The Uncommon Man

Recently, a new movie crashed and burned at the box office. The film celebrated a high profile celebrity and an innovative genius who has had a profound impact on the lives of millions. The insightful motion picture was sure to be a box office smash with Oscar nominations guaranteed. Millions would rush to their local theaters to view the life of this amazing man whose innovative ideas changed the way we do everything today. Of course, no one bothered to see the movie. In spite of a stellar script, directing and acting, the movie was dead on arrival. The sure fire box office hit landed with a dull thud. Hollywood should have learned a valuable lesson from this high profile missfire - but I doubt they did. It turns out that whenever you attempt to define a complex individual you’re headed for trouble. That’s because most individuals can’t be easily defined or put into a box. As humans we’re far more complex than that. Something to consider when you’re trying to tell the story of Apple guru, Steve Jobs.

And, that brings me to the subject of the Old Maestro, Walt Disney. It may seem a contradiction, but Walt Disney was the toughest and best boss one could have. Like Steve Jobs, Walt instinctively knew what each new product should be. Whether it was a new movie, theme park attraction or a magazine ad, Walt Disney appeared to have had an innate sense how the public would respond. Of course, he did this without any reliance on demographic surveys or focus groups. Disney Legend, Ward Kimball related how Walt always kept the studio artists focused on connecting with the audience. “Anytime we went too crazy,” Kimball explained, “Walt would respond with, “I don’t get it.” Of course, that meant we had lost our connection with the audience and Disney seemed keenly aware of the problem. If Walt thought an idea would fail, he was usually right. Story meetings with the Old Maestro could be stressful but at least the discussion would end with a decision. The master story editor would either love or hate what you presented to him. Some story guys agonized over such pointed criticism while others considered it a blessing. Knowing where you stand is far better than remaining in the dark. Walt Disney was always clear in letting you know whether you had succeeded or failed in your presentation.

Walt Disney was the quintessential American icon. Whether you loved the Disney product or not there’s no denying the incredible impact he’s had on our culture and other cultures around the world. He was the ultimate conservative while remaining incredibly progressive. A man of his time, he restricted women to a separate building on his studio lot. Yet, he implored his “boys” to, as he put it, “give the girls a chance to show what they can do.” Despite tirades to the contrary by know nothing Hollywood celebrities Disney employed minorities without regard to their race, color or ethnicity. Although the Old Maestro was my boss I knew little of the man beyond our interaction on the job. I was kid in my twenties while most of my colleagues were a good deal older. Keep in mine these were the people who created the films I saw as a child. Most were the age of my parents or grandparents. Since Walt Disney’s passing in 1966 I’ve tried to dig deeper and learn more about this incredible man in hopes of completing a challenging puzzle. Since that time, I’ve travel to Kansas City, Mo. and Walt’s boyhood neighborhood. I’ve visited the Disney home on Bellfontaine Street and traced the blocks where young Walt and his little sister, Ruth attended Thomas Hart Benton Elementary school. The very same school where young Walt dressed up as Abraham Lincoln and recited the Gettysburg Address. Is it any wonder the Old Maestro would one day create this attraction at this famous theme park? Finally, I visited Disney’s Laugh O’ Gram studio now under renovation in Kansas City. This notable “failure” early in Disney’s ambitious younglife would send young Walt to Hollywood where he would ultimately revolutionize the cartoon business and forever shape popular entertainment.

I’m no historian and I’ve never considered myself an expert on Walt Disney’s life. I leave that task to others far more qualified than myself. Yet, I was a Disney staffer during his final years and lucky enough to attend a fair number of his production meetings. Most historians are tasked with pouring over books, tapes and volumes of notes from years past. I gained my insights the easy way. I had the luxury of sitting in a meeting room with the old maestro himself. Not all Walt Disney Studio employees had that unique privilege. It’s why I count myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity and it’s why I share this experience with all those who have an interest in this remarkable man. In recent years I’ve spoken to a fair number of people eager to learn more about this Walt Disney. My audiences have been everyone from comic book geeks, animation students and technology experts who are busily charting the future. Their interest in this unique individual comes as no surprise. Walt Disney was as brilliant as he was unpredictable. A man with little formal education yet one of the most insightful men I’ve ever known. Walt Disney visualized the Space Program before we even had one. His artists sent men to the moon when space travel was regarded as science fiction. HIs visionary view of the future prompted him to create the City of Tomorrow and he would have built that dream had he lived. Sadly, his successors were not up to the daunting task of doing the impossible - yet I suppose that’s to be expected. After all, who could follow the Old Maestro? Walt Disney was both conservative and progressive. Sophisticated yet surprisingly down to earth. He was the American dream come true and he embodied everything good about the common man.

