Tom Sito discusses the turmoil at Disney Feature Animation around the time The Fox and the Hound was made, marking the transition between the Old Men of the Classic Era and the newcomers of today's animation industry.
Films can be important for different reasons: blockbuster box office, the creative apogee of a particular performer, the first to debut a new innovation. The Walt Disney Studio's 1981 release The Fox and the Hound is probably not on many lists of top ten animated films of all time but it has an importance unique from other animated films. It marked the turning point, when the Golden Age artists of Pinnochio and Bambi yielded their torch finally and forever to the Baby Boom generation. It was the last major work of the legendary Nine Old Men: Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston and Woolie Reitherman. Milt Kahl, Marc Davis and Ward Kimball had moved on from feature animation or otherwise retired, and Eric Larson had focused on training incoming talent. John Lounsbery and Les Clark had died. The Fox and the Hound would be the first animated film with which Walt Disney had absolutely no involvement. Run the video today and you'll notice something interesting about the screen credits. It is the last Disney film with no complete roll credits at the end. Credits were for a select few and moved to the long set-up sequence at the beginning. The names not mentioned are as interesting as those that are. If through some form of prestidigitation you could get a full personnel roster of The Fox and the Hound you would see unveiled before you a veritable who's who of current Hollywood animation power, including: Glen Keane, Don Bluth, Tim Burton, John Musker and Ron Clements, future Pixar head John Lasseter, Henry Selick, Don Paul, Jerry Reese, Richard Rich, Brad Bird, Randy Cartwright, Ed Gombert and Dave Spafford, and the first American women animators since the days of Retta Scott, such as Linda Miller, Heidi Guedel and Lorna Cook. Bill and Sue Kroyer met on this film. The dean of Hollywood life drawing Glenn Vilppu did layout. Animation union heads Steve Hulett and Earl Kress were writers on it. Future Beauty and the Beast producer Don Hahn was a low-level production person. Also at Disney, but on another project, was a newly arrived animator from Germany named Andreas Deja.
In Need of Rejuvenation
Disney Animation had been in a slow decline since 1959's Sleeping Beauty. In 1958 the studio downsized it's staff from 500 to 125 and this reduced staff level continued into the mid-1970s. If they hired at all it was a very, very selective process. From 1970 to 1977 Disney animation had hired only 21 people, and most of these were in the last year, 1977. To the young artists then beginning their careers it seemed easier to attain Nirvana then get into Disney. Art does not require youthful energy. Hokusai and Titian did some of their best work at a very old age. Animators like to brag that they'll never retire, but draw until they "hit the disk." The Disney artists who visualized Walt's dreams in the 1940s were generally the same men and women at the desks 30 years later. However, by the mid-1970s it was obvious that if something wasn't done soon, Disney Animation would die out with its creators. Walt Disney had planned an extension of his training school to be built in Valencia, California and it became the California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts). By 1976, its first graduates were taken on as trainees.
