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Toon Tuesday: Disney's "B" Movie

Toon Tuesday: Disney's "B" Movie

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Back in the 1960s, our morning was interrupted by a special meeting. It was held in a small conference room just off A-Wing in Disney's animation building. I honestly don't recall everyone in the meeting. But I do know that production boss Ken Peterson and Andy Engman were present.

Why this special meeting? Well, Disney's animation department was still recovering from the "failure" of "Sleeping Beauty" at the box office. Disney Studios, and Walt Disney in particular, began to explore the idea of producing less expensive films. Hardly a new idea, Hollywood studios had their A-list productions, along with other shows that became known as "B" movies. These were films produced at a lower cost and provided a training ground for up & coming actors and directors. Live-action produced "B" movies, why not animation?

Disney animation buffs probably remember that the hit film, "Dumbo" could easily be considered a "B" movie in spite of its classic status. Remember that "Dumbo" was produced during particularly rough times at the Disney studio. Picketers gathered outside the studio gates as the film was rushed to completion. Though "Dumbo" could boast of top studio talent in terms of story and art direction, its animation staff, with the notable exception of Ward Kimball, were Disney's second tier animators. Yet, "Dumbo" proved it could hold its own as a top animated movie even though it lacked a big budget and A-list animation talent. The running time barely qualifies "Dumbo" as a feature film, and Disney was pressed to add to the films length. But Walt hung tough, and this short little movie is still beloved by millions today.

By the arrival of the '60s, Disney movies were usually considered top tier motion pictures with large staffs and a considerable budget. However, the Old Maestro began rethinking this idea. There were also projects that did not necessarily require all the resources of  Disney Studios, and Ken Peterson actually had a list of stories Walt Disney considered exploring as low budget features.

You're probably wondering what stories were on Walt's list back in the 1960s, right? What were the movies that would compliment the big budgeted A-list feature films at Disney? Well, I wish I had taken better notes, because I can't remember all the stories Ken put on the table as possible feature films. However, I can tell you that one story was based on the Native American, "Hiawatha." This had been an idea Walt Disney had been thinking about for years. He probably intended to make the film back in the 1940s before the advent of World War II suddenly changed things. Another story on the table was a children's novel by Margery Sharp entitled, "The Rescuers."

You might be wondering what was the purpose of this morning meeting at the Disney studio. I'm only speculating, but I think the studio wanted to put to rest rumors of an animation department shut down. Clearly, Walt Disney still had stories to tell whether those stories proved to be big or small. I can tell you that after the disastrous "Sleeping Beauty" layoffs, this good news was extremely encouraging.

 This is the very same room where we had our meeting back in the  sixties. It's A-wing
on the first floor of the animation building.  That's Paul Hartley on the left. 
Animation boss, Ken Peterson is seated,
and Andy Engman is standing  next to him. Animation
Master Marc Davis is on the right.

The first "B" movie was underway. Writer/artist Bill Berg began developing "The Rescuers" as a feature film. Bill Berg had written and storyboarded the first program for Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color. This show introduced color television and a wonderful new cartoon character, Professor Ludwig Von Drake. Berg worked in a large story room on the west side of A-Wings second floor. On occasion, we young artists made the trip upstairs to view progress on the story. Unlike most features that spend years in development, Bill quickly had his boards completed, and ready to show to Walt Disney.

As luck would have it, I was in A-Wing on the day of the big meeting. Of course, I would not be attending this important meeting, but I was close enough to hear the pitch through the closed story room door. Over an hour had passed and all appeared to be going well until the door opened, and the old guys walked out into the hallway. I moved toward the story room just in time to see the Old Maestro himself walk past me and down the hallway. The look on Walt's face, and his overall attitude told me all I needed to know.

 This cartoon drawing of Disney was inspired by the first "Rescuers" meeting back in the sixties.
I was at the door when Walt came storming  out. Though Walt didn't care for the story
pitch, this movie resurfaced nearly ten years later, and was finally produced

Walt Disney put feature storytelling back in the hands of the veteran, Bill Peet, and the idea of doing "B" features was never mentioned again. Oddly enough, "The Rescuers" would make its return to Disney animation nearly ten years later.

As I think back on that early morning meeting back in the sixties, I realize that crazy idea could have worked. Why not make a less expensive feature film? Not every story requires a big budget and a huge crew to tell effectively. In an era of bloated budgets, huge crews, and a schedule that seems like a lifetime, a little restraint might be just what animated filmmaking needs.

The Walt Disney studio never did produce their "B" movie, and I regret that the Old Maestro didn't give the idea more opportunity to prove itself. Such films could have been an opportunity to explore new story ideas and provide a training ground for young animation talent. It could have launched a new era of exploration and - - who knows - - they might have given us another "Dumbo."

Did you enjoy this look at a little-known aspect of animation history? Well, just so you know, Floyd Norman currently has three books on the market. Each of which feature this Disney Legend's infamous cartoons that take an affectionate look back at his time in Toontown.

These volumes include Floyd's original collection of cartoons & 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 Norman's two follow-ups to that popular paperback, "Son of Faster, Cheaper" & "How the Grinch Stole Disney." Which you can purchase by heading over to Afrokids.com.

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  • I think its a wonderful idea and I can't fathom why Disney hasn't done something like this recently.

    Why does every feature have to be a huge multi-million dollar thing with umpteen number of people developing it?  I think too much money is spent on frivolous things sometimes in the films that come out of the big studios these days.  We don't need to see every character in the background moving around and doing things just to make it "look cool".  Sometimes it looks great, but other times extra things like that are just unnecessary.

    Put a number of talented animators/artists in charge of a production with a modest budget and just let them do what they are good at.