The midwestern farm boy who totally changed the way we look at entertainment.

The midwestern farm boy who totally changed the way we look at entertainment.

Where Credit is Due

Back in the day, voice actors were usually given screen credit on a single card. It was a card all the voice talent shared. The card would usually read, “With the Talents of.” In time, I would use this same credit line on films I was making. They were the talent who didn’t necessarily draw or paint, but still made an important contribution to the film.

Yet, animation filmmakers are essentially invisible. No one outside the business even knows the names of animation writers, directors or producers. And, they sure as heck don’t know the names of the artists who create the magical images we see on screen. These talented men and women may well not even exist when it comes to marketing a new film. After all, who’s going to know or care if a particular animator worked on the new movie? Heck, even the director is essentially anonymous. While live-action films have their stand out directors, you’ll never see such a thing happen in the world of animation. With a few notable exceptions, most animation directors continue to remain unknown. There’s a reason for this, of course. Should directors gain a high profile they’re liable to ask for more money or, god forbid, a piece of the action.

Back in the early sixties, Walt Disney was able to secure the services of a few high profile celebrities to voice the cartoon characters. Yet, even though we could boast the stellar services of Phil Harris and Louie Prima, Walt Disney remained the principal marketing device. When it came to marketing cartoon animation no one could trump the name, Walt Disney. In time, there were new contenders to the cartoon throne and newcomers such as Ralph Bakshi and Don Bluth caught the public’s attention - if only for a while. Yet, by the late eighties and the boom of the early nineties, the name Disney suddenly became new again. It was the beginning of a second animation renaissance and once again the mouse house led the way.

By now, the use of celebrity voices had become routine and marketing embraced the new advertising device. This was the way you sold an animated film in the nineties. Once again, the artists remained invisible, although a handful of gifted animators began to gather a following. Could top animators really be that important, management wondered? Apparently they were, and over time, animation began to build it’s own list of superstars. The studios had to reluctantly go along. After all, how were they going to continue creating great animated motion pictures? More important - how were they going to continue generating ever increasing box office revenues? Management was forever “stuck with the artists” - or so it would seem.

Management received its salvation with the advent of Digital animation production. In this new world studios would no longer have to deal with the temperamental animation artists. A skill that took years to master could now be taught to students in a matter of months. Since animation could be created on a computer, superstar animators were no longer needed. Irving Steinmetz and Ray Cumberstatt could look as good as Milt Kahl or Frank Thomas. And, even if they didn’t … who would know or care?

Animation has come a long way since the days when we used a Blackwing pencil to sketch inspired images on paper. Cartoon production is totally different today and producers can be heard speaking of computer infrastructure and the digital pipeline. This is not necessarily a bad thing, however. There’s probably more production being done today than we could have ever imagined back in the nineteen fifties when Disney’s ranks swelled to 600 artists. A number that the Disney beancounters considered totally unsustainable with the increasing cost of production. In 1995 Pixar released “Toy Story” and the cartoon business was turned on its ear. In time, the computer would level the playing field and small independents could suddenly go head to head with the major studios. On some occasions, even outdo them. Yet, in spite of all this, animation artists and the legions of skilled talent on a cartoon film continue to remain invisible. Though their beautiful work may be seen on screen … the public still has little interest in who made the film they just enjoyed. After all is said and done I guess the voice talent emerges the winner. More than likely, their name will be the only names remembered when the film is discussed. This is not a complaint because I love these guys and their talented contribution to an animated film is remarkable. I’m just hoping that some day…one day, an animator might be considered the star of the animated film. That day is still a long way off, I guess. But, a guy can dream.

