|Jackson at work on an early Mickey Mouse cartoon, circa 1929. Courtesy of Wilfred Jackson.|
An interview by Michael Barrier, Milton Gray, and Bob Clampett
From MB: Wilfred Emmons Jackson (1906-1988) was one of the tiny handful of Walt Disney's employees who could say accurately that they were "present at the creation"—not of the studio itself, but of Mickey Mouse, the Silly Symphonies, and the films most distinctively and admirably "Disney": the great animated shorts and features of the 1930s and 1940s. He joined the Disney staff in 1928, just as the studio was losing much of its staff and its star character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, to Charles Mintz. Some of his first animation is in the first successful sound cartoon, Steamboat Willie (1928), and he directed the first Mickey Mouse cartoon in color, The Band Concert (1935). He directed sequences in many Disney features starting with the first, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).
Jackson was, by almost universal agreement among the people who worked alongside him, an exceptionally thorough and meticulous director, a master of preparation, who was at the same time considerate of the animators and other artists who worked on the cartoons he directed. His quiet intensity on the job probably contributed to the heart attack he suffered in 1953, when he was not yet fifty, and that knocked him out of directing part of Sleeping Beauty. He worked on the Disney TV show when he returned from an absence of almost a year, but he knew he could not survive the split-second decision-making that live-action TV shows required. In 1959 he began a two-year leave of absence that ended in his retirement.
Jackson and his wife, Jane, lived in retirement on Balboa Island, in Orange County south of Los Angeles, and it was there that I recorded both of my interviews with him, the first on December 2, 1973—the interview that follows here—and the second—which I'll post later—on November 5, 1976. Jackson was reluctant to be interviewed, and it was only through the intervention of Bob Clampett, the great Warner Bros. cartoon director, that the interview came to pass. I'm no longer sure how Clampett and Jackson knew each other, or how long they'd known each other, but they were in touch when I was preparing my interview with Carl Stalling for publication in Funnyworld No. 13 (1971), and ultimately Clampett persuaded Jackson to sit for an interview. Clampett took part in the interview and contributed materially to it. Regrettably, I seem to have no photographic record of that meeting of two great cartoon directors.
In interviews and letters, Jackson was as painstaking and careful to say what he meant as he had been when he was directing Disney cartoons. He returned the transcript of this interview to me with minimal changes, although he refined some of his answers in subsequent letters. His reference to Jackie Coogan near the start of the interview was probably a rare mistake—there was a silent version of Jack and the Beanstalk released in 1917, but its star was not Coogan, but Francis Carpenter. Also in that cast was a child actor whom Jackson later knew as an adult at the Disney studio: Joe Grant, the head of the model department. Grant and I talked about that very early phase of his career when I interviewed him in 1988; that interview is at this link.
The Jackson interview follows:
Jackson: I was born in Chicago, but we moved to Glendale, California, when I was real little, just six or seven years old, and so I really grew up in North Glendale. I went all the way through what school I had in Glendale, [and] graduated from Glendale High in 1924. [Bob Clampett mentioned seeing Jackson's drawings in the Glendale High yearbook when he was a child.] I was wanting to get into animation, more than anything else.
I don't know how young I was when my folks took me to a picture show in Los Angeles, and it was Jack and the Beanstalk with Jackie Coogan; he was just a little guy. They also had an animated cartoon; it was an Aesop' s Fable. Boy, I went through the roof, that was the most wonderful thing I'd ever seen. That was what I had to do, there was no question about it. We lived near the car tracks—the [Pacific Electric Railway] Red Cars—and the conductors would tear all the transfers off, and they'd have a little stub left, about oh, three-quarters of an inch thick and half an inch wide, with a rivet through the middle, or a staple. But the ends you could flip, and so you could make any kind of a little drawing there, and make it move. So I used to walk up and down the car tracks, finding the stubs where they'd thrown them, and make my animation on those.
In World War I, there was a lot about cooties, and so I invented my own comic strip, "The Adventures of Jim Cootie." He was just like a little stick figure, really, just a sort of an oval for a body, and a little round head, and stick arms and legs; but he was good to animate, because he was quick and easy to draw. So I had him doing whatever you could do by the time you flipped through the ends of one of those things.
The other thing I did was, all my textbooks, I put animation in the corners of them. You could flip the books, and that was better, because you get a good-sized history book, and you could do quite a bit there before you'd run out of pages. There was a price you had to pay for that. We didn't buy our books, we had to turn them in at the end of the year. If they were disfigured, you had to buy them. Well, I didn't have any money, so right while we were having our finals, I also had to stay up late erasing the corners of each page. I guess the hardest work I did in school was getting my textbooks back [in shape] so I could turn them in again. But I did do cartoons for the annual, and things like that.
After I got through high school, my folks didn't have much money, and my father wanted awfully much for me to go to college, but I couldn't see how that would help me get into animation. So he and I arrived at a compromise: if I would go to art school for two years, it would be something that he figured later on, when I went to college, I could get some benefit out of it. After high school, I spent a year working at odd jobs, mostly gardening, things like that, and got enough saved up so I could go to Otis Art Institute. It was county-supported, so the tuition didn't cost as much as fancy places [like Chouinard Art Institute].
I didn't really study the things I should have studied to get a good background in art. I tried to take things that I thought would be useful for cartooning, because it was the only thing I was interested in doing. I didn't really finish any course there, for the reason that I met my present wife there, and got kind of serious about getting married, and so I wanted to get a job where I could earn some money a little sooner. But at that time, as far as I knew, all the animation was done in the East, all the studios were in the East, and I didn't have the money to get myself there. I didn't know there was anybody on the West Coast that did animation. But while I was footin' around town, seeing if I could find work somewhere, I found out from one of the girls [at Otis] that she had a boyfriend who worked for a guy, right here in Los Angeles, who made animated cartoons. Through her, I found out who Walt was, and where he was on Hyperion.
