Monday, March 13, 2006

Disney in the Seventies (Part II)

Woolie Reitherman Left: Woolie Reitherman and Steve Hulett, March 1985 Woolie Reitherman was my boss for the first two and a half years I was at Disney. But Woolie was everyone's boss, from inbetweeners to animators to background artists to story men. He was the Captain of the department. And Woolie looked every inch the Captain. Six feet two inches tall, a full head of salt-and-pepper hair, leading man profile. By the time I came to know him the profile had gotten craggy in a Mt. Rushmore kind of way. Woolie was fond of running shoes, white pants and Hawaiian shirts. (The Hawaiian shirt fashion taste pre-dated John Lasseter's by a couple of decades.) Woolie came to Disney in the early thirties, a half decade older than most of the other animators, and worked on all the early features. He was the guy who animated the Magic Mirror in Snow White ("I worked like hell on that damn character," he told me, "folding the paper in half to get the face and head proportions right, sweating out the facial expressions. Then Walt went and put a damn distortion glass over the animation...") Woolie left the studio at the start of World War II to enlist in the Air Corps. He was Vice Commander of the Burmese airlift and flew airlines after the conflict ended. Walt persuaded him to come back to the studio during a short visit, and after that Woolie's rise was rapid. By the late fifties, he was a sequence director on Sleeping Beauty. When I met him he was finishing work on The Rescuers, one of the studio's better post-Walt animated features. I started working for him on The Fox and the Hound (my fellow writers were Larry Clemmons, another old-timer, and Earl Kress) and found myself involved in long, Reitherman story sessions. Woolie thought nothing of having a couple of animators -- usually Frank and Ollie -- and the writers in a semi-circle around his big director's desk -- where we would beat a half-dozen pages of a sequence script to bloody pulp working and re-working it. Woolie would chomp on his unlit cigar, peering at someone's deathless prose. Then he'd say he had an idea to change the deathless prose with his deadly: "This isn't any good, but what if we..." and he would launch in to some new approach. He used the "This isn't any good..." so often that Mel Shaw, another of the Hyperion veterans, finally said in exasperation: "If it isn't any good, why are you bothering us with it?" Woolie, of course, ignored the comment and plunged right on. Woolie was relentless in pounding an animated sequence "into shape." He was a keen editor of an animator's work, paring it down, focusing it. He would sweat box rough animation relentlessly. He thought nothing of holding eight-hour story sessions. At the end of them, the twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings around his desk would be exhausted. Seventy-something Reitherman would hop up from the desk as if he'd spent a couple of minutes day-dreaming and stroll out the door for home as fresh as a new-cut rose. Woolie also didn't beat around the bush. If he liked something you knew it, and if he didn't you knew that, too. Once, when I had brought down the fruits of several days labor, he flipped through my script pages and announced to a room full of people: "Well, I don't know what anyone else thinks of Hulett's stuff, but it sure leaves me cold!"


willipino said...

thanks for sharing. i look forward to hearing more.

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