Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"GOOFY TROOPERS" PART 2 by Mike Peraza

Ever notice the alarm clock sounds louder on Monday?

My spiel went as follows, "Goofy is a recognized star of Disney animation, so why re-invent the wheel? His son is an average kid dealing with many of the usual issues they face: peer pressure, young love, grades, school bullies, and so on. On top of all that, he has the zaniest, wackiest GOOFIEST dad to live down. No matter how insane the situations get though, they will always love each other. They're a family." Gary asked how I would pitch it and I replied, "It's ONE day in  the life of Goofy and son. From getting up in the morning to fixing breakfast, we see their difference side by side as his son tries to distance himself. No matter what though he knows deep inside that his father will always be there for him, whether he likes it or not."

Gary sat back and beamed, "Love it!" then told me to get started. At this point I was a mixture of joy and worry. My flapping gums might have just gotten me into trouble again. Was I going to be able to pull off this concept? If not it would definitely be my fault for opening up a can of worms and my mouth at the same time. The great news that buoyed me was the attachment of a Producer to the project, Robert Taylor. I wasn't really familiar with Robert's accomplishments at that point but I was soon to be up to speed. I know I sound like I gush when describing some of these people I was lucky to work with but Robert taylor was amazing even among that stellar crowd.

They call me, " Mr. Taylor!"
I met with Robert and went over the same speech I had just been through with Gary and I could tell he liked my concept. I admit looking back at my pitch years later, that it was hardly revolutionary but it was definitely better than the previous ideas being bounced around. Robert was a very easy going and wonderful guy and I was glad he would be producing. I quickly came up with the next door neighbors, Peg Leg... I mean Pete. Yes, even back in "Mickey's Christmas Carol" I was told never to refer to him as "Peg-Leg Pete" but simply Pete. Pete was a natural who played as an antagonist much like he had in many of the Disney shorts where he had been paired up with either Mickey, Donald or Goofy. After designing Goofy's son Max along with Pete's son, I gave Pete a gorgeous wife and daughter. It was all very fast paced akin to playing in a sandbox.

Breakfast burnt to order by GOOFY!
When Gary came by my office to check up on my "sandcastle" of doodles, he gave us the thumbs up. It was obvious we had clicked into a good vibe concerning Goofy and how his dynamics would work in this family sitcom. Everything was now going smooth, until I was reminded that the pitch was next Monday and it was now already Tuesday. Why can't anything ever be easy? Right about this time is when most concept artists wish they had either been involved earlier or at the very least had all that time back to do justice to their visuals.

Father & Son fishing trip
Well anyway the pitch was just under a week which really wasn't bad. I cleaned up my sketches and showed Goofy and son going through an "average day" together from the first "klang!klang!klang! "of the alarm clock through a harrowing fishing trip and heartfelt consolation from dad to son after losing a baseball game 1,000,000 to 0, keeping up with the neighbors and lots of fun stuff to connect the dots.

Gary OK'd the setups I presented to him and so I went to final color. I don't like doing the same thing over and over pitch wise and I was inspired by the beautiful "Baby Weems" story sketches from the 1941 Walt Disney film, "The Reluctant Dragon," starring Robert Benchley. They had a loose bits of spot color from pastels not quite covering the a rough line in a sepia hue. They gave a wonderful look and I wanted to try something in that vein. The sketches I'm including here are only my roughs before I re-rendered them in color for the pitch. I don't have any copies of my final color, or at least I haven't come across them yet but will post them if I do.

I  based this on my neighbor's kids' skate ramp
I finished the color setups and brought them in to Gary who inflated my enormous ego further by telling me they were incredible.  Did I mention Gary is a man of impecible judgement and taste? Well obviously he is! We took the pitch and in our usual flamboyant and entertaining styles presented it to the suits. I have to admit I do a pretty darn good Goofy voice which certainly helped. Before we knew what had happened, we had yet another new series on the Disney horizon.

