Five Questions +2
1. What's the history behind your interest in history?
I grew up in a working-class Brooklyn family. My father was a WWII vet, who for bedtime stories would read to me comic books like Our Army at War and Joe Kubert's Sgt. Rock.
Later in first grade our class had reading time. A bunch of books were left on a back table for us to choose from. There among the copies of Toby Tyler at the Circus, and One Fish, Two Fish, there was The American Heritage History of Pirates. I couldn't fathom the writing yet, but the dramatic paintings of Blackbeard and Captain Kidd by N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle thrilled me. I picked that book every time. Finally my teacher had to order me to take something else.
Since that American Heritage book, I was always trying to read stuff above my reading level. I think children today aren't challenged enough that way. Academic companies deliberately dumb down textbooks to pass the largest number of pupils quickly. I once found a 1935 history text for the fifth grade, and it was much harder than anything we ever had to read in our classes. I think you can challenge children to aspire to the harder stuff. Even if they don't get it all, the experience may be inspiring for the future.
2. Do you know all the world's history, or does it just seem that way?
Despite it all, I'm still at heart just a wiseass who likes to tell stories. History began as storytelling. Homer, The Irish bards, the Viking skalds, medieval troubadours, all related their tales of ancient heroes by entertaining.
Akira Kurosawa said, "Creation is Memory". During (production of) Disney's Beauty and the Beast, I was sent, with a team, researching French chateaux and the provincial life in early 18th century France. What did the shops look like? Hairstyles? Wells? Signs? On Mickey's Prince and the Pauper, I helped design the layout of London in 1585. Tower Bridge didn't exist yet, in fact the city's look changed a great deal after the Great Fire of 1666. On Pocahontas, we had to learn a lot about the Virginia Algonquin people and Jacobean English explorers. On Dreamworks' Spirit: Stallion of the Cimmaron I read Utley's books on the Indian Wars and about Upton's Rules (1876) for horse cavalry.
I know at times I could be annoying about details. That's when Jeffrey Katzenberg would look at me weakly and say:" Sito, don't give me the "H" word!" I was turned down for a chance to work on Disney's Hercules. This was disappointing, because I felt I could have contributed a lot of ideas to that project about ancient Greek culture. I didn't realize that they had planned a much more burlesque handling of the subject. I later felt a little justified when the film premiered in Athens and many Greeks were insulted by how their national myths were handled. I was also kept away from The Road to El Dorado when I was probably the first story artist there with a working knowledge of Bernal Diaz' the Conquest of New Spain.
I don't think all this detail gets in the way of a good story, but it can enhance the filmic experience. The career of Ridley Scott and pictures like Master and Commander are proof.
Art Babbitt taught us to be a student of everything, now many animators don't even know who Art Babbitt was. Or Tytla, or Hubley. These are the lions of our industry. Just like a stunt man would know of Yakima Canutt or a cinematographer would know Gordon Willis. Mike Tyson could talk about the boxing technique of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion in 1914. Knowing a little history didn't hurt Frank Miller when writing 300.
I'm not saying studying history is the only answer, but it doesn't hurt. Who was it who said " Only God can create from Nothing."..?
4. What is your all time favorite historical anecdote?
Oh, there are so many it's hard to choose. One is at the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854. A small British cavalry regiment was accidentally ordered to charge the entire Russian Army by itself. Without questioning, the Light Brigade attacked and was cut to pieces, losing 60% of their men. It accomplished nothing but a really swell poem by Tennyson. As the survivors staggered back to their own side, the adjutant officer, his uniform blackened by gunsmoke and a terrible saber gash across his face, rode up to Lord Cardigan and cheerfully said:" Sir, shall we have another go...?"
Another is when someone asked Mahatma Ghandi:" What do you think of Western Civilization?" He replied:" I think it would be a very good idea."
5. Do you travel to a lot of historical locations?
Yes, I enjoy visiting historic sites. I've been to Westminster Abbey, The Roman Forum, Waterloo, Shiloh, Gettysburg, The Alhambra, the Golden Temple of Kyoto, and many castles. I stood on
the cliffs of Trafalgar, and walked the decks of the HMS Victory. I'm not a New Age type, but many feel a particular energy when standing on the same spot where something dramatic happened. Go to The Little Big Horn and stand on the hill where Custer's Last Stand occurred and tell me you don't feel something.
