It was a late Friday afternoon when I spotted the older gentleman staring into a department store window. He was tall, gaunt and had a cigar clenched in his teeth. He noticed me and gave a nod of acknowledgement as I walked passed. I was headed back to work at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. Oddly enough, the old gentleman was a former employee, but much more than that. He was a celebrated Disney legend and one of Walt’s favorite directors. Being a Disney geek, I knew a good deal about his amazing career and I had followed his work since I was a child. I couldn’t help but think this ordinary situation seemed strangely odd. The old gentleman had been a creative force at the Walt Disney Studios for several decades. Now, he was window shopping on a Friday afternoon in beautiful downtown Burbank. I couldn’t help but wonder what was going through his mind that sunny afternoon. Was he happy with his recent retirement and an abundance of leisure time? Could anything else be truly rewarding after having what I considered, the greatest job in the world?
Being a Disney director had to be the coolest job one could ever imagine. You are the creative leader of an amazing animated enterprise and you only answer to one person. Of course, that person was the old maestro, Walt Disney. However, putting that detail aside, you remained the boss, the head honcho and the top enchilada. You sat with the story team as they crafted the films narrative and you scrutinized production design alongside your art directors. You turned up the heat in sweatbox sessions as your animators presented their footage for your approval. Finally, you joined your voice actors (usually Hollywood celebrities) on the recording stage for a spirited session. No doubt, you were working hard, but you were also having a helluva lot of fun and getting paid to do it. Remember, we’re talking about directing back in my day. The good old days before the animated motion picture became immensely popular and incredibly profitable. In many ways, the recent success of animated movies has taken a good deal of joy out of the process of creating an animated film. Sadly, that includes the work of the motion picture director. Hardly a fun job today, the director of an animated movie turns over their life to the production once they sign on. Incredibly efficient managers will whisk you to one meeting to the next and every hour of your day will most likely be spoken for. This exhausting process will begin once you assume the job as director, and won’t end until you have completed the motion picture and the tedious press junket that precedes the films release. Once it ends, you’ll be glad its over, and I doubt you’ll be eager to repeat the process.
In the good old days, graduating to director was a true promotion. A substantial bump in pay was hardly the motivation. Rather, it was the opportunity to realize your own personal vision for a new animated motion picture and leading a talented team to create something truly special. In Disney’s Golden Era, I watched a fair number of talented directors do their jobs. They were a marvelous group of animated filmmakers that included, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Lusk, Les Clark and Gerry Geronimi. Bill Justice, Jack Kinney and Jack Hannah directed the short cartoons and versatile guys like Ward Kimball handled special projects. Finally, our directors were usually accessible and you only need walk into their office to have a question answered. In today’s Hopelessly over-managed studio system you’d have to make an appointment.
I wondered about the cigar chomping gentleman starring into the department store window that sunny Burbank afternoon. I wondered if he missed his job and the creative collaboration of so many amazing Disney artists. Would he ever consider returning, I wondered? Though a life of leisure and relaxation may have sounded enticing to director/animator, Wolfgang Reitherman, it could hardly compare to having the greatest job in the world.