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Geronimi, Plumb, Huemer

Gerry Geronimi leans over the musician Ed Plumb, with his hand on Plumb's shoulder, as they pose with the story man Dick Huemer in a publicity photo that was probably taken for the 1955 reissue, as a short subject, of the "Peter and the Wolf" segment of the Disney feature Make Mine Music (1946). Photo courtesy of Gerry Geronimi.

Gerry Geronimi

An Interview by Michael Barrier and Milton Gray

From MB: Clyde Henry "Gerry" Geronimi was born in Chiavenna, a village north of Lake Como in the Italian Alps, on June 12, 1901. His family moved to New Rochelle, New York, in 1907 (according to Geronimi himself) or 1909 (according to the 1910 federal census). Not long after that, Geronimi's given names, Clito Enrico, were Americanized to Clyde Henry.

Geronimi entered animation in New York in 1919, and subsequently worked for Walter Lantz in California. He joined the Disney staff in, probably, 1931 and resigned twenty-eight years later, in October 1959, after a notorious blowup in Vienna with Walt himself. In between he was first a director of short cartoons, and then, starting with Victory Through Air Power (1943), sequences in almost all the Disney animated features. The peak of his Disney career came when he was the supervising director for all of Sleeping Beauty (1959).

After leaving Disney he was hired by Stephen Bosustow of UPA, early in 1960, to direct commercials and TV cartoons starring Dick Tracy and Mister Magoo. He later directed dozens of short TV cartoons starring the Marvel superheroes for Steve Krantz, before retiring sometime in the late 1960s. He died April 24, 1989, at his home in Newport Beach, California.

As I interviewed other members of the Disney staff during research for my book Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, I grew used to hearing fierce criticism of almost all the directors (only Wilfred Jackson was largely immune), but the hostility to Geronimi was uniquely broad and comprehensive. Not even Ben Sharpsteen was the target of so much abuse. Highly vocal animators like Milt Kahl and Ward Kimball spoke of Geronimi with undisguised contempt. Kahl, for instance, in my interview with him posted here, said that "anyone with anything on the ball at all had trouble with Geronimi, because he was a drone, an absolute no-talent. I don't think there'd be anybody in the business who wouldn't tell you that." Geronimi, he declared, was an "illiterate ignoramus."

Even milder-mannered members of the Disney staff could do no better than recall their former colleague in studiously neutral terms—Jackson said of Geronimi that he "painted with a broad brush"—or in negative remarks whose sting may not be immediately apparent, as when Les Clark said of Geronimi that his handout of an animation scene "was really your first test." That is, Geronimi wouldn't know what he wanted until he'd seen an animator's first effort as a pencil test.

Consistently, Geronimi emerged from his co-workers' memories as a crude bully—"a bitch to get along with," the assistant director Jack Bruner said—an impression no doubt magnified by his strong New York accent. The paradox is that many of the sequences Geronimi directed are high points in the Disney features. Think of Ichabod's chase by the Headless Horseman in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949), for instance, or "dinner at Tony's" in Lady and the Tramp (1955). Sometimes a Geronimi-directed sequence may be open to question conceptually, as with the Mad Tea Party in Alice in Wonderland (1951), but the execution—the direction included—is almost always outstanding. Milt Kahl offered this explanation: "Geronimi would always insist on getting the best people on his stuff, so it came out good, and what was Walt going to think?" I don't think that's a satisfactory explanation, although I haven't yet come up with a better one. I think it likely that Walt Disney, a cagey manager of men, saw in Geronimi a source of creative friction with his most gifted animators.

Milt Gray and I interviewed Geronimi on November 5, 1976, in Newport Beach, at the very end of one of my hurried trips to California to record interviews with animation veterans for Hollywood Cartoons. We had just interviewed Wilfred Jackson at his home on Balboa Island, and we were running late; Geronimi was pacing his front yard impatiently when we arrived. As was my standard practice, I sent the transcript of the interview to Geronimi for his review, and he made extensive but mostly minor changes, notably replacing the word "stuff" ( a euphemism, I'm sure) with more specific nouns.

As the interview began, we were discussing I. Klein's article in Funnyworld No. 14 (1972) about his first work in animation, in 1918, at the old International studio. Klein described completing an animator's pencil drawings in ink, on paper, to be photographed and projected, in contrast to the later standard practice of tracing the animator's drawings onto celluloid.

Geronimi: When I started with International, I was hired by [Gregory] La Cava, at 729 Seventh Avenue. I don't remember how long we were there, but then the studio moved to an old casino, up on the Harlem River. That's where Hearst International produced the old Marion Davies [pictures]. In his article Izzy mentions nothing about that place. I don't know if he was let out, or what happened. I do know that eventually the Hearst organization closed down the place, they stopped producing animated cartoons. Not long after the move to Harlem, La Cava was let out, George Stallings and John Foster were put in charge. Grim Natwick, Frank Sherman, [Walter] Lantz, [Burt] Gillett, and Bill Nolan were some of the animators working there.

