A Dreamer Walking

An Industry Without a Soul

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on April 17, 2019

Example picI’m in a dark mood right now, I apologize.

The trailer for the “live action” Lion King came out the other day. The film is just one in a long line of remakes that Disney is producing. Then there are the franchises, connected Universes, the sequels, prequels, and more sequels. Of course, scattered about is some original storytelling. These original films are mostly safe and used as a sort of reward to the artists who are being pressured through money and enticed by state of the art technical developments to make assembly line films.

The reason I say “assembly line films” is because the stories have literally already been done. The most clear examples are the remakes. Look at the trailers for Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. The trailers reek nostalgia with no soul.  We are expected to get excited because the images we fell in love with as kids are being brought to us in a “live action form”. Instead of the cartoony reality we had before, we are now being given a photo realistic example of the story. The greatest sin is the comment Disney Corporation makes about their understanding of the medium of animation.

The key difference with the remakes, that are desperately trying to stick to the original film’s successful formulas, is the transition from something that was stylized to something that has the look of realism. Understand, to call most of these Disney remakes “live action” is utterly inaccurate. The Lion King film will not hold a single frame of live action footage. They simply want to take a Picasso painting and render it so it looks realistic. In most cases they completely destroy what made the original films the magnificent pieces of art they were in the first place.

And here I get to the core of my rant. Disney Corporation has rendered the soul out of these great pieces of art by turning its back on its heritage. The goal of Walt was never to render things realistically, rather his efforts constantly strove toward creating something real inside the imagination.  I can say from years of studying and being influenced by the man’s films, Walt Disney would be ashamed of what the company he, his brother, and Ub Iwerks, originated. The lack of originality and innovation is staggering in today’s Disney.

The Disney Corporation still has creativity. The artists are simply too talented to not allow for some wonderful entertainment and provide great character work in this constant bombardment of remakes, prequels, and sequels. Yet, when the financiers are calling all the shots, as they are so clearly doing for Disney, a decline in innovation is inevitable. The great irony is eventually it will lead to great financial loss as well. The reason? Because money men can not spark audience’s imagination. The pattern has already shown itself in the history of Hollywood.  The financiers didn’t know how to deal with sound, they let artist call the shots and we received one of the greatest five years in the history of Hollywood from 1937-1942. Then slowly the money people took over. It took awhile but by the 1970’s the old Hollywood Moguls had all but given up. Thus the artists rose and began the greatest decade in cinema. The eighties showed some financial success but lacked innovation and thus we saw the rise of independent cinema in the 1990’s. Disney even has example of this. The reason the origins of Disney are so strong, where classics like Snow White, Pinocchio, and Bambi were created, was due to the vision Walt Disney cast, leading the charge. After his death in 1966 we witnessed one of the most lack luster periods in animation, all the way up to the 1980’s.  From the late 80’s through the mid 90’s the CEOs of Disney had no idea how animation worked, thus they allowed the artists to take center stage which produced the second golden age of Disney animation. Though the money men at Disney thought they could control 2D animation in the late 90’s and 2000’s, a small computer company arose, driven by artists, to produced one of the strongest start-ups in animation history. Pixar’s first 10 films are considered unmatched in their consistent excellence and innovation by critics and historians. Yet from the late 2000’s to the present Disney financiers took more and more control, Disney bought Pixar, Marvel, Lucas film, and now Fox. With all this has come unbelievable financial success.

I’ve been bothered about the length of success Disney has had with such little innovation and original storytelling. I’ve studied their changes carefully. Walt Disney is my greatest inspiration as a filmmaker and I had once dreamed of working at the company. However, the Disney corporation looks so little like the place I fell in love with. The reason for the length of their success I believe is due to the strong foundations originally established. There is so much love for the magic of Disney animation. Each remake holds a piece of that magic. Those who love the original Lion King can’t watch the recent trailer and not feel a strong emotional tug when they hear the great music and Mufasa say, “You must take your place in the circle of life”. However, just like a photocopied painting, magic is lost is lost in the duplication. Where we once saw vibrant brush strokes, nuanced lines, and bold texture, we now see a muted, over sharpened, and flat reproduction.

Disney’s actions right now are very similar to former Disney CEO Michael Eisner’s decision to produce dozens of “direct to video” sequels of all the Disney animated classics in the mid 90’s through the mid 2000’s. The only real difference is the current CEO, Bob Iger, has thrown far more money at these remakes. He has also been able to hire more creative filmmakers. Still the problem remains, below the surface of these multiple hundred million dollar remakes is a hollow shell of what was before. The greatest missing link in the remakes is the very thing that put Disney on the map in the first place, character animation. 

The more realistically you are required to render characters, especially the ones that are not human, the less personality animators can infuse into them. In the 1993 animated version of Timon and Pumbaa we saw a lively impression of a meerkat and warthog. They were also given many human characteristics. The four legged Pumbaa had extremely expressive eyebrows, larger than life proportions, and could hold poses in order to hit emotional beats. The 2019 version hardly has any visible personality. He can’t. He needs to look “real”.

EXAMPLE

 

Before the release of the first Hollywood feature animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released, the Disney artists were terrified. They simply didn’t know if a feature “cartoon” could hold the audience’s attention. The one person they trusted with their countless hours of backbreaking work was Walt Disney. See, he had this crazy idea. He thought the world could love his simple cartoons, with ill proportioned bodies and exaggerated actions, as long as his artist could capture one thing, their souls. He spent all sorts of time and bundles of money, he did not have, so his artists could bring characters like Grumpy, The Queen, and even Snow White to life. They spend days talking about the characters fears, joys, and loves. They developed every aspect of their design and motion to capture the essence who who these characters were. And yet, they still didn’t know for sure if the audience would understand.

