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

Sep 7, 2014

John Canemaker in Los Angeles: Thursday 9/11 at the Central Library, LACMA on Saturday, September 13: Gertie, Fantasia and...SCHULTHEIS!

It's always an event when John Canemaker comes to Los Angeles-literally. In 2012 he was here to present and moderate a program honoring the work of John and Faith Hubley, a fascinating and wonderful evening.  Now in September we have an embarrassment of riches.

This coming Thursday it's a double dose of Canemaker and author and author/librarian Christina Rice, both authors of new books on the enigmatic Herman Schultheis. They'll be reading and signing in downtown's Central Library from 6 to 8pm, and the event is free.

Then on Saturday, a triple threat: on Saturday, Sept. 13th, John will be at the Bing theater at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art celebrating the 100th birthday of Gertie the dinosaur, discussing (and doubtless showing) the amazing notebook of Disney effects artist Herman Schultheis-now published in all its priceless glory thanks to Canemaker's new book, The Lost Notebook: Herman Schultheis and the Secrets of Disney's Movie Magic.  Tomorrow I'll review the book-it's a whopper.
Lastly, to compliment and demonstrate the innovative and jaw-dropping work Schultheis transcribed, there'll be a screening of Fantasia.

Presented by the Motion Picture Academy under the heading "Animation Masters"(and held at the Bing as the Academy's own theater is undergoing renovations through the end of the year),  this jam-packed evening will set you back all of $5 per person($3 for students), so there's simply no excuse not to go. There's no one I know of who speaks on animated film with the intelligence, authority and grace of John Canemaker. He's our preeminent historian, author and advocate, and just a great host besides. I've been reading his indispensable books and watching him present programs for over thirty years and as is plain, I'm a big fan. You of the animation community owe it to yourselves to make the trip to the museum this coming Saturday.  Be there!

Thursday, September 11
L.A. In Focus: Lost & Found-The Los Angeles Photographs of Herman Schultheis
Central Library, Mark Taper Auditorium

Saturday, September 13th
Animation Masters: John Canemaker on Gertie, The Lost Notebook, and Fantasia
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Bing Theater
5905 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles
Gertie The Dinosaur screening and presentation will begin at 6pm; the Schultheis program at 7:30. and Fantasia will screen at 8:45
Tickets are available by clicking here.

Mar 14, 2014

Women In Animation

This Saturday, March 15, I'm moderating a panel at the Walt Disney Family Museum where I'll be talking with Claire Keane, Lorelay Bove, and Brenda Chapman about their experiences in the animation business, and their lives as animation artists.

Last October the museum also asked if I would write an essay for their quarterly on the subject of women in animation, past and present, which follows here.

In the 1970s there was one must-have for every aspiring young animator's bookshelf: Christopher Finch's oversized, heavy and beautiful The Art of Walt Disney.  Illustrated books detailing the history of animation, and more specifically, the Disney Studio, were almost nonexistent at the time; and at over 400 pages the Finch book was something I pored over for hours. I'd already fixed on the idea of being an animator, seeing it as the perfect career to marry my love of drawing, film, and performance.  I considered animation to be "the illusion of life": turning lines on a page into characters that lived and breathed in an invented world of color, design and graphic imagination.

Every page of Finch's book was filled with story sketches, animator's roughs, background paintings, and photographs– not just of Walt Disney, but also of his artists working at their desks, drawing just as I did and looking not much older than I was. But they were working on such memorable films as Snow White, Pinocchio, and Bambi.  Decades before I was born they'd managed to achieve the gold standard: working at the greatest animation studio in the world on films whose influence would long outlive them.

The old images fascinated me and I wanted to know more about them. One was particularly striking.  It showed a young woman, Retta Scott, animating on Fantasia.  While far from being an expert in either social history or 1930s studio-hiring practices, I knew that a woman employed as an animator in those days was rare, and that this had been the case from the beginning. The form of cartooning which preceded and inspired animated cartoons and newspaper comic strips, also had many more men than women employed in the field, and this disparity carried over into the new medium of animated cartoons. With rare exceptions, cartooning/animation work became a "guy's thing," though the intended audience for the cartoons and comic strips was both male and female.

