Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Mickey's Xmas Carol, PART 1

We "Dickenized" the iconic Mickey title
Everyone has seen at least one version of Charles Dickens' novella, "A Christmas Carol." This victorian tale of holiday magic made famous the world over was first published on December 17, 1843. As far as I can tell, not being around back then, it has been circulated in many forms not the least has been as a filmed adaptations. The Walt Disney Studio released a splendid re-telling of the venerable holiday fable in 1983, and this is my chance to untie the bows, and unwrap the present of how that marvelous Disney/Dickens classic came to be.  It all started with a seasonal record made by the Disney Records division. It was produced by friend and former head of Disney Television Animation, Gary Kreisel and ironically co-written by Alan Young,  the man would become the voice for Scrooge in "Mickey's Christmas Carol" and for television's "DuckTales".

Storyman Burny Mattinson happened to hear the record and liked the concept of taking the Dicken's classic tale and inserting the classic Disney characters into the celebrated roles. He took the incentive to send the record up to Studio head honcho Ron Miller but when he didn't hear back, was suddenly worried he might have over stepped his authority by doing so. He needn't have given it a second thought though. At Disney Studios around that time there were a few of us that were just not satisfied with a prevailing lack of the classic quality and just good old fashioned entertainment that seemed to be filtering out of the current animation projects and were also especially not happy with the dark and dull direction "Black Cauldron" was taking. Ron MIller had given quite a few people like Tim Burton and many others a chance to create their own projects at the Disney Studio of the 1970s and 80s. He shared the potential of the Christmas Carol record and in that same spirit gave Burny the greenlight to develop the project into an animated featurette although the way Burny tells it, Ron scared the beegeebers out of him at the meeting before giving the nod. Now all that Captain Burny needed was a full crew to sign on, arrrgh.

An example of Disney team work to create concept art.
Burny asked me down to meet with him and told me Don Griffith had mentioned that I would be a good fit for his new crew. So upon that wonderful recommendation I immediately moved into the empty room adjoining his director's room down on the first floor and quickly started in doing concept art. Our crew at that point was Burny, his wife Slvia Mattinson, Don, Mark Henn, myself and Tim O'Donnel.  We soon had two possible directions that were done as visual presentations. 


One was Don Griffith's which used the xerox CL or "clean line". This technique incorprated a clean ink drawing that was xeroxed on a cel and at the same time printed onto  Cresent 100 Heavy Weight board within a ziptone to break up the line slightly. The board was painted expertly with washes of guoache by background head Jim Coleman, which somewhat subdued the line until the overlaid xerox was placed directly above it in camera.  It was a technique that Don had helped develop and had worked beautifully for Disney films from "101 Dalmations" to "Winnie the Pooh". Griff used a variety of ink pens to get the result he achieved on his drawings and I used the same pens to imitate his technique but threw in my old Montblancs because it added some wonderful thick and thin that seemed to add life to the line work. After the line was transferred to the board James Coleman (I always called him Jim or Jimbo) would work his magic over the background and we had our setup. 
Beautiful color palette by Coleman
I'm including one of his exquisite color studies, a piece indicating the moment Jimminy Cricket lights the candle in Scooge's bedroom. If it seems subtle you have to remember 3 things:


 ONE -We wanted pixie dust and candle flame animation (Patty Peraza) to read well against the BG
 TWO - The characters needed to "pop" against the setting as they did in the old classic films
 THREE - This was Technicolor/RGB which not only boosted saturation and contrast but did little tricks with hues


Jim did a fine job on this study as he did throughout the film as did his entire background department.  As I said there were two stylistic approaches. The other style was mine which was employed a colorful watercolor/guoache but was in the whimsical style more like Disney's "Alice in Wonderland" rendering meets UPA design. You can't have two different directions for production design so a choice had to be made between the two and that appointment went to...(drum roll please)... Don!


An early Griffith/Peraza production layout of the village
Don's approach was chosen which I believe was actually much better for this classic subject matter than what I had cobbled together. I'm not saying I thought my style would have been wrong, and I have to admit I was more than a little disappointed, but I truly loved what Don had done and more importantly so did Burny and since he was in charge, that is what counted.  So we used Don's inspiring concepts to guide us throughout the entire pre-production of "Mickey's Christmas Carol". It was the right decision.

The record that started it all

Of course some roles just begged to be re-cast. I mean come on... using Fergy's Wicked Witch from "Snow White" and Milt's Merlin from "Sword in the Stone" as two of the spirits of Christmas? That's just a lot of Humbug!  I liked those two in their own design domains, especially Milt's Merlin, however mixing those somewhat realistically contemplated characters with shorts types looked bad enough within the record album pages and one would only assume it might very well worsen in animation.

Thank goodness Burny had the taste to re-cast some of the roles including those two fish out of water with characters more copacetic in personality and composition including JImminy Cricket from "Pinocchio" to villainous Pete. Yes I know "Pinochchio" was a feature but the older "rubber-hose" styling of Jimminy Cricket especially made use of rounder simpler shapes found abundantly in the realm of shorts character design and in addition Ward Kimball's animation of Pinoke's little conscience certainly set a standard for us to try to follow. In fact we all visited the "morgue" (now called Animation Research) frequently in those days to get inspiration whether from animation to original layouts and Background paintings. It was as easy back then as a simple call to Leroy Anderson to see almost anything that had ever been created from the golden past of Disney.  Nowadays one needs to make an appointment far in advance and wear white gloves while handling the valuable material. With so much security, I'm sure the retina scan is on the horizon too. Though I remember taking the entire collection of "Snow White" BGs home on weekends to study the technique and composition and that is something you just won't be doing these days.

A few snapshots from the Pete Family Album
While I mentioned Pete, I'l have to ask everyone to be very careful how you say his name. His old name, Black Pete although was a fine despicable name for a villain in many vintage Disney cartoons in the past, he was suddenly considered far too racist to even utter. Another even older monkier, Peg-leg, was also claimed to possibly upset the disabled movement. Well  you can call me Pete and you can call me Peter but jes don't call me late fer dinner... er, let's just call him Pete to be safe shall we? By the way, how many of you out there recognized that Pete is a cat? That was done to make him the original antagonist for Mickey Mouse. We also had Ratty, Mole, McBadger, the weasels and Mr. Toad himself as old Fezziwig creating an almost "This is Your Life Mr Toad" reunion within the film for fans of Disney's "Wind in the Willows". I have to tell you, drawing all these classic characters that were eventually assembled for this film was a thrill for all of us after all we're fans of Disney animation too!

Breakfast table lamp, Peraza kitchen
Burny was a pioneer at the studio regarding home video recording equipment and as I shared that early passion (although my equipment was a A LOT cheaper than Burny's high end stuff ) , he graciously made a VHS copy of "Scrooge" starring Albert Finney for me to watch at home. If you ever see that film you will most likely notice some of the inspiration for the background settings as translated by Disney legend Don Griffith and myself. In addition to careful research of Victorian London architecture and original prints from the Dicken's manuscript along with just plain making stuff up, some props were actually based on furnishings within my home where Don and his wife Kay spent a few Friday nights for some of our studio card games. For example the lamp over Mickey's, er... I mean Bob Crachit's accounting desk can be found lighting delicious morning meals over our breakfast table in the morning. At night it lit cards games where the Griffiths and O'Connors would humiliate Patty and I with UNO and other assorted of card games. And for the record, never challenge Ken to a game of trivial pursuit or Don to a game of pool.

One of my favorite Christmas Confections

Burny scheduled sweatbox room screenings so he could review Christmas films such as "Scrooge" as well as UPA's "Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol" to me, Don and Eric Larson and our tiny crew to discuss and review how others had handled the same story in a musical format. During those screenings we discussed various versions at length, sharing what we thought was working in those films and the scenes or sequences we didn't like and why. Eric Larson and Don Griffith in particular offered delightful insights from their own long histories of Disney Feature experience. Eric at this time was sheparding a new group of talent into the studio. Like most of the Disney veterans, he was a reassuring and warm voice that not only provided mentoring for the new kids on the block but offerred advice to anyone who asked including Burny during production of Christmas Carol. Burny was Eric's assistant in later years and so had access to Eric's counsel whenever needed. I would also sometimes seek out Eric's advice over a pose or even staging of a scene and like Don, he always took time out to help. And before I forget, Disney Director Darrell Van Citters has published an excellent book on "Mister Maggo's Christmas Carol" that is an essential piece detailing animation history for anyone who is a fan of great animation entertainment and UPA artistry and no I don't get a kick-back for saying that.
Donald's Christmas Carol 1949

Of course this was hardly the first time Disney had used Dicken's Christmas Carol as a basis for a project, indeed every hollywood studio has hit up the venerable holiday tale for inspiration over the years. Even Disney re-did it yet again with Jim Carrey scrooging the role with their 2009 offering. Somehow I never got around to seeing the Carrey Christmas Carol,  but back In December 1949, Walt Disney himself  offered Donald Duck the starring role in this example from "The Rexall Magazine". "The Duck" gave Dickens a definite run for Scrooge's money with his usual antics and quick trigger temper. Also notice that everyone in this adaptation is a duck. Can you even imagine if we had made every single character a mouse in the Mickey version? We would have had to call in an exterminator! I guess it could have been worse, someone could have made a film populated with ewoks. Oh wait, I guess someone did...

4 comments:

  1. Thank you Andrea! Glad you liked it. There's lots more to come.

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  2. Mike--this is fabulous! I can't wait to read the next installment.

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  3. Thank you Paula! Finishing a project due next week but should have the next installment posted on Monday.

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