Once again my main contribution was to do the concept/pitch as an amazing crew did the actual broadcast shows. "Goof Troop" premiered as a TV movie which was later chopped up into a pilot serial. I have to credit the staff of all-star artists that was attached to it for making this a success. Besides evolving into a very popular series, "Goof Troop" would spawn a very successful movie, "A Goofy Movie" which was in turn based almost exactly on my original pitch in 1995 and another direct-to-video in 2000 while producing the usual line of collectible merchandise to accompany the new franchise. In the end I was satisfied that Goofy had kept his klutzy and likable demeanor intact and that we had not screwed up a classic Disney icon but had introduced him to a new generation of fans, a-yuk...a-yuk... gwarsh!

"GOOFY TROOPERS" PART 1 by Mike Peraza

Just a few of the Goof Troop early "miss-fires"
"Goof Troop" had been in development for quite a while before I came in to the mix. In case you've ever wondered why the name seems to be about a troop when the actual series isn't, I'll tell you. The creative executive assigned to oversee its development originally concieved it as Goofy with the rank of Head Scoutmaster in charge of a bunch of young scouts. Not bad but limiting if we were to use that as a basis for every episode. We would watch their uproarious adventures as they pitched tents, learned secret oaths, cooked s'mores and tied knots. Well maybe there was just a little more to it than that, but not much.

Being the good soldier I was, and being that I was being paid to do it, I cranked out a bunch of situations with the character designs that had been drawn up to that point. I don't know how many of you reading this have ever wondered exactly what Goofy was. I mean was he a human, a large rodent, a dog? Well if you picked door number three, you are correct! Sorry, no trip to Disneyland for the winners this time though. What you do win is the opportunity  to hear how "Goof Troop" became the series it is know as today. When embarking on a series involving a famous character from Walt Disney's original stable of stars can be daunting. One has only to view some of Jack Kinney's incredible Goofy shorts or marvel at Art Babbit's or Woolie Reitherman's animation to appreciate the rich pantomime and hilarious antics that the "Goof" has brought to audiences around the world for many years. I hoped that whatever we were going to create at Walt Disney Television Animation did justice to that rich heritage.

In search of a series...
I had just finished up a batch of other show concepts when I was asked to help out with some pitch art on a new show entitled, "Goof Troop" that was becoming bogged down in the early stages of developement. As I started working on the pitch concepts I quickly realized that there was no clear direction for the show as yet. I was growing concerned working on the endless ill-conceived setups thought up by the new Creative Executive that had just been hired. The Creative exec wasn't a bad person by any means, in fact far from it. He was actually a very fun guy to talk to, but this was his first job in the world of film making and he just didn't quite have a clue what to do with this Goofy character and I was getting worried about the approaching deadline. To his creative credit, every week he seemed to have found a brand new approach to the show. Although while I was doodling versions of the show that were destined to never see the light of the TV screen,  the pitch date remained etched in stone and kept creeping closer. Various versions would find their way to the surface only to sink again into the wasteland known as the roundfile (trashcan). One moment Goofy was the Captain of the Fire Department, the next day a detective out of the Maltese Falcon mold, or a swash buckling hero fighting The Flying Dutchman.

I don't blame Goofy for being upset
The supporting cast he came up with really wasn't very supportive when you consider they sometimes included alien dragon babies with wings along with a large gorilla. Somebody at Walt Disney Television Animation must have really had a thing for giant gorillas around this time as they were plugged into almost every concept we  assembled.  It wasn't unusual to do a series of setups in the morning using one cast of characters only to redo the same scenes again in the afternoon with a different cast of characters. Check the subway setups above and the only character to make it from the morning cast to the afternoon cast was Goofy. Imagine combining angular sketchy characters with the style of Disney's Robin Hood with the more rounded ones from DUMBO, they just weren't meant to be in the same show. The consistency of style for the pitch was being ignored. As we kept dumping each previous set of ideas for the latest flavor, the idea of doing a show with a Disney star like Goofy was fading fast. I was called down to the Creative exec's office for yet another round of NEW ideas for the show.

With Goofy as Fire Captain, things were bound to heat up
The latest  idea this fellow had was to put Goofy into Toontown. Within the same meeting Goofy went from being the driver of Benny the talking Cab to driving a talking SUV (they were just becoming popular at the time) named Woody.  Roger Rabbit had been recently screened at the studio and had given birth to this latest burst of inspiration. I tried to explain to him why I wasn't sure it would work, after all I had worked on with Bob Zemekis doing concept art on "Roger Rabbit" so I thought I just might understand its conception just a bit better perhaps. I explained that in Toontown, everything is alive from the trees to the cars and even the buildings and the sky.