So, by the mid-1930s, it seemed that any woman with artistic talent or experience who applied to a studio for work in animation was limited to a career in the "ink and paint" department, doing the crucial but creatively stultifying tasks of tracing animators' drawings on celluloid and painting the underside. This was by necessity an assembly-line sort of job, and while the women who did it were rightfully proud of their skills, the work certainly didn't allow for individual expression.  But there was Retta Scott, engaged in what was a traditionally male job. She was an anomaly—a female animator!  I later learned that Scott had worked in the story department as well as in animation, and in fact, there had been other women assigned to the story and development departments, including Sylvia Moberly-Holland, Bianca Majolie, and most famously, Retta's friend Mary Blair, whose career and influence would extend further than many of her colleagues'.

In the 1930s and '40s, a confluence of talent, opportunity, timing and connections were required for a talented woman to land a creative job at Disney.  This was also true for the men but to a lesser degree. It's impossible to know how many women who aspired to be animation artists were actively discouraged from trying, but certainly some were, as evidenced by the Disney Studio's 1930s form letter sent in response to women inquiring about jobs as artists. It stated that "women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that work is performed entirely by young men." While clearly untrue when one considers the placement of the women previously mentioned, the letter nonetheless expressed the company's attitude towards the idea of women artists in general.

This was unfortunate since not only were women at the Studio making artistic contributions, their work was also having a positive impact on the history of animation. The work of Mary Blair, in particular, caused a transformation in the look of Disney animation, and the opportunity for her to create stunning art was due to the direct involvement of Walt Disney, whose appreciation of her unique style and sensibility was not hindered at all by her gender. But Blair was a stunning exception; for most women, the opportunities to achieve personal distinction in animation were simply not available. Had it been otherwise, it's anyone's guess who else might have made her mark as Blair was able to.

Throughout my working life I've been asked the question, "Why aren't there more women in animation?" and I've never had an answer. I can only speak for myself and explain why I do what I do—a story that differs little if at all from that told by my female and male colleagues.  But while the question still gets asked, things have changed more rapidly in recent years than ever before. As a student at Calarts in the late 1980s, I was in a class where the guys far outnumbered the girls, and for the first decade or so I was able to tick off the names of all the other females who were somehow involved in animation.

Now, there are so many women working in the field that I can't begin to keep track of them all– many working as I do in story, but also in visual development, animation, character design, and every other classification. Online blogs by aspiring female animation students are even more numerous, and from a cursory check, show ever-increasing sophistication and range in personal style and storytelling ability.  It's a wonderful state of affairs for my industry and for everyone who's involved with the art of animation, and it'll be fascinating to see what the future will look like when a picture of a woman creating animation will draw no special notice at all.

Mar 12, 2014

Magic! Color! FLAIR! The World of Mary Blair exhibit is opening March 13, 2014

Is there anyone in animation who isn't excited by the work of Mary Blair?  Oh, probably a few misanthropes or those who go the contrarian route, but Blair's gargantuan reputation grows year after year for good reason. Many have spoken and written about her influence more eloquently than I ever could, but nothing beats seeing the real thing, up close and personal. To this end the Walt Disney Family Museum is opening the largest show to date of Blair's accomplishments both inside and outside animation.  Curated by Oscar-winning animator, writer (and Blair biographer) and NYU professor John Canemaker, this promises to be a must-see, and woe to the lover of Disneyana, animation, graphic art, illustration, midcentury design, and plain old genius who misses it.

 Here's a bit from the Museum's description to whet your appetite:

MAGIC, COLOR, FLAIR: the world of Mary Blair features some 200 works and explores all phases of Blair’s work by examining her artistic development in three major areas: “Learning the Rules”—her student days at Los Angeles’ legendary Chouinard School of Art, and her fine art regionalist watercolors exhibited in the 1930s. “Breaking the Rules”—her artistic breakthrough with boldly colored, stylized concept paintings for classic Disney animated features during the 1940s and 1950s, including Saludos Amigos (1942) and Peter Pan (1953); and “Creating New Worlds”—freelancing in the 1950s in New York where she became a popular illustrator for national advertisements, magazine articles, clothing designs, window displays, theatrical sets, and children’s books.
The exhibition includes Blair’s rarely exhibited student art, which was influenced by the illustrations of her mentor Pruett Carter, and her mid-to-late artworks from the 1930s as a member of the innovative California Water-Color Society which reveal an essential humanism and empathy for her subjects. The exhibition also showcases The Walt Disney Family Museum’s extensive collection of Blair’s conceptual artworks in gouache and watercolor—some of which have never displayed outside The Walt Disney Studios—that reveal the artist’s inexhaustible creativity in design, staging of imagery, visual appeal, and unique color sensibility. 

In addition, Canemaker's biography of Mary, The Art and Flair of Mary Blair, is now republished in an updated edition with a new cover and much-enhanced color reproductions.

