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Young kids & old codgers proved to be a very powerful combo at Walt Disney Studio

Young kids & old codgers proved to be a very powerful combo at Walt Disney Studio

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It never occurred to me at the moment. I guess I was too busy being enthralled by all the amazing artwork on the walls. Yet, there was something different about the animation unit, and it took me a while before I realized what it was. It turns out the entire unit was unique. It was comprised of animation veterans and green young kids beginning their move up the animation ladder. Why is this important, you ask? Read on, and you'll find out why.

The entire second floor space of D-wing was occupied by Ward Kimball's unit, and they seemed to exist in a world all their own. I do not exaggerate when I say they were probably Disney's most creative and innovative animation department. They did things other animation units would never dare, and they got away with most of it even though their boss, Walt Disney was known to be a micro manager. How did this happen, you might wonder? There were two things, really. Disney knew his Directing animator, now turned producer could deliver the goods. Second, the Old Maestro was preoccupied with his theme park and other matters that left him distracted. This meant Ward Kimball could run things his way because a lot of it was being done "under the radar."

However, I digress. I began speaking of the incredible mix of talented individuals Ward Kimball assembled for his "Super Science Unit." And, I think the make-up of that unique mix is significant. Veteran writers worked alongside novice storytellers, and young animators worked with masters. Ken O'Connor had worked on Fantasia, yet most of his layout team was new to Disney. Conceptual artists such as Con Pederson would go on to work with Stanley Kubrick on "2001: A Space Odyssey." Such was the make-up of Kimball's artistic team.

Ward's space unit was probably the most team at Disney
in the 1950s

It took a guy as insightful as Ward Kimball to see the need for this dynamic in his creative unit. He could have built a team of Disney veterans, but they would be lacking in new approaches and fresh new ideas. Ideas that would be invaluable in this bold new adventure that would take Disney and animation to the threshold of space and beyond. However, a team of talented youngsters would not have been a wise choice either because they would have been lacking the depth and experience of the Disney masters. No, Ward Kimball wisely assembled a team of kids and codgers. A unit that would draw on the best assets of each group of artists. It would be breaking with the restrictions of the past while retaining the solid foundation constructed by the Disney masters.

With his team of young and old, Kimball began by breaking away from the strictures of Disney past, and used his creative team to rethink animation and film making in bold new ways. He gave his writers leeway to pioneer fresh approaches to storytelling using scripting, storyboards and whatever else would serve the storytelling process. Animators were not restricted to their drawing boards but were invited to share in the writing of the film, character design and even painted their own backgrounds. Disney's tightly structured production process was deconstructed by Kimball as he pushed his creative team to explore fresh new approaches to film making.

Of course, the glue that held these unconventional ideas together was the combination of young and old. Should the veterans lean too heavily on past solutions, the kids would press them to explore new ways of accomplishing a task. And, should the kids find themselves in a pinch, they could rely on the wealth of experience provided by the old professionals. Clearly, it was the best of both worlds.

Even though the quirky Kimball often irritated Walt, the Old Maestro often gave
him his way. Something few people enjoyed at Walt Disney Studio

Naturally, the finished film would eventually be screened for the Old Maestro, and the boss was clearly impressed by what he saw on the screen. However, nothing got past Walt Disney, and Kimball caught some serious heat after the screening for pushing things just a little bit too far. Lest you think this is hearsay or something I read on a geeky blog, let me remind you that I was there.

Ward Kimball's creative unit created some impressive work throughout the 1950s and it's difficult to believe these innovative films were done so long ago. The optical effects and compositing techniques were first rate, and required a brilliant team that could think outside the box. Of course, the clever animation demonstrated that Disney could do a good deal more than the conventional "house style."

Bringing it all together required a team of clever, irreverent young kids and sage, grey-haired old codgers. A pretty odd combination one might think. Yet, this approach generated a creative, innovative powerhouse that enriched the Walt Disney Studio. Just a small thought one might consider in today's youth obsessed filmmaking culture.

Two dumb kids, Rick Gonzales and I sneak a peek at Ward Kimball's office back in
the 1950s. Ward was asleep on his couch in the next room

Did you enjoy today's JHM column? If so, don't forget that Floyd Norman has several books currently on the market that also talk about the many 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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