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Disney Words and Drawings: An Exchange

[Late in 2007 and early in 2008, I made several postings in response to false claims that scripts for Hollywood animated cartoons did not exist before 1960, that until then the "writing" for cartoons always took place through storyboards. If you go to this posting on that subject it will lead you to the earlier ones. Gunnar Andreassen, after reading those posts, went back to what I'd written about storyboards in Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age and framed the following series of questions.]

From Gunnar Andreassen: On this controversy you wrote—among other things—on your site January 13, 2008:

But in many other cases, especially before the mid-1930s, cartoon makers started by putting their story ideas into writing—as detailed outlines, or as treatments, or as scripts—before they began making drawings. When they did start drawing, they rarely if ever put up boards telling a complete story. The Disney studio was the most advanced in its methods in the early 1930s, but it wasn't until 1934 at the earliest that storyboards became a normal part of work on the Disney cartoons. Early in that year, Walt wrote, in a memorandum to his employees, about a brand-new way to tell a story: "Instead of writing your story, you could present the entire idea with sketches, with a few notes below each sketch (when necessary), to explain the action. This would be an ideal way to present your story because it then shows the visualized possibilities, rather than a lot of words, explaining things that ... turn out to be impossible to put over in action."

I will comment on some of your statements:

But in many other cases, especially before the mid-1930s, cartoon makers started by putting their story ideas into writing…

Couldn’t story ideas—from the start—have been made into writing and drawings ?

In the story department there were some who were experts on drawing, like Hurter—and some on writing, like Cottrell. Hurter had the inspirational part, couldn’t his work also have inspired writers—and not only artists/animators ? So that it could had been important to have him drawing from an early start ? To use his fertile imagination to come up with gags and story ideas —in the process of drawing? It seems somewhat confining if they only used him for making drawings of other people’s ideas, as you wrote in your book Hollywood Cartoons, on page 116:

But the sketch men were not expected to come up with ideas on their own; they were there instead to give visual shape to the story men’s ideas.

Canemaker, however, wrote this in his book Paper Dreams, page 76:

He [Hurter], and all the inspirational sketch artists that followed, were (and are) part of the Story Department, though their function precedes story. Their essential task is to conceptualize stories and characters for potential films.

Does he by this mean that Hurter alone (in the early years) worked on potential films before any of the others in the story department started on those? That he was the one that came up with ideas for potential films? I have never seen any clear evidence to this effect—but it must be taken into consideration that I’m only an amateur when it comes to Disney history and art and there is much I have little knowledge of.

However, I have a feeling that Hurter, when it comes to the bulk of his work, started drawing as soon as a new project was decided. Of course, it could have been possible for him to come up with ideas for new films, but this was probably not his essential task.

In his book Before the Animation Begins, Canemaker writes on page 10:

When each new project was proposed, "Albert was consulted and given free rein to let his imagination wander, creating strange animals, plants, scenery, or costumes that might serve as models for the forthcoming production… Disney had found the ideal outlet for Albert’s talents." (Quotes from Ted Sears’ foreword in He Drew as He Pleased.)

On page 21:

But gory oddities were part of the deal: one never knew where a gem of an idea might be found in a Hurter drawing that could inspire a scene, a sequence, perhaps an entire film. "All you’d have to do was say 'Snow White' and Albert would go from there," remembered Joe Grant. “It wasn’t necessary to explain anything to him, 'cause it's what he gave to you rather than what you gave to him. The exchange was all on his side."

Story meetingDid work on shorts start with idea meetings, where ideas for shorts were launched—discussed—and either rejected or approved by Disney? We can use The Grasshopper and the Ants as an example.In your book Hollywood Cartoons you write on page 115:

By the time The Grasshopper and the Ants was being written in the early fall of 1933, Jackson recalled, the story department was responsible for "developing a complete story line and almost the entire continuity of gags and business,” with the director involved only sporadically—“if one had been assigned to the film." Jackson directed that cartoon, but a typewritten continuity dated 3 October 1933 indicates that Bill Cottrell was largely responsible for writing it, and hand-printed notes by another story man, Pinto Colvig (who also provided the Grasshopper’s voice in the film) suggest that he contributed heavily to the dialogue and lyrics. Each of those people played a role that would not have been nearly so clear-cut if the cartoon had been made a year earlier.

They had the Aesop's fable before the work started. Couldn't that have been enough material to have Hurter start drawing ?

