Casting Call

When you've spent your career working in the fanciful world of film and television production there are many stories to tell. Naturally, all this stuff actually happened because honestly, you can't make this stuff up.

Let's talk about casting this time around. It's a very important part of any production and there's always a few casting stories to tell. The first story involves a production house I worked at some years ago. The all important job of casting a television commercial was the task of the day. The client had flown in for the session and he sat in a large conference room with the casting director. A long line of hopeful actors formed outside the room each eager to score the well paying television gig. After a long morning of readings the client slumped in his chair. “These guys are good,” he said. “But I still haven't seen the guy I want. This commercial is very important for our company. I need to be sure I’ve cast the right actor.” It was now noon, and after delivering a stack of pizzas the studio delivery boy made his way through the main conference room. He was a funny, outgoing guy well liked by all at the studio because of his infectious enthusiasm. Spotting the script on the table, he quickly snatched up the script pages and delivered the lines just for the fun of it. The client suddenly bolted upright in his chair. "That's it!” he shouted. “That's the guy I'm looking for.” Can you imagine a story that’s more Hollywood? This is the kind of thing that only happens in the movies. Yet, here it was taking place in the real world. Not long after, the studio messenger boy was instantly cast in the television commercial, signed a contract and joined the Screen Actors Guild. This kind of thing doesn’t happen in real life. However, sometimes it does.

My second casting story is personal. I arrived at NBC in Burbank where my old buddy, Norman Edelen was writing a television show. Norm and I were more than old friends, we were business partners. Our production company, Vignette Films, Inc. was responsible for educational films, TV logos and government training films. When our company went belly up in the seventies, I returned to the cartoon business and Norm became a screenwriter. At the time, he was writing a television drama for NBC. Naturally, not knowing my way around the studio I quickly became lost in the Burbank facility. I managed to wander into a room where two well dressed people were seated at a long table. Before I could get a word out the man and woman suddenly brightened. The two looked me up and down, then turned to each other. After a nod and a smile they suddenly said, “You'll do just fine. However, you'll have to shave off the mustache.” Yes, it's true. I was indeed sporting a mustache in those days but why would I need to shave it off? And, who were these people anyway? It turns out I had wandered into the casting room of a television show and I had just scored a job as on camera performer. Plus, I managed to do all this without even doing a read. Just think. I could have had a whole new career as a television actor simply because I had taken a wrong turn in a television studio. Think these events are unusual? In a wacky town like Hollywood I've found that nothing is unusual.

So, there you have two of my wacky Hollywood casting stories. Of course, there are many more zany tales from Tinsel Town and they include several very attractive young women. I'll tell you about those one of these days.

NBC Television back in the nineteen seventies. This kid could have become a star. Who knew?

NBC Television back in the nineteen seventies. This kid could have become a star. Who knew?

Embrace the Chaos

The audacious project appeared to be a good idea at the start. Employees would offer their company colleagues words of advice and encourgement. Encouraged by management, the approach would be fun and fanciful. The helpful comments and quips would be contained in speech balloons not unlike a comic strip. The balloons containing the words of wisdom would be positioned over the photograph of the person making the comment. The poster like images would line the second floor hallways of one of our buildings and employees were eager to participate. Since I was already known for my cartoons and quips, the fellow in charge of the project approached me. Would I be willing to pose for a photograph and offer a word of advice and encouragement? Naturally, I said, “of course.”

The second floor was already a hot bed of activity as more and more young people arrived to design and develop exciting new products. It was the perfect time to launch the creative hallway project and to celebrate the sharing of words, wisdom and encouragement. I won’t take the time to share the clever and helpful advice of my colleagues, but I will tell you the advice I gave. It’s short and simple, but if you give it some thought, you’ll find it speaks volumes. The word balloon above my photograph simply read, “Embrace the Chaos.” It was advice I was sure everyone would understand once given some thought. However, I’m afraid I often overestimate the intelligence of my audience. Words are often misunderstood because people simply don’t “get it.”