Legendary animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston once spoke about the moment they realized what they had accomplished. It was during the premiere of the film. Snow White had already thrilled the audience. The human characters were believable, the dwarfs completely entertaining in their antics, and even the animals gave the audience some laughs. But the time Thomas and Ollie knew they had done the impossible was when the dwarfs mourned for Snow White as she lay on the bed motionless, thinking she was lost. Frank Thomas animated the simple shot of Dopey turning into Doc’s arms, overcome with sadness. There they witnessed a whole theater tearing up. They had done it. They had created life inside the imagination of their audience. A life so precious the audience mourned over Dopey’s loss.

Again and again I witnessed simple drawings rendered to life inside the animation of Disney studios. I would not be who I am today without this wonderful life I experienced. The good news is the Disney corporation can not destroy the life Walt Disney protected so dearly. The films he championed will always be there for me to see. But more importantly Walt’s influence is not lost. His spirit has arisen in other artists. The great tragedy is the corporation holding his name is no longer a refuge for those artists. The magic is all but gone. What is left are people at the top who prove through these remakes and franchises and sequels, they never knew the magic of Disney in the first place. The real magic of Walt wasn’t his films, it was the belief in the power of the imagination becoming real.

Walt Disney – An Observation – Worthy of Admiration

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on August 8, 2011

I was reading an interview on this man who spent more then thirty years working for Walt Disney. In a interview he said, “When you were having a conflict with Walt, you were having a conflict with someone who probably had more on the ball than you had, and whose judgment was probably better”. This might not be seen as a very huge compliment. It is nothing new, you have probably heard those types of compliments before. This however is not the only thing this guy has said about Walt. In other interviews this man has talked about how Walt was able to push artist to do things they didn’t feel like they were capable of doing. He talked about the phenomenal intuition and story instinct Walt had and how he was willing to put everything, even his life insurance, on the line to keep the studio and his dream alive. He called Walt a “genius” and a “brilliant storyteller”. This man said Walt was the kind of guy “who only comes along once in several generations”. Now we are getting to some generous compliments no matter who might be making them. However, I think the authenticity of these compliments is cemented by knowing who they came from.  The man who said all these things about Walt was none other then legendary animator Milt Kahl.

Milt was one of Walt’s Nine Old Men. Many consider him to be the greatest of the Nine Old Men. Milt was known for his dedication to perfection. It was a daunting and nerve racking task to clean up his drawings or to work on his inbetweens, out of fear that you might mess up his animation. He produced the final character design sheets for almost all the Disney full length features from the 1940’s-70’s. Most of the other big animators at the studio, including majority of the Nine Old Men, went to Milt for advice and help on working out complicated movements or designs. Milt was given the most complicated animation scenes. He needed to bring warmth to the puppet Pinocchio, he needed to give flight to Peter Pan, and give Madusa, from The Rescuers, her evil charm. If Milt thought an artist was being lazy he would let him or her know. He was known for his temper and not holding back a insult. He made it clear he thought most of his fellow Disney employees, especially after Walt died, were a bunch of  “lazy bastards”. I have heard stories of things getting so heated sketchbooks went flying. Milt was even willing to get into arguments with the big boss of the studio, Walt Disney.

See, Milt Kahl is not the kind of guy to compliment someone, let alone say someone is a “genius” or confess someone else might have better judgment then him. I have heard Milt Kahl complain about more then one of the Nine Old Men, and all those artists are considered some of the greatest to ever work in animation. Because I knew this about Milt, what he said about Walt truly impacted me. I heard a man who struggled with complimenting more then anyone I have researched (including Walt) give some of the greatest compliments a man could give. And I finally began to realize why. You see, even though Milt was a perfectionist I think Milt realized Walt was something more. Walt was a dreamer. Walt helped create the medium Milt strived most of his life to perfect.

After Walt died Milt kept on working at the studio. However, the films he worked on were not nearly as good as the films of old, such as Pinocchio, Bambi, and Landy and the Tramp. Milt had a limit. He only could perfect the material he was given. Walt however was the one with the limitless imagination, he was the one who created the material. After Walt died the material became much less precious. For Milt it was like trying to create a sculpture out of a block of mud rather then a fine piece of diamond. Milt had all the tools to create something that was visually stunning, however much of the visuals were lost because of the poor material.

Milt said in 1976, the year he left the studio, “Here I am, a person at the height of my powers, and I feel there’s not a place for me anymore.”.  Walt created stories that entertained and inspired. His philosophy was about creating better material for his artists to work with. After his death Walt’s philosophy was lost. Milt did not admire Walt because he gave out compliments, was a flawless leader, or because of his money and fame. Walt was admired by Milt Kahl because he gave him a place to perfect his art form.

I have been studying Walt Disney for years now. I want to understand what went into the creation of such fine material that resulted in great films like Pinocchio and Mary Poppins. I want to know what drove Walt to create even better material. Before his death Walt was moving from theme parks to cities. He wanted to create an art form that would be completely intertwined with everyday life. His creativity had no limits and that is worthy of anyone’s admiration.

(Here are the links to the material I quoted. First off is Michael Barrier and Milton Gray interview of Milt Kahl. Second is Side 1 and Side 2 of a lecture Milt Kahl gave at Cal Arts in 1976. Also, Pixar animator Carlos Baena has some great resources on Milt Kahl on his website.)