Pencils, Paper and Other Supplies

Animated filmmaking has clearly changed in recent years and along with that change our tools have been revised as well. However, there was a time animation artists worked with the simple tools of pencil and paper, and it might be fun to look back on that time.

When I began my career at the Walt Disney Studios many years ago, the artists picked up their supplies from the supply room located on the first floor of the Animation Building. The small room was across from 1-F, and should you need pencils and erasers that’s where you would pick up your supplies. Johnny Bond was the man in charge of animation paper, and you could pick up reams of punched paper from him down in D-wing. Of course, back in those days the paper was punched to fit “Disney Pegs.” Something our glorious leaders in the eighties considered decidedly old fashioned. I wonder what Walt Disney would have thought of their brain dead decision, but that’s another story. As young animation artists we would naturally choose our pencils depending on what our bosses used. In those days, animators had their preference and you would be wise to know what pencils they were using. After all, an animated scene should look as though it was done by one person and not by a crew of five or six. Drawing with the same pencil your animator and his assistant used only made good sense. Remember, this was back in the old days when the animation drawings were inked by hand so it didn’t matter what pencil an animator would use to complete his scene. Certain animators loved to rough with a blue pencil while others preferred an Orange Prismacolor. Then, there were those who loved roughing out their scene with a grey pencil. In any case, we lowly assistants always matched what our bosses were using.

While art supplies at the Walt Disney Studios were plentiful, I can’t say the same for Pixar Animation Studios back in the nineties. When I arrived at the Point Richmond facility to begin work on “Toy Story2,” I couldn’t believe how meager our supplies were. It all makes sense, actually. Pixar was a digital studio where most employees worked on a computer. Story artists like myself were still doing storyboards on paper back in those days so all we needed were pencils and paper. One day, I pulled open the “supply drawer” at Pixar to glance down at the rather limited selection of pencils and erasers. After being indulged at Disney for several years, I couldn’t believe how under supplied Pixar was in those early days. Rather than make a fuss, I simply drove to an art supply store in San Raphael where I regularly bought my own supplies. Naturally, things like this still make me laugh today. Our feature film must have had millions of dollars in the budget, yet I was buying art supplies out of my own pocket. I’m not complaining, mind you. I simply find such things hilarious. I look back on those early Pixar days and remember how different it was compared to the massive supply room we had at the Walt Disney Studios. I haven’t had the opportunity to check it, but I’m willing to bet Pixar Animation Studios has a pretty good art supply room today.

And, so it goes. I rarely see pencil and paper today as more and more of our work is being created digitally. It’s very efficient and great work is still being done. Even as I create images on a Macintosh computer and draw with a stylus on my Cintiq Tablet I still remember those trips to the Disney supply room on the first floor of the Animation Building. I remember walking away with handfuls of pencils and knowing there was more there should I need them. Walt Disney was generous with art supplies because he knew his artists needed tools to do their jobs. It was simply good business sense - and good common sense to make sure his artists had everything they needed to get the job done. 

Finally, If there are any managers out there, I encourage you to make sure your team has the tools to get the job done. Whether your staff is using pencil and paper or high tech computer equipment, please be advised that pinching  pennies is foolish and you’re only hurting yourself in the long run. Your “supply room” should be loaded with everything your artists need. If it’s not, I’m willing to bet the Old Maestro would consider you a moron.

Vintage tools of the trade. Though I often use a computer for artwork these days, I still manage to find time for pencils, paper and my trusty Mont Blanc drawing pen.

Vintage tools of the trade. Though I often use a computer for artwork these days, I still manage to find time for pencils, paper and my trusty Mont Blanc drawing pen.

Analog Car Chase

Okay, we've been down this road before. It’s a mountain road in merry old England but it's a fun ride. Before we go further lets remind ourselves how primitive things were only a few decades ago. I was fortunate enough to work on this amazing sequence in Walt Disney's “101 Damatians.” It would appear we were making the movie pretty much in sequence and this is not always the case in feature film production. In any event, this was the final act where the evil Cruella DeVille finally pays the price for her evil deeds. Of course, movie ends on a high note when Roger, Anita, Pongo, Perdita and all the puppies gather together to sing, “We'll have a Dalmatian Plantation.”

However, let's go back to that lonely London road and the final chase sequence that wraps up the end of the movie. If you remember, Cruella DeVille is roaring full tilt down the snowy mountain highway in her roadster. We didn't have the luxury of digital technology in the old days and animating vehicles was always a daunting task. The clever guys in Woolie's layout department came up with the idea of filming scale model cars and trucks as guides for our animation. We painted the vehicles white with a black outline to help in the photography. This would make our use of the print out rotoscopes a lot easier to read. The black outlines were to be our guide because we had no vector graphics to depend on back in the fifties. In this shot you see layout artist, Basil Davidovich on the left. That's our cameraman in the center. Unfortunately, I can't remember his name. Animator, Dick Lucas manipulates the large truck or lorry as Cruella’s roadster causes the vehicle to lose control on the icy road.

Clearly what we were doing was pretty low tech when you consider the tools we have today. Yet, that's the cool thing about working “Old School.” You do what you have to do with the tools you have. Computers were still amazing devices regarded for science fiction movies. We could not even imagine the way animation would be created in the years ahead. This was still the late fifties. A date that seems almost like the stone age when it comes to technology. In spite of all this, we managed to craft a pretty effective chase sequence that provided the cap for movie's finale. It was a wild mountain pursuit that gave the audience a few chills, thrills and a satisfying ending. Having a computer would have been a big help. However, I honestly think we had more fun doing it this way.

