The Anonymous Disney Artist

I found this photograph on the web and immediately recognized the young man at the drawing board. Of course, we were all young back then. Since that time, many animation artists have since moved on to other careers. All are pretty much forgotten, of course. Sadly, nobody remembers the legions of talented artists who created the Disney magic over a series of decades. Even when a rare photograph does turn up, few, if anyone recognizes the anonymous artist. That’s just the way things were in the old days. While a handful of artists received a screen credit on the Walt Disney feature films, the vast majority did not.

Yet, oddly enough you had to have considerable talent to apply for a job in Disney’s animation department. Even getting an appointment or interview was not always easy. The studio had no signage visible in the old days. Walt Disney preferred remaining invisible in Burbank and the cartoon factory could easily have been mistaken for a local school or hospital. There was not even an image of Mickey Mouse on the water tank towering over the Disney lot. How well do you draw? That was question number one when a young man or woman was being considered for a position at Disney Animation. Is that question still being asked today? I can’t help but wonder how important drawing happens to be in this digital age. Perhaps the question is still being asked. I would like to think so. Drawing ability was certainly a consideration back in the nineteen sixties when animation teams were being organized for the production of Walt Disney’s “The Sword in the Stone.”

That’s when the photograph was taken. This was during the production of Walt Disney’s “The Sword in the Stone.” The time was the early sixties not long after the completion of “101 Dalmatians.” After introducing Professor Ludvig Von Drake on Disney’s first television show in color, most of us moved back to feature film production just getting underway. Naturally, most of the key animators and their assistants would be located in D-wing on the first floor of the Animation Building. And, that my friends, is where I shared space with this smiling young man seated at his drawing table in the coveted wing occupied by Disney’s finest. We would labor on Walt Disney’s “The Sword in the Stone” for the next two or so years before wrapping the movie. Then, as always, a number of the Disney animation artists would depart the studio and begin a new career elsewhere. This was pretty typical in the old days. Few rarely stayed on feature after feature film. Should you not decide to leave on your own, you would more than likely be downsized, and your Disney career would be over. Sadly, that’s just the way it was.

The young man in the photograph was one of those who moved on. I was lucky enough to survive the cut and stayed on for our next project which would be the live-action, animated film, “Mary Poppins.” Of course, I would stick around for upcoming films such as, “The Jungle Book,” and … well, you know the rest. However, the talented young man at the drawing board would leave the studio for other things, and I guess that’s why nobody knows his name today. However, I was there and I do remember. I remember because he was my pal and my colleague. He was one of the talented young artists who spent and year or so at the Walt Disney Studio and was never heard from again. In any case, it’s important you know his name if only because of his contribution to Disney animation. He never received a screen credit, of course. So, consider this a very personal Walt Disney screen credit from me.

His name is, Jerry Behar. And, now you know.

One of Milt Kahl's team members on Walt Disney's "The Sword in the Stone. You should know this guy.

One of Milt Kahl's team members on Walt Disney's "The Sword in the Stone. You should know this guy.

Professor Ludvig Von Drake

I don’t remember the exact date, but it was not long after the completion of the Walt Disney feature film, “101 Dalmatians.” Story master, Bill Peet had a good deal of work completed on the upcoming feature, “The Sword in the Stone,” but we were not quite ready to begin animation. Conveniently, a good deal of television work needed to be done and that would tide us over until the feature was ready to begin production.

After a long and successful run on ABC, Walt Disney decided to move his television show, “Disneyland” to a new network. Color television was the hottest new thing and it appeared that NBC and its parent company, RCA was about to take the lead in this new technology. Clearly, the network needed a big new show to introduce color to the viewing public and Walt Disney was the obvious choice. The Old Maestro would rebrand his Disneyland show as “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.” The studio moved into high gear using the Disney characters partnering with Radio Corporation of America and the NBC Television network. I still remember the iconic RCA dog being replaced by Disney’s Pluto. If you remember the famous image, the RCA dog is sitting looking into the victrola’s megaphone. Suddenly, the image had whole new relevance after being given the Disney touch.

