Aug 10, 2015

Pay Dirt: Michael Barrier's Interviews: Wilfred Jackson

 From Barrier's blog, photographs of Jaxon posing for Bill Tytla's benefit on his "Night On Bald Mountian" animation. "Yeah, without a shirt" he says in the interview. "And don't think some of the fellows around the studio didn't have a lot of fun with those photostats."

There are a few writers on animation without whose work there'd be little or no bedrock of history to learn from. These are the people who did first-person interviews with veterans now long dead, who made tremendous efforts to screen and analyze films not readily available anywhere, and who produced books that are essential reading for anyone who cares about the artform and the people who created it.  One of these is Michael Barrier, author of the best biography of Walt Disney, the best magazine on animation, and one of the very best all-around histories of the Hollywood-produced studio cartoon.  If you want to come to grips with what's been done in the animation industry-the how and the who and sort of "was it any good?" analysis that makes you think hard about what it all amounted to, you owe it to yourself to seek out his writing and pay regular visits to his website.

My earliest exposure to Barrier was via copies of his aforementioned magazine "Funnyworld", which I happened across in a film bookshop on Hollywood Boulevard. After reading through it, I looked for as many back issues as I could find. In the 1970s the number of books on animated cartoons could be counted on one hand with fingers to spare; the number of critical magazines on the subject was exactly one. Reading through them was a revelation-here was discussion and analysis of not just Disney, but Warners' and other cartoons, with sometimes unforgiving, often wryly funny reviews and fascinating interviews with people like Bob Clampett and Dick Huemer!  It was dynamite.

Funnyworld ended its run many years ago, but if visitors to this blog aren't already aware, Barrier has been posting his transcribed interviews on his website for some time, with his own introductory remarks to give them context.  He's just posted the first of two interviews he did with Disney director Wilfred Jackson, conducted in 1973 with his friend, animator Milt Gray, and none other than Bob Clampett in attendance, as he'd helped make the meeting happen(Barrier reports Jackson was initially reluctant to be interviewed).

The transcription makes terrific reading, as with all of these conversations Barrier recorded. You'd certainly never know Disney veteran Jackson had any reservations given his candid and expansive replies to every question.  It's also fun to witness how much of an unabashed fan the legendary-in-his-own-right Clampett was-at one point he prompts the Disney veteran to remember how easy it was to peek in on the Disney artists working from the Hyperion studio driveway!  He doesn't say it, but you can't help suspecting that's exactly what young Bob did.  

The interview is a long one, but there's no fat in it at all-"Jaxon" as he was called at the studio in notes(or "Jack", by Walt, apparently) is direct, incredibly humble and, judging from his remarks about his former coworkers, a wonderfully kind guy.  His memories are charming, modest and clear. He began at Disney's Hyperion studio as an assistant to the janitor washing cels. Walt had turned him down as not good enough for an animation job, but relented after Jackson begged Walt to either let him work for work for free, or pay Disney for the privilege of learning on the job.  He started a week before the studio lost most of its core staff, along with Oswald, creating an opportunity he was eager to try and exploit.  

Jackson covers a lot of ground in clear-eyed detail, from his earliest attempts at in-betweening (which he completely botched),  through his rise in the ranks to a director of shorts and sequence director on the features, starting with "Snow White". Speaking of managing animators, in a typical anecdote he recalls:

"I remember one time Art Babbitt got real exasperated, and we were in sweatbox, and there were some things he just had to change, and he just didn't want to. Finally, I said, "Art, you've got to change them." He said, "I'm not going to." I said, "Well, then there's just one thing we can do. Why don't we get Walt in, and we'll let him decide this." And Art said, "Oh, I'll do it, but you know, you just simply aren't qualified to be a director, Jackson." I said, "Well, Art, you're probably right." He was right; I didn't have any background to be a director. I don't know writing, I don't know characterization, I'm no actor; I don't have those backgrounds. I said, "Well, Art, you're probably right, but since I am the director, what I say has to be done, whether it's right or not, so you've got to make the change." I don't know if I should have told you that: Art's such a wonderful guy."

If that scene truly happened as Jackson recalls, I think we can agree that Babbitt was not only an extremely passionate, talented animator but one hell of a fortunate one to have had Jackson, instead of almost anyone else, on the receiving end of his frustration!   

He speaks of working for Walt-his approach, his personality, his methods, the staff he built around him-to such an extent that you come to feel you really know what it felt like to be there, at Hyperion, as he was. Pure gold.

There's a lot more on Barrier's site, with fascinating new things appearing all the time-including a later interview with Jackson, a "part two"  of sorts.  I can't wait. As I title my post, this is pay dirt-the raw materials for a lot of golden information about the people who came before in our indiustry and whose work sets a standard we can learn from, if never best.  You owe it to yourself to become a regular visitor and reader of this trove, provided gratis by Mike Barrier.  Get over there!

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