The Quiet Room

Perhaps your office or work place has a room like this. The Quiet Room is a space made available to employees who might desire a little privacy while on the job. Whether you’re in need of a quick snooze or a yoga session, the Quiet Room is your haven of rest on a busy studio day.

Back in the Disney old days we had a quiet room as well. Of course, back then they were called, “Sweat Boxes.” You Disney buffs already know what a sweat box is, don’t you? It was a small projection room located in each directors unit on the second floor of Walt Disney’s Animation Building. Of course, I’m speaking of the original Animation Building on the Burbank studio lot. Should you enter wing 2B from the main hallway you’d find yourself in the foyer of the second floor wing. Directly to your right would be a door leading to the screening room. As I mention earlier, these screening rooms were where the directors would meet with their team of animators and check out their scenes. Back at the old Hyperion studio in Silverlake the rooms were not air conditioned. This was the nineteen thirties and on a hot summer day you would really feel the heat. Should the Old Maestro, Walt Disney be attending the session you can bet that the temperature in the room would truly begin to rise. Now, you know where the term, “Sweatbox” comes from.

However, the sweatbox or screening room served another purpose in the old Disney days. However, this use of the sweatbox is rarely discussed. It was not unusual to open the heavily padded door of the sweatbox and hear loud snoring. You guessed right. The snoring came from an animator sleeping off a bender. The Disney artists were known to have a few drinks at lunch back in the day and sometimes the drinks numbered more than a few. Returning to the studio after lunch, the animator would stumble upstairs to an unused sweatbox to grab forty winks. Can you think of a better place for a quick snooze? The screening room was totally soundproof and dark as night. What better place for an animator to rest his weary head? I’ll confess I used the sweatbox myself on occasion. However, this wasn’t because I was trying to keep up with Marc Davis at lunch. No, it’s because I simply wasn’t feel well and a short upstairs nap usually helped. Of course, you animation buffs know that each second floor wing had a sweatbox for reviewing animation. For some reason I would usually choose the sweatbox in wing 2B. Probably because it was rarely used and my nap wouldn’t suddenly be interrupted by a Disney director and his team.

Today, we have a Quiet Room in our building and I guess that’s a pretty good idea. We all need a little privacy now and then. However, I’ll never forget my old Disney days when your eyelids got heavy and you didn’t want to be caught sleeping at your desk. All you had to do was head upstairs to an unused sweatbox and a comfy KEM Webber lounge chair. After a twenty minute snooze you were ready to return to your drawing board rested and relaxed. Another fun memory from my days of Disney past.

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My Animation Test

On the day of my test I was ushered into a small room in C-wing. In case you’re not familiar with Walt Disney’s Animation Building back in the nineteen fifties, this wing was home to the animation special effects unit. Disney animation effects masters like Josh Meader, Jack Boyd and Dan McManus worked in this wing. However, today I would be spending my morning at a Disney drawing table in this very small room. Disney veteran, Johnny Bond chomped on his cigar and handed me my assignment and it was a simple one, or so it would seem. I was given two Donald Duck sketches and my assignment was to put a drawing in the middle. Or, to be more specific, in-between the other two drawings. I was momentarily taken aback. I expected a Disney drawing test, but this was one I never anticipated. An in-between, I wondered? What the heck was an in-between?

Let’s go back in time for a moment. A time when I was a young aspiring artist with the dream of one day working for the Walt Disney Studios. Information regarding animation was not easy to come by in those days. Yet, I somehow managed to find a magazine article detailing the requirements for a Disney animator. The article spoke of a test given by the studio to test the skills of aspiring applicants. Of course, the requirements were demanding and young animators would have to prove their drawing and performing abilities. If I recall correctly there were at least five or six assignments requiring the animator to draw his or her character in specified situations. One such was a Disney character pushing a large boulder up a hill. The drawings had to give a sense of weight and the pull of gravity all the while keeping your character on model and with the right attitude. There were other equally demanding situations. I was just a kid in middle school but I took this Disney test seriously. Knowing that I would be required to fulfill the same assignment one day, I began sketching away at my make shift animation drawing table. I constructed this table based on information provided in the Walter T. Foster book, “How to Draw Cartoons,” or whatever the book was called back then. The final page of the book detailed how to build your own animation drawing board complete with a light bulb underneath a plate of glass to illuminate your sketches. I was diligent, of course, and I determined to be ready to take my Disney test one day.

You can imagine my surprise when I arrived at the Walt Disney Studios back in the nineteen fifties ready to take my first animation test. Surprisingly, the test was nothing like the test described in the magazine I had read so many years ago. Rather than a series of animation tests, it appeared I only had to complete one Donald Duck drawing. Of course, that drawing happened to be an “in-between,” and this was something I had never anticipated. The idea of putting one drawing in-between two other drawings seemed a bizarre assignment and it took awhile to get my head around it. Luckily, after a hour at the drawing board I managed to create a fairly decent in-between of Disney’s famous duck. My instructor, Johnny Bond took a puff on his cigar and said, “Not bad. I guess you’ll do okay.” And, that, boys and girls is how I took my first animation test at the Walt Disney Studios. Looking back, I have to laugh at my wacky situation. I arrived at the Disney Studios that day prepared to animate several challenging scenes and all I had to do was create one simple drawing. Clearly, I had over prepared - but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Even as a kid in middle school I had prepared myself for a tough assignment. That means I took my initiation into the cartoon business seriously and I did everything I thought was necessary to succeed. This lesson has continued with me throughout my career. Never face an upcoming assignment underprepared. Do what I did back in the fifties when I walked into Walt Disney’s C-wing. Walk in knowing you’re overprepared and ready for anything they throw at you.

