Saturday, December 21, 2013

My Animation Trainee experience...(part1)

 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.

 (RIGHT- a page from one of the sketch books I left at the guard gate)

 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...)

Monday, December 9, 2013


  Like a lot of people this time of the year I was out in the garage retrieving the 'Christmas stuff'. Packed away in boxes, plastic tubs and canvas zip bags is all the "stuff" that my wife, LaVonne, will use to transform the inside of our home into a Christmas wonderland. If your garage is anything like mine, it is filled with other boxes, plastic tubs, canvas zip bags, bicycles, a lawn mower, furniture, books, tools etc. ....and a car or two. Searching through, re-arranging and looking through all this 'stuff' I stumble upon some boxes I haven't seen in years, in one instance, 38 years... 

My blog today is a detailed description of the inventory I found in those boxes of long ago.

A brochure welcoming me to the 'Disney family', explaining the rich history of Walt and the studio on my first day as a animation trainee...

Another brochure explaining all the departments and their functions, designed to help me navigate seamlessly through the work day...the back cover stating Good Luck in your new role...producing "The finest in family entertainment"!


The studio Disneyland Line newsletter, special edition, dated September 20, 1976.

The author is asking if  The Old Disney Magic can be recaptured by the nine new men (of animation?)...time has answered that question with the emergence of Glen Keane, Andreas Deja, Mark Henn,Tony DeRosa, Bruce Smith, Dale Baer, Eric Goldberg, Nik Ranieri and the list could go on and on. Tim Burton, Brad Bird and a host of others also got their start in the animation trainee department.

 The article went into detail about the studios' history under Walt's leadership, past and present productions, some personal insights and the trainee department... a direct quote from the newsletter says, "There are so few women in cartoon work that such terms as story person or layout person have not yet evolved. But the team includes four women and two blacks, representations that were rare and unknown respectively, among the first generation at Disney's."...

This same article refers to the new generation of leadership who were to recapture the Old Disney Magic...left to right: Andy Gaskill, Don Bluth, John Pomeroy and Gary Goldman look at a test on a moviola.

Another Studio newsletter dated January 27, 1978 announcing Frank and Ollie's retirement, the main reason for starting the animation trainee department...

A Newsreel (on the right), dated April 7, 1978 announcing another animation veteran's retirement after 44 years...


On the back cover of this Newsreel is an announcement of six individuals (including me) who were promoted to 'full' animators, a month before my major surgery.

A copy of this July 28, 1978 Studio Newsreel reveals the animation trainee department, under Eric Larson, is still making news. 

A copy of the Disney Times newspaper, (this one dated June, 1979), got delivered to our home doorsteps monthly.


A copy of an Inter-Office Communication, dated April 11, 1979, concerning a proposed project that never got the 'green light'.  We were asked  what our level of enthusiasm was about working on this project...How unique is that?

 Another Newsreel dated February 22, 1985...the story dealt with the "temporary relocation of the Animation Department" to Flower Street in Glendale and how much more efficient the department would be, "we are all together, as one big family" and how 'happy' the animators were in their new surroundings.

  Before it was all over I had worked in three different buildings and a trailer in the Flower St. area...
Smiling animators, Mark Henn and Dave Block, at their desks...wonder what their expressions would have been had they known that it would be ten years before animation would 'go home'.
Wow, maybe I'll find even more treasures when it is time to take "Christmas" down for 2013.  Stay tuned, you never know what's lurking in all that "stuff" packed away in boxes, plastic tubs and canvas zip bags!
(All images are shown for encouragement and inspiration only.)