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James Bodrero

An interview by Milton Gray

Miller and BodreroFrom MB: James Spalding Pompeo Bodrero (1900-1980) was, in the words of a brief biography sent to me by his daughter, Lydia Hoy, soon after his death, "born in Belgium, where his father, a Captain in the Italian Bersaglieri, was his country's military attaché. His mother was the graddaughter of of a Nantucket whaling captain, one of the first Americans to settle in Hawaii before the arrival of the missionaries. His early schooling was in Europe and USA, with summers spent on [his grandparents'] sugar plantation in Hawaii."

In other words, Jim Bodrero differed considerably from most of the other people who worked at the Disney studio when he did (1938-1946). He was older—older than Walt Disney himself—and vastly more sophisticated and socially well connected. He married in 1926; his wife, Eleanor Cole, was, in their daughter's words, "from a prominent pioneer family and granddaughter of Cornelius Cole, first Senator from California." (In case that name sounds familiar: Corny Cole, the animator and designer, was Bodrero's nephew by marriage.) The Bodreros lived in southern California's loveliest cities—Santa Barbara, San Marino, Pasadena—and their names turned up in the society columns of the Los Angeles Times.

Jim Bodrero's illustrations started appearing in other people's books in the '20s. He also wrote and illustrated a couple of books of his own, most notably Bomba, a children's story about a donkey, in 1938. As for how he came to work for Walt Disney in that year, Bodrero tells that story himself at the beginning of the interview, where he drops one of the many famous names he really did know as friends.

At Disney's, Bodrero fit naturally in Joe Grant's model department, then a haven for gifted young artists like John P. Miller (seen above at the left, with Bodrero himself) and Martin Provensen. The model department, initially a source of character designs for Pinocchio, had very quickly become a fountain of inspirational sketches, and Bodrero produced many such for the "Pastoral Symphony" segment of Fantasia.

Provensen, who remembered Bodrero as "a wit, an eccentric," told me when I interviewed him in 1983 that his older colleague "had the ability to draw anything and simply pour this stuff out, like a spigot; he'd just pump away, and out it would come. And a wonderful companion. For a young man like myself to be surrounded by guys like that was just great."

That's one of Bodrero's sketches below, lifted from John Canemaker's Before the Animation Begins: The Art and Lives of Disney Inspirational Sketch Artists, which includes a section on Bodrero and reproductions of his work. (I made copies of the Bodrero and Provensen transcripts available to Canemaker when he was writing that book.) Such sketches were ill-suited for direct transfer to the screeen, but in later years at Disney's, Bodrero did more and more real story work, notably for the first attempt at a feature based on The Wind in the Willows. He and Campbell Grant made what was probably the first Leica reel from their story sketches for that unfinished film. Soon after, Bodrero was one of the Disney artists who accompanied Walt on his months-long trip to South America in 1941. He worked on both Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.

His days at Disney's were, his daughter said, the happiest time of his life, but he lost his job in the great 1946 layoff. In later years, after his first wife's death in 1949, he lived in San Francisco. Milton Gray interviewed him there on January 29, 1977; Bodrero was a patient at Presbyterian Hospital at the time.

Bodrero sketch for Fantasia


Bodrero: At the time this happened, I had in my hands the galley proofs of a children's book that Random House was publishing for me. I was painting, I was living in Santa Barbara; [Leopold] Stokowski at that time was living in Santa Barbara, too. Almost every Sunday, if nothing else was going on, he used to invite himself to have lunch with us. I knew nothing about the animation business at all. At the time, I had seen one animated cartoon that was not a Mickey Mouse—it was called The Old Mill. I saw it at Sam Goldwyn's house; he ran it one night after dinner. I was impressed by it, but it meant nothing to me, because my business was entirely different; I was painting and illustrating and doing a little writing of my own.

