When you’re a Disney story teller you know there will be good days and days that are not so good. Creating an effective storyline for a Disney feature length animated cartoon can be a daunting task. Especially if your story director happens to be the Old Maestro himself. Walt was a natural story editor with excellent instincts when it came to crafting a compelling film sequence. He seemed to know when the story was working and would resonate with audiences. However, should you fail to deliver the goods, or worse, lapse into poor taste, I guarantee you’d find yourself in a fair amount of trouble. The year was 1966 and the event was another of our many meeting with Walt Disney on “The Jungle Book.” The Old Maestro shifted uncomfortably in his chair and tapped his finger impatiently. If you’ve ever been in a meeting with Walt Disney you clearly knew this wasn’t a good sign. The story boards looked good and the new character offered all kinds of possibilities for humor. Plus, the story-men were giving the pitch their best effort. However, there was a problem. The sequence simply wasn’t working.

In the grand scheme of things this was nothing all that unusual. Sometimes, Walt Disney required convincing when something failed to please him. Director, Woolie Reitherman had one last card to play. He told Walt that Directing Animator, Milt Kahl was eager to begin animating the comical character. Once the master animator brought the quirky cartoon to life it was sure to be hilarious. Disney reluctantly gave in and allowed the storyboards to move to the next phase. This meant the rough story sketches would be assembled into what was then called a “Leica” or story reel. Once the reels were ready the Old Maestro would return for another look. The story-men breathed a sigh of relief. At least they had gotten a reprieve. A few weeks soon passed and the Old Maestro was available for another story meeting. However, this particular meeting would take place in 3-11, the large screening room on the third floor of the Animation Building. A loud cough announced Walt’s arrival as he entered the screening room. The boss took a seat up front with director, Woolie Reitherman, Ken Anderson, Larry Clemmons and a few other animation big shots. I made it a point to sit in the rear of the screening room and a good distance from Walt Disney. On this day in particular, I decided to be invisible. I had reservations about this particular sequence and I didn’t care to take any responsibility for it. You probably don’t know “The Jungle Book” sequence I’m speaking of because you’ve never seen it. Actually, very few people have seen the “Rocky” sequence unless you were part of “The Jungle Book’s” story team. Rocky the Rhino was voiced by comedian, Frankie Fontaine who was well known for his television appearances as, “Crazy Guggenheim, a rather dim-witted bartender on the Jackie Gleason Show. However, what worked on national television was not ringing any bells with the boss and Walt hated every minute of it. By the time the projectionist in the booth switched off the machine and raised the room lights, Walt was fuming. He had already expressed his displeasure with the storyboards. Now, he had been subjected to the same painful sequence a second time. Hardly a laugh riot, the rhino sequence had been agonizing to watch. Needless to say, most of us didn’t stick around for the choice words Walt Disney reserved for our superiors. We simply shuffled out of the screening room and headed back to our office grateful we had no part in this unfortunate situation.

A few months later, we finally completed story work on “The Jungle Book,” and some people tell me it’s a pretty good little film. However, they probably never knew the story of the famous rhinoceros. The cartoon critter who for good reason - ended up on Walt Disney’s cutting room floor.

Milt Kahl couldn't wait to animate Rocky the Rhino but Walt Disney had other ideas.

Milt Kahl couldn't wait to animate Rocky the Rhino but Walt Disney had other ideas.

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AuthorFloyd Norman
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You’re in an Indian encampment far, far away from civilization and eager to find a way back home. Have no fear, because I can have you back home in no time. Simply head over the hill and you’ll find yourself on Alameda Avenue in Burbank California.

Welcome to the Walt Disney Studios, boys and girls. Believe it or not, this was my view from the Animation Building on the Walt Disney Studio lot back in the nineteen fifties. You see, back then much of the Burbank lot was an actual working motion picture studio and many of the films were shot here on the Disney studio lot. It was not unusual to see a western fort, a snow covered mountain or an Irish village right here on the Burbank property. The studio back lot was pretty much a blank canvas, and the Disney art directors could create any environment needed for a new motion picture. As you can imagine, we shot a fair number of westerns, prairie dramas, and cowboy movies, and all of this happened in view of the Animation Building where we were busily putting the finishing touches on Sleeping Beauty.