The Cinderella Year

I was just a starry-eyed little kid when I clipped this full page movie ad out of a Hollywood fanzine many years ago. It may not seem like such a big deal now, but it certainly was for this inspired kid. You see, the Walt Disney Studio had not made a feature film in years. The studio had been crippled by a World War and a divisive labor action that weighed heavily on the animation company. In a way, the war kept the studio alive during these troubled times. In spite of the challenges, Walt Disney managed to keep his company going by doing whatever he could to bring animated product to the marketplace. As always, the Disney artists continued to do stellar work although they didn’t always have that much to do. The Disney Studio had to get by producing a series of feature length anthologies and films that could utilize a good portion of live-action. Because of the cost, a feature length animated film was out of the question.

I doubt I’ll ever forget this particular year. Suddenly, it was 1950 and this delinquent kid ditched school to head for the Granada theater in downtown Santa Barbara where I was able to view the Disney masterpiece, “Cinderella” several times. The inspired animation and unforgettable music was a delight and Walt Disney’s artists were at their best. However, the color and styling by Mary Blair and Claude Coates knocked my socks off. I still remember sitting in the theater transfixed by what I saw on the big screen. Did I imagine being a Disney artist one day, and working at that glorious animation studio? My goodness, I could taste it! I left the Granada Theater with pixie dust in my eyes. There was no way I was going to do anything else with my life. “Cinderella” was a big deal for the Walt Disney Studio as well. After slogging through the war years, the animated feature film, “Cinderella” was Walt’s comeback. It proved the Walt Disney Studio had lost none of the magic that propelled the enterprise through the late thirties and early forties. With the beginning of a new decade, the Disney publicity machine announced 1950 as the “Cinderella Year.” Of course, the year was indeed magical as movie audiences flocked to the theaters once again to see what the amazing Disney artists could deliver.

I spoke about “Cinderella’s” inspired style early this morning with a Disney art director. The artist was working on a reboot of the Disney “Cinderella” storybooks and the masterful styling of Mary Blair and Claude Coates informs everything that is being done in the new “Cinderella” iteration. Every frame of the Disney motion picture was studied in an effort to recreate the art styling that remains fresh even though the film saw its completion decades ago. It’s 2015, and today’s digital technology continues to dazzle audiences with all the amazing images computers can put onscreen. However, the old fashioned hand drawn and hand painted imagery of Walt Disney’s “Cinderella” has a unique, magical sensibility and I honestly don’t think anything being done today even comes close.

I was still a kid in school but 1950 was the Cinderella Year.

I was still a kid in school but 1950 was the Cinderella Year.

The Force Awakens

Comedian George Carlin voices the VW bus named Fillmore and you'll find him in the Pixar Animation Studios film, "Cars." Like most hippie buses of the era, the vehicle is festooned with stickers of every sort. Every imaginable slogan supporting causes ranging from the environment to peace is plastered on the hippie van. However, if you look closely at the rear of the vehicle you'll find a most unlikely message. It’s a sticker which reads, "Save 2D Animation."

As might be expected, the Pixar filmmakers have always included inside jokes tucked away in their movies. Everything from book titles, street signs and names of restaurants has been fair game. It's a long-standing tradition of course. Even the early Disney cartoons featured caricatures of the animators and on occasion even the names of studio employees were to be heard on the soundtrack. However, the bumper sticker on Fillmore is a joke of a more serious nature. Sure, it's appropriate for the Hippie van to be a cheerleader of "Old School animation" but the humor in this case goes a little deeper. Does Fillmore have a legitimate cause? Does 2D animation really need saving? Let's go back a few years and see how this whole thing began. The year was 1994, and I sat in an editorial bay at the Walt Disney studio watching the story reels of a new film in development. I was up to date on all the productions being done in house so this particular film had to be the work of an outside contractor. At the time, Disney animation was going full tilt producing hit after hit. It seemed no one in town could compete with the Disney powerhouse, creative team. Yet, here was a movie being done outside of the company that was in my opinion every bit as good as anything the mouse was doing. Dare I say, perhaps better than some of Disney's recent offerings? The rough story sketches gave no clue to the production's intended medium. For all intents and purposes this was another traditionally animated film. No different than any of the other movies in production. It wasn't until a few weeks later that I discovered I had been viewing reels of Pixar Animation Studios’ first digitally animated feature film, "Toy Story."