I called up, and Walt answered the phone. I asked him if I could come talk to him, and he said I could. So I went out there with what samples I had, and showed them to him, and he quite honestly told me that I wasn't ready to go into anything like animation, that I needed more training, more background. My samples simply weren't good enough. So I said, "Fine; tell me what I should study so I can learn how to do animation. I'll go back to school and I'll take those courses, then I'll come back and see you." Walt said, "Well, there's no place that teaches you how to do animation. The only way to learn that is to get a job with a place where you can do it." I said, "Fine, then I'll come to work for you and I'll pay you tuition, like I do at the school." He said, "Well, I couldn't do that." I said, "Well, I'll come and I'll work for nothing." I guess he had some work to do and had to get me out of the office somehow, so he finally said, "Well, I'll tell you what, we'll let you come here for a week and see if you can do anything useful."
That was great. So I worked there for a week. John Lott was the colored janitor who worked there, and my first job was helping John Lott wash the cels so they could use them over again, and sort out the ones that were too scratched from the ones that could be used, and I believe before the end of the week they were letting me paint black spots on Oswald, too, on the cels. Anyway, I got to the point where I was painting cels, and at the end of the first week, Roy came around, and paid me eighteen bucks. That was a lot of money in those days, that was 1928. I was tickled to death—and he didn't say not to come back, so I came back the next week. And at the end of that week, I got paid again, and nobody said don't come back, so I came back the next week, and it went on that way for quite a long time.
It seemed like a real funny place to work. The little Hyperion studio was three rooms: there was Roy's office, and there was Walt's office, and there was a little hallway you could come in through, and then from there on back, it was like one room with dividers that went up about six feet. It divided off one room, the length of the place, that was where the inkers and painters were, with their desks, with racks to dry the cels on, and a long sink for John Lott and me to wash cels. Then the other part was divided into a little compartment with room for five desks, for the animators, and that left over a little cubbyhole for the camera, and for a background-painting and all-purpose room. But the whole thing was quite small. Out in back was the stage he used to shoot his ["Alice Comedies"]. The camera was a thing all made out of two-by-fours. The camera was mounted up above, and there was a bed down below with a platen on it, where you could put the cels in, and in those we registered the cels just with two pegs and two peg-holes. It was just a little piece of glass that you put down over it, and lifted up.
There was a great big fine invention that had just been made recently, and it consisted of a clutch on the camera and an electric motor, so that one man could operate the camera. Until just before I came, it took two people—one person to change the cels down below, and another person to sit up on top of the two-by-fours and turn the crank on the camera. I believe Ub Iwerks was the one who rigged up this terrific thing, where you could pull a little string—like pulling the chain on a toilet—and make the clutch engage the camera, and turn it over one time to shoot one frame. And so as a result, the animators always used to put down "1 T," or "2 T," or "6 T," or "8 T," or "16 T" in the lower left-hand corner of the piece of paper, and that meant "one turn" or "two turns" or "eight turns," and that would time it. No exposure sheet. The drawing would tell you how many times to crank the camera, so the animaors would time the thing as they animated.
Gray: Did you have more than one level of animation going in a scene?
Jackson: Yes, at that time they had four levels of cels, and a background.
Gray: Did they number the drawings in any other way, as well, to know what level to put them on?
Jackson: To the best of my recollection, it was pretty evident how to do it. At the time I was there, Roy Disney was doing the camera, but I think previously there was someone else who had done it, when there was a bigger crew. I'll get to the reduced crew in just a minute. I want to come back to the camera. I'm getting all out of sequence, but there was a real exciting scene got shot for the Plane Crazy picture, where the airplane went out of control, and it came spinning down to the earth. There was the view from the airplane, with the ground spinning and coming on up into the camera, just before the thing smacked. Shooting that scene took days and days and days, because the camera, of course, was mounted rigidly. So what they did was to sight through the camera, and determine the focus at various different levels, on this platen, and they started out with the thing down on the bed, and shot a frame. Then they put some little shims under it, some piece of pasteboard, and raised it up a fraction of an inch, and shot another frame, and turned it just a little bit. Then they put some thicker pieces of paper under it, and raised it up a little bit more, and turned it a little bit more, and shot another frame, and finally they got to the point where they had a couple of lathes under there, and then after a while they got a little three-quarters-of-an-inch board, and they'd put the papers on top of that, and they kept raising it up that way, gradually, and shooting a frame at a time, and sighting through the camera to be sure they had the thing in the right position. It was a pretty wobbly shot, but it was timed fast, and the fact that it didn't come up real steady didn't matter, because the plane was all out of control. I tell you, when we got that scene back from the laboratory and ran it, we almost wore the film out, admiring what we had done. I think it must have been three feet long, or two full seconds.
Gray: In a way, I'm surprised that they didn't take a piano stool that turns up.
Jackson: They'd have had to mount the camera on something else. Let me get back to when I first arrived there. I was helping John wash these cels, and that was done in the room where the inkers and painters were. There were a bunch of girls there, working on the cels. There was one fellow there, Paul Smith, who was an inker. He was right up at the end of the room where I was, and, pretending to work, I could look around and see him inking these things, and gee, it was swell the way he could trace this thing through with real facility. And I thought, boy, some day I'm going to be able to do that.
In the meantime, there was all this hubbub coming over the wall from where the animators were. These guys were laughing and joking all the time, and I thought, boy, how could they get any work done, they're having such a ball there. It seemed like school was out, or something. Then, when it got to be Saturday—we worked Saturday mornings—when it got to be Saturday quitting time, and everybody went out—I watched them go out, I wasn't going to be the first one to walk out—and when they went out, they were carrying the pads to their seats, and they were carrying all kinds of personal things. I thought, they don't trust each other, they don't leave anything that belongs to them here over the weekend, this is a real funny place. Then, the next week when I came back—they didn't say not to, so I came back to work—it was real quiet. Hardly any talking, or anything, and I wondered what it was; maybe they were getting busy, or something.
Later on, I found out that I hit Walt for a job at a great time. It was no wonder he was kind of reluctant to hire a green guy who was no use. He had just found out he'd lost his character, he'd lost his release, and most of his crew had been pirated. He had two or three Oswalds to finish up and get out, and after that, he was alone there wondering what to do. He didn't know if he had a studio or not. I happened to overlap Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising—oh, you know the group—Ham Hamilton. I happened to overlap them by one week. The next week, all that was left there, besides Walt and Roy, there was Ub Iwerks, and there was Les Clark, and there was Johnny Cannon. Then there was me, and there was the janitor, and Paul Smith stayed for a short time, but he left pretty soon. There were a couple of girls who stayed, Mary Tebb and Ruth somebody, whose name doesn't come to mind. But that's all there was left.
