Downtown Detroit. Motor City. In a scruffy office nestled high in a corner of The Fischer Body Building, I proudly flipped my animation of a horse's gallop to a jaded animator who produced industrial films.
"I studied the Muybridge book", I told him.
Unfazed, he gave me the hard cold facts: "Listen kid, Disney doesn't make cartoons anymore - they're in the amusement park business."
His discouraging words were a kick in the gut to a geek like me - obsessed with everything animation from the time I was practically out of the womb. "Don't waste your time. Work in the auto-industry." he advised. On the long drive back to my home in the 'burbs, his words haunted me. He's just bitter, I thought. Secretly, I was terrified he was right.
Then I read an article stating that Disney was searching for 350 relatively untrained artists for a new apprenticeship program. Wow! What the hell - I'm fourteen - I'll apply!
No sooner had my letter to Disney been sent, a form letter arrived stating that the need for 350 apprentices was a misprint. Crap. Oh well, at least The Rescuers letterhead printed on it was cool. Wait a minute... I thought they didn't make cartoons anymore.
Two years later, in the summer of '79, Sleeping Beauty was re-released. A promo-piece appeared in The Detroit News that featured one of Disney's legendary nine-old-men, Eric Larson. He was one of the films directors and was now heading the training department for young talent at the studio. After putting my eyeballs back into their sockets, I quickly sent off another letter to Disney.
Two weeks passed. What did I receive? Another form letter. Well, sort of. It was a polite rejection note from administration stating they weren't looking for people at the moment. "Besides", it read, "you're too young to apply. Sincerely, Don Duckwall." Crap. Who the heck is Don Duckwall, I grumbled. Oh well, at least it was signed by a person this time. Then I laughed. What are the odds of a guy named Don Duckwall working for Disney?
I was determined to get Eric Larson's attention. This time I sent a bunch of my artwork and a long letter addressed directly to him. A few weeks later, I got a two-page letter from the man himself full of praises and encouragement. I nearly had a heart attack. He suggested I go to CalArts after I finished high school and would inform Jack Hannah of me. (Jack was a former Donald Duck shorts director and head of the character animation program at CalArts at the time.) Eric asked if I would agree to send more artwork from time to time before my graduation and keep up our correspondence. Accompanying the letter was a big, full-color brochure titled Disney is Looking For Some Colorful New Characters . I was thrilled. Count me in!
Over the next two years, my mentorship and friendship with Eric Larson grew via letters and phone conversations. This was really unbelievable to me. While most of the kids I knew where out partying, I was home talking to one of my Hollywood heroes. Through his letters, and by literally going over my drawings, he would guide and critique them in his warm, grandfatherly way; instructing me to get more rhythm into a pose or to "leave off the shading, because in animation itself, the drawing is purely line, demanding a clear, clean statement of action, mood expression and perspective." I was in hog heaven, getting tips from a master and having conversations that covered such topics as films currently in production to Walt Disney's philosophies on entertainment.
During this time I was making my own short animated films, one of which was a full-color commercial for a local business that actually aired on local TV. I'd sent a copy of it to Eric and his response put me on cloud nine. He had shown my film to Ed Hansen, head of the animation department at the time, and expressed hope that I'd wind up at the studio. I did back flips while my parents fainted. As any young animator could imagine, I couldn't wait to graduate, move to California and finally meet the man who'd been encouraging and helping me so much.
In 1981, after settling into CalArts, I finally had the honor of meeting Eric Larson for the first time in person. Since I didn't own a car, my friend Tim Hauser drove me to Burbank in his beat up old Volkswagen Bug, as he did so generously many times thereafter. (In fact, I'm still high from the gas fumes. Thanks Tim!)
I'll never forget my first time visiting the Disney Studio. After Tim dropped me off, I was directed to a reception area at central casting. The receptionist told me to take a seat until she gave me the go ahead to enter the lot.
