestly think of nothing else than the fact I had just been hired by the Walt Disney Studios and it was the best day of my life.

Of course, the pay was meager, and most artists had to tighten their belts in order to get by. Artist, Elizabeth Case was getting child support and my pal, Dave Michener had to keep his part time job at a filling station in order to pay the bills. That’s the way it was in the old days. No normal person wanted a job in the cartoon business because you couldn’t live on the (dare I say it) Laughable salary. No, we were in the animation business because it was simply something we had to do. It was our love, our passion and for a good many of us, a life long career. Back in the fifties, no one could ever conceive of animation paying a decent salary. A good number of our early Disney class bailed out to take better paying jobs in other industries. Remaining in the cartoon business appeared foolish and it was little wonder many considered what we did for a living little more than a silly hobby. For those of us who hung in there, we began to see our salaries increase over time. By the early sixties I felt I was making a pretty decent living and was quite happy with my job. One day, I accidentally spotted a directing animator’s payroll check on his desk and I couldn’t resist having a quick peek. The amount of money on the check wouldn’t cause anyone to bat an eye today, however, the thousand dollar weekly check caused me to audibly, gasp! How could anybody earn that much money, I wondered? And, what in the world would you do with all that cash? Remember, this was the early sixties and a paycheck that large was viewed as a king’s ransom. In time, I realized the paychecks amounted to very little. It was the Disney stock options that made some of Walt’s chosen few, very rich men. 

Unfortunately, I never had any smarts concerning money or investments. My pal, Jim Fletcher took his meager paycheck and loaded up on Disney stock. I remember fellow artists laughing at Fletcher and the money he spent. However, the laugh would be on us. This was the nineteen fifties. I’m sure you can imagine what his stock would be worth today. Eventually, I moved upstairs to Walt Disney’s coveted story department to work on The Jungle Book. However, no salary increase came with this promotion. My boss, Andy Engman said that working with the Old Man would be worth more than the money. Of course, Andy was correct. It would be difficult to put a price on the opportunity given anyone to actually work with Walt Disney. However, deep down inside, I knew that the studio was still being tight with a dollar.

Decades passed, and one day I realized that Walt Disney Studios finally had a “million dollar animator.” There was no envy here. Rather, it was a cause for celebration. It would appear that the cartoon business had finally made its way out of the “animation ghetto” and had become a viable medium like the rest of Hollywood motion pictures. Soon, there would be other top animators earning salaries we could only have dreamed of back in the fifties. And, before long, the salaries of all in the animation industry began to rise. Truly, we had entered a Second Golden Age of Animation, only this time around, the creative staff would share in the bounty. The artificial affluence was short lived because the cartoon business was about to change. The arrival of CGI and the digital production pipeline changed the way animation was produced. However, it also changed the business model as well. No longer were animators unique, highly sought after professionals. There was no longer a need to employ a supervising animator with decades of experience when a recent graduate from Cal Arts could do the same job. Before long, the animation boom was over and the Second Golden Age had ground to a halt.

As I said, there’s no money in animation. Back in the fifties, many of us dreamed of the day we would enjoy a big payday. Unfortunately, that day never came. A few of our colleagues did okay as long as they saved and invested well. They, however, were the exception. I confess my heart goes out to the many retired animation artists I’ve encountered who were just getting by. Their work had made millions for the studios that once employed them. Yet, the artists would never see a dime of the considerable profits their art helped to generate. However, this is a story you already know. Finally, I can honestly say I don’t regret a day I’ve spent in this amazing business. It’s been fun, inspirational and creatively fulfilling. It’s just too damn bad there’s no money in it.

Of course there's money in animation. These executives are doing great.

Of course there's money in animation. These executives are doing great.

Birthday Wishes

Today is my birthday and I’m taking a breakfast break on the patio of Walt Disney Imagineering. As I reflect on my long career in the cartoon business I can’t help but think I’ve been lucky enough to participate in an impressive number of exciting projects. Yet, if I had a birthday wish, I think it might surprise you what that wish would be. You see, anyone who has worked in this crazy business knows there are always projects that fall by the wayside. The movies or TV shows that for one reason or another were abandoned while still in production or development. If I had a birthday wish, I’d love to go back in time and relaunch the many failed projects I’ve worked on. Not just any project, mind you. I’m speaking of the cool ideas that showed real potential and could have sparked a good deal of creative innovation.