Let me first explain what happened. In time, my poster was removed, and the powers that be said it was taken down because they thought it was time to swap out a few ideas for others. Important advice, boys and girls. Never kid a kidder. I’ve been around long enough to spot BS a mile away. My poster was taken down because it obviously offended someone. Clearly, someone in management. And, someone not nearly clever enough to understand the pithy comment and advice. You see, “Embrace the Chaos” was never intended as an attack on the management style of the rather large enterprise. It was never a dig at the troubled business unit clearly on a glide path to destruction. The management learned a lesson from my poster and the words of advice it contained. The problem is, they simply learned the wrong lesson.

Allow me to explain. My advice, “Embrace the Chaos” is simply referring to the creative process. A process that creative people have always understood. Over the years I’ve spoken with creative people including authors, artists and computer scientists. All of us are well aware of the process that tends to be messy, disorganized and chaotic. It’s how we find our way. It’s how we solve problems. Whether it’s a new motion picture or an innovative piece of computer software, the path to our final destination is more often than not - a messy one. My advice to the creative young people was not to fear the difficult task and the problems along the way. Rather, embrace the failures. The failures that will eventually lead you to success. I thought I more than made myself clear but apparently I was wrong. It would appear that a clueless management completly misunderstood my words and intention. And, it makes me worry and wonder how many other things they completely get wrong?

It makes me worry and wonder how many other things they completely get wrong?

It makes me worry and wonder how many other things they completely get wrong?

Management and Other Problems

The two young executives stood admiring the impressive artwork that lined the wall of the huge exhibit room. Clearly they were taken aback by the beautiful artwork and the stellar concept designs on display. The executive dressed in the “serious” dark suit was eager to know the person or persons responsible. She turned to her colleague with an important question.

“Who managed this incredible project?”

That question is my concern with many companies today. Apparently, the talented artists whose work the executives admired were not even worth mentioning. It would appear the talented staff that made the project possible were not worthy of a mention. That was because they were nothing more than hired hands, fruit pickers or a few other unflattering terms I could mention. The person or persons who should truly be noted, respected and admired was - you guess it. The manager.

As an old veteran in this crazy business of creating media I often stand in amazement when I consider how much management has encroached on the business of creativity. Today, the tail wags the dog as clueless managers rule the roost and take credit ( not to mention the compensation) for the hard work of others. But, I’ve gotta confess the managers have always had an edge. That’s because they’re excellent at doing one thing. They’re masters at exploiting the work of others to serve their own selfish agenda. The worker bees and other creative types have their nose to the grindstone creating product. This gives the managers ample time to plan and scheme their way to the top. And, believe me, they’re more than effective at doing just that.

Consider the old days of animation film making where the studio’s management team was lean and mean. Most studios employed a production manager and a handful of secretaries who ran herd over multiple projects in work. Should you consider what things were like at a truly huge enterprise such as The Walt Disney Studios you might be in for a surprise. Even Walt’s massive cartoon factory employed a very lean management team even though several projects were in work. Besides Roy O. Disney and his upper level management team, the animation studio was able to operate efficiently with production boss, Ken Peterson and Andy Engman running a department that numbered in the hundreds. How could Ken, Andy and their secretaries handle such a daunting task? Why didn’t these Disney bosses have multiple assistants? And, why didn’t their assistants have assistants? The answer is simple. They weren’t needed.

Of course, I was clueless to the business side of animation when I was a young artist at the Mouse House. However, when promoted to Walt’s Story Department I gained a closer view of Disney’s production process. Here we were creating a major motion picture that would mobilize the considerable resources of Walt Disney Productions. Yet, Walt Disney didn’t need an “army” to accomplish that task. You’ll notice there’s usually no producer credit on the Disney animation classics. The job of running production was left to a production manager and his management team. When it came to the production pipeline, each department pretty much managed themselves. It made sense, actually. Only the team knew what had to be done and what would be required to accomplish it. It was a very clean, simple way of working. And, it provided a very effective solution to the daunting task of creating a motion picture.

You can imagine what a jaw dropping experience it was returning to the business of animation in the early nineties after a ten year absence. I arrived to find my beloved animation department working in a way I could never have imagined. Naturally, all this was deemed necessary because the studio had totally adopted the convoluted mechanism of corporate management. You already know what this means, of course. The corporate methodology of layered management. Whether you call it, systematization or bureaucracy it was the new way of doing things. Those new to the animation business considered this process normal. For me, it was a new form of madness. The old system of filmmaking had been collaborative. Questions were answered and problems were solved by simply going to the person who could make a decision. Now, key people were buffered by legions of assistants who acted more as “gate Keepers.” Rather than facilitate efficiency they usually did the opposite. None of this was intentional, of course. That’s just the way the system functioned. Naturally, in time, the managers would wield a good deal more clout than the artists.