I started in 1919. I was going to night school, at the Cooper Union art school. My dad knew the treasurer of the Scientific Engraving Company on 34th Street. Through him I got a job in the art department. Most of the work there was air-brush retouching and catalogue work. One of the retouchers saw that I was more interested in doing cartoons and had no desire to be an air-brush artist, [and he] told me that they were looking for people at the International studio. He suggested that I go and see La Cava and apply for a job. I went up with some samples, and sure enough, he put me on.

Barrier:  What did you do when you first started work there?

Geronimi: The same thing as Izzy Klein did. In those days, of course, everything was done on paper, in pencil and ink. Izzy mentions inking in; I didn't start by inking in, I started erasing the pencil, after it was inked in. Of course, I got into inking, too, later on.

The studio was producing a one-minute spot at the end of each Hearst newsreel; it was "Tad's Indoor Sports." Mikey Meyer was the animator of the one-minute spot. I was his assistant—he was quite a character. Later Mike quit and I believe went back to newspaper cartooning. A fellow named Paul Robinson took over but later the spot was canceled and Paul started a syndicated girl strip, Etta Kett; he did a comic strip later on, a girl strip. I was then put in with the Walter Lantz and George Stallings unit; they were animating "Jerry on the Job." I remember that my first animation was a train chugging into the station—that was a big thrill for me. At last I was an animator.

When Hearst decided to quit animation, George Stallings opened his own little studio on 125th Street, hiring both Walter and me. We produced a series of cartoons using "Bugs" Baer gags. They were a flop. From there, George got a call from Bray to produce cartoons for him again. George took Walter and me along. You had mentioned Dave Hand; I don't recall Dave being there at the [Stallings] studio, at that time. I know that Jack Norling was doing a lot of industrial-type films for Bray, and he had Dave working on those. I don't know just when he was hired, but I believe Dave worked on the early Heeza Liar. Anyway, we were doing Colonel Heeza Liar, and later, George Stallings was let out. A great talent but he had a habit of coming in late. J.R. Bray put Walter Lantz in charge, with me as Walter's assistant. We did "Colonel Heeza Liar," "Dinky Doodle," "Pete the Pup," and the "Unnatural History" series. I directed all the live action [for the combination live-action/animation scenes in which Lantz appeared]. Harry Squire was our cameraman.

We stayed with Bray for about eight years. Walter and I were very close. We were both from New Rochelle, although we didn't know each other then. I don't like to say this, but it's strange how many [animated-cartoon producers] hate to give credit to anyone. I know that I was responsible for a lot of "Dinky Doodle" but never received the proper credit; in fact, I was the one who suggested the name "Dinky Doodle."

We did most of our live-action shooting up in Buckhill Falls, Pennsylvania. Ernie Corts, the cameraman, lived up there, and he had a small zoo, with trained animals. We used some of them in our pictures. In October, around Columbus Day, we were up there shooting a hunting picture. Walter was supposed to be a hunter; he was dressed in a hunter's outfit. Ernie Corts rented a little cabin way up in the mountains. We were going to shoot a picture with a bear, but in those days, we used a lot of cut-outs; we'd shoot the live action, then make the prints, then put them on cels [that is, cut out figures from the printed live action and paste them on cels], and make our own movies.

We hired an actor in New York to do the bear—he had done animal stuff. Walter Lantz's brother Al, who was a big guy—he was a bear without an outfit on—had a catering place up in New Rochelle. He said, "What the hell, why do you want to hire a man? I'll do the part of the bear I need a vacation anyway." So we took Al up there and got the bear skin. The idea was that the bear was supposed to chase Walter around there; with the cut-outs, we were going to have him chasing Walter over the roof, down the chimeny, and all around there. It happened to be hunting season, and all of a sudden Al heard these gunshots. So he got scared, and he took the head off. Walter said, "What the hell are you doing?" Al said, "I'm not going to get killed by these hunters. They'll think it's a real bear." So he wouldn't put the head back on.

On the way back to the hotel—we happened to be at the Mount Airy Hotel that time—it started to snow. Walter and I almost froze to death; but Al went to sleep in the bear skin. He had the last laugh.

Barrier:  Did Dave Hand work with you later, at Bray?

Geronimi: As best as I can remember, Dave worked mostly with Jack Norling. I don't recall him doing any animation on "Dinky," "Pete the Pup," or "Unnatural History." [We brought in] Jimmy "Shamus" Culhane, and Walter's brother Michael, who is now a sculptor; and Frank Paiker, who is now the head of the camera department at Hanna-Barbera. When Walt and I left Bray, Dave stayed on; I don't remember what he was doing. I believe it was mostly industrial pix.

