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

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Starlight, Moon Bright: An Original Story


It was a night when the stars seemed to fall, one by one, from their positions in the sky, to fill the Ohio summer air with a twinkling luminescence.  Their arrival began once the purple shades of twilight receded, abandoning the land beneath to darkness.  Distant trees in the town below Windy Point soon awoke like Christmas in July, as graveyard winds from the hill’s summit cascaded a shower of winged sparks into their uppermost boughs.  

Little moon faces within little moon houses rushed to every sill to witness this nightly ritual of summer.  Upon seeing the nestled stars winking tenderly in visible trees, every pair of bare feet in every home all over the town flew to the pantries to reach hungrily for their star catchers on mountaintop shelves capped with white wisps of flour and sugar.  Away they rushed through screened porch doors and down whitewashed steps to the bristly grass of an Ohio jungle teeming with neon-green speckled, waxing and waning light, and the gentle clinking and tinkling of Mason jar glasses anxious to be filled with tomorrow’s dreams. 

The children scattered like ants between mole-hill houses, to nearby fields, and up into the branches of ancient trees to shake the waiting stars loose from moonlight limbs.  And speaking of moonlight! high in that clear and inky sky, hung that beacon of night, gazing its old man’s countenance down on that little town.  Mary Louise sensed its presence glowing on her back, as she zigzagged through the ghostly silhouettes of children clutching their star-filled jars to their heaving chests.  Down the paved hill from her home on Windy Point’s summit she descended like a feather into a well.  Arms outstretched, eyes pinched shut, wind in her hair; she floated to the outskirts of the town nestled below.  Without a moment’s hesitation, she reached with her right hand upon the leveling of the hill, not once opening her eyes, to catch the cool and familiar palm and fingers of her friend, Irene.  With an about face on naked toes, both chests inhaled a full dosage of night magic, and began their hurried ascent back to Windy Point, hand-in-hand.                

As the crowd of children thinned and the air chilled at the hill’s peak, the two girls stood catching their breath, preparing themselves for their forsaken voyage.  For peering back at them, with forgotten names long effaced by the winds of time on their slate faces, were the crooked stones of the graveyard, a sight that Mary Louise was all too uncomfortable with.  Being one of two homes to sit at the edge of the cemetery (the other belonging to the undertaker himself), Mary Louise’s bedroom window provided her with a generous view of this dismal heath.  But, what lay on the other side was a hill that sloped down into an open meadow of gold and lavender at dawn and cerulean grasses and green starlight after dusk, with the enchanted wild woods lining the outer edge clear on the opposite end.  It was this hill the two young girls longed for, and it was this hill alone that provided them with the strength needed to venture through this land of endless sleep. 

Taking each other’s hands once more, both inclined their heads to the Moon and let out a unified howl to scare wandering souls back into their graves.  Without a moment to lose, they were off at a hare’s pace, bounding through the seemingly endless track of cold stone and high grass.  Jumping at shadows and over a fallen monolith alike, they squealed like mice as they made their way to the other side.  With one final desperate leap over the hill’s rounded edge, they took flight, landing with a tumble and a roll on the inclined earth’s blue grass.  Danger now long behind them, they stretched out shoulder-to- shoulder on the curving hill, polishing the heels of their bare feet into the cool sward, and pinched each other back into existence.    

“We’re here Mr. Moon, oh! We’re here!” they cried.   

He nodded approvingly, blowing one last breeze of wing-speckled fluorescence down upon to tickle their cheeks before opening his ears to their dreams and desires. 

“What will it be tonight, Abe?  What shall we wish for?” 

“For starters,” declared Mary Louise, “stop teasing me with that terrible name!” 

“My apologies dear lady,” Irene retorted as she stood and bowed subserviently in a mocking manner, her face framed in moonlight.  She whipped around twice and craned her head to the sky.  “Hey there, Mr. Moon!  Mary Louise here wishes for a new name!”   

The nocturnal denizens in the distant woods stirred.   

Pulling her giggling friend back to the ground, Mary Louise seemed to grow heavy in heart, as if reminded of a recent premonition.  Wiping tears of laughter from her eyes, Irene settled upon sensing the immediate change in the air, and turned her head in the grass.  “Come on now, I was only teasing!  You know my father calls you that because he thought so much of your grandpa.” 

The Moon looked only on Mary Louise. 

“No.  It’s not that,” said the troubled girl.  “It’s Mammy.”  An immediate dead calm ensued in the surrounding night, as if the moon commanded all to return to their homes and the stars to the sky.  A gentle breeze licked Mary Louise’s forehead, coaxing her to breathe out the apparent worry that troubled her so.        

“What is it?” pushed her friend. 