The trainees were brassy, bell-bottomed, long-haired and iconoclastic. They rode bicycles through the hallways. For the hedonistic Disco Era, they were a well-behaved bunch, but for a sleepy studio whose policy forbidding women to wear pants only changed in 1977, they were a breath of fresh air. Yet the elder statesmen kept them aware of who was boss. These men and women had learned their craft the old fashioned way -- tough, no nonsense, butt kicking. This would be their method of teaching their young ingenues. Many animators have stories of a Milt, Frank or Ollie chewing them out for their mistakes. One animator told of being made to stand before his director while he rifled through scene folders mumbling, "Hmmm, you're not good enough for this one yet...you're not good enough for this...hmph...maybe you can manage this one." The trainees produced two short pencil tests over a four-month period and if judged worthy they would be assigned to a veteran artist to do production. An Era of Change The studio had gone from Walt's death in 1966 to Roy Sr.'s death in 1970 to be led by Disney's son-in-law Ron Miller. In 1971 they had bought the rights to The Chronicles of Prydain which would become The Black Cauldron. All through the 1970s trade publications announced its development by a new generation of "Nine Young Men" but always with the same accompanying artwork done by old master Mel Shaw. The truth was the elder statesmen felt their young charges just weren't ready for such a difficult and dark story. After The Rescuers (1977) Milt Kahl retired. The studio did Pete's Dragon and a Christmas special called The Small One. Production on Cauldron was again put off while the staff began work on a film based on Daniel Mannix's 1967 book The Fox and the Hound. The story of Tod the fox who befriended a hunting dog named Copper was originally much more realistic. It ended with a hunter nailing Tod's lifeless pelt to the wall then euthanizing Copper with his shotgun. The story department "Disneyfied" the tale until the hard drinking hunter's importance was supplanted by a sweet, pudgy old lady, and friend and foe all became pals at the end. This grated on a lot of the younger story people. Chief the dog gets hit by a freight train and drops a thousand feet into a gorge, yet in the last sequence appears okay with a little bandage on his paw. Story veteran Vance Gerry argued for the department: "But he gets hit in the kisser with a freight train!!" To which Ron Miller and co-director Art Stevens countered: "Geez, we never killed a main character in a Disney film and we're not starting now!" Besides, Ollie had done some neat test animation of Chief hobbling around in a cast. They then made young animator Randy Cartwright go back to the scene where Copper finds Chief's body and had him animate Chief's eyes opening and closing so the audience knew right away he was not dead. Another controversy was when 70 year-old director Woolie Reitherman wanted to add a sequence three quarters through the movie where Phil Harris and Charro, playing two whooping cranes, would sing a silly song called, "Scoobie-Doobie Doobie Doo, Let your Body Goo, err...Go." Just about everyone but Woolie hated the idea and he was at last compelled to scrap it. The director of Jungle Book walked into a friend's office and said dejectedly, "I dunno....maybe this is a young man's medium..." He moved over to developing Catfish Bend and in 1985 was, unfortunately, killed in a car accident. By early 1978 veteran animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston had completed their handling of Copper and Tod and had begun to think of their book projects like Illusions of Life. Veteran story artist Larry Clemons had written and recorded the dialogue of Copper and Tod as pups with the child actors, then retired.
The Exodus in Mid-Stream
By 1979 the field was clearing for the Young Turks, but factions had developed in their ranks. It's one thing to give complete obedience to a silver haired legend who created Captain Hook, quite another when someone who sat in class next to you is now a supervisor demanding the same unquestioning discipline. There was a group devoted to Don Bluth and his vision for revitalizing the studio. They worked after hours in Don's garage on an independent short Banjo the Woodpile Cat. Another group worried about his influence. Bluthies vs. Mouseketeers. The room where Bill Kroyer, Brad Bird, Henry Selick and John Musker worked was dubbed the "Rat's Nest" by their detractors. They had a meeting with Ron Miller about the future of the studio that Bluth may have interpreted as a challenge to his authority. Finally, Don decided the films he desired to make couldn't be done at Disney. On his birthday, September 13, 1979, Don Bluth, Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy entered Ron Miller's office and tended their resignations. One third of the staff followed suit. Miller was outraged. He felt personally betrayed by these artists, all of whom had been nurtured and painstakingly trained to take their role as Disney lifetime employees. Miller ordered all of the resigners off the studio property by noon that same day. Gathering the remaining staff he began a speech with: "Now that the cancer has been excised..." The Bluth group went on to build their studio and be Disney's chief competition for the next decade. Miller pushed the release date for The Fox and the Hound back from Christmas 1980 to summer 1981. New artists were hired and promoted to fill the ranks. To make up for the lack of experience of the new animators much of the quality control would rely upon a corps of veteran assistant animators (clean-up artists) -- Tom Ferriter, Walt Stanchfield, Chuck Williams, Dave Suding and more. Like master sergeants their solid reliability would bring the project to completion. Still more young talent not associated with Bluth but tired of the infighting left the studio. Andy Gaskill, Bill Kroyer, Dan Haskett, Brad Bird and more. Animator Glen Keane began a reputation for himself by re-storyboarding and animating the bear fight sequence. I've been told the original storyboards were even more dramatic but were toned down by the directors for fear of losing their family "G" rating. However, even Keane left the studio for awhile. Will Finn was an inbetweener who was let go after animator Linda Miller left to go with Bluth. He asked the personnel director who was firing him,"Are there ever cases of someone who was fired ever coming back?" The old man smiled, "Well, yes, but I don't think so in your case." Despite that he did return eight years later as a master animator, creating Cogsworth, Iago and Gimsby for Disney. He is currently co-directing DreamWorks' El Dorado.
