Saturday, June 29, 2013

Phil Young on Disney animation, teaching, and Walt's Nine Old Men

Walt Disney in 1937
Phil Young is an animator, artist and teacher. He worked at the Disney studio for 25 years, often working with some of the legendary "Nine Old Men", Walt Disney's hand-picked top animators who were synonymous with the first Golden age of Animation. Phil worked on many of Disney's biggest hits, including Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, as well as some of the legendary misses like The Black Cauldron. FLIP asked Phil to tell us on a sentimental journey back to the 1970s - and reveal what the studio was really like back in the olden days.

FLIP: You worked at Disney towards the end of the era of the "Nine old Men". Tell us about what it was like working with the old masters. 

Phil: It was my good fortune to have stumbled into Disney's at a time when most of the old guys were still alive, and three of them were still working at the studio. I have to start with Eric Larson, as he was in charge of training each of the potential animators coming in at that time. Eric was one of the most prominent of Walt's right-hand guys, having animated everything from shorts to leading parts in all the great features of the first "Golden Era" at the studio. Starting as a journalist who had been hired to interview Walt, he was hired on the spot by Walt himself when he expressed a long interest in the art form, and went on to have a career that covered over 50 years with Disney.

During those years, Eric's long experience and sensitive performances enabled him to become Director of Animation on "Lady and the Tramp" (1955), and a leading member of the review board when the studio started the Cal Arts training program in the 1970's. (I wasn’t a Cal Arts student, but came to Disney as a graduate of Cal State Long Beach with an Illustration degree.)

My first day at the studio found me seated in Eric's spacious office in the original animation building as Eric spoke about the history and philosophy of Disney animation, and described interviews with classic vocal talents that took place in that very room. He described talking to singer Peggy Lee, who had been cast as the sultry "Peg" character in Lady & the Tramp. As she walked back and forth in his room, he made mental notes and small sketches of her distinctive hip-swaying walk, which were worked in to her musical number "He's a Tramp", in the dog pound sequence of the movie. Sitting in that room and hearing so much relevant history in this studio, a place I had always imagined as a creative Olympus in the hierarchy of my personal film influences, gave me a major "pinch me" experience.

Eric was a real mentor to the young animators. Whenever things seemed difficult, and we might have doubts about anything related to our work at the studio, we need only to visit Eric, and within short order were made to feel sure we were in the right place, and everything would work out fine. Sadly, Eric was destined to leave us before those goals he had given us were fully realized, just shortly before “Little Mermaid” was made, touching off the second “Golden Age” of traditional animation.

Frank and Ollie in 1985
Frank Thomas & Ollie Johnston also became great friends and mentors. They were starting what would be their final work on an animated feature, animating early scenes of “The Fox and the Hound”, during which the orphaned young fox and the puppy Todd become friends. After completing an initial animation sequence on the picture, they officially retired from their jobs, although they were around the studio on a daily basis for the next three years or so, gathering materials and shooting artwork for their combined masterwork “Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life” (1981).

Frank and Ollie, along with Eric Larson, were on the review board at the time I was hired in 1977. They took a chance on me, as I was totally new to animation, and was thrown into the pool of young graduates from Cal Arts who had preceded me by about three months. Those animators included Brad Bird, who went on to direct "Iron Giant" for Warner's, "Incredibles" and "Ratatouille" for Pixar. John Musker also joined at around the same time. He would later become co-director with Ron Clements on "Great Mouse Detective", "Little Mermaid", "Aladdin", "Hercules", "Treasure Planet" and "Princess and the Frog". There was also Henry Selleck, later director of "Nightmare Before Christmas" and "Coraline". And of course Bill Kroyer, one of the founders of Rhythm & Hues, a pioneer digital studio, and Jerry Rees, arguably the finest artist in the group, who directed "Brave Little Toaster". Jerry went on to become a live-action director, and is still active in many facets of film production, as well as having developed 17 attractions for the Disney theme parks.

We raised a lot of hell in those days, as the work load was light at the time, and several of us almost got the sack a few times. Brad Bird actually was terminated after kicking some holes in the wall and offending some of the Bluth people, who had a cult-like presence at the department prior to their own departure. It gave me a double pleasure to see him receiving that Oscar for "Ratatouille", and thinking about the short-sightedness of some of the executive wankers who had thrown him off the studio lot in 1979.

Frank & Ollie were always supportive of myself and the other younger guys. They got a kick out of one of my trainee films that I'd done at the studio showing a vain man taking himself apart in front of a mirror (teeth, hair, etc.) and featured it several years later (1982) on a TV show they did for the then-new Disney Cable channel. The time spent filming the show at the old Chaplin studio lot allowed me a chance to build on an already strong foundation of friendship I had with these two great guys. We discussed the problems that beset the show I was on at the time "The Black Cauldron" (1985), and they were sympathetic, assuring me things would get better. As it turned out, things did improve substantially when the studio was taken over by the Eisner/Wells regime in 1984.

