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Toon Tuesday : In Defense of Mavericks

Toon Tuesday : In Defense of Mavericks

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If you know anything about the Walt Disney Studio, you know that the Old Maestro exercised total control over his animated kingdom. From the studio's humble beginnings in the 1930's to his passing in 1966, nothing -- and I do mean nothing -- ever escaped the careful gaze of Walt Disney.

Maybe Walt Disney wasn't the first "control freak" in history, but he was certainly worthy of that dubious title. Every story idea, art style and casting choice in a motion picture had to go through Walt first. When you worked for Walt Disney you either became Walt Disney or you went somewhere else. Your story ideas had to be acceptable to Walt. Your art styling had to match Disney's artistic sensibility. The studio was the perfect reflection of its founder.

Knowing these things, would it surprise you to know that the Old Maestro actually encouraged dissension in the ranks? Would you be shocked to know Walt Disney allowed his artists and writers to pursue their own vision even though it might be in total opposition to the accepted Disney style?

To be sure, Walt Disney was an enigma. On one hand, he wanted things done his way, and he was not tolerant of opposition. Having said that, how does one explain the latitude he often gave those who traveled a different path? Some might say he was only giving those "radicals" enough rope to hang themselves so he could be done with them. Such was not the case. The Old Maestro may have ultimately rejected their ideas, but he was perfectly willing to allow those ideas to be pursued.

Even in a studio as tightly controlled as Disney, it would appear that The Old Maestro recognized the need for new, untried ideas to have a platform. So Walt allowed projects that did not reflect his personal vision to continue. If you were to wander the story rooms in the Animation Building in the fifties and sixties, you might have been surprised to see what was in development. Walt was no curmudgeon, stuck in the past. He was perfectly willing to take risks with story and art direction if he felt something might be gained from these experiments.


The unpredictable Ward Kimball. Though Walt called him a genius, Kimball had his
fair share of turmoil with the boss. Kimball was well known for breaking the rules.
Photo courtesy of Amid Amidi

Remember the Ward Kimball space unit in the 1950s? Walt was willing to let Kimball run with his often wacky ideas in this new and unusual Disney department, even though he sometimes seriously objected to what Ward was doing with the Disney characters. What about Nick's commercial unit on the second floor of the Animation Building where the Disney characters were radically stylized for television ads? How many of you remember Tom Oreb's restyling of Mickey Mouse with his squared off ears? Think the Old Man was unaware of what was going on in his own studio? Think again.



Tom Oreb was a brilliant designer. Yet Walt Disney made it no secret that he hated
the production design for "101 Dalmatians," one of the studio's biggest hits.
Photo courtesy of Amid Amidi

As much as he wanted things his way, Walt Disney recognized he needed people on his staff that would challenge, disagree and go against him in his own animation department. This is the stuff that breeds and nourishes creativity and keeps the medium alive and vital. To be sure, there were those who would toe the company line, and do exactly what the Old Maestro expected. However, there were also those who chose to move in a different direction, even though that move might incur the wrath of the Old Man himself. Guys like Ward Kimball, Walt Peregoy, Tom Oreb and others knew that in order to keep animation alive and thriving, there was a need to move forward even over the objections of the boss.


 Color stylist Walt Peregoy was a creative force at the Disney Studio.
His work didn't always win the Old Maestro's acceptance,
but he certainly won Disney's respect.
Photo courtesy of Amid Amidi

Today, I see the Disney Company making some of the same mistakes that were made in the 1970s. Back then, there were artists with strange drawing styles. Some had odd and quirky ideas. There were those who wanted to break new ground with technology. However, these guys just weren't Disney. They simply didn't fit. The talented individuals who failed to conform to the company line were allowed to walk out the door - - only to be brought back years later at considerable cost.

Walt Disney Feature Animation has had a name change, and along with that I think they could use a new attitude. This studio could use a roomful of mavericks and "crazy men" to challenge the status quo. All too often the people the studio gets rid of are the very people they should embrace. The artists who refuse to "play by the rules" and make the movies that are acceptable to the establishment.

Walt Disney was the ultimate "control freak," and he wanted things done his way. Yet, even the Old Maestro realized that sometimes the most important people in your organization are not the creators who tow the company line and follow the rules. What keeps any studio creatively vital are the mavericks and the "crazy men." The nut cases who come up with the ideas you don't like.

Get rid of them - - and you've also gotten rid of your future.

Did you enjoy today's "Toon Tuesday" column? Well, that's just one of the hundreds of amazing tales that Floyd Norman has to tell. Many of which you'll find in the three books Floyd currently has the market. Each of which take an affectionate look back at the time that Mr. Norman spent working in the animation industry.

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 cataroo.com) 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 Afrokids.com.

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  • Interesting article, thanks!

