Now that we have navigated through the Ward Kimball interview, we turn to another of Disney's Nine Old Men, Eric Larson.
Eric worked as an animator and director over a fifty-plus year career, all of it at Walt Disney Productions. Animator, director, mentor, teacher, Eric did it all. I talked to him on April 19, 1978, at 1:50 p.m. in his office (aren't you glad you asked?). As with the other interviews I've recently put up here, this one centered on "Pinocchio"...
On Walt Disney and his studio -- 1938 and 1978
Eric Larson: I don't know how different the atmosphere around here was forty years ago. I do know that everybody was of one thought, and that was to do something good. We all had egos, but Walt had a way of taking those egos and making them work together as a team, and not destroying those egos.
Now that kind of ability doesn't come very often. And Walt's enthusiasm for things was absolutely out of this world. You'd take the most ordinary thing, and if he was enthused about it, you became enthused about it, and I think that's where, if there's a difference [between then and now], that's it.
And here's another thing, see. This guy had the ability to take you into a story meeting, or three or four animators into a sweat box with a reel of film, with a thing they'd been working on, and in ten minutes he could tear the whole damn thing apart. And in another forty minutes he could completely rebuild it so you had something concrete and solid.
And we don't have that talent anymore. What the hell, I don't see why we should avoid talking about it, of this ability that he had. His effort for perfection, his whole feeling was, and this came off of Pinocchio strongly: Perfection is something you keep your eyes on, something you strive for, and once in awhile you attain it.
And tradition meant a heck of a lot to him. It was a big tradition to get something good, that the audience could enjoy, and he wouldn't give up on that. He'd change deadlines and everything else, because he wasn't happy with what was being done. He'd settle back and take more time with it... He wanted a product.
"Pinocchio" today would be impossible to make. They wouldn't spend the amount of money that would be necessary. We just wouldn't do it now. Where in the world would you ever get the underwater effects? Where in the world would you get the ocean effect, the water effect when Pinocchio and Gepetto were on the raft, escaping from the whale?
You know this guy Josh Meador* was a nut. He was absolutely dedicated. And the kinds of people with his talent, you don't very often find. He was so dedicated and observing and analytical, and his sense of timing for [effects animation] was terrific. He shot stuff in slow motion so people could study just exactly how water or milk or any substance of varied density would break up if something was tossed into it. So that the rest of the crew would know exactly how it would break up. All you have to do is look at that underwater stuff, and you realize that he really passed that information on to a lot of people. By the time we got to "Fantasia," we had sixty four people in the effects department alone. We had about twelve hundred people in animation
Like some guy said at lunch today, it wasn't a case of money, it was a case of product. And it wasn't one of the creative people who said that today either, it was one of the lawyers out of the legal department. We started talking about the things we're putting out now, and the things we were putting out then, and the comment was that Walt was after the perfection of good entertainment.
Money was a secondary thing with him. He knew you had to have it, but as soon as he got it, he put it back into the business, until about 1958, 1960 when he started to worry about it because they brought in people from the outside who talked him into the value of money. But I don't think, until that time, that he gave a damn. He wanted to pour it back into the business to get the very best that he could.
Walt never forgot anything, he was always reaching out. He never stopped. Even though he was thinking about EPCOT, I'll bet he didn't overlook the cover of one of those damn telephone directories we got. And you'd better write [what he said to you] down, because he would remember, so you'd better remember.
* Josh Meador was head of effects at Disney, jumped to supervisor over the heads of some senior employees (who weren't happy about it) in the late thirties. He and my father were close friends and long-time painting compadres. Away from the studio, Ralph H. painted watercolor landscapes; Josh specialized in oils and acrylics. Josh was the co-winner of the Academy Award for special effects for "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea."