Sunday, November 13, 2011

Mickey's Xmas Carol, PART 3

Ken stops by Christmas Carol to supervise my model building
Two very close friends and legendary Disney Art Directors, both named "Ken," (O'Connor and Anderson), had spoken to me that they had  frequently built intricate models for many Disney films as an aid with pre-visuals and actual production to offer dramatic staging ideas and lighting. Ken Anderson had started it back during "The Old Mill" by constructing a wooden mill that could be dismantled to study the inside wooden gears. He built "Snow White's" cottage interior and exterior, and O'Connor did likewise with examples like Cinderella's coach and  rockets from "Man in Space". If those two thought it a good idea who was I to second guess? Besides, I've always enjoyed making models and small scale miniatures. Today of course we rely on computers to provide those services but back then it was all hard wood, metal, balsa, cardboard and plaster.

Vance Gerry sketch of Dick Lucas
I worked with Disney Feature animator and model maker Dick Lucas on "Fox and Hound" who was the model expert for Disney from the 1960s forward. He was the key person responsible for Cruella's car and he still had that model stashed besides his desk at work among others he had done over the years. I'll have to do a post on "101 Dalmations" some time and include my talks and pictures with Dick, Don, and Woolie on that car. Dick (and Muriel) lived two doors down from me and Don (and Kay) were 2 streets over so I could bug them about these kinds of things which I did frequently. Besides using models as vehicles, we also referred to them for props. The Disney Lot Prop Master gave me one of the door knockers used in "Mary Poppins" (Bank of England set ) to look at for Scrooges door knocker which is taken over by the spirit of Jacob Marley (Goofy). I told him I might be using it for quite a while and his response was a gruff, "Jes keep it. I got a nudder one here so jes keep it." You see at this point the prop collection was literally spilling out into the backlot (yes we even had a backlot in those days) so he explained no one had ever requested the item so one version was enough for his inventory.  For "Mickey's Christmas Carol", I built various sets including the counting house, Mickey's desk, Scrooges' desk, the stairway and the bedroom. I also created sculptures, some even articulated versions of the key characters like Mickey along with cutouts of Burny's drawings to place them into the sets for study and discussion.

Ghost of Christmas Past setting
These model sets and sculptures were available for loan out to anyone on the crew to aid with their scenes. Since the pieces were primarily paper and balsa wood, when Ted wanted to borrow the Ghost of Christmas Past set to study light patterns he asked me, "Is it OK to light the candle?" "Sure" I answered. When Ted returned the candle stick with the rest of the set at the end of production I wondered if he had used it as the sole means of lighting and warmth with a veritable mound of candle wax collected at the stem! I was honored though when one of my setups with Jimminy on the candle stick was recently used by Disney Fine Art as a basis towards a limited sculpture for the collectable crowd. With all these little model sets in my room, by the time Christmas rolled around I even put up a miniature decorated Christmas tree that actually lit up in the counting house set although the Scrooge sculpture, exhibiting his usual "Bah Humbug" scowl, didn't seem pleased with the festive addition to his dour domain.

John Lasseter and Mike Peraza check scene on moviola
As I mentioned earlier, we didn't have the ability to create computer graphics in 3D which is today considered mainstream for "animated" feature films. I was hoping to push the boundaries of 2D if not into 3D, than at least 2 1/2 D. One morning I found a scene depicting a quick flight through an alley and over some rooftops needing attention. Now you have to understand that this was a featurette and not a feature and although we all lavished every bit of quality we were allowed, deadlines and quotas had to be met. I had about an hour to think of a way to handle forward motion and while pondering the problem, John Lasseter, who was 2 rooms down came in to see what I was up to.

He was going to animate Scrooge hanging onto Jimminy with his tiny umbrella for the trip to the past and had just gone over the scene in storyboards next door with Burny.  He was as excited as I was about various ways we might re-stage the scenes and after we brainstormed it for a bit, I roughed out some layouts and gave them to him to follow. I had really wanted to involve the audience in a roller-coaster ride over London rooftops. I did a few crazy tests that were kind of fun and full of potential but only one scene was actually cut into the reel and unfortunately what you see on film is our first only take of that action. John added some creative personality bits having Scrooge attempt to crawl ON TOP of the slippery umbrella during their flight which definitely added to the sequence. But oh If we could only go back and redo it with the resources and experience we have now, ... sigh.