When we left Bray, I went with Pat Sullivan, animating with Otto Messmer, and Walter came out to the coast, and said he would let me know when he got set up. His idea was to try and sell the live-action cut-out business that we had perfected, for live-action comedies. I think he worked with Mack Sennett for a while and later went to Universal on Oswald cartoons. Then Walter finally sent for me; that was early 1930.

Barrier: When you went to Pat Sullivan's studio, did you ever see anything of Sullivan himself?

Geronimi: We saw Sully, but not too often. He was a heavy drinker and never took an active part in production. Otto Messmer actually ran the studio. Mezz and I would work on stories in Sully's office. The studio staff was very small; I remember Harry Reeves was one of the artists.

When I got a call from Lantz to come to the coast, and Sully heard about it, he wouldn't let me go. He said , "Come on, Gerry, you don't want to go out there. That's no place for you." He asked me not to sign a contract with Universal. I don't know why. Pat Sullivan never wanted to do anything like Disney. He never wanted to improve the product. He never wanted to pre-record the sound, or score the pictures; he said, "Ah, we'll do 'em like we always did 'em, the hell with it." He called Disney a Midwest farmer who didn't know how to produce cartoons. Not long after that, the whole thing [the Sullivan studio] folded up; and if it hadn't been for Otto Messmer, I think it would have folded a lot earlier.

Barrier: They didn't make any Felix cartoons with sound while you were there, did they?

Geronimi: No.

Barrier: When you went out to Universal, in 1930, what was the studio like then?

Geronimi: It was an old wooden building. Bill Nolan was the head animator, with some of the younger animators—Tex Avery, Ray Abrams, Manuel Moreno, Preston Blair. It was a small outfit, 30 or 35 people.

Barrier: Were Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising still there? [Actually, although Harman and Ising made the Oswald cartoons in 1928-29 for Charles Mintz, for Universal release, they never worked at the Universal studio.]

Geronimi: No; I believe Harman and Ising went out on their own. I did know that Walt Disney was bitter [about losing the Oswald character  to Mintz] . He was down on Easterners, called them city slickers, although he knew the experienced animators were mostly Easterners. I think Walt went more for the country type (like himself).

Barrier:  So when you came out here, the Lantz studio was on the Universal lot?

Geronimi: Yes, the old Universal; it's really changed now. I think the first or second day I was there, they had a slight quake. It scared the hell out of me, and I was ready to pack and head back to New York. At the time, Universal was making All Quiet on the Western Front, and Lew Ayres used to come in at noon; he  was very interested in the animated cartoons. He was quite an artist himself.

Barrier: You were animating by this time,weren't you?

Geronimi: Yes, I came out as an animator.

I had known Jack King from back East; I used to play tennis with  Jack.  He was at Disney's now, and he knew I was out here. Jack told me, "You should be over at Disney's. Disney would like to have you come over there." "Well, I'm over with Walter. After all, he brought me out here." But Disney's was the coming place, the coming studio, and he said, "Walt would like to talk to you." I made an appointment and went over there on a Saturday. Disney asked me if I'd come and join his studio. I said, "Let me talk to Walter Lantz." When I talked to Walter, I said, "Look, you may not like this, but I have a better opportunity over at Disney's; is it all right if I make the move?" "Sure, don't worry about that." It was probably the best move I ever made. But you know, to this day, Walter says, "Jocko, if you'd stayed with me you'd be my partner today." I wonder. So I went over to Disney's as an animator.

[Referring to a question about J. R. Bray in a letter from MB]  J.R. Bray didn't have too much to do with the studio production; you didn't see too much of him.  I don't recall Bray coming into the cartoon [studio]. He took care of the business. The one who ran the studio was Mrs. Bray. She would come in and rummage through the wastebaskets of all the animators, and take out old sheets of paper, animation paper. She'd say, "Gerry, that's still good, why don't you use it again." "Mrs. Bray, by the time you erase the old drawing, look at all the time you waste." She insisted: "0h, you can still use it." Same with the cels. The cels were so damned old and scratched up that you could see the old scratchy action. It was awful. But she was persistent and tough.

You mentioned [in a letter] about the type of animation I did. I worked a lot straight ahead. In those days, we did that; we didn't have any assistants. [Also], they didn't go so much for personality animation. Of course, in those days, there was no sound; it was all action [with no dialogue]. Bill Nolan was a great man for action. I loved his style. So I did a lot of that type of work. When I went with Disney, too, I did mostly that type of work. Then, when they brought in assistants, I'd leave some for them, but not too much. I never really did any personality animation, although I loved  it.