The title page from the new exhibition catalog/book.

And there'll be a 172 page exhibition catalog in hardcover, also written by Canemaker. Preview and order it here.

A little digression here: in talking about this show with my coworkers, I'm disappointed to find a fair number of southern Californians haven't yet visited the Disney Museum, and there are also a few who aren't even aware it exists.  The latter I can't explain, but I have to ruefully acknowledge that as close as San Francisco is, given the schedules and demands of working life it sometimes seems that it might as well be located in Bangor, Maine.

Happily for all of us this isn't the case, and I would urge anyone with the least interest in Walt Disney and the animation arts to just get in the car and go. I've been guilty too, not having made the bay area trip for several years until last November, when I attended a panel on the work of Bruno Bozzetto with Canemaker, John Musker, and David Silverman, and saw their fantastic exhibit on Tyrus Wong. It was a one-day trip up and back, and absolutely worth it. The museum is truly an amazing place, and if animation folk want it to continue to exist, we need to support its mission and hopefully, attend its exhibitions and events.

Magic Color Flair the world of Mary Blair runs from March 13 to September 7.

The Walt Disney Family Museum
104 Montgomery Street
The Presidio, San Francisco
San Francisco, CA 94129


Open daily 10am–6pm, except every Tues, Jan 1, Thanksgiving & Dec 25

Jan 30, 2014

Michael Sporn 1946-2014 "The wind is rising...we must try to live."

Michael Sporn looking over Richard Williams' shoulder during production of "Raggedy Ann and Andy". Photograph by John Canemaker, from his book.

Last weekend, thanks in large part to three consecutive days off, I was finally able to watch a few screeners. One of them was Hayao Miyazaki's "The Wind Rises", which I'd been very much looking forward to(happily subtitled instead of dubbed-always the way I prefer to go).  I knew the basics of the story-that it was about the life of the designer of the Japanese Zero fighter plane, Jiro Horikoshi, albeit somewhat fictionalized, and that as a result it was a more "adult" sort of film from Miyazaki-but that was all.

The next two hours were a revelation. I loved "Spirited Away" and enjoyed the somewhat-contentious-among-my-friends charms of "Ponyo", but sitting through "The Wind Rises" gave me the same sensation I had watching my first Miyazaki films-"Totoro", "NausicaƤ ","Kiki's Delivery Service", and "Porco Rosso"-the wonder of watching a graphically told story play out with absolutely no idea what might happen next, thinking, "I can't believe how beautiful this is".

And one of the first things I thought was "I wonder what Michael Sporn thinks about this. I have to visit his blog(or as he called it, Splog)". But my first stop upon pulling out my laptop was Facebook, where the first post I saw was one expressing sorrow that Michael had died.

What! Died? No...

Both Michael and I started our blogs in the fall of 2005; I quickly discovered his thanks to comments he left on my posts. Of course I knew who he was, thanks to John Canemaker's The Animated Raggedy Ann and Andy , a book that served as my introduction to Richard Williams, Corny Cole, Tissa David, the ins and outs of feature animation production, the animation artist's life, the history of some veteran giants in the business, and last but not least a great introduction to a gaggle of young artists just starting out-including Eric Goldberg, Dan Haskett, Tom Sito, and Michael Sporn.  All that, and fantastic illustrations and photographs. It's quite a book(in my opinion the most honest and accurate about the behind the scenes of animation production), and though out of print, still very much worth getting and reading, as are all of Canemaker's titles.

Of the young guys profiled in "Raggedy Ann", Haskett, Goldberg, and Sito eventually made their way to the once and future mecca of feature animation, Los Angeles. Michael Sporn stayed in his native New York and started his own studio-a studio that has remained in operation for 34 years. That's a pretty astonishing feat both personally and professionally. In fact, I doubt if any of the animation production houses that existed in 1980 exist today, or have for many years. The economy, changes in the tastes and whims of commercial production, dwindling funding for projects from PBS and other entities...all have contributed to a depressing attrition rate for independent-minded artists and companies. Add to all that the ever-skyrocketing costs of living and working in New York, and the fact that Michael maintained his studio and thrived is a wonderful thing.

From his "Doctor DeSoto", which was nominated for an Oscar in 1984.
Michael Sporn Animation, Inc. did so much work, in so many styles and on so many different projects-television, film titles-even an animated segment for a Broadway show. There's far more than I can detail here in this post right now-but go and have a google. Recently Michael had started work on "Poe", a personal project that looked fantastic.