Before long, we had a script up on the boards in the upstairs story room. Appearing in glorious black&white, Walt Disney would introduce the new show speaking of colors influence on Disney films and the impact it had on storytelling. A brief tour of the Ink&Paint Department would lead the transition as it takes us from the black&white image to full color. Having successfully navigated the Ink&Paint Department, Walt Disney would introduce us to a new expert on color. After all, who better to explain the intricacies of color than the renown expert on practically everything, Professor Ludvig Von Drake.

Story man, Bill Berg first created the wacky professor while developing the storyline for the television show. Berg’s rough, cartoony sketches would be handed down to the master character designer and animator, Milt Kahl who would lead the animation on the zany professor. Von Drake would be given a voice by the celebrated voice actor, Paul Frees. Frees was a Disney veteran who had done voices for darn near everything Disney including films and theme park attractions. You’ll hear Paul’s voice in Journey to Inner Space or The Haunted Mansion to name a few. Once Frees had recorded his tracks, we began work on the animated section of Show number one on Wonderful World of Color. In many ways, it was my first introduction to Milt Kahl, the directing animator I would assist on the next Disney feature film. This television job was the perfect way to begin my time with the obstreperous, master animator. No worries. Working with Milt Kahl was a delight and sketching Professor Ludvig Von Drake was one of the most fun jobs I’ve had at Disney Animation.

Professor Ludvig Von Drake was initially considered a “one shot,” but the zany character proved to be so popular he was brought back again and again as show host and resident expert on practically everything. I continued to work on the wacky character over time including a brief stint as Ward Kimball’s assistant. If my sketch of Von Drake appears on model it’s because I know this Disney character pretty darn well.

I drew this sketch for my pal, Jeff Pidgeon at Pixar Animation Studios.

I drew this sketch for my pal, Jeff Pidgeon at Pixar Animation Studios.

Three Good Fairies

Those of you who know your Disney classic films know that the Three Good Fairies are from Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. Flora, Fauna and Merryweather pretty much take the lead in this animated feature motion picture. The two romantic leads don’t really have that much to do, so the story line is pretty much driven by the Three Good Fairies who truly direct the narrative. The three lovely ladies have pretty distinctive personalities and we get to know them over the course of the film. Flora, voiced by Verna Felton is the elder who usually takes the lead, while Fauna (Barbara Jo Allen) is often clueless and a bit ditzy. Feisty, little Merryweather (Barbara Luddy) is not only fearlessly opinionated, she is also a scene stealer. As you can imagine, the three fairies are the characters we watch in the Walt Disney retelling of the classic European fairy tale.

Sleeping Beauty was a completely hand drawn animated motion picture and it was released near the final decade of the Old Maestro’s brilliant career. It was Disney’s intention to push his animation team to create the finest animated film to come out of the studio in years, and the artistic standards were high. There were three unofficial levels at Walt Disney’s animation studio back then. They consisted of the television units, the shorts units and the feature. Naturally, Walt’s top talent gravitated toward the feature where you were considered members of the “A” team.”All young artists began their Disney careers in television, but only a handful would eventually qualify for a spot on, “the feature.” Once you did, your animation boot camp began.

Let’s consider something you probably don’t hear that much today. Back in the fifties one question was continually asked when a young man or woman was being considered for a position in a feature animation unit. “How well do they draw?” This was question number one requested by the old guard. Not one animator ever asked about the animation skills of the applicant. It was always, how well do they draw? You probably get the idea where this is going, right? Should you be considered for a place on Walt Disney’s animated feature film, your drawing skills were paramount. And this, boys and girls is why the three fairies, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather are the subject of today’s post. You see, not only did I have to garner the approval of my assistant animator, Chuck Williams, I also needed approval from our unit lead, Freddy Hellmich. Next, approvals were required from the animators, Hank Tanous or Don Lusk. However, we’re not done yet. Every pencil sketch of the animated scene had to pass the scrutiny of directing animators, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. If we paid particularly close attention to the quality of our drawings, you can see why. I haven’t worked on the three good fairies in over fifty years, but I remember every single thing about them. I think now you know why.

