Inside Ward Kimball's Unit

It seems I’ve been using the “Way Back Machine” this week. We’ve been visiting the Walt Disney Studios of the fifties. It was a very different studio than the mega cartoon factories of today. The Animation Building of years past had a scruffiness about it. It looked and felt like a place artists worked. In todays digital cartoon factories everything feels artificial. Computer filmmaking has that high tech vibe. Everything seems cool…but nothing feels real. Of course, being an old school kind of guy I miss the grungy, messy feel of an animation studio. I’m speaking of an environment where drawings are not only pinned on the walls, but often litter the floor. Old school animation was organic and the “hands on” feel resonated in our work. In the old days, films were crafted by hand. Today, more often than not, animation feels manufactured.

That’s my pal, Rick Gonzales and we’re visiting the unit up in 2-D on the second floor of the Animation Building. How many of you know this location? Well, it happens to be the hub of Ward Kimball’s “Space Unit” where shows such as, “Man in Space,” Man and the Moon,” and “Mars and Beyond” were created. Take a moment to notice all the stuff pinned on the storyboards. Charts, graphs and other space related stuff appear to be tacked everywhere. If you glance at the room directly behind Rick you’ll see the large office where Art Stevens and Julius “Sven” Svendsen created their special magic. Characteristically, Ward Kimball deconstructed the animation process at Disney. Art and Sven crafted stories as well as animating their sequences in the film. Across the hall, you’ll find guys like Charlie Downs and John Dunn doing pretty much the same. Not only did Downs and Dunn storyboard their work, they also animated, created layouts and painted their own backgrounds. How do I know this, you ask? I watched them do it.

Should you move out into the hall way you would come across additional offices in Kimball’s unit where you might stumble into the workspace of Con Pederson working away on a group of strange alien creatures for the film. Once Con’s assignment had been completed he had another job waiting for him in London. It appears a young filmmaker named Stanley Kubrick also had ideas about making a space film, and he was actively recruiting Con Pederson to join his team. In the next offices you’d likely stumbled upon a tall, distinguish gentlemen who might easily be mistaken for a scientist. However, this was the brilliant layout artist, Ken O’Conner who was busily devising innovative methods for the films special visual effects. Remember, all the effects were done “old school.” No digital technology to solve your problems. O’Conner devised artwork that would be photographed in multiple passes using Bi-pack magazines on a special Disney camera. The artwork would be composited in Ub Iwerks process lab and the visual results were spectacular.

Rick Gonzales and I moved down the hallway toward a large office filled with storyboards, photographs and artwork scattered all over the floor. Remember, I told you old school Disney was often a mess. However, it was a glorified mess. Suddenly, footsteps down the hallway signaled someone approaching. It was the boss, Ward Kimball returning from lunch. This was a good time for two young apprentice inbetweeners to get our butts back at our drawing boards and get back to work. After all, we could always continue our Disney tour another day.

That's my pal, Rick Gonzales and we're taking an uninvited tour of Ward Kimball's offices on the second floor of the Animation Building at Disney. Awesome!

That's my pal, Rick Gonzales and we're taking an uninvited tour of Ward Kimball's offices on the second floor of the Animation Building at Disney. Awesome!

The Disney Women

There were no women artists at Walt Disney Productions back in the fifties…or so they say. In truth, there were more woman than you realize. Let me name a few, and I mean just a few. Kay Silva, Mary Anderson, Fran Marr, Doris Collins, Sylvia Niday, Sylvia Fry, Ruth Kissane, Elizabeth Case, Sammie June Lanham, Gloria Wood, Phyllis Thompson, Jane Fowler, Sylvia Roamer - and I could go on because I haven’t even named half the women I knew. Suffice it to say, Walt Disney Productions had its fair share of female artists and these talented ladies were not restricted to Walt’s Ink & Paint Department.

The attractive young woman correcting drawings in the photograph below is animation artist, Lois Blomquist. The very young Ms Blomquist was already a Disney veteran by the time we arrived at the Mouse House in the fifties. Lois spent a fair share of her time mentoring us cartoon newbies because we were green and still had a lot to learn. My pal, Rick Gonzales was lucky to be mentored by the attractive, blue eyed young blonde. He could have been saddled with a fat, balding old guy who would be correcting his drawings. Rick was a very lucky kid to have scored company of the lovely Ms Blomquist.

I remember being summoned to the office of Doris Collins in “dreaded” D-wing back in 1957. I was still going through my feature animation training to determine whether I was worthy to work on Walt Disney’s latest feature film, Sleeping Beauty. Doris had given me a small stack of drawings to be inbetweened and now it was time to show her my work. The lovely, young woman studied my drawings for a time. Then, she put down her cigarette (everyone smoked in those days) and picked up her pencil. Doris was very deliberate as she corrected my humble sketches and pointed out a series of mistakes. I stood looking over her shoulder like a scared school boy who had done less than stellar work. In time, Doris Collins and I became good friends, but I’ll never forget our first meeting when the attractive young woman had me scared to death.

