Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Jim Henson Tribute

Kermit croons a spellbinding theme called Rainbow Connection.
When a friend called to ask me to contribute a piece or two for a tribute to the visionary muppeteer Jim Henson to be held this month, I couldn't say yes fast enough. I had worked briefly with Jim and Frank Oz on their first muppet feature, "The Muppet Movie," as what else? A muppeteer. I was Emmet Otter and my classmate and future wife Patty Paulick was ironically MA otter. On the movie set we quickly learned important terminology like, "Muppets Up!" That popular ditty would soon be followed by the equally unforgettable, "Muppets down!" As Jim explained, "you new people have no idea how tired your arm will get just holding it in an UP position. A few minutes here and a few there and soon you realize the entire day has gone by and for some reason, your arm is really sore." Many seasoned muppeteers grinned in silent agreement with Jim and so we took that tidbit to heart rather quickly. It was and IS  great advice by the way. We found ourselves surrounded by talented people from all walks in life that somehow shared a passion for puppetry. These people were amazing to watch as their performances brought each character to life before our eyes.

Frank Oz, but you can call him MA Otter
We performed to a pre-recorded soundtrack and worked below floor level, watching small TV screens to check on the movement we couldn't see above our heads. After a few hours sped by we were enjoying our first lunch break when a lanky figure ambled over to sit with Patty and I. It was Kermit, followed very  closely by his alter ego Jim Henson. Jim asked us in his soft spoken voice how we were enjoying the shoot so far and as Kermit entered the conversation I found myself looking and speaking to him, along with Jim. It was magic. If you have ever met or worked with Jim you realize I am not exagerating when I say how friendly and pleasant to be around the guy was. A shrill voice soon interrupted  our talk as Miss Piggy invaded our little circle dragging along Frank Oz by the arm. It was hilarious watching and listening as Kermit and Miss Piggy went at it while the human counterparts below seem to almost disappear. Miss Piggy complained about many things including how drafty the sound stage was, which was why the curls were not staying in her hair and the fact that Frank's hands were too cold (and a few other remarks )and we all cracked up. That was hands down, (or is that muppets down? ) one of the most convivial crews I have ever worked with. 

As Frank was the voice for MA he took some time to help Patty out with her characterization of the little woman. Jim likewise gave me pointers on Emmet but also threw some real compliments my way concerning my muppeteering skills that I will always cherish. I actually felt guilty when I got my paycheck for doing what was truly a thrill for me. I did eventually cash the check, I mean come on, starving artist, remember?  Like many people reading this blog, I have been a fan of Jim's work back when the muppets were more or less nameless monsters and were featured in black and white television commercials and on the Ed Sullivan Show. My brothers and I would squeal with laughter at the antics of a small lizard like creature, nameless at the time but after a few more design modifications like webbed feet, we would all know him eventually as Kermit the Frog.  We also enjoyed Rowlf the Dog on the "Jimmy Dean Show". So when the Gallery  came a' knocking for a tribute piece, I was thrilled at the opportunity to share my deep appreciation for Jim Henson and what he has done for me and so many other childhoods in sharing his love for life.

"Soul Mates" basic blocking
"Soul Mates" adding washes
First thing I did was to knock out lots of quick little sketches. The second thing I did after looking at those embarrassing little doodles was realize it had been a long time since I had drawn these guys, and I had better get some good reference out and get reacquainted with the Muppet clan. I went ahead and spent the day looking through the many books I have on the Muppets, from "Jim Henson, The Works" to various Story books and record albums even resorted to sketching while watching a DVD of "Muppet Movie" and before too long I was once again comfortable with his wonderful world of muppet magic all over again. In fact with this sudden inundation of muppet mythos, I felt a "Rainbow Connection" forming or maybe it was just the tune stuck in my head. Anyway, eventually the two pieces I came up with for the Tribute show are as follows:

"Soul Mates" ready to ship
"Soul Mates"  is an acrylic on canvas with Kermit enjoying some quiet time with his favorite playmate (Jim Henson of course!). I thought it would be fun to see these two switch places with Jim as the puppet and Kermit as the muppeteer. I usually work in water color or gouache so doing this in acrylic was really a fun exercise for me. I had some Winsor Newton acrylics but had read some great reviews on the Golden line of paints. Found collections of Golden at a local art store that blended beautifully on the canvas and of course I destroyed a few of my brushes in the creative process.