Some might misconstrue this missive as attack on studio management. Of course, that’s not my intention, but I do have a concern and it comes from first hand experience. I’ll not mention any names here, but recently I overheard a conversation between an artist and a manager. All the artist needed was an answer to a simple question. The question was clear and straightforward, yet the manager continued to overcomplicate the question and refuse to give an answer. I understood the subtext, of course. Corporate interests were clearly in the way of a clear and simple answer. This never would have happened in the old days of Disney. Today, it’s simply the way we do business.

I regretfully watch the two young managers in crisp business suits and I sadly realize we live in two different worlds. Management and art have never truly been ideal companions. Today, that reluctant relationship shows little signs of improving.

Never an ideal relationship, today, it appears to be worse than ever.

Never an ideal relationship, today, it appears to be worse than ever.

John Kennedy

No, he wasn’t the President but he did share the same first and last name of our nineteen sixties Commander in Chief. John Kennedy is probably a Disney animator you’ve never even heard of. However, if you check the screen credits of the Walt Disney classic, Sleeping Beauty, you’ll see his name listed along with the character animators. As you can imagine, scoring a credit on this very important Walt Disney film was hardly small potatoes. Today, animators still lament about being snubbed on the credit list of the prestigious Walt Disney animated feature film.

However, Sleeping Beauty was yesterday’s news as we worked away on a new animated feature. Directing animator, Ward Kimball had moved upstairs to 2-C so John Kennedy moved into Ward’s vacated office in prestigious D-Wing. I was a relative newcomer to the wing that was the home of Walt’s finest, and most of us kids were extremely respectful of the artists who inhabited the already legendary office space. Actually, I think we feared the old guys. After all, they were the masters who created the movies we saw as kids. Because of their stature, we were reluctant to engage in conversation with the likes of Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas or Eric Larson. However, one of the old animators in the wing didn’t mind hanging out with the kids. Clearly, we were surprised when the silver haired veteran began joining us for coffee. John Kennedy had animated on Sleeping Beauty and that alone made him a very special person in our eyes. Surprisingly, Kennedy seemed to downplay his contribution to the Disney classic and his unexpected humility impressed all of us. While the animation master appreciated his job at the Walt Disney Studio he never saw it as the end all and be all of artistic life. For many, the role of Disney animator was a hard won, crowning achievment. Kennedy simply saw it as it as another art job that provided a pretty good living. For a period lasting two years or more, the aging animation veteran spoke with us on a daily basis. Of course the topics of conversation included art, music, history and philsophy. Naturally, being at the Walt Disney Studio meant we often spoke of old Hollywood and the stars of years past. Old films were difficult to come by in those days and kids like us knew little of silent film making and Hollywood of the twenties and thirties. John Kennedy was a true movie buff and he provided a wealth of knowledge of a Hollywood we never knew. He invited us to learn about stars such as Mabel Normand and Francis X. Bushman, whose grandson, Bruce was working down the hall from us in E-Wing. Such were the fun topics of discussion in those days.

I regret that todays kids don’t have “old timers” to chat with. Most companies are more than eager to move out the old and make room for the new. Guys like John Kennedy were more than just animation mentors. They taught us about life, living and what it means to grow older. I doubt you’ll gain such insights from people your own age. It takes a few years of living before you actually know a thing or two. John Kennedy often spoke of retirement and a move south of the border. He knew his retirement dollars would stretch a good deal farther in Mexico. Having visited some years earlier he looked forward to finally returning and settling down in his own hacienda. I would like to think that John Kennedy realized his dream. I can see him sitting now with a cool drink in his hand. Young school children gather round as he regales them with stories of movies, magic and the special place he worked called the Walt Disney Studio.

John Kennedy. The Disney animator worked in D-Wing and I doubt you even knew it.  

John Kennedy. The Disney animator worked in D-Wing and I doubt you even knew it.