In my last blog I reminisced about my start at the Walt Disney studio on February 10, 1975. Alessandro from Europe who follows this blog, asked me to give more detail about what my (and others') experience was like. He had read other accounts of that time period and was curious about the specific details of the trainee program.
A little background for context will help before I get started...
Animation is the backbone of the Disney studio. The theme parks, publishing, music, consumer products etc. all stem from animated characters and their environments. Since Walt Disney's death in 1966, Woolie Reitherman had headed up the animation department. The older animators, some who had worked on Snow White in 1937, were still actively animating and were about to retire. Woolie wanted to find young animators to continue the high quality of Disney animation the public was accustomed to.
LEFT-Brochure to recruit prospective animators "our studio is searching for gifted young artists with a desire to make animated cartoons as Disney makes them. Those who qualify would be trained in the Disney way of making films, but just as important to us would be their ability to stimulate and expand our thoughts and ideas."
The search was begun to find a new generation of animators to carry on this tradition. Legendary animator Eric Larson was put in charge of overseeing this program to train the 'new' generation of animators.
Eric was in contact with art schools and word spread that Disney was looking for animators. Portfolios came to the studio from art colleges and around the world. These were carefully scrutinized by a number of staff and artists looking for strong drawing ability depicting animals and humans in motion. One's drawing ability could get you into the program but there was a whole lot more to learn about film making and story telling with a pencil. How well and quickly these other aspects were picked up was another vital ingredient in becoming a Disney animator. The training would also cover acting, staging, timing, drawing on model, and much, much more.
By the time I joined in 1975, the program had been in existence for about a little over two years. The first group of trainees included Don Bluth, John Pomeroy, Ron Clements, Gary Goldman, Andy Gaskill and others; they were the prototype.
I had been directed to the Disney studio by Sam McKim who taught a night class at Art Center College of Design located at their old campus on 3rd Street in LA. I was a student in his Sketching for Illustration class. One night Mr. McKim brought up the topic of a trainee class in animation. After class I was walking with another student through the parking lot discussing the prospects of working for Disney and he says "they don't pay much". Though the pay was a concern, my main goal was to work in a more creative environment and be surrounded by those who think creatively. I pursued more information from Mr. McKim. He got me in contact with Eric at the studio.
My interview with Eric Larson went well. Eric was a real classy gentleman brimming with confidence and words of encouragement. I definitely needed his words of affirmation. I had no knowledge of animation nor had I ever been in a studio environment. My only images of the Walt Disney Studio had been from the old black and white Disneyland television program of the 1950's. By the time the Wonderful World of Disney premiered in color in the early 1960's I was in my early teens and had lost interest in all things Disney. At the time I had no Disney history and I'm completely unaware that I was talking to a Disney legend.
Eric told me that my art work was 'ok'. 'Ok' if I was looking for a commercial art job; as my portfolio was geared for that type of work. A year and a half prior, I had graduated from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and hoped to land a job as a commercial artist. No such doors opened in Southern California. So, I ended up at Honeywell where I was employed as a technical illustrator. The most creative things I did in a days work was make flow charts and block diagrams. This led me to seek out a class at an art school where I hoped to meet creative people or get directed onto a more creative path. Now I was on that path and being interviewed for a job by Eric Larson. "Do you have any quick sketches?" he asked.
Eight years earlier I had been encouraged to carry a sketch pad by my high school art teacher and by this time I had plenty of pads filled. I drove home ( 20 miles) gathered three sketch pads, put them in an envelope addressed to Eric, dropped them off at the guard gate.Then drove another 35 miles back to my job making flow charts and block diagrams (I was on my lunch break).
A week later I got a call from Disney saying 'you can start anytime you want' in the animation trainee program.
Not as easy a decision as I thought it would be. Leaving one job for another, especially for less money and no guarantee you would be there beyond four weeks. Throw in a wife and two kids and you can see why I had to think this life altering decision through. With my wife's encouragement I took that step. (To be continued...)