Day One on The Jungle Book

If we were in a state of panic nobody seemed to show it that eventful Monday morning back in 1966. The Disney staffers arrived at work at the usual time and casually went about their morning routine. I was the newcomer so I arrived early and quickly found my work space and the two office desks butted together. I would be working at the desk nearest the door while my colleague would be at the other end. As I indicated earlier, the unit was in a state of quiet panic. The boss had recently viewed reels and reviewed storyboards of the new motion picture. This was the work of the studios’ top story man and a veteran of dozens of Disney films. If anybody knew how to craft a Walt Disney motion picture, he was the man. So, what would you guess would be the outcome of this recent screening?

Walt Disney hated it.

One would expect members of the directors’ unit to be screaming in panic as they ran in circles. Now, what would they do? Start over, some thought? Heck, some sequences had already begun animation and we were no less than a year away from the films’ release date. Vance Gerry finally arrived and sat at his desk reading the morning paper. Already a veteran Disney story artist, Vance seemed not to regard this Monday morning different than any other. Pleasant and relaxed, Mr. Gerry saw no need to vary his morning routine. Two rooms down the hall, Don Griffith’s layout team began to straggle into work. Wolfgang Reitherman’s secretary, Betty Gossin began taking phone calls and arranging the director’s daily schedule. It appeared to be a normal day in 2-C on the second floor of Walt Disney’s Animation Building.

I remember busily arranging sketchpads and grease pencils on my desk and wondering what the next step would be. Last Friday afternoon I was going about my regular routine in Disney’s animation department. Suddenly, my life had changed and without any warning I now found myself sitting in an upstairs story unit staring at blank sheets of paper. I had not interviewed for this job or even shown a portfolio. I had zero training and no previous experience. Yet, this morning I would began a major rewrite and storyboarding of Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book and this was day one on a bold new adventure. By midmorning, Larry Clemmons appeared with a type written outline and handed the pages to Vance and myself. Larry was a veteran who had worked at Disney back in the thirties. He left to work as a writer in radio and had written for top stars such as Bing Crosby. When Walt Disney began to host his weekly television show, Disneyland, Larry was hired back to script the introduction Walt would make preceding each weekly show. Apparently, Disney was so pleased with Larry’s work he was asked to stay on in the animation department. Larry had a way with words and knew how to make dialogue crackle with wit. Whenever we completed a sequence, Larry would do what was called a dialogue pass and punch up the chatter. To his credit, Larry seldom overwrote, but simply improved what we had written. Remember, we didn’t work with formal scripts back in the old days of Disney storytelling. A brief outline was all the story man needed to craft a sequence, and it was the story man who wrote the picture. Of course, this writing process has changed considerably in recent days where the screenwriter reigns supreme.

Vance Gerry and I scanned through the pages that read, Sher Kahn approaches the Kaa the Python and questions the nervous snake about the whereabouts of the man cub. “What do we do now,” I asked Vance. “We storyboard the sequence and make it entertaining as hell,” replied my storyboarding partner. “Then we pitch the sequence to Walt and hope he likes it.” And with that, I picked up a grease pencil and began to rough out the sequence. Would Walt Disney really be looking at my storyboards, I wondered? In a few weeks, I would find out.

I was just a dumb kid when I began work on Disney's The Jungle Book. I even wore a tie to try and appear older.

I was just a dumb kid when I began work on Disney's The Jungle Book. I even wore a tie to try and appear older.