Review & Thoughts on Two New Books from Disney Editions

| October 18, 2015 | Reply

There are numerous biographies about Walt Disney including a recently aired four-hour PBS documentary, “American Experience: Walt Disney”. Just when you thought there was nothing else you could learn about him or those in The Walt Disney Company, Disney Editions comes out with two books – Before Ever After: The Lost Lectures of Walt Disney’s Animation Studio and All Aboard – The Wonderful World of Disney Trains. Not only do these two books have amazing stories, many never heard before, they also have some beautiful photographs and illustrations.

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Before Ever After: The Lost Lectures of Walt Disney’s Animation Studio, written by Don Hahn and Tracey Miller-Zarneke, on sale October 20, 2015, is a multi-layered book that gives the reader, through commentary and actual lectures, a sneak-peek into Walt Disney’s thought process. It also showcases the talents and unique contributions by some of his well-known and lesser-known animators. The selected lectures, like required courses a college student would have to take, were done in preparation for the production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (and beyond) and document not only the classes that Don Graham taught, but also guest lectures from other Disney animators. And like college electives, there were outside experts who came in to talk to the animators, thereby giving them a different basis of knowledge from which to draw on.

From 1932 to 1940, Graham was the head of the internal training and orientation classes at the Walt Disney Production Animation Studio. In addition to documenting and establishing many of the principles that make up the foundation of the art of traditional animation, Graham was also an early graduate and later a professor at the Chouinard Art Institute, which Walt Disney was very involved in.

NChouinardNelbert Chouinard
Image: calarts.edu

Hahn and Miller-Zarneke start the book out with a brief, but fairly comprehensive overview about Walt Disney and the early days leading up to just before the birth of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. There is a chapter on the Chouinard Art Institute (and there easily could have been an entire book on it) and another brief, yet detailed history of the school and its founder Nelbert Chouinard. Walt wanted his animators to study at the school, but they couldn’t afford the tuition for everyone. Nelbert truly loved art and drawing and agreed to give everyone scholarships and then have them repay her when they could.

“For the young animators, Nelbert’s class in ‘memory drawing’ was a favorite and required study. It was a revolutionary way of learning the human form … students would study the model for a few minutes and then go into the next room and draw the essence of the action from memory.” Walt embraced this style of drawing and eventually incorporated it at his own studio.

There is also a chapter on the rise and fall of Art Babbitt at the Disney Studios. Despite his lead role in the 1941 Studio strike, there was no denying that Babbitt was incredibly talented. In addition to defining Goofy, or the “Goof” as he was known in the 1930s, Babbitt was also responsible for creating the iconic animation of the Wicked Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the supervising animator of Geppetto on Pinocchio.

In Chapter Four – Teaching the Unknown Art – shows just how important Don Graham was to not only Walt Disney and The Walt Disney Company, but also to the Chouinard Art Institute and the Art of Animation.

Although no one chapter in the book is more important than any other, “The Early Masters” chapter comes really close to being it. Hahn and Miller-Zarneke talk about a number of Disney Studio artists including Les Clark, Phil Dike, Wilfred Jackson, and Fred Moore.

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Les Clark
Image: The Walt Disney Company

When Les Clark retired in 1975, he was the longest continuously employed member of Walt Disney Productions. As a high school student, Clark was working at a malt shop across the street from the Disney Studio and Walt was one of his regular customers. He got the courage up to ask Walt if he needed any artists. Walt replied, “Bring some of your drawings in and let’s see what they look like.” Clark brought them in on a Saturday to show Walt and that Monday he started work. In an interview with historian Don Peri, Clark said, “I graduated [from high school] on a Thursday and I went to work [the following] Monday.” Clark had a number of achievements during his tenure at Walt Disney Productions including animating Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie and a significant sequence in Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Phil_DikePhil Dike
Image: CaliforniaWatercolor.com

Phil Dike, who was an alumnus and instructor at the Chouinard School of Art, started his career at Disney first as a part-time instructor and then in 1935 as a full-time artist. At Chouinard, he was one of the first artists to develop the California Style of watercolor painting. His works can be seen in a number of prominent museums including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

1930wilfredjacksonWilfred Jackson
Image: Filmic Light

Although Wilfred Jackson studied at the Otis Art Institute, Walt wasn’t hiring many artists, especially inexperienced artists like Jackson. He decided to hang around the Disney Studios and volunteered to wash cels and assist the animators. Eventually he found himself with a job at the studios. His greatest contribution, in addition to his animation skills, was as a musician. Jackson figured out how to synch animation action to music by using a metronome. According to D23, Jackson said, “I am the only guy [at Disney] who was never hired!”

fred-moore-featFred Moore
Image: D23

Due to a toothache, a friend of Fred Moore’s couldn’t make his interview at the Disney Studios, Moore went and interviewed instead and got the job. “… with a natural talent for animation … his legacy was in the appeal that he brought to the characters.” It would be hard to say what was Fred’s most memorable contribution, but it’s safe to say that his input towards the evolution of Mickey Mouse from his “rubber hose and round circle” look to the Mickey we all know and love today, as well as his animation of the Seven Dwarfs just might be his crowning achievements.