You mentioned too about working with exposure sheets, or bar sheets. I worked with both, but I stuck mostly with exposure  sheets. And I worked very closely with animators. What gripes me is Kimball, in most of his published articles, always taking all the credit on all of these things. I disagree with him. First of all, a lot of the business was right on the storyboards. Where did he get the idea that he [originated it]? We both worked out the timing. Kimball was the kind of guy who said, "Ah, come on, I can do that, give it to me." "Wait a minute. Listen to me. Walt wants me to give you this here sequence, and tell you what he wants, and what I want. Now you follow this the way I want it."

You mentioned that I had a run-in with Kimball on The Three Caballeros (1945); I don't know where you got that. [Kimball was of course the source.] Kimball took a lot of bows on some of the animation he did [in that feature]. Well, that's not altogether true. Kimball was a damned good animator, but he had to be toned down. [Kimball and some other animators] would run away if we didn't hold the reins. If a scene was supposed to be 10 feet long, they'd go to 50 feet, just like that, and put a lot of junk in there. Walt didn't want that. We had to stick to the business on the storyboard, [although] we always plussed it. I'll admit that [Kimball] had a lot of good ideas; he had a knack for screwy animation.

 But my favorite animators were—one fellow especially, John Lounsbery. He never really got the credit he deserved; he was a great animator, and a wonderful guy to work with. He'd stick to it, and he gave you what you wanted, and it was great animation. Another fellow who was very good was Frank Thomas...Ollie Johnston. Both very good on personality. A guy whom I always had a little trouble with was Milt Kahl. Milt Kahl was not as bad as Kimball, but he was a little rough. But for personality animation, you couldn't beat a fellow like Frank Thomas, or even Lounsbery. Both of them worked on that sequence in Lady and the Tramp, "dinner at Tony's," one of Walt's favorite sequences. Lounsbery did the cook and Tony, and Frank did the two dogs. I directed that, and also the sequence with the beaver. Thomas was a good student of animation; he had a lot of feeling for it.

Lady and the Tramp

Geronimi and a visitor to the set pose with Nick Dennis (left) and Don Barclay, the actors who played the parts of Tony and Joe in the live action shot as an aid to the animators of the "dinner at Tony's" sequence in the Disney feature Lady and the Tramp (1955). Photo courtesy of Gerry Geronimi.

[As Side One ended, we were looking through photographs. As Side Two began, Geronimi mentioned in passing that he had directed some of the Mickey Mouse Club segments. Then we returned to Kimball's assertion that he had added lots of business to the "Three Caballeros" number, over Geronimi's objections. Geronimi added to the transcript at this point: "Not true. And from Maltin's book [The Disney Films] Kimball taking all the credit for the' tea party,' 'Cheshire Cat' & 'Tweedle-Dee' all directed by me."]

Geronimi: I don't deny that some of the things were put in afterwards  [i.e., after the storyboards were completed]. I know we did invent a lot of gags and business in the director's room; we always plussed it. In fact, I used to get in dutch with some of the story men because of doing that. But you had to do it; Walt wanted you to plus it. That's a good director's job. Of course, you have to give the animators credit, too; [they weren't] just robots who picked up [a scene] and went back and animated it; they [were expected to] plus everything. Animationwise, I admit that [Kimball] did. He had good ideas—but so did I—[and] he had funny action in his animation. Naturally, Walt knew that, and he was always cast along those lines. [But] you never saw Kimball doing any out-and-out personality animation; it was always wild and woolly. All of that business in "Pecos Bill," during the song—a lot of it was storyboard, but we plussed it, and we went over it, and we timed it out. I won't say that my timing was always it; he moved it around a little bit, he had to. I was a stickler for perfection, and I got some of the animators mad at me; but I made good pictures.

Milton Gray: Did you direct the section in "Ichabod" of the big chase through the forest?

Geronimi: Yes; that was a good sequence. There, too, that was one we had to plus a lot; we had to add a lot of business. Frank Thomas did the scenes of Ichabod entering the hollow—the scary stuff—then, when the wild action started, it went to the wild man, Kimball. I worked very closely with Ollie Wallace, the music composer, on that. It wasn't pre-scored. We'd have the pencil [reel] on Ollie's movieola, and we'd go over it, scene by scene. We got a wonderful score out of that, too—scary as hell. The opening section of "Ichabod," up until the time Ichabod leaves for the party, was [Jack] Kinney's; and I picked up from the party on, to the end. [Geronimi inserted in the transcript at this point: "I always worked closely with the composers. I loved music an always felt that I could contribute."]

