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John Canemaker's Sweet Dreams

As Jacquie Kubin relates the gaming industry is seeking more and more animators as new systems raise the aesthetic bar, making games faster, more realistic and well, animated.

What about the story? Animation is such a unique visual medium, that the toil that goes into investing each film with depth and emotion is sometimes taken for granted. Until now. In his new book, Paper Dreams: The Art and Artists of Disney's Story Boards, (Hyperion Press) noted author, educator and animation historian John Canemaker discusses the lives and careers of the studio's story artists, from the days of early shorts through to today's seemingly endless supply of yearly event movies. "The process doesn't really lend itself to visual representation, in terms of publicity," reasons the author, as to why story people are often glanced over. "The animators can actually be seen drawing and flipping drawings, but story people often just sit and think. Their process is extremely slow. There's a quote in the book, from 1935, in which Walt Disney said, 'I honestly feel that the heart of our organization is our story department.'" As he has in his past works (Before the Animation Begins, Felix: The Twisted Tale of the World's Most Famous Cat), Canemaker provides staggering details as to how Disney steered his artists through treacherous terrain, plot-wise. This is especially true in a segment of the book that spotlights the studio's first, make-or-break feature, 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. "In that film, you had a cartoon character contemplating the death of another cartoon character," notes Canemaker. "How do you make that believable and convincing on the screen? In the book, there are original transcripts, which show how Walt and the story people were trying to come to grips with this. They went over and over it constantly." The Story Artists Paper Dreams also introduces us to the talents who have worked during and after the "Reign of Walt." Most notable is Bill Peet, the artist to whom Canemaker dedicated the book. "To me, he's the greatest of Disney's story artists," admits Canemaker of Peet, whose work shaped such memorable features as Dumbo, Song Of The South and 101 Dalmatians. There's also T. Hee, who not only had a comical name, but according to Canemaker, was able to keep Walt in stitches, while acting out story boards. "When T. Hee first pitched `the boards' for [the 1938 short] Mother Goose Goes Hollywood, this huge, 250-pound guy, with burlap pants, was able to imitate Katherine Hepburn, W.C Fields and everyone else." Other artists profiled include Roy Williams, most famous for his later stint as the burly sidekick to host Jimmy Dodd on The Mickey Mouse Club, but who, during his early years as story man was, according to Canemaker, "a gag machine." Then, there's Joe Grant, who, at 91, still works at the studio today, contributing conceptual art filled with witty, urbane humor. Paper Dreams will also surprise many aficionados, as it reveals how Disney's legendary animators were also heavily involved in story. Says Canemaker, "They would go further than an ordinary animator in staging scenes and when you start doing that, you begin thinking of story development." The book shows how master animator Marc Davis began his career in story. His talent for animal anatomy, coupled with unique anthropomorphic qualities, was the first spark of inspiration for Bambi. Paper Dreams also shows what Canemaker calls Ollie Johnston's "sensitive acting" in the animator's thumbnail sketches from The Rescuers. Ward Kimball, the iconoclast animator of the Nine Old Men, is also represented, through his off kilter storyboards for the "Man In Space" episode of the Disneyland TV series.

The book also focuses on the "new generation" -- today's top story artists at Disney. Chris Sanders, responsible for translating the story of Mulan into "animatable" terms, reveals how he gets over trouble spots. "He said that the real task is to flow around the problem," remembers Canemaker. "You have to solve the problem in other ways when you come up against something." The author also looks at the work of Brenda Chapman, who has since left the studio to direct The Prince of Egypt for DreamWorks. During her tenure at Disney, Chapman's story work brought quiet moments of humanity to such films as The Rescuers Down Under and Beauty And The Beast.

In addition, the book will also feature story sketches by two of today's top animators -- Glen Keane (from Pocahontas) and Mark Henn (from Mulan). Most of the story boards in the book are represented as Canemaker wanted. This means that Paper Dreams is a horizontally shaped book, and a dream for those who savor the smallest artistic details, as the double page spreads recreate the feeling of looking at an actual "board." The Extras It's evident from the book that Canemaker relishes the archeological-like stage of researching, where treasures are often found in the Disney Archives and Animation Research Library. Paper Dreams features many of these, including a reproduction of a Bill Peet story board, created for The Sword In The Stone, in 1949. The board depicts the film's "wizard's duel" and according to Canemaker, "It's so incredibly imaginative and graphically oriented. It's much better than what finally appeared in the film." There's also a photograph that Canemaker has waited over three decades to use -- it features story man Roy Williams showing a story board to a teenage visitor to the studio, by the name of Richard Williams. They're not related, but the youngster in the photo is indeed the same Richard Williams who would go on to much acclaim in the animation industry for his many eclectic projects, including the Academy-Award winning short subject A Christmas Carol and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. More than just a "pretty coffee table book," Paper Dreams delves into the lives of the artists in and outside the work place. Humorous anecdotes peel back the layers of what day-to-day life at the studio was like. The book shows how Roy Willaims was often the butt of jokes, for example, members of the story department once left a wheelbarrow filled with water in the back seat of his car. The closeness of the French artists, Paul and Gaetan Brizzi, the twin brothers, who created the storyboards for the gripping pre-credit opening of Hunchback of Notre Dame, is also revealed. Canemaker remembers how he was only able to interview, Paul, while Gaetan was on vacation. "Paul kept referring to an empty chair where Gatean would have been had he not been away," laughs the author. "It was like interviewing Harvey the rabbit!" Such background information allows Paper Dreams to shed more light on this often overlooked and laborious of all the artistic disciplines at the Disney studio. Says Canemaker, "Animators concentrate on their scene, on their action. They really get into minutia. But, story people have to look at things in a wider, more encompassing way. They have to draw well and express themselves well, graphically, as well as dimensionalize and emotionalize characters. There are many skills that they must have and the best ones have them all." Paper Dreams: The Art & Artists of Disney Storyboards by John Canemaker. Illustrated. New York, New York: Hyperion, 1999. 272 pages. ISBN: 0-7868-6301-2. (US$60.00) Mike Lyons is a Long Island-based freelance writer who has written over 100 articles on film and animation. His work has appeared in Cinefantastique, Animato! and The Disney Magazine.

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