What made it special was the crossover from live action into this zany world. And speaking of zany, if Goofy is in a goofy world, is he still really Goofy? Not to mention we were probably not going to get the internationaly licensed animation cast of the movie version of Toontown like Woody Woodpecker, Bugs Bunny, etc... He listened to me politely, ... then ignored everything I had just said and told me to start doing Toontown setups with Goofy and leave the visionary part to him. It was definitely a one-way street as far as any creative input was concerned on this project and we were headed for a bump in the road.

At this point I really have to add that while Goofy was definitely not exactly this young exec's "cup of tea", he would eventually distinguish himself by developing what would become a highly successful and wildly popular series down the road in more of an animation action genre. As he gained experience over the years he has proved himself a hard working exec who has helped shepard a couple of very solid and popular shows. Some series concepts just gravitate towards more real world action themes while others are much more at home with employing a looser "toony" feel for their world. Goofy was definitely in the "toony" realm and it just wasn't jelling in his otherwise capable hands. 

Goofy doing some soggy but sharp shooting at his boss
I went back to my room. The junior exec's ideas were indeed giving me ideas, hmmm... throw the junior exec off the roof, slip him a mickey(not the mouse), wire his chair? As these sordid thoughts wafted through my head, I cranked out a couple of  attempts at a Goofy Toontown and the SUV character. My phone rang. It was from Gary Krisel, President of Walt Disney Television Animation, who wanted to check on the progress of my development for the Goofy show. Coincidence? I doubt it. Hey maybe I was getting fired? Well at least then I wouldn't be blamed for helping to bring down a Disney star.

As I walked down the hall I could almost hear a distant memory from schooldays, "Michael Peraza, please report to the Principle's office..." I went over to his room, we closed the doors. Gary and I had a great relationship and he was very interested in my honest opinion of the Goofy show.  As always, I was very straight with him. I told him I didn't think we had any show to present. He didn't seem surprised at my statement and so I went into length about all the different scenarios that had been started and stopped ending with the latest Toontown suggestion. When I again described my reasons why I didn't think it would work, he agreed completely. Thank goodness!  Just as no two artists are completely alike, neither are the executives. He then leaned over and asked me the question, one that I had already mulled over in my mind, "OK, what would YOU do?" I have to admit, I had been secretly hoping for such a chance. I'm such a bbbaaaaddd boy sometimes.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Cauldron of Chaos, PART 3

The original Black Caudlron given to Patty Peraza by Joe Hale
When they started having screenings for the public at the studio theater to gather their reactions to our rough cut film, I remembered the window at the end of the hallway where Walt would sometimes stand looking out over his studio while checking people's reaction as they left a screening. There are some great shots of him at that window as the afternoon light creeped through the panes and threw his shadow on the wall behind. I knew that the "un-dead" section would most likely be revolting to some in the audience who would not expect to see a bunch of rotted corpses slowly fermenting and in full gorious, I mean glorious color in a Disney animated feature.

I had that section timed so I knew when it would come on screen after the picture began. I brought along a few of my closest cronies to enjoy my hunch. We stood in the back of the theater until the film began, then left quietly and snuck up to the third floor. There had been sightings of "suits" on the third floor so we had to be on the look out for anyone wearing a tie. As we slowly approached the zombie, er... zero hour, we looked to the theater below. Right on cue, the doors opened and a mom was angrily leaving with her two wailing children in tow. She was followed by another, and soon there was a sizable exodus of crying kids and upset parents fleeing from the theater. You couldn't hear what they were saying but I doubt it was along the lines of, "If only they could have held longer on the decayed flesh dripping off that cute zombie's face.  I can't wait to go out and buy some happy meals of those incredibly entertaining undead fellows." By this time a security guard had been making rounds and gave us the stink eye so we hopped back downstairs to our domiciles chuckling all the way. Afterwards as the directors and producer met, they didn't need to read the ARI cards to admit that particular problem and the un-dead sections were quickly cut down and in some cases cut out completely. Unfortunately those simple cuts could not repair the rips in the  fabric of the storyline or magically make the film the fantasy epic it should have been.