"Muppets and Mullions"
"Muppets and Mullions" is inspired by a beautiful photograph taken of Jim sitting in an alcove window with a view of the New York City skyline holding alter ego Bert on his knee between shooting takes of Sesame Street. His fellow muppeteer Frank Oz brought Ernie to life and the two contrasting muppet personalities made for lots of muppet mirth. I wanted to silhouette Jim and Kermit against a chaotic cacophony of cutups (pun intended) of many familiar faces from the muppet family. I kept the "crowd" in white to be seen as a grouping and further simplify them as a light value to make the darker Jim and Kermit foreground pop. I cut this project out of hundreds of little snips of paper, slicing, scoring, folding, gluing until it all seemed to finally come together. (Thank you Mr Bill Moore our Design teacher from Cal Arts! ) I also must add that I along with my wife Patty are thankful we have a vacuum cleaner that works.

It's an honor to be a part of something that says thanks to a man who has brought so much enjoyment all over the world. The exhibition will be from December 10, 2011 to January 2, 2012. Opening reception is December 10, 7:00 PM to 11:00 PM.  If you get a chance, come on down to the Gallery and say hello, I'd love to meet you as we pay tribute to the "man behind the muppets,  JIM HENSON."

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Mickey's Xmas Carol, PART 3

Ghost of Christmas Past models Mike Peraza
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.

I worked with Disney Feature animator and model maker Dick Lucas
Ken stops by Christmas Carol to check out my model sets
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 wife 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 
Patty Peraza live on Good Morning America Interview during Xmas Carol
) 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 more than enough for his over flowing 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 drawings to place them into the sets for study and discussion.

These model sets and sculptures were available for loan out to anyone on the crew to aid with staging their scenes. Since the pieces were primarily paper and balsa wood, when Patty and Ted wanted to borrow the Ghost of Christmas Past set to study light patterns they asked me, "Is it OK to light the candle?" "Sure" I answered. When Patty returned the candle stick with the rest of the set at the end of production I wondered if they had used it as the sole means of lighting and warmth  for the effects department as there was 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
John Lasseter and Mike Peraza check scene on Ub Iwerks moviola
Disney Fine Art 
and Hallmark as a basis towards a limited sculpture/ornament 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.

As I mentioned earlier, we unfortunately didn't have the ability to create computer graphics in 3D at the time 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.

Mike Peraza at his desk #disneyartist
Me at Bill Peet's old desk working away
  One of our Mickey Model sheets

Animation production was directed in a very organized yet enjoyable manner by Burny with superb detailed model sheets constructed for animators to follow. I went down to the morgue to gather additional reference for characters we were "borrowing" from previous features like Willie the Giant, Ratty, Moley, etc.. On Mickey's Christmas Carol we used model sheets that demonstrated key poses as well as others that specifically detailed, scale, proportions and the final cleanup process notes.

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.

The talented crew hanging out with "Santa"

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 definitely not laughing at our early White Christmas as evidenced by the interoffice mails we received (which I kept) 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 was requested to help with much needed animation for both EPCOT and Tokyo Disneyland and when you aren't there at the end of production even though you personally animated over 100 feet of effects... Well, out of sight, out of mind.

She was a pro and took it like a er... woman, but there were more than a few very 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. You can't always tell what a person did of didn't do on a film or series by just reading the credits.

One of my lost NBC "bumpers" drawings

Patty documented every aspect of the film
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, both of which the entire crew signed. When I made an iron-on and wore it to work (minus signatures) on a yellow t-shirt, 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. If I had more room here, I post some pictures from that lovely evening.

