"Get a good idea, and stay with it. Dog it, and work at it until it's done, and done right." - Walt Disney

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Touch of Halloween

As the leaves begin to change here in Southeastern Pennsylvania, my love for this time of the year starts anew. Our home is once again decorated with the warm colors of fall, and seasoned with a bit of Halloween mischief. During the day, my wife's season decor appears vibrant in color and almost warm to the touch. A walk into our home could easily lead one to assume that a pumpkin pie must surely be baking from somewhere in the kitchen. At night, the little faces of wood carved ghosts and the smiles of friendly pumpkins are accented by the orange glow of a nearby light, and I can't help but smile myself as I take it all in.

I, too, have my fair share of Halloween displays - most of course brought to life by the many characters that make up my growing Disney collection. Halloween has always brought fond memories for me, thanks largely to the many spooky stories and films introduced to me as a child by my parents. I'll never forget the night when my mother and I watched Disney's "Halloween Hall O' Fame" hosted by the fanatical, Jonathan Winters. As I recall, Winters was cast as a Disney Studio security guard, working the graveyard shift within a building on the studio lot. He comes across many interesting treasures, one mainly being a talking pumpkin that introduces the classic 1949 Disney short film, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. My introduction to this cartoon not only entranced me as a child, but it has become an annual staple of the Randle household this time of the year. In fact, I never pass up the chance to share this classic cartoon with each of my third grade classes - hoping that they, too, will keep the story alive someday.

My exploration of Disney history has taken on many forms, one of them coincidentally being the collection of information and memorabilia linked to the Sleepy Hollow segment of Disney's 1949 classic, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Sadly, very little has been written about this Disney cartoon, but once in a while, a book will share some of its wonderful preliminary work painted by the prolific, Mary Blair. Her contributions to Sleepy Hollow are present throughout the entire film. Blair's inspirational paintings not only capture the sleepiness of the town, but the terror that awaits the arrival of a melancholy school master deep within the woods. In fact, Sleepy Hollow is one of the few Disney films to utilize Blair's unique style in its background paintings. Criticisms aside, I feel Blair's background style definitely compliments the animated characters of Sleepy Hollow, and adds a sort of uniqueness and richness that couldn't be achieved in the hands of others. I applaud her artistic interpretation of this classic tale - it's one of the main reasons why I view the cartoon annually.

Just when I thought that the Disney version was the only great rendition of Irving's haunted tale, I made another discovery. At this time of the season three years ago, my wife and I were spending the day in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania - admiring its quiet, village-like atmosphere and perusing the many shops that line its back streets. It was in one of those hidden, little shops where I made my discovery - her name, was Christine Altmann.

There before me was a beautifully painted picture by Altmann, depicting Ichabod Crane's flight from the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow. It captured not only the true terror and intensity of the moment, but the eerie beauty of the forest that surrounded it. From the glowing full moon upon a midnight sky, to the orange leaves that bear witness to Ichabod's escape - everything about this painting lured me in, a piece at a time. It's artistic style in fact reminded of Mary Blair's preliminary work at first glance, yet the approach of each artist is very different. Nevertheless, I knew this piece had to be mine, and since then it has become my most prized piece for this time of the year. This would not be the last time that Altmann's work would cross my path.

Nearly two weeks ago, my wife and I took a day off to once again enjoy the annual fall craft show held at the Knoebel's park area in north-central Pennsylvania. Among all of the craft vendors and booths that were there, my eye happened  to catch one in particular - one that sent back the wave of a very fond memory. The work was undeniably hers, and at the sight of seeing her name signed in the lower-left corner, I knew I had to take another piece home. To my great surprise, I soon discovered that the local artist was there, sharing her work with all who attended. It was a pleasure speaking with Christine about Sleepy Hollow and our mutual fondness for this time of the year (and black cats). Her love for painting and Halloween is genuine, and brings so much more meaning to her work. Not only did I buy another piece of hers, but she graciously allowed me to take a picture with her to add to memories that her work has brought me. It has been a delight experiencing this connection come full circle.

