Robin Hood

This was hardly a visit I planned but early in 1971 I decided to stop in at the Walt Disney Studio in Burbank. My old VW Squareback was in an auto shop in nearby Glendale so I had time on my hands. Since I was stuck in the San Fernando Valley what would I do with a few hours on my hands? Since the Disney Studio was nearby I decided to stop in and see what was going on.

I hadn't thought much about Disney since my brief stint on "Bednobs and Broomsticks." However, returning to Disney was a good deal like visiting a university you had once attended. And, like a university campus little had change since my last visit. My old boss, Andy Engman was nearing retirement but he still occupied his first floor office ajacent to B-Wing. Andy seemed pleased to see me and was eager to share what was going on at seventies Disney. The new animated feature film, "Robin Hood" had been greenlit for production and a number of animators were beginning to explore the characters. Characters have a habit of evolving over the course of the production and these early versions of Robin Hood and Little John still had a long way to go. Eventually, they would go to Milt Kahl for his thoughts and revisions.

I wandered into D-Wing where I once had my office back in the sixties before moving into story. In those days, directing animators, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston were still hard at work at the drawing board. The two Disney masters were having such a great time exploring the character of Prince John and Sir Hiss (the snake) they couldn't wait to show me what they were doing. Animation was still in my blood and I couldn't help but consider returning to Disney's animation department to work on these wonderful characters. Of course, one might ask why I wanted to return to animation after already having a successful stint in Walt's story department? Well, I still loved animation and at the time it still seemed more attractive than story. Some might have considered me a little nuts for thinking like that.

Nearly a year later I did return to the animation department of the Walt Disney Studios and moved in an office near the rear of B-wing. Oddly enough, the very wing where I began my animation career over a decade earlier. I shared the office with a nice bearded young man named, Terry. Old veteran, Johnny Bond still picked up the time cards on Friday afternoons and it would appear that nothing at Disney had changed since my absence. However, I would soon find out how wrong I was. Not long after my return to the Walt Disney Studio, Walt's older brother, Roy O. Disney suddenly passed away. And, with the passing of Roy, things would never be the same. I'll tell you why in another post.


Television Commercials

While we're on the subject of animated television commercials take a look at this painted cel from a cream cheese animated spot we did back in the seventies. This elaborate cel was inked and painted by hand. Not only did we have to animate all the elements in this scene, the final drawings had to be hand inked and painted one cel at a time. As could be expected, the stack of painted cels ended up in the studio dumpster once photographed and approved.

I fished this loan cel out of the dumpster just so I would never forget how much time and energy went into producing this television spot. Again, I'll remind you this was a drawing that was being animated. Just imagine how many drawings had to be made and how many cels had to be painted. There were no short cuts in the old days. No computer, no Xerox, it was a hand made process and technology was still decades away.

I can't help but feel somewhat nostolgic about the animated process in the old days. It was a time when ideas had to be communicated by art and imagination and there were few tricks one could apply to simplify the process. It usually meant a lot of drawing and a lot of painting by people drawn to this very special and quirky way to earn a living. Even though we often worked hard and frequently burned the midnight oil, we seemed to enjoy every minute of it.

There was little time to bask in the glory of one's accomplishments. Before the animated commercial was being shown on your television set (more than likely in black&white) we were already on to our next assignment. More often than not it would be something completely different with a whole new set of technical and artistic challenges. That was the world of cartoon animation I fondly remember. Days I doubt we'll ever see again.


Charlie the Tuna

Here’s a bit of animation history for you. It’s the hand drawn variety, of course. Back in the seventies I was lucky enough to work with some very talented people at a Studio City commercial house known as FilmFair. There were amazing designers in house such as Bob Kurtz, and veteran animators like Ken Champin. Back in those days all animation was created with pencil and paper and inked and painted by hand. We even had our own in house camera department, and the old gentleman who operated our animation camera had once worked for Walt Disney on the classic motion picture, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

I worked on several commercial accounts, but one of our favorites was for a canned tuna product that was hawked by our own animated tuna named, Charlie. Charlie’s memorable voice was provided by character actor, Herschel Bernardi and I honestly can’t remember how many “Charlie” commercials we did, but it was a fair amount.

Those of you old enough to remember the smarty pants tuna probably guessed he was based on a popular comedian of the time named, Phil Silvers. Perhaps the studio was unable to secure the services of Mr. Silvers so they went with a sound alike instead. In any case, Herschel did a darn good job of voicing the continually disappointed tuna as he tried endlessly to be caught. There was always the tag line, “Sorry, Charlie” as our eager fish was once again declined the opportunity to end up on the dinner table.

As I said, we did several “Charlies” during my time at FilmFair and I remember the job was always fun. Plus, the whole thing was created in house including the animation, clean-up, and background painting. Even the ink and paint was done in the compact little studio on Ventura Blvd. in Studio City. The one exception was the storyboards and they were usually created by the agency.

I have fond memories of FilmFair and the delightful animated television commercials I worked on. Each commercial was turned around in a few weeks and that meant no job ever dragged on endlessly. That’s what I love about animating television commercials. You didn’t have to wait years to see your finished product. Each production, from start to completion would only take three to four weeks and we could then view the finished spot in full color in the studio screening room. For this old animator it was much more satisfying than working on a “big deal” animated feature film. Those bloated, over-hyped corporate products tend to drag on forever.


The Little Mermaid Reunion

It was a grand and glorious evening in the San Fernando Valley some years ago. It was a celebration of sorts. A getting together of the talented artists, animators, writers and directors who created a marvelous motion picture that in many ways saved Walt Disney Animation. Of course, I’m speaking of the Walt Disney feature motion picture, “The Little Mermaid.”

I don’t know whose idea it was, but it was a good one. One might have thought that the Disney Company would embrace such a brilliant gathering, but that was not the case. In any event whoever brought this incredible talent together for one very special evening deserves thanks from everyone who loves the art of animation. And, Disney animation in particular. It was a special time of reflection and the memories of amazing accomplishment under extraordinary circumstances.

Creating this remarkable motion picture was hardly a cake walk. The Disney Company had just moved through a troubled time and was still adjusting to new management. Worse, the animation department had been booted out of its own facility on the Burbank studio lot and “exiled” to nearby Glendale. Animation set up shop in a series of tacky warehouses over on Flower Street and I remember this was hardly animation’s finest hour. The atmosphere at the studio was grim and many artists felt regarded as second class citizens as Disney’s studio bosses put their emphases on the several live-action films they had in production.

However, the artists were determined to reclaim the artistry Disney was once known for and prove to the world the new crew of animation talent had the chops to make it happen. After not a few struggles, the finished film was released to glowing reviews and a box office tally that exceeded the expectations of the Disney bosses. Disney Animation was up and running and in the succeeding years the studio would deliver a series of hit films that would make the Old Maestro proud. The young men and women (some old ones, too) in the picture below are preparing for a group photograph of “The Little Mermaid” team. They created an amazing animated movie and you can bet that they have every reason to be proud of their accomplishment.