    Am I the only one who thought of Chris Sanders first after reading this?  Is this what Mr. Norman meant by "Today, I see the Disney Company making some of the same mistakes that were made in the 1970s?"

    I have been a staunch defender of John & Ed's new policies at WDAS, but Sanders' departure from Disney was the one that really disappointed me.  Why not let the Chris Sanders-Dean Debois (sp?) team try their hand at American Dog?   Sorta like what Walt did with Ward Kimball?  I do understand that story is king, and I even agree that Lilo & Stitch, one of my Disney favorites, had story holes - but the movie oozed charm all over the place and it carried the film.  I'd like to think American Dog would have done the same, just looking at the artwork already in place.  

    I'm sure Bolt will have a good story, but I can't say I'm not disappointed that Sanders' original vision for American Dog will never be seen on the big screen.  I wouldn't have been against letting Sanders have his "Ward Kimball" moment out in theaters every four years.

  • And you know what ... the same needs to go for the people greenlighting what gets built in the themeparks.

    Quit playing it safe Disney. Poeple want more than blatant mass marketing.

  • In some ways, I'm amazed that Ward Kimball survived -- but we know there were times when he was given god-awful assignments and times he felt the boss' wrath. It seems like Walt was loyal to those who showed him loyalty ...

    One of those artists Floyd was no doubt talking about being let go in the '70s (more likely early '80s) was John Lasseter, the very man the company is looking to revive WDFA today.

    I don't know if we'll ever hear the complete backstory about any individual who is let go or leaves the company, whether it be Chris Sanders, Jan Pinkava or anyone else. It's also safe to say that everyone associated with those separations has his/her own take on the matter -- their own "truth."

    According to Glen Keane, after John was fired from Disney and started to make a name for himself and Pixar, the Mouse made a few attempts to get him back. His talents and skills were far more evident to the suits after the first few Pixar shorts and a few features than when he was working as an in-betweener at WDFA. We all know that getting John back in the fold ultimately required a shakeup in management and Disney buying Pixar from Steve Jobs.

    During Walt's life, Chuck Jones left Disney and did quite well. So did Maurice Noble and others. I'd argue that Chuck Jones made more of a name for himself at Warner Bros. than he would have as Walt's 10th, 11th or 12th old man.

    It's always a bit sad when collaborative efforts break down -- especially over artistic differences -- when EVERYONE does or should share the same ultimate goal of creating something extraordinary. There's no reason to villify anyone. I don't know any supervisor or boss who takes pleasure in letting people go unless there's major justification for doing so. I think that's especially true when the person doing the firing has been fired himself.

    Still, it's not the end of the world. Sanders is working for Dreamworks and Pinkava is working at Lucasfilm -- based on what I've read and heard. Both will continue to create -- and, it's possible, that they might find more success on their new paths OR the paths they're on may re-intersect with WDFA/Pixar in the future.

    Even Walt understood that a failure provides lessons for personal growth.

    How do you think things would look today is Minkoff hadn't taken Oswalt away and hired most of Disney's artists? Do you think Disney would have found success without Ub Iwerks? Would the world know Walt had he not been an innovator who embraced sound, technicolor and other advancements?

  • It's Oswald ... and I know that ...D'oh!

  • Walt let more than a few mavericks get away:

    • Art Babbitt

    • Grim Natwick

    • Bill Tytla

    Then Ron Miller let a few more slip through his fingers:

    • Don Bluth

    • Tim Burton

    • John Lasseter

    Who can truly say how the studio would have done if all these people had stayed in place?

    At least they brought Ron & Jon back into the fold.

  • Actually, the "crazy ideas" can still sometimes be bluntly wrong.  The problem in Disney was that the counter to the crazy idea wasn't an artistic argument, it was a business decision.  Crazy ideas improve things because other artists with just *slightly* less "crazy" in them mellow them out and keep the gem of it alive while still making it accessable and fit within a framework.

    But only if they're allowed to do that within the art.

    It's when the crazy idea is rejected or tempered by the business manager, insisting that they know what the audience wants or will accept, that the replacement inevitably fails to be as interesting.

    In their Aspen Hill, CO reunion a few years back, Monty Python's Terry Gilliam said that the only criteria for a sketch or even just a line in one to make it into the final show was did 6 guys, the Pythons themselves, find it funny.  There were no producers, no managers, no executives, no committees, no marketing "experts".  Just 6 creative guys in a room trying to humor themselves.

  • mnmears - good points.  There'd be no Mickey Mouse without Oswalt being taken away.  Lasseter staying at Disney might not have brought him to Ed Catmull, and Pixar would cease to exist.  It all works out.  In fact, Sanders might be able to show off his art much better under DreamWorks than if he stayed under Disney (have you seen his website?  There will be none of that in Disney, that's for sure).  Still, being that I am biased, it would have been nice to see what he could have come up with under the Disney logo.

  • Thanks for another insightful article Mr. Norman.

