"Mygreatest reward is that I have been able to build this wonderful organization." Walt Disney
Many a philosopher has observed that a person's physical environment greatly determines how he will behave and what he is apt to do. One historian of animation has claimed that the old studio on Hyperion Avenue at the far eastern edge of Hollywood was largely responsible for the innovative and imaginative thinking of the artists who worked inside. The studio was indeed unique, but then it would not have been fitting for Walt's studio to be like any other place of business. From an insignificant beginning, the studio seemed gradually to take on a life of its own and grow like the magical world it was creating. The original building, first occupied in 1926, was a mere 1,600 square feet and was hardly noticed on a quiet street that meandered down a small valley. Next to it was a pipe organ factory, but there was space behind and a vacant lot on the other side that gave plenty of privacy. That first building could hold some twenty men at most, so it was not long before an addition was needed. The organ factor)' was purchased and combined with the Disney Studio.
Within months still more space was needed; the carpenters returned, and soon the little building was bulging and protruding in unexpected places. In 1931, Walt decided to put an end to this makeshift arrangement and to build an edifice especially designed for animation, with an office for each animator and his assistant, and two rooms for directors. Hours and hours of planning went into the design of this "perfect" building, but it was outdated before the paint dried.
First, there was only a small addition to it, then there was a connection to another building, then something out in back, and then suddenly a whole new, immense two-story structure. Soon the studio flowed clear out to the side street, then back the other way.
with added bungalows and things on top of things, including, finally, a special Ink and Faint building that used all the property up to the street on the east. The studio was spilling out in all directions.
There was also a building across the street that had been built complete with a skylight facing the north for the art classrooms, offices for Don Graham and visiting artists, and endless cubicles for young hopefuls learning the craft. The shape of the peaked roof immediately reminded Walt of the chicken sheds he used to know as a boy, so he dubbed the building "The Incubator." Before long, he added to the back of that, then installed pens beside it for the animals needed for study and drawing. Like the cooking pot in the fairy tale that continued to produce oatmeal because someone forgot the magic words, the studio continued to sprawl and spread and cover the whole area in a slow-motion eruption. There were tunnels and passageways and bridges and little doors, and partitions were put up and taken down, and walls were moved, and projection booths were made out of conference rooms and offices and even closets. As Parkinson's Law states, "During a period of exciting discovery or progress there is no time to plan the perfect headquarters."1
When every inch of open space had been filled, neighboring buildings were purchased and converted— apartment houses, bungalows, offices, any structure that was near and could house artists and storymen. In speaking of his own experience in those strange accommodations, Mel Shaw2said, "John Hench? Oh, yes, he had the kitchen of my apartment. ... I had the bedroom and bath." The artists who were not on the main lot felt left out and isolated. All their hopes were based on "stepping up" someday to the main building across the street. In the main building the rooms were so small and everyone was so jammed in together that if one guy wanted to get out, all the others had to move their chairs to let him through. With everyone that close, there was an exchange of ideas as well as a lot of funny incidents and gags that would not have happened otherwise. Walt kept trying to shield his animators from distractions and annoyances that would drain their creative energies, but. actually, more growth was achieved through this arrangement than if we had been spread out in neat rows.
Exciting new things were happening all around us, and this close personal contact and the crazy associations kept us stimulated. We were all trying to outdo each other in thinking of screwy actions, deliberately trying to be different, to be funnier, to come up with an unexpected gag in everything we did—away from the studio as well as at work. One of the early animators, Art Babbitt, said, "Each test you did, you tried to be as inventive as possible so the other guys would comment."
Unless a gagman is thinking "funny" every day, he might find it hard to think of an unusual gag when he needs one, and we were determined always to sec the unusual in the world around us. All a man had to do was stumble over a chair, or knock something off a desk, or just make a chance remark, and immediately he would be inundated with gag drawings, building the situation to outlandish proportions. It looked like a waste of valuable time, but, actually, we were all learning our most important lessons in staging and communication. If the gag was too obscure, if the drawing was not funny, if it was not something that could be understood instantly, no one laughed. This amusement actually was better training than developing business in the pictures, where it would be weeks before we would know if the gag was funny, or the right thing, or whether it even had been understood.
Gags were also a very good way to relieve tension. Ward Kimball says, "It was this close exacting work we had to do. . . . You had to let it out, so all of a sudden you'd stop and let off steam. We'd all sit down and draw gags." The drawings became broader and more preposterous by the day, yet there was always an element of believability in them, because at the core they were based on some quirk in a particular fellow's
artist Frank Thomas.
Someone suggested that sun lamps be installed so animators could look more healthy. Immediately, the gags began pouring in. Here. Frank Thomas. Milt Kahl, and Ollie Johnston are depicted as needing far more than a tan.
