Our Amazing Mentors

I remember speaking with a group of Disney veterans some years ago. We were in the midst of a Disney transition and a new generation of animation artists were beginning to make their mark. Films such as The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast had resonated with audiences and it was clear Disney animation was on its way back. The old veterans were wise enough to praise the young Disney filmmakers in the media. However, what they said privately was often a different story. I had the advantage of being in the middle. I was clearly not a part of the old Disney royalty. The seasoned veterans who had expertly crafted this amazing medium over a period of decades. Nor was I a part of the young turks just out of school. I suppose that’s why the old masters felt free to speak openly around me. I found their conversation amusing, yet I understood why they kept their personal feelings private. These guys knew the politics of the cartoon business and didn’t want to come off as expressing sour grapes. While praising the new movies in public, they often groused about the animated fare in private. Having been a part of Old School Disney, I understood their concerns. Yet, I was ready to defend the new Disney filmmakers because this was their time. The old guys had already had their shot, and now things were changing. I couldn’t help but detect a slight feeling of jealousy from the Disney Masters. It was as though the old timers were reluctant to give up what was once theirs and theirs alone. Now, a new generation of artists would step into their shadow. Were they worthy of carrying on the Disney legacy? Did they have the chops to stand on the shoulders of giants? Only time would tell.

I’ve never been fond of those who like to sugarcoat animation history. I’ll add that goes double for the keepers of Disney animation history. There’s nothing wrong with telling the truth and I’ve never viewed that as a negative. The animation business has never been free of politics and there has always been as much in fighting and backbiting as in any other business. Animation artists eager to climb to the top will not flinch when it comes to taking personal advantage. Whether that means cherry picking scenes or sucking up to superiors. This has been the game since day one. Disney’s Nine Old Men were no fools either. When the Old Maestro made a casual joke one day they immediately saw its potential. Knowing they could take Walt’s play on words and leverage it to their advantage, they ran with it. Of course, this is taking nothing away from the Disney Masters or whether they’re worthy of the title. Their incredible body of work over several decades speaks for itself. However, the Walt Disney Studio was filled with animation masters and unless you’re an animation scholar they’re probably names you don’t even know. Amazing animators such as Don Lusk, Bill Tytla, Norm Ferguson, George Nicholas, and John Sibley to name a few. If I recall correctly, animator, Don Lusk began his amazing career at Walt’s Hyperion Studio in the thirties and over the years produced an amazing body of work. Lusk’s Disney career came to a close in 1960 due to the massive cutbacks after the completion of the feature film, “101 Dalmatians.” Don Lusk animated on most of the Walt Disney features I saw as a child and he continued his exceptional career long after departing Disney. Yet, the animation master has never been celebrated as a Disney Legend. Go figure.

When I was a young animation artist I recall standing behind the Disney Masters getting my exterior chewed off. Unlike today where political correctness abounds and HR departments protect the corporation’s butt from real or imagined slights, the Disney veterans didn’t mince words. The bar was raised high at the Walt Disney Studios and remained so for decades. The old Disney guys were taskmasters and the no nonsense demands simply made us better artists. Those who survived Disney’s animation “boot camp” would find working anywhere else a breeze. A few days ago, I gathered at the Smoke House in Burbank with a bunch of my animation colleagues. Most of us were veterans having begun our journey in this amazing business over fifty years ago. I expressed my gratitude for the training and mentoring I received from the old Disney masters. I was grateful for their graciousness and sharing their considerable knowledge with me. I regret this type of mentoring no longer exist because most of todays studios are filled with kids. Where are all the grey haired old codgers to pass on the knowledge? Most were shown the door years ago, and that’s a real concern.

Clearly, this is an amazing time to be in the animation business and there are more exciting things yet to come. However, you can’t move forward without knowing your past, and that past is rapidly being lost. Where are the mentors for today’s animation professionals? Where are the Nine Old Men for this generation or a Brain Trust for students still learning their craft in school? Sure, there are a handful of gifted professionals sharing their years of knowledge, and I think that’s great. However, that’s not nearly enough as more and more fledgling studios begin to ramp up. To be truly effective, the cartoon business needs more mentors. Mentors like the ones we had when we entered the business as young professionals many years ago.

Our amazing mentors from another age. No doubt, they were tough to work for. But, boy did we learn a lot.

Our amazing mentors from another age. No doubt, they were tough to work for. But, boy did we learn a lot.