Monday, September 30, 2013

Early days at the studio...

 February 10th 1975, was my first day on the lot at Disney Animation, reporting to Ed Hansen, head of the department.  He sent me upstairs to Eric Larsen (one of the legendary 'Nine Old Men' of Disney animation) who was in charge of training young artists to be future Disney animators.
I was given a desk in a large room across the hall from Eric, where all the potential animators were. There I met Glen Keane, Tad Stones, Jerry Reese, Jerry Moeler, Randy Cooke, and a host of others.
The assignment was: you had four weeks to do an animation test (supervised by Eric).  No matter when you entered the program, you had four weeks.  People were in various stages of their 'weeks' before showing their tests to veteran animators for a sink or swim nod.  Though we got paid, there was no guarantee you'd be around for a fifth week.
About half passed the first four week test, and were then given another four weeks to animate another test, showing how much you had learned from the first one. About one in three passed the second round. Fortunately for me they took into consideration your background; as I had no animation experience.  Literally learning the first day what an exposure sheet was, how to 'flip' drawings and set up Disney paper on Disney pegs, etc..  Others who had come from Cal-Arts or another studio had more experience and their tests and understanding of animation were far superior to mine.  Yet, in this communal atmosphere we all encouraged and pushed each other along. Life long friendships were forged in this pressured atmosphere. We all had the same goal, to make it to the next level and bring others with us. There was a tremendous camaraderie, everybody wanting others to 'make it' and Eric wanting all of us to succeed.
 Passing my second test, I was sent to the first floor to learn animation by doing inbetweens for a 'real' animator, the legend, Frank Thomas. 'The Rescuers' was in production at that time.  Normally a picture was released every three years and this production was about half finished when I came on board. Frank let me do a scene here and there; Bernard and Critters,  but my main job was to do his inbetweens during the work day.  My animation was done at night and on weekends; about fifty feet total. In those days an animator had to do a minimum of a hundred feet to get screen credit (notice how older animation/live action features have such short credits compared to today? :)

Pete's Dragon was next for me, working with Gary Goldman, doing his inbetweens and given a scene here and there for another fifty or so feet... sorry no screen credit :) But, by this time I had worked my way up to assistant animator, animating and doing inbetweens during working hours-yes!

Though other Americans of African decent had worked at the studio, Mike McKinney and I were the first to be on track to be animators, and Disney was making sure the world knew it.  This publicity shot went to magazines and newspapers across the country. 

The article is from this February 1978 issue of Ebony Magazine.

This event was a big deal for the studio. They had been making feature films since the release of Snow White in 1937.

 As a result, I received a great amount of fan mail from people who followed Disney animation and had no idea there were people of color behind the scenes.  This is a typical letter, which I saved in a folder about 4 inches thick of like letters recieved over the years, (notice the 13 cent stamp:).  I responded to as many letters that came to me, offering words of encouragement to young artists. I said to myself, if I ever got in a position where I could offer advice or direction to others, I would.  Coming out of college there was no one to answer my questions or share advice as I stumbled around looking for an avenue to express my creativity.  So, I took an active role in sharing with others.


  1. Very cool post! Thanks for the insight.

  2. I just discovered your awesome blog via a post on Cartoonbrew!

  3. Thank you for all the great work you've given us and for all that you will bring us us in the future!! So excited to see your next project and follow your blog my friend! All the best!