Sep 11, 2014

New Book Review: The Lost Notebook: Herman Schultheis & the Secrets of Walt Disney's Movie Magic

It takes a long time to look through John Canemaker's new book  The Lost Notebook: Herman Schultheis and the Secrets of Walt Disney's Movie Magic, and it should. Nearly 300 pages are filled with examples of every aspect of Disney's production: drawings, model sheets, camera setups, and hundreds upon hundreds of photographs of how shots were achieved, animators at work, models posing for animators, reference photos of animals and humans, cels, drawings, the Burbank studio being built, "The Reluctant Dragon" live action production, Bambi, Fantasia, Dumbo, Pinocchio. Numerous examples of Freddie Moore's girl drawings(reference for Fantasia's centaurettes), miniatures and models...from an effects perspective, but also just everything that clearly interested the compiler, Herman Schultheis, personally. With few exceptions none of it would normally ever be seen by the public, and most of it never has been-until now.

A page showing development for Fantasia
Ink & paint artist Mildred Rossi is sketched by Ethel Kulsar during production of Reluctant Dragon

One has to wonder if John Canemaker or Howard Lowery, both as knowledgable as anyone alive about the history of the Walt Disney Studio, had ever heard the name Herman Schultheis when his notebooks chronicling working life at Disney came to light some 15 years ago.  He wasn't a painter or  draughtsman, animator or story artist. His employment at Disney's was brief, lasting barely more than two years. In a time when so few of the rank and file of animation received any sort of public acknowledgment he was obscure-one man among hundreds working at Hyperion and Burbank on Pinocchio, Bambi, Fantasia, and the rest of the landmark output of that greatest of studios.  He remained unknown as the decades progressed and the films made during his tenure there became known as the "golden age', and historians, students, buffs and professionals who cared about animation learned the names and accomplishments of many of his colleagues.

Anyone studying the histories of those working at Disney's at its peak finds an impressive roster of geniuses, misfits, iconoclasts, goofballs and self-made men and women, but even in that company Herman Schultheis was an odd duck. Ambitious, egocentric, tremendously talented and curious, he was in love with the filmmaking process before he gave any thought to applying at Disney. A man fascinated by details, he compulsively and enthusiastically cataloged everything he did, but especially everything he saw.

Schultheis had emigrated to the United States from Germany in 1927 when he was already 27 years old. Initially living and seeking work on the east coast, he had, quoting from Canemaker's text:

[A] degree in electrical engineering, a gift for photography, a thorough knowledge of music, and a love of travel".
He was charming, indefatigably ambitious and without a shred of self-doubt. But as Canemaker points out, though talented(particularly as a photographer), Schultheis was indeed a "jack of all trades, master of none"-such a distinction then as now making the kind of all-encompassing creative and technical work he craved hard to come by.

After various jobs in NY, he moved to Hollywood determined to work in the motion picture industry-ideally as a sort of uber-supervising creative engineer, to judge from his letters and self-promotion. Although he worked some very good connections, none of the studios could quite figure out how to use him and nothing panned out-until he managed to talk his way into a job at the Disney Studios on Hyperion.  Hired to apply his skill in the Process Lab, he was paid for an initial trial period the princely sum of $40 a week. This at a time when, according to animation director Shamus Culhane in his memoirs, animation trainees hired right off the street were paid $50. But it was something, and it was a job at a film studio-albeit animation.

Details of some of Fantasia's effects-incrdible information. This photograph from John Canemaker's page

 In fact, it was actually a perfect fit: Disney's at that time encouraged cross-pollinating between departments to solve problems and hands-on, "can-do" invention was encouraged to an extent that would soon largely disappear. But with films like "Pinocchio" "Fantasia" and "Bambi" in the works, there were incredible effects to be achieved-one way or another.

And Schultheis, apart from his work in improving photostatic quality on model sheets, cels, and various other tasks, documented it all, compiling extensive scrapbooks using animators' drawings, model sheets, diagrams, and loads of his own photographs. What results is a wizard's book of beautiful, extensive setups of how everything was done. It's truly incredible.
Of course my jaw dropped upon seeing this page...Hello, Fred Moore! Centaurettes in the making.

The book is stunning-beautifully bound and printed. And although the scrapbook's contents would be more than enough for any such project, Canemaker has included additional examples of Schultheis' beautiful and fascinating photography to illustrate his story. The entire scrapbook is not only reproduced in a full facsimile, but annotated.  Now everyone can have their own copy of this eye-popping, historic volume to refer to it at any time.

 In addition, all the necessary context of Herman Schultheis, his life and times and that of the Disney Studio during his time there is described in Canemaker's typically elegant and sympathetic prose.  As beautiful as the scrapbook is, I was struck by the ultimately poignant trajectory of Schultheis before, during and after his Disney employment. Had he been a different sort of character, less oblivious of how his sense of superiority probably undermined him among his colleagues, he might have stayed at Disney throughout the war years and worked on such projects as "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea", or on the production of Disneyland.  That didn't happen, and the by-then intermittent adventurer "disappeared" into the jungles of Guatemala in 1955; his bones where discovered shortly afterwards.

Schultheis in the 1930s

A self-portrait shows the handsome german posing in pith helmet and khakis under swaying palms, looking for all the word like Paul Belloq from"Raiders of the Lost Ark".  His lost notebook, hidden away for decades after his death, was rediscovered by Howard Lowery and is now under glass and viewable via a digitized version thanks to its acquisition by the Walt Disney Family Museum. Also thanks to the Museum and the efforts of the late Diane Disney Miller, John Canemaker has written and assembled this beautiful book version for all to own and enjoy. It's a certainty that Herman Schultheis would have welcomed our rediscovery of his lost, and finally found, Notebook.

Under the book's dust jacket. An embossed reproduction of Schultheis' UFA-inspired monogram.

The Lost Notebook: Herman Schultheis & the Secrets of Walt Disney's Movie Magic
By John Canemaker
Foreward by Pete Docter
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published by Weldon Owen
12.1 x 12.2 x 1.2", 5.4lbs


Eric Scales said...

This book looks amazing- I am ashamed to admit that I saw it at the museum and it's bland cover made me pass it over without even looking inside. I'll have to remedy that soon.

Dungeon Master said...

Excellent review. I really, really want to get my hands on this book now. While not the theme of my blog, I absolutely love art, art books, and you have made me realized that this is a book I need to check out right away!