Facing Your Fears

Fear is one of the reasons I never wanted to be a story artist at the Walt Disney Studios. It’s not that I didn’t have an interest in storytelling. More often than not I found myself prowling the hallways of Walt’s story department on the second and third floor of the Animation Building. I found the story department fascinating but I left that component of cartoon making to those much wiser than myself. Keep in mind I was the kid who got kicked out of my Santa Barbara High School English Literature class. However, let me tell you another reason I never made any serious attempts to become a story artist.

On my many visits to the upstairs story department I often watched as nervous writers and story artists feverishly prepared a pitch for the Old Maestro. There were many packs of cigarettes smoked and a fair number of visits to the Pago Pago - a nearby Burbank watering hole where old story guys sought solace. Then, there was the eventful day when the boss finally arrived to check out what the writers had done. Naturally, to this dumb kid everything looked just peachy. The story boards were fun and fanciful and the ideas felt fresh and new. Walt Disney was sure to love this stuff, right? Remember, you’re getting this view of the early sixties first hand because I was there to observe it all. Naturally, I was not in the story room when the meeting took place. I was simply a novice from the animation department downstairs, but I’ll admit I was curious how things were going behind the closed doors of the meeting room. Suddenly, the door would slam open and Walt Disney would make his way out of the room. If the boss wasn’t smiling that was a pretty good indication things had not gone well. A quick glance inside the room revealed the story team nervously lighting up another cigarette. As you can imagine, they were not smiling either. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the hapless story team and I breathed a sigh of relief that I was not tasked with such an impossible job. I was safe downstairs in the Animation Department - an area the Old Maestro seldom visited. Yes, I had nothing to worry about.

You probably know what happened next. Early in 1966, storm clouds were brewing on the third floor of the Animation Building and Walt Disney’s premiere story man, Bill Peet could not come to terms with Walt on how the story of The Jungle Book should be adapted. The confrontation eventually came to climax with Bill Peet walking off the movie and Walt Disney deciding to scrap Peet’s adaption of the Kipling novel. Nobody could have been more surprised than myself when I was suddenly recruited from animation to join the story team on a new revamped version of the movie. It’s funny how things work out, wouldn’t you say? I was eager to avoid the trials and tribulations of Walt Disney’s story department. Yet, back in the early sixties that’s exactly where I found myself.

There’s a lesson to be learned here. At least it’s a lesson that’s been pounded into me over the course of a long career. You’ve got to be willing to take on the very tasks that frighten you the most. Forget the easy job and the smooth and well worn path. Rather, if you plan to grow as an artist and as a person you’ve got to be willing to take on the jobs that are the most daunting. The jobs you truly fear. Those are the situations that will truly test you as an individual and as an artist.

A meeting with Walt Disney could be brutal. Especially if your board was being pitched.

A meeting with Walt Disney could be brutal. Especially if your board was being pitched.