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John Canemaker's Sweet "Dreams"

book review by Mike Lyons

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 DisneylandTV series.

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Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an e-mail to editor@awn.com.