Example of Burny's care and attention to character
The animation was directed in a very organized yet enjoyable  manner by Burny with superb detailed model sheets for animators to follow. He issued model sheets that demonstrated key poses as well as others that  specifically detailed the final cleanup. Even with that kind of foresight to guide the production, pressure builds trying to create day after day. Gags both practical and drawn were always a great way to relieve that tension at Disney. We constantly exchanged gag drawings with each other lampooning everyone on the crew as well as the film itself, all in fun of course.

One gag resulted with an early snow in our hallways at Disney. Yes, I said SNOW, and IN our hallway. You see at the same time as Christmas Carol, the studio was working on a futuristic film called "TRON". Well that crew was working incredibly long hours at the end of its production and during one late night escapade, a few Tronites entered our dark and deserted Christmas Carol hallways and emptied studio fire extinguishers into a few rooms and covered the hallway. The stuff looked like snow, if you were a bit tipsy, which is most likely what the "volunteer firemen" from TRON were that evening. Unfortunately you just couldn't make a decent snowman out of that sticky goop (I tried) so it didn't endear itself to the unlucky victims. Luckily my door and Burny's were locked but they had a hell of a blizzard in Mark Henn's room as well as a couple of others. The studio management was not laughing at our early White Christmas but most thought it was pretty hilarious.

Warm watercolor, wrinkled paper and ink - Mike Peraza
As our own production was slowly winding down, screen acknowledgment always comes up. Instead of rolling credits, I wanted something special like the old title sequences we all enjoyed on film classics like "Song of the South", "Dumbo", "Peter Pan" and so many others. I mentioned it to Burny and showed him a mock-up I did of Jimminy Cricket on the candle stick with the title card and although he was interested he just wasn't sold on the idea.

Luckily a co-worker and utterly amazing story guy, Vance Gerry used to drop by my room to check up on me as he had requested me for the story department when I first came to the studio based on my reel at Cal Arts which was more story boards than animation. He got really excited about the little pencil sketches I had mocked up for the title sequence and the next day brought over some beautiful little ink sketches in the same vein he had done for some little Dicken's books to show me. Let me explain that Vance had his own printing press in those days and would hand out these beautiful little hand made books of selected works by Dickens for Christmas presents, of which I'm lucky to have a complete set courtesy of Vance. Vance then gave me a very special edition he had done that was reserved for retirees. I won't go into much detail about it here except to mention the long dark stairway and the small paper bag. Those of you who know what I'm talking about are probably cracking up right now.  Anyway Burny could hear us laughing next door and came over to see what we were doing and in no time, with Vance's support, Burny consented to let me do the title art. The only trouble doing titles I now faced was that the crew got wind of it and started coming down to see the pieces.

A Couple of Crickets
It would be flattering to believe they were wildly in love with my sketches but I soon realized there was most likely a stronger interest in seeing what their credit was, or if they even got one. It was then that I witnessed how disappointed some became when they they realize they were not going to get that animator credit they had hoped for. I have to say my wife Patty did quite a bit of great effects from snow gusts, fire, shadows etc. but was short at only 89 feet and you needed 100 to get the screen credit. She was a pro and took it like a er... woman but there were more than a few disenchanted crew members to put it mildly.  Those kinds of things though unpleasant  have always been and will always be a part of film production and is a very difficult decision for producers to contend with. 

1 of the unposed crew shots I snapped
I borrowed the Mickey in the top hat with scarf graphic so beautifully airbrushed by John Emerson, from our opening and made two ink and painted copies to have signed for a souvenir. One for Burny and one for me which the entire crew signed. When I made an iron -on and wore it to work (minus signatures) Burny and the crew flipped and we soon ordered golden crew shirts with the opening card graphic for everyone. The Disney Studio courtesy of Ron Miller, threw a wrap party for us that ended with an after hours feast in the Disney Coral Room next to the cafeteria. Everyone was wearing their golden crew T-shirts and it was a warm reunion to celebrate what we had all achieved together, not to mention the food was mighty tasty too. In the end it was a good experience made better by the talent and integrity of the entire crew, not the least was the man most responsible for the entire project, Burny Mattinson. "Mickey's Christmas Carol" was received enthusiastically at the box office when issued as a double bill in a re-release of "The Rescuers" which ironically also featured animation by then brand new "Mickey's Christmas Carol" alum animators Ed Gombert and Randy Cartwright.