Most of the effects were still handrawn
Cauldron included some terrific visuals by its stellar effects animation staff who really went above and beyond to create their hand drawn magic. Animator Don Paul even shot live action of dry ice mists coming out of the cauldron for placement directly into the film for dramatic impact while Ted Keirsey, Mark Dindal, Jeff Howard, Patty Peraza and many many other FX wizards created amazing imagery  across "bedsheets" of wide screen animation paper. There were however some new tricks coming out of the Disney hat. Some of the new advances made by Disney during this film included the first computer animation done by Disney that was released to the public.

Along with a few others, I had left Cauldron to join Producer Burny Mattenson on his project, "Basil of Baker Street." I was inspired by Miyazaki's 's "Castle Calliostro" and wanted to do computer graphics inside Big Ben which was definitely not written into the story. I sketched out some pastels to try and sell the idea and was rewarded with John Musker and Roy Disney's support.  I gathered a couple of guys from WED and we got right on it. Don Griffith told Joe Hale about the computer imagery I was exploring and he came down and likewise got excited at the possibilities. Joe had a varied background at Disney that also included effects and he had proven his abilities time and again on films like "Black Hole" and "Watcher in the Woods". He commandeered my little crew and used them to creat a row boat, a floating orb of light and some flying witch props for Cauldron. So officially "Basil" was the first Disney animated feature to use computer graphics but "Cauldron" was the first to be released showing it.  Yeah, get it right you gol- dern film historians!  A new process was also developed during Cauldron called APT which was meant to replace Xerography at the studio. Dave Spencer would go on to receive an technical merit Aademy Award for the process however it never did take the place of Xerox as foretold. Computers would eventually provide that little change.

I recently spoke with Producer Joe Hale and asked him for his recollections about "Cauldron." Joe's long Disney experience included being Ollie Johnston's assistant on "Peter Pan" working on Smee and later with Woolie while on "Lady and the Tramp,"  and Ward Kimball on "Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom." It was on "Sleeping Beauty" that Joe moved over into the Layout department and under Don Griffith's mentoring. Joe had originally been doing story development on Cauldron working closely with Vance Gerry and Mel Shaw.  When asked by Ron Miller to take on the role of Producer, he turned it down not wanting to step on toes or have to deal with the mounting politics in the studio. Of course he did eventually take on that mantle when frustration rose within the crew and someone had to step up to the responsibility.  Later after the new management team came on board, he faced yet another level of frustration. "When Katzenberg first screened the film (Cauldron) he told us to cut it by 10 minutes.  Roy Disney and I got together and found some scenes we could get rid of that didn't affect the story that much." When they ran it agin for Jeffrey and the film finished he asked Roy, "Is that 10 minutes?" When Roy replied that no it was only around 6 minutes.  Jeffrey stated, "I said 10 minutes!" 

Joe continued, "Eventually he (Jeffrey) cut out about 12 minutes which really hurt the picture. " I'll jump back in and add that It's always an expensive and intensely muddled action when editing an animated feature after it is in full color. Those steps were always meant to be edited while in the storyboard stage or at least before animation. I'd rather see a story or layout guy do a hand full of drawings and test the flow on a leica reel than an animator slave over a hundred pages of sweat only to see it cut out of the picture. Going all the way into final color and then making those decisions is just ludicrous. Of course even the classic films have their "soup eating sequences" so it is not unheard of to edit after animation, just an unfortunate screwup when it does occur. Joe received an early copy of the new DVD release of "Cauldron" yesterday and he and his lovely wife Bev informed me that the image is sharp, bright and colorful.  They also briefed me that they included about 8 minutes or so of previously unseen footage, mainly of the Faire Folk sequence that was cut before the film was released.  This will now be included as part of the bonus features so we can better imagine what Joe Hale, Ron Miller and their team may have had in mind for this feature.