Another of Walt’s “9 Old Men” who was still active at that time (the early 1980’s) was Ward Kimball. One of the most innovative, wacky guys ever at the studio, and one of the most well-versed and skillful artists, Ward at this time was working on projects over at WED (later Walt Disney Imagineering, or WDI), where the planning and production of attractions for the Disney Parks was executed. Ward came over to Feature Animation to give us a series of Life Drawing sessions one evening a week, featuring both nude and clothed models. As we drew, he circled our group, checking our drawings and regaling us in a very low-key manner with great bits of his experiences over the years he’d spent working as an artist, both before, during and after his years with Walt. His stories of observing odd people (his favorite subjects) often had us cracking up so badly it was hard to draw. His humor was very droll, and the stories of how often he got on Walt’s “bad boy” list were great. Through it all, however, Walt realized he’d never find anyone to match Ward, and so was careful never to break the bond by firing him outright, no matter how irritating he became.

Lectures were delivered every so often by Marc Davis, Ken O’Connor and others from the group of the old masters, and stories about the retired and irascible Milt Kaul were relayed to us by Andreas Deja, who would make the drive up to Milt’s home in Carmel, California for weekend visits. At the end of the day, it seems our generation of animators were the last to be able to carry the privilege of being taught and influenced directly by the greats of the “Golden Age” of the art form.
FLIP: What was your favourite project that you worked on at Disney?

Phil: It’s really difficult to select a favourite project among the many I worked on; so many were favourites for various reasons. Overall, I'd say "Beauty and the Beast" was the best, as it was the first one that felt like a sure thing to turn out well, right from the outset. At first, I had met the directors on the lot during lunch and expressed doubts about the idea, as it was shortly after I'd seen the classic version by Jacques Cocteau, and I felt we'd suffer by comparison. There was also a weekly TV show at the time, drawing mixed reviews. Later, however, we were given a preview of the music by Alan Mencken in one of the small conference rooms, and we were floored! I remember saying that with such a great score, we couldn't possibly muck it up with our animation!

As it turned out, Beauty and the Beast surprised everyone, and ended up with that memorable "Best Picture" nomination for the Academy Awards for that year, and that was before animation had its own separate category! We also had so much fun making the picture, as there were all kinds of wacky goings-on at the Airway Building, the small facility our picture occupied at that time. Colorful fights and screaming fits among the animators were a regular feature. The animators on Cogsworth and Lumiere really didn't get on well, and it's funny to see how those feelings are reflected in the animation of those two.

On the other hand, my best character assignment was Mufasa on "The Lion King". I was fortunate to have a really strong character to work on, with the best voice talent to animate to, and a great lead animator on the project in Tony Fucile. He was extremely generous with the scenes he gave me, and at last gave me scenes in which I could exercise some acting chops. Until this picture, I had been primarily cast on physical, action scenes. On Lion King, I got plenty of those as well, animating many shots of Mufasa's death struggle in the Wildebeest stampede, but also got some real "plums"
in a sequence of Mufasa and little Simba in some father/son interactions.

A big thrill was meeting James Earl Jones, who was so excited about doing the voice work on Mufasa, his first time doing voice work for animation. He brought his young son along, and introduced him to us as "Young Simba". Of course, having a good part in that picture was a great feeling, especially when it went on to break all record box office figures at that time.  

FLIP: Later you went to DreamWorks, and then left Hollywood to become a professor. What made you make such a big change?

Phil: By the time I landed at DreamWorks, the wheels had been set in motion to provide my next goal, a retrograde move, as it took me back to my fine arts/illustration past. It began with a new mentor, Ron Pekar, a sculptor who came to the studio in 1996 to teach the new 3D artists to sculpt the dinosaurs they were to animate in the Disney effort called "Dinosaur", a well-intentioned but disastrously expensive and badly-crafted movie that was the studio's attempt to compete with their own Pixar operation, which was run by folks who had the effrontery to know what the hell they were doing with the digital medium, a true love/hate relationship within the ranks of the Eisner kingdom.

At any rate, Ron Pekar spotted the fact that I had some sculpting experience, and spoke to me a couple of times to the effect that if I were interested, I could probably work outside the environment of animation, and might even get paid for it. This re-awakened the idea I'd had years earlier of possibly trying a fine arts career, supported financially by teaching of some sort.

The job at DreamWorks came about after Disney began shoving some of the animators towards the back door in anticipation of the coming digital revolution. These first targets were about a dozen individuals, including myself, who had 20+ years behind them, making them expensive, and who had never pushed for the leading roles and the additional responsibilities that came with them. I valued my own work time, and didn't like the interruptions of being a team leader in the few times I had the lead on minor characters.