At least a year after that, Stoky said to me, "What are you doing at present, Jimmy?" I said, "Nothing in particular. I'm working on some cartoons for a mural that I'm proposing for the Sonoma County Building at the San Francisco Fair, at Treasure Island. Why?" He said, "Why don't you come to work at Disney's?" I said, "For Christ's sake, Stokowski, do you see me making ducks' feet move?" Stoky said, "Listen, if it's good enough for Deems Taylor and it's good enough for me, it's good enough for you. There's something going on there that isn't making ducks' feet move." That was the first I ever heard of Fantasia. He said, "You've got to come down and see what's going on down there.

So he took me down there, and I took along, as samples of my work, three galley proofs of the Random House book. They hired me, and I went immediately into the model department, under Joe Grant. That's where I stayed, most of the time I was there, until I started doing some producing and directing myself, mostly with Saludos Amigos. I worked on that, and Three Caballeros.

The first thing I worked on was “The Dance of the Hours," in Fantasia. The model department there set all the standards—that's why it was called the model department. There were roughly eight or ten of us, in the department. We were very independent. Joe Grant was the head of the department; he had formed it, I believe. He saw my samples, somehow, and the first thing I knew I was sitting next to Campbell Grant in the model department. From there on, we more or less designed what was to be done in the future.

From there I became what they called a story man; except that instead of writing the story out, you drew it out, on storyboards. I never had any experience in animation, at all. I stayed at Disney's for eight or nine years, until just after the war; during the war, I went away, overseas, then I went back to Disney's again. After a while, the Chase bank, or somebody like that, got into Walt quite heavily, and the front office started cutting down on any experimental work. There was a great shakeout, and I went out along with all the rest of the model department. There was no longer any interest, for me, in it at that point. The last thing I tried to do there, as I recall, was to get Walt interested—and I went to the point of having quite a few sketches on it—in doing a picture with [Salvador] Dali. I thought the combination would be exciting.

I worked on all of the South American pictures, and went down there and did a good deal of the research work. I laid out two of them, and did most of Brazil, and worked on most of the others, more or less.

Campbell Grant and I did Wind in the Willows, in which we started a new technique. It was the beginning of [limited] animation, you might say, because instead of showing a storyboard, we flicked over storyboard stills, to the dialogue. That was so impressive that the studio audience applauded. But after that, the experimental part of Disney’s died, and I said the hell with it. I was totally uninterested in Disneyland or in the live-action pictures.

But Joe Grant was the first person I worked under, and I was very close to Joe, and Dick Huemer, who was Joe's first assistant.

Gray: On "The Dance of the Hours," what actually were you doing on that?

Bodrero: Storyboarding, and designing the characters.

Gray: Were you involved in making any of the plaster models of the characters?

Bodrero:No, I didn't do any of them myself. There were two brothers; I've forgotten their names [Bob and Bill Jones]. I think they came from puppet-making; I'm not quite sure.

Gray: Was there very much experimenting with character design when you were developing the characters for "Dance of the Hours" or did they come rather easily?

Bodrero: Do you mean did we change many of them? Not a tremendous amount.

Gray: Did you, or the model department, get very involved in picking the color schemes for a picture?

Bodrero: We even went so far, in picking color schemes, as to experiment with the effects of just plain color. We'd get the whole ink and paint department, for instance, and stick them in the theater until it was jammed full, and we'd just throw colors on the screen, and watch the temperature go up and down—just to get the emotional reaction. We started changing color subtly, as a picture was moving from mood to mood. We found out, for instance, that a high vibratory color like a pink orange, or a rose pink, tends to excite; greens and blues tend to pacify and quiet you. We could slowly, subtly, change it a little bit, frame by frame, and enhance the emotion of the action.

Gray: How did they first start testing this?

Bodrero: Oh, we'd try it out on a few people to see how they liked it--try it with just plain color.

Gray: Was this with any soundtrack?

Bodrero: No. Just to see the emotional effect of the color.

Gray: How did you measure the audience reaction to this color?

 Bodrero: The temperature in the room. That's why we packed them in. I even had them sitting in the aisles, in a small sweatbox.