From "Poe"
So I knew him from his profile in the book, I'd seen his work(often not knowing it was his)on television, but what I didn't know-until I began reading his indispensable Splog, was what an incredible animation historian, scholar, and fan he was.  I'd started my blog to discourse on animation's past, mostly, with a few posts thrown in on story-my gig-and whatever else. I've acquired ephemera from anything and everything that interested me, whether it came from Disney, Warner Bros, Bob Clampett...and I began to post these things I pulled out of my drawers. One I recall in particular was a candid photograph of a very uncomfortable Walt Disney, taken when he was testifying for HUAC.

John Canemaker and Michael Sporn in 2008 at an exhibition at MOMA; behind them are panels from Canemaker's film "Bridgehampton".

This and other things brought comments from Michael, and led me to what he had been posting about.Ye gods! The man had amassed an incredible trove of material-all the good stuff, from every studio-not just Disney, but UPA, not just America's cartoon industry, but Europe's...he just seemed to have a line on everything. And he'd worked with everyone and he was interested in everyone. Believe me, his blog is filled with years and years' worth of priceless material-in addition to his own archives, he was often lent incredible stuff from his friend and fellow New Yorker John Canemaker. if you have any interest at all in animation history and art, do yourselves a huge favor and search his posts.

Did I say animation? That subject garnered the lion's share of his focus, but he posted almost as often about life in New York, using photographs he and his friends took around the city. There's a whole book, or two, or five in that blog, and every one of them is a wonderful read.

One of many photos taken by Michael's friend Steve Fisher that he shared on his blog.

 Start anywhere, or do a search via keywords, or read the listed subjects on his sidebar and go to town.

Michael was opinionated. Honest, expressing his thoughts on all things including animation old and new in intelligent, often brutally tough terms. What does it say about a writer when you disagree with him vehemently about something, but like and admire him just as much or more at the end of some serious excoriation as you did before you started?

In 2009 I was in New York and shot him an email that I was in the neighborhood. He replied immediately, inviting me to drop by his Greenwich Village studio. I did, thinking I'd impose on him for just a few moments. Three hours later I hated to finally leave. We must have talked nonstop about everything under the sun. I felt as though I'd known him for years. I'm so grateful for that visit.

As is plain from a glance at my own sidebar, my posting has fallen off quite a bit since 2008. Some of the reasons for that are personal, but mainly it's been professional-the energy it takes to write the way I like to, on the subjects I want to, is harder to come by and I've found I've used what I do have on mostly offline pursuits. I'm always meaning to rectify that, but along with blogging less I also have done much less browsing-including, shamefully, two of the blogs I consider essential for their content on animation-Michael's, and Michael Barrier's. Fortunately for me Barrier's is possible to catch up with, but Sporn's output was so prodigious that I'd dip in, look around, enjoy myself, and just never got caught up completely. As a result I missed the odd posts he'd made that (barely) alluded to his illness, and completely missed the few photographs that clearly showed how sick he'd become. The posts I did read were still vibrant, angry, celebratory, and as full of the joy of life and art as any he'd ever done.

And yes, he'd written about the Wind Rises, and of course, he'd loved it as I was certain he would. In November he wrote:

With The Wind Rises he has made an adult film it’s the only way he could tell this tale. He also complicates the structure of the story, and despite the fact that he will not get the largest possible audience, he wants to be sure every aspect of the complicated story is told. This he does. He ignores a large section of the audience for the sake of making a richer story.
His work on the two films, in my mind, can only be seen as the work of a genius. His story is as full as it can ever become, yet he disappoints a small part of the audience searching for the obvious. I can only credit the man, the artist. I also take away very deep lessons about his artistry and what he wanted to do with it. I’ve seen Ponyo half a dozen times with full joy. With The Wind Rises, occurring post Tsunami and post nuclear meltdown, I am sure he has plenty to tell me, and I will see it again and again until I’ve gotten all of its pleasure.
Most prominently I believe he wants to be heard about man’s inhumanity to man. Despite all the natural disaster and chaos in our lives, he uses a man intent on carrying out the best war to get the full tale told. His method is enough to make me tear up, his story goes even deeper.

A few days later he posted:

Don’t worry, I’m not done with the blog.
I’ve got some things planned and it could be as soon as tomorrow that I pass them along.
I’ve had some weird stuff going on in my life and I’m just trying to get past it.
Hang in there.
Those conversations I was going to have with him are going to have to wait a while. I'll definitely talk about "The Wind Rises", and probably thoroughly embarrass him when I tell him again how much I love his blog and work, and how much he's been missed.

Michael Sporn 1946-2014