Clampett: The ink and paint department, at the time you're speaking about—was that where you could go and look in the window and watch them work?
Jackson: You sure could. The driveway went right beside it. So if you walked in the driveway, you were between a six-foot fence and the ink-and-paint room, and you could look in the win dow. And if you kept on going back, you'd come to where the little stage was where they used to shoot the Alices, and if you went a little farther back, you'd come to where the two stakes were, where we played horseshoes during our lunch hour. Then you came to the back fence, and that was it. That fence beside the driveway was a very fine thing, because it was made with upright boards, one-by-twelves, and every other one was a few inches higher than the other odd one, so you could spot boards pretty well. When I got to painting cels, the days seemed so long—it was pretty dull work. I didn't have a wrist watch, I had a pocket turnip, and I didn't like to take it out and look at it too often. I'd get to wondering what time it was. Well, I found out that by looking at my watch, and watching where the shadow of the building was on that fence, I could use it as a sort of sundial. After a little while, I got so I could tell what time it was without taking my turnip out, I could tell how much longer it'd be until quitting time. I had been active up to that point, and to sit still all day long, it was tough, it was like coming back to school after a summer vacation. You know how hard it is to sit still.
Barrier: When everybody left, you were advanced to in-betweener pretty quickly, weren't you?
Jackson: Yes: you see, I fell into a wonderful thing there, because there were so few people, and as the place expanded, there was nowhere to go but up. Walt was the kind of guy who didn't recognize that anybody couldn't do anything they wanted to do, and so he would put you in a place, and somehow he had a way of making you feel that you should be able to do it. I think the outstanding thing about Walt was his ability to make people feel that what he wanted done was a terribly important thing to get done. We all wanted so much to please him with what we did, and to get what he wanted, in the pictures. It just seemed like the most important thing in the world. He was a very inspiring guy. I guess probably he was the best salesman in the world. If he had an idea, he could just make it seem great.
The other thing about Walt was, he worked harder than any of the rest of us. He was never back there pushing, he was always out there in front, and you were running to keep up. But, there was nowhere to go but up, and the opportunity was there; it was just a matter of if you could do it. So it wasn't long before I got into in-betweening. Until that, though, I went through graduating from painting the black spots into painting the gray spots—it was all black and white—and the big thing was when I got so I could paint what they called "No. 3 Gray." When they mixed that, it had to be a very careful mix, and you had to keep mixing it, or it would come all apart on the cel, and go spotty. So, once you got to doing that, you were at the top of the painters.
Then, after that, I got into inking, but I didn't ever get to do any one job very well, because just when I was starting to learn how to do it, I'd get put into a better job, and advanced. When I got into in-betweening, the training I had consisted of Johnny Cannon saying, "Here, you sit next to me and I'll give you these two drawings, and what you do is, you count how many turns are missing in between. If you need three drawings, you make one that's halfway between the two extremes, then you make one that's halfway between the first extreme and that one, then one that's halfway between your first drawing and the next extreme. You make these drawings that way." It happened to be a character—probably Oswald—walking along. Ub had made one extreme where he was on the toe of the back foot and on the heel of the forward foot. And then the end of the next step was the next extreme, where it was the heel of the first foot and the toe of the other foot. So, following instructions, I didn't lift any feet, I just made my drawings halfway between. I did the whole thing that way, so instead of walking, Oswald was sliding his feet along. It took me so long to do that that Johnny Cannon had made all the in-betweens for all the rest of the whole scene that Ub had given him while I just did the ones for these five or six steps in the walk. I'd done exactly what I was told; nobody said anything about lifting feet. I didn't bother to find out what the character was doing, I just blithely did what I was told.
Then I got given another scene to do, to work on. Walt was the one who put the final timing on [the drawings]. I think I made a mistake when I said they didn't use an exposure sheet, I believe Walt did make out an exposure sheet. In any event, he reviewed the animator's timing, and then I think he did make out an exposure sheet, but I think the animators used the "l T" and the "2 T" and the "8 T" to indicate their idea of the timing, and then I think Walt went over it and made a sheet. So I do think the different levels were indicated on the exposure sheet.
Barrier: Walt would change the timing, then, if he disagreed with it?
Jackson: If he disagreed with it, he would change it. One of the desks was the desk that Walt used, and it was in back of mine, and over near the door to his office. He would sit there and flip the drawings, and then he'd get up and act out what was happening, and get the feel of it, and then he'd sit down and flip the drawings, and then he'd write down the timing. He got that scene that I'd done the in-betweens on, and so I was sweating it out there while the boss looked this over. He was flipping away on it, and working away, and I was pretending to work, but looking under my elbow as much as I could, to keep track of what he was doing.
Pretty soon I saw he'd come to the drawings I'd made. I did my best to look like I was working, and he flipped them, and after a while he said, "Hey, Ub, come here a minute." So Ub went over and looked over his shoulder, and Walt flipped the drawings, and said, "Ub, what did you have in mind here?" Ub said, "That isn't what I had in mind. Who made those in-betweens?" So I figured, well, this is the end of a nice career, and wondered what else I might do for a living.
Finally, Walt found out I made the in-betweens, and he was real nice about it, and he explained, "Look, you don't always make them just halfway between, you've got to find out what the action is, and what the animator has in mind. You have to use your head." So I got over the first big hurdle in my career there. I'll say this, I sure didn't miss the preview of that picture, because I wanted to see my work, and I took Janie, too, and I was all ready to nudge her with my elbow to tell her when my in-betweens were going to come on, but they went by so fast that I couldn't get the nudge in.
Barrier: Back when they were making silent cartoons, what kind of layouts, if any, would the animator get from Walt?
Jackson: The layout was really just an outline drawing, and my recollection begins at a time when Ub made the layouts. The first layouts that I saw, that I knew who made them, were made by Ub, and they were just outline drawings.
Barrier: Of the settings, or of the character as well?
Jackson: Both. It's my recollection it would be the character, in a characteristic pose, giving the size of the character—probably one pose—and a background.
Barrier: Did the animators do the backgrounds as well as the animation for their scenes?
