Saturday 21 July 2012

Disney and his Big Bad Wolf

The drawing you see above comes from a feature story published December 23, 1933 in the Charleston Daily Mail. Alice D. Tildesley, syndicated from the Public Ledger, generally wrote enterprise stories on women’s issues, but she delved into animation on rare occasion. The other photos in this post were with the same story.

Tildesley’s feature sums up the making of Walt Disney’s biggest success to date, “The Three Little Pigs” and how the studio operated. It’s interesting the only other name besides Disney’s mentioned here is Frank Churchill’s (unless you count The Rhythmettes).

A Silly Symphony Becomes America’s Slogan
Three Little Pigs Change the Psychology of the Nation—Walt Disney Tells How He Makes Animated Cartoons
By Alice L. Tildesley
“WHO’S afraid of the big bad wolf?” We all could be singing this popular ditty with conviction if we had the confidence of Walt Disney, who has found the answer to this wolf-at-the-door menace.
The answer, according to Disney, is: Invent your own job; take such an interest in it that you eat sleep, dream, walk, talk and live nothing but your work until you succeed. Then you may take on a hobby or two if you feel so inclined.
The creator of the increasingly famous Three Little Pigs started out in business in his father’s garage, his equipment an old still camera and a supply of pens, ink and paper. Now he has his own studio, his own story and music departments, complete equipment and 135 employes on his staff.
The earnings from the eight-minute Silly Symphony in which the pigs get the best of the big, bad wolf have been variously estimated as anywhere from $1,000,000 to $2,000000, but this, alas! like the picture, is just a fairy story.
“All this talk about my making a lot of money is bunk,” declares Disney. “After ten years of pretty tough sledding I am now making a moderate profit on my products, but every dime I take in is immediately put back into the business. I’m building for the future
And my goal isn’t millions; it’s better pictures.
“I’m not interested in money, except for what I can do with it to advance my work. The idea of piling up a fortune for the sake of wealth seems silly to me. Work is the real adventure in life. Money is merely a means to make more work possible.
What They Cost
THE average cost of a cartoon in black and white is $18,000. In color this runs to about $20,000. These figures represent only the actual production cost and don’t include cost of prints—usually 250 prints a picture, but 330 for the pigs—cost of distribution, advertising, foreign taxes, duties, etc.
“It takes a Mickey Mouse comedy twelve months to pay for itself, while the average Silly Symphony doesn’t crawl out of the red for eighteen months.
“On the other hand, these cartoon comedies last for a long time. They are still showing the first Mickey Mouse comedy after nine years. Maybe ten years from now the big, bad wolf will still be huffing and puffing before the door to the house of bricks.”
Certainly the Three Little Pigs should “crawl out of the red” soon, for it’s breaking records everywhere and has been recalled as many as seven times to some theatres. America resounds to “Who’s Afraid?”—not such a bad slogan for any country!—sung over the radio, played by orchestras and whistled by schoolboys.
Yet, if you can believe it, when Disney suggested the idea for the symphony to his staff some nine months ago, the twelve men who compose the story department remained unimpressed.
“It’s lousy! Why don’t you get a real idea?” they chorused.
You see, Disney surrounds himself with good “no” men. Every one of these 135 who work at the one-story building called “Walt Disney Studios” is a member of a co-operating organization. They are not expected to say “yes” when they mean “no,” and nothing is done without a majority opinion in favor of it.
“I think the reason they didn’t like the idea was that at that time the thing wasn’t very clear in my own mind,” confesses Disney frankly. “I withdrew it and tried to forget it, but the pigs and the wolf and the little house kept haunting me. I thought about them until I saw the story clearly, and then I proposed it again. This time they liked it.
“I don’t mean they threw up their hats or that even I thought it would be a tremendous hit. We considered it a typical Silly Symphony.”
If Disney were running any other kind of studio, the proper procedure after deciding on an idea would be to write the story, cast the parts, engage a director and composer, if it were to be a musical, and build some sets.
You can’t do it that way at Disney’s.
First, a one-page story is outlined and read to the dozen members of the story department. Two weeks later this staff must turn in ideas that could be used in the tale, gags that might be included and drawings of their individual conceptions of the characters.
Origin of the La La
FOR the Three Little Pigs, for example, one man may have turned in the gag wherein the pig with the house of straw opens his frail door and pulls in the mat with “Welcome” on it when he sees the wolf come bounding toward it. Another may have suggested that the wolf grab hold of the little pigs’ tails as they flee to safety in the house of bricks.
One wall of the conference room was covered with twelve or more versions of how the four characters looked and sketches of their dwellings. From these selection was made by vote of all present and the animators provided with models of the selections.
In an ordinary picture there is opportunity to rehearse the characters, try things several different ways and select the best “take” for the final product. But in a cartoon comedy, composed of from 10,000 to 15,000 drawings, the director must visualize his action, plan his entire continuity, entrances, exits, dissolves and cuts; in fact editing before a single picture is drawn.
An artist-animator can, with diligence, produce only five feet of action every eight hours, so it is necessary to conserve his time by giving him the kind of work he does best. Some artists are excellent at producing scenes, others can create animated action.
It is difficult for any artist to change his individual style and adopt a standard style for the benefit of the cartoon, so that the little pig drawn by one can’t be distinguished from the little pig drawn by the other. For this reason Disney maintains a group of apprentice artists and trains them in the art of animation. They attend art classes at the studio. Their apprenticeship lasts six months, never less, and sometimes longer, and they are paid as they learn.
A good animator should be a good actor also, for he must, know what, is dramatic, what is comic and what is pathetic.
“We have three musical directors who compose the music, or adapt it, for our pictures,” explained Disney. “Our three picture directors each has a film to direct , and each works with his own musical director
“The music must fit the mood of the story; it should enhance the action, and care must be taken that it does not instead detract from the picture or annoy the audience.
“At first we tried to have the action follow the melody, but we soon saw that wouldn’t do. The musical .score must correspond to the rhythm of the action following the beat of the music.
The problem is simply one of resolving all musical tempos in terms of the standard speed and of making a consecutive series of drawings to fit this tempo. Certain basic tempos, multiples of the frame speed of the film, have been established. The fastest tempo employed is one brat every six frames amounting to four beats a second. The total range is from this to one beat every twenty frames, or one beat every five-sixths of a second.”
In the case of the pigs, one of the staff during the first conference suggested the line, “Who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf?” Whereupon, Frank Churchill, music composer, sat down and wrote the jingly tune in five minutes, after which, the lyric was composed by two of the young men on the staff.
Originally the words appeared like this:
Who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf?
The big, bad wolf, the big, bad wolf?
Who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf?
He don't know from nothing.

