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Taking My Best Shot: Working on Disney's "The Saga of Windwagon Smith"

Taking My Best Shot: Working on Disney's "The Saga of Windwagon Smith"

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We all remember our first job, first car, and certainly our first love. Like everyone else I've got a "first" as well, only mine is going to be a little different. I remember my first animated scene in a Disney cartoon, and how that scene ushered me into the highly coveted position of "animator" at the Mouse House. We'll get to that cartoon in a bit, but first a little Disney history.

Let's go back to the nineteen sixties with the completion of the feature film, "One Hundred and One Dalmatians." Disney's animation department had already suffered a severe downsizing after "Sleeping Beauty." But now animation was informed it would have to tighten its belt even more.

That meant even longtime Disney animators would be given their walking papers. A painful situation to be sure, but some animators took the bad news in stride. One such was animator, Don Lusk. Don, a twenty-year veteran, showed a sense of humor when informed he was being terminated. Standing before his boss, Don replied: "But I was under the impression this job was supposed to be steady."

Copyright 1961 Walt Disney Productions

I confess I felt guilty seeing many Disney veterans leaving the company. Lowly assistants like myself were spared the ax because we earned considerably less money and could be put to work assisting other artists. Luckily, I found myself a position on a new animated short entitled "The Saga of Windwagon Smith." Somehow in spite of all the cutbacks, I had managed to survive. Yet, I had to put my dream of being a Disney animator on hold. Clearly, Disney had no need of new animators when they had already sent a number of talented veterans out the door.

"The Saga of Windwagon Smith" was a delightful folksy short, much like many of the Disney cartoons I saw as a kid. We even had Rex Allen's easygoing drawl for the film's narration. With all the recent cutbacks at the Mouse House, our crew was small, but not lacking in talent. Our director was C. August Nichols, a veteran who had animated on "Pinocchio." Nick used to joke about animating his favorite character in the film. The evil "coachman" who took the kids off to Pleasure Island where they would eventually be sold as livestock. "He was a mean bastard," laughed Nick "A real fun character to animate." For layout and production design, we had the talented Ernie Nordli. Walt Peregoy was the color stylist, and if I recall correctly, painted all the backgrounds himself. Finally, Jack Boyd did the effects animation, and the two character animators were Art Stevens and Julius Svendsen. Chuck Williams and myself assisted them. Our crew was small, but more than efficient to crank out a Disney cartoon on a budget.

Animator Art Stevens shares sunflower seeds with assistant Chuck Williams
 photo by Floyd Norman

The film tells the story of a former sea captain who "sails" his modified covered wagon across the prairie much like a schooner crossing the ocean. The film was animated in the stylized technique effectively used by Nick and Ward Kimball in such former films as "Melody" and "Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom." Art and Sven had both worked for Ward Kimball on his Tomorrowland space films as well where they perfected this animation technique. Though the animation was a little more limited than the average Disney film, it was never short on imagination. The movement was stylized but even then, it was how and when the characters moved that gave the animation its punch.

I had always admired the animation abilities of Art and Sven. I had been watching their animation since I was a kid in art school. Now, a stroke of good luck had me assisting my heroes. As I inquired about a particular scene one morning, I received an unexpected reply from Art Stevens. "Go ahead and animate it yourself," he said. "You know what to do." I admit I was somewhat taken aback. I had never dared to even request any animation assignments, now here was an opportunity being handed to me. Though somewhat intimidated, I gave it my best shot.

Original character sketch by Julius Svendsen for the
title character of
"The Saga of Windwagon Smith"

Of course, as in all Disney films the artists are bound to disagree on how things should be done. For instance, the animators continually grumbled about the "foregrounds" Walt Peregoy was painting for the film. They felt their animation was being upstaged by Walt's vibrant color palette. It brought back memories of "Sleeping Beauty," and the very same criticism of color stylist, Eyvind Earle. Meanwhile, we continued to churn out the footage, and my dream of becoming an animator seemed closer than ever. Little did I know at the time that my cartoon future lay elsewhere. In a few years I would be trading my animation disk for a sketchpad. The stock in trade of the Disney story artist.

Animation assistants Chuck Williams and a very young Floyd Norman
photo by Floyd Norman (camera on timer)

"The Saga of Windwagon Smith" turned out to be a pretty good little film. Nothing to write home about, I suppose, but many people have told me how much they enjoyed this little bit of Disney Americana. In many ways it felt like the end of another era at the Mouse House. Many gifted animators had already moved on, and now even our director, Nick Nichols would be saying goodbye to Disney where he had worked since the forties. Nick would begin a whole new career as a director at Hanna-Barbera where he would put in a least another twenty years before his career would come to an end, at -- of all places, the Walt Disney Studio.

Copyright 1961 Walt Disney Productions

I remember "The Saga of Windwagon Smith" because one of my favorite animators gave me the opportunity to be more than a clean-up artist. My dream of being a Disney animator seemed just a little bit closer because of my experience on the movie. Yet, even with our tiny crew there were still no screen credits for Chuck or myself. Animation assistants were not deemed worthy of credit until another decade had passed. No matter. I was delighted to have worked on a special Disney cartoon with a very special crew.

Finally, what was that first scene this tyro animator placed on his pegs back in the nineteen sixties? If you remember the cartoon, Windwagon Smith has just roared into town scaring the hell out of everyone including an old codger sitting on a porch with his rifle. The frightened geezer jumps up and fires his rifle. Ka-blam!

Copyright 1961 Walt Disney Productions

So you see, I got my first shot at Disney animation by having a cartoon character take -- you guessed it -- his best shot.

Did you enjoy Floyd's column today about his first time animating on a Disney cartoon? Well, if so ... Then you need to remember that Mr. Norman has three (count 'em -- three!) great collections of his cartoons currently on the market. All of which take an affectionate look at his career in animation.

These include Floyd's original collection of cartoons and stories -- "Faster! Cheaper! The Flip Side of the Art of Animation" (which is available for sale over at John Cawley's excellent www.cataroo.com web site) as well as two follow-ups to that book, "Son of Faster, Cheaper" & "How the Grinch Stole Disney." Which you can purchase by heading over to the Afrokids.com website.

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  • Mr. Norman, thank you for that great behind-the-scenes look at one of my
    favorite animated shorts. I was overjoyed when I saw that Windwagon Smith was included on the Disney Rarities DVD. Nice work on the old codger!
  • Great story, Floyd.  I remember seeing Windwagon Smith on several programs on the old Disney channel (before it turned into the 'hooked on pre-teens/teens' channel).

    I always thought there was a quick joke in there, when the Mayor tells his daughter-'Molly, go take a walk!  I've heard stories about seamen.'  I wondered about this, because Smith blushes before the end of the sequence.

    But anyways, 'Yippe-kay-yay, and a Yo-ho-ho!'
  • Floyd, your article is a breath of fresh air as always.  Thank you for another interesting peek into Disney animation history!
  • I picked up the Rarities DVD and was pleasantly surprised to see this cartoon.  It was very funny and I enjoyed it quite a bit.  
  • Pingback from  Taking My Best Shot: Working on Disney's "The Saga of Windwagon … | Pinocchio

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