Jackson: No, not at the time I was there. Earlier, I understand that they did. On a couple of the quite early pictures, I was allowed to do the backgrounds. I graduated from in-betweening into doing backgrounds, on a couple of the pictures. I did the backgrounds on Gallopin' Gaucho. Each scene would have just a line drawing, and then, whoever did the backgrounds would trace it onto the piece of cardboard, and then make a black-and-white tinted wash drawing of it. Right near the end of that, I was feeling quite proud of myself, doing such an important thing as making the backgrounds, when Roy Disney brought somebody through the studio, showing them around, explaining how the cartoons were made. He came to where I was making the backgrounds, and they looked over my shoulder as I nervously filled in a little wash in one corner of the thing and hoped I wouldn't wreck it. As they went out the door, I heard Roy say, "The backgrounds are the least important part of the picture. They're something that you hope shows where the character is, but you don't want 'em to get in the way. If you can see the background, the scene is no good, you should only be aware of the action." It didn't inflate my ego a great deal.
Barrier: It must have been just about this time that they decided to make Steamboat Willie in sound.
Jackson: Yes; two Mickeys were made before Steamboat Willie, Plane Crazy and Gallopin' Gaucho. I can recall the meeting, at either Walt's house or Roy's house, up at Lyric Avenue, in the evening, when Walt—we were having a gag meeting, on some picture, and Walt brought up the idea that it might be possible to make cartoons with sound. That was such an exciting thing to me that I couldn't sleep that night. I had a modest part in helping Walt work that thing out, in that Walt said, "I know how fast film goes, but I don't know how to tell how fast the sound is going to go—the music." Well, I am not a musician, but my mother was a piano teacher. She did her best to teach me piano, but I couldn't see that that was going to help me make animated cartoons, so I just didn't do any more than I couldn't get out of. But I did know what a metronome was, and how it worked. I brought my mother's metronome down to the studio the next day, and showed it to Walt, and showed him how you could set it to tick any number of times a minute you wanted—ninety times a minute, or a hundred and twenty times a minute, by the setting. That was the clue to the thing. He knew the sound film ran ninety feet a minute, so it was just mathematics to figure out how many frames it would be to a tick.
The other contribution I made was the invention of what was first called a "dope sheet," and was eventually called a bar sheet, which is nothing but a diagram to indicate the measures of music and the accompanying action, and where the scenes begin and where they end, so you could tell where to cut the individual scenes in against the soundtrack. That did enable Walt to work out a way that the cartoon could be pre-timed to a thing that could be scored. Due to my lack of musicianship, Carl Stalling had a kind of a rough time with the first ones. I thought I'd supplied him with a pretty good score, but I didn't know enough, and they really had to end up by doing the Steamboat Willie—even though it was planned, all the way through, very carefully, still, they didn't have a way of directing the orchestra to it. I hadn't gotten that far with it, so they had to record it, really, without too much benefit of the work I had done on it, just like they did the other two (Plane Crazy and Gallopin' Gaucho, which had not been pre-timed for sound), by running the picture and looking at it, and keeping up with it, with the orchestra.
Barrier: On these first pictures, didn't they use india ink on the frames—?
Jackson: I believe Carl worked that out, on those first ones, when he was in New York, recording them. I think he worked out some kind of a marking on the frames. But when he came out to the studio, and things were worked out a little bit better, they made a thing that was called a "beat." It was just a bar that extended from one side of the screen to the other, and it would go up and down. It would come down with a certain accent, like a [conductor] directing an orchestra with a wand. I guess Ub made them; he made some that were in 8s, and 10s, and 12s, and 16s. This beat could be projected for a section of the picture that would be in the rhythm of twelve frames to a beat, or sixteen frames to a beat. That could be projected on a screen, and the director of the orchestra could see that, and he could follow that to direct the orchestra, and they would follow him.
Barrier: So you devised the system for synchronizing the music and the action, but the actual markings on the film, and the bar lines, were not your invention.
Jackson: No, that was worked out by Carl, maybe by Ub. I'm sure Walt had his finger in it, he was in everything.
Barrier: Did the bar sheets come at the same time that you worked out the timing with the metronome?
Jackson: Yes; on Steamboat Willie, I had a little rudimentary bar sheet, for the entire picture, and in the places where we had definite pieces of music in mind, the name of the music was there, and the melody was crudely indicated, not with a staff, but just with a little note that would go higher and lower, and so forth, so that I could follow it, in my mind. This was what Carl Stalling saw when he told Walt, "This guy is not a musician, he's a fourflusher." I didn't really pass myself off as a musician; Walt kidded me about that afterwards.
Barrier: Of course, the sound effects for Steamboat Willie were another matter.
Jackson: The sound effects were planned, and they were indicated in these measures. Had we had the beat that we could project, for Carl to follow, had we worked that much of it out—which I didn't know enough to work out, I didn't foresee the difficulty in having to direct the orchestra. I figured if the music was there, they could play it. Had that been done, the sound effects could have been done by direction, and to the beat. They were placed so they could be put in a score. It could have been done all right, if that one thing had not been overlooked. It turned out the poor guys just had to look at the picture and try to hit something when the thing happened on the screen. So it wasn't quite as well planned as I had thought.
Barrier: Didn't you first run Steamboat Willie at the studio, and test the sound effects to see if they seemed to be coming from the drawings?
Jackson: Walt didn't know if people would believe that the character on the screen was making the noise. Nobody had ever seen a drawing make a noise, and there was no reason to be sure that the people would believe it. It might just look like some kind of a fake thing, and Walt wanted it to seem real, as if the noise was coming right from what the character was doing. So to find out whether the whole thing would be believable, and acceptable, when a few scenes had been animated—enough to make a little sequence that could be run—they set up this test. I was able to play a few simple tunes on a harmonica; that was the most of a musician anybody was at the studio, at that time. One of my favorite tunes was "Turkey in the Straw"; that's why it got used there. And "Steamboat Bill" was a tune that Walt had in mind, in connection with the making of the picture. So those two melodies were planned; any other music that was in there was provided by Carl as action music.