Decades ago, my partner Leo Sullivan and I sat down with executives from the major publisher, DoubleDay. We were joined by screenwriter, Buddy Prince who had collaborated with us on our Black History films. At the time, DoubleDay was publishing the Zenith Series on Black History and were eager to take the published material to film. One of the stories particularly intrigued me. It was entitled, “The Battle of the Crater,” one of the historic battles of the Civil War. I had recently been impressed by the films of Stanley Kubrick and his masterful storytelling in “Paths of Glory.” I wanted our film to reflect the same sensibility of the Kubrick film and portray war as the horrific enterprise it truly is. Though we were eager and ready to move forward on the Doubleday project, extraordinary circumstances caused the Zenith Series to be mothballed.

Our next ill-fated project was the second “Fat Albert” Special being produced for NBC by Bill Cosby’s animation studio. I’m willing to bet you never knew Mr. Cosby had a cartoon studio, did you? Anyway, the first “Fat Albert” special was aired in the summer of 1968 by NBC, but Cosby’s deal with the network involved two shows. That meant show number two had already moved into development even though the little company had lost its studio space. Believe it or not, the little animation company had even moved into the Cosby home in a fashionable section of Los Angeles. However, nobody in their right mind wants animators in their home and before long the zany cartoonists were booted out of the Cosby home by Mrs. Cosby herself. As I said, you can’t really blame Camille Cosby for having had enough. In time, the Cosby cartoonists found a temporary residence in one of the bungalows of the commercial studio FilmFair in Studio City. It was here I watched rough animation on a Moviola with jazz composer, Cannonball Adderly who was hired to score the film. It appeared the director and Mr. Cosby failed to come together on this second animated attempt. The animation unit was shut down and Bill Cosby moved his project to Filmation Studios and the rest is history.

The decade of the seventies brought many social changes. Young men began sporting beards, long hair and sandals. Of course, the girls wore hip hugging bell bottoms and platform shoes were all the rage. It was in this crazy, shifting environment we began to develop an animated motion picture we called, “Bush Head.” Inspired by the music of Smokey Robinson, Bush Head was a prehistoric kid of color who lived during the time of the dinosaur. Naturally, in this fanciful film we played free and loose with time and history. It was just a heck of a lot more fun to have our hero, Bush Head ride his pet dinosaur. Keep in mind this was decades before films like Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur” mixed reptiles with humans. Working in Hollywood’s Motown headquarters we hashed out character and production designs. We created rooms of storyboards detailing the wacky, prehistoric storyline. Composer, Smokey Robinson often met with us to discuss songs and storylines while dining on a delicious plate of ribs and collard greens from the nearby soul food restaurant. Motown music filled the air along with the fragrance of the “funny little cigarettes” that were popular during the era.

A good deal larger than most conference rooms, the upstairs Sunset Boulevard Motown space was filled with colorful production design paintings and a series of elaborate storyboards. On the day of the presentation to Berry Gordy we were visited by “wise guys,” Joey and Carmine. At least that’s what their names should have been. They gave the large room a once over looking for hidden cameras or secret recording devices. I was never sure whether their concern was protecting us — or Mr. Gordy. In any case, the Motown boss did not make an appearance until the room was deemed “safe.” The “Bush Head” presentation was now underway. Much of the pitch was led by Phil who even got down on all fours mimicking the dinosaur dancing to the music. Our villain was an evil witch doctor and when it came to his scene, composer, Smokey Robinson could not resist getting involved. Channeling the movie bad guy, he waved his arms wildly while doing his evil incantation. I’ve done my fair share of movie pitches during my career and on occasion one stands out as magical. I’ve little doubt that all of us were thinking, what an amazing movie this is going to be. Sadly, our project was dumped when Motown decided to produced “The Wiz” as a feature film starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.

There you have a few of my motion picture regrets this Birthday Morning, June 22, 2016. There’s a good many more projects I can tell you about. However, that will have to wait for another day.

Most of my movies manage to get shut down. However, I keep smiling anyway. Cheers!

Most of my movies manage to get shut down. However, I keep smiling anyway. Cheers!