On page 2 in Canemaker’s Before the Animation Begins there’s a photo (above) of the story department staff and Disney—a late-night story conference in 1933—and of a board with a lot of drawings from The Grasshopper and the Ants—very probably all of them were drawn by Hurter.

You wrote in your book (page 112):

The grasshopper, whose design owes a great deal to Albert Hurter's drawings, looks and moves more like a real insect than the formula-bound ants do.

In a note to this:

The story sketch book for The Grasshopper and the Ants in the Walt Disney Archives is made up of a thick sheaf of Hurter’s drawings, in no particular order.

Hurter drawingThis also seems to be the case with the drawings on the board in the photo, as there is no order—they were pinned up in a haphazard way. They are probably not story sketches (storyboard drawings), but early inspirational drawings. Through a magnifying glass it’s possible to see what some of them contain: background drawings, drawings of ants toiling with the harvesting of corns and berries—the ant queen in her chair (litter?) carried by two ant servants—the grasshopper walking and freezing in the snow—another with him playing the fiddle—and drawings that could possibly have been used as model sheets. Grasshopper by HurterI have found a few of those on a DVD gallery, and enclose grabs of three of them (above and to the right). I will guess that the drawings that hung on this board are the ones you found in the Archives.

There were also storyboard drawings, but they are probably not in the Archives. Recently I found five of them for sale on eBay: Nos. 2, 4, 36, 37 and 46. There could have been a couple of drawings in addition to No. 46, but it could also have been the last one in the order. Earlier, one drawing (No. 11) had been sold by Heritage Auctions. There’s no dialogue or text on the drawings. What’s a little special with all of them, is that the paper has become very brown, but in the places where the pins had been, not so much, which seems to indicate that they must have hung on a board (?) for a rather long time. See enclosures.

When they did start drawing, they rarely if ever put up boards telling a complete story.

What I can see from the ones that I have found from The Grasshopper and the Ants, the storyboard sketches must have told the whole story. The numbers seem to have been changed in the process of making the story—see enclosures.

They were probably made after the first complete outline/script was written—and as changes to this script were made, new or altered drawings were added.

…but it wasn't until 1934 at the earliest that storyboards became a normal part of work on the Disney cartoons.

Joe Grant sketchesThe storyboard drawings from The Grasshopper and the Ants must very probably have been made in the fall of 1933, as it was released on February 10, 1934. Joe Grant made one of his earliest efforts in the Disney Studio on this short. I have found three of his colored gag drawings and enclose a couple of them (at the right).

Early in that year, Walt wrote, in a memorandum to his employees, about a brand-new way to tell a story.

I would think that this was not a totally brand-new way, but something that had evolved gradually over the last couple of years and that the number of storyboard sketches increased from film to film—and became more important, especially to make it easier for Disney to follow the story ideas.

In your page on errors in Gabler’s book you write:

Page 256: Gabler writes of Albert Hurter that he was "chiefly responsible for conceptualizing" Snow White's background paintings, but Hurter's hand is visible in that film not in the background paintings but in the design of props, in the dwarfs' cottage especially, and to a lesser extent in character designs. Gabler describes such contributions, but he should have stopped there.

I have thought that Hurter's hand is visible in much more than design of props, and can quote from Allan's book Walt Disney and Europe, page 46:

Hurter's influence is seen in the interior of the dwarfs' cottage and in all the exteriors—woods, sunlight, dark moonlight shots.

From an interview with Dave Hand:

And there were, still, seven dwarfs, and, of course, the live-action [that is, based on live-action film] Snow White and the Prince and such, and also the beautiful backgrounds, and the designs of the dwarfs' house, and the interiors, and so forth, which was mostly [Albert] Hurter's stuff.

Recently I have found some background drawings that very probably were made by Hurter, example: see this link to a drawing of dwarfs cottage. Probably one of the most important background drawings—the inspiration of several paintings, by day—and by night—and close ups. I would think Gabler is right in writing what he did on Hurter’s contributions, but here again: I haven’t seen enough art to be sure about this.