I was sorry [Bing] Crosby did the narration for it. Walt thought that maybe he would plus it, by having his name on it, but it was too much Crosby. I think it would have been better to have someone who got more of that Halloween spirit into it. When they first got the idea of doing "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," the idea was to have the Crosby kids, and Crosby, in live action at the start, with the kids going off trick-or-treating. But that [idea] died. And recording Crosby was a little rough. He would say, "Okay, the take is okay, print it" [after one take]. He ran the show, and I didn't like it.

Gray: The timing of that chase sequence is so exquisite, with one idea constantly telecoping out of the next.

Geronimi: That's the type of animation I always liked to do when I was animating, with lots of guts in it.

Barrier: How did you become a director at Disney's?

Geronimi: One night at a party at Jack King's, Walt was there, and we had a few drinks, and I told Walt, "You know, I'd like to direct." He said, "I don't know, Butch, we'll see." After that, he put me on. The first picture I directed had been startedby Jack Cutting; there was no timing, just preliminary work. It was The Ugly Duckling (1939), a Silly Symphony; it won the Academy Award. I directed it, and Dave Hilberman was my layout man; he did a nice job on layouts. One of the first Plutos I did was The Army Mascot (1942), and that was when the chipmunks [later named Chip and Dale] were first introduced. [As Chase Pritchard has pointed out, Geronimi confused this cartoon with Private Pluto (1943), which he also directed, and which was in fact the first cartoon with the chipmunks.]

Barrier: Did you have animators who worked with you regularly on the shorts that you directed?

Geronimi: One who worked pretty steady with me on the Plutos was Nick Nichols, who later directed Plutos. Norm Ferguson worked on a number of them, and Lounsbery.

Barrier:  Was Victory Through Air Power the first feature that you worked on?

Geronimi: No. I was originally on Snow White; I was in a lot of story meetings, and I had a little sequence that I was going to direct. It was cut out; the picture was running too long. Then I went out to shorts.

Barrier: Tell us what you remember about directing Education for Death (1943). We saw that last week at the Disney studio, and it's avery impressive picture.

Geronimi: I had the feeling that I was directing a live-action picture. It had that flavor. A very powerful picture. Chicken Little (1943) I enjoyed. On that, too, Kimball did some very nice animation.

Barrier: We've heard from a lot of people this week that Walt had a habit of putting people together, pairing people off against one another, because he thought friction was creative. Was it kind of that way with you and Kimball?

Geronimi: That's true. Kimball was a tough nut to handle and Walt figured I could handle him. It's a funny thing about [Art] Babbitt, too, when he came back to the studio, to prove to Walt that he could not be fired, due to the strike. Walt asked me if I'd take him, and I said okay. Of course, Babbitt didn't stay long; he just wanted to prove a point.  I always got along okay with Babbitt; he was a great animator.

Barrier: I want to go back and talk a bit more about your work on the early silent cartoons, when you were animating for Hearst and Bray.

Geronimi: I was never an animator for Hearst; I just did that one little scene, that train. I might have done other scenes, but nothing of any consequence that I can remember. It was at Bray, later on, that I did all animation.

Barrier: At Bray, when you were animating, what kind of guidelines did you have in the way of story or layout or anything of the kind that animators got later on at Disney's? What did you have to work with when you started animating a scene?

Geronimi: There were no storyboards in those days. We had just a typewritten sheet, with an outline of what we were going to do. Things were laid out very simply, because in those days we didn't have any elaborate backgrounds, or elaborate action, for that matter.

I remember when we were at 46th Street, and we were doing the "Unnatural History" [series for Bray]. Earl Hurd had a studio right across the street from us; he was doing some of the other series, too [for Bray]. Around two o'clock every afternoon, he'd come over and get Walter and myself, we'd go down and hit a couple of speakeasies; in the 40s [blocks], every door was a speakeasy then. Each one would buy a round of drinks, and come back to work again.That was a ritual, every day. Earl Hurd was a great pioneer and the new generation of animators owe him a great debt. He was a wonderful guy, miss him.

Barrier: After you started making the cartoons that  combined animation and live-action, like "Dinky Doodle" and  "Pete the Pup," you must have had to work out your stories a little more carefully in advance.

Geronimi: They were [more worked out], but all I can remember is that we had a typewritten scenario (if you could call it that), broken down into scenes. There was really nothing much to them. If we were doing a hunting picture, we'd just think of a series of gags about hunting. Most of the live-action business was worked out right on the set.

Barrier: After the scenario was written, then you'd go out and shoot the live action of Walter?

