Animating Characters in Drag

I’m not sure why, but we had moved our story meeting to one of the large projection rooms on the third floor of the Animation Building. I had recently joined the story team of Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book and I was still amazed that I was in such illustrious company. In one such meeting I remember we were sitting toward the front of the large third floor theater near the screen. Oddly enough, it was the same location shown in the forties Walt Disney film, “The Reluctant Dragon.” In the motion picture, Walt Disney and Robert Benchley were sitting in the first row of seats as well. Even though I had been employed by the Disney Studio for at least ten years It still felt oddly out of place. Did I really belong in the company of so many masterful Disney veterans?

I sat with our head writer, Larry Clemmons and my story partner, Vance Gerry. We were trying to hammer out a sequence in the film while Larry seemed more interested in regaling us with tales of his show business past. Remember, Larry Clemmons had written for the popular radio crooner, Bing Crosby back in the forties. For those of you too young to remember, Bing Crosby was an enormous super star back in those days and his radio show was listened to by millions. Being a writer on the popular prime time show made Larry quite proud and he loved sharing his show business stories of “Derr Bingle” and other Hollywood stars. Vance and I tried to return to The Jungle Book’s plot line but Larry seemed more interested in coming up with funny schtick. For some wacky reason, Larry kept saying how much funnier the scene would be if the character was in drag. Vance and I looked at each other completely befuddled.

Suddenly the doors swung open and we were joined by two of our directing animators, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. The story guys grumbled a bit because they didn’t care for the animators - even directing animators encroaching on story meetings. However, Frank and Ollie were pretty important guys at the Walt Disney Studio and nobody dared kick them out of the meeting. For the most part, Frank Thomas did most of the talking and was eager to share his ideas. Looking back, I think Thomas was eager to get started animating and he was growing impatience with the progress - or lack of progress on the storyline. It would not have mattered in any case because nothing was going to move forward without the approval of Walt Disney. Once again, Larry Clemmons reiterated how funny it would be if one of the characters was in drag. Perhaps that did it, because Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston decided to leave the meeting and return to their drawing boards in downstairs D-wing.

This fanciful story from the year 1966 has a very satisfying ending. You see, the sequence we were working on was the very same sequence Frank Thomas animated. I can’t say for sure whether Frank animated every single scene, but he sure animated the lion’s share of it and his animation was masterful. I’ll bet you remember all that funny stuff between little Mowgli and Kaa the Python up in the tree? That was the sequence Frank Thomas couldn’t wait to get his hands on. It turns out that sequence was one of the best Vance Gerry and I ever storyboarded. A huge part of what makes that marvelous sequence spring to life is the brilliant animation of Disney Legend, Frank Thomas. Sure, Vance and I put the ideas on the board, but it was Thomas who gave the sequence, charm, fun and vitality. 

Thank heavens no one cared all that much about animation back in the sixties. Consequently, we were pretty much left alone to make animated films our own way and to do so without the stress and pressure of the filmmaking process today. Just the thought of meetings with forty people in a room fills me with terror. When we met with Walt Disney usually no more than six people attended the session. The idea of a crowd of artists, writers, producers and executives making story decisions sounds insane. Plus, we only had to answer to one man and that man was Walt Disney. In many ways it was the best job any animation artist could have wished for and we wanted it to go on forever. Of course, Larry Clemmons got his wish of having a character in drag. Remember the wacky duet with King Louie and Baloo? The zany bear is wearing a skirt of palm leaves and a coconut bra. Somewhere, writer, Larry Clemmons is smiling.

It's summer 1966 and I'm sitting with Larry Clemmons and Vance Gerry. Animators, Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas decide to crash the meeting.

It's summer 1966 and I'm sitting with Larry Clemmons and Vance Gerry. Animators, Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas decide to crash the meeting.