The Meeting With Walt

There was a flurry of activity in the animation building that Thursday afternoon back in the early sixties. This was the Walt Disney studio and final  preparations were being made as last minute sketches were hastily pinned to story boards, and secretaries readied their notepads and sharpened their pencils. The meeting that was about to take place was no ordinary one. Many saw the future of their craft hinging on how well this presentation might be received. Disney's best and brightest had labored on this project for months, and this afternoon's meeting would determine whether or not their work had been in vain. The team that gathered in the large story room in 2F were Disney's elite. Top story men, background artists, designers, and animators filled the room. They joked amongst themselves and made an effort to appear casual and relaxed. Still, there was no mistaking the tension felt in the room.

Suddenly, the outer door of the wing burst open, and a hunched figure strode down the hallway. The loud cough signaled the arrival of the man all had been waiting for. As Walt Disney entered the room, all of us kids scattered and headed back to our drawing boards. This meeting was not for the likes of us. This was Walt Disney Studios in the sixties when grey haired old men ran the company. Unlike the animation business today, unproven youngsters like ourselves knew that our presence would not be welcome. It was rare that a new project should generated so much attention at the Walt Disney studio. Suddenly, the sixties were on us and some feared the Disney staff was growing old and stodgy. With the completion of 101 Dalmatians and The Sword in the Stone, the Disney brain trust was getting bored. They needed a fresh new project. Something unique that hadn't been done before. A project that would get the old creative juices flowing again. Not surprisingly, top Disney animator, Marc Davis came to the rescue. Marc had discovered a story he knew would deliver the goods. Chanticleer and the Fox, was a popular fairy tale, as well as a Caldecott winner. The Caldecot was the prestigious book award. Marc Davis knew this was just the movie to re light the creative fires at Disney.

Marc Davis had been inspired by this animal tale. It was a fanciful story that could be traced all the way back to The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. He began to produce stacks of inspired sketches of the proud rooster and fox who would be his undoing. In time, Davis was joined by conceptual artist, Ken Anderson, who brought further embellishment to the presentation. The walls of 2F wing were soon filled with some of the most inspired Disney art seen in years. Word quickly spread through the Disney studio that an amazing new movie was being developed. This was to be a film unlike anything we had seen before. Through the development process, Marc Davis continued his role as creative leader. Other artists had been added to the crew to put the final polish on the presentation. Those of us who labored "at the oars" down below, envied those chosen to work on the project. We could only hope that if we worked hard enough, one day our turn would come. In the meantime, we contented ourselves with sneaking upstairs to get a peek at the forthcoming movie that would change animation forever.

Now, that fateful day had arrived and the meeting was getting underway upstairs. Walt Disney settled back in one of the vintage KEM Webber chairs, lit up a cigarette, and said, "Well, Marc, what have you got to show me?" I think the meeting lasted about two or three hours. Whatever it was, it sure seemed a lot longer. A good deal was riding on this presentation. "What if Walt didn't like it," some wondered. "Would there even be another animated feature? Would Walt just chuck the whole idea of doing animated films, and simply focus his attention on theme parks? He certainly seemed more interested in that anyway. Though it was a quiet Thursday afternoon, tension was beginning to grow downstairs. A few artists left their drawing boards and moved out into the hallway. "Heard anything yet?" One artist would ask. "No, not a word," was the reply from another artist who surveyed the hallway for any signs of life. "Looks like they're still in the meeting." "Don't sweat it," said one of the older guys. "Didn't you see that kick butt artwork on the wall?" This one's a slam dunk. "Yeah," replied another artist. "Walt would never turn down a guy like Marc Davis. No way." From our rooms, we heard the outer door of the wing slam open, and a bunch of the old guys made their way down the hallway. We couldn't make out what they were saying, but it sure didn't sound good. The most outspoken of the group, a vociferous directing animator known for his temper tantrums, could be heard over the others. “Crap!” he grumbled. "What the hell can you expect  from a tired old man." While some complained loudly, others went back to their drawing boards with a look of resignation on their faces. My young colleagues, and myself had no need to ask what had happen. It was more than clear that Chanticleer was a movie Walt Disney would add to his list of films not worthy of being produced.

Yet, in spite of everything, this story doesn't end on a sour note. Walt Disney animation went on to begin work on a film that did make tons of money at the box office and gave animation a new lease on life. This film showed that there was indeed life in the old guys, and their inspired work on The Jungle Book proved just that. As for Marc Davis, he simply put down his animation pencil and moved over to Walt Disney Imagineering where he was the creative inspiration on dozens of theme park attractions including the wonderful, Pirates of the Caribbean.

Finally, what about the film everyone had set their hopes on? What about the movie that was going to give animation a bold new direction? Those working at the Disney studio some years later on an animated feature called, Chicken Little, might have done well had they given some thought to what the Old Maestro said that fateful Thursday afternoon many years ago. The day when a lofty new project was given a thumbs down, because, as Walt Disney himself put it, "Nobody loves a chicken."

The Thursday afternoon meeting was held here in the Animation Building back in the sixties. A day I doubt I'll ever forget.

The Thursday afternoon meeting was held here in the Animation Building back in the sixties. A day I doubt I'll ever forget.