Like many of the men in Walt Disney’s animation department, a number of women chose to move up and out of animation. Contrary to popular belief this lateral move was possible even back in the fifties. Sammie June and Sylvia made the move to layout, while Gloria Wood looked forward to being a background artist. The talented, Ruth Kissane decided to remain in animation and became a damn good animator. However, the point of this little story is to remind people that Walt Disney Productions was not exactly a “Man’s World” even though it’s often characterized as such. Woman played a considerable role in Walt Disney animation as far back as the fifties. This is a fact, and I think it's something you should know.

The lovely, Lois Blomquist and her trainee, Rick Gonzales. Who said there were no women at Disney?

The lovely, Lois Blomquist and her trainee, Rick Gonzales. Who said there were no women at Disney?

Fun with Floyd and Jane

Time flies when you’re having fun. To be sure, we had our share of fun back in the fifties at Walt Disney Productions. The young woman in the photograph is the beautiful and talented, Jane Baer who was nice enough to join us on two panels at ComicCon this past weekend. Jane and I are just a little bit older than we were when this photograph was taken. The year was 1956 and we had just made the move from Art Center College of Design to a low level job in Walt Disney’s animation department. All of us guys were assigned to a “bull pen” in 1F-1 on the first floor of the Animation Building. The young women were sent to D-wing which was a very special wing as I’m sure most of you know. However, the hard working animation team were allowed two breaks during the day. One break would take place in the morning and one in the afternoon. If we were lucky (and we often were) we would be joined by the lovely ladies for a cup of coffee. On occasion, we would venture over to the Tea Room in the Ink&Paint building. However, more often than not, we had coffee in the bull pen with our female colleagues.

The Walt Disney Studio of 1956 could hardly be compared to the Disney of today. Computers, servers or Cintiq Tablets were not even dreams back then. Animated movies were made by hand and we were kids who felt lucky to be invited into this amazing business. Here, we would have the opportunity to work with the men and women who made the movies we saw as children. In time, these animation veterans would become our teachers, mentors and put us through a rigorous training program. We would not be indulged, coddled or handled with kid gloves. This was the Walt Disney Studio where nothing less than the best was expected. As eager animation youngsters we found ourselves in an animation “boot camp” of sorts. Here, we would be shaped into diligent, hard working animation artists who knew the value of every drawing in a scene. Our mentors focused on our drawings with a laser like intensity and nothing was ever missed. We were told when our work did not measure up to the Disney standard so we determined to do better. 

Before long, a number of us qualified to move up the ladder and be given a greater challenge. We were finally deemed worthy to begin work on the feature film, “Sleeping Beauty.” However, even low level work on the feature was a pretty big deal. Your work would be scrutinized by key assistant animators and then by the animator, himself. In time, your work would be seen by the director in “Sweat Box” and more often than not, Walt Disney might be in attendance. When viewing the film it was not unusual for a scene to be moved forward frame by frame. Individual drawings could be studied this way, and lord help you should a sub par sketch catch the Old Maestro’s eye. Yet, in many ways it was a wonderful time of growing and learning at the feet of the Disney Masters. It was a unique opportunity to study with some of the finest talent in the cartoon business. It was a time we all look back on with fondness and gratitude.

How many years has it been since I took this photograph of the lovely Jane? Honestly, I don’t even want to think about it. However, I’m delighted we were able to share our past with many of the animation fans in San Diego. After all, consider what an amazing time it was. Eyvind Earle backgrounds lined the hallways of 2-B, and the Nine Old Men still worked in D-wing. Josh Meader and his effects team magically animated pixie dust on paper and Ward Kimball sent rocket ships into space from his amazing science unit in 2-D. Gag men, Al Bertino and Milt Banta put Goofy through his cartoon paces in Jack Kinney's upstairs shorts unit and Bill Justice and his creative partner, “X” allowed Chip and Dale to drive Donald Duck crazy. All this chaos was presided over by a visionary gentleman named, Walt Disney and if you were lucky enough to work here you had the best job in the world.

Welcome to Walt Disney Productions 1956. We were kids and what a time we had.

Welcome to Walt Disney Productions 1956. We were kids and what a time we had.

Castaway at the Walt Disney Studio

It was another sunny summer afternoon at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. We sat on the commissary patio enjoying lunch, or at least trying to. Our little group consisted of several Disney artists along with art director, Carl Anderson who was currently working on a new Walt Disney live-action feature film. The movie starred the talented and affable Dick Van Dyke who like Tom Hanks in “Castaway,” would spend a good deal of the movie by himself. However, that movie was decades away and its story would have a far different tone. This particular story penned by the Old Maestro himself would have a comic sensibility and much of it would be played for laughs. If you’re a Disney film buff you may already know I’m speaking of the Walt Disney film, “Lt. Robin Crusoe, USN.”

