Telling Stories

When I returned to feature animation back in 1993 I realized things had changed since the days when Walt Disney guided the story development process. The studio was now under new management and eager young Hollywood hotshots now ruled Walt’s sleepy little kingdom. I confess it was a rude awakening for this old Disney veteran. At one time, the title, “storyman” meant you were one of Walt’s boys entitled to all the perks that went with the job. That meant you no longer punched the time clock, had a guaranteed parking spot and a large spacious office to do your work. In the years since the Old Maestros’ passing, things had changed at the House of Mouse and would continue to change. Enter newly appointed screenwriters and the creative executives. A legion of suits who made a habit of looking over our shoulders while we were trying to make a motion picture. More often than not these studio minions would arrive in a conference room or a story room with a cell phone "glued" to the side of their head. Their job was to monitor progress on a film and report to their bosses. Granted, a feature film is a hefty investment and one should not be faulted for making sure their investment is secure. Yet, it often appeared too many projects were not only watched by executives - they’re were driven by executives.

Flash back to an animated film I was working on some years ago. Another project driven by a legion of executives. I won't mention the project's name but I’ll confess I started off enjoying myself because this kind of cute subject matter is something I particularly enjoy. Yet, I had to "fire" myself off the project because no one seemed to know what the movie was about. I don’t like being a pain in the butt, so I thought it best to leave the show lest I cause bad feelings with my constant grousing about the story. With all due respect to my colleagues laboring on the film I respect their talents and wish them well. Still, I couldn't help be reminded how things had changed since I began my career as a young story artist at the Walt Disney Studio many years ago.

Those of you familiar with the Disney story development process in Walt's day knew that the story men were the animated film's screenwriters. This was a concept that served the Disney Studio well for decades. Yet, this method of working seemed to completely befuddled the live-action types that took over the company in the early eighties. Our Hollywood hot shots seemed unable to comprehend a story board and insisted on having a script before green-lighting a movie. Keep in mind, I'm not only talking about Disney Company. It would appear every mainstream studio now follows this directive.

Today, it's not unusual for an animated film to have a half dozen screen writers hammering away at the script. The story board crew that translates these script pages into visuals has also grown in number. I can't help but be reminded of my first job as a story artist in the laid back sixties at the Walt Disney studio. There were probably only four of us along with veteran writer, Larry Clemmons sketching away on "The Jungle Book." We managed to craft this film story with remarkable ease compared to today's frantic story development process. We worked a normal five day week as was customary at Walt's studio at the time. There was no overtime, long hours, or insane weekends needed. Finally, instead of pitching to a legion of executives we pitched to only one person and his name was Disney. Unlike today's overpaid managers, Walt actually understood what he was looking at and whether or not it worked. I confess that working for one of the greatest and toughest story editors in the business probably spoiled us.

There are probably any number of animated films either in development or production today. I'm willing to bet each and everyone of them has already been through several drafts with no end in sight. Yet, no matter how many screen writers take a swing at animated films the results have usually been less than spectacular. With a few notable exceptions, there’s something missing in today’s story telling efforts. Maybe it's time to let the story artists be story tellers again. Perhaps screen writers might consider the radical idea that animated films work best when crafted visually and not the other way around. Haven't we had enough interference by studio executives who think they know story structure and plot development simply because they took a few classes?

Finally, I miss the days when animation artists told animated stories. When storyboard artists could do more than just translate poorly written script pages into visuals. It would be nice if executives realized that in order to work effectively in the medium - you had to first understand the medium. Yikes! There I go again. I’m such a dreamer.

 Observing Disney story-men hashing out things in a meeting. This old-fashioned way of crafting a story appeared to work effectively for decades. Sadly, we don't do it that way anymore.

Observing Disney story-men hashing out things in a meeting. This old-fashioned way of crafting a story appeared to work effectively for decades. Sadly, we don't do it that way anymore.