“She’s kept me awake this past week with an awful cough,” Mary Louise surrendered, trussing her hands to her chest.  “It sounds terrible.” 

Irene’s intense stare held for a moment, and then she turned her eyes to the Moon.  “I’m sure she’s fine Mary Louise.  Have you ever heard the way my pa sounds when he has one of his spells?  You’d think the devil was trying to break loose.”     

“But your pa smokes like a chimney.  Mammy doesn’t, being a Quaker and all.”  She closed her eyes to conceal the haunting din of that dry desert cough. 

“Has she seen Doc Herb?” 

Mary Louise opened her eyes, smiling to herself.  “You know Mammy.”   

“You could help her find sense in it.” 

“She doesn’t want me to fuss.” Mary Louise explained, twirling a blade of torn grass in her fingers.  “I came close this morning, when the coughing got real bad.”  She tossed the blade.  “When she saw me coming she put on a smile and fixed me breakfast.”     

 “Why are old people so stubborn about doctors?” Irene asked, swatting a moth from her hair. “Hey!  Maybe you could talk to Doc Herb yourself.  I know he’d listen.”     

“Yeah.  Maybe,” Mary Louise said to no one in particular as her eyes took on a sudden glaze, fixed on the Moon above.  Irene turned to her friend again in sympathy.  Taking Mary Louise’s hand gently, she then too stared into the eyes of that wise, pocked expression high in the sky. 

Minutes seemed to go by for a brief eternity as the graveyard whispered the town to sleep on the other side.  And as each child crawled under the stiff cool sails of their four post ships, with bedside dreams in jars holding their vigil until morning light, Mary Louise envied them, for she knew their slumber would carry them across the cemetery and through the trees of the wild woods and down the Ohio River to Cairo and then to the Great River beyond!  Oh, how she wished she could raise her sails and join them!  But her mind was clouded by unpleasant thoughts, and she feared that her only port of call – if she slept at all – would be towards the hungry, desperate growl of the graveyard’s foghorn heard from the distant shore of her bedroom sill.  Yet, as she felt this all to be true, her eyes never stopped scanning the Moon’s surface for some answer that must be hidden in the regolith that powdered its sun beaten face.            

“Irene?” Mary Louise whispered from somewhere in a fog.  “Do you suppose he really listens?” 

“Who?” Irene asked with puzzle-piece edges forming on her brow. 

“The Moon,” her friend dragged out, clinging to the tail of an exhale.  

“Gee.  I don’t know.  I never really gave it serious thought,” Irene considered before breaking.  “Come on now Abe!  I thought we were talking about Mammy!”   

“I still am,” Mary Louise seemed to reply from somewhere far off in wide-eyed wonder, as she swept away piles of lunar dust with her Mammy’s porch broom. 

“You are not!  You haven’t said a word in ages!” 

“Am so!” returned Mary Louise for a brief moment to slap her friend’s arm.  “Listen!” 

The two girls lay quiet.  One heard what the other could not.  A cricket serenaded them with the fiddling of a song, and once the concert was through, Mary Louise gripped her confidant’s hand tighter, and began, “It’s me Mr. Moon.  Mary Louise.  And I’m afraid I need you now more than ever.”  Irene turned to her friend, now grasping the situation.   

“It’s my Mammy, you see?  She’s taken sick,” Mary Louise continued.  “There’s an awful cough in her chest.” 

The denizens in the near woods ceased their stirring.   

“She’s all I have,” Mary Louise explained.  Irene reached over with a hand to wipe away the tears brimming from her friend’s eyes.  “You must help!  She’s been there for me since I was a baby.  I know it’s serious, I just know it is!” 

The Moon seemed to ponder to itself in a still quiet, and then disappeared behind a wall of slow-coming clouds from the West.  The hour of wishes was over, and behind its soft, midnight mask the Moon registered all it had heard that night, and raked its sands smooth for others to draw their dreams upon.  For Mary Louise, however, its quick escape only seemed to seal the doom that lay ahead of her dear Mammy, leaving her fuller of questions than before. 

“I’m a fool, Irene, a fool!” the girl cried desperately to herself, thrusting palms stained after a day of blackberry picking to the sides of her head.   

“Now you stop that Mary Louise!” Irene demanded, leaning closer to console her friend.  “Now look at me.”  Although she had a difficult time seeing her with the absence of the Moon, she felt Mary Louise’s moist stare.  “These are Depression days, and you know what that can do to our thinking!  Times are bad for everyone, you know that, but it doesn’t mean we’re going to lose the ones we love too.”  She ran her fingers through her friend’s wavy, dark hair.  “Do you hear me, Abe?” 

Mary Louise lost her desperation to a smile and then gently pinched Irene’s knee.  “Oh, you’re right.  As always you’re right.”  She wiped the tears from her eyes. 