But that last line refused to fit, and the boys toiled for some time trying to find a rhyme for “wolf.” At length one said in despair, “Let’s just let the flute take it!” And the well-known “tra la la la la!" was slipped in to finish the first hit melody furnished by a cartoon studio.
The music having been decided upon, the scenic department artists prepare the backgrounds to be used in the action of the film, just as scene painters prepare stage sets or set designers prepare screen sets. The action of the picture moves against these backgrounds, just as it does in an ordinary talking picture.
For the pigs, these backgrounds were the three little houses, from varied angles, exterior and interior. The action of course, was that of the ancient fairy tale, the big, bad wolf who came huffing and puffing to blow the little houses down. The four characters must be opaque figures, so that when placed against the background the scene will not show through.
When the director and musician have settled story, music, situations, gags and approximate footage of film, a layout sheet is made for the guidance of animators. It looks like something prepared by Einstein, but from it the gifted musician is able to prepare a complete music score with all the beats coming at the precise moment the cartoon figure needs them. When a dancing pig puts his plump foot on the ground, the music will keep time, and it will accent his movements when he plays the piano, skips under the bed or shuts his door in the wolf’s face.
The projection schedule, another Einsteinian blueprint, is handed to each animator. From this he discovers that he is to do scenes 25, 26, 27, the footage of each one marked and a description given.
A third cryptic sheet, called the exposure sheet, instructs the animator on the nature of the scene and the tempo of the music.
Completing the Job
THE twenty-five or thirty animators who are to work on the picture have desks, not unlike the desks seen in schoolrooms, the tops being illuminated drawing boards, the light shining through from below, so that pictures may be sketched against their backgrounds, and the next picture in a sequence may be sketched on a transparent sheet just above the first, so that there may be the right amount of difference between the two to give the illusion of action when reeled through the projection machine.
After the drawings of a sequence are completed, they are turned over to the inking and painting department, which traces and inks or paints them onto celluloid sheets, these celluloids then being photographed on their appropriate backgrounds by a camera suspended above an illuminated drawing board.
Approximately 100 hours arc required to photograph a cartoon subject that averages 600 feet of film. The Pigs was considerably longer than this and was composed of 15.000 separate drawings.
While the animators are doing their stuff, the studio orchestra records the musical score. A trio known as the rhythmettes sang the words of the lyric in the Pigs, and a member of the studio staff impersonated the wolf. The sound film resulting is then synchronized with the completed cartoon and the Silly Symphony is ready for release.
“The secret of success, if there is any, is liking what you do. I like my work better than my play. I play polo, when I have time, and I enjoy it, but it can’t equal work!” says Disney.
Oh yes, indeed—who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf? And why?

1 comment:

  1. Just on a side issue on how much "The Three Little Pigs" earned for the studio, I wonder how much money Disney got from Paramount for licensing "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" for use in the Marx Brothers' "Duck Soup", which came out six months after the cartoon hit the theaters (the song shows up just prior to the mirror scene and gets a brief harp accompaniment from Harpo, who has just been told by Chico to be as quiet as possible).