You're all well aware of the rest of the story. "Toy Story" was released in the fall of 1995 and went on to become a box office smash. Impressed by what I had seen, I couldn't wait to work with the team at Pixar especially since the digital film I was working on at the mouse mega-studio had a story that was at best, lackluster. One child I spoke with described the movie as, "Land Before Time Without the Fun." Lucky for me, producer Ralph Guggenheim invited me up to Richmond and a position on the story crew of "Toy Story2." While working in the Bay Area, I occasionally saw members of the Disney team visiting the Pixar facility in Richmond. It was clear both companies had come together to form a friendly and profitable partnership. What could possibly go wrong? It wasn't long before cracks in the friendship began to appear. While attending story meetings we began to hear snide remarks about our partners up north As expected, the nasty swipes came not from the animation artists who were usually supportive. They were from the Disney executives who were beginning to reveal a slight tinge of jealousy. Over time, an atmosphere of competition rather than cooperation was fostered by management. much of this led by the Disney CEO, himself. It would appear, recrimination was preferable to self-examination. Walt Disney Feature Animation was suddenly on the defensive concerning their creative product. Why were the movies being developed and produced by Pixar Animation Studios eclipsing the Disney films? It couldn't possibly be the creative leadership or the weak stories being brought to the screen by the Disney creative trust, could it? The Disney executives suddenly had an epiphany. The medium was to blame! Computer generated movies was the answer to all of the studios’ failings. Hand drawn, traditional animation had outlived its usefulness. It was time to take a bold move forward and digital technology was the savior.  

Don't get this artist wrong, because I’ve no beef with technology. I can boast of being one of the first artists to bring my own personal computer into the work place while most Disney executives remained clueless about the new technology. As more and more studio artists embrace digital tools for artistic development, few remember I was storyboarding digitally nearly a decade earlier. Secondly, I regard CGI as an effective story telling medium. This has already been demonstrated by offerings from such studios as Pixar, DreamWorks and Blue Sky. In took a while, but Disney finally found sucess with their release of “Tangled,” and the rest is history. However, a CGI movie can no more guarantee box office success than a traditional film. The beautiful rendering of Blue Sky’s "Robots" did not attract an audience anymore than the beautiful traditional art in DreamWorks’ “Spirit." Is our hippie bus, Fillmore correct in his posturing? Does 2D animation really need saving? Some say, animation has simply evolved to the next level. I call that, bunk!  Because, if an artist is given a paintbrush that doesn't mean he or she will never pick up a pencil again. Further, no artist stopped painting because the camera was invented. Computer generated imagery is simply another remarkable tool added to the artist's palette. It’s a powerful tool, no doubt. However, the filmmaker gets no free pass because of the digital medium. I can guarantee they’ll work just as hard bringing their story to the screen. Should you think their production will be far lower in cost…don’t even get me started on that. After Disney dismantled their traditional animated film unit and hundreds of artists were sent packing, rumors persisted that someday Pixar would make a 2D animated film. In one case, people followed a paper trail to Northern California where stacks of punched animation paper were spotted on the Pixar shipping dock. No matter how many times Pixar denied they had a 2D film in development the rumors persisted. And, why wouldn't this rumor go away? I think it was because lovers of traditional animation felt only John Lasseter and Pixar could save the medium. Could the studio that ushered in the age of digital be the ultimate savior of traditional? Skeptics might say the "paper trail" leads nowhere and fans of traditional animation might as well pack it in because the age of traditional hand drawn animation is over.

However, as we examine things today, the rumors of 2D's death may have been greatly exaggerated. Disney and Pixar have finally become one. John Lasseter and Ed Catmull are now at the helm of Walt Disney Animation Studios. And, though it may seem like a Disney fairy tale come true, I can still walk down the hallway of Animation and see guys drawing on paper. Finally, what about that stack of punched animation paper sitting on the loading dock? What about that 2D animated film many had been hoping for? Andreas Deja and Glen Keane still maintain a relationship with the mouse house. It makes you wonder how many more of Disney's brain trust might find their way home should art, rather than technology drive the film making process. Wouldn't it be strange if that hand drawn traditionally animated film wound up on the production schedule? Wouldn't it be cool if the force truly awakened one day?

"The stories of hand drawn animation are true. All of them."

"The stories of hand drawn animation are true. All of them."