Irene sensed an amber glow coming from somewhere on the other side of the graveyard, and turned her head towards it.  “It’s getting late, we better head back.” 

“Okay then,” Mary Louise managed. 

Standing to stretch her knees, Irene reached down through the dark and pulled her friend up from the grass, now pressed in the shapes of their bodies.  Turning towards the graveyard, they took each other’s hands and raced away from their hill overlooking the meadow and the woods so deep.  It was as they came to the plain of the cemetery when they realized that the amber light was coming from Mary Louise’s bedroom window.  Mammy was calling her home as a lighthouse calls home those lost at sea.  And for the first time that night, while bounding over the resting places of those long before her, she felt a warm light fill her, the warmth of an amber glow struck and contained within a globe of glass. 

***** 

The house rose from the hill’s summit whitewashed and beautiful that night, with every window bestowed with the gift of candlelight.  Within, Mary Louise washed the blackberry memories from her hands in the kitchen basin, preparing herself for bed.  She could hear the soft movements of Mammy in silk slippers, shuffling across the hardwood floors in the next room.  “Mary Louise, are you just about finished?” she asked just as softly. 

“Yes, Mammy,” Mary Louise answered drying her hands. 

“Now you go on up a while.  I’ll be with you in a minute.” 

Mary Louise crossed the kitchen to the staircase that spiraled up into the ceiling, and ascended to her room.  As she made her way up, she could make out the muffled coughing coming from somewhere downstairs.  She froze on the top step, and closed her eyes tightly.  “Had he listened?” she asked herself for the thousandth time.  Behind and below her, she heard the gentle sweeping of Mammy on the first step.  Mary Louise was already in bed snuffing out the lantern flame in her window before Mammy made it halfway up the stairs. 

As she lay there wide awake, waiting for Mammy to arrive, Mary Louise stared intensely at the door to her room, imagining what Mammy would look like standing within the wooden frame.  With the troubling waters stirring once again in her mind, she realized to her horror, that she had forgotten what Mammy looked like entirely.  She fought with her mind, battling with reason, but she could only make out the shape of Mammy, and nothing distinct.  The harder she focused, the more she tried to envision eyes, nose, a mouth, and hair.  It was as if the very memory of Mammy was being consumed and fed to her fears, lost to darkness, becoming the dust that settles on yesterday’s memories on fireplace mantles.  And she cried. 

But, as quickly as this blackness crept upon her, it lifted with the padding of silk outside her door.  And just as a slice of Mammy came into view, a slice of the moon peaked out from behind clouds now moving to the East, fully exposing its round face to the little white house below, and into the window of Mary Louise’s bedroom.  Fully framed within the doorway, Mammy stood there like a vestige of a happier past, and it all came flooding back to Mary Louise.  She remembered! 

Her dust cap neatly in place upon her delicate head, Mammy stood in her hand sown house dress, drying her hands on her cotton apron.  My, she was a welcomed sight!  The moonlight captured all the beautiful wrinkles etched by life upon her face and the soul that still shone brightly in her eyes.  Mary Louise couldn’t take her eyes off of her, and studied her over and over again from head to foot, just in case she would forget again.  Just in case. 

And as Mammy stood there with a pensive smile, allowing her granddaughter the chance to uncover her secret dreams and fears, Mary Louise was upon her, bed sheet sailing in moonlight, her arms wrapped gently around her grandmother.  And whether the wetness on her apron was from her own hands or the tears of a child, she did not know, but she sensed the uncertainty that hung heavy from Mary Louise’s shoulders.  From the living area downstairs, she heard the old clock strike midnight, shaking the dust free from the fireplace mantle.  And with the delicate probing of a hand soft from floury years, she raised Mary Louise’s chin, and made certain that their eyes met.     

“What troubles you, dear?” 

Silence filled the room aloud with moonlight, and Mary Louise couldn’t find the words to say.  Gazing up into the deep pools of her Mammy’s eyes she saw seasons past.  She relived the carving of pumpkins and the raking of leaves under autumn-red sunsets.  She tasted the winter cream rising from the necks of snowy milk bottles on the porch outside.  She counted the birds returning north above a meadow bursting rainbow bright.  And she heard the metal springs of the immense swing recoil as she sat close to her Mammy, on that beautifully whitewashed, wraparound porch, overlooking the little town below and the mountains beyond.   

And together, no explanations necessary, they smiled, and then they laughed, and then they smiled some more.  With her head held close to her Mammy’s chest, Mary Louise listened, and she listened intently.  Under skin and bone, she could clearly make out the beating of her grandmother’s heart, pumping forth life into that delicate body.  And as she listened more, she could feel the moonlight air flow into Mammy’s chest and fill her weakened lungs.  “Keep breathing!” Mary Louise thought to herself.  “Breathe in that moonlight, Mammy, breathe it all in!”  And when there was no more moonlight to take in, Mary Louise looked first to her grandmother’s eyes and then to her dust cap. 