The first little sequence where the steamboat comes down the river, around the bend, and the captain's up there, and toots the whistle—that first little sequence of scenes was what we had made. While work was being done on the rest of the picture, Walt had these inked and painted and photographed and put together. We came back one night to try this thing out, and Ub rigged up a little microphone and speaker out of something or other that he took apart and put together. Walt's office had a glass window in the door, so we could close the door, and look through it, and see the back of the screen. The screen was a bedsheet that was hung up in this long room where the backgrounds were painted. Roy Disney got outside the building, with the projector, and projected in through the window, so the sound of the projector wouldn't be too loud. Some chairs were put there for the audience, of Walt's wife, and Roy's wife, and Ub's wife, and my sweetheart; I wasn't married yet then, but Janie was there. And Hazel Sewell. I don't know, just a few people like that.
Walt did the little falsetto voice for Mickey, when he did his little sounds, and Ub and Les Clark got old cigar boxes and—we had spittoons everywhere then, that made a wonderful gong, if you hit it with a pencil. Johnny Cannon was real good at making funny sound effects with his voice. He could make pops and clunks and funny noises. And I furnished the music, with my mouth organ. When Roy started the thing up, I knew how the music should be, and other fellows looked at the thing, and Walt made Mickey's little sounds when Mickey was there, and the other fellows hit things and made sound effects. We practiced with it several times, and Roy would rewind it and run it, and we got so we were hitting it off pretty well. And after one pretty good time through, we went out to see what the girls thought of it. We found that they weren't particularly impressed; they were all talking about sewing, and knitting, and the things that girls talk about. So we took turns going out there and looking at the thing ourselves, and when I went out, there wasn't any music, but gee, the noises and the voices seemed to come from it just fine. It was really pretty exciting, and it did prove to us that the sound coming from the drawing could be a convincing thing, so Walt went ahead and finished it.
Barrier: But you weren't present during the actual recording of the sound effects.
Jackson: No, that was done back in New York. Walt took the first three, I guess, Mickeys back there, to New York, and recorded them, and then walked the streets trying to get somebody interested in buying them.
Barrier: After Steamboat Willie, did you remain an in-betweener, or did you go into animation soon after that?
Jackson: The first animation scene I did, I believe, was on Steamboat Willie. It was a little scene where Minnie was running along the river bank, trying to catch up with the steamboat, or trying to get to the port before it would leave. She would run, then she would jump up in the air and say, "Yoo hoo," and then she'd run some more. It was a cycle, where I made two steps to make her run, and then came out of that into a little jump, and a "Yoo hoo," and then back down into the run again. That was my very first piece of animation; but mostly it was in-betweening. still, at that time. But I did gradually work into animation.
I did a couple of little simple scenes in The Skeleton Dance , too; that was our first Silly Symphony. It's my recollection that those Sillys came about—I don't know if I have this straight or not, but I have a very strong impression that in working on the Mickeys, Walt and Carl Stalling used to get at odd ends because Carl would have a piece of music, for a piece of action, and Walt would need a little bit more time, or a little bit less time, than Carl had in the music. Walt would want an extra measure put in there; Carl would say, "Well, that'll louse the music all up, it won't sound good." And so they'd go at it. A lot of us didn't stand up to Walt the way Carl Stalling did, but he wasn't particularly cowed by the boss, and they used to have some pretty good arguments.
It's my rather definite feeling that Walt said, "Look, Carl, why don't we do this: we'll make some cartoons that will be primarily musical, and in those, you make the music sound good, and we'll make the action fit it the best we can. But in these Mickeys, you make your music fit my actions." I believe there was a kind of meeting of the minds there: if Carl could have his way with the music on the Sillies, Walt could have his way with putting the extra measures in the Mickeys.
Barrier: It sounds like not just the beat but the music itself was pretty well planned in advance for the early Mickeys and Sillys.
Jackson: Very completely, very thoroughly planned. I'm not speaking of the first two or three, now, but after we hit our stride, and we're going along, the whole complete musical score for the picture was planned out, and the action was all planned out; it was all pre-timed. Then, if things didn't work out, there had to be changes and adjustments made. This method of working continued quite far on, as late as The Tortoise and the Hare  [and, actually, long after that, as Jackson clarified in a later letter]. We would have a complete score all planned, and the director would work with a musician, on a picture. Then, as we would sweat-box, and make our changes and alterations, it all had to be reconciled with the music. The musician was a strong member of the team in those days; the musician and the director, together, timed the picture.
Clampett: That's why the director's room was called "the music room."
Jackson: That's right, it was called "the music room," for that reason.
Barrier: Did this close collaboration between director and musician begin right after the first two or three Mickeys ?
Jackson: It began as soon as Carl Stalling joined Walt, and continued on from that time.
Barrier: Didn't you begin recording the soundtracks in California, after a time?
Jackson: Yes: as soon as possible. I think there were more than just the first three or four done back in New York, but as soon as possible, the recording was done out here. Bill Garity was brought out from the East; he understood about recording, and he had been associated with Pat Powers, if I'm not mistaken [Garity did in fact work for Powers before joining the Disney staff]. Somehow, the two of them go together in my mind, maybe just because they were both involved in the Mickeys, one way or another. In any event, Bill Garity seemed to be the one who knew how to get the recording situation set up, and to make it work. We used the Cinephone system of recording, and in that, the soundtrack was not a wiggily line, the soundtrack was a series of little horizontal bars across the track, and they were fatter, or thinner, and closer together or farther apart, according to the pitch of the sound and the quality of the sound. I don't think it gave anywhere near the good sound quality that other systems did, but it was what we first used. I was involved in one of the first readings of the sound track, and I believe it was in El Terrible Toreador . I believe that was the one where the little Minnie character got real excited and gave Mickey a bad time in Spanish.
Barrier: No, that was a Silly Symphony, with human characters.
Clampett: Did she bawl him out in Spanish? That would be The Cactus Kid .
Jackson: The Cactus Kid, right, the Toreador was too far back. To the best of my recollection, that was the first time that we had a soundtrack first, and the animation afterwards. In the early cartoons, you'll notice how stilted the dialogue is, and how it comes in short phrases.
Barrier: And the mouth movements are very exaggerated.
Jackson: Yes, that's true. We were so afraid that the sync wouldn't be there that we overdid it. Just a few syllables at a time could be spoken to the beat of the music, and the voices were done after the animation, at first. so that if it was in rhythm, you could speak it in rhythm, and speak it to the music, and if the animation was done to the beat of the music, the sync would be fairly good. This was only for a short time before we got into making readings and working with the soundtrack first. That's why everything was to the beat, at first; it was the only way we knew how to do it.
