Saturday, March 11, 2006

Disney Animation in the 70s (Part One)

(Kind of a Disney theme going on...)
I started working at Disney Feature Animation in '76.  Back then, Walt Disney Productions was a sleepy backwater in movie land, turning out family oriented live action ("Herbie the Love Bug II," "Gus, the Goal Kicking Mule") and one animated feature every three or four years.
The animation staff numbered between 170 and 200, depending on the requirements of production.  A number of animation vets from the Hyperion days were still around.  Woolie Reitherman, who looked like a cross between John Wayne and Randolph Scott, was the kingpin who ran the animation division.  Originally an animator, he'd been a feature director since the fifties and he ran the division -- just as he had since Walt's death in 1966 -- with a firm hand. I'd get to know him well over the next three years.
Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston were directing animators who'd been at the studio almost as long as Woolie.  Frank was lean, stooped and owlishly wry; Ollie was quiet and soft-spoken.  Don Bluth, another lead animator, was the youngest of the group. He was in his late thirties and clearly being groomed to take over the operation somewhere down the road. (Exactly when, management didn't know.  Woolie looked like he'd easily last another fifty years.)
I got hired as a trainee on a crisp Fall day and was immediately dropped into Don Bluth's lap.  For the next three months Don was my mentor and Mother Hen, nudging me along the story development path.  At the moment I arrived, Don was deep into directing animation for "Pete's Dragon," on which the studio was pinning a lot of its 1977 box office hopes, and he had better things to do than nursemaid a trainee who was likely to be jettisoned after the probation period was up. 
I became aware that I was way down Don's list of priorities the afternoon I went to his big, first-floor animator's room to show him some work in progress.  He had thumbed through half my script pages for "Clarence the Constipated Caterpillar" -- or whatever exercise the studio had me working on -- when Ken Anderson entered with designs for Elliot the Dragon (the cartoon character in the film).  Ken was another Hyperion veteran, hyper-talented, and, as I would later find out, more tightly wound than a premium Swiss watch.  He handed his drawings to Don and beamed: "I've improved the character designs.  I've put purple tufts on the ends of Elliot's ears.  Better, don't you think?"
Don smiled and waxed enthusiastic over Elliot's new purple ear tufts.  Ken departed wearing an elated expression.  As soon as the door clicked shut, Don lost his smile and turned to a young animator named John Pomeroy who'd been sitting in a corner of the room.
"John?  What does Ken think he's doing?  We can't change the designs now.  We've got the character locked down and footage handed out.  We've got a scene in color.  I don't know why he's doing this..."
Don went on in this vein for a couple more minutes.  It might have been longer, but I didn't stick around to check, because I figured out that my Caterpillar pages were no match for Elliot's ear hair and departed. 
I was just beginning to learn about the work dynamics and the personalities that inhabited Disney animation.


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