John Canemaker’s “The Lost Notebook” documents Disney at its best moment

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If you’ve never heard of Herman Schultheis, you’re not alone. Ironically a relentless self-promoter who may have suffered from a persecution complex, Schultheis was a minor employee at the Disney Animation Studios from 1937 until 1941, during the period that saw their best output: PinocchioBambiDumbo and Fantasia.

Schultheis was born in Germany at the turn of the century and emigrated to New York just before the Depression. He considered himself a jack of all trades (though some of his co-workers would contend that he was a master of none), and was fixated on working in Hollywood to show off the talents he thought so highly of.

Though not an animator like Ub Iwerks or Ward Kimball, Schultheis did have an art of a kind: his technical skills in photography and photo manipulation. Once he was finally hired at a studio after years of doggedly trying, he helped improve the studio’s workflow with tests that brought greater clarity to animation photostats and Kodak’s photochemical wash-off relief cels, which reproduced animation sheets more faithfully than hand-inked cels did.

But anything he may have added to the films seems dwarfed now by the release of this immaculately kept and fully annotated notebook, which contains innumerable notes and diagrams on effects shots, research photographs, promotional stills and photographs of life at the Disney Animation Studios: men and women at work creating timeless films.

From an animation standpoint, the notes and diagrams are an amazing discovery. The trove of details and technical drawings about how effects and gags were done, diagrams and test drawings (especially of the multiplane camera shot that opens Pinocchio) is an especially exciting find. From a film history view, it’s the behind-the-scenes photos on the lot at the new and old Disney Studios that make the price worthwhile.

But I would come to a full stop before calling this Disneyana, which is, let’s be honest, a catchall term for the least interesting of all things Disney. This is an animation history book that just happens to document Disney. If Schultheis had worked at Warner’s or Hanna-Barbera, it would be just as insightful — though the period he worked at Disney was particularly interesting because it was during a time before the employee strike, when Walt didn’t seem to care about inflated budgets as much as the quality of the animation.

Schultheis was a polarizing figure inside the studio, however. He had his champions, but also his critics, the most vocal of whom was fellow effects man Bob Broughton, who called Schultheis a glory hog, allowing that he made contributions to the films, but never as the chief innovator. In the notebook that Canemaker’s book reproduces in full, it’s rare to see anyone else’s work, or at least anyone else credited for their work. If you didn’t know better, you might think that Schultheis was Walt Disney’s secret identity, so much credit is taken. It goes further still: There were whisper campaigns about Schultheis being a Hitler-lover (doubtful) and a Nazi spy (very doubtful), and in maybe the worst insult someone could give at the time, Broughton called him the least member of the Disney family. He may have had personal failings and been the least enmeshed member of the Disney family, but sometimes that’s the only way you get to take all of the pictures.

Up – Pete Docter, Bob Peterson (2009)

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It must be freeing to know that you have an audience before you even compose your first thought for a project. It’s a luxury very few people enjoy in the movie business, but an audience is a fait accompli for anyone working with the Pixar logo at the head of their credits. Pixar has the kind of track record that renders bad reviews all but moot, but they don’t take their good standing for granted. They work harder, as individuals and as a company, with each new picture so as not to betray the quality of what came before just to make a cheap buck. It’s the mouse that sells the toys.

Pixar has not failed that legacy with Up, Pete Docter’s daydream follow-up to his nightmare awakening of Monsters, Inc. It follows the story of Carl Fredricksen, a former balloon salesman turned elderly curmudgeon who is slowly being squeezed out of his home, his comfort and his life by a great villain called time.

On the eve of being evicted and sent to a nursing home, Carl does what any rational person would do: He turns his house into a zeppelin with thousands of helium-filled balloons and steers it towards South America, hoping to land on Paradise Falls, a mythic-yet-real spot in Venezuela. It’s the spot that he and his childhood sweetheart, Ellie, had always planned to visit together, but they ran out of time before they could get there. He is joined – accidentally, as it were – by Russell, a young Wilderness Explorer who is looking for the “Assisting the Elderly” badge to fill out his sash.

With WALL-E last year and now Up, Pixar has, oddly enough, grown up a little. It’s not because of the elderly characters or the lack of inanimate objects with speaking parts (animals still talk here, though not of their own accord); there’s a new layer of depth and emotional resonance. That could have been assumed to be a fluke in WALL-E, but not only weren’t these themes a fluke, they’re expanded upon in Up. Now we arethe characters, instead of wishing there were some way that the characters could really exist.