“Could I brush your hair, Mammy?” 

Without even answering, she took Mary Louise by the hand and led her to her room.  Sitting on the cedar chest at the end of her bed, Mammy removed her dust cap as Mary Louise situated herself behind her on the cool sheets, brush in hand.  And as she brushed the silvery river of hair that flowed well past shoulders and back, Mary Louise became lost on the silvery sands of a distant moon, and she found herself to be quite at peace. 

Suddenly, there was a click, as if the setting of an hour hand deep within her Mammy’s chest, and then, an exhale of winter onto the mirror before them.  Mary Louise ceased her brushing and looked to the winter steam that had rested upon the mirror.  Behind the steam her Mammy’s face was hidden, but around the fog was the flow of long, silvery hair.  Mammy’s shoulders quivered beneath Mary Louise, and then gradually, like the lift of a fog from the cemetery beyond, Mammy’s face was revealed within the mirror. 

Together, they looked upon the old woman’s face, and saw something that they had not seen for quite some time.  Their eyes lifted to each other – an old woman gazing upon the reflection of youth and a young girl gazing at youth restored in her Mammy.  With tears in their eyes and the soft drumming of old lungs knocked of soot and lined with moonlight, Mary Louise brushed her grandmother’s hair once more.  Over and over.

Dawn was upon them. 

The moon shook hands with the rising sun and whispered something gently to his daytime companion.  Traces of that whisper fell upon the little white house, in that small Ohio town. Through a window of the little white house, the whisper entered, tickling the edges of laced curtains.  There it settled warmly upon the bed and the faces of a granddaughter and her grandmother as they slept soundly for the first time, in quite some time, and for many more times to come.       

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Art from an Ill-Fated Teddy Ruxpin Feature

Come dream with me tonight...


Children of the 1980's may recall the famous words above by the once popular talking plush bear, Teddy Ruxpin.  For those of you who are too young, or perhaps too old, a simple search of Teddy Ruxpin on Wikipedia or YouTube will give you all the information you've ever wanted (or not wanted).  I was one of those children of the 80's, and my love for my Teddy Ruxpin plush (who I still have) was rekindled after an interview with retired animation layout artist, David High. 

High was not only a concept designer on all 65 episodes of The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin animated series (1987), but acted as art director on many of the original Teddy Ruxpin books as well.  The Ruxpin plush toy was animatronic, and when activated, read stories to its young owners.  A cassette deck was housed in the doll's back, and for each cassette that was produced a corresponding hardback, illustrated storybook was included.  In fact, the map of Grundo (the land where Teddy Ruxpin lives) found on the end pages of the books was designed by David High himself.  High worked closely on the books with the late Teddy Ruxpin creator, Ken Forsse (1936-2014). 

High then shared with me:
...We were going to be doing a feature film and it was gonna be traditional, full animation with the characters with a CGI background, which had really never been done at the time.  And, so I put together a Leica reel…to try to...build money up to do the project, and which it never really happened. 
High's reference to a Leica reel may need clarification.  A Leica reel, as described by author Christopher Finch in his The Art of Walt Disney, "provided a way of projecting story continuity drawings in synchronization with whatever part of the sound track had been prerecorded, thus giving at least a rough idea of how the final movie might look and sound."

High was tasked with the creation of art for the Leica reel for the ill-fated Teddy Ruxpin feature film.  Although the film was never produced, and the Teddy Ruxpin phenomena died with the 1980's, samples of High's art for the original Leica reel survives here thanks to the generosity of the artist himself.

Click on each image to enlarge.




Saturday, June 17, 2017

Dandelion Wine Season

It was a quiet morning, the town covered over with darkness and at ease in bed.  Summer gathered in the weather, the wind had the proper touch, the breathing of the world was long and warm and slow.  You had only to rise, lean from your window, and know that this indeed was the first real time of freedom and living, this was the first morning of summer.
From Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

Have you ever had the pleasure of reading a story that felt as if it was written just for you?  The first time I read Dandelion Wine (1957), I knew I had found a kindred spirit in Ray Bradbury.  It's a coming-of-age tale about a young boy who discovers one summer day that he is, indeed, alive.  But it is not all fictional.  The book is largely autobiographical of Bradbury's childhood growing up in Waukegan, Illinois in the late 1920's.  The feeling and meaning of the book, however, could be translated into any year and time of a young man's or woman's life. 