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Unfinished Projects

As artists we tend to have dozens of unfinished projects laying around. I’ll often start a story, comic book or short film and then never get around to finishing it. It’s not necessarily because I’m lazy. Sometimes a project gets interrupted by a real paying job and that job becomes the new priority. Once the job is completed, I found I’ve forgotten about the clever idea I was working on because something else has grabbed my attention.

I remember starting this Walt story some years ago when I worked as a writer in Disney’s publishing department. I thought it might be a cute idea to tell the Disneyland story in a different way. It would be a series of black & white rough sketches of the Old Maestro as he dreams up the wacky idea of building a theme park. The story begins with Walt taking his kids to a dumpy amusement park in the Los Angeles area. Less than pleased with the lackluster environment he realizes he could build a much better park if he put his mind to it. We see Walt trying to talk Ward Kimball into giving him his train, pleading with the bankers, and searching for the perfect plot of land to build the park.

A series of zany gags detail the construction of the theme park and a multitude of things go wrong. However, Walt is determined and he pushes ahead defying budgetary concerns and time schedules. Of course, the naysayers continue to declare the unusual venture Walt’s folly. Eventually, the park is completed and hoards of Disney fans pour through the gates. The park is deemed a huge success and the Old Maestro goes off to plan even greater ventures.

Yep, that’s the story and it’s hardly a surprise. You all knew how it was going to end anyway, right? The only difference in this approach was telling the story in a delightful series of cartoon gags. I think it might make a pretty good book if I can ever finish it. That’s the problem, of course. There’s just too many things to do and stuff continues to get in the way. I know it often appears I’m not doing anything, but on any given day I’m juggling four or five different projects all in different stages of development. I know it’s weird, but that’s the way I work. While most people seemed to be glued to a desk all day I do my best writing while walking around - and I walk around a lot.

Currently, I’m bouncing around two book ideas, a movie script and a few other nifty ideas I can’t talk about just yet. However, please know that this writer is actually very busy. I simply look like I’m a total goof off.

Here are a few pages from my "Disneyland Story." I've done about fifty pages but it's still a work in progress. Maybe I'll finish it one day.

Here are a few pages from my "Disneyland Story." I've done about fifty pages but it's still a work in progress. Maybe I'll finish it one day.

The Storyteller

Those of you familiar with my career probably know that I worked with a talented guy named Vance Gerry. Little has been written about Mr. Gerry and it appeared he wanted it that way. Vance was one of those guys who simply arrived at work each day, created brilliant stuff and went home. He seldom, if ever gave interviews or sought the lime light. Vance was content to do wonderful visual development and create delightfully entertaining sequences for Disney movies. Vance Gerry appeared to do all this with - as Carl Barks would say - ridiculous ease. He had the unique ability to make his storytelling efforts look effortless, and he lent his considerable talents to scores of Walt Disney films over the years.

Vance Gerry was a prolific development artist and often his shelves were filled with forgotten projects and film ideas that failed to move further in development. One such was this movie idea I simply call, Vance’s Dog Story. I found it buried in a pile of sketches in his office and I regretted Disney had not shown interest in the story. I convinced Vance to let me borrow his sketches and do further development work on the project. I created additional material in color with the hope of perhaps showing the revamped project to our Disney bosses, Peter Schneider and Tom Schmacher. The story, like most Walt Disney animals stories was deceptively simple. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel this story of a man and his dog would be sure to resonate with audiences.

Here’s the story in a nutshell. It’s a small time circus, and a nice young man has been making a living doing a circus act with his group of trained dogs. The young trainer is devoted to his canine performers and they’re more a family than simply a cheap circus act. However, hard times force the circus to close down and the young dog trainer has to abandon his act along with his family of canine pals. Regretfully, they come to a parting of the ways as the dogs are all given new homes. It’s a sad but necessary solution because the young man cannot afford to support his animal family. He has to give them up, and they go their separate ways. Time passes, and one clever dog is determined to find his former owner. So begins the journey that will eventually happily reunite the young man and his talented troop of pups. Very simple story, wouldn’t you say?

As you can imagine, our Disney bosses had little interest in such a story. Too plain, too simple and worse of all - probably too Disney. As much as I respected my bosses at the mouse factory it often appeared making Disney movies was the last thing on their minds. Perhaps they were right. After all, times had changed and movie audiences were probably in the mood for something cool, hip and edgy. Vance Gerry continued to create dozens of family oriented stories during his remaining years at Disney. His stories were focused on companionship, heart and charm. And, his stories may very well have been green lit for production had a certain wise old gentleman still been in charge.

Cool, mellow and laid back, Vance Gerry represented the best of Disney storytelling. I owe this kind gentleman a debt of gratitude for his mentorship.

Cool, mellow and laid back, Vance Gerry represented the best of Disney storytelling. I owe this kind gentleman a debt of gratitude for his mentorship.