Gray: Was this on Hyperion, or at the new studio in Burbank?

Bodrero: That stuff began, really, over in Burbank. We finished Fantasia on Hyperion, as I recall. Then, I remember, a group of us went over, to the new studio, which had been kept very hush-hush. The first ones that went over were the model department, and we were to pick out where we wanted to be—our wing and our studio. There were a couple of animators, and most of  the model department [in the station wagon], and I remember Ward Kimball made a crack as we turned in the gate. There was this huge, round water tower, dominating the whole place, and Albert Hurter said, "What's that?" Kimball said, "I think that is young blood."

Gray: So this experimenting with color that you mentioned, it took place after Fantasia?

Bodrero: After Fantasia. Campbell Grant at that time was fooling around an awful lot with color; he had gotten interested in a spectroscope, and he was playing around with that. We spent all our time experimenting. Anybody had an idea, we'd get together and try it on each other, in that little group.

Gray: How long did these color experiments go on?

Bodrero: We'd do them any time we wanted to: there wasn't any definite time span. I think that's one reason the bank got rid of us first, they couldn't see anything coming out, constructively, day by day. We were all high-paid, we were spending an awful lot of time fussing around; but out of all of this fussing around came a great deal of constructive work. We started trying very hard to get into abstraction before anybody else was thinking of pure abstraction. I did a whole storyboard, and a little tiny bit of animation, on a thing with Benny Goodman and the old quintet. That was a little too far ahead of its time, so it was discarded.

A lot of our work was discarded, but a great deal of it stuck. Generally speaking, we probably appeared to be having fun more than doing anything that you can put your finger on. That was where we were vulnerable. For instance, Albert Hurter, an old, old Swiss, drew very old-fashioned grotesques—not caricatures, but grotesques. Very few of them were actually used, but those grotesques gave us ideas. And old Albert—nobody told him to draw anything, but he would just sit there and turn out grotesques. They had their purpose; Joe Grant saw that. Hurter might not do a goddamned thing that ever got on the screen, but he was going to do something that impressed some of us, in this little group.

Gray: Let me ask you about a few people in the department—for example, Earl Hurd.

Bodrero: He was a very old ex-newspaper cartoonist, I think. Very nice old man—very old, about the same age as Albert Hurter, older perhaps. I think he died while I was there.

Gray: What sort of things did he do in the department?

 Bodrero: Nothing that was very impressive to me.  Nothing that I can recall.

Gray: How about John P. Miller?

Bodrero: Jack Miller—very gifted. He was a great designer of cute things. Jack did a lot of work on different sections of Fantasia. He did cute animals very nicely, and things like that, and girls. He was a very skillful draftsman, and a very nice young man.

Gray: Elmer Plummer?

Bodrero: Elmer, I think, was largely in backgrounds, in the model department. Everything originated there, everything started there.

Gray: How involved was Walt himself in the model department?

Bodrero: I think very little, except as he was all throughout the whole studio—in a critical sense.

Gray: So he wouldn't have much to do with the origination of ideas in the model department. You guys would come up with the ideas—

Bodrero: And he'd say, “I like it” or not, yes.

Gray: I'd like to pin down a couple of details on those color tests. On checking the temperature of the room—did someone have a thermometer that you watched?

Bodrero: Yes, a thermometer.

Gray: Was there any audience response, other than the temperature?

Bodrero: No.

Gray: Were they kind of bewildered as to what they were there for?

Bodrero: No, we'd just ask them if they'd sit there and watch some color on the screen. We'd only keep them there for 15 or 20 minutes. They just thought that the little model department was being nuts again.

Gray: When you were designing characters in the model depart­ment, in color, I'm assuming that you and the other people in the department would experiment with the color of the character in relation to the color of the backgrounds in which the character would work…you would probably experiment with color in key scenes, in a story…

Bodrero: Yes.

Gray: How would you go about working with the ink and paint department and the background department once you had things kind of established?

