The other evening a pal who works for an animation studio that shall remain nameless was telling me about the project he was developing. It was great news to hear he had garnered the attention of the studio bosses and was moving into development on the new movie. I couldn’t but think how things have changed in the cartoon business. Movie projects today tend to have lengthy development cycles and your youngest child could easily grow up while you’re working on a movie. If you’re lucky, you might even be pulling down a sizable paycheck while doing so. How did I miss out on the sweet process I’ve come to characterize as “the animation gravy train?”
My first story job on an animated feature film was a totally different experience. We didn’t have multi-million dollar budgets nor did we have years of development. Back in the olden days work had to be done and done quickly. Honestly, that’s the way it was. Of course, being a newbie to story development I didn’t know any different. When you do this job for the first time you simply assume that’s the way it’s always been done.
When the Old Maestro, Walt Disney expressed dissatisfaction with Bill Peet’s version of Kipling’s “The Jungle Book,” he wanted the entire story retooled. Plus, he wanted the new story completed in record time. The new story team quickly jumped on the project to see what we could salvage from the previous version. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much. At least not much as far as Walt Disney was concerned. That meant we had to start building new story boards and building them fast. Because of the rapid turnarounds there was no time to over think a sequence. You simply jumped on it and made it work. Should you take a wrong turn, the boss, (who happened to be an excellent story editor himself ) put you back on track. Our turnaround time was less than a year. Keep in mind this was a feature film that is now considered by many to be a classic.
Today, I can’t help but wonder why development on an animated feature film takes so long? To be sure, the process is not an easy one. This is something I’m well aware of having done it a good portion of my career. You can bet there will be false starts and wrong turns. One sequence that often plays well may be followed by a “train wreck.” Of course, when you fix the “train wreck” that means the preceding sequence will have to be rewritten as well. When Walt starts to arch his eyebrow and tap his finger, you could very well find yourself in bigger trouble. Such are the joys of story development in the big time.
We took the wild ride back in 1966, and we did so with the boss nipping at our heels. We never gave any thought to failing in this important assignment. At the sixties Disney Studio it would appear failure was not an option. Especially when the guy you had to please was Walt Disney. Of course, we had another important advantage. We didn’t have to ask the question, “what would Walt want?” The Old Maestro made it quite clear what he wanted. We simply had to deliver. After all, it was our butts that were on the line.
1966 is a long time ago, and I look back fondly on that wild ride on the “Jungle Book” express. I’m grateful I was chosen to take the ride and it was probably the most important story assignment I’ve had in my career. However, I can’t help but be somewhat envious of today’s story development process. An assignment where you’re often given ample time and money to fine tune a project. After screaming down the tracks at breakneck speed I’d love to - just once - take that long, slow ride on the animation “gravy train.”