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 very good experience made better by the talent and integrity of the entire crew and a supportive management team. "Mickey's Christmas Carol" was received enthusiastically at the box office when issued in movie theaters 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 Dale Baer, Ed Gombert and Randy Cartwright.

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
Mike (Santa) and Burny Christmas Eve
"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
The Release Poster
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.

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.

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!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Mickey's Xmas Carol, PART 2

Burny,  carefree Commander of Christmas Carol Capers

Most of the film was storyboarded with little charcoal sketches by Burny. I mean these were really little jewels that clearly told the story but did it with simple yet beautifully clear imagery. There have been outstanding story board artists in Disney studio over the years, the likes of Bill Pete, Joe Rinaldi and Ken Anderson come immediately to my mind. Well, I believe Burny could have held his own with that allstar team. He tried to find the best way to stage a story point and executed those attempts in a very eye-pleasing manner. I had been working (and still do) in charcoal for years and helped Burny with a few pf my charcoal and pastel sketches sprinkled amongst the boards but in all honesty, he didn't need my help.

Although he might not have needed any assistance in this department, he got a great pair of helping hands anyhow when Ed Gombert was brought on as one of the early artists to form our small crew. Ed was one of those renaissance dynamos who could do character design, storyboard and then guess what else? ... yep eventually animate the sections he had previously boarded. His Ratty and Moley were animated in a fine fashion that pleased Frank and Ollie (the original animators from the 1949 feature film). We really were in awe of Ed's ability and he wasn't the only outstanding teammate to climb onboard our ship. Another accomplished cohort was Glenn Keane who hardly needs any introduction to anyone who has followed Disney animation during the past couple decades. He joined the ranks as part of our animation staff along with veteran animator Dale Baer another genius with a pencil who had luckily just returned to the Disney Studio in time for our project. The "dream team" was rapidly taking shape.

Mickey Magic, Pencil Test to Final Scene 
The list went on with Sylvia Mattinson overseeing all the assistants and the final cleanup. Character animation was by the likes of Matt O'CallaghanToby Shelton, John Lasseter,  Dave Block portraying Ebenezer Scooge and Mark Henn and Terry Hamada who gave a stellar performance as Bob (Mickey) Cratchit .  The effects department was in good force with Ted Kiersey, Patty Peraza, Jack Boyd and Jeff Howard helping with the magical honors. Don Griffith and Mike Peraza did concepts and layout, with the latter ably assisted by Sylvia Roemer. Jim Coleman headed the background department. The names I mentioned are only a few of the notable talents as the crew list goes on and on and one only has to watch the credits to see a "who's who" of future animation greats. I was like a little kid just chomping at the bit waiting for the animators to breathe life into the layout character drawings I left them with and they never disappointed as they delivered outstanding performances. As one animator turned in a scene with some fresh broad animation, the next guy would try to good naturally outdo it with ever broader stuff on his. This made for quite a change from the straighter toon we had all marched to on previous films.

Alan, the perfect voice for Scrooge
Voices were expertly cast and included Alan Young as the miserly Scrooge. In person he was anything but the sour old miser but he delivered such a good job on "Christmas Carol",  that Gary made sure to bring him back a few years later when we created "DuckTales" for Disney Television so I had the good fortune to work closely with Alan on both projects. Mickey of course had originally been given voice by Walt Disney and later Jimmy MacDonanld who was a sound effects genius and funny guy with a joke. Jimmy had passed the baton to Wayne Allwine in the late 1970s,  who balanced the midget mystro perfectly with Alan's performance. On a very poignant  note it was the last time Clarence Nash did Donald Duck which he of course had originated in 1934 in the short, "The Wise Little Hen". Ducky even brought that cool custom Donald Duck ventriloquist dummy to the recording studio with him one day just to give us a kick, which it certainly did. Mentioning voice talents, If you have an incredible ear you can also make out  Glenn Keane, John Lassetter, Mike Peraza, Mark Henn, Patty Peraza, and Randy Cartwright doing background vocal noise called, "walla-wallas" in a few of the crowd scenes. Bravo, what magnificent voices! Of course now you understand why we perhaps didn't rate our own song.