Working on Walt Disney’s feature animated film, Sleeping Beauty was a considerable challenge but it was also an honor. I shared this magnificent motion picture with some of the most talented and amazing artists in the animation business. All were animation “A” players that included color stylist, Eyvind Earle, and layout artists such as Victor Haboush, Homer Jonas and Ray Aragon. Walt’s venerable “nine old men” led the animation team that included a group of unknown but brilliant artists who created the thousands of drawings that brought the film to life. This color sketch of the three good fairies is simply a reminder of a Disney studio that once was …and can never be again.

I spent at least two and a half years with these lovely ladies on the amazing Walt Disney film, "Sleeping Beauty."

I spent at least two and a half years with these lovely ladies on the amazing Walt Disney film, "Sleeping Beauty."

Animated Thoughts

The topic of the conversation was totally unexpected since I was not the one who initiated the chat. I confess, I shared his passion even though the subject of today’s animated product was coming from a person who didn’t work in the cartoon business. The gentleman did work in the movie business, however. A noted screenwriter, he had contributed to a number of successful Hollywood films. However, the writers venue was usually live-action not animation. That’s what caught me totally by surprise as we chatted in a half empty theater in the heart of Tinsel Town. The two of us were friends of the director and we had been invited to a special Hollywood screening. There were producers and other actors in attendance and one would have thought if anything was up for discussion it would have been live-action films such as the motion picture we had just screened. Surprisingly enough, the subject was not live-action. The screenwriter was speaking about cartoon animation.

Fearful of being branded a naysayer I hadn’t broached this subject in a while. There’s always the danger of being misunderstood and this has been a problem in times past. That’s the reason I rarely voice my opinion when the subject is raised. It’s often interpreted as, sour grapes or the grumblings of a bitter old timer who’s no longer relevant in the animation industry. Not wanting to appear negative, I’ve often kept my mouth shut. Suddenly, here was a Hollywood screenwriter who doesn’t even work in animation articulating what he saw as ever growing problems in the world of animated filmmaking. And what problems did he see, you ask? The lack of creativity in cartoon making and the fact that it’s difficult to distinguish one animated movie from another. Even when an animated motion picture has a compelling production design, the digital production pipeline tends to homogenize art direction and it’s difficult to separate one animated film from another. The writer spoke about the limitations of hand drawn motion pictures from years past and how the animated filmmakers made those limitations work for them. The very fact that animated filmmaking was restricted by the physical reality  of being penciled, inked and painted by hand hardly limited creativity. In fact the opposite was true. The limitations of our craft allowed creativity to soar. The fascinating worlds created with pencil and paint still remains far more compelling than the artificial CGI fabrication we often view today.

However, the screenwriter hadn’t finished his criticism of today’s cartoon offerings. Like live-action, animation has been drifting into a series of narrow-minded, unimaginative stories  that appear more focused on selling product than entertaining audiences. The amazing digital technology that pretty much allows anything and everything you can imagine to be replicated onscreen hasn’t really made that much of a difference. Sure, the technology is amazing, but so what? Walt Disney’s animated feature film, “Pinocchio” continues to resonate with audiences today and this is a motion picture made in the forties. In fact, animation goes live-action one better. This amazing medium is storytelling and filmmaking created by hand. The pencil touches the paper and the brush spreads the paint. There is an emotional connection between the filmmaker and the audience that gives the hand drawn animated film something very special. This is not to say a CGI film cannot connect with the audience because clearly they can. However, the filmmaker has to work a little bit harder to cut through the “barrier” of technology.

Let me reiterate these were the complaints of a live-action screenwriter not an animated filmmaker. The very fact that a guy working in live-action could recognize the problems in our industry and articulate them so well was to me, somewhat surprising. However, this was one of the rare times I didn’t have to chime in because this motion picture creator made all the arguments on my behalf without me saying a word.

Hand drawn animation is coarse and messy, but there's absolutely nothing better in the world.

Hand drawn animation is coarse and messy, but there's absolutely nothing better in the world.