The old yarn that Pixar doesn’t really make kids’ movies has never been more true with Up, yet it’s also their most innocent since Toy Story. Though exploring new depths, they’ve not left the old adventure hat on the rack – the film is all but dedicated to the spirit of adventure. It’s the reason behind Carl and Ellie’s sweet, youthful romance, Carl’s regret in old age and even Russell’s childish naivete. Carl and Ellie’s childhood heroes were adventurers. Even the out-of-place moments (doggie planes?) and blunt conceits (the too-literal “life’s-weight-on-his-shoulders” metaphor) can be forgiven, as they perform dutifully in service to the kind of thrilling movie adventures we regular folks can only dream of, but which the wizards at Pixar perform with ease.

“The Sweatbox” & Glen Keane: Disney Feature Animation at a Crossroads

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As you might expect, Disney is a bit of a love-hate obsession with this OW writer. Last week, some brave soul risked (financial and legal) life and limb to post The Sweatbox on YouTube. It’s since been removed, but that toothpaste isn’t going back into the tube.

If you’re asking yourself what the hell The Sweatbox is, there is a good reason you’ve never heard of it.

It’s a feature length documentary shot by Trudie Styler, wife of Sting, chronicling the six year process of Walt Disney Feature Animation Studios making what would eventually become The Emperor’s New Groove, which began life very differently as Kingdom of the Sun before the WDFA chiefs, Thomas Schumacher and Peter Schneider, made a few crew changes.

For years now, The Sweatbox, has been locked away in a Disney vault, becoming one of those holy grail-type films that people had kind of given up on ever seeing. Disney had honored the bare minimum of its contract for the film, showing it a handful of times at festivals and then stuck it away in the vault. The word was that it was not a very flattering look into the making of the sausage. In fairness, the making of most films is a battle of attrition, and The Sweatbox caught that in all of its bloody awkwardness, casually putting Disney’s storytelling and creative process on trial through the consternation of Sting and his furrowed, chess-playing, letter-writing brow.

It’s hardly a rare tale at all, especially in the animation industry, especially at Disney. It happened to varying degrees on The Lion King before they found the Hamletesque version of the story as well, and even at Pixar on Toy Story 2, Ratatouille and Wall-E. Live action is no different, especially in Classic Hollywood. The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, How Green Was My Valley, they all had major changes in casting, director and script. Casablanca and Jaws were being filmed during the day and written at night so they could film more the next day.

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The Pixar Story – Leslie Iwerks (2008)

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Most of tributes that are pouring in for Steve Jobs are focusing on Apple, but I think Pixar is just as an important legacy for Jobs.

Even though his involvement was more in the role of Godfather than creator, Pixar would have been little more than a footnote in the story of Lucasfilm — the story of an unprofitable subsidiary that creating the digital tools that eventually made The Special Editions possible — if not for the long distance vision that Jobs possessed.

You can love or hate Apple, but there is no denying whatsoever that Pixar has enriched all of our lives, and it’s just as much about Steve Jobs as it is John Lasseter, Ed Catmull, Andrew Stanton or Pete Docter.

“The art challenges the technology, and the technology inspires the art.”

Ever since the first time I saw Who Framed Roger Rabbit? as a kid, I’ve been in love with the idea of cartoons. I’d always loved cartoons. What kid doesn’t? But the idea that they are made, that there is a “behind the scenes” to them became intoxicating for me. Like the young John Lasseter, I became obsessed with Disney and Warner cartoons and was astounded that people did this for a living. I wanted to do it to.  Well, it worked out a little bit better for him than it did for me.

Along with Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs and a handful of other visionaries, Lasseter changed the world of animation, and even — thanks to their state-of-the-art computer Renderman — feature motion pictures forever.

Pixar started out as a faint, impossible idea rattling around the heads of a few scattered idealists: to create a feature length computer animation. Not only had it not been done yet, but the tools were not even invented. But this random collection of PHds and would-be artists eventually settled in together as an unprofitable arm of Lucasfilm that was just too far ahead of its time. So how did it come to be the animation juggernaut that eventually took over Disney Animation Studios? The beginning is not all that different from Disney, really.

Before making a name on Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney began to eek out a living with the Alice comedies, a series of short subjects wherein the live action Alice (played by Virginia Davis) was inserted into a cartoon wonderland by Ub Iwerks, the “man behind the mouse”. The Pixar gang inverted that beginning, taking their first steps before Woody and Buzz by inserting a CGI stainglass Knight into the live action Young Sherlock Holmes when Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light and Magic couldn’t achieve the shot. It was from there that they grew and never looked back.

