Pluto knows he is hanging on a ledge but not how high up. Reaching about with his fanny he fails to locate solid ground, so he takes an apprehensive look. Difficult to stage and animate, yet this was the type of scene Bill Roberts liked to do. His maxim: never lose the personality of the character in either a long shot or a wild action.
experiments might be in each other's scenes, that we could hardly wait to see the film of what had been tried. The halls echoed with the clattering of film in the Moviolas and. soon after, the sound of feet running through the halls. "Hey, have you seen Lundy's test? It'll kill ya!"
One day Bob Carlson was trying to complete a scene of his own while this activity was going on outside his door. One room in particular down the hall had attracted quite a crowd, as the film was repeated over and over. A film could be run through the Moviola as many times as you wished without stopping, because it was always fastened together in one continuous loop. Often, if it was a long scene, some of the film would drag on the floor as it made its round trip through the machine.
As Bob listened he could hear the pattern of hushed expectancy, the clatter of the film, the explosion of hilarity, the buzz of voices discussing, congratulating, suggesting—then the hush as the action came around again. Finally Bob's curiosity got the best of him and he had to go down to the room and see what was on the film. The room was packed and it was hard to crowd in where he could get a view of the Moviola screen. Just as he got a clear view between one fellow's ear and another's shirt collar, the film ripped. There was a groan of disappointment, and all eyes angrily followed the limp film down from the Moviola, across the floor, between all the feet, and over to one big shoe that had stepped squarely on the film— Bob's!
Walt liked to have people around him who could make things, build things, create with tools. If he had an idea for a better use of some space in the building, he wanted to be able to call a capable man immediately and ask him, "Can't we do something here to move this out and get a thing here? ..." Or if he wanted the camera to operate in a different way, "Can't we put something on here that w ill make this thing go around this way and . . . ?" His respect for the men who had these skills was shown by the fact that while everyone else in the studio was on a first-name basis, the carpenter who was retained full-time was always "Mr. Rogers." The only other man to have this mark of respect was Mr. Keener, who was the paymaster. The other craftsman who could do a little of everything was Jim Verity, but he did not quite merit the addition of "Mr." to his name. Still, he deserved too much respect to be called simply, "Jim," so somehow a compromise was reached whereby his name was run together like one word: "Jimverity."
In the late thirties, specialists in other fields were being added to the staff, mechanics and engineers whose salaries could not be assigned to any specific job. Walt did not know where he was going to use these men—some experts from machine shops, others graduates from Caltech—but he knew he could not pursue his dreams without them. When he wondered. "Can't we find a way to . . . ? " he wanted a man at his elbow who could say, "Well, let me work on it."
Eventually the studio had eighteen highly skilled engineers, headed by Bill Garity,9 designing, building, creating, experimenting, extending the capabilities of the animated cartoon to reach new heights, new achievements. Walt personally directed their efforts and chose the areas for experimentation, but someone else had to find the category on the production chart where their talents and salaries seemed to fit.
In 1935, most of the country was still wallowing in the Depression, and few companies were hiring, so a job was a very precious thing. Where once Walt had worried that he was getting into the business too late, actually it seemed that the timing was perfect for him. and he was able to pick and choose from the creative talent of that period.
But there were tensions and anxieties for those seeking the jobs, since competition was very keen and only the most outstanding were hired. All manner of hardships were endured to get and keep a job. Some of the uncertainty of the times is reflected in the recollections of Betty Ann Guenther about the apprehension that characterized tryouts in the inking department: "Every Friday was Elimination Day. and wc all shook in our boots, for fear we would be let go. Everyone was so scared and worried they could hardly relax enough to do their work."
Ann Lloyd added, "It's a wonder we learned to ink, we were so nervous, and it really takes a loose arm and relaxation to get this technique, and we were nervous wrecks all the time." They needed the jobs desperately, but it was more than that; it was the innocence of that period, young people hoping they would be good enough and that they would be liked.
On Fridays, their ranks were thinned down. There were many tears and hysterics. But those who survived had real dedication and the sense of accomplishment that would go with weathering such an ordeal. The supervisors still ruled them with a firm hand even after they were taken on, being stern and demanding in their criticism and exerting extreme pressure on everyone to do it faster and better.
"I came here right out of high school," says Kath-erine Kerwin, "and in those days you worked or else. Nobody had cars. ... it was really difficult." Many of the young people traveled as much as two hours each way by bus and streetcar to get to work, and they often worked till 10:00 at night on Snow White. Kath-erine was asked to work all night on occasions, and she said she was pleased that someone would ask her. "The people were all so young and had so much energy. and what they could give, they gave it." The girls were all eager to learn and went to night classes, too. They loved to go to the theater when the pictures came out and excitedly pick out the scenes they had inked or painted.