Bodrero: We'd more or less ignore them. By that time, we were working on something else. We were usually working a year or so ahead of production.

Gray: So it was more a matter of presenting the material to Walt...

Bodrero: Yes, once we'd get it past him, on it went, you know. And, of course, we did some things rather complete, as storyboards. I finally ended up in the story department, as a story director. Actually, what the model department would do would be to say, “Make a picture with this."

Gray: How did you happen to decide to go ahead with The Wind in the Willows?

Bodrero: I had read the book.I wanted to do it, a long time before Walt. Walt thought it was awful corny, but we finally got him around to it. I don't think they did a very good job with it. I think it was better when Campbell Grant and I just had the flip-stills.

Gray: How elaborate was that Leica reel? Did you just do a standard storyboard and shoot that? Or did you do more than that?

Bodrero: We did a little more than that. But no animation. We didn't quite do extremes, but we came close to extremes. Incidentally, John Dehner, who later became quite a well-known actor, was one of the traffic boys back then, and John played the prosecuting attorney, in the film, and in the storyboard flips. Campbell Grant did the badger. We used mostly our own voices,we didn't go into hiring actors on this first attempt. What we were trying to do was get away from a static storyboard. I don’t know if they ever went on with that.

Gray: You probably had a new drawing for each major action, right? Not in terms of animation extremes, not that detailed—

Bodrero: No; entrances and exits and things like that. Every major action.

Gray: Were these drawings in color or black and white, or some of both?

Bodrero: Some of both. Color, when there was a big change; then we’d go into black and white.

Gray: How did your version of Wind in the Willows differ from what they did in the final film?

Bodrero: I think they went hog-wild on that big riot scene, the chase through Toad Hall. We stayed much closer to the book. That was the main thing. They broadened it a great deal, of course, and got further away from the original drawings.

Gray: It went into production for a while, before the war, then it got shelved…

Bodrero: It got shelved for a long time, then pulled out and redone. I think by that time I was long gone, and so was Campbell Grant.

Gray: Did you use the Leica reel for any other pictures after The Wind in the Willows?

Bodrero: No.

Gray: Do you think that the Leica reel helped sell the picture idea to Walt?

Bodrero: I don't know. All I know is that it was the only time that I’ve heard a studio audience applaud the presentation of a storyboard. We were showing this thing to our peers; we weren't showing it to the public. So when they clapped, we really felt we’d done something.

Gray: How large did the model department grow? Did it ever get significantly larger than ten people?

Bodrero: No. Lee Blair, Mary Blair, me, Campbell Grant, Marty Provensen, Dick Huemer…it stayed pretty small.

Gray: You worked on Dumbo, also. Do you remember how production went, in the model department, before Walt got really involved with it?

Bodrero: I think Walt got involved first. Walt, I believe, saw a toy, in a store, which an English woman did. It was a reel thing, for a kid to run pictures past a screen; it was the story of a little elephant who had big ears, and everybody laughed at it, but it learned how to fly. Walt bought the idea, and from there on in, we elaborated it. I never even saw the toy myself; it was described to me.

Gray: Do you remember what. Martin Provensen did in the model department?

Bodrero: Martin did a lot of designing of characters. I think Provensen was one of the most gifted painters there—serious painters.

Gray: How old was he, roughly?

Bodrero: A good deal younger than I. I'm 77 now, and he must be about 60; not more. About the same age as Jack Miller. The name "model department" is deceptive. Very few models were made, except, as I say, by these two brothers. I didn't work on Pinocchio, but they made models of things like the coach, and they worked out the springing, and stuff like that on the coach, and the weight and so forth, and then ran it over certain rough terrain, so that it gave the actual movement of a coach. Then they made movies of that and gave it to the animators.

Gray: A painter at Disney's said they had process cels, and they shot live-action film of the model coach, and then had each frame transferred to these process cels…

Bodrero: I see. I knew only that they had made that model coach, but I never saw it.