At first, we weren't able to record on more than one track and re-record tracks; as far as I know, nobody had thought of doing that. The whole thing had to be done at once, and it was quite a thing, when you had a recording session, to get the music and the voices and all the sound effects to be satisfactorily done in a little short section, and balanced, so that the one didn't overpower the other. When we got so we could record separate tracks and then re-record them together, that made things a lot easier.
Barrier: On the sound effects, you didn't have any actual sound-effects men at the beginning, did you?
Jackson: Professional musicians did the sound effects for the scores, right from the start. We only provided the sound effects on that little test thing. where we were trying the first few scenes of Steamboat Willie.
Barrier: But you went in on occasion and did the jewsharp, things like that?
Jackson: Yes, I played the harmonica on one or two little things; I played the jewsharp on quite a few. Nobody else they could get could play a jewsharp. They had to have a musician stand in for me, because of the union, so since he had to stand in, I had him turn the pages for me. Everybody got a big kick out of that. Here's a professional musician, who was making ten times as much as I was, turning the pages while I went clang-clang-clang on the jewsharp. Then some of the sound effects men got so they could make noises with the jewsharp, and eventually, Jimmy Macdonald got real good on it. I believe he was the one who did the talking kind of sounds with the jewsharp, mostly; he was the best one with that. As a matter of fact, the last I knew, out of their whole sound-effects department—I guess everything's different at the studio now, but the last I knew, they still had a big soundeffects department, with all kinds of different gadgets to make noises with, and they were all labeled "WD-10," "WD-400," "WD-10, 001B," and there was one that was named "WJ-1." That was for Wilfred Jackson, and that was my jewsharp, which I let the sound-effects department keep. The last I knew, it was still there. It was a real good one; I got it at Sears and Roebuck, over in Hollywood. They had a great big bin of them there, and it was a great big jewsharp. It made a fine, deep tone that the little ones wouldn't make. I sorted through the whole bin there for half an hour before I bought my particular jewsharp.
Gray: You said that after a certain point in the early Mickeys, Walt started recording here on the Coast, rather than in New York, and I was wondering if that may have been what got Walt started for a while in the business of doing sound recording for other people. He had a sound service for a while, didn't he? Did he bring out a rig for himself, and then also have a sound service for other people?
Jackson: I don't know that he did or he didn't. He did have two or three sound trucks, I know, eventually. But that would have been something that the sound department—in the early days, under Bill Garity—would have taken care of, and I suppose Roy Disney would have taken care of the contacts.
Everybody thinks of Walt Disney as one person; he was really two people, he was Walt Disney and Roy Disney. I don't think either could have done what was done without the other. I believe Roy had a very important part in the whole thing, because he was able to somehow or other to come up with the wherewithal to keep this place going. He also was able to moderate Walt' s desire for perfection to the point where it could be commercially possible, and just barely commercially possible, too. Walt wanted so badly for each thing he did to top each thing that he had done before, and he didn't ever want anything to look like a repeat of anything he had done. This made things more and more difficult, as time went on, because there's really only so much you can do with cartoons, and to keep trying to make each one better, and to make each one distinctive and different in itself, was quite a thing.
But Walt and Roy did one very smart thing, and that was, they tried not to ever make their pictures timely. They tried to make them timeless. They would try to make them classics, fairy tales, stories that had a general feeling of they would be good one time as well as another. This eventually came to be a very beneficial thing, because a picture could be re-run, and most of the pictures are as timely, and applicable, and believable, and understandable to today's audience as they were all those years ago. So, many of the pictures had to be re-released two times, or three times, before they ever cleared their original cost. But this is what I mean, the two brothers working together there, worked out things like this that made it possible to do some great things with animation that you just simply couldn't do if you were working on a one-time budget.
Then, this also made it a lot tougher in the later years, when Walt still wanted to top everything that was done, and the costs of animation and everything else had gone up so, he had to find other ways of bringing revenue in. There were periods of time there, in the later years, when the ones of us who were working on the cartoons were aware of the fact that poor Roy would have had a lot easier time of it if we weren't around there making cartoons, if he could just do the other things that were good business.
Barrier: I was thinking about the change, from the silent to the sound, just in timing of course, you mentioned that the animators essentially did their own timing for their scenes in the Oswalds. Then you go to the early Mickeys and Sillys, and the timing is laid down very precisely, and you have to animate to a beat, and this sort of thing. I would think this would have been a big change, psychologically, for animators to make. Was it easy, or difficult, or in between?
Jackson: It was not easy at all for them to make that change. The experienced animators were artists who were used to doing their own thing, in their own way, and they weren't the least bit used to having somebody tell them, you make your steps come every so many frames, you'll have your character do this at this particular time, and then that at that particular time. As a matter of fact, the animators and the directors used to have quite a time of it, sometimes.
Barrier: There'd be quarrels over timing?
Jackson: Yes, and clashes of personality, over the thing. From a director's point of view, it was not a simple thing to take a talented artist—who was good, and who knew it—and to somehow or other work with him and get a thing that would fit with what a musician could do, and would also be coordinated with what the other artists would do, so that there wouldn't be too much of a change of character, or timing, or feeling, from where one animator left off and another picked up on another scene, and at the same time, to try to get what Walt wanted on the screen, which wasn't always the easiest thing to understand, in the first place.
So it was a real complex job, it was a unique job. There were probably a half dozen of us in the world who had that particular job, because if you take Walt out of it, you've only got about half of the problem left. If you would be making your own picture, you could give and take for yourself but to be between Walt and the animators, and the musician, your own temperament —after all, we were people, and felt we had some ideas, too. It was kind of an in-between spot. It was a hot seat. My own contribution to Walt, and to the studio, really, I think in retrospect, was not so much that I was a great idea man, or had any particular talent or ability at direction, that sort of thing. I think I was fairly successful in understanding what Walt wanted, and I worked awfully hard trying to get that on the screen. It did something to me as an individual: I had to suppress myself quite a bit. And I came out the other end of it a little bit lost when I dissociated myself from the studio, because I had tried so hard, for so long, to get what Walt wanted on the screen.
