Book reviews The Disney Studio Story & Animation

The Disney Studio Story

By Richard Holliss and Brian Sibley.
Octopus Books 1988.

Review by David Williams.

The standard pattern of the Octopus Studio Histories has been to have an introductory essay, a full listing of films produced with a brief description of each, (and where possible a still or stills), and some further essays describing particular eras significant to each studio.
The Disney Studio Story breaks with this format and offers a significant improvement in the historicity of the brilliant research. Brian Sibley’s 103 page Part One chronicles the financial and artistic progress of the studio with information and detail that has either not appeared elsewhere, or has only appeared elsewhere in the form of unattributed anecdote. Indeed he seems to have achieved the impossible compromise by telling a story that has been well covered by others without making it sound “old hat”.

His ‘secret’, of course, is that of the proper researcher; he has used primary sources wherever possible, and treated anecdote and hearsay with caution when primary sources have been elusive. For example, Christopher Finch, in The Art of Walt Disney tells how Disney found work at a local studio in Kansas City. Brian Sibley reveals that this was the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio and goes on to tell, in two large pages of print, of the pre-Hollywood financial disasters that are more usually covered in two or three paragraphs.

There are extra details of this kind throughout the telling of the familiar story. The studio strike of 1941, which is usually given little mention, is covered in a balanced way revealing the problems of “business paternalism” in an expanding enterprise.

The Wartime Period covered by Richard Shales Donald Duck Joins Up (University of Michigan 1982) is crisply integrated into the general theme of the search for excellence with the minimum of compromise. The enforced diversification into a war-time programme of training films and the reduced markets were a set back for Disney’s vision for his studio. But, the war years had been good for cinema audience figures, and the studio overdraft was reduced from one million dollars to three hundred thousand dollars by the close of hostilities.
Part One takes the story of the making of all the films, live action, documentary and animation, up to 1988.

It seems pedantic to refer to the only textual error that I could find in his discourse, but Brian’s honest research requires an honest investigation. For some unexplainable reason, he attributes the voice of Cruella de Vil in 101 Dalmations to Martha Wentworth instead of to Betty Lou Gerson.

It is because of the excellence of the filmography by Richard Holliss in Part Two that I was able to check the text against the credits. Every Disney film to the end of 1987 is listed and where possible described. Colour and black and white illustrations ranging from animator’s drawings and sketches to film stills and film posters plot the graphic progress of the animation, and character styling. Compilation films and wartime training and propaganda films are listed, and valuable annotations abound. For example, we learn that at the beginning of Fun and Fancy Free (1947) Jimimy Cricket gets to sing “I’m a Happy-go-Lucky Fellow” by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington, a tune originally intended for inclusion in Pinocchio.

Other details are particularly welcome, too. Disney shorts do not have any credit titles until after the war, thus it is difficult to ascribe particular pieces of animation to particular animators except by guess work and the odd clues given in the Thomas and Johnston books. Richard Holliss, for example, gives details of the contribution of Les Clark to Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943); of the voice of the narrator (John McLeish, a Disney sketch artist) for the Goofy “Art of…” series; and of the talented background artist (Lenard Kester) in Springtime for Pluto.

All in all then, the book is a valuable contribution to our knowledge of the triumphs and despairs of the Disney Company; a colourful and detailed contribution to our viewing of Disney films, and, with its excellent bibliography, an invaluable contribution to further study.

Animation – A guide to animated film techniques

By Roger Noke.
Macdonald Orbis.

Review by David Jefferson.

The introductory notes on the dust jacket claim: “… here is a book that tells it all – the history, the techniques, the thinking behind the animation and exactly how it is done.” (The italics are theirs.) That is a lot of ground to cover in 155 pages, especially when 60% of the space is given over to illustrations.

Roger Noke teaches animation at West Surrey College of Art and Design and is the president of BILIFA, a worldwide organisation for animation schools. In view of the above statement and Mr Noke’s credentials one might expect the book to give the kind of information that would enable a novice to make an animated film. In fact it seems to be targeted at advertising agency executives who need some knowledge of the process to help them commission animators to carry out their concepts.

Much of the information falls tantalizingly short of actually being useful to a would-be animator. For example, in the section on model animation we are told: “A basic armature consists of a ball-and-socket or a double ball-and-socket joint, which is pinned to the appendage forming the arm, leg or other necessary extremity. The joint is the most vulnerable part of the model. Unfortunately, it is rarely possible to purchase a suitable ready-made joint of the right size and scale. But most of the parts can be bought off-the-shelf and assembled to make a strong working joint without resorting to engineering.”

The book does not tell us what these parts are or what kind of shop can supply them off-the-shelf. It also missed an opportunity to illustrate the point, for while this section contains numerous stills from model animation films, there is no picture of a puppet armature, let alone a close-up of the kind of joint that can be made from off-the-shelf parts.

The book is very rich in illustrations, most of them in full colour. The majority are stills from films that have proved popular at recent animation festivals, others show equipment, storyboards, model sheets and production operations. There are several pictorial ‘case histories’ where an aspect of a production is well illustrated. Where appropriate, these include photographs of the animator at work. I found these segments the most interesting feature of the book.

The book follows a logical progression starting with a brief history. Other chapters cover script and storyboard; sound and image; staging the action; handmade films (cut-outs and drawing on film); studio production and new technology.

Sometimes Mr Noke states the obvious, for example in the section on resources we are advised: “If it is a commissioned project, you will need to check the production costs against the budget.” At other times we are given first class advice, as in the section on designing characters, where we are told to observe the people round us. “The notebook is an essential for character designers. Following the conventions of character design – how to make a ‘dumb’ or ‘cute’ character – can only produce stereotypes. Good strong characterization comes from understanding and observation carried out remorselessly.”

Throughout the text the author refers to various film productions which he uses as examples of the point he is making. Further information is given in very detailed picture captions. It is possible to go through the book twice: once reading the captions and again for the text.

Although a great deal of useful information is packed into these pages, it is more a description of ‘how they do it’ rather than ‘how you can do it.’ Perhaps Roger Noke could write a sequel with more practical information for the novice animator and animation teachers. In the meantime I can recommend this book as a guide to present-day thinking on scripting, staging and evaluating an animated film.

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