As a school teacher, summer marks a time of picking up the broken pieces of one's own mirror and piecing them together to allow reflection.  It has become tradition for me to read Dandelion Wine with the dawning of a new June.  Just last night I slid the book from the shelf to start my summer anew.  The opening lines, as seen above, are hypnotic for me, and permit me to place past anxieties aside and breathe in the summer wind.

Dandelion Wine drew not only from Bradbury's own childhood experiences, but from the endless depths of his imagination.  Critics have disdained Bradbury for his heavy handed use of metaphors, where many more have praised it.  Bradbury is an acquired taste, but for those that get him understand that his narratives were a product of his subconscious.  Bradbury once said in an interview, "The intellect is a great danger to creativity...because you begin to rationalize and make up reasons for things instead of staying with your own basic truth."  This is evident in the often frenetic pace of his writing style.  When you read Bradbury, you're reading his raw and unhindered emotions as they were in real time. 

Dandelion Wine is Ray Bradbury at his best.  It is a celebration of our mortal lives, but also a reminder that we all have the potential to live forever through the memories of families and friends.

Here I stop to return, once again, to the next page of a familiar friend on this summer's day.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Moldy Fig, Anyone?


Through the course of my research on animation background and layout artists, I was introduced to the term "moldy fig."  It was first offered to me during a brief phone call with Joseph De Meis.  De Meis' career in theme park art direction and design goes as far back as WED (now Walt Disney Imagineering) in 1969.  I mentioned to De Meis my research concerning the late background artist, Ron Dias (whom I'm planning to a write a biography about), and informed him of my recent interview with layout artist, Michael Hodgson.  De Meis didn't know much about Dias, but he told me to mention "moldy fig" to Michael Hodgson the next time I talk with him.

And so I did.

The term "moldy fig" - originally - refers to someone who is a purist of early jazz music.  However, the term somehow became loosely associated with animation according to artists I've talked to. When I asked retired layout artist, Michael Hodgson, about the term, he shared:
'Moldy fig' is...kind of that fat, worn, old look that Disney really captured in, well, Pinocchio (1940) would be the best example.  You know, the barrels were a little thicker and the tables were very fat and worn and stuff like that.  
Hodgson was unsure of the origin of the term concerning animation, or how well-spread it became, but knows that artists did use it.  He incorportated the 'moldy fig' style in his layout art for The Black Cauldron (1985) and in his personal pencil renderings of the past and present.

In my recent interview with animation and comic artist, Bruce Zick, I asked him about "moldy fig" and he responded, "Oh!  I haven't heard that in a long time...it's a sort of 'gingerbready' type of [style]...it's almost like a Pinocchio, Gustaf Tenggren kind of way of approaching it [layout and background styles]."

To get a real feel for the "moldy fig" style these artists were trying to describe, check out the art below from Pinocchio and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).  Observe the thick wooded furniture and architecture of the locales from the two classic films, and ask yourself, "Am I a 'moldy fig' fan?"

















Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Happy Birthday, Dino!!!

Fourteen years ago this month, my dad and I embarked on a journey that we never imagined we'd go on...

From the time I could crawl, my dad had "oldies" music playing in the background.  He played everything from Al Jolson to the Bee-Gees!  Classic cartoons often incorporated standards of the time, and my subconscious ate up each catchy melody.  Needless to say, I was born and bred on music of the past, and enjoy it very much today.

In high school, I discovered Dean Martin one night while watching a PBS special.  That's Amore (1999) was the title, and it featured clips from The Dean Martin Variety Show (1965-1974).  Rather than highlighting Martin's pratfalls, corny jokes, and his convincing portrayal as a drunk (which he was not), this special highlighted solo performances of his singing.  I remember being taken by Martin's energy and genuine sincerity as he sang.  He personified the ultimate crooner, but he was just so much damn cooler than the rest.  That Christmas, I found his greatest hits in our tree and have been listening to it ever since.

My parents obviously knew who Dean Martin was, but I'd like to think it was me who reintroduced Martin to them, and in turn, they found something in his onscreen presence that they never experienced before.  I went off to college and made no secret about my musical tastes.  I even got my roommate, Chod, into it, and that music laid the foundation for some incredible memories.  In fact, I was ballsy enough to hang this poster in our dormroom:


In the spring of 2003, my dad and I found out about an annual Dean Martin festival that was being held that June in Martin's hometown of Steubenville, Ohio.  Without batting an eye, we made reservations and hitched a ride west from outside Philadelphia on a Greyhound.  

Our favorite - and first memory - of that trip was that of our cab driver (I take that back, riding on a Greyhound bus is a memory in of itself).  The driver's nickname was "Crazy Horse," and let me tell you, he lived up to his name.  The stories he told of the West Virginian locals (Steubenville, Ohio is right near the intersection of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia) was enough to fill a book.  But he was our chauffeur, and he was at our beck and call whenever we needed him!


