What Ruined Woolie’s Day

Until the thing that ruined it for Woolie, it had been a wonderful day. We were, after all, celebrating the 45th anniversary of the most significant motion picture in both our lives, Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was the first movie I’d ever seen in a theater, when I was six years old, and it was the first job he’d ever had as an animator, back in 1935–37, when he animated The Face In The Magic Mirror, the spectral visage that decreed who was ‘fairest of them all,’ and spun the Queen into a rival-killing rage when it wasn’t her anymore. It was Snow White.

Wolfgang ‘Woolie’ Reitherman was like an uncle to me. He was like that to a lot of us. One of Disney’s famous ‘Nine Old Men,’ the animators who Walt Disney designated as his superstars back before superstars existed or ‘Old’ was a bad word, Woolie took over producing the animated feature films when Walt quit producing movies in the early 1950s to focus on a new idea he had for what we’d call today ‘an immersive, brand-themed story experience’ located down the freeway in what had been an orange grove in Anaheim.

It was easy to understand why Walt had chosen Woolie to pilot the Disney Animation ship. A pilot is what he’d been in World War II, and not just any pilot, a ‘Hump Pilot.’ He had flown the breathtakingly dangerous ‘hump’ supply route over the Himalayas, between India and China for the U.S. Air Force, delivering life-saving supplies to Chinese troops who’d had their supply lines cut off by the Japanese army. Woolie had always been an outdoorsman. A surfer, a horseman, a biker. He’d built his own airplane with his brother when they were teenagers. His wife, Janie, a motorcycle stuntwoman before the War, ran a Burbank travel agency. They met after the War, when he was flying for Philippine Air and she was a flight attendant there. He was tall, tan, handsome, bowlegged like a cowboy. He liked to wear Hawaiian shirts, jeans, and cowboy boots to work. He had a way of expressing himself that was a joy to be around. When he spoke, he would pause patiently between sentences and gesture with his long, graceful fingers, as if he were pulling words out of the air.

We staged the 45th anniversary celebration for Snow White at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Theater on Wilshire in Beverly Hills. I was producing a one hour television special about the event for Disney, called The Fairest of Them All, hosted by the actor Dick Van Patten, and the Seven Dwarfs and Snow White characters from Disneyland. My team and I invited every artist we could find who was was still alive at that time who had worked on Snow White to a screening of the film and a VIP reception following. During the reception, we conducted dozens of video interviews with our guests that we’d use for the TV special, and I had 15 or 20 set-ups to shoot before and after the screening with Dick, Snow White, and the Dwarfs. We invited three school buses of underprivileged children from an L.A. non-profit called Para Los Ninos to the screening to ensure a full house and lots of youthful energy. It was a hectic schedule that had us moving quickly, and focused on the many tasks at hand. It wouldn’t be until later, after after the screening, near the end of the VIP reception, that I would learn what had ruined Woolie’s day.

We would sit on the balcony of his home on Skyline Drive in Burbank, overlooking the Disney Studio a couple of miles to the west, the San Fernando Valley vanishing into another work-of-art sunset, and drink martinis and talk about art, animation, our lives, my dreams still ahead of me, his mostly realized. “Before you can learn to surf a wave,” he’d say as his hands began describing the action, “you have to get tossed around by the wave. So you can understand how the wave works. The dynamics, and so on.”

He once described how he animated Snow White’s Face in the Magic Mirror to look disturbingly surreal. “The thing about human faces,” he’d say, framing a face in the air with those hands of his, “is that they’re not symmetrical. The right side of a face looks different from the left. So to make the Face in the Mirror look otherworldly I made it symmetrical. I folded the animation sheet in half, drew half the face, and then traced the other half so that it was a mirror image. We put distortion in the photography, added a smoke effect, and that was how we made it look the way it did.”