Ron Miller and Roy Disney in happier times
Speaking of Ron Miller, Joe and I were both disappointed that so called "film historians" tend to sweep much of his innovative accomplishments under the rug or just give credit to Eisner's regime albeit they also produced some great results. I wonder how many readers realize that Miller's rein was responsible for the creation of  The Disney Channel, Buena Vista Home Entertainment, actual construction of Walt's dream of EPCOT, funded Disney's FIRST Broadway show, gave Tim Burton his break as well as many of the future wonderkids of animation, acquired "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and put it into development, Tokyo Disneyland, initiated Disney's first attempts at computer animation with projects like "Tron", started the Touchstone label for films HE produced like "Splash" and many more achievements. 

When Disney became the target of corporate raiders like Saul Steinberg, certain shareholders criticized Miller's leadership even though he had done wonders since becoming president of Walt Disney Productions just recently in 1980 and then CEO in 1983. Unfortunately just as Miller was truly waking the Sleeping Beauty, he was ousted. Keep in mind that I'm not saying he was perfect or that he was Walt but then again has anyone truly filled that void? I am saying that he was trying to do a good job with the company and I believe that for the most part he did exactly that. Not to take anything away from Eisner and what his troupe accomplished but they certainly reaped many rewards from the foundation set by Miller's team. 

Thank goodness Michael Eisner rewarded Roy Disney's support with control of Disney animation when other new management staff originally wanted nothing to do with that division and some would just as soon see it shut down and weren't shy about letting that be known.  Ironically in 2004, and by now fed up with Michael Eisner's leadership, Roy would spearhead the "Save Disney" rally which led to the ouster of Eisner a year later. I can only guess at the wonders we might have have witnessed if Ron and Roy could have remained united and taken Disney into the future together. 

Our Invite to the Cauldron Wrap Party
As always, the wrap parties were a joyous time when hurt feelings had had enough time to mellow and sometimes even heal completely and we were able to reflect on the accomplishments of everyone involved. I was glad to see Ron Miller's name still attached to the credits as executive Producer although I'm certain the film didn't exactly mirror his hopes and dreams.

On a warm Monday night, July 1, 1985, Disney Studios threw a fantastic wrap party at Chasens and the food and music were first class as usual for this kind of an event. Chasen's had been one of the trendier spots in Hollywood dating back to the Golden Age of the thirties. Sadly that classy icon of yesteryear closed its doors in 1995 and now has a grocery store with a drop or two of chili to mark the spot. Of course we still have the film, "The Black Cauldron" and the Disney feature Animation department is even now working on new releases, despite the rumors that it would close its hallowed doors. It may have been uprooted and moved to new addresses, but it's still around thank goodness and only just recently finished their latest effort "The Princess and the Frog" as a commitment to keeping quality 2D animation alive and kicking.

Producer Joe Hale and animator Patty Peraza
at the Black Cauldron Wrap Party
Looking back I guess I'll always wish  Cauldron could have been better and if it sounds like I've been knocking it, I really don't mean to, just chalk it up to personal disappointment. There had been so much hype for this particular project it was difficult to imagine anything less than a new masterpiece on the scale of the afore mentioned, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs". I was really yearning to see our generation create something epic and awe inspiring for today's audiences but that quest was made even more difficult through the many unusual and unforeseen obstacles we endured during its development. Joe and his crew actually accomplished quite a feat when you realize what they had to contend with while creating this film. Black Cauldron was our 25th Full-Length Animated Feature and I guess I just wanted to be a part of another icon that would draw lines of folks wanting to experience the magic of a new Disney classic.

While researching this story, I met some wonderful folks who consider Cauldron among their favorite Disney films and if I learned nothing else, time has taught me that there are other points of views beside mine as to what makes a good film. However while it may not have been the classic some of us had hoped for  it nevertheless has gained a very appreciative audience for its endeavor and I'm sure that with the further re-release on DVD it will only brew into more fans.  What was also gained on this project was the nurturing of the multitude of  talent we had with the further training we all received in Story, Direction, Layout, Animation, and BG Painting.

The grand Disney experiment called "The Black Cauldron" that we all faced together was definitely worth the effort in the long run. The intense sometimes painful labors and likewise sparkling discoveries we made while working on this feature made us all a bit more ready when we soon tried our hands on new animated undertakings like "Basil of Baker Street." That delightful Victoria era film in turn eventually made it possible to go on and make what would someday be hailed as the beginning of the Disney renaissance, a fantasy fish tale or perhaps  fish tail called "The Little Mermaid."

