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Toon Tuesday: Exploding on Lift Off

Toon Tuesday: Exploding on Lift Off

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I’ve only felt crushing defeat once in my career. It was 1959, and Walt Disney’s latest animated feature film opened to lackluster box office attendance and scathing reviews. As an animation professional still fairly new to the business, I took the whole thing personally. In later years I became more philosophical about animation and the motion picture business in general. It’s a fact of life that even the best of us will eventually fail, and there’s little we can do about it.

No one understood failure better than Walt Disney. While all of us impressionable young kids wept in our beer, the Old Maestro put Bill Peet to work on adapting “101 Dalmatians,” and he got on with the affairs of studio business. There’s little one can do about the past, and Walt was too focused on the future to weep over the failure of a single feature-length cartoon.

The roof of Disney's Animation Building
This is the roof of Disney's Animation Building. When "Sleeping Beauty"
opened poorly, we all felt like jumping off

Yet, failure and even success felt totally different in years past. Disney stumbled with “Sleeping Beauty” and recovered with “101 Dalmatians.” We worked hard on “The Sword in the Stone,” however, that movie never seemed to resonate with audiences. We were handed Bill Peet’s remarkable adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book,” and were told to “fix it” because Walt wasn’t happy.

Upon completion, Vance Gerry and I were convinced we had participated in the creation of a pretty mediocre motion picture and were almost embarrassed by our lackluster story. Well, we both got a scolding from Walt who told us, “Let me worry about the story!” Disney’s “The Jungle Book” surprised us by being an enormous hit at the box office, and gave animation a much needed shot in the arm. Of course, we never saw it coming.

There was no talk of opening weekend numbers back in those days. When I think about it, we never discussed how much money any film might eventually make. And you can be darn sure Walt Disney never, ever mentioned box office gross in his meetings with us. Walt didn’t give a hoot in a whirlwind about box office gross. He wanted a damn good picture because he knew if we did that, then the rest would take care of itself.

Wart and Merlin from Disney's animated feature The Sword in the Stone
After all those years of hard work on "The Sword in the Stone," that film then had
trouble connecting with audiences
back in 1963

After working on a dozen or so projects over a career, you eventually gain some perspective and you realize there are many variables you have absolutely no control over. Knowing this, you simply sit back, relax and enjoy your work. I think this is the biggest lesson I learned from the old story guys. Since you have no control over the reception of your movie, why worry about it? Do your best work, and let the chips fall where they may. You’ll either be called a moron or a genius on your movie’s release, and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.

You’ve got to truly feel for today’s film makers. Not only are they required to craft an excellent motion picture, they’re also burdened with the added task of meeting the box office expectations of everyone from studio bosses to Wall Street analysts.

As a guy no longer working full time in cartoon making, I often watch the pre-release, frantic nail-biting that goes on in our industry. As the release date for a new animated motion picture approaches, artists and executives alike tremble with anticipation. However, it’s not the giddy expectation we all feel when something great is about to happen. It’s the palpable fear that the hard work of the past few years might collapse into failure. Naturally, a lot of film makers and artists fear that their careers may be in danger of collapsing as well.

Ward Kimball hard at work on one of his earlier space films for Walt Disney Productions
Ward Kimball hard at work on one of his space
films for Walt Disney Productions

Maybe this whole thing can be summed up by animation legend Ward Kimball. Back in the 1950s, Walt Disney put Kimball in charge of a special science unit to produce films on rockets and space travel. Kimball’s shows were aired on the ABC weekly show, Disneyland, and were remarkably successful. However, the race for space began to heat up, and the United States would not only build its own space vehicles, it wanted the Disney Company to make a movie about them as well.

The project was called Vanguard, and you’ll never see the motion picture that was to have been based on this rocket because it was never produced. Of course, extensive development, research and multiple storyboards were created. Like its title, the cutting-edge Disney movie was ready to move into production. However, on launch day, the subject of our film - the mighty Vanguard rocket -- exploded and burst into flame on its launching pad. Instead of soaring into the heavens, this super-sophisticated launch vehicle toppled over and exploded into a chemical-fueled inferno. Naturally, the motion picture that was to have piggy-backed on this project exploded right along with that ill-fated rocket.

However, Ward Kimball taught me a valuable lesson about disaster, and it’s something I’ll always remember. The puckish Disney Legend smiled and hung a large black wreath on his storyboard for everyone to see. Shortly thereafter, Kimball began looking for his next project. Because when things go bad, there’s nothing you can do but move on.

An actual photograph of the Vanguard rocket just as it exploded on the pad on Dec. 6, 1957
An actual photograph of the Vanguard rocket
just as it exploded on the pad on December 6, 1957 

But before you move on from today’s Toon Tuesday column … Please note that Floyd Norman currently has several books on the market that also talk about many of the amazing & amusing adventures that this Disney Legend has had while working in the animation industry.

Floyd’s most recent effort – “Disk Drive: Animated Humor in the Digital Age” – is available for purchase through blurb.com. While Mr. Norman’s original collection of cartoons and stories -- "Faster! Cheaper! The Flip Side of the Art of Animation" – is still for sale over at John Cawley's Cataroo.

And if you still haven’t had your fill of Floyd … Well, then feel free to move on over to Mr. Fun's Blog. Which is where Mr. Norman posts his musings when he's not writing for JHM.

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  • Greetings Floyd. I hope this day finds you feeling better.

    I often shrug my shoulders when I hear on local T.V. news that such and such a film grossed a certain amount of money at the box office. I figure that if the local news makes a big deal about a certain picture, it's a good bet that, that station is owned by the which ever company produced that film. That's probably not all together true but that's what comes to my mind. When I was a kid the only film that got news coverage about it's financial succsess was the first Star Wars film in 1977. Otherwise, one never heard about it, at least not on T.V. news.

    I kind of get annoyed when I read that a certain film didn't do as well as projected.

    To me, that's just another sign that we are the McDonalds generation. We want everything instantly and we cry if it doesn't happen our way. I do understand that the film companies have to watch pennies but doggone it, sometimes financial profit doesn't happen immeadiately. That's just a fact of life. There's no reason for people to start the blame game on Monday mornings when the opening weekend statements come in because that's a waste of time.

  • I think one of the things kids need to learn about most before they enter the tough old world out there is *how to deal with failure*. If they were taught coping mechanisms - from their parents, their schools -  on how to deal with the inevitable, we'd see a lot fewer tragedies IMO, and a lot more talented people who are able to persevere and finally shine. Thanks, Floyd, for your insight on this issue. And of course you're right about Uncle Walt's ability to see past the failures of the moment for the success that might surely come if a person keeps the faith and tries again. That's one reason Walt has always been one of my heroes.

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