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So, Is This Where I’m Supposed to Laugh?: Notable Disasters in the Art of Pitching

Tom Sito highlights a bit of the history of pitching in addition to some classic pitching disasters from Walt's days to today.

Walt Disney during a story pitch, circa 1936. There may have been better artists, but Disney was one of the best pitchmen. Courtesy of Tom Sito.

Walt Disney during a story pitch, circa 1936. There may have been better artists, but Disney was one of the best pitchmen. Courtesy of Tom Sito.

Pitching is a strange science. In creating a storyboard for an animated film, after calling upon all your skills in narrative film structure, composition and draftsmanship, you could blow it all with a bad presentation. Ever since 1925, when Webb Smith, a gagman working for Walt Disney, stuck a bunch of ideas up on a corkboard with pushpins, storyboard artists have struggled with the semi-vaudeville, semi-valedictory exercise in futility known as a Pitch.

In the beginning, animation writing was done by individual cartoonists thinking of jokes on their own as they went along. At Hearsts cartoon studio IFS (circa 1916), Grim Natwick recalled how director Gregory La Cava would doodle out the plan for the cartoon short, then rip pieces of the paper off and hand them out to his artists as individual assignments.

Later, artists who displayed a proclivity for coming up with ideas, became full-time gagmen. Scripting before the 1960s was generally unknown. Famous gagmen like Joe Barbera, Mike Maltese, Bill Scott and Cal Howard drew as much as they wrote. Films, such as Bambi and Pinocchio, were written on the storyboards as they were developed, a final dialogue polish in script form before recording the voices.

Roy Williams, known to Baby Boomers as Roy the Big Mouseketeer on the 1950s Mickey Mouse TV Show, was a story artist long before. Roy sat in meetings with a large pad and covered the pages with gags, almost as fast as he could come up with them. If only one gag per page was used, it was well worth the others to get there. But regardless of the medium, at a certain point you have to stand before your work at a story meeting and, using a wooden pointer, explain your idea to all assembled.

At Disney Feature there was an etiquette observed even down to how you pinned up your drawings. Drawings were put up with two pushpins at the top corners, with one-inch border all around. Drawings held with one pushpin flapped about and were considered sloppy; four pushpins, one in each corner were considered over-confident and would jinx your chance at approval. It was said Walt was especially picky when he reviewed a board where the drawings were four-pinned.

There was even etiquette to how you handled the wooden pointer. You must tap the lower right corner of the panel you are speaking of, moving generally at the pace with which the film will be seen, and never over-gesticulate. Once, on the film Pocahontas, one artist was taking us through his version of the song Colors of the Wind. As he pitched, he waved his pointer around like an orchestra conductors baton. This made everyone in the room bob their heads up and down following the bouncing pointer, until some got seasick.

There is a pitching etiquette when it comes to pushpins, pointers and funny voices. When author Sito used a cackle for a Shrek pitch, Jeffrey Katzenberg almost pitched him and his board out the window. Courtesy of DreamWorks.

There is a pitching etiquette when it comes to pushpins, pointers and funny voices. When author Sito used a cackle for a Shrek pitch, Jeffrey Katzenberg almost pitched him and his board out the window. Courtesy of DreamWorks.

You learned to avoid overacting or doing funny voices with your pitch. In 1996, I was pitching a section of Shrek to Jeffrey Katzenberg that showed how a witch first put the spell on Princess Fiona that turns her into a monster. The final sequence was cut from the movie. I had done a pretty tight storyboard rendered in charcoal, but I pitched it with a faux clichéd old hag cackle. Not only did JK find my falsetto annoying, he just about pitched my board and me out the window.

Jack Kinney recalled one story artist from New York who had good ideas, but his exuberance would bubble over into a blizzard of four letter words, little to the taste of the rather straight-laced Mr. Disney. And then the gdd&*%# duck falls out of the fu@! tree! After director Dave had ordered him to clean up his language before pitching to Walt, the man erupted, "You can take that g**dam, f&% duck and stick him up %&$% !! Im going back to New York where I can talk to somebody!

Not that Walt kept himself immune from the heat of debate. I was told that master storyboarder Bill Peet and Walt would get into frequent arguments over Bambi that were so hot they looked like a baseball manager and umpire arguing a bad call. Its a testament to the respect Walt had for Peet's abilities, that no matter how much they screamed, kicked the boards and occasionally even threw pots of ink at one another, Peet never feared for his job.

Walt Disney realized pretty early on that there were many stronger artists around then him. But what Walt excelled at was story. He was considered one of the best pitchmen in the business. One evening in 1935, Disney took his crew out for an Italian dinner. After the dessert when the dishes and cups were cleared away, he took his place in the center of the room and told his staff his plans for their future. The Mickey shorts were doing swell, but he wanted to create the first full-length feature cartoon, done in a very realistic, natural style.

Marc Davis recalled, We all thought he was crazy. But then he proceeded to tell us a story, the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. At first we thought we all knew the story already. But there was something in the way Walt Disney would tell a story. He had a way of holding your attention. When he was done we were all captivated. Walt had pitched them the idea successfully.

Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera were unsuccessful with a pitch of their first project, Puss Gets the Boots. Later, renamed Tom & Jerry, it went on to become one of the greatest successes in animation. © Warner Bros. All rights reserved.

Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera were unsuccessful with a pitch of their first project, Puss Gets the Boots. Later, renamed Tom & Jerry, it went on to become one of the greatest successes in animation. © Warner Bros. All rights reserved.

There are successful pitches, and unsuccessful pitches that may still make a good cartoon. At MGM in 1939, when the new directing team of Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera developed their first project, it was for a cat and mouse chase cartoon called Puss Gets the Boot. The characters were called Jasper, later Tom the cat, and Jerry the mouse.

But when they pitched the idea to producer Fred Quimby and supervising director Rudy Ising, their first reaction was Hmph, all ready too many cat and mouse chase films out there Despite this initial vote of no confidence, Tom & Jerry went on to become one of the greatest successes in animation.

In 1946 at Warner Bros., Chuck Jones and his A unit were looking to develop new characters. One idea was a skunk, oblivious to his own scent, whose goal was to seduce his prey, rather than eat them for supper. Jones had voice artist Mel Blanc effect an impersonation of the French actor Jean Gabin from his famous hit film Pépé le Moko: Ahh... Mon amour, come wiz me to zee Casbah!

But when they pitched the idea to Warner executive Eddie Selzer, his reaction was, Absolutely Not! No Skunks! Chuck recalled, If Eddie hated it, I knew we had to do it. After he screened the completed short, Selzers final verdict was, No ones gonna laugh at that sh*t! The short Scentimentally Yours, was not only a hit, it won an Oscar and propelled the character of Pepé Le Pew into the pantheon of Warner Bros. animated stars.

In 1987, the great French-Canadian animator Frédéric Back premiered his award-winning masterpiece, Une homme quis plaintait desarbes (The Man Who Planted Trees) at the Annecy Film Festival. My wife Pat and I were in the audience that night. Even seeing it in French, a language we had little knowledge of, we were still deeply moved. Talking to Frédéric later, Pat told him how we all cried at the end, in fact all the audience was in tears. Frederic replied, When I first read ze book (by Jean Giono) I cried then I read it again, and I cried. Then I did ze storyboard. and I cried. Then I pitched the storyboard to ze CBC (the Canadian Broadcast Co.) and I cried. And ze CBC people thought -- who is zat silly old man up there crying? But you know, zay still gave me ze funding...

Sometimes your pitch can be successful, but still yield unexpected results. Filmmaker Mike Sporn once pitched his rendition of a Lewis Carroll fantasy complete with budget and schedules. His client, an independent producer was impressed, but then said, I like your ideas, but I dont want to make your film. Can you use the same figures to make a rock opera of Tolkiens The Hobbit with an all-Hungarian crew? Director Maurice Hunt had presented to the Ted Turner execs a beautiful and well-thought out concept based on ancient Indian mythology, involving elephants and Indian gods. The Turner execs response was, Its good, but instead of elephants can you do this with wolves? Ted likes wolves.

Charlie Fink was a vp of development for Walt Disney Feature Animation during the 2D Renaissance of the 1990s. A gruff, straight-shooting man, he is credited with first inviting Disney legend Joe Grant to come back out of retirement, and getting animator Eric Goldberg out from London. I recall pitching my heart out to him on a Roger Rabbit short, only to see him stoically suck a long drag on his cigarette and respond -- So Sito! Is this where Im supposed to laugh?

Another time at DreamWorks, I was doing boards on the film Antz. I sat in on a story pitch given by Larry Gutterman, who went on to direct the hit Cats and Dogs. After his idea was pitched to producer Katzenberg, Jeffrey said, I understand what you are saying to me about this idea, but I just dont see it in the storyboards. Gutterman responded, Thats because its buried in the subtext. To which Jeffrey laughed, Wow, thats good bullshit! Can I borrow that?

Nowadays, story artists are transitioning to elaborate story reels on computer with after effects and music. But the inherent danger here is that it leaves little room for the give and take of paper storyboards. If you give your boss a take-it-or-leave-it situation, often, they may just leave it. This is why, even until recently, the most advanced digital pictures like the ones from Pixar and Blue Sky were done on paper and corkboard like they did in the 1920s.

Some storyboard artists fret about the growth of the technique called pre-visualization. This is a virtual stage where the non-drawing director can freely move the camera and characters around instantly like a kid placing figures in a dolls house. Peter Jackson used this technique to great effect in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. But a storyboard artist is still necessary for the initial concept.

So heres to the story person. As long as they need funny business in a cartoon and as long as you need to show people -- here, this is funny @*?!, Pitching will be a vital part of the animated filmmaking process.

For further reading: Walt Disney and Other Assorted Characters, An Unauthorized Account of the Early Years at Disneys by Jack Kinney (Harmony Books)

Paper Dreams: The Art and Artists of Walt Disney Storyboards by John Canemaker (Hyperion Books)

My Life in ToonsFrom Flatbush to Bedrock in Under a Century by Joe Barbera (DIANE Publishing Co.)

Tom Sito is an animator and author who has taught at USC, CalArts and UCLA. His new book, Drawing The Line: The Untold Story of the Animation Unions From Bosko to Bart Simpson, is out from University of Kentucky Press. Visit www.tomsito.com, for details.

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