Geronimi: Yes, we'd shoot the live-action, and Jack Norling had perfected a system where he could enlarge the frames of the live-action film into 8xl0 photos developed in the same exposure (with peg holes). Of course, after the damned things were re-photographed with the animation cel over them, they were grainy as hell. You'd have to get an amber tint to try to kill some of the grain. Most of the films in Bray's library were grainy as hell, due to so many prints made over and over. Bray had the only permit to shoot footage at the Bronx zoo. Colonel Ditmars, who was the head of the Bronx zoo, was a friend of Bray's, and Bray was the only one who had access to the zoo, to shoot any of the animals. We went up there a number of times and shot footage in the snake house and with different animals in the zoo. We also used a lot of the library footage of animals from the zoo from Bray's library of films.

Gray: When you were in New York, working with Walter Lantz, were you using exposure sheets at that time?

Geronimi: Oh, yes.

Gray: Were they similar to the exposure sheets we use today?

Geronimi: No, they were a little different. We had to have sheets; but they weren't the same. They were very simple. Let's call it a guide sheet. If you wanted to repeat [a cycle], you couldn't do that just by putting a number on the bottom of [the drawings], you'd have to say you wanted to repeat that. If it was a walk, or a run, you'd have to tell [the cameraman] how many times you wanted to repeat it, for how many feet.

Gray: When you animated in New York, did you ink or render your own cel overlays? Did you do that as well as the drawing and inking on the paper?

Geronimi: No. I think that [the cel overlays] were our background and used for several scenes; maybe two or three other animators would use the same cel. I know that you had to try to keep the animation clear of [the cel overlay]; that's why the horizon line was always real high. And the cel backgrounds were very, very simple. [Geronimi inserted: "very complicated and hard to explain here."]

At the time we were at Bray's, Bray had this producer shooting live-action out here on the coast, Joe Rock; he was producing, actually, copies [Geronimi had originally said "steals"] of the popular comedies, like the "McDougall Alley Kids," a takeoff of the "Our Gang" kids. Joe would come to New York every now and then to confer with Bray, and when the cartoons started to slide, Bray was going to send both Walter and myself out to the coast with Joe Rock to do these comedies. In other words, we were going to go into live action. But then sound came in, and the whole thing just blew up. They stopped making those comedies.

Barrier: At Bray, when you were working with the combination of animation and live-action, your characters would be on cels, wouldn't they, over the photographs?

Geronimi: Yes. We had one about the Giant Killer, with Walter at his desk, and you could see the traffic down below of Times Square. The idea was that the giant in animation came down the vine and in the window of Walt's office, and started fighting with Walter. I did the part of the giant, fighting with Lantz, in  live-action. Then we animated over my live action, and the fight was very realistic.

[As Side Three began, Geronimi was describing the use of cut-outs in the Bray cartoons.] For an example, Walter would be in a car, racing along, and the car would go off a cliff and stop in mid-air. He'd look down, make a big take, turn the car around and head back to the cliff. We'd shoot Lantz on the ground , not necessarily with the car moving. Then we'd shoot a still of the cliff, and cut out  [the photographs of the car  in different positions], and paste them on cels, timing the cut-outs as you would animation. We developed some great effects that way, and not too expensive.

There was one we did where Walt was playing a cowboy. Ernie Corts found an an old narrow-gauge railroad up at Buckhill Falls, with an old, old water tower [that] hadn't been in use for years. Walt captures this villain, who had escaped from the wanted poster, and draws the bars over the villain on the poster. Walt starts walking down the track, and the guy comes to life on the poster; he pulls out a bullet, one of his teeth, puts it in his gun, and shoots the tower, releasing the spout. We had Frank Paiker on the blind side of the tower, to pull  the [water spout] down, [so that the water would hit Lantz]. Walt almost drowned. Paiker couldn't shut it off, it was so old and rusty. The water kept coming down, pinning Walt down. He couldn' t get out [from under the water], it was coming down so heavy. He really got a shower. It was a funny ending for the pic.

Gray: Wasn't it a lot more expensive to cut out these big photographs after they'd been blown up, rather than to just draw animation?

Geronimi: It wasn't too expensive. It was our only way to get wild, unusual action out of live action and using the animation formula. There was nothing too expensive about it.

Barrier: When, at Bray's, you were doing animation that wasn't combined with live action, would you do that on paper, with the cel overlays of the backgrounds?

Geronimi: No, we used painted backgrounds (black and white). We started to use the [cels for the character animation]. Sullivan started to go into cels, too, [when] I was there in 1928-29.

Barrier: When you first went to work for Disney, did you have any trouble adjusting your style of animation to the Disney style of animation?

Geronimi: Well, no. It was basically the same. After all, Disney learned his animation from us. Disney had the reputation of being a big studio, and I was a little nervous when I first went there, thinking everything had to be just right. I worked with Gillett, and Jackson, who were directing then. I don't know if Dave Hand came to Disney before I did. When we left New York, he was still at Bray's. [Hand started at Disney's in January 1930.]  I worked in gradually; I didn't get big scenes to do at first. Of course, the characters were different, and at Disney's they were going more for sweatboxing, and tests, which the other studios were not doing. All they did was flip. At Disney's, at least you could see your pencil animation in tests, and that was an advantage. I went with Disney in the latter part of '30. [A list of Disney personnel as of the summer of 1932 includes a notation that Geronimi started on August 28, 1931, but employment dates from that period in the studio's history are frequently unreliable.]