While Vip Partch was an assistant animator, his drawings showed the staging and insight that later made him famous as a commercial cartoonist. Above. ' 'The Gag" catches the precise attitudes and expressions of the fellows looking at a new gag. Below. Vip's version of Ollie Johnston's animation unit. When told he had to get an inbetweener to move the work faster. Vip caricatured the only type of personality he felt he could control. Left, animators Ollie Johnston and Ken O'Brien.
personality. This incisive understanding of personality brought on elaborate practical jokes as well. We had to have some idea of an intended victim's reaction to the gag, or it would be hard to see the possibilities in it. This same approach was used daily in working out the gags and situations for our cartoon characters. If you had a Donald Duck short, immediately everyone knew what type of gags to use, what situations would be funny. It was easy to find business for Donald because we all understood his personality.
The butt of the studio's most elaborate practical joke was an Englishman, Ted Thwaites. The men who worked with him had sized him up as being rather square and had planned the "business" in their little scenario accordingly. Floyd Gottfredson, then head of the comic strip department, relates the story as follows:
The whole thing happened in the comic strip department and the principal characters were Ted Thwaites and A1 Taliaferro. We all worked in the back room of the annex at Hyperion. Ted carried his lunch in a brown bag and every day brought in a
small can of fruit cocktail and he loved it so much and he smacked his lips over it and he'd tell Al, "I just couldn't eat a lunch without this."
So this started Al's brain to working and one day he brought in a can the same size, a can of mixed vegetables. When Ted went out of the room he would always tell Al where he was going. So the minute he got out of sight, Al would jump up and take the label off, and put rubber cement on the thing and wait til it almost dries—and just switch the labels from the mixed vegetable can to the fruit cocktail.
So Ted came back the first time and he opened this thing and he actually took a spoonful of the stuff before he noticed it was not his fruit cocktail. Al, of course, was watching him. Ted stopped— then he took another spoonful of the stuff and he looked at it and he says, "I can't believe this." He was still very British and very gullible. He says, "Something's wrong here." So he shows it to Al and AI peers at it and says, "What's wrong? What is that— vegetables?"
Ted says, "Yeah! Look at the label—this is fruit cocktail."
Al says, "That's strange."
So between the two of them they decided that some way the labels had gotten mixed up at the canning factory. There wasn't anymore said about it except Ted went around and told everybody in the department. He couldn't get over it. So Al let it go for three or four days and then he switched labels again, and Ted said, "The only way I can explain this is that they must have mixed up a whole lot shipment—just imagine! These things are on the shelves of markets all over the country."
Al did it just far enough apart to keep Ted intrigued. He'd have peas or carrots and even hominy one time—and Ted had never seen hominy before. To put a little variety in the act, Al reversed the procedure and put a vegetable label on the fruit cocktail can.
"That's crazy!" Ted says. "I know I bought fruit cocktail this morning—Al, look at this."
Al says, "What's wrong with it?"
Ted says, "That's mixed vegetables!"
Al says, "That's funny. You must have picked it up by mistake." So, he opens the can and it has fruit cocktail in it.
Finally it was Ted himself who said, "Well I really think this is an item for Robert Ripley's Believe It Or Not. I think I should write it in to him and maybe I'll get some money out of it."
So we all agreed and by this time everybody knew about it, and he actually wrote Ripley. After he had written to Ripley, we knew we had to do something to pay this whole thing off. We wondered for two or three days what we could do. We figured it would take eight days before he would expect an answer.
The plan called for this last can to be mailed to Thwaites, with appropriate King Features3 labels made up by the comic strip men and was to contain a rather potent message from Mr. Ripley. But A1 couldn't leave it alone. He had to switch one more can and Ted came back too soon and A1 had to rush it.
When Ted came in and ate his lunch right after that and he picked up this can and the label slipped off the can and here was this wet rubber cement. He stopped and looked at it for a minute, then he says in his British accent, "You so and so's. Suddenly everything is clear to me. I know what's been going on here!"
Walt was keenly aware of the creative process and did not criticize anyone for taking time off to do gags. He seemed to be aware that we were sharpening our skills. The only thing he used to say was, "Why don't you get some of that in the pictures?"
The place was expanding so fast it seemed as if it would burst at the seams; it was teeming with new people everywhere, and there were new artists coming in almost every day. We were all squeezed into little nooks and crannies and so busy and excited that we could not keep up with what our friends were doing. We were always in too much of a hurry to wander around the studio and say, "What do you do?" Then, one day, a newly finished picture we had never heard of would be shown for the staff—such as The Old Mill. Where did it come from ? Who had worked on it? And more important, how had they done it?
Our eyes popped out when we saw all of The Old Mill's magnificent innovations—things we had not even
dreamed of and did not understand. We did not know how any of the effects were achieved or who had done what and how it was painted. Even the inked eels and backgrounds did not look like anything we had ever seen before. Unknown to us, Walt had hired color experts and engineers and had been experimenting with new ways of lighting and a multiplane camera and all sorts of things. And when we talked with fellows like Claude Coats,4 who had been working on the picture, we could tell they were almost as surprised and bewildered as we were. "Oh, I don't know. Well, it was just like any other picture. We tried to do what was needed; we had our problems and our battles; we had our troubles. ..."