Gray: For "The Dance of the Hours," did they build or design a set as a kind of guide of where the characters would be at any given time?

Bodrero: Well, we used dancers, of course, real dancers. Rod Hightower did the king of the crocodiles. They had shots of  the live dancers, and the animators took it from there. We designed the setups and the costumes, and so forth. From there on in, that was an animator's picture, because an animator had to figure out just what an ostrich or hippopotamus—how it would react to what a ballerina was doing.

Gray: Elmer Plummer—did you ever see the work that he did? For example, I heard that he worked on the Chinese Dance.

Bodrero: I remember Campbell Grant and Kay Nielsen did “Night on Bare Mountain,” but I don't remember who did any particular part—I worked on the flying [horses]. He may have been working on part of the "Nutcracker”—I've no idea.

Gray: How complete would the storyboards tend to be, in the model department, before they would be turned over to the story department?

Bodrero: I think, in the beginning, the model department had practically nothing to do with the story department. They would be told the story and then draw the characters. What we became, really, was a sort of super story department. I don't remember exactly when I began to actually work out story, as opposed to working out characters. Originally, it was just characters.

Gray: But as the department took on more responsibilities, you didn't take on more people?

Bodrero: They didn't take on more people, no. We were never interested in the shorts; it was entirely working on the features--unusual, experimental things. Not necessarily of feature-length. I don't know how the model department started. When I got there, there were already eight or ten men in it.

Gray: Did the model department do much work on Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan?

Bodrero: I think Alice in Wonderland was entirely separate, like Bambi. Bambi was even done in a separate studio. They didn't want it to be affected by anybody else; they wanted it to be entirely its own conception. You might say that Rico LeBrun was the model department for that. And they were very mysterious; you practically had to show a badge to get in there. They were very, very secretive about what was going on over there.

Gray: Getting back to those experiments with color, what was the next step after putting a group of people in a room and seeing how the temperature changed?

Bodrero: Once we had shown it had that effect, we lost interest in it; we were doing other things, and somebody else took it over. From a different department, I think. The background department, perhaps. We didn't pursue it to the point of examining each picture after that to see if it was effective that way.

Gray: Was there much action in the model department regarding the pink-elephant sequence in Dumbo? Was there an unusual amount of experimentation there?

Bodrero: Not particularly, as I recall.

Gray: Were there many experiments made with sound effects, or anything like that, in the model department, or was it strictly visual?

Bodrero: I would say much more visual than anything else.

Gray: Was there much experimentation in the model department with techniques, like getting shading effects into the films?

Bodrero: No.

Gray: In Fantasia, in "Rite of Spring" and "Night on Bald Mountain" both, a lot of the drawings are modeled.

Bodrero: That was Kay Nielsen and Campbell Grant's technique. Kay Nielsen worked on Fantasia—that's all. Then he left the studio. He was hired for that purpose. [As David Lesjak points out, Nielsen actually made inspirational sketches for a number of other films, all unmade at the time, including The Little Mermaid, The Ride of the Valyries, and The Swan of Tuonela.]

Gray: So, I guess, the model department didn't so much work on developing techniques as they did on developing characters and exploring new story ideas.

Bodrero: Yes, more or less.

Gray: You mentioned that you were working on a project of abstract animation…had you seen any of the films by Oskar Fischinger?

Bodrero: No, I hadn't.

Gray: Can you give me a rough description of what you were aiming for in this film?

Bodrero: The system was to sit in a room with the sound up as high as you could and listen to the music, over and over again, until you thought you were going nuts. How did it affect you—was it flashes, or movement this way, or what?

Gray: Were you conceiving this primarily in two-dimensional graphic shapes or more three-dimensional, like the "Toccata and Fugue" in Fantasia?

Bodrero: I was thinking more of hard-edged pure abstraction. Nothing recognizable.

Gray: How far did the Salvador Dali project get before that was finally abandoned?