After Woolie’s subtle contribution to Snow White, Walt Disney freed him from the confining frames of mirrors and faces, and typically assigned him the big, broad action sequences in his films that required characters to express power, movement, and weight. The Headless Horseman chase in The Legend of Ichabod Crane, Monstro the Whale in Pinocchio. The Tyrannosaurus Rex in Fantasia’s ‘Rite of Spring’ sequence. The Dragon and Prince Charming battle at the climax of Sleeping Beauty. Woolie liked to animate what the animators call ‘straight ahead’ — that is, instead of first drawing key poses in a scene and then filling in the action, Woolie would draw frame-to-frame-to-frame, improvising the action as it came to him, like an actor performing a fight scene in ultra slow motion. “You’d take it as far as you could,” he said of his action animation, “and push it and push it, until you couldn’t take it any farther. And then you’d get on with the killing.” He often used life-and-death figures of speech. “You can’t understand the true nature of an animal,” he once told me while we were looking at an enclosure full of lethargic orangutans during a video shoot at the L.A. Zoo, “until you see the animal fearing for its life.”

I know how to throw a party, and the Snow White 45th anniversary reception was no exception. The mojo was exceptional. We had the rowdy kids from Para Los Ninos. The old-timers re-uniting, many of them for the first time in decades. The young Disney artists excited to be celebrating a milestone in their craft — the first feature-length animated film in history — with their heroes, the legends who’d brought it to life. We had good catering from Along Came Mary, and an open bar. Adrianna Caselotti, who’d been the voice of Snow White, and Harry Stockwell, who’d been the voice of the Prince, got pleasantly hammered and sang a sweet a capella duet of ‘Someday My Prince Will Come.’ Harry had flown in from Texas for the party. He told me that he and his son, the actor Dean Stockwell, had been estranged for many years, but that they’d patched things up during his visit. Which was awesome. Parties can bring about quantum leaps in relationships, like that. We know this. We have all experienced it.

There was a child actor there with her stage mom and the mom was having the little girl, who had a big voice, belt out songs at random intervals during the reception.

John Lasseter was there, along with a bunch of the Cal Arts wiz kids and other animation prodigies who would go on to great success at Disney and elsewhere. Lasseter was, at the time, just beginning to see the connection between computers and animation that would lead him to form Pixar with Steve Jobs in a few years. With my TV production wrapped for the day, John and I had a beer and pondered the unlimited possibilities our futures held. “You know what would make a good combination of computer animation and live action?” I suggested. “The Jetsons.” I told him I thought Dan Ackroyd and Terri Gar would make a good George and Jane Jetson. But the casting isn’t what inspired him. For the rest of the evening, he kept coming up to me to tell me what a great idea it was (us naively not realizing that Disney’s senior execs at that time would’ve dropped a safe on our heads before they let us make a deal with those TV cartoon cheapos, Hanna-Barbera, who owned The Jetsons.). But with every beer, the idea got better. “You know what’s great about it?” John crowed, “The buildings are all in the clouds. You don’t need landscapes!” And after another beer: “You know why the production design will work as computer animation? The shapes are all geometrical!”

If his day had not already been ruined by what happened in the screening, I’m sure Woolie would’ve appreciated it as a disturbingly surreal scene.

Compared to Walt, who was always pushing the envelope of what was possible in animation, Woolie, as a producer, gave more conservative guidance. He was concerned about economies of scale in a way Walt never was. He would have the animators re-cycle animation from previous films, re-purpose character models, and re-cast familiar voice actors. For example, the bear character of Little John, from Robin Hood wasn’t all that different from Baloo the Bear in The Jungle Book, and the actor Phil Harris voiced both characters. The more artistically-oriented of the Nine Old Men would carp about Woolie’s leadership. It didn’t ever seem to bother him. Walt could push the boundaries because it was his and Roy’s studio. Woolie’s job was to keep the plane in the air. To do that, he had to conserve his fuel. That’s how it was when we, the generation that would bend Disney toward becoming the enterprise it is today, arrived there in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The plane was still flying. But it was losing altitude. Woolie and the old-timers were working to keep it aloft until another generation of Disney artists could take over.

At the time of the Snow White anniversary celebration, The Nine Old Men were either done complaining about Woolie and gone, or planning to leave soon. The studio’s most recent release, The Fox and the Hound was okay, but not great. A rising star named Don Bluth was plotting an insurrection that would see him poaching a dozen of the best young animators at Disney and forming his own studio to make a film called The Secret of NIMH, which he and his people were secretly moonlighting at the time. There was talk of an old project Walt had started, Chanticleer, about a rooster, that made it seem to us as if the story cupboard was nearly bare. Woolie and Mel Shaw were drawing concept art for a Fantasia sequel and putting it to music that included Frank Zappa’s Music for Guitar and Low Budget Orchestra. The senior managers at Disney never knew what to make it of, and so it never got made. The Black Cauldron, which would be one of the lesser Disney animated features, was on the drawing boards. Tim Burton got fired from The Black Cauldron for drawing elves, called Fair Folk in the story, that were ‘too mean and too scary.’ In other words, Burton was discovering a style that would eventually make him a filmaking god, and the studio didn’t appreciate it at that time. He was too green. There was no market for that sort of thing. But we all loved Tim’s stuff just the same.