Barrier: How much pencil testing were they doing when you came there?

Geronimi: Everything was tested. You could test your scenes as many times as you wanted, which was a wonderful thing.

Barrier: We've heard that the directors at Disney's were really caught in the middle; you had to take flak from both sides.

Geronimi:  Walt used to play one against the other. He would tell an animator to watch the director, and the director to watch the animator. You know, the studio was his whole life. He used to go into the studio on weekends and go over the storyboards, or at night, if there was a story meeting the next day. You wonder sometimes if some of us weren't wise to how that man could be so sharp, and pinpoint everything. He was in there [after hours], studying the boards, and he'd get ideas of what to do.  They thought it was just impulse—genius.

Barrier: Pulling ideas out of the air.

Geronimi: Right. He was smart that way. Another thing that Walt did: you could bring up an idea with Walt, and he'd say, "Oh, I don't know." A week later, he'd come in, and he'd have the same idea. He was sharp, though, on story.

Barrier:  I guess you sat in on story conferences a lot when you were a director.

Geronimi: Oh, yes. On any sequence I directed, I would be in there several times on story. Then, when Walt thought the sequencewas ready to go, he'd say, "Okay, move it down to the director's music room." Lots of times, when [someone like] Bill Peet was on story, Walt would say, to me [in a confidential tone], "Move it down, Gerry, or he'll stay on it forever." Bill would say, "No, no, I'm not through, I'm going to make some changes." I'd say, "We've got to move it out. Walt's orders."  He'd argue with you, but we'd move it out.

I made some changes sometimes in dialogue that Walt wanted me to do, and when Bill Peet would hear about it, he'd come storming in to my room, right after lunch, after he'd had a few drinks, and cuss me out. I said, "I'm sorry, Bill, but Walt wanted me to change it. Get out of here, please." He was rough, but he was a good man—very clever.

Barrier: How much of a change could you make in a feature sequence, or a short, without getting Walt's approval? Would you have to get his approval for any changes that you made?

Sleeping Beauty

In this publicity photo for Sleeping Beauty (1959) that was used in the Bob Thomas book Walt Disney The Art of Animation, Geronimi poses as if he were directing the two actors who performed in live action as an aid to the animators. The other Disney staff members in the photo are (from left) Ernest Nordli, Don Griffith, Tom Codrick, Eric Larson, and McLaren Stewart.

Geronimi: You would have to have Walt's approval if you made any radical changes; but I don't think he worried too much about small changes. He expected you to make adjustments. On Sleeping Beauty (1959), I ran into a lot of arguments with Eyvind Earle on backgrounds.  Eyvind Earle kept telling me, "how much Walt loves my backgrounds." I said, "They're wonderful backgrounds, but some don't have the mood."  For example, the dungeon scene: he had it all bright and too much detail. I wanted more mood, dark dungeon effect. He lacked the mood in a lot of things. All that beautiful detail in the trees, the bark, and all that, that's all well and good, but who the hell's going to look at that?  The backgrounds became more important than the animation. He'd made them more like Christmas cards.

I was the supervising director on that picture. Eric Larson did the sequence where Sleeping Beauty meets the prince in the forest;  he was just new in directing.  A wonderful sequence, but it went into a lot of money—very costly. Then Walt put me in charge of the whole thing, as supervising director. Woolie Reitherman was on the picture, too; he did that fight at the end. Eric was a good man, and a good animator, but it was his first [directing] assignment, and he tried his damnedest to do a good job. He did a good job, but he spent too much time on it. When you were assigned a sequence, at the beginning,  on any of those features, you were bound to run into a lot of money, because [a lot of the work on pilot sequences] was always experimenting. The fellow who was on it always took the brunt of  it, because he was trying to get the characters set—it  was always expensive. His sequence always ran into money, and it was  always a little tough on him. After the picture got rolling, it was a lot better.

Barrier: When you were in charge of Sleeping Beauty, how did your duties differ then from when you were a sequence director?

Geronimi:  I had to work with all the sequences, and I would go in on the sweatboxing with the other directors, for their sequences. But it wasn't too much change from doing regular sequence directing. I was still doing my own sequences [in addition to supervising the picture as a whole]. I think Walt just wanted someone to oversee the whole picture, and tie it together. For instance, Ben Sharpsteen was a supervising director; but Ben,when he did that, was never directing any sequences. [He] acted more the associate producer.