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Cauldron of Chaos, PART 2

Don Bluth's Banjo project definitely got everyone's interest
A lot has been said and in too many cases in a rather disparaging and often over stated manner but yes there were various camps forming at the Disney studio at this time that on the cynical side could almost be described as a peaceful and loving boxing ring without the gloves.

In this corner, the veterans, including what was left of Walt's "9 Old Men" were almost  all gone by then although thankfully some would still come by and check in with us from time to time.  In another corner there was a generation of great artists that hadn't really had their opportunity to strut their stuff  with the old guard in place and were hoping to soon get their chance.  There was also the corner with Don Bluth's group who were also talented, well trained and believed to be the next leaders of Disney animation.  And let's not forget yet another corner containing the sometimes brash but equally talented  Cal Arts trained kids which found their leadership in people like John Musker who captained the "Rat's Nest" as they called his cacaphony of comedic cartoon cut ups.

There were of course other innocent and equally talented folks of all ages and backgrounds contributing but these heavyweight contenders were the main event so to speak. I can only believe that with a person like Walt in charge, we would still have many of the same situations that go along with managing so many creative types but we would have been expected to channel more of the efforts into the films under his guidance. I once asked a man who worked alongside Walt for many years about just this problem and Woolie Reitherman's response was, "Walt wouldn't put up with that crap, he was too busy making movies." ( I always did like Woolie's frankness )  Unfortunately of course, Walt had passed away 10 years earlier and he was the irreplaceable piece of the puzzle. I liked and had friends in all of the groups which sometimes made it awkward when having people over to the house for get togethers who usually didn't get together. Nevertheless these folks and the overwhelming studio population for the most part worked together very well and operated as a team.

Cauldron Directors don their caps as  "Fare Folks"
As months boiled over into years, the cauldron directors Art Stevens, Ted Berman and Rick Rich had started to perceive a staleness regarding their sequences as the storylines morphed and were re-written. At one point it was finally decided that maybe a change would kick-start the creative process all over again. They traded sequences, yep, you heard right, they traded their sequences to each other to help get some fresh ideas going. Well, it was certainly an interesting gamble and in some ways it did get people excited.  Problems arose however in the fact that we were once again re-staging some of the layouts for the newest proposals while on the animation side, some scenes were being re-animated to encompass the latest director's new directions.

The tension on this film was relieved somewhat with the help of some wickedly funny pranks and gag sketches. An example on the right is one of literally hundreds of gag drawings that permeated the production and helped the crew keep their spirits up while laughing at management, the directors, and each other. The artist who doodled out the "Fare Folk" sketch was and still is a top animator and storyman and was hands down my favorite gagster. I wish I had room here for a lot more of these. It still cracks me every time I look at it. Sorry Joe, heh, heh, heh.

I was also called in by Joe to look into new film presentation processes. Joe was very interested in trying to find a gimmick that might help this film stand out among the rest. I looked into a variety of processes including 3d (I hated the glasses but couldn't find a way around them), stop motion background elements, xeroxing onto paper from actual models I built and other experiments including projecting onto a lenticular screen. We actually got some incredible results that drew applause from out little sweatbox audience using model sets during the "meltdown" sequence that gave us what looked a very intricate animated line drawing (one of the models is shown to the left). Why was it not used on the final film you ask? Well when I eventually left to work on Basil, no one stepped forward to see it through.

More sweeping shots, less camera moves.
Cauldron's format also brewed into a consomm√© of concern regarding the staging. We were shooting this film in 70mm which was the second to be attempted  after Walt Disney's "Sleeping Beauty." The layout department could explore bold compositions with this format understanding that at least the theatrical release would be seen correctly even if it suffered a possible "pan & scan" disfigurement through a later conversion 4:3. We often employed Don's favorite saying, "Less is more." as far as camera movement while envisioning our widescreen setups.

The layout department was given gorgeous new 70mm widescreen charts from our Scene Planning Department to compose their scenes but after using them for a few weeks I found myself comparing them to an old set Don Griffith had given to me from "Sleeping Beauty" and noticed a marked difference in the width versus height ratio. Unfortunately by the time I discovered the discrepancy and went to Dave Thomson in Scene Planning to show him, quite a few scenes were already handed out to the animators and thus had to be adjusted as we were given the new improved and corrected field charts.