The big trick was to know when Walt was just thinking out loud and when he was telling you what he wanted, because he'd say it the same way. You had to somehow or other divine whether he really wanted it the way he said to do it, or whether he was just trying out ideas. If he wanted it some certain way, he didn't want it any other way, no matter what. And if you got creative with an idea that he wanted, you just had to put it back like he said to have it in the first place, and you were in dutch. But on the other hand, if he was just thinking out loud, and you took him literally, you were in trouble, too; you were supposed to use good judgment and be creative about it.
So, in one way, Walt was a very inspiring person, a tremendously exciting person to be closely associated with, and in another way he was a very difficult person to work with. And for all that, he was the most wonderful, understanding person, and generous, in not being too rough if you made a bad mistake. He was just awful on little things that you'd do wrong, that would bother him. But I've made some big, healthy boners that cost him money, or put out a few duds for him, and he was awfully nice and gentle about that sort of thing. You could tell that wasn't what he wanted, and somehow or other, that was the part that hurt me the worst. When he'd claw me up and claw me down for some little thing, why, I'd get mad at him, and that would be all right. When he'd be kind of nice about it, when I knew I'd really come across with a boo-boo, those were the tough times.
Clampett: And when you really got a hit together, what was his reaction then?
Jackson: Oh, there were one or two when he came right out and complimented me. I can remember after The Country Cousin , after that was previewed, he said, "That's a good picture, Jack." I don't think I came down out of the clouds for a couple of years. He was very sparing with compliments. He had to be; think of the position Walt was in. Walt was a tremendously creative man, just full of terrific ideas, and when he got ideas, he visualized the whole thing, one hundred per cent. He didn't get lost in details, he could see the whole forest and he could see each individual tree, at the same time. He'd give you a little action of the Mouse, he'd describe something the Mouse should do, and you'd think you had the whole idea of what Mickey was supposed to do, and you'd show him the drawings, and he'd say, "No, Jack, we talked this all over, his tail shouldn't be back there, it should be up like this." In his mind, that was a picture just like that, and the fact that he didn't convey it, he didn't realize that. Walt wasn't real good with words, and it was not always easy to understand him.
Barrier: When you first became a director, did you have trouble distinguishing between his thinking out loud and his telling you what to do?
Jackson: I had trouble all the way through, all the time. I don't mean that I think I was real good at it, or that it was easy; I tried hard. I don't know if I wanted more than some of the other people to get what Walt wanted there. I was very willing to not do my thing, and to do his thing. if I could; I had such a respect for him. But I mean that I think [that] rather than all my ideas going into the thing being so great, I think it was his ideas that I was able to funnel into the thing—that was the contribution I made.
Barrier: Les Clark was talking yesterday about you as a director, and comparing you to another Disney director, and he said the distinction was—and I've heard this from other people who worked with you, like Dick Lundy—that you were extremely thorough in your preparation for a cartoon, and in discussing with the animators exactly what you wanted to get on the screen. Was this the way you saw your own work, and did you feel it was necessary to get Walt's ideas on the screen the way he wanted?
Jackson: I don't know; I guess we all just work our own way. I felt a responsibility for seeing that what I understood was wanted in the story, from Walt, got on the screen, and I worked awfully hard trying to get that exact thing on the screen. I did prepare very thoroughly; I used to work my dope sheets [bar sheets] out in much more detail than the other directors did. I worked long and hard with the musician to try to get a good coord ination between the action and the music, and to try to get the feeling of the music in the scenes. And I do know that some of the animators used to complain that I was a little bit fussy, and kind of inclined to push 'em around a little bit. Some of them didn't like it. I didn't mean to be pushy, I was just trying to get a certain thing on the screen if I could.
Barrier: That's interesting, because looking at your short cartoons from the thirties now, it seems like you're very considerate of the animation; your staging and all seems to be designed to show the animation to the best advantage.
Jackson: After all, the animators are very creative people, and it's really their scene, they're making the action, and they kind of don't like somebody else telling them to change it from what they've just done to something else when it looks good to them. And yet, it has to work with the rest of the picture. I can remember one of the big run-ins I had with Art Babbitt. Art was one of our very most talented animators, and one of our most headstrong animators, and one of the most difficult ones to deal with, and yet he was a man for whom I have tremendous respect. Art would be a little inclined to go ahead in his own way, and he'd make real good scenes, and he wouldn't always bother to match up with what the other animators were doing. Then it became a matter of, you had this terrific thing that Art had done, but it didn't fit with the rest of the picture, but you didn't want to change that [Babbitt's scene], so you'd have to get some other guy to make changes. Things like this would make trouble between animators and directors.
I remember one time Art Babbitt got real exasperated, and we were in sweatbox, and there were some things he just had to change, and he just didn't want to. Finally, I said, "Art, you've got to change them." He said, "I'm not going to." I said, "Well, then there's just one thing we can do. Why don't we get Walt in, and we'll let him decide this." And Art said, "Oh, I'll do it, but you know, you just simply aren't qualified to be a director, Jackson." I said, "Well, Art, you're probably right." He was right; I didn't have any background to be a director. I don't know writing, I don't know characterization, I'm no actor; I don't have those backgrounds. I said, "Well, Art, you're probably right, but since I am the director, what I say has to be done, whether it's right or not, so you've got to make the change." I don't know if I should have told you that: Art's such a wonderful guy. But the thing I was trying to bring out is, you work with these people—I worked with these people for whom I had so much respect for what they could do. They could do animation that I wouldn't be able to do, and yet I was in a position of having to tell them what changes to make. It was difficult.
Barrier: Being between Walt and people like that sounds extremely—
Jackson: Like a little guy in between two big guys going at it.
Clampett: As an aside, for a very short time Art Babbitt came over and did some animation for my unit at Warner's, when he was in between something. I gave him a sequence, and to verify what you said, in the sequence where he had all the scenes, he didn't hook up one scene to the other in a couple of instances, which astounded me at the time. You'd end a pose this way, and you'd cut to the next thing, and it's entirely different.
Jackson: And if you were directing it, you had to reconcile it somehow, unless you could think of something to cut in between. And if you did that, you had to cut part of his scene out, if it was working to a score, and that didn't soothe [him]. But the way Art would put you on the spot would be, he'd give you such a wonderful piece of action, you didn't like to change it; but you'd have to, to make it work, sometimes. There were others, too, like that, but that's just an example of what I meant when I said there was this clash between the directors and the animators.