When Ben was back in New York, at Hearst, he was never really one of the boys; he was a very quiet sort of fellow. He wasn't a rounder. In the old days, the people who went into animation were mostly newspaper cartoonists—that type. They were all jolly boys who liked to fool around. Mike Meyer...Milt Gross...all these guys loved fun.

Barrier: When you were handing out a scene to an animator at Disney's, would you be very detailed in your instructions, at the start, or would you wait until you had seen what they did, in their pencil tests?

Geronimi: We would go over the scenes on the board, all the business, but with some animators I would work out the exposure sheets in detail with both of us discussing the timing and building the gags, etc. (plussing it). That way we both more or less agreed on the footage and they couldn't go over the [allotted footage]. They couldn't make a scene twice as long, or even five or ten feet longer than it was. But we'd discuss the business, and even went through actions, right there. You'd jump around, stand on your head, and everything else. [Geronimi inserted this note: "With some animators I would prepare the exposure sheets ahead of time, then hand out."]

Then, of course, when the pencil test came into the sweatbox, that's when the hollering really started. Some of them would refuse to say they would change it, and I would say, "Well, if you don't want to change it, okay, leave it the way it is. We'll see what Walt says." What made it tough was this: Walt naturally praised those so-called Nine Old Men [his principal animators]—and they knew  it. They knew they were good, and they knew they had Walt' s backing. That made it tough on directors. Sometimes they [the Nine Old Men] held the upper hand.  But many a time, Walt would take your side, and say, "No, Gerry's right," or Jack's right, or Ham's right. After all, we were the ones who were close on the complete pix. Of course, the animators were in on the story meetings, too, and they had their own ideas, so you left it open, to give them a chance, too—you don't want to choke them and tie them  up. But the sweatbox was always a hassle, and sometimes it was just a matter of things not coming off [clearly enough].

Barrier: It sounds as if your criticisms would be about the same kind of criticisms that Walt would make—not technical criticisms, but criticisms of the acting.

Geronimi: That's right. When Walt saw [a running reel, evidently] at an ARI showing, he might have ideas, some changes he wanted made. When we made the shorts in the early days, we used to preview everything, and boy, that was really something. He'd come out of the theater, and you'd be standing in the theater lobby shaking. He'd say, "Well, I don't know...we didn't get enough laughs, did we? Maybe we ought to do some of that stuff over again." If the gags didn't go over, he'd be willing to spend money to do it over, do it better.

Barrier: Do you recall any examples of things he did over after a preview?

Geronimi: No, I don't recall anything specific; but I know that if anything really died, he'd want to do it over. Or if no, he'd say, "Next time be careful and do it right." That's why he previewed; he wanted to see what went and what didn't go. He wanted perfection.

Barrier: You started at Disney's as an animator. Did you have an assistant, or in-betweener, at that time?

Geronimi:   Yes; Larry Clemmons, Rex Cox, Ed Strickland. Even though I was working straight ahead, I still had an assistant to do some work. I still left some drawings. It wasn't like they worked later, where they would make just the extremes and let the assistants fill in [the in-betweens], as with personality type of animation, and dialogue. With action animation, it was pretty hard to do that. I used to leave some work, but not too much.

Barrier: Did you continue to animate straight ahead all the time you were an animator at Disney's?

Geronimi: No, but I wasn't animating too long; I went into direction pretty early.

Barrier: Later on, did you have more than one assistant?

Geronimi: Yes.. Later on, some of the animators had first and second assistants. When the Nine Old Men got going, it changed a lot from the early days. They even had third assistants.

Barrier: What year did you leave Disney's?

Geronimi:  [He indicated that he left after almost thirty years at the studio, because of] "a little disagreement  with Walt. I always liked him [Geronimi deleted, "and he always liked me"]; it was just one of those things. Walt lost a lot of good men that way.

[According to the Disney producer Harry Tytle, in his book One of "Walt's Boys," the "disagreement" occurred when Disney, Geronimi, and Tytle were all in Europe, looking after the shooting of various live-action films, most notably The Magnificent Rebel, a sentimentalized Beethoven biopic that eventally aired on Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color in 1962. Geronimi rebelled against this new arrangement and wanted to get back into animation, a practical impossibility at that stage in the Disney studio's life. So he quit, a decision he later tried to retract; Walt wouldn't let him do it. According to Rebecca Cline of the Walt Disney Archives, Geronimi resigned on October 24, 1959.]

Disney directors

Geronimi (left) shares a drink with two other long-tenured Disney directors, Jack Hannah (center) and Hamilton Luske, at a party at the Disney studio's Penthouse Club in the 1950s. Photo courtesy of Gerry Geronimi.

[Posted March 16, 2015; corrected, April 20, 2015]