The festival itself wasn't anything to write home about; it was the history of the town, the people, and everyone's love for Dean Martin that drew us there.  I remember there was a false fire alarm in an apartment building on the main strip.  The firefighter got down from his ladder and blamed Martin's ghost for the prank.  When you walk the town, it looks like something out of Twin Peaks, and the remnance of its mining industry in the chiseled faces of the surrounding cliffs was palpable.  But there was a magic to it all, because it was Martin's hometown, and we were all there for a common reason.

Mural of Dean Martin on the side of a grocery store in Steubenville, Ohio.
We ate at restaurants, watched Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra impersonators, attended a live auction of genuine Dean Martin artifacts, visited the plot of land his home was on, and cheered at the town parade.  For me, it was an age of innocence that swept me back to a time that I always felt I missed out on.  One of the neatest experiences was visiting Steubenville's Historical Society, and running into Dean Martin's daughter, Deana - the grand marshal of the festivities.  What an experience!  I even had the chance to ask her a question at a Q&A later that day.  I asked, "How did your father react to his knocking the Beatles off the #1 spot in 1964 with 'Everybody Loves Somebody?'"  Her response, "He came home with such a 'big head' that we told him he'd never get out of his car."

My dad, Mel, Deana Martin, and me at the Steubenville Historical Society.
In all, it's a time I'll never forget with my father.  We talk about it still, and with Father's Day looming around the corner, and today being Dean Martin's 100th birthday, what better thing to write about than this journey I shared together with my dad.

We thank you, Dino, and wish you a Happy Birthday!!!

Me with Dean Martin impersonator, Tom Stevens.


Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Lion King Story Sketches

There are many layers to the production process of an animated movie.  It's not as simple as coming up with a story and committing drawings to paper.  It's a well thought out process; a process that involves hundreds of individuals.

One layer of the process is coming up with a solid story.  The story process itself can be broken down into several layers; one being story sketches.  For this post's purpose, let's take story artist, Thom Enriquez.  Enriquez has contributed to story elements on many of our favorite films, such as: The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Hercules (1997), Mulan (1998), and How to Train Your Dragon (2010); just to name a few.  Mr. Enriquez's impressive conceptual art for Ghostbusters (1984) was prominently presented in Ghostbusters:  The Ultimate Visual History by Daniel Wallace in 2015 (highly recommended!). 

I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Enriquez via phone from his Californian home this past week.  He talked a lot about his story contributions to The Lion King (1994).  A few days later, he followed up with an email to me that included three original story sketches he did for the film.  These sketches preceded the animation of characters.  They represent the visual elements of sequences for The Lion King in their earliest forms.  They are presented below with Enriquez's original captions intact. 


"Simba and Nala heading for the elephant graveyard."


"Scar manipulating Simba into the gorge."


"Hyenas waiting for Scars [sic] signal."



Friday, June 2, 2017

Adventures in Music and Limited Animation


Anyone who is keen on animated art certainly connects the use of limited animation with the cartoons produced by United Productions of America, better known as UPA.  For those not familiar with the term “limited animation,” it's essentially a unique form of animation that uses less drawings per frame of film.  When one watches a classic film like Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), they're viewing a film that is meticulous in movement and form, and very realistic (each second of film in Snow White amounted to 24 drawings!).  Limited animation relies on the repetition of drawings to create movement and the style is often abstract.  It's not to say that limited animation is a lesser form of art, in fact, some animators would argue that it allows for creativity that cannot be achieved in traditional animation.  UPA's 1950 animated short, Gerald McBoing-Boing is a prime example and can be viewed here:


Being more of a Disney enthusiast, I associate the beginnings of limited animation with the “Baby Weems”segment of the 1941 film, The Reluctant Dragon. 

Legendary Disney story men Joe Grant and Dick Huemer were responsible for bringing this exceptional little piece to life, and in it, the baby’s tale is mostly told with storyboard drawings rather than animation.  In an interview by Joe Adamson in the late sixties, Huemer is asked if he and Grant were fans of limited animation at the time.  Huemer responded, “Actually, Joe Grant and I invented it for ‘Baby Weems’…That was the first time that limited animation had been done.” 

One can only imagine what audiences thought of this new approach to Disney animation.  The late 30's and early 40's marked the Golden Age of the Walt Disney Studios, with the releases of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942)Moviegoers were now accustomed to seeing beautiful and expressive animation, without single breaks in fluidity.  “Baby Weems” was just a drop in the bucket for limited animation at Disney’s, however, in 1953 the studio decided to produce two films that focused on the origins of music, while utilizing the limited animation approach.  As this posting will explain, this choice of style was more for economical reasons, however, the success of the second short initially caught everyone by surprise. 