First week on the Picket line
The puddles were just drying from this latest bubbling belch when out of nowhere there suddenly erupted an unforeseen calamity, WE WENT ON STRIKE! One second we found ourselves herded into the studio theater where VP of Disney Animation Ed Hansen explained that our Local 839 had gone on strike. The next moment we were pounding the pavement with ready made picket signs decorated with Disney characters handed to us as we left the studio entrance.

(The strike was an important and difficult time for all of us that suffered through it so I'll save that part of the story for another time to be illustrated with pictures I took from the first day we went out, the picket lines, the fight at the Union meeting and how many of us coped with having no salary for months)   

The gist of why I mentioned the Cartoonist's Strike was that it added yet another road block on Cauldron's path to completion. Almost as soon as the strike was settled another upheaval rocked the magic Kingdom of animation. This latest storm was not to be found in the artist's camps or on the sidewalks but was unfortunately brewing at the top of Disney management. Through a series of colorful idioms like green mail and golden parachutes, we soon found the head honcho, Ron Miller, Walt Disney's son-in-law and hand picked successor gone and replaced by non-Disney people we had never even heard of:  Michael Eisner, Frank Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

The mouse factory behind closed doors
I remember all too well standing besides Darrell Van Citters along with other animators on the "Something Wicked" abomination to our old Fred MacMurray era back lot square and hearing Michael Eisner announce how happy he was to be at Disney. He explained that he grew up loving all the wonderful Disney characters, "After all, who could ever forget Heckle and Jeckle and Mighty Mouse?" That is an exact quote folks. The backlot was dead quiet. After a silent pause that would have made a fart sound like Mount St Helens there was a very noticeable groan from the animation portion of the audience. It was soon apparent that Michael, Frank and Jeffrey were all just a little ignorant about animation and the steps it took to create the magic. One new exec was overheard explaining the process he obviously knew nothing about to a fellow new suit, "They draw 24 drawings a second." Well I don't know if even legendary animator Freddie Moore could have achieved that speedy feat.

Mel Shaw contributed countless Character Designs
like this one of Gurgi to be voiced by John Byner.
As Cauldron was screened for the new management, Jeffrey Katzenberg proceeded to ask for "... cover shots" during sweat box meetings not fully understanding that extra shots to "cover" a scene was only done in live action. In animation, we DREW each shot as they were needed depending directly on the story board/workbook. Multiple animated variations would have made the already expensive process out of financial reach even for Disney.

Since his background was only in live action up to this film, this point of view isn't really that unusual. Jeffrey however proved to be a very hard working exec and showed how serious he was in rectifying his lack of knowledge by immediately going into a thorough self education process involving  every step of the creative and production processes used by Disney feature animation. He soon became a hands on manager who garnered the respect of quite a few on the staff  (including me)  and along with Roy Disney's help and guidance would see Disney animation eventually regain its prominence in the field.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Cauldron of Chaos, PART 1

One of Mel Shaw's many inspirational masterpieces.
If you were interested in a career in art in the 1970s, you might have seen a beautiful flier created by Disney Studios that was used as a recruitment tool to attract new young talent to the Disney Animation crew. The colorful booklet featured the classic scenes showcasing Disney films along with stunning pastels from Mel Shaw that were inspirational pitch pieces for a new feature.  This new film had roots in Welsh mythology  and was based on Lloyd Alexander's "Chronicles of Prydain" book series which would eventually be called "The Black Cauldron." It was to be an epic project for Walt Disney Feature animation. The official line from the studio was that it would be in effect a "Snow White" for the new generation referring to the first animated full length feature from Walt Disney which had helped launch a veritable empire of magical entertainment.

