Back in the fifties, I was a young animation artist who had managed to make the jump from television and short cartoons to the feature crew. For those not familiar with the Disney animation department of the nineteen fifties, the feature unit was considered Disney's elite. Not everyone was qualified to work on the Disney features. The feature film required a high level of draftsmanship and a good deal of patience. Indeed, it was no joke that some artists completed only one usable drawing a day. However to be honest, I must admit that not every Disney artist and animator wanted to work on the feature. A job that was often considered by many to be laborious and tedious.
"Sleeping Beauty" had been in production for a number of years, and the Old Maestro was growing impatient. "Just finished the darn thing," growled Disney at a company screening. So, the feature crew was suddenly shoved into high gear. Clean up units were set up to expedite the footage piling up from Disney's top animators. This lucky young man was sent to the "Good Fairy Unit" led by animator, Freddy Hellmich. This group of artists would be responsible for the final clean-up drawings on Flora, Fauna, and Meriweather, the trio of fairies who take Briar Rose into hiding. Hellmich had been an animator, but in the rush to complete footage, he, like many other animators had been "demoted" to Key Clean-Up positions in order to crank through the reams of footage waiting to be completed on the feature.
I reported to my office on the second floor of the Animation Building where the crew was assembled. The other animation assistants were, in no particular order, Chuck Williams, Jim Fletcher, Rick Gonzales and Bob Reese. Now, it was Fred's task to whip his crew into shape and he put us through our paces Disney style. We were thoroughly schooled on good drawing techniques where even the width of a pencil line was critical. None other than Disney’s Nine Old Men would scrutinize our clean up animation, so nothing was left to chance. Freddy was a good teacher and often took the time to help me polish my own personal attempts at animation. He taught me animation mechanics and criticized my pencil tests. Fred was a darn good animator in his own right, and his lessons proved invaluable.
Many of my favorite memories while working on "Sleeping Beauty" were the late night conversations while working overtime. Taking a break from our drawing boards, Fred would regale us with of stories from his own life. Some were darn right funny, and others were pretty serious. Freddy had grown up in post war Germany during Hitler's rise to power. Freddy even saw Der Fuhrer himself on occasion at public events. Hellmich even confessed to being a member of the Hitler Youth, although he claimed it was more akin to the Boy Scouts than a militaristic organization. He was taught love of country, respect for family, and other positive values. Freddy reminded us how those who preach "positive values" can also be the keepers of a corrupt agenda. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, Hellmich and his family left Germany just in time. They, like many others escaped Europe before it erupted into World War. I think these events turned Fred into a true history buff, so he and other artists would often debate international politics for hours.
Fred Hellmich was an avid chess player, and master animator; Milt Kahl was often an opponent in a noontime match. The roar of profanity and the scattering of chess pieces was a sure sign Milt had lost another game with the "little German." I don't think Freddy had attended college; yet he was extremely knowledgeable in literature, history, philosophy and music. No doubt, this was because he was an avid reader always thirsting for more information on variety of subjects.
In time, we finally completed our chores on "Sleeping Beauty," and the "Fairy Crew”(as we were often called) went their separate ways. Freddy Hellmich, finally free of his clean-up chores went back to his role as animator on a number of Disney features, short films, and television shows. When the Old Maestro decided to animate "Winnie the Pooh," Fred Hellmich proved to be especially good at bringing life to Pooh bear. In time, he was even recruited to animate the Pooh Bear television commercial for Sears. These outside jobs proved so lucrative that Freddy decided to leave Disney and strike out on his own. He joined a small group of independent animators to work on various projects; some for the Disney company as well as other clients. One of these later assignments took him to Korea to supervise animation, but while there he suddenly became ill. Veteran animators, Hal Ambro and Charlie Downs told me of Freddy's illness, and that his son and daughter had flown to Korea to bring their dad home. Sadly, before the kids arrived at the hospital, Freddy had passed away.
Freddy Hellmich is not someone you'll read about in the Disney history books. He, like so many talented animators at the Mouse House during the fifties, sixties and seventies never shared the limelight with the "big guys." Though his name appears on a number of Disney shorts and feature films, few animation fans know that much about him. However, I count myself lucky to have been a member of his crew on "Sleeping Beauty" for nearly two years. He was my friend, my mentor, and a damn good Disney animator.