Meanwhile, over in the live action division, the studio was staggering through a release schedule that included films like The Unidentified Flying Oddball, Condorman, The North Avenue Irregulars, and The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again. We were not necessarily optimistic about the future of Disney, or its animation department. We were, however, supremely confident in our own abilities. And we knew that, somehow, Woolie and the older Disney artists held the secrets to our success. Secrets they were happy to share. The senior team at Disney at that time were incredibly generous mentors, and I believe that the continuity of the Disney brand, and its evolution into the immensely-successful global media company it is today, can be traced to their mentorship.

Woolie was usually at his best at Disney events like the Snow White renunion, commanding a corner table and, bourbon in one hand and an unlit cigar in the other, holding forth for a group of young artists. Sharing his wisdom and offering direction. Giving us the courage to take chances. Joking with remarkable ease about his and Janie’s love life, or telling a risque story that probably included a sex scene, a reminder that creation and pro-creation are intimately tied. He could be profane as fuck. I once watched Woolie sketch pornographic Disney characters in ink on a linen tablecloth in the bar at the Mayflower Hotel in D.C.,. My friend, the writer John Culhane, slipped the tablecloth off the table and into his briefcase as a souvenir he had for years until his wife, Hind, burned it up in their trash barrel. Not all histories deserve remembering.

After a few drinks at the Snow White event, Woolie was in a way I’d never seen him before. Drunk, yes, but I’d seen him like that before, and it was always thrilling. Not now. Now he was morose. He was rattled. Reluctant to talk. He just shook his head and muttered stuff about the children. The children? Here was this heroic character, this legend, brought low by something children had done in a screening of a movie he’d seen two hundred times? He was a Hump Pilot for chrissakes. He flew overloaded B-29s out of the jungle and over the Himalayas while getting shot at by people who wanted him to crash and burn. He took over making animation from Walt fucking Disney. He’d always been masterful about it. Unaffected. Easygoing. In stride. Now, he was off his stride, shellshocked as they said in World War Two, and was drinking aggressively to deal with it. What had happened in the screening? What shook him so?

Little by little, I got it out of him before he turned into a guy who’d drowned his sadness in alcohol. The children, he said. The kids from Para Los Ninos. They were sitting in the rows immediately in front of him in the theater. They had been engaged in the film. Well-behaved. And then, at the end of the film, when Snow White dies, and the Dwarfs are mourning and crying, before the Prince arrives to save her with ‘love’s first kiss,’…the children in front of Woolie had applauded and stood up to leave, as if the film had ended with the death of its main character.

‘They thought it was over,’ Woolie kept muttering. ‘They didn’t think she would come back to life.’ It had ruined his day. He saw it as the ultimate loss of innocence. Childhood’s end for everyone. There was no hope for redemption. We are doomed now, he seemed to be thinking. Our instruments are dead. Our plane is out of fuel. I can’t keep it in the air any longer. We are going down.

And in the background the little actor sang apocalyptically “…the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air…’

And nearby the old actors crooned drunkenly, ‘…someday, we’ll meet again…’

And off to the side Lasseter is lighting up his buddies about the future of animation, ‘…it’s all geometry!…

And that’s when I split from my beloved mentor and saw him for the first time ever at a detached, clinical distance. What happened might have ruined Woolie’s day, but it hadn’t ruined mine. He was projecting. Today, and the episode with the children, might have been the final curtain on Disney Animation as he knew it. The movies he and his contemporaries made would never resonate with audiences in the same way again. And why should they? Movies are frozen in time, and life keeps on animating. Disney would move on without him and the Nine Old Men. It became very clear to me that day. The company would have no choice, and neither would he.

That’s you, Woolie, I thought to myself. It’s not us. Your sadness won’t wreck our joy. We are just getting started.