"It was always a thrill when Walt came by," Ann Lloyd says. "He didn't come often, but he always came around at Christmas with all these gifts. He felt the girls had been working very hard so he brought a present for each of us." And one Christmas when there was no work he gave the girls a week's vacation instead of laying them off. "Walt was shy and uncomfortable around girls," Katherine adds affectionately, "so they didn't see that much of him. but they loved him, and he appreciated how they helped him."
With so much intensity in the air. and Walt's managing everything, and the staff passing the thousand mark, there were the inevitable inequities and some disgruntled employees. Mainly, the problem came from an individual's feeling left out or passed over. This produced a kind of bitterness and a sullen attitude, but the really explosive reactions came only as the result of an individual's work being cut out of a picture. The an of animating is very, very difficult: first, becoming committed to your way of doing the scene; then, once committed, combining all the elements that give it life—the drawing, acting, staging, timing—while being sure that it all adds up to entertainment for someone besides yourself. This may take days or even weeks of
strenuous effort. And when you finally have it on paper, you have stated, just as clearly as if it were written, your inner feelings about how this thing should be done. Then to have your own personal statement challenged or criticized or cut from the picture—for whatever reason—is a staggering assault on the ego.
At times it was terribly hard to deal with Walt's exacting demands, and often a proud young artist found himself becoming belligerent over some fault found in his work. It was not always criticism either; sometimes it was just the lack of a compliment that hurt the most. The majority of us had become accustomed to having our work criticized, but we had never been in a situation where we cared so much. Love and hate are closely allied. You hate only if you are deeply involved in something.
Volatile storyman Bill Peet once became so angry over Walt's criticism that he threw ink all over his wall after the story meeting was over—and left it there in defiance. Walt pretended not to notice for a long time; then, one day, when things were calm, he turned to Bill and said, "What the hell's all that stuff?" and told him to "clean up " his room. Walt understood the intensity of commitment that Bill and the rest of us had for the work, and he never wasted an opportunity to take advantage of this commitment.
In an early screening of Snow White someone had written on an unsigned questionnaire the startling reaction, "Stick to Shorts," little knowing at the time that he had touched Walt in a most sensitive spot. That remark would haunt us for the next three decades. It indicated to Walt that there was a rotten apple in the barrel, and since no one knew who it was he seized upon this incident as a permanent device to keep us on the defensive. Through the years, the term "Stick to Shorts" became synonymous with poor judgment. If you were trying to sell an idea that did not jell or go over in a meeting, suddenly there would be this loud. "Ah haaa!" and Walt's finger would come shooting out toward you; in a triumphant voice he would explain, "You must be the guy who said 'Stick to Shorts!"' And for that day you were the guy, and everyone else would keep looking at you and wondering. The best thing you could do was to become as inconspicuous as possible. Some of the men insisted they knew who the real culprit was and thought that Walt knew, too. But if he did. he was too smart to let on, and he never relented in his continuing search.
Walt felt that every idea had been thought of. every gag and even every story—the key was how you used the material to express your own work. So he was never concerned about where an idea came from. One day he stopped a young artist in the hall and complimented him on his drawings of Pinocchio.10 When the animator started to say that he was just trying to draw like the other fellows did, Walt interrupted to say, "I
don't give a damn where you get it. Just keep doing it."
Walt tried to make best use of what talents his employees had. Obviously, not everyone cared. As Milt Schaffer says, "There were all varieties, some more worldly wise than others, some cynical, some eager beavers." The practical-minded adopted the view that it was just a job. Walt was continually searching for incentives to get this group more involved, to get the maximum effort from everyone. He had used the bonus system of balancing salary against footage output as early as 1933, and, in spite of repeated failures, he continued to believe that it held the answer. But the system had an inherent weakness: the largest rewards went to the swiftest rather than to the best. Certain men took a very pragmatic view of this opportunity and spent most of their time looking for shortcuts, often giving their lesser-paid assistants much of the work to do.
This left the burden of responsibility for quality to the conscientious animators who felt that the picture came first. They could not stand by and watch inferior quality make inroads; so they took time from their own work to do whatever was necessary throughout the picture to patch up, repair, or re-animate work that lacked the illusion of life. In the long run, this ruined their own appearance on the "time charts," and with it a chance for any sizable bonus. The bonus system did not produce better pictures—or even good ones. Few regulations do. Efficiency is better built through dedication rather than speed for its own sake.