They are entertaining, but only occasionally true. Before The DaVinci Code, I read the non-fiction work it was in part based on, Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Fun gonzo history, but based upon an unworkable concept - namely that human beings can keep a secret for so long. The record proves secrets rarely last one lifetime, much less centuries.
+2. Napoleon said, "History is a lie agreed upon." How far off the mark were our history lessons in school?
Yeah, that is pretty true. When I was young the great reality in all our lives was the Cold War standoff between America and the Soviet Union. We were taught that Communism was a monolithic conspiracy bent on uniting the world under tyranny. Now that the Communist bloc is gone, we found out that it was a pretty weak alliance. Stalin and Mao Zse Tung couldn't stand one another. When North Korea attacked South Korea in 1950 they were as surprised as we were. No matter how bad the Vietnam War was going, Ho Chi Minh refused any Red Chinese help. He said " Better to smell American shit for ten years than Chinese shit for 100 years!" Nations like Egypt, Pakistan and Mozambique changed sides as their national interests suited them, ideology notwithstanding.
We now know in detail how many narcotics were in Elvis Presley's system, while he was being appointed by President Nixon the nation's honorary chairman on the War on Drugs. But at the time he was considered the king of right wing rockers who rejected the hippy drug counter-culture.
Someday we'll find out just how bad Ronald Reagan's Alzheimers was in the last years of his presidency, and just how much Vice President Dick Cheney is influencing policy in the current G.W. Bush White House. Why else are they so obsessed with sealing records and gaining immunity?
Media has a definite effect on what is studied and what is considered relevant history. When I was growing up in the sixties, we were taught the most famous people who ever lived included Dr. Albert Schweitzer, Helen Keller, Njomo Kenyatta, Jan Christian Smuts, Conrad Adenauer, Dag Hammarskjöld and Eleanor Roosevelt. Ask any school kid today who they are!
Just recently I saw a TV documentary about America in 1968, a time I lived through. I soon found myself thundering at the TV- "Wha..? Bull%^$! That didn't happen that way!" But if it's on television, it must be true.
Recently political revisionists bloviate on the talk shows about how the Founding Fathers of America were deeply religious men who wanted God to guide their national politics. My reading tells me nothing could be further from the truth. Washington, Franklin, Jefferson and Madison were men of the Age of Enlightenment, who saw organized religion as superstition responsible for ignorance and bigotry. They would have been horrified to see the extent to which a Jerry Fallwell or Pat Robertson wield influence in modern politics.
We used to watch movies like Gunga Din as exciting tales of heroic Brits putting down crazed natives and spreading civilization. Now we see these natives are in their own country and who asked these guys in the white helmets and guns to come despoil their temples in the first place?
Tom Sito is the author of Drawing the Line a history of organized labor in American animation. He is currently working on two books: a complete history of CGI, and a book about Hollywood animation directors.
Great Quotes on History
History is merely a list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again. - Kurt Vonnegut
Getting its history wrong is part of being a nation. -Ernest Renan
Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.
We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.
History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes.
There is no present or future, only the past happening over and over again - now.
To know nothing of what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child.
Animals are molded by natural forces they do not comprehend. To their minds there is no past and no future. There is only the everlasting present of a single generation, its trails in the forest, its hidden pathways in the the air and in the sea. There is nothing in the Universe more alone than Man. He has entered into the strange world of history.
Our ignorance of history makes us slander our own times.
Telling the future by looking at the past assumes that conditions remain constant. This is like driving a car by looking in the rearview mirror.
Journalism is merely history's first draft.
A great man represents a strategic point in the campaign of history, and part of his greatness consists of his being there.
Every society honors its live conformists and its dead troublemakers.
Any fool can make history, but it takes a genius to write it.
History consists of a series of accumulated imaginative inventions.
Clio, the muse of history, is as thoroughly infected with lies as a street whore with syphilis.
A country without a memory is a country of madmen.
If you would understand anything, observe its beginning and its development.
Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.
History is life; he who has not lived, or has lived only enough to write a doctoral dissertation, is too inexperienced with life to write good history.
History is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs and wooden shoes coming up.
A society in stable equilibrium is, by definition, one that has no history and wants no historians.
The past does not influence me; I influence it.
History is the distillation of rumour.
[History is] little else than a long succession of useless cruelties.
We learn from history that we never learn anything from history.
Happy people have no history.
Whatever is old corrupts, and the past turns to snakes.
No opinion can be trusted; even the facts may be nothing but a printer's error.