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 "'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...


  1. Thanks very much for these posts, not to mention for the great work you did! Mickey's Christmas Carol was on my very first VHS as a kid and it quickly became a family tradition to watch it on Christmas. Now I'm looking forward to show it to my daughter when she's old enough.

  2. David you made my Christmas even brighter with those wonderful comments, thanks. Fortunately we had a great director and crew on "Mickey's Christmas Carol" to create the magic. Hope your daughter enjoys it as much as you did.