MB replies: As Gunnar mentions, there is a photo on page 2 of John Canemaker's Before the Animation Begins that shows Walt Disney and Albert Hurter, among others, alongside a board filled with Hurter's sketches for The Grasshopper and the Ants; I've reproduced that photo above. A similar photo but with a somewhat different group of people, probably taken within minutes of the one in Canemaker's book, is on pages 16-17 of the original 1957 edition of Bob Thomas's Walt Disney, The Art of Animation. [See correction below.}

Although I saw Hurter's sketches in the Walt Disney Archives, and I've seen the two published photos many times, I had not made the connection between the two—that is, I hadn't realized that the sketches on the board are the same ones I saw at the Archives —and I'm grateful to Gunnar for pointing out that connection.

Gunnar says, echoing Canemaker, that the photo in Canemaker's book shows "a late-night story conference in 1933," and it's certainly true that story work on The Grasshopper and the Ants took place early that fall. (Animation began October 16 and ended in early January; the cartoon was released in February 1934.) it's unlikely, though, that the photo was taken any time in 1933. That appears to be Otto Englander seated on the arm of the wicker chair, and Englander didn't start work at Disney's until March 19, 1934, apart from what seems to have been very brief employment in 1931. He worked for Harman-Ising and then for Ub Iwerks in the early '30s.

I've gone through my Disney clipping files for 1934 and 1935 (both now quite thick), and I've found only one published photo from the session that produced the photos in the Canemaker and Thomas books. It's a third version, in the Providence (R.I.) Evening Bulletin for December 28, 1935. So, I think we can be sure that the photos were taken sometime between March 1934 and December 1935, and probably much closer to the earlier date than the later.

I think it likely that the photos were posed in every sense, by the people involved (who are dressed more formally that was the Disney norm) and through the use of a storyboard that was put together especially for the shoot and was not used, at least not in that form, in production of the cartoon.

[A June 21, 2009, update and correction: As Gunnar has pointed out since I posted this item, the man seated on the arm of the wicker chair in the photo in Before the Animation Begins is not Otto Englander, but Pinto Colvig. The same seven people, not what I called "somewhat different groups," are present in the photos in both the Thomas and Canemaker books. In the photo in the Thomas book, Colvig's appearance is somewhat obscured because his part of the photo falls across the "gutter" between two pages, but he's unquestionably the same man as the one on the wicker chair. The photos thus could have been taken before March 1934, although I continue to believe that what we see in them is not an actual story conference, but one staged for the camera.]

Grasshoper layout sketch

Grasshopper layout sketch

As for the other sketches, the ones Gunnar describes as story sketches for The Grasshopper and the Ants, they're not story sketches—they're preliminary layout drawings, which were probably translated into larger drawings by Hugh Hennesy, Wilfred Jackson's layout man. The numbers on the sketches, as in the two examples above, are the numbers of the corresponding scenes in the draft, and the general appearance of the sketches is that of those scenes in the finished film.

The earliest of what the Walt Disney Archives calls the "story sketch books" for the short cartoons—compilations of sketches used in production and then assembled as a sort of record of the film—actually contain very few story sketches. Instead, the sketches saved from the cartoons of the early 1930s are almost always preliminary layout drawings like these two for The Grasshopper and the Ants, which do not tell the story directly but instead indicate staging, camera movement, and the like. The story sketch books began to be made up of real story sketches only in the middle of the decade, after the storyboard had become the standard means of telling a story.

Despite the paucity of story sketches from the early '30s, the Disney Archives does have four boxes of Albert Hurter's inspirational sketches that go back at least to 1932. Hurter started at Disney's in June 1931, but he worked in animation first and then as a layout artist for Wilfred Jackson, before Walt shifted him into the story department, most likely in the spring of 1932. The earliest datable sketches in the Archives boxes of Hurter drawings are for Mickey in Arabia, which was animated under Wilfred Jackson's direction in April and May of 1932; some of those drawings are reproduced in He Drew as He Pleased, the collection of Hurter sketches published a few years after his death in 1942. It seems likely that Hurter moved into the story department when Hennesy took his place as Jackson's layout man in March 1932, and that he began his story work by drawing inspirational sketches for Mickey in Arabia. (It's easy to tell from his Mickey in Arabia sketches why Hurter didn't stay in animation; his version of Mickey Mouse is wildly off model.)

It's likely that Hurter started turning out inspirational sketches very early in work on a story; He Drew as He Pleased includes sketches of Hansel and Gretel that were surely done early in story work on Babes in the Woods, the 1932 Disney version of that fairy tale. But it's open to question just how important such sketches were in the Disney scheme of things in 1932, when Hurter was first making them.