One of the lost NBC "bumpers"
When the NBC network carried it in subsequent years, the studio contacted me through special Projects head Mark Sturdivant to create a dozen more title cards in the same sepia ink style I done for the original which was a treat for me. Mark was a pleasure to deal with as he was an unusual combination of creativity AND management. Yeah, you don't come across that animal often in what we laughingly refer to as the Entertainment Biz. I was in the middle of "Basil of Baker Street" pre-production at that point but would knock them out during lunch breaks. It was a joy getting re-acquainted with that special cast once again if only to design some more title cards. I used the same techniques, quick little blue sketches that I cleaned up to emulate the old printing style with my Montblanc fountain pens. I then sent them to Bill Brazner who supervised the Xerox Department in Ink and Paint and he would xerox them on cels to be shot over distressed warm watercolor boards I would sponge. They used these for what is referred to as "bumpers" in the business. These are the little title cards that in essence say to the home audience, "don't go away, we'll be right back after these messages." I included one of the dozen NBC bumper sketches I did, this particular one is the WIllie and company setup shown here with my instructions to Bill for slight enlargement on cel.  They don't use any of these second set of drawings I did  any longer as it was only for the network version and was never included in the DVD release nor are they likely to in the future so in essence I guess they are now considered lost. I made copies if they ever decide to reinstate them.

The Release Poster
Walt Disney Studios built up the fact that this was Mickey's first official return to the motion picture screen in 30 years. The Disney take on the Dicken's story was translated into comics, records, collectable figurines and if you happened to vists the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World last Christmas, simply gorgeous window displays.

SANTA (me) and our director (Burny) heading out.
After "The Black Cauldron",  we were the last Disney animated film to actually enjoy complete production in the old original animation studio in Burbank that Walt Disney had built with the profits of his classic "Snow White" so in hindsite it was made even more special for those of us that toiled for old Ebenezer. Even though we had been told the move to Glendale would be temporary and that we'd soon return to the original animation building, it never came about. The film went on to be nominated for an Academy Award as Best Animated Short (pretty long short ), the first nomination for our Mickey since "Mickey and the Seal" in 1948. What has made it even more special like so many films we have been fortunate to work on is the happy looks one sees when some one brings up "Mickey's Christmas Carol." Over the years it has become a perennial  holiday favorite for families to gather around and enjoy with each new generation. To paraphrase Tiny Tim's last line, we were all blessed to have worked on this merry little ornament of a film, yes blessed every one. Merry Christmas!

3 comments:

  1. In the early 80s I corresponded with Ward Kimball. He wrote that he was working on his book about life at the Disney Studio. I don't know whether he ever put pen to paper and I can't even guess what a book by Ward would be like... but it would be interesting! In a year or so we'll get to read Ward's story in a book by Amid Amidi. I'm looking forward to it, but I would really like to have read Ward's story from Ward.

    In the same way, I really appreciate that you have put in the time and hard work to chronicle your time at the Disney Studio. The late 70s and early 80s were an important time at the studio. It was a transition time and is important to understand in order to get the full impact of Don Hahn's story in 'Waking Sleeping Beauty.' Beyond that, the stories are just plain fun to hear.

    Thanks for for ingenuity and creativity as part of the teams that have brought us such wonderful films and entertainment.

    Ross

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    1. If, by chance, you get this, can you shoot me a note. I was wondering what the context was for the book Ward wanted to do. I doubt he wrote much, if anything. But still. Thanks.

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  2. Hello Ross. Ward was one of my favorites at Disney, for his talents, wild sense of humor and his unbridled imagination. I'm sure the Amidi book will be great but I agree with you I would rather have had it from the horse's mouth.

    The 70s and 80s were certainly an interesting time to be at Disney of course if I could pick the time to work there it would have been early 30s through to the 60s but since I still can't find a reliable time machine, guess I'm stuck.

    I really appreciate your thoughtful comments and count myself fortunate to have been able to work on the projects I was assigned and alongside so many good folks.

    -Mike

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