Disney Sweatbox


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Walt had to have a way to see the animation before it went into his pictures. He could flip the scenes and study the drawings on the pegs, but the only way he really could tell how they would look was to have the drawings filmed. This was known as a "pencil test," and it gave both Walt and the animator a chance to study the action and make corrections before the scene was inked and painted.

Ub Iwerks had devised a way to look inside an old projector while the film was running, eliminating the need for a screen and viewing room, and the men stood in line to see the effect of their drawings on film. It was not long before this innovation was contributing so much to the making of the films that a standard film-cutter's viewer made by the Moviola Company was purchased. This had an enlarging lens, and two people with their heads pushed close together could watch at the same time.

When the new addition was made to the studio in 1931, the space under the stairwell was saved for a place to see the pencil tests. Prior to that, the men had shielded the lens from the light by their coats or their hands, or by placing the machine in a corner and hanging a curtain from the ceiling. This kept the area dark enough, but made very cramped quarters for the two or three people squeezed inside. That was nothing compared to the new little closet under the stairs.

By this time, as many as five or six people would check the scenes together, as Walt showed what he liked about the work in a scene; or. more often, what he did not like. It was inevitable that someone would refer to the enclosure as a "sweatbox." Then as more men were hired more machines were needed, and these were placed where they could do the most to speed up production—the space under the stairs was no longer convenient enough. The old term prevailed, however, and as scenes were cut together into whole reels of pencil tests, the animator went to "sweatbox" when he saw his scenes with the director. From there, it was a small step for the term to become a verb. Even though by 1934 there were two full-fledged projection rooms with air conditioning and comfortable chairs, animators asked, "Have your scenes been sweatboxcd yet?" or sometimes said, 4'I better not have a beer for lunch, they're sweatboxing my stuff today."

In these sessions, the purpose is to be sure that everything is working, whether it is the acting, the action, or the stage directions. If the scenes arc good, more business may be added to make them even better; if they arc wrong, changes are called for, but always with an eye to saving as much as possible of what has been done. Animation is expensive, and the morale of the animator is critical to a good result. Still. Ham Luske.6 the first supervising animator, always cautioned the young artists, "Never make a small change. When they ask for a change, they're thinking of a big one . . . something that will really make a difference; otherwise they wouldn't mention it."

Walt knew what made a scene play and could explain it to the animator so that he would understand. There were many times when Walt was undecided on what direction to go, but once he saw a scene of animation he could quickly analyze why the action was not as entertaining as it should have been. The following excerpt from sweatbox notes dated March 25, 1937, show how minutely he went into each scene. This was Fred Moore's animation of Doc and Grumpy arguing about whether Snow White should be a guest in their house:

Sc 24B Shoot a corr. ruff

Punch Doc's poking Grumpy more.

Get a nervous head on Doc to "WHO'S A ..." he is mad at the start and you have him calm down too much.

As Grumpy says "AW SHUT UP" have Doc jump back (just a little) in a fighting pose, dropping his fanny and getting a stretch in the legs. ... get a spring in his legs and fanny wiggle (as Walt demonstrated) while in the fighting pose. Sweatbox notes such as these were taken down by the Music Room secretary, and it was no easy job. Explicit as they sound, the discussions that led up to the final decisions were full of alternate possibilities and attempts to find corrections that the animator understood and liked. No one talked slowly enough for complete notes to be recorded, and much of the terminology was in words no one new to the business would use. While the secretary was trying to rephrase the thoughts so her notes would be clear, she would hear Walt saying. "Yeah. I think that's your best bet . . . y'know? . . . like we talked it there ... do it like that and we'll sec how it looks . . . whaddya think?" and she would know that one of the ways had been agreed upon. Which one?

To anyone not in the meeting, the sweatbox notes made no sense whatsoever; and to those of us who had been there it was still a mystery most of the time, since the unfortunate secretary had gone through her notes and tried to use her own memory for the parts she thought she understood, to make it all mean something. If she was questioned about some of these rather personal decisions on her part, the normal response was, "Well, you were there, weren't you?" said in a thin, piercing, and slightly threatening voice.

Wall gradually turned over the "nuts and bolts" of making everything work properly to the directors, and devoted his own time to the bigger ideas. This did not mean that he let things slip by or did not notice what each man was doing. Not at all! He merely realized that if he told a supervising animator or the director how he thought a particular thing should be. they should be able to see that it was done that way. After all. he had trained us carefully over the years by going over every last frame in each scene—not once, but maybe fifty times—until we had all seen clearly what was to be done.

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