The Baers,1st day of Strike
Now don't believe that every second was laughs as we had some bumps in the road during production, doesn't every film? Run-a-way production was one of the issues our animation union local deemed a threat although at the time it seemed to affect mainly the Ink and Paint department. The work day was barely getting under way at the studio when the Disney animation staff was herded into the Disney theater and told by head of Animation Ed Hansen that our union had decided to strike and we all had to pack up our belongings and leave. It was a shock for most of us and a sad event I believe for both sides but within the hour we were all leaving the house of mouse. Union officials were ready and handed each of us an illustrated picket sign to call our own as we left the studio that morning. I'll go into the strike in a later blog in detail and with plenty of pictures Patty and I took from the first day as we all gathered our belongings through to the last, including parties, picket lines, union meetings and fist fights.

Don Griffith, who was my boss and best friend at the old studio would call us to see when Patty and I would be walking the picket line and join us. He even brought doughnuts! Now Don himself was part of management and as such was not on strike like we were but nevertheless wanted to show his support and close friendship to us. He had lived through the original strike at Disney Studios in 1941 and knew how violent it could become. He was not only like a father/big brother figure to me, when a house went for sale very close to his home, he made sure Patty and I knew about it. And yes, we live in that house to this very day!

During the making of an animated film there will invariably be time when someone thinks an action is too broad while another animator may think it hasn't gone far enough.

Patty, Tim & Don hit the pavement during the strike

Our "Ghost of Christmas Present" was realized by Willie, the giant who resided in Walt Disney's animated feature "Fun and Fancy Free". Glenn may have used the Giant as the basis of the form but he told me while animating him that he based the movement and lovable curiosity on his then 18 month old baby. (Must have been very big for his size ). Anyway studio animation had been limited in executing broad actions during Fox and Cauldron so with Carol, Glenn could flex his considerable animation talent for expressing expansive energized images.

Glenn Keane, Talent Extraordinaire

Glenn Keane's
animation of the roof stretching and snapping like it was rubber as Willie steps out received  a heated discussion from some who felt it was over the top and too broad and others who felt it was perfect for the business. Glenn did what animators should always do, plus what you are given. Of course in times like this, the director will act as referee and decide what is correct for the film. In addition to Glenn's expressive animation, Dale Baer was creating wonderfully dramatic animation with Pete in the graveyard. Here I was able to add a few story and staging ideas. I did some quick charcoal and pastel sketches where he started out as a silhouette and was then lit by the cigar to add some dramatic and creepy under lighting to his performance. Burney loved it and used the concept in his story boards. Even that piece of business came under scrutiny when objections were voiced from "upstairs" over having a Disney character smoke on screen. Seriously, it was almost cut!  Shessh! I mean come on, hadn't they even watched Cruella De'Ville, or even Captain Hook take a puff for evil's sake? 

Concept art for "Ghost of Christmas Present"
When you work on animated films you may hear the same lines hundreds of times before the film is in the can and released. Years later you'll find yourself reciting dialog from a film you worked on when someone cues a certain word or phrase. This can result in some lines not ripening well over time in one's mind and others perhaps even rotting on the line, er vine. When Daisy speaks to a young Scrooge at the dance he ends the conversation with "...you're also standing on my foot!"  Burny would crack up. I thought it was just mildly funny and a couple others didn't give the line even that much credit. Eventually a few of us mentioned how we thought the line fell flat. Burny didn't agree and kept it in. The more we teased him about it, the deeper he was entrenched with that line.

