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"Flyin' Chunks" looks back at Dorse Lanpher's 48 years at Disney & Don Bluth's animation studios

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"Flyin' Chunks" looks back at Dorse Lanpher's 48 years at Disney & Don Bluth's animation studios

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Dorse Lanpher has a real eye for detail. Which is just what you'd expect from one of the top effects artists in feature animation.

But as it turns out, Lanpher was able to use his eye for detail for more than just creating all those fire, water  and shadow effects that you've seen in  most Disney animated features from "Sleeping Beauty" all the way through to "Home on the Range." Given that Dorse had a front row seat for an amazing amount of animation history during the 48 years that he worked in the industry, Lanpher was able to take all of his highly detailed memories and then channel them into an eminently entertaining & informative memoir, "Flyin' Chunks and Other Things to Duck: Memoirs of a Life Spent Doodling for Dollars" (iUniverse.com, October 2010).

Copyright 2010 IUniverse.com. All rights reserved

Want to know what it was like to spend a leisurely lunch hour on the Disney lot back in 1956? Dorse takes you there, to a time when  you could ...

...  go to the sound stages and watch a live action production being filmed ... Standing quietly in the dark, I'd watch all of the stagehands, electricians, actors and actresses while photographing a real movie scene. It was a super experience.

Sometimes I would find out where the Firehouse Five Plus Two was rehearsing ... I would take my brown bag and sit in an audience of maybe two or three people. Ward Kimball, the band's leader, always welcomed us, apparently glad to have fans listen ... I will always remember Ward Kimball's snappy outfits. He would wear bright colors and not be concerned with subtleties. He would wear a red shirt, yellow tie, blue pants with green suspenders and a nifty hat of any color or any combo of colors depending on the day. Ward Kimball, the only Disney artist Walt ever called a genius, started the band after he taught himself to play the trombone.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Those were good days. The Mickey Mouse Club was thriving and I would see the Mouseketeers and Annette Funicello bouncing around the studio. I would see Cliff Edwards driving his Nash, an automobile that ceased production years ago, on to the studio lot. His name was painted on his spare tire with a picture of Pinocchio in the center.

You want to know what it was like to work at Disney in the 1970s? Lanpher takes you there as well. To be specific, to the backlot. Where there was this ...

... lovely Middle American neighborhood with curving streets and those Victorian styled homes. Some of our artists discovered that one of the houses (back there) had a swimming pool. So occasionally some of our more adventurous artists, working on the weekend, would take a break from their work on Pete's Dragon and (go for)  a quick swim.

Red Buttons and Jim Dale on "Pete's Dragon" Passamaquoddy set
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

(Speaking of) Pete's Dragon, the studio built a huge outdoor set (for that film) which was very impressive. There was an enormous hole dug in the ground of the back lot and filled with water. Around the edge of the water they constructed a New England style fishing village as if the village sat at the edge of a harbor. It was very magical for it was totally believable. Very sad that a beautiful work of art like that was just bulldozed down after completion of the production.

Around (this same) time there was also a beautiful western set on the other side of the lot. It was a small western town with Zorro's large early Spanish style home as part of the set. That set was used for the Zorro series. Later the town and Zorro's home were replaced by what was now called the Zorro Parking Structure. Shades of early Jonie Mitchell: "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

Lanpher did some really interesting things during his days at Disney. Like serving as a live-action reference model for "The Small One," that animated holiday-themed featurette that Don Bluth directed just before he bolted from the Mouse Factory in 1979 to start his own animation studio. For this assignment, Dorse remembers borrowing ...

A very Dorse Lampher-looking Joseph from "The Small One"
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... costumes from Wardrobe and a pet pony from a neighbor of one of the animators, Heidi Guidel. I played Joseph, Vera Macaluso played the Virgin Mary and the pony played a burro.

Speaking of Don Bluth, Lanpher was one of those 13 "renegade artists" who left with Bluth to go work on such fondly-remembered animated features as "The Secret of NIMH," "An American Tail" and "The Land Before Time." Which perhaps explains why Don contributed an affectionate foreword to "Flyin' Chunks and Other Things to Duck."

Which brings me to one of those more interesting moments in Lanpher's memoir. Which is when Dorse reveals that it was Don Bluth - rather than Richard Williams - that Steven Spielberg initially reached out to when he was looking for someone to handle the animated portions of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit."

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

To hear Lanpher tell this tale:

We were nearing the finish of An American Tail and we were again on the verge of financial ruin. Don Bluth had been contacted by Steven Spielberg about directing the animation for a live action-animation film starring Roger Rabbit. There was good buzz in the studio for a while. We were going to get hungry and we needed another picture to do. Working hard to finish An American Tail I didn't notice the buzz had stopped. One day I asked Don what had happened to Roger Rabbit. He said "It's been shelved." End of story.

