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Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Animation vs. Story

[I found this post as a draft from about ten years ago and I feel it still has its importance. Since most of the anecdotes stem from my old mentor, the late Børge Ring, I feel I cannot keep this to myself.]

Animation drafts give us an insight into the Disney Animation Department as I spoke of earlier, but they do have one big disadvantage: they give animation a historical significance far greater than any other part in the production of animated films.
For proper study, one needs to realize that animation production is a collaborative effort. Every part of it, be it layout, background or cell painting or camera or editing--every step is important. Above all, far too easily we loose sight of the fact that without good stories, there are no good animated films.

There are no Story Drafts. Some story outlines have names of members of the story crew, and from the later story meeting transcriptions one can make assumptions. Many times the story artists can only be determined by the lines of their work. We know Bill Peet's style, or Joe Rinaldi. Ken Anderson is recognizable, especially in his later years.

But there is a vast amount of unattributed work. For proof, look in the [then] new art book "Walt Disney Animation Studios The Archive Series: Story" and see how many sketches are by named artists - very, very few! To my surprise, there isn't even ONE mention of the importance of the writers! Though their names are mentioned in a very simplistic listing in the back, in the index you will not find Ted Sears, George Stallings or Perce Pearce! In a book that is supposed to impress on us how important story is! Get my point? Story is now considered a jumble of historic drawings. The intentions of John Lasseter who wrote the foreword, and who is story's successful protagonist [as I said, I wrote this ten years ago!], are diluted in an orgy of "look, ma, a pretty drawing!"

We often get the animators' point of view, like in Frank and Ollie's "Too Funny for Words," where, seen in the light of animation vs. story, a lot of credit is given to animators for what basically is funny story material. Again animation is considered the place where it all really happens. Frank even at some time surprisingly mentioned story as being "supportive material." Supportive to the animation. Now - Frank and Ollie really did not mean to minimize the importance of story, of course, but they gave their vision from their side of the divide. The way they describe story in "Illusion of Life" is precise and warrants re-reading.

On the other hand we remember an article in Millimeter in the early 70s where Carl Fallberg, speaking of the making of Bambi, ends with something like "Then the drawings go to the animators who make the drawings that make them move." After a failure there was always the dirty laundry: "Your story was no good!" "Yes it was, but you didn't know how to put it over. It was funny when it left here!"

One could compare a story man to a composer, then the head animator would be the violin virtuoso. The director has his function too, comparable to the orchestra conductor, controlling timing and getting everyone to work together. At Disney he often was the liaison between story and animation. Walt's own opinion of a director was basically "an expert technician well versed in the mechanics of picture making." Some directors were deeply involved in story, like Jack Kinney who said "Walt never gave credit for more than one thing at a time, but I was always in on the story of my shorts. Not for ego reasons but to make sure I never get burdened with weak material."

Of course, directors were never save from scrutiny: when the union newsletter Pegboard featured a series of articles on cartoon directors, Ralph Wright wrote an irritated letter commenting that "Disney's films were funny because we made some funny stories. All that Geronimi did was to go upstairs, take the scenes and go down and give them to his animators."

Jack Kinney was one of the early animators shunted into story because he could do both story and animation. Others included Bill Peet, Roy Williams, Leo Salkin, Larry Clemmons and Chuck Couch.
It was obviously considered easier to train an animator than a story man, as animation involves a lot of technique that could be learned, while story involves many other aspects, some more etherial.
At some point, with the well of stories at an eb, Walt instated a lot of new story people and used a lot of money on unusable material.
Good story people did not grow on trees even then.

One of the most repeated quotes is Wilfred Jackson's "Walt was a brilliant idea man." In story meetings, he would demand to know WHY the characters did what they did, and he would be furious if the answer was "I thought it would be funny." As told by Zack Schwartz: "The simplicity you see in Disney's films is the result of no end of analysis."

Dave Hand shed some light on the function of animators in story meetings: "During the heat of story cooking the prospective animator would be called down to give his ideas (if any). This seldom took more than 20 minutes. Then he was sent back because 'otherwise he would sit there all day'.

Ward Kimball said: "Your animation is never better than your story material." In other words, a good animated film needs to have a good story, which then needs to be presented well, with good animation--of course dependent on the style of the picture. Then, according to Dave Hand, "the animator should know every trick in the book as to putting the scene over in order to carry HIS part of the load." Animation and story must be hand in glove, but students of animation--and animation drafts--need to realize that the film's success is fully dependent on its story. Story, story, story!

Note: much of the anecdotal material on story has been compiled and supplied to me by my old mentor and friend Børge Ring, himself not only an acclaimed animator, but also Academy Award winning director of his own story material. Børge worked in Denmark in 1950 with Dave Hand, who told him that at Disney, failures were caused by bad stories, the animators having learnt at length to put over just anything. At Cookham, Rank's British studio where Hand worked in the late 40s with Ralph Wright, it was the other way around.

Dave Hand's then wife Doris said to Børge at this time: "If you want to join Disney's you should get into story. Because that is where it's at. When you run out of ideas there is always the animation."

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