Surprisingly often, confusion arose from not knowing what was expected of you. It was even hard to find out whom to ask, and this caused uncertainty and created uneasiness about one's position. There were simply too many people after a while to notify about everything. Anxiety over this lack of communication sent many people scrambling around looking for ways to protect themselves—to shore up their jobs. To do this, some began forming walls of people around them, secretaries and assistants or whatever. These "Empire Builders," as Parkinson might have called them, "wanted to multiply subordinates, not rivals.""
However, if anyone started taking himself too seriously, he was certain to become a target sooner or later. One new employee in management was quite officious and tried to reorganize the workings of the studio overnight with a flood of memos and orders, all intimating that they were Walt's wishes. He was very busy and very stuffy and very gullible. One day as storymen Ted Sears and Webb Smith got in the elevator they were joined by this bustling young executive. Casually a conversation started as Ted asked, "Hey. Webb, been meaning to ask you—did Walt send you your elevator pass yet?" Webb, kind of mumbling, "My elevator pass—let's see . . ." feeling around in his pockets. "It's here somewhere." Their companion was drinking it all in. They could see he had taken the bait already. Webb continued as he got off the elevator, "Yeah, it came yesterday; maybe the day before."
The indignant executive made a beeline for Walt's secretary, "Where's my elevator pass? How come you didn't send me one?"
What could the secretary say? She did not know what he was talking about. And neither did Walt!
We gradually developed so many separate units of directors and layout personnel on the features and shorts programs and transition sequences and special effects sequences that there was a constant traffic jam on the recording stage, in inkers, in camera, and even in inbetweening. Some way had to be found to schedule and simplify so that the best use could be made of all the facilities. It was in this atmosphere, with so many people around, that the Unit Manager was born.
These men started each day with a meeting in which they presented the work schedule of their individual units and the projected needs in all related departments. Then a little chart was made up saying that Wilfred Jackson's unit could record from 10:00 to 11:00 Tuesday, have two extra layout men for five days on Wednesday, and get top priority in camera for two weeks starting a week from Friday. Jack King's unit would record from 11:00 to 2:00, give up his two layout men on Wednesday, wait to shoot his tests for two weeks—and so it went, until each department was accounted for. As work loads shifted, or a sequence failed to get approval, or Walt changed his mind, everything was adjusted in the morning meeting.
Supposedly, each unit manager was responsible to his unit director, who told him each day exactly what he needed and when he had to have it. But often the unit's representative would return to his home base to report that they could not have any of the things the director wanted. After hearing his job redefined by the irate director, the unit manager would then come down the stairs to vent his pent-up feelings on people who could not fight back. The normal procedure would be to come over to the artist's desk, without a cheer)' greeting, check the number of the drawing on his board and match it to the exposure sheet with an insinuating mumble: "Hmm-mm, we're still on this part, eh? Didn't get over onto the second page like we thought, did we? Can we count on this scene by 4:00 o'clock this afternoon? We're up next in Ink and Faint, you know."
All in all, the unit managers slowed the work down, yet on paper they looked like the perfect solution to our chaotic cross-purposes. It was interesting to discover that when the studio cut our personnel in half (and this type of job was no longer necessary), we still turned out as much work. Another Parkinson law confirms this point: The fact is that the number of officials and the quantity of the work are not related to each other at all.
All through the thirties and forties, Walt was bringing in one group of efficiency experts after another in an attempt to find the way to run the studio most efficiently. He knew there was a better way than the current one, but he never seemed to realize that his own flow of ideas foredoomed each plan to failure before it had begun. An organizational plan presupposes that all employees will stay in their own spots doing just what they are supposed to do in the way that has been selected for them to do it. This was utterly foreign to Walt's approach to anything and especially in his constant shifting of his men, asking them to do things completely new day after day.
Walt never stopped kidding the staff about their efficiency and how much work they were turning out. Milt Kahl tells the story about Walt bringing a group of visitors into his room and saying, "All right—show 'em why it takes so long."
The end of the phenomenal growth of animation can be linked to the constant attempt to establish some kind of order for the production of the pictures. T his brought about a perplexing chain of command for the animator, with Walt at the top. Though his ideas were supposed to seep down to us through the Production Supervisor, the Supervising Director, and finally the Sequence Director, they never quite did, and it was impossible for any of us to know what Walt really had in mind without seeing and hearing his ideas firsthand.
"I didn't want Walt doing anything about the rest of the studio," Dave Hand, then Production Supervisor, said, "because he was so very valuable in the idea department." It was the thinking of the time that the sole job of the director was to deliver the idea of the scene to the animator and that Walt was to be shielded from all possible distractions.