The Next Chapter The Fox and the Hound finally opened to not spectacular, but good box office and critical acclaim. The studio moved on to Black Cauldron which at one point was slated to be the directorial debut of John Musker and Ron Clements, however the older directors Art Stevens, Ted Berhman and Richard Rich convinced Miller and producer Joe Hale to keep them as the directors. Musker and Clements went on to develop Basil of Baker Street. Black Cauldron failed disastrously in 1984. Disney Chairman Ron Miller was ousted in the famous 1984 takeover that spawned the Roy Disney-Eisner-Katzenberg era. Today, Miller and his family own Silverado Vineyards in Napa Valley and make a nice chardonnay. Richard Rich opened his own studio and created The Swan Princess in 1995.
Don Bluth scored a major hit in conjunction with Steven Spielberg with An American Tail in 1986. This success is referred to by animators as the "Wake Up Call" to the new Disney management to the potential of animation. Basil of Baker Street, renamed The Great Mouse Detective, marked Disney's first step in the road back to dominance. The rest of the story is well-known: Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King -- a new Golden Age sprung from the seeds planted in 1976. A Sampling of Then and Now
- John Musker and Ron Clements (story artist and animator): Producer-director team of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Hercules.
Tim Burton (assistant & development artist): Producer of The Nightmare Before Christmas and director of numerous live-action films like: Batman, Batman Returns, Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, Mars Attacks! and Pee Wee's Big Adventure.
- Glen Keane (animator): Animation creator and designer of characters Ariel, Beast, Aladdin and Pocahontas.
- Bill and Sue Kroyer (animator and assistant): Director team of FernGully: The Last Rainforest, plus an Oscar nom for Technological Threat.
- John Lasseter (animator): Oscar winning CGI pioneer; creative director of Pixar and director of Toy Story.
- Don Bluth (animation director): Creator of Don Bluth Animation, director of The Secret of Nimh, An American Tale and Anastasia. Currently a director at Fox Feature Animation in Phoenix.
- Lorna Cook (animator): Prince of Egypt story head and director of DreamWorks' Spirit project.
- Jerry Reese (animator): Director of The Brave Little Toaster and live-action film The Marrying Man.
- Brad Bird (animator): Currently, director of Warner Bros.' The Iron Giant and previously of The Simpsons and Amazing Stories' Family Dog.
- Chris Buck (animator): Director of Disney's Tarzan and A Wish for Wings That Work.
Bibliography/Acknowledgments Enchanted Drawings by Charles Solomon. Mouse Tales by Eric Koenig. Special thanks to: Steve Hulett, Dan Haskett, Glen Keane, Bill Kroyer, Lorna Cook, Linda Miller, Dorse Lanpher, Don Paul, Randy Cartwright, Earl Kress, Will Finn, Dave Spafford, and Bruce Morris. Thanks to Howard Green for images. Tom Sito is a 20-year animation veteran and teacher who's credits include He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Prince of Egypt and Paulie. He was elected president of the animator's union M.P.S.C. 839 in 1992 and has served in that capacity ever since.