Sunday, March 5, 2023

Recognition in Sacramento


 In the California state capitol building in Sacramento , I was one of the people  honored by their district Assemblypersons as Unsung Heroes 2023.

The other honorees...

(Me second from left)

   In Assemblyperson Chris R. Holden's absence (in Pakistan on business) Assemblyperson Dr. Corey A. Jackson ( top photo, grey suit) escorted me down the aisle as my biography was read over the  podium.

The program...

Prior to the ceremony we got to witness the legislature in session as Assemblypersons Weber and Bradford (program 1 below right) presented a resolution for the state of California to recognize February as Black History Month.

(Program Cover)


(Inside program 1)

(Inside program 2)

(Inside program 3)

The fine print...

The road that led to this award.

  I was accepted into the Walt Disney Animation trainee program and started learning the craft on February 10, 1975, my first day at the Walt Disney Studio lot. 

   1976 I had started my journey by doing 'inbetweens' for animator Frank Thomas on The Rescuers. Frank let me animate 51 feet of rough animation scenes under his supervision. 

  In those days you had to animate 100 feet on the production you were working on to be promoted to an animator. Not only a promotion, you no longer had to 'clock in', you got a screen credit and the union minimum salary. At around fifty feet, I wasn't even close. Frank got credit for the footage:- ).

 Next up in 1977 I was doing inbetweens and rough animation for animator Gary Goldman on Pete's Dragon. Another 50 or so feet as animation production came to a close. Again, footage was credited to the Gary as I had not reached the magic number.

 Following was The Small One in1979, Disney created a in-house category, animating assistant. No such category exists in the union.

 The union categories are inbetweener, an inbetweener with more experience becomes a breakdown, more experience bumps you up to an assistant animator and finally animator. Any of those categories could be a career. I had advanced to assistant animator by this time.

  Entering into The Small One, a number of us who had come through the trainee program were deemed animating assistants. We now had all the responsibilities of an animator. Which include being issued scenes, talking directly with the sequence director, animating full time and having our own inbetweener.

Animating on The Small One  (below).

As I gained on my 100 feet, the publicity department sent out this photo (above) and information about 'A Disney First Black  Animators' referring to Mike McKinney and myself. At this time Mike was in clean-up and I was an assistant.

  In reality they jumped the gun. I had not officially reached the required footage to be an animator.
 I suppose animator sounds more important and gets your attention as the article (above right) refers to us as "The black animators" and The Hero From Otherwhere never got the green light to go into production.

The publicity went out to cities who had a primarily African American news source,(newspaper, magazine).
 At this juncture, animation was not the 800 pound gorilla in the room.
Disney was one of the only if not the only kid on the block producing animated features on a regular basis and that only once every 3 years release date. There were smaller studios and Hanna-Barbara television series but nothing like todays super saturation animation machines. Interest in me making history was small news to some but big news in my community.
From 1937 to 1979 there had been no Black names listed in the screen credits under Animator on a Disney Animated Feature.

 1979  The promotion plus 

 Ed Hanson, Department Head of animation called my home to give me the news that I had been promoted to animator.  I had achieved the quota of 100 feet and more on the production. The week before I had  turned in the scene of the boy climbing up the wall and waving good bye to the man, his wife and The Small One (Joseph with Mary riding the donkey on their way to Bethlehem).

In the 'old days' a scene would be rough animated, sent to the camera department where the individual drawings were to be shot (photographed), reviewed by the director(s) and if it got approval, be inserted in the story reel in place of workbook images. This process could take several days or more.

The week I turned in the scene I decided to take that next week off as vacation time and rest up. I felt tired and run down, very little energy. I had lost weight, my equilibrium was off, slurred speech and nausea also plagued me.

 Weeks earlier my general practice doctor, after examining me said " I'm not giving you a note to get off work". If he didn't take my condition seriously, why should I. So I continued to go to the studio, using one lane on the freeway because looking left or right made me dizzy.

 Another doctor prescribed pills to combat my nausea but the pills made me drowsy. I could barely keep from falling asleep at my desk. 

 I had started tapping the wall as I walked the hallways to keep my balance. President of the studio at the time, the late Ron Miller saw me in this condition, inquired  about it and took action. He had his secretary make specialist doctor appointments for me.  She would telephone from the third floor having made an appointment for me. 

Ear, nose and throat doctor, nope, nothing wrong there...on to another appointment. Several doctors later she arranged for me to see a neurosurgeon, Dr George Gruner. He almost jumped out of his skin upon examining me. His office was across the street to the north from St. Joseph's Hospital. The studio was across the street to the east of the hospital.

"Don't go home, check yourself into the hospital". Day's later Dr. Gruner performed an eight hour surgery on the back of my neck where the spine meets the cranium (still have the scar).

 He told my wife LaVonne, "he's probably going to die on the operating table or if the operation is a success, he'll be paralyzed from the neck or waist down". He said this not to be pessimistic but to prepare her for what he thought the foreseeable outcome would be.

He performed a successful surgery, About three months later I was back on the lot half days.

Other hurdles along the way...

  A few months after I passed the trainee period and doing the job of inbetweening I got called up to the third floor of the old animation building. (First floor was where feature animation was done. Second floor was dedicated to trainees and Eric Larson's spacious office (Eric headed the trainee training) and the library. Management was on the third level.

 There I was told "you will never animate here, Filmation, Hanna-Barbara or someplace else, but not here". This was not a studio wide attitude but it was this person's. I left his office and went back down to the first floor to finish Frank's inbetweens.

 A few years later I was told "Ron, you can't draw, it says right here on paper". Ironic, earlier that week I had talked with the person who was cleaning up (taking roughly drawn characters and removing the construction lines and putting the character on model if needed) my  ruff drawings and he told me the information in the drawings made them easy to clean-up and follow. (example below)

(Ruff animation drawing by Frank Thomas)

(Clean-Up animation drawing-unknown)

  For about seven years I animated crowd and secondary character scenes. I asked if I could get a 'personality/dialogue' scene once in a while. "If I make a mistake, I'll do the scene over", I pleaded my case. I had seen animators re-do scenes before, a common occurrence in the business. "Animators  don't make mistakes" was the answer. A polite way of saying , no.

My journey to February 27, 2023 has not been paved with roses (and there is more to tell) but perhaps for another time.

 For now, I'll enjoy my Sacramento experience.

'Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think,'...

                                                                                                                          Eph. 3:20

Until next time...