Friday, April 28, 2006

Disney Animation's FIRST Sub-Contracted Cartoon*

It's old hat now, but back in the early eighties Walt Disney Productions had never sub-contracted an outside company to produce animated product... (* Wait. That's not precisely true. In the early thirties, Disney had the cartoon studio Harmon-Ising do an outside short under the Disney banner. But outside of THAT...) In 1982-83, after a lengthy contract strike, rising Disney story artist Peter B. Young spearheaded the first new "Pooh" featurette in a decade. Pete found two stories in the A.A. Milne books that were very Pooh-like, also charming, graceful and with neat beginnings, middles and ends. He sold studio head Ron Miller on green-lighting the project. Frankly, I don't know how Pete managed to find good material, since I had assumed that all the best Winnie the Pooh stoires had been used up in the three featurettes that had preceded this newer one back in the sixties and seventies. (There's been bajillions of Winnie the Pooh projects since, of course. TV shows, features, educationals, you name it. Almost all of them have been produced overseas. But "Eeyore" was Number Four in the Pooh Pantheon. And actually based on episodes out of the books.) Pete got me, Ron Clements, and animation writer Tony Marino to work with him on story and boards. I had, by this time, been friends with Pete for some years, and I knew his personality and work habits real well. He tended to lay back and wait for the right moment to spring a new story idea on a director or supervisor. ("You give it to them too soon, they'll reject it," he told me. "And if you wait until everything is cast in stone, you're too late. It's like catching a wave. You've got to get out front and paddle at just the right moment." Pete had been a surfer in his youth.) This time, however, he worked with focus and energy and got the storyboards up in a couple of months, which was pretty much a record for a Disney featurette, and he intertwined the two Milne tales like a master weaver. I was amazed, but I shouldn't have been. Pete wasn't reporting to anyone; he was the boss, and it was his butt that was on the line. At the end, it was just Pete and Ron Clements fine tuning the story and finishing the boards, but there was a problem looming. "Mickey's Christmas Carol," then wrapping up, had cost a LOT of money, and management informed us that, to cut costs, they were farming out the animation, backgrounds and ink-and-paint to Rick Reinert Productions. This caused unhappiness and consternation with a lot of young animators. The studio had never farmed out a project before (I mean, who remembered the Harmon-Ising thing from 1932?) and damnit, such a thing just wasn't DONE. Pete didn't like it, but he swallowed hard and accepted management's edict. Better a completed project done by an outside entity than no completed project at all. But Ron Clements was wildly unhappy about the turn of events, thought the idea of subcontracting abhorrent, and took his name off the credits. Your Truly wasn't thrilled either. But Yours Truly was a credit whore, and if a credit was due him, he wanted it. No matter what the quality of the picture was. In due course, the new Pooh featurette came out, and no doubt has made Disney a tidy sum during the last twenty-five years. It doesn't have the gloss and subleties of its older, more expensive siblings, but it's an entertaining enough half hour. But I'm also pretty sure that Ron Clements still has no regrets about taking his name off the credits.


Anonymous said...

Trivia: Future Lion King director Rob Minkoff did freelance animation on the project while still a Cal Arts student, as did future Pixar story head Dan Jeup.

Jerry Beck said...

Of course the FIRST Disney sub-contracted cartoon was MERBABIES in 1938 (Harman-Isaing's Studio produced this Silly Symphonies short).

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