Recap: “Oliver & Company” Director Shares 10 Fun Facts During WDFM Happily Ever After Hours

On Wednesday, November 18th, the Walt Disney Family Museum hosted a virtual Happily Ever After Hours event with George Scribner, whose Disney career has included directing animated features and shorts and developing experiences for Walt Disney Imagineering. Here are 10 things we learned from George Scribner’s event.

1. He was born in Panama.

Growing up in Panama, George was inspired to become an artist. “I went to school in the states, went to college in Boston,” he shared during the event, after which he returned to Panama and started directing commercials. That’s when he got a call to apply at Disney. “They were looking for artists who wanted to train and become animators, so I sent them my portfolio from Panama.” George received a rejection letter with constructive feedback and decided to move to L.A. to gain more animation experience at other studios. He kept applying at Disney and after a few years, he finally got the job.

2. The Black Cauldron was his first Disney film.

Joining Disney Animation as a Character Animator, George was assigned to Taran under the supervision of Andreas Deja.  “He was certainly better than me and I learned a lot… I appreciated everything I was taught and the opportunities I had.” George arrived just in time to witness a big shakeup at Disney. “Midway through it, Ron Miller left the studio,” he shared about the change in leadership as the Eisner era began. “It sounds like a platitude, but I feel like no matter what the circumstances are, if you’re open to it, you’re going to learn something no matter what.” The lessons learned on The Black Cauldron helped George quickly rise through the ranks at Disney.

3. Becoming a director on Oliver & Company.

“I started out as a character animator on The Black Cauldron and because I had directed theater, I had an affinity for story,” George shared about what made him stand out from his colleagues at the studio. With the arrival of Jeffrey Katzenberg and the implementation of the “Gong Show,” George’s mentor, Peter Young, pitched “Oliver Twist in New York City,” which got the greenlight. “I was in the right place at the right time. I had a really good art teacher who said ‘Chance favors the prepared.’” George started developing the story with Pete, but soon found himself helming the entire project.

4. How Oliver became a cat.

“I think that came from Pete Young, the story person I was working with,” George shared when asked why Oliver was the only cat in a cast of dogs. “He actually had a little kitten at his house and there was something very vulnerable.” During the early development process, George suggested that the only human in the gang be Fagan, but Oliver being a cat was part of their treatment early on. “There was something very vulnerable about this little tiny kitten surrounded by this pack of very weird dogs.”

5. Using computer animation in Oliver & Company.

After a research trip to New York City and reviewing footage capture from a dog’s eye view, it became clear that some of the sequences would be a big challenge in animation. That’s where computer animation came in to assist with some tough objects. Fagan’s trike, Sikes’ limo, and a few other items were among the first use of computer animation in a hand-drawn film. But George’s approach to these elements was always to make them not feel out of place.

6. Casting big stars in Oliver & Company.

While Disney animated films had cast big names in the past like Bob Newhart, Mickey Rooney and Kurt Russell, Oliver & Company took casting big names to a whole new level. “That really came from Jeffrey Katzenburg who really wanted to step up our game,” George shared. Katzenburg used his Hollywood connections to reach out to stars who had never thought of doing animation before, but George still had to meet with them to make them audition for the parts. In the case of Billy Joel, however, it was actually the music director who suggested the “Piano Man.” George remembers auditioning him over the phone from his car. “We cast it based on whether they were right for the role or not, so we didn’t let that drive our decision… The voice had to work as well.” In the end, George ended up with a dream cast for the film. “It was a great cast and Billy Joel was wonderful to work with… He was very gregarious, very open to ideas during the vocal sessions. I would usually read against him in the vocal booth.”

7. Directing Mickey Mouse in The Prince and the Pauper.

“That was a great, fun project to work out,” George shared about the chance to direct Mickey Mouse in an extended short film. “I have to point out, in fairness, Burny Mattinson had worked on A Christmas Carol with Mickey.” Scribner was basically working within the previously employed format, but that didn’t mean there weren’t opportunities to break new ground and George wanted his short to have more depth. At one point, [Mickey’s] at the bedside of the reigning monarch who passes away.” There were internal concerns that the scene wouldn’t play well. “I think we did pull it off and I’m very proud of it.”

8. Working with his former Disney Animation colleagues on Mickey’s Philharmagic.

After leaving Disney Animation, George Scribner found himself working closely with some of his coworkers while at Walt Disney Imagineering directing Mickey’s Philharmagic. “There was a desire to make a 3D movie for the parks, but make them family friendly,” he shared, referring to projects like Magic Journeys and Captain EO as being full of surprises. The new goal was to create “Reach moments,” such as Ariel’s jewels floating out into the audience. “We wanted to create a family friendly 3D movie and that’s really the origins of that.”

Although the show would be made in computer animation, George Scribner had connections who were interested in helping with the project. “We had access to some of the leads who worked on the films.” One of them was Nik Ranieri, who brought Lumiere to life in both Beauty and the Beast and Mickey’s Philharmagic. The project also inadvertently helped a lot of 2D Disney animators learn how to use computer animation, a skill they would need shortly after when Disney transitioned fully to CG. “Because I had worked with all these animators prior to that, it was a very fun and casual working relationship.”

9. He created fine art pieces for Walt Disney Imagineering of the Shanghai Disneyland construction project.

George Scribner creates fine art pieces for Disney Parks that Guests can bring home with them as souvenirs, but that work also led to another fun assignment for Walt Disney Imagineering that most Guests will never see. Over the course of three years, George painted construction pieces from the Shanghai Disneyland project. He recalled a memory of construction workers who would stand behind him on their break to watch, often looking confused until they started to recognize what he was creating, likening it to watching Bob Ross.

10. He’s painting the construction of the new Disney Cruise Line ships.

“The process will be very similar to what I did for Shanghai,” George shared about taking trips to Germany to see construction progress on the new fleet of Disney Cruise Line ships being constructed. His process is to paint rough 8×10 sketches while there, primarily to get the color notes right. When he returns home, he uses reference photographs and his color notes to make bigger paintings in higher detail. This makes George one of the few people at Disney to actually have seen the new ships firsthand.

Fans can see the full schedule of Walt Disney Family Museum virtual events, including the Happily Ever After Hours speaker series, at waltdisney.org/calendar.