The Amazing Medium

For decades, the animation industry could hardly be considered a real job. It was a strange and quirky profession that attracted odd balls who couldn’t seem to find a place in the real world. I can only imagine the many parents who reacted with alarm when hearing their son or daughter might be considering a job in the cartoon business. However, animation geeks are passionate about their art and are not easily deterred. In spite of warnings from family and friends many packed their bags and headed for the cartoon factories in New York, Florida and Hollywood.

Animation requires a measure of talent and discipline. The ability to give life to a sketch and create a stunning performance is not easy. The fact that this is accomplished using only pencil and paper is something I’ve always found incredible. It was this special magic of moving drawings that drew me inextricably into the cartoon business and the creation of motion picture animation became a part of my life forever. I’d venture most of us here have a fair knowledge of animation’s history. However, it’s the future of this incredible medium that’s a cause for concern. This is not to say that the future is bleak because that’s not exactly the case either. There are probably more animation artists employed today than at any time I can remember in my long career. Animated feature films account for more than the lion’s share of profits studios garner each year. As a matter of fact, you’ve a better chance of earning your money back if your movie is animated rather than live-action.

Animated motion pictures clearly have value. Consider the new players continually moving into the animation arena. Studios and producers who never considered this business are now rushing for a place at the table. Why? It’s because animated feature films make money. Animated properties have value. Sadly, the creators - the artists who make the product do not fare as well. Traditional hand drawn animation was the first to go and one day I fear CGI will quickly follow. It’s not difficult to see the plan. When you no longer need a Milt Kahl, Freddy Moore or a Frank Thomas to make an animated motion picture the producers have gained clear leverage. That means the animated motion picture can be outsourced to any competing studio in the world. I’ll say it again. Any studio in the world. And because it can - it will. Outsourcing might prove disastrous for stateside employment or it might be a blessing that moves animation to the next level. Once we’ve had our fill of sequels and franchises we might start being creative again. 

As much as I love this amazing medium I find myself somewhat reluctant to extoll the virtues of a profession where security is clearly lacking. A new production model has replaced the old. Today’s studios ramp up for production and downsize when the project is completed. Animators are hired only to be laid off a few months later. If you’re one of the lucky few who managed to remained employed year after year, you’re a part of a select group. In spite of this reality, eager kids continue to express their enthusiasm for animation. Maybe they see something I’ve missed. After all, the old timers told me the business was darn near dead when I entered it back in the fifites. Perhaps truly great things are still ahead and I’ve simply been wrong in my accessment.

I sure hope so.

An animated motion picture in story development. Maybe I'm crazy but I love the process.

An animated motion picture in story development. Maybe I'm crazy but I love the process.

You Missed it

I’m sitting on the patio of Walt Disney Imagineering enjoying delicious Huevos Rancheros which happens to be my favorite breakfast these days. I continue to be amazed at this marvelous enterprise and how far they’ve traveled over the years. So my thoughts wandered back to the nineteen forties when two brothers named Disney had to make a major decision that would decide the future of their company.

The war had finally ended leaving Walt Disney Productions at a crossroads. Government contracts had sustained the company throughout the forties and now all of that had come to an end. What would the future hold for Walt Disney Productions, one might ask? The “Old Maestro,” who was then a much younger studio boss, went to his older brother with an ultimatum. Walt had three animated features on the drawing board and was eager to move ahead immediately. Nervous about risking the studios’ future, Roy O. Disney was reluctant to take on the risk. Walt Disney laid it on the line. “If we don’t move forward, we’ll go backward. Let’s either get back into business - or get the hell out!” And with that, “Cinderella,” Alice in Wonderland” and “Peter Pan” moved into production. However, three animated features were only the tip of the iceberg. Walt Disney had already decided to launch a number of live-action movies putting to use his frozen assets in the U.K. The nature films, first as two reelers, then feature films were finding an audience. Clearly, Walt Disney was not trusting his company to animated feature films alone. He began to broaden his company in a way few companies were even thinking about at the time. Next, Walt set his sights on entering television when most Hollywood moguls expressed disdain for the medium. Finally, the bold idea of a family theme park began as sketches on the drawing board, and would in time be realized as “Disneyland.” I was only a kid in school during those years but I remember watching Walt Disney Productions began to experience explosive growth. Much like Bill Gates at the start of the computer revolution, I was eager to bail out of school and go to work for Disney because I feared missing out on something big. I wanted to be there when all this was happening. Before long, Disneyland open its gates in Anaheim and I was there opening week. As I stared slack-jawed at the beautiful artwork in the show, “The Art of Animation,” I had no idea I was only six months away from becoming an employee of Walt Disney Productions.

Well, like Bill Gates, I didn’t miss the revolution either. As a matter of fact, I had the opportunity to be a part of it. Time Magazine probably stated it best. Disney didn’t simply expand - it exploded! When I arrived at the Walt Disney Studio early in 1956, it was more a theme park than a job. Each day was an adventure because there was so much going on. Walt had pulled out all the stops and was roaring full speed ahead with no stop lights in view. It was a glorious time to work for Walt Disney Productions, and if you had the misfortune to arrive late and miss the adventure, I’ll have to console you with Ward Kimball’s sad and sorry words of regret.

“Walt’s gone, and you missed it.”

The Walt Disney Studio in the Fifties. If you were lucky enough to be here then, it was a glorious time.

The Walt Disney Studio in the Fifties. If you were lucky enough to be here then, it was a glorious time.