When we questioned a piece of business in the sequence, the director said it was the way they had handed it to him. and we were not supposed to worry about it. They knew how it all worked, and this is the way they wanted it. To this day, we still are not sure who they were—all we know is that we were not among them. Isolating us in this manner was a crippling decision. most of all because very few people could interpret Walt for anyone else. So the handouts were carried out on a kind of assembly line basis: one animator would pick up three or four scenes that were ready, and then when the next man ran out of work he would pick up the next three scenes. We became interchange able—even though we were all very different.
For the animators who were more concerned with drawing or technique or visual effects, this worked out well enough since they had little interest in story or character delineation, figuring that was the job of someone else. But for many of us, this stopped the further development of character animation. With this piecemeal casting, there was no way to sustain a character or even to know the precise way he should perform.
We wondered how Walt would interpret our scene. How would he see it? Would he go for the pathos or the humor here? But there was no way to find out even why the scene was in the picture. The grand idea that was supposed to simplify procedures and make it easier for each person to do his own job with a minimum of distraction had developed into a restrictive separation of the talents. We were fast losing the stimulation that had come from the team effort.
In contrast, other phases of the business continued to flourish and grow in importance. The emphasis was now on the new elements: effects, mood, music, story, style; and, even though Walt demanded as much from his animators, animation was no longer considered a frontier. As Bill Tytla said, we could make a commonplace scene interesting; we had proved we were professionals.
Few were aware of the potential for better entertainment that was being lost or the way in which these decisions were ending the progress of the art of animation. Ken Peterson!" who did see the danger, said, "The tragedy was that animation was not really recognized for what it was—the heart of the business." The shift had come just as we were beginning to realize how much could be done with this means of expression. this art form that was so fulfilling and rewarding.
Excellent animation was still being done and some discoveries were still being made, but they tended to be in the areas of refinement rather than in bold uses of
the medium. There was little inclination to experiment. We thought of safe ways to do the scenes rather than exciting ones.
This had not come about through any conscious effort to downgrade the animator or to limit his influence. To Peterson, the explanation was simple: "Two factors tended to bring about the isolation of the animator. One was the complexity of the animation production which led to a business of specialists 1 in creating new visual images on the screen], and the other was that the studio was expanding so fast."
By 1939 this expansion had forced some units to work miles away in buildings that could be leased in Hollywood. The whole Bambi unit was in a complex that once had housed another cartoon studio; one group worked in office space above the Ontra Cafeteria near Hollywood and Vine. At a time when we needed the stimulation of our friends, we were farther apart.
The moving of these units to other quarters did nothing to relieve the congestion in the main building where all of us were squashed together worse than ever. And having so many separate units working so far apart stretched the production procedures to the snapping point. The principle of squash and stretch that had built the studio was beginning to have a new meaning.
But soon we would leave the jumble of buildings on Hyperion Avenue, so full of memories, successes, failures, discoveries. We were sentimentally attached to those structures that contained so much magic, the rooms that had seen so many ideas develop, the buildings where so many of us took our first eager steps. Still, we were anxious to be rid of the annoyances and excited about all being back together again under one roof. In 1939 the move began to the glorious new studio out in Burbank. There, the explosion that had begun on Hyperion would be contained.
As the number of employees increased. Walt had less time for the personal contact that had been so important to the guidance and stimulation of his creative personnel. His time was concentrated on new ideas, the next picture, needed innovations, and planning for the future. The art classroom had been converted to a larger, fancier projection room known as Sweatbox 4. and Walt spent many hours there, leaving the routine work on the pictures to his supervisors and directors in both story and productions.
Instead of having the stimulating sessions with Walt in either story meetings or sweatboxes, the animators were now getting everything secondhand, if at all.
Frank Thomas and Milt Kahl started to improvise a lament which began, "Oh, Miltie-pie," (the friendly byname bestowed on Milt years earlier because of his explosive personality). "If / should die. please bury me in Sweatbox 4. Although I'm dead. I'll hear what's said, lying there beneath the Poor."
Before the specific annoyances could be incorporated into verse and melody, everyone moved to the new studio in Bur bank. Here, the elite meetings were not held in the sweatboxes, but in one of two identical projection rooms called 3C-11 and 3C-12!" with the second being the more important because it was right next to Walt's office. Now there was more than a closed door separating the animators from the knowledge of what Walt was expecting. There were two floors of magnificent building between them. Quickly the song recorded their problems.
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