On the tag of my newly acquired piece, "Burning Leaves", Altmann elaborates on her love for painting:

I am for the most part self-taught. After many years working in the retail industry, I decided I needed to pursue my lifelong dream of becoming an artist. In 2006, my first client was my oldest daughter who asked me to paint coordinating wooden dresser knobs to match my little granddaughter's bedding. I have not stopped painting since. It is a joy to wake up each morning and know I will spend the day doing what I love. It was a natural choice for me to paint Halloween and autumnal themed art. Even as a child the fall season was my favorite time of the year and next to Christmas Halloween was my favorite day. I draw inspiration from the beauty of autumn, favorite stories, imagination and of course a love of Halloween.

With Christine's imagination and skill with a brush, it makes me wonder how her art could inspire the field of animation? To look at her work is to watch a story unfold right before your eyes. Christine is living proof that a picture is truly worth a thousand words.

Happy Halloween, indeed!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

English Made Disney

Knee-deep in projects brought on by World War II, Walt Disney's forced departure from his Golden Age of Animation endlessly provokes enthusiasts to ponder - "what if?" I won't deny my own inquisitive notions and sighs of disappointment when thinking of this question, however my strong interest in the Studio's work during the War motivates me to carry on. In an attempt to discover some of Disney's extremely obscure projects during this time period, I came across several intriguing articles published between 1942 and 1945.


To begin, the following excerpt is the introduction to an article entitled Education: Short Cut to Literacy - published in the June 15, 1942 edition of TIME:


First speaker: "What is Basic English? What is it for? I haven't got it clear."


Second speaker: "It's only the part of the English language which does the most work."


First speaker: "But what about us? We have thousands of other words. Isn't it very hard for us to keep to it?"


Second speaker: "We are talking Basic right now. All this we've been saying is in Basic English."


First speaker: "Well, blow me down!"


Second speaker: "You're still talking Basic."


Ivor Armstrong Richards looking over
storyboards for one of his "Basic
English" education shorts produced
by Disney (circa 1942).

Curious yet? Believe it or not, the First person was Walt Disney himself. The Second was a man I never
knew existed until stumbling across this article. His name was Ivor Armstrong Richards, and as described by TIME, he was "British co-developer and chief propagator of Basic English." Based on Richards' theory of study, Basic English of the time broke the language down into 850 words. My mission here is not to explain the origins of Basic English, but to instead share how this philosophy nurtured by Richards crossed paths with Walt Disney.

 It's no secret that during the War Disney was producing many training films for the military. The Walt Disney Treasures DVD edition entitled Walt Disney: On the Front Lines, presents information about these lost treasures, however I do not recall viewing or even reading about a series of training films made by the Studio designed to teach the English language. Walt met with I.A. Richards in mid-1942 to start the ball rolling on preliminary plans for training films of this caliber. In fact, Richards' journey to Hollywood was made possible under a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation - a supporter of Basic English at the time.

Who exactly were these training films originally targeted for? According to an article from The Evening Independent (out of St. Petersburg, Florida) published on May 15, 1942: "If the war department likes the idea, draftees found to be too illiterate to understand military instructions may be taught English with the shorts." The shorts that this article refers to were to initially amount to three films - each lasting between 10 - 15 minutes. The first experimental film of the series was apparently entitled 46 Words, Seven Verbs - instructing army-age illiterates of the time the beginnings of Basic English.


From an educator's standpoint, I not only find the meeting of these two men very interesting, but I would love to see any of the training films that they may have produced. Under the assumption that the animation would have been very limited, try to imagine a storyboard that had to be created in order to get Richards' lessons across. The Independent article makes reference to cartoon drawings designed for these shorts by underrated Disney Artist, Dick Kelsey, and describes one specifically in the following:


Then there are such sequences as this: A sketch of money and the word "money;" a woman and a man holding money; and the words "this is my money;" the man holding the currency toward a woman and the words: "I will give my money to you," and the finale "I gave my money to you."


In progressive scenes, all in black and grey and white, new words or verb tenses are emphasized to introduce them.


In conclusion, it's very possible that these shorts were produced - obviously not for the viewing pleasure of the American public. In a TIME article dated December 31, 1945, it makes reference to the fact that Richards and Disney indeed made "Basic [English] educational shorts for the Army." It's interesting to note that Richards' impact with Basic English made a significant mark on Latin America, and I can't help but wonder if Disney's involvement with the Good Neighbor Program with South America (heavily connected with Nelson Rockefeller) was what brought these two together. Either way, it's always a treat to learn something new about Walt Disney's versatile career.