"The Back Cauldron" was the tale of Taran, a young boy who daydreams of being a great warrior fighting the legendary Horned King. Since he lives in the peaceful countryside with a kindly old enchanter and his oracular pig, that doesn't seem to be something that will happen anytime soon, or is it? After facing witches, fairfolk, magical swords and the evil black cauldron itself, Taran eventually learns what being a real hero is all about and that some things are more important than simple glory. Well Cauldron did indeed get made and it was created during a very hectic time in the studio's history. During its early genesis we saw the exit of some of the most experienced and talented people from the Disney ranks, a industry wide Strike was called, we also witnessed a power struggle that sadly replaced studio insider Ron Miller with Paramount outsider Michael Eisner. Under Ron's leadership, a new label called Touchstone had given the studio another outlet for more mature offerings like the box office smash, "Splash". Would that label along with the animation division be in trouble? There were hushed talks of corporate raiders selling off the animation department much like MGM had been conquered and divided earlier. Thankfully Roy Disney returned to the reins and eventually helped supervise a renaissance for Disney animation. As someone who was there during all these tumultuous events, I hope you'll enjoy this bumpy road down memory lane as I recall the "The Black Cauldron of Chaos."

Just a quick sketch from the "Griff"
Although the production actually began back in 1971 when Disney Studio first purchased the rights, it would be almost 10 years later in 1980 when veteran Disney artist Joe Hale would assume command of the helm. Joe had the tough role of shrinking the sprawling story that had taken 5 volumes to unfold into a more manageable and tighter tale. One of the best things he did was to take what was a minor role of the Horned King and make him into the major villian. Joe also decided early on to open up the potential for visual design and encouraged the studio to contact accomplished artists outside the Disney realm known for creating fantasy illustrations from the Hildebrants to Frank Frazetta. Many of the top name illustrators were swamped with committed deadlines but we did bring accomplished artists such as Mike Ploog into the fold. Besides our resident master Art Director Don Griffith, the other one responsible for much of the look of the film was a talented new comer to Disney, Mike Hodgson. Mike's lush pencil renderings were reminisent of the type done by layout artists of yesterday such as Charlie Philippi during classics like Pinocchio. With Don Griffith's (whose Disney Career started with Pinocchio) keen eye to mentor him, those guys made a heck of a one-two punch for some wonderful visual storytelling.

One of the maquettes I made for the film 
Other efforts came from within the new kids on the block. Tim Burton and myself were briefly singled out to provide some conceptual inspiration for Cauldron. Tim's work was fresh and resembled what could best be described as "Beetlejuice" meets "Nightmare Before Christmas" although both wouldn't  become reality until much later under Tim's visionary direction. Joe ran films such as Warner's 1967 classic, "Camelot" for inspiration and for me it really was awesome to see it up on the screen for the first time.  I didn't want to create another Sleeping Beauty style castle but instead designed one constructed from human skeletons and other creature's bones. My character suggestions were more toward the mold of Peter Pan styling. Did I mention that I was also pushing for songs? Tim and I didn't stay long as far as doing the concepts but to Joe Hale's ever lasting credit, at least he was open to new approaches and gave us both a shot.

Mel Shaw reviews Cauldron story
outline with animator Gary Goldman
Undoubtably the most outstanding visual guide to this film was laid out in a masterly fashion by Mel Shaw who had provided the inspiration for all of us to begin with. His room was full of glorious pastel paintings depicting the story and were the inspiring bait that had hooked all of us for the entire fishing trip. Mel had graciously come out to Cal Arts and given us a presentation of his tremendous work for "The Black Cauldron" which certainly inspired our classes. Looking back at his beautiful work I would have to credit that moment and that particular Disney artist for igniting my love for working in pastels. Don Griffith re-introduced me to Mel and Woolie Reitherman when I first started at Disney. Woolie's room was next door to my corner room and he used it as a direct route to the dripping coffee maker that steamed constantly in Don's room. I could hear Woolie and Mel discuss at length the new picture they had been developing called, "Little Broomstick". The music they were playing on their record player as background for their reel was stimulating. They had both already done a tremendous amount of visual work and had the sketches pinned up on boards surrounding the entire room.  Woolie would stop by my desk and talk every once in a while and eventually took an interest in some of my little pastels I had pinned up over my desk. Before I knew it he had  invited me to work on the flying sequence where the little girl first takes her ride up into the clouds. My proudest moment in what I call my career was having my pastels pinned up on those boards among Mel's masterworks. Woolie and Mel were 100% supportive with this fresh wide-eyed geek and I was a kid in the candy store. Before my goosebumps could settle though, I was suddenly removed from "Broomstick,"  and dipped into a scalding hot Cauldron of chaos.