  • Another great story Floyd! I really enjoy hearing the history of the "Old" Animation Building...as I've said, I have an office in the building now and I love to walk past the places you pull these wonderful stories from. Thanks!

  • Disney was probably too quick to get out of animated shorts. Though they still made animated shorts sporadically, most of those thru the 60's were educational shorts, which weren't as popular as entertainment shorts.

    Also, I heard somewhere that The Lion King, originally called King of the Jungle, was meant to be a "B" picture, while the top animators worked on Aladdin and Pocohantas.

  • "The Lion King" was never a true B-movie.  It just had a lower profile and was less anticipated than "Pocahontas".

    And Disney *did* make B-movies.  They're called "direct-to-video sequels".

  • I think I would call those direct to video sequels, "C-movies."

    I know. I worked on a few of them - - and I apologize.

  • No need to apologize.  Some of them are quite good, despite some opinions to the contrary.

    The point is that the direct-to-video releases were the perfect opportunity to do exactly what you were talking about.  The fact that the outcome was not up to the level one would hope is not the issue.  The same could be true of a "real" B-movie.

    But still, many of the straight-to-video films *did* accomplish all three goals that B-movies strive for: (1) low production costs (2) profitability (3) a decent level of quality.  Of course, for every "Lion King 1 1/2" theres a "Mulan II".  But that's the pitfall of B-movie status.  By reducing expectations, you reduce the results.  That's probably the exact thing Walt was against.

  • Just did a quick check on IMDb and the only direct-to-video I saw there from you was "Kronk's New Groove", which is pretty darn good, if you ask me.  What others did you work on?

  • There is another goal of the B-movie which is (4) training ground for new talent.  I assume some of the direct-to-videos served that purpose as well.  

  • Those credits are seldom correct or even complete. I worked on "Cinderella II," "The Tigger Movie," (eventually became a theatrical feature) and the ill-fated "Dumbo" direct to video. There were probably others I've forgotten. Just as well.

  • boy toon wonder: Though they still made animated shorts sporadically, most of those thru the 60's were educational shorts, which weren't as popular as entertainment shorts.

    Actually, popularity at the time and popularity over time remain two different things, as they almost always have (especially in Disney).

    The educational works didn't have the theater draw, but certainly kept the ratings up for WWoC.  In addition, for those like me growing up in the 70s, there was no outlet for seeing the original shorts.  Many of the Donald Duck, Chip & Dale, and Goofy cartoons I either caught sporadically as they aired on HBO or Disney Channel as filler (so no real scheduled time), or didn't see until I purchased the DVDs of Disney Treasures.  (Contrast that to the 90 minutes of Bugs Bunny I watched religiously every week on CBS from 1977 to 1982.)

    But also contrast that to the educational stuff - that was all shown in my schools.  Sometimes monthly depending on my grade / teachers at the time.  The "4 artists draw a tree" was one I definitely saw in elementary school, as was the "Donald and the Wheel" and "Donald in Mathemagicland".  There are others I suddenly remember every time they come up.

    I personally *really* with the Disney Treasures/Legacy people get off their butts and start releasing those programs from WWoC as a collectors set.  I especially want to see other items from the TV shows that Ward was involved in.  His Tomorrowland stuff (and the homage to him by the Pixar people in the new ratatoullie dvd) is just excellent.

  • Arrowyn> As would shorts, I'd imagine.

    Another upside is more niche/cult titles. You keep costs down and end up with a consistently marketable property like Nightmare Before Xmas or an art movie like Persepolis. And if you don't? Well, you've produced a library title at minimal cost.

    But I'm not so sure this needs to be a separate division. It's about using storyboards and Leica Reels as dailies, not blowing money on finished animation that may not get used. I've heard plenty of stories about animated film and tv show salvage jobs coming out of Disney. Now, I understand deadlines factor in things being rushed into production but there are solutions to that. One is not assigning a release date until the boards are locked. Another is to start animating less story-driven scenes, like was done on Toy Story 2's 'crossing the street' scene as the rest of the script was adapted to a theatrical release.

  • "And Disney *did* make B-movies.  They're called "direct-to-video sequels"."

    I think they would have been less of an issue if they weren't follow-ups to pre-existing material. An Extremely Goofy Movie would've worked brilliantly with a completely original set of characters. And the upcoming Tinker Bell movie would sound more interesting if it wasn't a Peter Pan spin-off.

    "There were probably others I've forgotten. Just as well."

    I imagine you would've consulted on The Jungle Book 2, which to me, had the advantage of tying up loose ends from the first film.

  • The article says:

    "Though "Dumbo" could boast of top studio talent in terms of story and art direction, its animation staff, with the notable exception of Ward Kimball, were Disney's second tier animators."


    This seems to me a revisionist , post-Illusion Of Life version of animation history.   Second-tier animators?!  Are you serious ?  Fred Moore, Bill Tytla,  Art Babbitt,  Norm Ferguson ?   Plus Les Clark, John Lounsbery,  Woolie Reitherman , the aforementioned Ward Kimball , Josh Meador ... do I need to go on ?   These are "second-tier" talents ?    

  • Uh, Sniff...you might wanna consider simply posting a question about what "Second-tier" meant during the time Floyd was working at Disney. Maybe, just maybe, it wasn't a derogatory label. If you think about it, everyone was a "second-tier" animator at some point.  

    But, it was so decent of you to rip into Floyd as if he were some dweeb hangin' out on a "World Of Warcraft" forum.  Love, Bobby D. :)

  • Didn't mean to offend you, Sniffles, but even old timer Hicks Lokey who animated on "Dumbo" referred to the team as, "Second Tier." That is, not being Walt's usual high profile animators.

    If you know me, you would know that I have the highest respect for "Dumbo's" team of animators. Hell, I worked with most of them.

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