I was hired By DreamWorks to help finish "Sinbad", and had the good fortune to be assigned to a room with Alex Williams. I had discussed with Alex the desire to find a teaching gig in the near future, and phase myself out of the industry. Alex regularly checked the Animation Guild website, and one morning came in with the information that Savannah College of Art & design was looking for an animation instructor to replace one who had quit two weeks before the start of a semester. Having recently read "Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil", my interest was piqued to see that part of the country, and I gave them a call. Explaining that I was still on contract with DreamWorks until the completion of "Sinbad", (a real yawner to work on), I was told they'd love to see a resume for future possibilities, and I complied.

The DreamWorks gig was followed by six months' work on "Looney Tunes: Back in Action", a live-action/animation cockup best forgotten, but with animation directed by one of my favorite people of all times, Eric Goldberg, who I still regard as the greatest animator around. Once again, I was next door to Alex, who had Tom Sito as roommate. (Animation Guild President at that time), and when I mentioned SCAD as my possible next move, Tom told me he'd had a young student at his night classes at UCLA who had just been made the chair of the animation Department at SCAD. Tom fired off an email in her direction, and before the end of that day she had sent me a mail that said I was as good as hired on Tom's recommendation. As soon as "Looney Tunes" was finished, my wife and I flew out to Savannah and were given an interview with celebrity treatment during the Film Festival out there. During the Festival, we even got to see Peter O'Toole drunk on his arse and greeting people while being held up by two people. It was a great way to be ushered into the academic world!
FLIP: What are the highs and lows of teaching animation to undergraduates?

Phil: The highs for me involve the fact that people are still fascinated with this medium, even though it has undergone almost constant change from its inception as a mechanical novelty up to the advanced digital state we know today. I also derive much from dealing with the students, as they are involved with aspects of modern technology I haven’t taken the time to stay up with. I enjoy their take on the world and its current state, and find hope there for our species.

By the same token, today’s undergrads offer a challenge to me, as they have been able, by means of technology, to circumvent so many traditional learning paths, and in so doing have missed out on so many communicative skills needed for anyone going into an art profession (composition, staging, anatomy, perspective, timing) The ability to communicate a vision or an idea has been damaged by using technological shortcuts. We demand instant gratification, and have eliminated much of the type of learning arrived at by trying and failing. We feel we are making a statement, when in reality we may be alone in receiving the message we intend. This challenge is frustrating, as I’m always aware of the limited amount of time we have in class to try to instill the importance of learning these skills.
Montgomery Hall, animation dept at SCAD - Savannah College of Art & Design
FLIP: What advice would you give to anyone who wants to get into the animation industry?

Phil: First and foremost, I’d advise anyone thinking of an animation career at this point in time not to rush out with the expectation of immediate employment. The market now is in a state of flux, the jobs are competitive, and it will probably take awhile to find your niche. Take your time, and be sure to get every scrap of skill and knowledge from your schooling obtainable, in order to make yourself as totally valuable in as many directions as possible. That means mastering traditional, digital, stop-motion, and whatever direction the art form takes in this rapidly changing area.

I spent an eternity in my undergraduate years, switching from major to major (Fine Arts, Drawing & Painting, Bio-Medical Illustration, Editorial Illustration, Teacher's training), and wound up with a sizeable pack of artistic experience, so that when the Disney opportunity arose, I was a viable competitor for hiring even though I had never had an Animation class.

Become an expert in as many areas as you can fit into your bag of tricks. Eric Larson once told me that the most creative animators were the ones whose interests encompassed everything. I’ve found this to be so. Many of my friends had so many interests outside the workplace that their main frustration was never having time to attend to them all. Musicians, singers, actors in various theatricals, craftsmen, en plein aire painters, ceramicists, specialists in foreign languages, race car drivers, equestrians, even lawyers! All these and more were among my associates at the studios. In order to tell an interesting story, you should be an interesting person!

Finally, when your instructors tell you to make a sketchbook into an extension of your arm, we don't say it to hear our own nagging voice. Drawing is still a determinant, even though some digital artists don't consider it so. The most complete and best training for an animator remains learning the craft on pencil and paper. So draw, draw, draw! And when you fail, or make drawings so gross even your loving family makes gagging sounds at the sight of them, keep drawing until the right pieces fall into place. You might just be surprised at some time by getting a job you never expected and staying on for twenty years or so! That has a familiar ring....

(Editor's Note: for more tales of the Disney studio and the 9 Old Men, read Steve's article here. You can also read about the death of 2D animation at Disney, a dinosaurs view, the latest batch of Disney layoffs, and check out the studio's most recent take on Mickey Mouse. You can also see Disney's Paperman, an innovative blend of 2D and 3D animation, here. )

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