However, let’s get back to lunch on the Walt Disney Studio Commissary where Anderson continued to rant about Director of Photography, Bill Snyder. “What’s wrong with that guy?” complained Carl Anderson. “We’re supposed to be deep in the jungle and Snyder is lighting the scene like we’re in Griffith Park.” Had you been able to visit stage two back in the early sixties you would have indeed found a remote tropical jungle. At least a Hollywood version of a jungle island in the Pacific. This is where Navy fighter pilot, Lt. Robin Crusoe finds himself in the movies’ first act. However, the Navy pilot played by Dick Van Dyke would spend a number of days floating in a rubber raft. Have no fear, we didn’t send poor Mr. Van Dyke out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Dick Van Dyke managed to play out his scenes in the middle of sound stage three. If you know the Walt Disney Studio you’ll know that stage three has a built in water tank. Naturally, that considerable sized water tank became our Pacific Ocean for a number of days as Mr. Van Dyke struggled to survive. In time, our hero is washed ashore on a deserted island somewhere in the South Pacific.

Most Disney film buffs visit a movie set on occasion, but I was with this film from start to finish even though I didn’t work on it. I confess I continually hung around Don Dagradi and Bill Walsh’s office while they wrote the screenplay based on Walt’s story. I was a consistent visitor to the office of illustrator, David Jonas as he developed a visual continuity for the motion picture. You can see a few of David’s sketches down below. Finally, I was able to meet director, Byron Paul who would helm the motion picture for Disney and hopefully establish himself as a movie director. In case you didn’t know…Byron Paul was Dick Van Dyke’s agent. I followed the movie through preproduction and when shooting finally began, I was a daily visitor to the set. A second unit team was busy shooting establishing shots and live-action plates in Hawaii. However, Dick Van Dyke never had to travel to the islands because all of his scenes were shot at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. Whether it was flying the Navy jet, crashing into the Pacific ocean or surviving on the deserted tropical island, those scenes were all filmed on the sound stages and backlot of the Walt Disney Studios.

My time on the Disney film was filled with delightful and unexpected surprises. Meeting the animal star of the film was fun. The clever chimpanzee eventually became a pal with movie star, Dick Van Dyke and would often join him for coffee and a cigarette. You think I’m kidding? Just ask Mr. Van Dyke. The chimp, whose real name was “Dingy” was given the name, “Floyd” in the finished movie. I’ll let you guess where that idea came from. Then there was my encounter with the beautiful island native girls and a tropical swim in an island lagoon. Once again, this lush tropical jungle was created at the magical Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. There was also a special moment with the beautiful actress, Nancy Kwan that had my heart racing. I’m too embarrassed to even talk about that. Finally, the studio special effects wizards created a tropical storm that was good enough to be the real thing. Once again, this was the special magic of movie making we seem to have lost today. Whatever distant location or special effect we needed could instantly be created by Walt’s Wizards such as Peter Ellenshaw, Ub Iwerks, Allen Maley and Eustace Lycett. Yes, boys and girls. This is when movie making was fun. Today, you’ll need 500 to a thousand visual effects people to do what these four guys did on a regular basis.

Eventually, the huge tropical jungle set on stage two was lit and ready for photography. Looming over the set was a large stone idol known as “The Great Kaboona.” Actors, Dick Van Dyke and Nancy Kwan were dragged before the island potentate. It was then character actor, Akim Tamiroff began to “chew the scenery.” Tamiroff played the island chief, Tanamashu and even Walt Disney thought the well known character actor was over acting just a little. The scene wrapped and art director, Carl Anderson was never totally satisfied with what he considered to be some pretty mediocre movie lighting. Oh, well. That’s Hollywood, I guess. Walt Disney’s “Lt. Robin Crusoe, USN” proved to be light, fun entertainment and a pretty good little film. I can tell you for a fact that Walt Disney was hardly pleased with the final film and often grumbled that he should have let his go-to director, Bob (Mary Poppins) Stevenson direct the movie. In any case, that time is past. I have my memories and a handful of story sketches reminding me of a Walt Disney Studio that once was… and can never be again.

These are a few of the continuity sketches for the live-action Walt Disney movie. Brilliant illustrator, Dave Jonas must have done hundreds of these for the film. Even Walt's live-action films were storyboarded. Hardly a surprise, right?

These are a few of the continuity sketches for the live-action Walt Disney movie. Brilliant illustrator, Dave Jonas must have done hundreds of these for the film. Even Walt's live-action films were storyboarded. Hardly a surprise, right?