    Keep 'em coming!

  • Most folks who disparage Disney for being culturally obtuse miss the fact that Walt was wildly experimental during the company's early days.  It was only after darn-near losing his company that Walt started making films that were increasingly-more like previous, successful formulas.

    I wonder if this idea of a "Disney style" would exist if the Walt of the thirties--the guy who was successfully challenging the medium and his team--would have met success with his products of the early forties, namely Fantasia, Bambi, and Pinocchio.  

    If the world had embraced these dramatically-different films, if the ensuing war, the losses from these films, and the frustration of the strike had not chased the company into doing training films, government work, and package films...what would the Disney style have been?

  • Bald Melon Tim:

    Thanks for that list ... I knew about Art Babbitt and that's why I included the line that Walt seemed to be loyal to those who were loyal to him.

    With his role in the strike, Babbitt really angered the big cheese and I think Walt's relationship with many of the creative talents changed after the unionization.

    The idea of the studio employees being part of a family took a serious hit -- at least it seems so through the actions of its patriarch, Walt. I don't think Walt ever fully recovered from what he considered a betrayal -- although I believe that he came awfully close with the smaller group of creatives he cast to join him at WED.

    In the early days, there were several pool parties and barbecues at the Disney family home well attended by artists and others from the studio. We've all heard stories about the more generous Walt in those early days -- rewarding Ward Kimball or someone else for a creative gag and paying out bonuses to the whole studio after the success of "Snow White."

    Yes, it it was Ron Miller who let Lasseter, Burton and Bluth go -- although in the work-in-progress "The Pixar Story" by Leslie Iwerks, a couple of people including Glen Keane and Lasseter recount Lasseter's separation/firing from WDFA without specifically mentioning Miller. It's actually handled with class -- no one is out to villify Diane's husband and Walt's "son."

    Actually, I hope that Miller's story is eventually documented and told, because I think too many people gave Michael Eisner credit for policies and things started by Ron Miller. I know that I spent plenty of Saturdays in the theater watching films produced by Miller -- along with those classic Disney animated hits reissued every 7 years.

    Miller created the Touchstone division for more adult fare: "Splash," "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," and other films. The home video releases were started under Miller's tenure. He kept animation alive with "The Fox & The Hound," "The Black Cauldron" and others. I remember massive projects at Disneyland, like "Space Mountain," "Big Thunder Mountain Railroad," etc.

    BMT, I do agree that it was good to see Ron Clements and John Musker return to WDFA so quickly after Ed Catmull and John Lasseter were put in charge ...

    Now, if they would only green-light "Fraidy Cat," which sounded absolutely wonderful. Is there something wrong with using a backdoor tribute to expose children to the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock?

    I don't know anyone over 30 who hasn't seen "Psycho," "Rear Window," "The Birds" or some other great Hitchcock film. These are classics, too.

  • "Am I the only one who thought of Chris Sanders first after reading this?"

    Hell no! Chris Sanders seems to be the one Disney artist today, I'm sure there's a few more, who doesn't conform to the "Disney" style, but as we saw with Lilo & Stitch, creates excellent concepts with his unique talent. It's still too early to tell if Bolt (a.k.a. American Dog) will suffer from his absence.

    This article, the smartest I've read in awhile, immediately crushes John Kricfalusi's critiques he's made countless times about Disney's old and new artists.

  • Livergap, I just checked out Sander's sight, and the work is really good.

    Def. not Disney, but it's good.

    Thanks.

  • I think that Ward Kimball would habe been an interesting man to meet. I'm not an artist, but I am a railfan and it was through Trains Magazine that I first heard the name Ward Kimball. I wish I could have rode on his railroad. I just thought it was so cool that somebody had a full size steam railroad in his back yard.

  • The trick is keep budgets down when you're producing film for a public company. I'd suggest having a look at what those guys on Avatar are doing on a tv budget. I say shoot for lean, mean, and daring.

  • Hey there mnmears,

    I enjoyed your perspective. I just wanted to be clear, I wasn't trying to judge the actions of Ron Miller. He made good and bad decisions just like every exec.

    Burton would have likely left the studio no matter who was in charge. He was a creative square peg. Bluth wouldn't have been happy there unless he was in charge (at least that's my take). Bluth's exit (and success with Spielberg) gave Disney the kick in the seat of the pants to start their second Golden Age of animation. Lasseter's exit... well, we all know that story. And I am looking forward to what Sanders will launch out with.

    My only point was that there is a good sized history of very creative people making their way through the revolving doors at Disney. Many go on to have substantial careers of note, some of them, we will never know their names.

    (Tytla's story has to be the saddest, though. Torn between loyalty to Walt and his artists in arms, he chose to strike. That rift sealed his fate with Walt.)

    ...oh and I can't believe I failed to mention the incomparable Bill Peet!

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