While I waited, a young guy walked in, spoke to the receptionist, and then sat down next to me. I turned nonchalantly at the guy and thought 'Hmmf, whadya' know...it's Peter Brady'. Then I did a double take - it really was Peter Brady (Christopher Knight) from The Brady Bunch; he was auditioning for a movie. Wow, my first celebrity sighting! I knew that cracking voice from that puberty episode sounded familiar. Okay, so it wasn't Brando, but for a 17-year-old kid from Michigan, the whole thing was just too bizarre. Finally, the receptionist gave me the go ahead and handed me a pass that had a map to
The Animation Building located on Mickey Mouse Avenue and Dopey Drive.
After walking in a daze through the lot - not believing I was actually there - I entered the art deco styled Animation Building while my heart pounded out of my chest. As I climbed the stairs I could barely keep it together, knees knocking as I made my way up to Eric's office in room 2A-6.
c.2007 Moore Studios, Inc
Above, Dan's visitor's pass, dated May 28 (1982). The +1 on the pass is Tim Hauser.
Below, the back of the pass with studio map.
When I arrived, a friendly, white haired gentleman, wearing green pants hiked high upon his portly frame, greeted me. He shook my hand firmly and welcomed me inside. I took a seat in the huge, windowed room while he did the same behind his massive director's desk. To the right was his animation desk with a sculpture of a tall, bearded character in a red-striped shirt set on top. It was a caricature of Joe Ranft, who I would soon later become friends with. Behind him was a large shelf covered with books, drawings and an illustration of Walt. There we sat getting to know each other. We talked about animation, the studio, CalArts and Walt. He was so generous with his time and knowledge that he let me visit with him the entire day.
Every once in a while a break in the conversation would occur and there would be an awkward silence. Eric would drum his fingers on the arms of his chair while we just sort of stared at each other. During one of those moments, a very weird thing happened that to this day, I still couldn't explain. Eric told me that I reminded him of an animator who'd worked at the studio years ago in the forties. He said the man was about my size and that he used to walk with a big, tall, skinny fellow to lunch every day. He struggled to remember the name of the tall, skinny guy. Suddenly, I blurted out "Was it Judge Whitaker?"
Now, I had no idea what Judge Whitaker looked like. I only knew his name from geeking out at the Disney screen credits and always thought it was unusual. As I was saying, "Was it Judge Whitaker?" Eric practically leaped out of his chair and looked at me is if he'd seen a ghost.
"How did you know that?" He was genuinely spooked. So was I! "How did you know that?" he demanded.
"I-I don't know," I stammered.
We continued to stare at each other for a few minutes, with Eric looking perplexed. It was if we'd performed a séance and just made contact with the dead. It was truly bizarre.
To shake things off, Eric suggested we take an early lunch. We drove to Alphonse's, a favorite Disney hang out in Toluca Lake, where Eric had his own booth. While there, Eric ordered his favorite lunch: strawberry crepes and a cocktail. I thought maybe he had to belt one back after I'd freaked him out!
we returned to the studio and watched a sequence from 101 Dalmatians on his moviola. It was a sequence he had animated of Pongo and Perdita watching TV with their puppies.
Eric stressed the importance of audience identification through the story situation and the character's personality. He explained that Disney animation connects with people because the audience can relate to what's happening in the scene and to the characters on the screen. They think, 'Oh, that's just like my family and me when we watch TV. Or, that's kid's just like my nephew.' This was just one of the key Disney concepts he passed down to me that day. I floated several feet off the ground for a week.
After my first year at CalArts, I was lucky enough to be selected along with a couple of my classmates for a summer internship with Eric. Mickey's Christmas Carol , The Black Cauldron and Basil of Baker Street (lamely re-titled The Great Mouse Detective ) were all in production. Unfortunately, the animator's were all on strike. This meant the animation building was practically empty. But this didn't stop us from having fun. Eric encouraged us to be curious and explore the entire studio. We took full advantage of his advice, fully scouring the animation morgue and the back lot like kids in a candy store. He gave us full access to any films we wanted to screen and all of his lecture notes he'd written from his training program. He would book screenings of live-action films for us as well and discuss staging and how music was used in the Disney films.
We watched one of the True-Life Adventure films called Water Babies. This turned into a discussion about the use of caricature and how it is applied to music. He pointed out that Oliver Wallace's scores for the nature pictures were a huge contribution to their success because the music was caricatured - 'plussing' the action and implying the animal's personalities - therefore, enhancing the humor and entertainment value.