Disney Theater Burbank Main Lot 
Eventually we held our first ARI in the Disney theater which is a closed screening to check audience reaction to a work in progress. This was our big chance, or so we thought. Ed Gombert, Randy Cartwright and I had all bought these little devices called Laugh Boxes. It was kind of a rage back then, you know, like the "burning babies" toys so many of us played with "on break". The Laugh Boxes were battery operated and when you pressed the button a chessy laugh erupted that would almost always domino into more laughter. We were at the ready in the back row. Wait for it... wait for it... here comes the line... press the buttons! For a split second it was completely quiet then the entire theater erupted in howling laughter after hearing our sqawking electronic guffaws. Safe to say we hadn't thought it through for upon returning to Burny's room after the screening we were told," Well that line got the biggest laugh of the entire film, so I don't want to hear anymore about cutting it! " Opps. As they say, " the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. " Actually fitting all that Dickens material into a 26 minute format isn't easy although many have tried. All in all, the dialogue was tweaked well for the unique Disney characters brought in to perform the classic roles and we picked, chose and re-wrote the lines with great care keeping true to the Dickens flavor of the story as well as to the Disney characters now inheriting those memorable roles.

Part 3 on the way...

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Mickey's Xmas Carol, PART 1

mike peraza mickey's christmas carol
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 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 growing dark and uneven direction "Black Cauldron" seemed to be 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. So 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.

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 large 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.  
Example of Disney team work to create concept art.
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 animated the effects) 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

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
An early Griffith/Peraza styling concept
. 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!

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 from the record version 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 was open to re-casting some of the roles including those two fish out of water. We discussed it and came up with characters more copacetic in personality and composition including JImminy Cricket from "Pinocchio" to villainous Pete. Yes I know "Pinocchio" 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,  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 classic Disney animation too!

Breakfast table lamp, Peraza kitchen
Burny was a "collector" 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 we could review Christmas films such as "Scrooge" as well as UPA's "Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol"  and other films. Don Griffith, Eric Larson, myself and our tiny crew gathered 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 offered advice to anyone who asked including Burny during production of Christmas Carol. Burny was Eric's assistant in recent 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 me. 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! More Mickey's Christmas Carol coming up in the next chapter.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Remembering Ken O'Connor, PART 2

Original Title Card for Cinderella

This is roughly how a day in Ken's class would unfold. I dragged myself out of bed at 6:30, ate an orange and then after meeting Ken at his car, we walked to class where I would unlock the door as no one was there yet. As TA I had keys to all the Character Animation rooms which made it easier for fellow students to get access after hours.  He used a foldable rolling cart on top of which he placed items like  a converted fishing tackle box. This box held a hodge-podge of art supplies neatly arranged within its drawers. Endless goodies from pastels to paint and compasses to canvas rolls could be brought forth from that small box much like Mary Poppins did with her magical carpet bag. I would help Ken set up a still life for our first class exercise in the morning. He did the artistic placement, me the heavy lifting. These could be anything from a stuffed eagle on a branch waiting to pounce upon a equally stuffed rabbit  to an arrangement of musical instruments made of shiny brass and dark wood to a collection of old antique brass and copper lamps. 

Stepsisters by Mary Blair
In this way Ken would help us decipher how to properly translate various surfaces in our illustrations such as the metallic reflection of a trumpet, a subdued highlight on fine oiled wood,  the sheen of silk drapery to the soft fringe of a feathered wing. After lunch we would then move on to unique perspective problems that he would setup for us using handouts and the over head projector. After the head numbing problems solving missing perspectives of a cross on a hill, Ken would take pity on the class. He did this by bringing in examples from the Walt Disney Studios showing the various stages used in creating the family of famous Disney classics beginning with "Cinderella," a film he knew very well.

  Bedroom Concept,  Live Action, Layout &  Painted BG
He started off by bringing in a written treatment with concept art featuring Mary Blair, Ken Anderson, Bill Pete and John Hench followed the next week by storyboards and workbooks by talents like Bill Pete and Ken Anderson. We would then see the rough and final layouts from he, Don Griffith and Tom Codrick and others, then eventually the beautiful background paintings from Claude Coats and Art Riley including the discards such as the infamous Palace interior section that was completely discarded and had to be redone. We also studied the live action film reference from stills to the film comparing it to the animation derived from the rotoscoping of its poses until finally we watched the entire film in the theater with Ken as our MC as he made comments (some were hilarious) as to production problems and anecdotes about the film's production.  

