Saturday, April 08, 2006

And Then There Was Ken...

Ken Anderson after his retirement from Disney. He was one of the animation department's most talented artists for four decades. Ken Anderson retired from Disney at the end of the seventies. Ken was a pillar of the animation department for over thirty years, doing layouts, storyboards, character designs, and whatever else needed to be done.... Ken was a master with pen and paper. He was the art director responsible for the ground-breaking look of "101 Dalmations," where layouts and backgrounds were seamlessly integrated with the then-new Xerox system transferring animators' original drawings directly on to cels. And nobody worked harder than Ken. Pete Young and Vance Gerry worked with Ken on boarding sequences of "Pete's Dragon," and told me the story about how Ken went home sick one day with a bad cold. They said he could barely keep his head up, and was out the entire week. But two days after Ken went home, story drawings of Elliot the dragon began arriving from Ken's house. Vance and Pete would dutifully pin them to a storyboard, and the next day more drawings would arrive. And the following day still more drawings. This went on the rest of the week. And when Ken Anderson returned to work the following Tuesday, Vance and Pete realized he had done more work than either of them. While home sick. If you were a visitor to the studio, Ken always had time to show you his boards and drawings, to sit and chat about his latest projects. One of my closest friends once gushed to me how, when he visited the studio one day, Ken spent an hour ushering him around his large office, warm and avuncular, pointing out all the different properties Ken was working on. But if you were a studio staffer who had to work with Ken Anderson, it was a little different. Ken could to say this?...unpleasant. In the same way Herman Goering could be unpleasant. A year after starting at Disney's, I was pulled off "The Fox and the Hound" to work with Ken on developing a project called "Catfish Bend," which was a series of children's books about animals living on the banks of the Mississippi. They were a lot like the characters -- Bre'r Fox, Bre'r Rabbit -- in "Song of the South." Ken was enthusiastic about the book's potential when he sat me down in his big office my first day of work on the project. "Steve," he said, piercing me with his bright blue eyes, "we're going to make a feature here that's so rich, so full of unique characters, that the studio will have to make it..." I told him I was excited to work with him. He beamed at me. "I think this will work out well, Steve. But there's one thing. We can't let anything we're doing get back to Woolie Reitherman. Woolie's always trying to steal everything..." I thought that sounded a little strange, since everything was owned by Disney anyway, but I said sure, of course, whatever he wanted. Ken proceeded to show me what he had already cobbled together. There was a rough continuity on storyboards that covered the walls of his office. He had taken bits and pieces of three different "Catfish Bend" books and strung them together. Lots of it was terrific: adventure, comedy, and pathos, all drawn up in Ken's expressive drawing style, but there were a couple of problems. "Catfish Bend" was episodic to start with, and Ken's version of it meandered all over the place. Plus Ken had three sets of villains that were essentially the same: weasels in a hunting club, country river rats, and city wharf rats. They all had long snouts, ropey bodies and small, sinister eyes. And they all performed pretty much the same function. They were the bad guys. I suggested to him that we drop two sets of villains and concentrate on one. Just use, say, the weasels with their shotguns, make them the antagonists who threaten our heroes from beginning to end. Ken frowned and said: "No, Steve. I don't think that would be a good idea. We need all those characters." So I tried to work with Ken's three sets of villains. I gave Ken ideas, some of which he used, many of which he didn't. My main task became writing up a long treatment of Ken's story. I quickly learned that Ken didn't want me to deviate from what he'd already concocted. I also learned that Ken was happiest when I told him how wonderful his drawings were. Time slogged along. I finished a treatment I knew didn't work very well. A few elements were smoothed out, but there were still those three sets of almost-identical baddies. Frustrated, I asked Ken if I could write a second treatment; he reluctantly said yes. I stayed late three nights running to rework everything, keeping most of Ken's best set-pieces. I gave Ken the new draft on a Thursday afternoon. Friday morning he summoned me to his office. His blue eyes were frosty as he paced. "I read...your new treatment, Steve, and..." He searched for the right words. I sat in a chair, waiting, looking up at him. Listening to my heart thump in both ears. Finally he turned and bent down to me. "You must have something against me, Steve. Because I know I have something against you. You took out important characters." I stammered that I just wanted to run a different approach by him, but I could put it back just the way he wanted. His breathing settled down a little. "Fine, okay. You do that." He straightened up and I fled his office. I steamed back to my desk and typewriter and banged out a new treatment exactly the way he ordered. But the cement was already hardening around my ankles. A couple of days later, Don Duckwall, the administrative head of the animation department, asked me to come to his office. "It's not working out with you and Ken," Don said. "I'm going to put you back on "The Fox and the Hound." I think that will be best for everybody." And so I returned to work for Woolie Reitherman on his project. But it didn't surprise me. I had discovered in my months with Ken that he was a tough guy to work for. So I was surprised when, week later, I ran into Ken in the hallway and he looked downright distressed. "Steve. I don't know why they did that, taking you away from me. I really need help with the treatment." I was flattered that he still wanted to work together, but I told Ken I didn't think that the department would authorize me to split my time, since I was assigned to Woolie's unit five days a week. Ken sighed. "Well, do you think you could write on "Catfish Bend" after work? Until it's shaped up and finished? I'd really appreciate it." I said sure, no problem, happy to help out one of the pillars of the studio. And I plunged back into "Catfish Bend" after regular working hours, helping Ken Anderson achieve his vision. For no additional money, since the studio wasn't authorizing it. This went on for a few weeks, until the afternoon that story artist Pete Young -- who was generally plugged into every rumor circulating through the department -- asked why I was still working for Ken. "Because he asked me to," I said. "I'm helping him with the "Catfish Bend" treatment at night." Pete smiled and shook his head. "You're an idiot. Ken went up to Don Duckwall a few weeks ago and tried to get you fired, said you weren't helping him at all. So Don moved you back to Woolie's group. Ken just wants a flunkie to work for him for free." In shock, I went to see Don Duckwall. Don confirmed what Pete had said. I returned to my office feeling nauseous. I picked up my stack of "Catfish Bend" treatment pages and carried them back downstairs to Ken, saying I didn't think it was a good idea for me to work on the project without official authorization. Ken seemed genuinely surprised. "Gee, it was going pretty well, Steve. I'm sorry you won't be helping me anymore." I shrugged and grunted and climbed the stairs back to my office. Beyond saying "hi, how are you," I never talked to him again.


Tom Dougherty said...

I'm sorry you had to put up with that. That's disgusting. What a hack POS.

Anonymous said...

Sorry you had to put up with that. Like many of the "Disney Giants," Ken was a complicated guy. He was always nice to me, but I heard other stories as well.

We hired Ken to work with us on a project after he had retired from Disney. His work was brilliant as always, but like I said, he was a complicated guy.

Steve Hulett said...

I told Ward Kimball the story related here. His response:

"Oh, Ken was always like that. When he was a trainee in 1934, he'd get red in the face and fall down if he thought somebody was going around him..."

OTOH, he was a hell of an artist.

Nick Sung said...

That's an amazing story Steve--Sorry you had to endure that, it must have been stressful.

On the other hand, I find the TAG blog full of terrific insights into animation past and present--and it's because of stories like these. Keep it up and thanks!


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