Bodrero: It got to about 200 beautiful drawings, about half of them by Salvador and about half by a fellow whose name I've forgotten [John Hench], but who could copy anybody. Salvador Dali is one of the best pen-and-ink draftsmen in the world, and this was to be done in black and white. "A young girl in search of her soul" was the idea. It was two great egos clashing, actually, when Walt and Salvador got together and Salvador's crazy as a bedbug anyhow. After they had a whole storyboard that looked rather interesting—they were at the experimental stage, the two of them [Dali and Hench], you couldn't tell one's work from the other's, about half the time. Salvador used to come in three days a week; he was staying up in El Monte, and he made a deal to come down and work three days a week for quite a large sum of money. He'd pretend he couldn't speak English, which was a goddamned lie, just so he could stall when he was talking to Walt. I had nothing to do with it, once I'd gotten the two of them together; I was busy on something else.

One Monday I arrived at the studio and I found this note on my desk: "Call Violet," Walt's secretary. Violet said, "Have you been down in the Dali unit lately?" I said, "No, I haven't been down there for a couple of weeks." She said, "You'd better get down there, because the boss is down there and he's blowing his top and yelling and screaming for you." I went down there, and Walt was raising hell. He said, "Take a look." All the beautiful, moody drawings of the girl were gone, and the place was covered with the most beautiful drawings of baseball players. I said, "I don't know what the hell this is all about." He said, "When's that son of a bitch getting down here?" I said, "He's going to be down here tomorrow." He said, "First thing in the goddamned morning, when he gets here, you get hold of me."

I left word to call me as soon as Dali got to the gate, so when Dali got to his department, I was there. Hench, I think, was the name of the guy that could copy him; he was the guy that was working with Dali. Hench was there, equally puzzled: "I left before the weekend, and something's happened since." Dali turned up, and Walt said, "What the hell's all this baseball?" Dali said, "Nice, eh?" Walt said, "What's it got to do [trailing off into a high-pitched sound of frustration]?" Dali said,"The regard of God, the regard of the universe." Walt said, "What do you mean?" And all this, mind you, is in translation, backward and forward. Dali said, "Sometimes they lie down like this and regard, sometimes with both hands they regard, sometimes they take a stake and regard—but always regarding, regarding, regarding." Walt said, "Ask if he's ever seen a baseball game." Dali said, “No, no, these pictures I cut out of magazines." He copied them: he didn't know what the hell he was drawing. He just said it was inspiring, all these men looking at the sky. Walt said, "Jesus Christ! $70,000 gone down the drain!" And he said it was the end, call it off, pay him off.

Gray: How long had Dali been at the studio before he was dismissed?

Bodrero: This happened about the fourth week, as I recall. Damned fast, anyhow.

Gray: When Dali was working on this thing about a young girl in search of her soul, can you tell me how that was being conceived?

Bodrero: I didn't work on it; I don't know. I saw some of the boards, and there was a young girl, and illusions, or dreams. I was mostly admiring the technique.

Gray: What were some of the things you were working on toward the end of your stay at Disney's?

Bodrero: I don't recall that. All I know is that we were all just swept out, and I went down and worked for Hal Roach the following week. He was thinking of doing a combination film; he never did it. There was nobody involved in animation in the studio except me. It was just in the story stage—fooling around. I wasn't particularly fond of the idea myself, and nothing came of it.

Gray: Since then, did you stay—

Bodrero: In movies? No.

Gray: You've remained a graphic artist, though?

Bodrero: Yes. I've done some mural painting. The last thing I did was a book called The Long Ride to Granada  that Morrow brought out. Thirty illustrations from a horseback ride I took from Seville to Granada.

Gray: When we first started the interview, you told me which book you had done that brought you to the attention of Stokowski and Disney, and I didn't quite hear you.

Bodrero: The name of the book? Bomba, published by Random House. I wrote it and illustrated it.

Gray: How did you meet Leopold Stokowski originally?

 Bodrero:I've forgotten; I've known him for years.

[Posted February 13, 2008; corrected February 17, 2008]