The Disney version of the Stairway to Success
This procedure was followed on additional Disney classic films as we were exposed to more and more artists, their different styles and techniques, and the steps taken to produce these classics, including mistakes and failed attempts as well as the successful conclusion.To the left is a breakdown of an example of how the various stages of just one area, in this case the tower stairway, was developed and used in the film, "Cinderella". I wish I had the space to transfer all of my notes and photos of those sessions from my class book to these blog pages, it was a real treat for all of us. 

Ken and Mike CalArts 1976
After being exposed to the Disney classics in such illuminating detail, we could hardly wait to get back to our desks and begin sketching. Ken also introduced us to the process of adding powders to our renderings such as Graphite or charcoal. After applying that technique though, one has to "fix" it in place by using a spray so we all started using spray fixative to set the renderings. I am surprised we weren't asphyxiated if you can imagine a dozen kids spraying fixative in the hallway at the same time, phewwww. After the spray fests it was a relief just to run outside and breath in the smog! I actually switched my colon from Old Spice to Blair Fixative while attending Ken's classes.

Although I loved Ken's classes in particular, after the first semester, I ran out of money which was very embarrassing and was going to leave the school. Remarks from teachers like Ken O'Connor helped influence the Disney Studio and the Disney family who offered me a full scholarship to stay on for which I am eternally grateful to all of them. 

Monday, June 27, 2011

Remembering Ken O'Connor, PART 1

CAL ARTS 1973 photo by Mike Peraza 
It was the first day of school in our Character Animation class of Drawing and Perspective at California Institute of the Arts. Our teacher was a Disney veteran named Ken O'Connor I remember his tall form walking to the front of the class and asking in his unique Australian accent who in the group was interested in getting into Layout. After reading and marveling at the breathtaking images in the weight-lifter break your coffee table's legs edition of "The Art Of Walt Disney", my arm shot up but soon found itself the lone flag waving in a non-exhistent breeze as most of the folks there had their eyes on being animators. Ken winked at my red face with a big grin and I just knew we were going to get along just fine. As his classes got under way, he would encourage each of us to explore the many styles and mediums as he himself had demonstrated time and again with designs ranging from the traditional "Lady and the Tramp" to the more pop influenced  "Toot Whistle Plunk and Boom." Ken was a gentle genius, and that was plain to all who were fortunate enough to know him.

Walt Disney Studios at Hyperion 1930s
He was born in Perth, Australia in 1908 where when he wasn't clipping wayward joeys who wandered in on the family property, he studied commercial art at Melbourne Technical College and later at Australian National Gallery. He and his family then traveled up over to the United States to continue his studies at California School of Art in San Francisco. In 1935, Ken like many art students across the nation were informed about openings at an up and coming company called Walt Disney Studios where he was promptly hired and eventually worked on 13 features,100 short subjects, Disneyland attractions, 3 independent features and even a mural for his friend and former boss at the Ben Sharpsteen Museum named after the Disney legend Director and Producer. The mural successfully combined a life size 3/4 chunk of a real California stagecoach to an illustrated 6 horse team arriving in town and of course the perspective was flawless. 

O'Connor mural for Sharpsteen Museum
I spent a few nights over at Ken's Burbank home which was only a few streets down from my apartment at the time, while he was painting the mural in his back yard. We talked at length about film, art, and keeping pesky bugs from landing on fresh paint. When I say we talked, it should be admitted that Ken did most of the talking and this pup listened carefully after all Ken had actually been there and done that. If Walt had ever assembled a "Nine Old Men" team of Layout and Art Directors, Ken would have deserved a front row seat. Over the next few chapters I will share some of those discussions, his artwork, and personal photos while I remember not only a Disney legend, but a good personal friend. This veritable mountain of experience became one of the most valued instructors at the early Cal Arts Character Animation Program for his many extraordinaire talents not the least of which was his tireless and inspirational guidance for the next generation of animation artists.