Hahn and Miller-Zarneke also wrote about guest lecturers who had talent in other areas, but not in animation. They included famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, English character actor Roland Young and drama critic and short story writer Alexander Woollcott.

Training was one form of innovation that helped the Disney Studio make significant strides not only in animation, but also against their competitors. Technical innovation was another.

Technical areas that either Disney was an innovator in or took great advantage of were the invention of the storyboard, the Leica reel, Technicolor, the character model, the multi-plane camera, stereo and multi-track recordings, character licensing and merchandising, making the movie premiere more of an event, the ink and paint lab and development of creating and blending their own paint colors, and of course, the Disney Campus itself.

This book fills in many of the blanks that Disney fans may not have otherwise known. It gives credit to not only Walt and many of his Nine Old Men, but also recognizes that talents of those individuals who were outside the studio and the technical innovations that helped make the studio great.

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About half way into All Aboard: The Wonderful World of Disney Trains, written by Dana Amendola, you quickly realize that this book, which was released in September, is more than just about Walt’s interest in trains and the trains at all of the Disney Parks. It’s a love letter to Walt, his interest in trains and those that shared his passion. The six chapters in this book cover the various roles trains played in Disney history.

20028189586_29bddd6ff7_cPainting by Harold Brett
Image: Alan Mays/Flickr

One chapter discusses how trains fascinated and influenced Walt Disney not only through his childhood, but all the way into adulthood. Another covers the now famous story of Walt’s cross-country trip to New York City on The Chief and then the Broadway Limited, in order to renegotiate his contract for Oswald the Lucky Rabbit with his producer Charles Mintz and the subsequent birth of Mickey Mouse. Other chapters include minor and major roles trains had in various Disney and Pixar films and a condensed history of each train at every Disney Park. The book also has wonderful historical and rare photographs from not only the Disney Archives, but also from history of train transportation in the United States.

Like Before Ever After, it has a chapter that, I think, is the heart and soul of the book – “Four Men, Four Trains – A Shared Passion for the Rails.” Although many shared Walt’s passion for trains or helped him with his passion, like Roger E. Broggie, Amendola talks about four specific train enthusiasts: Walt Disney, Ward Kimball, Ollie Johnston and John Lasseter.

As discussed earlier, Walt’s love of trains went all the way back to his childhood. Watching the trains pull in and out of the station, he would imagine where they were coming from, where they were going to and the adventures that the passengers would have on the trip. When he was 15 years old, Walt worked as a news butcher on the Santa Fe Railroad selling newspapers, candy, cigarettes and sodas to passengers. “Much later in life, when asked about his railroad career, Walt would lament that it was ‘brief, exciting, and unprofitable,’ writes Amendola.

chi_rr_fair_labelImage: Midcontinent.org

When Walt went to the Chicago Railroad Fair, he took another big train enthusiast with him, Ward Kimball. Like Walt, Ward’s fascination with trains started when he was a young boy. Continuing into his adulthood, Ward purchased a three-foot passenger coach to house his model train collection. His wife, Betty, suggested that he should also get a locomotive. He bought a steam locomotive, the Sidney Dillion, from the Nevada Central Railroad. He renamed it the Emma Nevada. Throughout his life he continued to add to his collection and eventually had a fully working, full-scale railroad – complete with buildings – in his backyard. When he passed away, his wife and family ran the trains for a few more years before donating most of his collection to the Orange Empire Railway Museum.

At the Disney Studios, Ward was known as the “train guy.” When Walt built a full Lionel train layout in his office, Ward called a fellow train enthusiast, who many people – including Walt – did not know was interested in trains, to go with him up to Walt’s office and see his layout – Ollie Johnston.

cablaughingPhoto: L to R – Sean Bautista (The Marie E. restorer), John Lasseter, Ollie Johnston and Ollie’s Son
Image: Sean and Melissa Bautista / babble.com

Like Walt and Ward, Ollie graduated from half-scale railroading to full-scale railroading and had a beautiful train he named the Marie E., after his wife Marie. As Ollie got older, he could no longer work and maintain his trains, so his children helped him sell the property and his beloved trains.

Ollie was a mentor to many Disney artists, one of them was John Lasseter. Although John loved trains as a kid, as a young man his interests took him in other directions. Ollie was one of John’s instructors at CalArts and years later the two would work on animating The Fox and the Hound.  Ollie liked and was impressed by John so much that he starting mentoring him. As they worked together, Ollie would tell John stories about trains, both at Disney and his own.

At a fundraiser, John’s interest in trains reemerged and at the event’s charity auction, he bought an entire HO-scale train set. Years later, John was at a premiere screening of Walt: The Man Behind the Myth. Sitting with Ollie, John asked him about the Marie E. Ollie, who become crestfallen, told him that when he sold his property, the train went with it.  John eventually bought Ollie’s train. When Ollie’s best friend and Disney animator, Frank Thomas, passed away, John thought the best way to cheer him up was get him behind the Marie E. one more time. Although this was almost logistically impossible, Amendola describes a complex plan that eventually got Ollie back into his beloved train.

Reading this book, one cannot help but to feel the passion, the joy and the happiness that trains not only brought to those involved in this book, but also within yourself. And that’s what love is all about.



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