Sunday, October 01, 2006

Wilfred Jackson SPEAKS -- Walt Disney and the early features

Wilfred J. and Marge Belcher (aka Champion) in a rotoscope frame done for "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs"

Wilfred Jackson, among Walt Disney's first employees (#13) and feature directors, gave few interviews. But here's one he did with me in 1978...

Jackson: Walt used to deal pretty directly with the animators. I was usually present, so I knew what the drift was, but they were the guys who did it.

Hulett: What role did you have as director, because I know, with Woolie today, he has the whole shebang wrapped up there.

Jackson: Well, the first couple of features we made, Walt was very actively interested, and in it up to his hilt. I think it was right after "Pinocchio" that Walt began to pull away from being so closely involved, so intimately involved with each little thing that was done.

Up until "Pinocchio," absolutely nothing happened without his being in on it. All the color models he saw before they got okayed. All the rough animation. We ran it for him before anything moved into cleanup, and ink and paint. Nothing happened without his having his finger on it.

The directors, to a limited extent, could check his own thing into it, but under Walt's very careful eye. Just as the story man, just as the animators themselves. Animation was probably the one end of it where Walt had to depend more on the animators themselves, than he did on the other functions.

Walt was a better story man than any of the storymen he could hire, he was a better director than any of the directors he could hire, but he wasn't a better animator than any of the animators he could hire. At that point ("Snow White" and "Pinocchio") the direction was very largely a matter of trying hard to get on the screen what you understood Walt to want on the screen.

Now in later years -- the transition began after Pinocchio -- but in later years there was a gradual withdrawal on Walt's part of the intimate, close working on all details with every department, and he began to leave more and more to the judgment of the animators, to the judgment of the directors, and of the story department. He controlled things along a broader base. The whole general concept was still definitely subject to his approval. When the characters were developed to his satisfaction, then it was all right to go ahead with it, but in later years we were much more on out own, and the evolution as gradually gone to the point where Woolie's doing the whole thing now.

But "Pinocchio" was done with Walt, and the directors' function was still very much as it was all during the thirties: a matter of working very closely with Walt and understanding what he wanted, and getting in what you could, subject to his approval. I would still time the picture, but Walt would review the timing. We'd just go through those storyboards with him, with either a music track (I don't think we had story reels then, we had rough test reels and cleanup tests) but the picture was precut before we put it in animation. And before we'd get to that stage we'd have a piano track and dialogue tracks, and point out the storyboards with them to Walt.

It was still up to the director that the sequence he was responsible for, that he saw to it that it moved through production on schedule. Especially, he had to be responsible for co-ordinating the work of the different animators. We'd have a lot of animators on one character, and there was a lead animator, but the director had the responsibility of being sure that the characters worked satisfactorily as individual characters through the picture. That still rested on the shoulders of the director. Walt looked to me for that. I know I got roasted if it didn't suit him. Maybe the lead character animator got it too, but not while I was there.

Those were the things that the director did, particularly, and to be sure that the continuity worked smoothly over scene cuts and bridges from one episode to another, where the animators would have to follow one another. It was less responsibility as compared to the producer-director situation that happened later on, where the director was really an associate producer to Walt. As compared to that, it was more a matter of really being responsible that what was on the storyboard became the picture.

Walt expected changes that would improve it, but he also expected you to get what he wanted that was on the storyboard. Later on, it became important to make a contribution on your own, to do a lot of what Walt supplied on the broader basis of seeing that the picture came off.

But when it came to judging audience values, and judging whether the thing was going to tell the story in a way the audience would enjoy, Walt really took all that on himself. I remember distinctly Walt saying after "Pinocchio" was done, "I don't ever want to work that hard on another picture like I did on 'Pinocchio' and 'Snow White'." He just about wore himself out trying to do every last little thing.


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