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Wednesdays With Wade: Remembering Disney's "True-Life Adventure" series

Wednesdays With Wade: Remembering Disney's "True-Life Adventure" series

Last week, even though it was National Wildlife Week, I got a little sidetracked. So I hope you won’t mind if I continue the spirit of that week with this week’s column. Especially since Roy E. Disney has just finished recording some introductions for a future DVD release of a long anticipated Disney series.

Walt made thirteen nature films in the 1950s known as the “True-Life Adventures” series. Eight of them won Academy Awards. They were shown in public schools for decades and -- judging by correspondence that is in the Disney Archives in Burbank -- many young people went into the forestry service and related fields because of the influence of these films.

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To show you how naïve the audience was at the time about nature, Walt would often get questions like: “How did you train those animals to move in time to the music?” Not realizing that Walt shot film of the animals first and then added the music later. At one dinner party, Walt joked with an amazed crowd that he created these films by taking “... our most intelligent prairie dogs and gave them very small cameras and sent them down into the burrows.”

Actually, “Bambi” was probably the prototype for the later “True-Life Adventures” films. For the years it was in development, a select team labored to merge the reality of nature with what Walt and his artists had learned about the fantasy of animation. Live animals were brought into the Disney Studio, natural science lectures were given, nature photos adorned office walls, and the story itself revolved around the challenges animals dealt with in nature rather than animals wearing clothes and piloting steamboats or singing songs.

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Even in the Fifties, Walt was worried about the vanishing frontier. So he had a husband and wife team, Alfred and Elma Milotte, go to one of the last remaining wildernesses, Alaska, and shoot everything they could. From Eskimos to businesses to whatever to try and capture the spirit of this disappearing outpost of civilization. (Milotte owned a camera store in Alaska.) Studying reels and reels of unrelated shots, Walt zeroed in on footage of seals and asked the Milottes to emphasize the life cycle of the seals and not show any indication of man’s presence.

The resulting film did not appeal to RKO (I.E. Disney's film distributor at the time) who felt audiences would not sit still for a nature film. So Walt asked a friend who ran Pasadena's Crown Theater to show “Seal Island” for one week in December of 1948. So that this nature film would then qualify for consideration of an Academy Award nomination.

Though it was twenty-seven minutes long (I.E. Much longer than the usual short subject), "Seal Island" won that year's Best Documentary Oscar. The very next day, Walt took that Academy Award to Roy Disney’s office and said: “Here, Roy. Take this over to RKO and bang them over the head with it.”

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Over the years, there has been some criticism over how Walt and his team presented this material including interpreting animal behavior in human terms. Two bighorn sheep lock horns while the “Anvil Chorus” plays in the background. The courtship of tarantulas was set to a tango while the movements of two scorpions were showcased with square dance music in the background. (The talented Paul Smith composed the music for the series that added personality and pacing to the raw footage.)

It is important to realize that for Walt, the films were not meant to be dry scientific documents. As with all of Walt’s work, they were designed for the enjoyment of a mass family audience, an audience that was not yet prepared to accept this type of material about protecting animals and the environment without a “spoonful of sugar” to help the medicine go down.

However, that is not to minimize that some criticisms of the series were justified. In “White Wilderness” (1958), reportedly the film crew (without the knowledge or approval of Walt and the Disney Studio) brought a handful of lemmings from Manitoba to Alberta, placed them atop a large, snow-covered turntable to film them, and then herded them off a precipice to record the lemmings’ fatal leap into the sea (or what looked like a facsimile sea in landlocked Alberta) even though no such behavior had ever been documented in lemmings. They do become over-populated, do migrate in huge swarms and sometimes drown crossing streams but jumping off cliffs into the sea is an urban myth that only becomes reality when a nature cameraman steps in to make it a reality.

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For some of the films, three to five different cameramen might shoot the same action. In general for every 120,000 ft. of 16mm film shot perhaps only 30,000 ft. was used in the final film. The Milottes spent three years getting footage for “The African Lion” and only 6% of film they shot was used in the 72 minute final film.

James Algar, Winston Hibler and Ben Sharpsteen were the trio that edited the raw footage while Algar & Hibler often wrote and then narrated the finished films themselves.

The 1954 film, “Vanishing Prairie” was banned in New York State because of a scene showing for the first time a buffalo giving birth. At the time, Walt said:

"Birth scene would never have appeared on the screen if I believed it might offend an audience. It would be a shame if New York children had to believe the stork brings buffaloes too."

The state censorship board eventually reversed its decision after the ACLU, on Walt’s behalf, lodged a complaint.

To obtain up-close footage of the buffalo, Tom McHugh covered himself and his camera with an old buffalo hide and wandered into the midst of the herd.

In 1955, the Christian Herald selected "The Living Desert" & "The Vanishing Prairie" -- two films that did not have an overtly religious theme -- to honor because of their “... adherence to the Christian concepts ... The hand of the creator in nature”.

Even today, the raw material in these films is undated. They are still effective today thanks to impressive visuals, evocative music and humor.

Walt eventually moved from “True-Life Adventures” to what was called the “True-Life Fantasies” series (although no one uses that terminology today) beginning with “Perri” (1952) the story of a squirrel (also based on Felix “Bambi” Salten’s work as was the original story of "The Shaggy Dog)" which had a structured story but used real animals. These “True-Life Fantasies” included films like “Charlie, the Lonesome Cougar” and “Sammy, the Way Out Seal” and a host of other films that usually popped up on the Disney television TV show.

When I can, I always love giving Walt himself the final word:

“We did not succumb to the alluring temptations to make villains or saints of the creatures portrayed in our films. We have maintained a sensitive regard for the wisdom of Nature's design and have attempted to hold a mirror to the out-of-doors rather than to interpret its functioning by man's standards.

Our films have provided thrilling entertainment of educational quality and have played a major part in the worldwide increase in appreciation and understanding of nature. These films have demonstrated that facts can be as fascinating as fiction, truth as beguiling as myth, and have opened the eyes of young and old to the beauties of the outdoor world and aroused their desire to conserve priceless natural assets."

Here is the complete listing of the True-Life Adventures:

1949 -- "Seal Island" 
1950 -- "In Beaver Valley"
1951 -- "Nature's Half Acre"
1952 -- "The Olympic Elk" 
        -- "Water Birds"
1953 -- "The Living Desert"
        -- "Bear Country"
        -- "Prowlers of the Everglades" 
1954 -- "The Vanishing Prairie"
1955 -- "The African Lion"
1956 -- "Secrets of Life"
1957 -- "White Wilderness"
1960 -- "Jungle Cat"

Roy E. Disney got his start at his uncle’s company as an editor on Disney’s “True-Life Adventures”. He was also responsible for “Disney’s New True-Life Adventures” produced by American Adventure Production’s John Wilcox in 2000 airing on ABC. "Alaska: Dances of the Caribou" was helmed by Bruce Reitherman, who is the son of legendary animator Woolie Reitherman and provided the voice for Mowgli in "The Jungle Book" when he was only 12.

The other three TV specials in the revived "True-Life" series were "Elephant Journey: Africa's Fearless Giants in Motion," "Sea of Sharks: Intimidation Down Below" and "Everglades: Home of the Living Dinosaurs."


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