Melody (1953) is the first of these two installments in the “Adventures in Music” series, and it brings together a solid cast of Disney artists and story men; especially under the direction of legendary animator, Ward Kimball.  In addition, Dick Huemer was invited back to the studio in 1951, after being bitterly cut three years prior, to work on the story for the first special short dealing with “Adventures in Music,” along with its follow-up, Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom (1953) (Canemaker, 1999).  Huemer shared in an interview with Don Peri, “I did the story on Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, and I turned it over to Ward Kimball, who amplified what I gave him.  It was Ward Kimball’s baby then.  He greatly admired all that modern approach (Peri, 2008).”  The same was more than likely true for the initial cartoon as well.  In terms of the direction of art in these shorts, Disney could not have made two better choices. Color styles were managed by legendary artist Eyvind Earle, who would go on to implement his gothic style of art in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, and art direction was controlled by Ken O’Connor, who served as art director or layout man on thirteen features and nearly a hundred shorts (Smith, 2006).  The animators on these two cartoons included: Ward Kimball himself, the legendary Marc Davis, Julius Svendsen, Harvey Toombs, Hal Ambro, Marvin Woodward, Harry Tanous, Art Stevens, and future Imagineer, Xavier Atencio.

Looking back, Melody was actually the less successful of the two, however, it had one element that Toot did not have.  On May 28, 1953, Melody made its theatrical debut in 3D; the first cartoon of its kind in the U.S. (Smith, 2006). As I conducted research for Melody alone, I found limited information and interviews pertaining to it specifically.  More interest is aimed at Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, especially since it earned the studio another Academy Award.  Despite this, Melody is a witty little film, full of slapstick and fun.  We are introduced to Professor Owl (voiced by Bill Thompson) and his flock of feathered pupils:  Bertie Birdbrain, The Canary Sisters, Suzy Sparrow, and Penelope Pinfeather (Grant, 1993).  The cartoon’s theme revolves around its title song, The Bird and the Cricket and the Willow Tree, which is presented in a variety of pleasant musical forms throughout the film.

Ward Kimball’s directorial touches are riddled with humor throughout this cartoon, especially where the areas of life, romance, and women are concerned.  At one point, Professor Owl presents the audience with the musical tones of a woman’s voice, and then other women chime in.  The musicality of their voices, however,  turns into a chorus of nagging and bickering that the Professor finally puts to an end after several attempts; the last being a poke with his pointer.  When it comes to Kimball’s view of romance in this short, it’s presented in class Kimball fashion.  As a man serenades his lover in one scene, beautiful hearts appear above, and a shotgun pans across the screen.  Quite the romantic!  Towards the middle, the meaning of life is addressed and takes a cynical and sarcastic turn as we follow the progression of a man’s life from birth to education, then marriage to raising children, and finally from hair loss to death; or to his “reward” as Professor Owl puts it.  Quite a dreary attitude if you think about it, yet Kimball and his team somehow successfully convey all of this through music and well-timed animation, and it’s hilarious! 

I couldn’t help but notice that the backgrounds at times in this picture remind me of Dali’s work; flat empty plains with single objects looming in the distance.  Between Earle’s color choices and O’Connor’s art direction, this film must have erupted from the screen once one put on their stylish 3D glasses.  Being the train enthusiast that Kimball was, there was of course a brief railroad scene (which looks as if a child drew and colored it) that Kimball could call his own.  The final piece of animation that continues to impress me is when Professor Owl cuts a piece of fabric from a graduate cap, and transforms the cloth into a conductor leading a symphony, majestically bringing the film to its grand conclusion in an abstract style.            

The ultimate Disney Historian, Dave Smith, shares some interesting facts about Melody in his Disney A to Z encyclopediaHe notes that the film was shown in the Fantasyland Theater at Disneyland as a part of the 3D Jamboree for several yearsThe 3D process, however, never really caught on with the audience because of the need to wear the polarized glasses. The attraction was eventually retired (Smith, 2006).

What many Disney enthusiasts consider to be the better of the two shorts, Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom, which was released six months after Melody, is nothing short of colorful in style and humor.  Like its predecessor, it’s amazing how Ward Kimball and his fellow staff manage to squeeze so much into a ten minute feature.  I would have loved to been a part of the story development for this particular short.

Where Melody deals with the different styles of music, Toot focuses on the birth of the sounds and instruments that bring them to life.  Once again, we are reunited with Professor Owl and his melodious flock of students.  This time around, however, what better way is there to present the dawning of musical instruments than with the use of cavemen?  It’s interesting to note how Kimball pokes fun at evolution in a scene when Professor Owl winds back his slide presentation, and accidentally rewinds too far, revealing a monkey holding a banana.  Throughout the film, as each of the four sounds (toot, whistle, plunk, and boom) are introduced, the cavemen situated side by side chant, “Ewwww – wah – gah!  Wah!”  The “toot” represents horn instruments, “whistle” woodwinds, acoustic is “pluck”, and “boom” symbolizes percussion.

