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.


  1. Mike this is a fabulous series. I knew some of these people myself when I was at the studio in those days and heard some of the same tales although told in a less civil way. Please keep it up.


  2. Hi Tish,

    Great to hear from you. I'm thrilled to get your comments and appreciate them deeply. "it was the best of time, it was the worst of times..." to quote Dickens, or was that Shatner, lol?

  3. All your series are absolutely fantastic. I love them. Please don't stop writing them :)

  4. Hi Daniel. Well with comments like your's, I won't be stopping anytime soon, thanks.

  5. "cacaphony of comedic cartoon cut ups." You said a mouth full here!! lol "After all, who could ever forget Heckle and Jeckle and Mighty Mouse?
    WOW, that is too funny. Eisner didn't have a clue what Disney was about, when he got there, and still doesn't. Great stuff Mike!!

  6. Hi Steve. I don't agree that Eisner didn't have a clue but he was certainly less than informed about some aspects of Disney animation.

    Thanks for your comments.

  7. Wow. I love all of this talk of The black cauldron. The Black cauldron is my favorite movie of all time. One day I'm going to become a filmmaker and make a sequel to the black cauldron or maybe even a prequel. It's my dream to do it, and I'm going to make it come true.

  8. I'm glad you enjoyed "The BLACK CAULDRON" so much and wish you the very best with your film career. Let me know when you screen your first feature Dylan.