Filmmaking continued on the Disney Studio lot into the sixties when we were joined by Sean Connery and Janet Munro in a little film called Darby O’Gill and the Little People. Soon, we’d have the streets and rooftops of London as Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke arrived to film Mary Poppins. As needed, the amazing Burbank lot would be transformed to be any place in the world it needed to be. It was all movie magic and we enjoyed every minute of it. You might think it odd, but dinosaurs roamed the Disney back lot and beautiful native girls swam in a tropical lagoon. This was the kind of thing we experienced on a day to day basis, and I can tell you we had our fair share of fun working at Walt’s movie studio.

The Walt Disney Studio is not that much fun today. The magical back lot has been replaced by several nondescript office buildings and functional parking lots. Even though all this is practical from a business point of view, I gotta tell you for certain that the magic we experienced many years ago is now a distant memory.

This is the view from my office window in Walt Disney's Animation Building back in the fifties. Pretty cool, eh?

This is the view from my office window in Walt Disney's Animation Building back in the fifties. Pretty cool, eh?

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AuthorFloyd Norman
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There’s a pretty good chance you’ve never visited a “Sweatbox” at the Walt Disney Studio. This script was written for new employees, most of whom would be making their first visit to this rather unique location in Walt’s Animation Building. I’ll share it with you now.

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the Sweat Box. Walter Elias Disney, the founder of our company, sat in this very theatre to review story work and early animation on the feature motion picture, “Dumbo.” Since we’re all here, let me tell you what this meeting was like.

This theatre gets it’s unique name from the cramped screening rooms in Walt Disney’s Hyperion studio. The early studio had its home in the Silverlake district of Los Angeles and in the late thirties few buildings had air conditioning. A small group of artists could easily fill the room and if the weather was warm you understood how the meeting room got its name. Of course, if Walt Disney attended the meeting you could guarantee the Old Maestro would have his own way of turning up the heat.

However, we’ve made the move from Hyperion to a brand new studio in Burbank and this modern facility has all the amenities including air conditioning. However, once you begin a session with Walt Disney I can guarantee he’ll have his own way of raising the temperature. At the moment, the artists and writers are engaged in casual conversation until a loud cough is heard outside the door. If you were a Disney veteran you knew this was Walt’s way of announcing his arrival. It was a warning sign that, “man was in the forest.” Walt was giving you ample time to “snap to” before he entered the room.

Suddenly, the door swings open and Walt Disney enters the room. There’s no entourage because Walt usually arrives alone. He takes the seat reserved for him in the front row of the small theatre. A standing ash tray is near his chair should he reach for a cigarette. The greetings were brief and Disney quickly got down to business. “Okay, guys!” What have you got to show me?”

The material Walt will be reviewing today is an animated motion picture currently in production. The short story adapted for the screen by storymen, Joe Grant and Dick Huemer looks to be a winner. The story is a perfect fit for Disney’s brand of storytelling and should appeal to the whole family. The lights dim and the sequence begins. Consisting of rough story sketches there is no animation on the reels. However, a rough dialogue track and temporary music help fill in the gaps. It’s enough to give Walt Disney a pretty good idea how the sequence is playing.

Once the lights come up, Walt puffs his cigarette and immediately focuses in on what he feels is not working in the scene. “This scene needs more heart,” he advises his story team. “We’ve got to make the audience truly care about our character. If they don’t care, we’ll lose them.” The storymen quickly scribbled a series of notes. They’re well aware that the changes Walt requested should not be forgotten. And, god help the storyman who fails to address the notes given him by Walt Disney.

Once again the lights dim. Animators, Ward Kimball and Bill Tytla have rough pencil animation to screen and Walt chuckles at what he sees on screen. “I like the business with the clowns,” he comments. “That’ll get laughs for sure.” Animator, Bill Tytla notices Walt’s raised eyebrow as the boss considers the “Mother of Mine” song in the film’s first act. “ I like the emotion in the scene. Just push it a little harder. The audience should really feel the pain of the mother and child separation.” Everyone in the room listens intently to Walt’s notes because they understand his total commitment to creating the best story possible.

Fast forward to today. You are now at the Walt Disney Company and you are a new member of this vast, dynamic organization. And, as we promised - your story starts now.

Inside one of the second floor "Sweatboxes" at the Walt Disney Studio. Sweatboxes were located on the second floor of the building. Larger screening rooms were on the third floor.

Inside one of the second floor "Sweatboxes" at the Walt Disney Studio. Sweatboxes were located on the second floor of the building. Larger screening rooms were on the third floor.


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AuthorFloyd Norman