How did this apply to animation? Eric wanted us to understand how all the elements of filmmaking come together in order to communicate a singular idea. He was interested in hiring and training animator's who had an entertainment sense and was equally judging applicants based on their sense of humor, taste and 'interpretation of the world around them'. Basically, he wanted to shape filmmakers that wanted to make Disney films.
While reviewing our animation assignments, Eric was amazing at detecting what wasn't working in a pose or a scene. He would go over our drawings, and in a few simple lines vastly improve the line of action or silhouette of a pose. Or he might correct the distribution of weight and balance in a figure; or remind me that the feet must be planted firmly on the ground plane using space and perspective. There was never anything fancy or designed about his drawings; he was only concerned about the strength and clarity of the pose. His simple, economical lines always did the trick and were a constant revelation.
Here are several pearls he bestowed on me:
Criticism is good. However, it must be constructive. He believed it was important and necessary in order to achieve the best possible results on the screen. Careful analysis and criticism of ideas were essential in order to successfully communicate them to an audience. He knew of no other way to do this but to criticize the story idea or animation, reworking it until it was right. (Eric never pulled any punches when reviewing my work. He never sugarcoated his criticism.)
Eric had a phrase he used when describing a successful drawing pose or a piece of animation. He would judge something on the merits of whether it made a "positive statement" or not. This was not to be confused as an upbeat, Pollyanna attitude expressed in the drawing or scene. What he meant was that the drawing or scene must be a strong, clear execution of an idea, attitude or mood. He'd stress that the audience didn't have the benefit of rewinding the projector in order to understand what was poorly communicated through a bad performance or weak action analysis.
Aim high. Never settle for less. Eric praised Walt's ability to bring everyone at the studio up to his level of quality. He used Walt's vision of Disneyland as an example, explaining that he could've just made a cheap carnie type park with dart games and roller-coaster's but instead created a first class theme park inspired by the animated features, nostalgia and the future.
It bugged him when animators complained about animating walks. Some would argue that watching a character walking from point 'A' to point 'B' was boring to an audience. Eric argued that a character's walk defined their personality and was loaded with information about the specific individuality of a person or animal. He insisted that a walk done well added entertainment value.
Caricature is not just about whether a character has exaggerated features like a big nose or big feet. The action and performance must be caricatured. He cautioned that this didn't mean all characters should give big, loud, hyperactive performances. Caricature should be applied with taste and judgment. For example, Ratty in The Adventures of Mr. Toad is a stuffy reserved character that doesn't move much. The same goes for Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty , only for a different reason. Because of her status and power, she doesn't require a lot of movement. Therefore, a restrained, 'less is more' performance is more applicable.
The importance of planning. He advised spending a day or so planning your animation before animating anything.
The importance of storytelling poses. Spend most of your energy and time focusing on the poses that matter - the one's that tell the story.
Don't hide your knowledge. The importance of sharing information and teaching others will only benefit the artists around you, therefore improving the quality of the films.
When talking about joining the studio back in the 30's, Eric was amazed at how willing everyone was to share what they knew. He felt that it was perhaps the most important element responsible for building the studio into the success that it was. This is precisely why he came out of retirement to head the training program, out of necessity and as a sincere debt to Walt to pass on his knowledge to a new generation of animators and filmmakers.
His life's work at the studio and the training program were deeply personal to him. Like Walt, he wanted Disney animation to live on long after his death.
At the time of my mentorship, I felt like he was passing his wisdom directly down to me. I'm sure everyone he taught felt that way too. It was as if The Holy Grail was being handed down - and it was. Eric Larson is responsible not only for his outstanding contribution as an animator and director of the Disney animated features but for training a vast group of successful animators and directors in the business today.
Thankfully, I discovered that they still made cartoons at Disney's and I didn't wind up in the auto-industry. Eventually, my dream of animating at Disney's came true and I could not have done it without Eric's warm encouragement and generous teaching.
It was Eric's positive influence and belief in me that truly changed my life.
For that, I will always be grateful.
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