The story sketch book for Babes in the Woods includes no sketches that I could identify as Hurter's, and as with other books of that vintage, its sketches are mostly preliminary layout drawings. But accompanying the first such sketch for scene 2, there's this handwritten note: "Eyes on trees are big white 'gypsy' moths - they fly off scene - see Webb's sketch." Likewise, for the second drawing for that scene, the note reads, "Tree with daggers - teeth--pheasants fly out - owls' eyes and feet for teeth - see Webb's sketch."

Webb Smith was, in the fall of 1932, one of the four men in the story department, with Ted Sears, Pinto Colvig, and Hurter (Bill Cottrell came in a few months later, just in time to work on Three Little Pigs). Whoever was making the preliminary layout sketches—either Burt Gillett, the director, or Charles Philippi, his layout man—was reminding himself or someone else to refer to Smith's drawings when making a full-size layout. No comparable notes refer to Hurter's drawings.

Smith's drawings aren't part of the story sketch book for Babes in the Woods. A few drawings in that book are unmistakably story sketches, as with a one of a cat that turns to stone and topples over, in a sequence of three drawings, but although such drawings were being made, they weren't being assembled as complete boards, at least not as a general practice. And when it came time to assemble a story sketch book as a record of the cartoon, most such sketches were thrown out in favor of the preliminary layouts, which were probably a more complete visual record than a scattering of disconnected story sketches. I have no idea why Hurter's sketches for The Grasshopper and the Ants were saved in place of the preliminary layouts, but perhaps it was because they had been assembled on a board for that photo session.

I've taken a long way around to saying that there is nothing about the surviving sketches for The Grasshopper and the Ants to suggest that complete storyboards had come into use before 1934, or that storyboards had in any way supplanted the written materials—the outlines and treatments and scripts—that were the basic tools of the Disney story men. That didn't happen until the staff began to fill out with more people who could draw well—not just Hurter, but artists like Bob Kuwahara, who was, as I say on page 116 of Hollywood Cartoons, probably the first Disney "story sketch man."

In regard to those story sketch men, Gunnar quotes me misleadingly. When I say on page 116 that "the sketch men were not expected to come up with ideas on their own; they were there instead to give visual shape to the story men’s ideas," I think it's clear that I'm referring not to Hurter but to people like Kuwahara, who became a story sketch man roughly two years after Hurter began drawing inspirational sketches. The story sketch men's job was very different from Hurter's.

I'm sure that the adoption of complete storyboards did not cause a drastic upheaval at Disney's. As Wilfred Jackson in particular used to emphasize to me, there was no set way of doing things at the Disney studio of the early '30s; instead, working methods were in constant flux. But that complete storyboards did represent a significant change from the way things had been done is clear, I think, from the memo that Walt distributed early in 1934, offering a fifty-dollar prize for usable stories. If complete storyboards were not a novelty, why would Walt have described them in such elementary terms?

I'm reproducing the complete memo here, from the photocopy that came to me many years ago from Ben Sharpsteen; click on each page to go to a full-size version. (My apologies for the vertical streak on each page; my scanner is misbehaving.)

1934 memo page 11934 memo page 21934 memo page 3

Fifty dollars was the equivalent of almost eight hundred dollars in today's money, according to an online inflation calculator. I don't know how many prizes were awarded, or if any were.

In regard to Hurter's role in work on Snow White, I've gone back into the relevant documents, and, as much as I hate to admit it, this is one case where Gabler seems to have got it right. In a November 23, 1936, "layout meeting with background men," Dave Hand told the group that Hurter had been designated "supervisor of the key of the picture—interior of the dwarfs' house and all exteriors—woods, sunlight, dark moonlight shots," with each layout man to work with Hurter. Hand added, though, that Hurter was not a supervisor—that is, not a manager of personnel. "He is working with us to bring the character out." Gustaf Tenggren was to work on "preliminary story—working with the different units for mood and keying of that particular sequence. He has nothing to do with preliminary [layout] work. He is to work with the layout man of that particular unit—to assist in building the sequence."

I still see far more Tenggren than Hurter in the most important outdoor scenes, especially Snow White's flight through the woods—it was Tenggren rather than Hurter who attended meetings on that sequence—but there's no denying that Hurter had the larger role in the film as a whole. I didn't cite any written evidence when I posted my correction (which I've now deleted), so this is probably a case where I trusted to memory. Not a good idea, in this case or most others.

[Posted June 8, 2009; corrected and updated June 21, 2009]