October '09     

Bob McCrea worked for Disney Studios from 1937 to 1977, mostly as Ollie Johnston's assistant.  For a certain generation of Cal Arts Character Animation students (1977-86), Bob was a teacher of dubious reputation….

Dave Pruiksma
My memories of Bob McCrea are somewhat sketchy after nearly three decades.  I basically see Bob, in my mind’s eye, with a pipe in his mouth (mostly unlit), dressed in baggy low-riding beige pants, a brown plaid shirt and sensible shoes, wandering around the animation studio during class offering little in the way of instruction or advice. Bob was kind of low key and, frankly, could be a little bit of a downer.  He could be blunt and disparaging without offering any form of solution to the animation novice.

I have very little in the way of anything gleaned from Bob that I actually took with me and used in my career.   I do remember he told us that in order to really anchor a character’s feet on the ground, we needed to create a grid of the perspective of the ground plane and then we were to treat the feet as blocks or bricks that were firmly locked on this plane.  This advice is not inherently wrong; it’s just that Bob took it to extremes, literally drawing the feet as though the characters were about to be tossed overboard in cement overshoes to “swim with the fishes” as it were. To see an example of this, take a look at the Mickey Mouse animation for the opening credits of the New Mickey Mouse Club in 1977. It is said that Bob animated the little interstitials and bumpers for the show and there you can see clear evidence of Bob’s handiwork in the strangely blocky appearance of Mickey trademark yellow shoes looking, for all intents and purposes, like Frankenmouse.

Naturally, animation students being who they are, Bob seemed to be the butt of a lot of jokes and caricatures. We were young and could be cutting and cruel in our observations. I recall a particularly funny impression of Bob and his strangely dismissive chuckle by Rob Minkoff, who played Bob in a skit during one of our annual “Jackie Awards” ceremonies held at the end of each school year.

I now have more empathy towards Bob than at the time he was teaching. It would be difficult to compete with the reputations of the likes of T. Hee, Ken O’Conner, Bill Moore and Elmer Plummer, all well-known icons of the animation community during the golden age of Disney.  Bob’s main claim to fame appeared to be inbetweening the swinging birdcage that held Pinocchio in Stromboli’s lumbering circus wagon and searching the morgue (archives) as part of Disney’s TV animation division, to find reusable animation from the features for the Disney TV show of the 1950s and ‘60s.

Steve Moore
Bob had a thinly veiled contempt for student animators.  Why he chose to teach Character Animation is unclear.  Its not that he was mean, he just seemed indifferent. Bob would have a look at a scene you felt you had finally nailed, and scoff "It works."  He offered not much more than that in way of critique.  As for animation advice, "Watch your arcs." was about it. 

Bob carried a lot of baggage from his career at Disney Studios.  He had been an Ollie's assistant for thirty-two years - surely he must have been good at it.  But he didn't seem proud of his work.  Where Jack Hannah and Elmer Plummer would tell wonderful Walt stories, Bob's stories were bitter.   He never got the respect he wanted. 

He often told stories of avoiding Walt. "Walt was a bastard!" he'd snicker "Shee-hee-hee!", pulling on his turkey neck.  Apparently, if you were not one of Walt's stars, you had better not let him see you in the hallway during work hours.  Bob laughed at how he and other such studio peons would travel through the animation building using doors that adjoined each room of the wing.  They would go from room to room to room through these doors instead of using the hall lest they encounter Walt the Bastard.  

Telling wide-eyed animation students stories like this was a HUGE mistake.  We made up Bob encounters with Walt, imitating his low drawl.  "Walt approached me in the hallway and said, 'Hey McCrea, think fast.'  Then he punched me right in the throat.  Shee-hee-hee! Walt was a Bastard." Variations on the story had Walt hit Bob in the nuts with a basketball, or Walt cut Bob's head off with a samurai sword - it all depended on who was telling it.  The story always ended with "Shee-hee hee, Walt was a bastard!

Cal Arts Character Animation faculty, May 1984. From left, Ray Aragon, Hal Ambro, Bob Winquist, Jack Hannah, Bob McCrea, T.Hee.

Bob was even skewered on-screen.  In their film  "Toby", Chris Sanders, Leon Joosen, and Gary Conrad told the story of a badly animated boy sent to an asylum for poorly animated characters.  As Toby tries to escape, he passes a TV lounge (based on the one in the dorms) playing a show where a doctor tells a woman the bad news, "I'm afraid your son is…..Bob McCrea." There's a photo cutout of Bob on the table, kicking his legs up and down madly.  It brought down the Bijou.  Then to top it, Bob's actual voice says "What the matter, Mom?"  This begs the question: was Bob the joke or was he in on the joke? 

Clip from 1984 Cal Arts student film "Toby" by Gary Conrad, Leon Joosen, and Chris Sanders.

Hardluck Schleprock could have been based on Bob.  Still, I liked to visit him in his office.  There was something about his deglamorized view of the industry that appealed to my cynical nature.  

After my junior year I lived on campus, trying to get my first animation job. I was failing miserably, running out of money and hope.  Bob commiserated, told me to keep at it, and then took me to lunch.  The hostess gestured us over to a table next to the restrooms.   Bob waved her off, "We're not sitting there. It smells like a damned toilet!"  He picked out a nice window booth instead.  I was gob smacked.  Good ol' Bob took a lot of shit from a lot of people, but not from the hostess of Tiny Naylor's.

Ralph Eggleston
My first year at Cal Arts was Bob's first as head of the Character Animation Department.  I always got the feeling Bob didn't care much for the administrative part of his job, but he did like meeting with students one-on-one quite a bit.  The industry was in one of its larger periodic "lulls," and it seemed that full, Disney-style feature animation was slowly dying out.  Bob seemed like he'd seen it all--and he probably had.  He was a trustworthy workhorse at the Disney studio, and he tried to impart a sense of patience that a bunch of eager cartoon geeks weren't too keen to hear at the time.  Only later did his sense of work ethic make it through to us.  He was very conservative in his ideas on animation and film making, but I never saw him let that get in the way of some of the edgier films being made.

Bob was Frank Thomas's assistant on "Bambi," and often talked about drawing "those damned spots."  But you know what?  Those spots and Bambi are near perfect--beautifully delineating Bambi's form and dimensionality--and are never distracting.  Talk about PATIENCE!

Shortly before Bob's retirement, some of the students made a large plaster statue of him (I'm thinking' 12' ft. tall, with pedestal), painted to look like stone.  He had pigeons sitting on his head, and he had his pipe in his mouth.  He cried when he saw it.  SOMEONE must have a picture of that!

He was never without his pipe.  That pipe stunk!

Bob passed away in 1995. 

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