Each new picture contained breathtaking improvements; the effects were better, the animation had more life, and the whole studio had an upward momentum. It was like being a player on a winning team! To us, all this was pure magic. Our own efforts to stage a bit of business or get a character to come to life in an interesting way—while keeping our footage up and
not getting bogged down—at times would get us so involved that we would lose sight of where the studio was headed. Everyone was working hard but few complained. If there was not always exhilaration in the work from day to day, the employees would be filled with awe and overwhelmed with disbelief when a new picture was projected for them. Where were we going? What was to happen with this cartoon medium?
There were not enough hours in a day for one person to keep up with all the new ideas and inventions and procedures, let alone deal with the imaginative concepts and ideas for future productions. But one man did! And he miraculously rode herd over hundreds of enthusiastic employees. As someone said, "If Walt had done nothing else, he would be remembered for bringing together 1000 artists and storymen and controlling their work. No one in history has ever done that."
Mary Tebb, who started with Walt as an inker in 1927, explained her feelings this way: "That dedication was the greatest thing in the world—our dedication to Walt and the product, our unquestioning attitude. No one ever said to Walt, 'Aw that's too much work. I don't want to do it.* Oh no, you'd take it home and spend all night if you had to. Walt had something, that power. It was just his personality, his genius, I guess."
"It wasn't that you had to do these things," Marc-Davis said. "You wanted to do them. You were so proud. Every write-up the studio got, everybody went out and got it. Very few people have ever, as a group, experienced that type of excitement. What we were in on, really, was the invention of animation. Animation had been done before, but stories were never told."5
Milt Schaffer remembers a meeting in Ben Sharp-steen's office of all the young artists. Ben told them this was going to become a great artistic medium, and they were all really going to work—that they had nol even begun to learn animation yet. In the course of his talk he said, "It will be with you like it was with Michelangelo. When you guys arc about sixty-five, you'll be ready to hang out your shingle." Milt say's they were all impressed, even when told they were not going to be any good until they were sixty-five—even that was encouraging! All of this determined the quality of animation that would be done. It grew as an an form because everyone cared—and not just in the animation department but throughout the whole studio. ;
Out of this creative cauldron came the exciting discovery of life in the drawing, and with it came a new way of looking at animation. Now the animator could do more than entertain the audience with funny little movements in sync to sound; through this important revelation he could make the audience believe in his characters.
To bring a character to life, it is necessary to imbue each single extreme drawing of the figure with an attitude that reflects what he is feeling or thinking or trying to do. No scene is any better than the sum total of all its drawings. Life must be in every drawing. There should be no drawings that merely move the character from one spot to the next. In other words, the life and vitality comes not from movement or timing alone—as it did in the early Mickeys—but from that ability to make the single drawings come alive. The animator must incorporate into his work some of the power and artistry of men like Honore Daumier. As Daumier himself said, "If my drawing does not convey anything to you, it must be bad, and no caption can remedy that. If the drawing is good you will be able to understand it."6 There was hardly a gesture, mood, or human relationship that Daumier did not illustrate.
Animation was beginning to mean something different to each of us, and everyone was surprised at the definition one employee found in the dictionary. "Most people think the word 'animation' means movement," he said, "but it doesn't. It comes from 'animus' which
means 'life or to live.' Making it move is not animation. but just the mechanics of it."7
In the early pictures there were indeed glimpses of this "life," but since no animator really knew, then, what he had done, it was impossible for it to be sustained over a series of drawings. In 1934, The Flying Mouse, with its pathos, turned the corner— more than any other early film—from stock gags to emphasis on personality, and it was immediately apparent that this communicated better with the audience. Later, the great animation on Figaro in Pinocchio, the dwarfs, and the little ugly duckling were all exciting steps ahead in this new development. People responded to these characters through their feelings—something rarely achieved in a cartoon before.
The concept of instilling life in cartoon figures changed the role of the animator from a kind of creator who sat back and watched in a detached way as he put his character through amusing antics to someone who now found himself living inside that little person on his drawing board. If it was a terrified Pinocchio locked in Stromboli's cage or a shy Bambi at his first meeting with Faline, the animator had to live every minute of it or it would not be in his drawings.
Andrew Wyeth had comparable feelings about a painting he was working on and expressed them beautifully in these words: "And then finally when you get far enough along in a thing, you feel as though you're living there—not just working at a painting, but actually working in that valley. You're there."8
This is possibly what saved the animated cartoon! The whole conception of a scene became different. A new type of business was demanded from the story department, planning that would involve showing a wide range of emotions through the feelings of the characters. Storymen now had to think up situations that would draw an audience into the picture, situations that required acting that derived humor from the characters rather than just gags. And if there was a gag, it would now be a real personality that was participating in it rather than a stock cartoon character. Truly the age of the animator arrived with the first crude evidence of life in the single drawing.
The arrival of the latest test film was the high point of the day for animators. Some wag likened it to a maternity hospital when the babies are brought to their mothers. But there was so much discussion before a scene was done and such high interest in what new
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