West of WEDWay
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I was cleaning out some old files this weekend when I stumbled upon my notes from "An Evening With Woolie Reitherman." Held, say the notes, on February 22, 1978 at the Lincoln Theater in Disneyland. My circle of friends at WED and Disneyland included a loosely organized group that called themselves the Animation Club. I believe Stacia Martin was involved, along with David Mumford. The Animation Club persuaded several folks now called Disney Legends to chat with the forty or fifty faithful. We met Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas on another night at the Lincoln Theater, and had a wild evening with Ward Kimball on yet another occasion.
On this night, Woolie wore a red cardigan sweater and no tie. My notes start with this observation. In 1980, I was privileged to have lunch with this man--Wolfgang Reitherman--who had been in charge of all animated feature production from Walt's death in 1966. One of the Nine Old Men, he began as an animator on Snow White, moved to animation supervisor on Fantasia, and directing animator on Pinocchio, Dumbo, Mr. Toad, Cinderella, Alice, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty and so on. I remember a tall, red-haired man with a deep voice; something like the older Peter O'Toole.
Probably a little uncertain what kind of a crowd a Disneyland "Animation Club" would draw, Woolie brought reinforcements: his wife and three or four young animators. He began by discussing the history of Disney animation. He showed us rough pencil studies of Snow White and other films and observed that it's a team effort. It takes several minds to think up all that goes into such a piece. Not only several minds, he said, but several mediums. "Does it work when you read it? When you sketch it on a storyboard? When the actor records the voice? At the rough draft?" At each of these stages, the work that has gone before is evaluated and new ideas are injected.
"That's a point Walt insisted on," I recorded Woolie telling us. "Many ideas. A 'richness' of clever ideas. Each scene must end before your mind wants to leave it." One example of this is the dwarf's carved organ in Snow White--it's just a background prop, but it is interesting in its own right. Walt, Woolie said, knew that an animated feature must be a team effort, which is why he concentrated on developing his team to work smoothly together.
I made a list of what Woolie said makes a good story:
Characters. "Sometimes this is all you need, like Bianca and Bernie in The Rescuers."
Conflict. "You must have a villain that can be completely conquered." A story they had tried recently had the weather in the Arctic as the only real conflict. It wouldn't work because there was no possible resolution.
Pathos. Pathos is important to develop sympathy for your characters.
Human Elements. "Human elements develop sympathy and understanding with the whole movie. Even with animal stars, they have to have human mannerisms to make them believeable."
Woolie said that it is important to work on all levels of the medium: color, visual action, character development and dialogue, music, vocal talents, sound effects. "You must do everything you can to be 'entertaining.' You try to overcome the limitations of your medium and to have a real effect on your audience. You want to move them. You get their interest, make them sympathetic to your hero, mad at your villain, and, in general, you 'grab' them for the duration of the film so that they care how it comes out." Woolie had a way of stressing the word "entertain," leaving virtual quote marks hanging in the air. "When it's over," he concluded, "they've been 'entertained.'"
"That's why," he offered, "paper dolls and Gumby-type things never worked. People were entertained by the novelty of the process, but they didn't get attached to the characters. Popeye lacked enough story to hold your interest until the end, so it couldn't work in a feature." Of course, some would say he was proved right when Robin Williams made the film "Popeye" in 1980. My notes don't make clear whether I was quoting the speaker or extending his logic, but I did write down that Mickey Mouse couldn't sustain a feature, either.
Woolie retired in 1980 and died just after I left WED in 1984. He was made a Disney Legend in 1989.
-- Alastair Dallas
Alastair Dallas worked at Walt Disney Imagineering (then known as WED Enterprises) for six years in the 70s. In this column he shares memories of working for Disney and with some of the legends of Imagineering.
West of WEDWay column is not posted on a regular schedule.
The opinions expressed by Alastair Dalls, and all of our columnists, do not necessarily represent the feelings of LaughingPlace.com or any of its employees or advertisers. All speculation and rumors about the future of the Walt Disney Company are just that - speculation and rumors - and should be treated as such.
-- Posted September 28, 2001