As I watched this short unfold, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the background styles used in One Hundred and One Dalmations (1961) nearly a decade later.  The lines that define background objects are sharp and angular, and almost seem to have a gritty appearance.  It works well for this particular cartoon, and the vibrant choice of colors compliment the backgrounds and characters well.  I particularly enjoy how the human characters appear to be transparent and the colors of their flesh and clothing seem to spill over the outline of their figure in an abstract approach.  As John Canemaker describes, “The pared-down flat design is rich in color and detailing, and works well with the animation (Canemaker, 2001).”   Animator Art Stevens, who worked on the film, explained in Ollie Johnston's and Frank Thomas' The Illusion of Life: “The characters in Toot, Whistle…aren’t flesh and blood.  They move in a more abstract way – but you aren’t saying that one [animation design] isn’t as entertaining as the other (Johnston, & Thomas, 1981).”  This film, like Melody, screams Ward Kimball’s style, and they must have been a great release for him considering his waning interest in animation at the time.  “I was so relieved to get away from animation,” said Kimball in John Canemaker's Walt Disney's Nine Old Men book. “I knew how to do it.  I wanted to have say about the content (Canemaker, 2001).”

As mentioned earlier in this post, the decision to use limited animation in these shorts was more for economical reasons.  Kimball explained in an interview with Thorkil B. Rasmussen, that Toot was originally supposed to be an educational film used in schools.  Kimball shared:
And since it wasn’t supposed to be for theatrical release, I wanted to cut corners, to make it cheap.  By limiting the animation, you cut your cost.  We cut it in half.  But after Walt saw it he thought it was a keen little picture…   
Melody was special because it was presented in 3D, but Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom is significant because it was the first animated film to be presented in Cinemascope.  Ward Kimball continued the story of Toot’s production:
Darryl F. Zanuck called him [Walt] up – Darryl was promoting Cinemascope – 'Have you got anything that would do in Cinemascope?'   And Walt said, 'Well, I’ll look around,' and then he called me up and said, 'What do you think?  Should we put that picture in Cinemascope?'  'We’re almost finished with it,' I said, 'but OK, I’ll go back and redesign some of the gags for the bigger screen.'  He [Walt] then said, 'Give it the 3D sound too,' and then it went up and got an Academy Award!  And it was just supposed to be a thing for the schools.
In John Canemaker’s book on Walt Disney’s “Nine Old Men”, he makes reference to the fact that critics were comparing Kimball’s two films to that of a UPA production.  Canemaker writes, “Kimball was sensitive about comparisons of his work to that of the studio that gave the world Mr. Magoo (Canemaker, 2001).”  Kimball in his interview with Rasmussen shared:
I understand what UPA was doing and the only comparison there is:  there is more full animation on Toot, Whistle…than UPA ever had.  You look at the owl:  that’s full animation.  It’s just when he starts talking about a subject, he goes to the blackboard, we used limited animation to give it different texture, to separate the subject matter he was lecturing about (Ghez, 2006)…
To add to the critical views of Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom, fellow Disney artists were rather upset, or even jealous of Kimball’s choice of animation style according to Canemaker (Canemaker, 2001).  Ward Kimball quoted, “You can’t imagine the contrast it had to what we were doing when it came out (Canemaker, 2001).”  In my opinion, it’s a shame that more cartoon shorts in this series were never produced, however, in his interview with Joe Adamson, story man Dick Huemer made reference to a third installment of this series that actually made it to the preliminary stages.  Huemer shared:
I was getting up another one about the nostalgia of music, with the same characters…I got the whole board up and presented it publicly in the Penthouse Club to Walt, Roy, and several others and it went over great.  Then they suddenly decided not to make it.  And I did a very bad thing:  I figured they didn’t want it, so I took it down and carelessly left it somewhere, and it was thrown out.  It’s one of the lost stories…
In conclusion, it’s amazing to think that two little cartoons could have raised such a stink, or more importantly, claimed success!  The “Adventures in Music” series marked a new beginning for Disney animation, and the experimentation of style continued into the 1960's.  Sometimes these changes displeased Disney veterans (Walt included), however, I feel they were necessary in order to expand Disney’s horizons and adapt to the times.  Walt Disney’s classic animation, presented in its lush and romantic form, will always be my favorite, however, it is incredible to see what else the studio was capable of thanks to unique and creative artists like Ward Kimball.  At one time, he looked back on these two cartoons and stated in Canemaker's Nine Old Men, “We broke all of the rules (Canemaker, 2001).”

We thank you Ward!