The Pixar Story was directed by Leslie Iwerks, the granddaughter of the innovative genius Ub Iwerks. Ub has a unique place in the world of film, first as the head animator of the Disney Animation Studio, the heart and soul guy who made the place tick, and later as a special effects wizard who, amongst other things, made the birds attack in Hitchcock’s The Birds.

Disney runs deep in Leslie Iwerks’s blood, and it shows. The film is a delicate, loving story about the birth and adolescence of insane greatness, tracing the story back from inception, to growing pains on through it’s massive success.

It is a one sided love affair, yes, but honest in it’s approach nonetheless. Hand-in-hand with the love-in, the original version of Toy Story 2 is thrown under the bus, though the creative team is not. As a Walt Disney Studios production, the film makes the pre-Iger Disney its main villain. The bumbling heavy, Disney is the company that could not see the talent in John Lasseter or the rich future of digital animation, and when it finally did, it wrongly axed the entire hand drawn animation division.

Iwerks starts out with a quick trip through the history of animation, starting out at the dawn of animation, from the mechanical zoetrope and Muybridge’s horse photos on through the computer graphics in Tron. Tracing the story of Pixar back from inception, to growing pains on through it’s massive success, Iwerks interviews all of the important players, from the animators and designers, to Lucas and Jobs and even the star voice talents, like Tom Hanks and Billy Crystal. The love affair with this company seems to be ubiquitous with everyone who comes in contact with it (less Michael Eisner, who is upset when they won’t let themselves be ripped off for short-term profit).

Leslie Iwerks is a fantastic filmmaker, very much in the Disney storytelling mold. Both The Pixar Story and The Hand Behind the Mouse are timeless creations of both fact and fancy. They make you wish you were there at the same time as making you feel as if you were. She simultaneously creates an immersive experience and causes a great swell of emotion through music cues and knowing exactly what shot to cut to at the right moment.

It’s a special talent — more of a filmmaker’s talent than a documentarian’s talent — that few have. She doesn’t just deliver the stories but the feelings behind the stories: the sadness of Ub and Walt parting ways, the “oh, shit” moment when Pixar realized they had to do it again after Toy Story and that none of their old tricks would work a second time. She makes you feel what it was like in that small computer lab, with John Lassiter’s futon stuffed under his desk, working for three days straight to help make the company what it is today.

It’s a remarkably exciting and insightful film, and shows Pixar to be the kind of fun filled place to work we wish we could work at, while also giving us a glimpse of the pressure to perform on the entire staff. Once success is achieved it has to be maintained, and that’s a tough bit in their business. But they deserve every scrap of it they’ve gotten.

Quick Hits on Winnie the Pooh – Stephen Anderson, Don Hall (2011)

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-I would venture to guess that this new-fangled Winnie the Pooh story has at least as much, if not much more, power with adults as it does with kids. This is the type of Disney piece that I’m sentimental and nostalgic about from my own youth. The Winnie the Pooh show was something I watched all the time as a kid, even into my teenage years. And this movie goes further into being for adults by having John Cleese narrate and interact with Pooh. It’s a superb narration, the kind of thing Cleese is perfect for as anyone who listened to his audio book version of The Screwtape Letters might know. I’m not sure what such an addition might mean to a child, but it’s perfect for the adults in the room who, if they have kids, will have to watch it dozens of times. I might watch it dozens of times myself, and the idea of having children is repellent to me.

-I’ve always had a deep, personal identification with Eeyore and his mopey disposition, one that is only rivaled (beaten, truthfully) by my identification with Charlie Brown. For whatever reason, whenever people couldn’t think of something to get me for a birthday or Christmas when I was younger, it would be something Eeyore related and I built those into a small collection of figures and (shut up) stuffed animals over the years — a collection also beaten by Charlie Brown stuffs, I should point out. This movie fits right into that identification, because Eeyore and his missing tail (and contest to replace it) is one of the film’s three running storylines. The contest to replace it — and the attention that comes with it — seem to almost embarrass the donkey as he mopes through much of the rest of the film, except one excruciating (though somewhat funny) segment where Tiggr aims to exploit Eeyore’s identity crisis and turn him into Tiggr Two. “The best thing about Tiggrs’,” Eeyore tells him before walking off, “is that you’re the only one.”

-The running time is a little bit of a problem. It’s barely over an hour with the full credits (though the credits do feature some more animation of the Pooh gang). I mean, it’s a fine running time for kids who have not yet gone on Adderall or Ritalin, but the rest of us are left wanting more story, more gags, more of Pooh’s rumbling belly song.