We’ve been doing media rollout here at the Walt Disney Studio for the new motion picture, “Malificent.” That meant I’d be doing a fair number of interviews and whenever I do an interview it’s pretty much guaranteed the popular subject of Walt Disney will come up. “What was it like to work with Walt,” they would ask? “And, how often did you meet with him,” was a question I’d hear over and over. I often remind people that the Old Maestro was a very busy man and we spent a good deal of time waiting until Walt was available. And that, boys and girls, is the subject of this morning’s post. What do you do while waiting for Walt Disney?
Before we begin, let me once again remind you that Walt Disney Productions was a one man studio. That meant that everything - and I do mean everything needed Walt’s approval. Nothing escaped Walt Disney, not the least of which were our storyboards on his latest animated feature motion picture, “The Jungle Book.” Again, I’ll remind you of our story development process. Often, we’d begin with an outline from Larry Clemmons. Vance Gerry and I would sketch out the sequence and build it on a series of storyboards. Once we’d shown the storyboard to our director, Woolie Reitherman, he’d have his assistant set up a meeting with Walt. This could be sooner or later depending on the Old Maestro’s availability. However, there was once thing for certain. Nothing would proceed until Walt Disney had given his approval.
What does one do while waiting for Walt? Remember, I’m a kid who worked in the animation department for a number of years and anybody who has ever done the job knows animation artists are always under the gun trying to complete their footage for the week. This had been my life, now all of a sudden I find myself in Walt Disney’s coveted story department with all the perks and “dangers” of being one of Walt’s story guys. Naturally, the Disney veterans had been doing this job for years and were completely used to the routine. After completing my job I couldn’t believe I now had time on my hands. Time to do anything I wanted while waiting for Walt Disney to find time in his busy schedule to scrutinize our storyboards on his latest motion picture. While my colleagues were perfectly content to kick back and read magazines and newspapers, I was desperate to find something - anything to keep myself occupied. At first, I decided to visit the studio library and do research on the jungles of India. Of course, I was warned not to read the Rudyard Kipling novel. Walt had given specific orders he didn’t want us reading Kipling. After a few days of research, I still needed things to do so I came up with a new idea. Since we were going to eventually be storyboarding Sher Kahn the Tiger, why not watch some movies that included footage of tigers. Amazing enough, it was easy obtaining tiger footage. All we had to do was ask, and helpful assistants made sure we obtained the film we needed. We even had our own private screening room to view the tiger footage and I remember going to a number of screenings with Vance Gerry and Larry Clemmons. Often, Vance and I would discuss how we could make a sequence funnier, and our colleague, Larry would always manage to come up with the same solution. I don’t know why, but I found Larry’s suggestions rather weird and wacky. “Why don’t we put him in drag,” was the zany answer from our story colleague. Every now and then, I’d get the itch to begin storyboarding, but I’d be warned not to do so. Walt Disney’s orders were explicit. We were not to do anything until he had seen what we had done. Then, and only then, could we proceed.
It may seem strange, but that’s the way we did things back in the old days. Even though the Jungle Book story team was on a tight schedule, this is the way we worked. And apparently, this was the way Walt wanted us to work. You simply didn’t proceed until the boss had seen what you had done. If that meant you had to wait - you simply waited until Walt Disney could make time available. That was the process, and apparently it worked. Eventually, the day would come when you’d hear a loud cough in the hallway outside your office. That was the signal. That was the audible warning that “man was in the forest.” Walt Disney was on his way to our office after days - maybe weeks of waiting. But, now the Old Maestro was here, and as always he arrived alone. No entourage or legions of executives, simply the boss, himself. Walt entered the room and took a seat up front. He took a drag on his imported cigarette and snuffed it out in the nearby ashtray. “Okay, guys,” he began. “What do you have to show me?”