Well, not entirely. Dorse would eventually exit Bluth's animation operation and return to the Mouse House. Where among his very first assignments was handling a lot of the effects animation on "Roger Rabbit."

Copyright 1988 Disney Enterprises, Inc. / Amblin Entertainment. All rights reserved

From there, Lanpher was one of the hundreds of dedicated animators & artists that made Disney's Second Golden Age of Animation happen. And in the wake of enormous successes like "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin," the Studio spent lavishly on the films that followed. Take - for example - the over-the-top premiere that Disney staged in NYC for "Hercules."

The street in front of the (New Amsterdam) theater had bleachers set up and thousands of people were treated to (a performance of the Main Street Electrical) parade. After the outdoor ceremonies we entered the theater and saw a screening of ("Hercules").

The (party afterwards) was spectacular ... buses carted us over to the World Trade Center for the party on the one-hundred and sixth floor of one of those really tall buildings. We were served Champagne while we waited for an elevator. John Tucker and I drank liberally to oil our nerves for a ride in an elevator the size of my living room which was going to take us up higher than all of the other building in New York ... When we stepped out of the elevator the windows of the lobby were floor to ceiling so one could stand with your toes against the window and peer straight down on the city of New York. It was thrilling.

The Hades float from Disney's Hercules Electrical Parade rolls up 42nd Street.
Photo by Jeff Lange. All rights reserved

Dorse doesn't miss a trick with "Flyin' Chunks and Other Things to Duck." His amazing eye for detail, that little extra something that makes an anecdote that much more memorable (like how - at that "Hercules" after-party at the top of the World Trade Center - Lanpher was able to persuade "Friends" star Jennifer Aniston to sit in his lap and then pose for a picture. Which Dorse then included as one of this 200-page paperback's illustrations) make this a very enjoyable read.

So if you've got some Christmas cash burning a hole in your pocket and are now looking a fun & informative book that'll take you behind-the-scenes at both Don Bluth & Walt Disney Feature Animation studios ... Well, you can't possibly do better book than Dorse Lanpher's memoir of " ... a Life Spent Doodling for Dollars."

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  • Sounds like a fun read, but Jim, what does the title mean?  I thought I'd find out in the article!

  • I'm guessing that "Flyin' Chunks and Other Things to Duck" refers to what he animated.

    Since he was an effects animator, he animated many of the objects that weren't characters: fire, water, flying chunks, and, of course, other things to duck.

    In traditional animation, before computers, everything was drawn, and animators normally would either be character animators, animating the main characters, or effects animators.

  • Sue in Texas --

    Me in Saudi is right. The "Flyin' Chunks" portion of the title of Dorse's memoir is primarily about what he did for a living. And being that he was a guy who did effects animation for over 4 decades ... Well, that means that Lanpher has animated numerous explosions in his time. Which invariably means keeping track of a lot of flyin' chunks.

    But at the same time, the "Flyin' Chunks" portion of the title of this book has a secondary meaning. Given that Dorse has had some ups & downs in his professional life (i.e. demotions, fights with pinheaded execs at various studios, falling outs with co-workers) as well as his personal life (i.e. divorce, depression, burglaries, earthquakes), "Flyin' Chunks" also talks about how we can better handle a lot of the stuff that life throws at us. How we can handle this seemingly random change with at least a modicum of grace.

    Given that Lanpher's something of a self-help enthusiast (the afterword of this book lists a number of his favorite self-help volumes) ... Well, Dorse obviously hopes that people can maybe read this memoir and possibly follow his example. Or -- at the very least -- learn from his mistakes.

    Anyway ... Does that give you a better understanding of the title of "Flyin' Chunks," Sue in Texas? I hope so. And -- again -- I'm apologize for leaving that info out of today's review. It's just that the Disney & Bluth-related anecdotes in this book are so unique & interesting, I wanted to make sure that those got placed in the spotlight. Rather than some of the other stuff that you'll learn about as you page through this 200-page paperback.


  • Hi Jim --

    Thanks for the clarification.  I was imagining the secondary meaning when I read the article, and felt like something was missing when I got to the end.  Later I had a "well, duh" moment when the primary meaning dawned on me.  I'm just slow, I guess!

    Your comment makes me even more interested in the book, as it gives a more multi-dimensional view of the author.  Sounds like a great read.

    Thanks for taking the time to answer!


  • Jim,

    I like your explanation of my book title relating to the effects work I did, those flyin' chunks, i hadn't thought of that. What I had in mind for the title of my book is a metaphorical capsule shot of what life, to me, seems to consist of, Flyin' Chunks and Other Things to Duck. In the book I was illustrating the need for a person to successfully deal with life's problematic events, personal stuff, so as to be able to continue following ones passion for a rewarding life. Sinatra did it in song, "Lift yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again."


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