Barrier: Now, when you took over direction of a cartoon, the story was finished...did Walt pop in and observe what was going on?
Jackson: Did Walt pop in! During the days when we were really having fun making pictures, Walt had his finger in everything. While Walt was really interested in the animation, he was right in on every detail of it. He would make the rounds, he would spend a good bit of his time going around, not only to the music rooms, but to the animators' rooms, and over to where the inking and painting was being done. He just kept his eye on everything.
Barrier: Would you ever find that he had told an animator to make changes without your knowing about it?
Jackson: No, I don't recall anything like that. Usually, it would be the other way around. He'd tell me to have the animator make some certain change. If I didn't get what he said right, and had the animator make some other change, it was difficult. Sometimes I didn't always understand; maybe I'm a little thick in the head, but sometimes I had trouble understanding, and I didn't always get the thing to his satisfaction. It worked more that way, although in the case of backgrounds, if he would see a background painter doing something that he thought ought to be different, he'd tell him.
Barrier: I believe it was Dick Lundy who said that Walt regarded the animator as king, and attached great importance to his animators.
Jackson: That's absolutely right. It's right two ways: it's correct and it's right that he should have done that, in my estimation. Because after all, what's on the screen is put there by the animator. The actual thing that's there on the screen is created by the animators. Walt was right in having that respect for the animators. The animators I worked with were getting better salaries than I was getting. So, I was telling these guys what to do, and it was kind of funny.
Barrier: You didn't have an actual unit of animators that you worked with consistently, on each picture, did you? Didn't Walt move animators around, from director to director?
Jackson: Yes, according to which ones would seem to be the best ones to do the picture, according to the nature of the picture, or according to who had run out of work recently and needed to be kept busy, just as a matter of keeping things rolling. No, I didn't have a consistent crew of animators.
Barrier: Of the animators you worked with, which ones, besides Art Babbitt, stick out in your mind as being people who had—
Jackson: I hate to make a list, because I'm going to leave out somebody. Out of the old-timers, one of the standouts, of course, is Bill Tytla, a real standout, but they were all terrific artists. And, of course, in the later days, there were ones like Milt Kahl. But there were others who, in their own field, were so good. You know, Walt built that place—there were a combination of things happened, among which was, the Depression came along, and here were all these wonderfully talented artists who couldn't find any way to make a living, and here was Walt, with this wonderful creative ability of his, needing men to get this stuff on the screen, and what a wonderful thing to be able to put together, for all parties concerned. So there was a collection of talent there, under that roof, that was—well, it was just a tremendous privilege to me to have been born at the right time, and to have fallen into it, to be able to be associated with all those wonderful people. I'll always be grateful for that.
Barrier: Getting back to the earliest days again, before you became a director, the impression I get from talking to people who worked in silent cartoons is that there wasn't really that much direction of them. Walt evidently did more in that respect than other people did, as far as putting together a story and instructing the animators. But I would think that when sound came in, the direction must have had a lot more emphasis put on it.
Jackson: I'm not a good person to answer that, because I was so low on the totem pole on the few silent cartoons that I worked on, that I didn't realize what happened at the top end of it. By the time I got to where I could see the real workings of the thing, sound was there.
Barrier: I understand that, but I would think that after sound came in, the nature of the direction must have changed. For example, when you were animating, and being directed by Walt, as time went by did you get more detailed instructions from him? Did what he told you, and the acting it out, and the story become more detailed, or did it not change that much while you were still animating?
|Jackson (top row, second from left) with Walt Disney and other members of the Disney staff in January 1930, shortly before Ub Iwerks (kneeling, left) and Carl Stalling (kneeling, right) left the studio to work for Pat Powers. In the second row with Jackson are, from left, Johnny Cannon, Les Clark, and Jack Cutting. For more photos taken that day, go to this Essay page.|
Jackson: My case was kind of peculiar in that respect, because I didn't spend enough time in animation. Walt moved me ahead, like I said before, Walt moved me ahead before I ever got so I really felt competent at one job, he'd move me up to another one. Like from painting to inking, from inking to in-betweening, from in-betweening to animation. Then, by the time I got into animation, Walt was bringing experienced animators from New York out here— Tom Palmer, Norm Ferguson, Jack King; Ben Sharpsteen was the first one to come out to the studio. Dave Hand...Burt Gillett...I probably missed a couple. But these were experienced animators, and pretty good artists, some of them, too. And here I was, as Walt had told me when he couldn't get me out of the office that day, I needed a better background, I needed more training before I would be ready to go into animation.
I didn't realize it, but I wasn't keeping up with the competition, with my animation. I really had a pretty good opinion of my animation, and thought it was all right, and I wanted to animate a whole picture myself. I thought that would be a great thing, to sit there and see the whole picture go by, and every scene in it would be my animation. I had this in the back of my mind for some time. Well, I used to come back at night a lot, and experiment, and shoot my own tests, things like that. Walt used to be back there at night; he was cutting films together, at first, and I used to help him a little bit, and hang around. I caught him in a real good mood one time, but I used the wrong word. I said, "Walt, sometime, if the circumstances would work out, I'd like to handle a whole picture myself." I meant "animate," but I used the word "handle." And he said, "Yeah, Jack, we'll see about that." I thought, well, I've fluffed that one. I thought I was getting the brushoff.
It wasn't much after that that Walt called me in his office, and he said, "Jack, the other day you said you wanted to do a picture yourself." And I said, "Yes, I sure would like to." He said, "Well, maybe we could try something out on that. I'm hiring a musician, I want to see if he can be any good. I'd like you to try to work out a picture with him." It was Frank Churchill he wanted to see if he would be any good. Walt said, "I've got a whole lot of scenes that have been cut out of other pictures. I want you to get these scenes out of the morgue, and sort through them, and see what you can use, what you can salvage out of this stuff, and see if you can put it together into a picture." Well, they were a whole bunch of different things out of different Mickeys—different little scenes—and the only way I could see to tie all this stuff together would be to have Mickey get shipwrecked. Then there would be all kinds of things, including a grand piano, that would be on a desert island, and Mickey would be there.
And so I tied some of these things together with some new action, and a way to use 'em, and got a story together for Walt to look at—made my little sketches of the thing. He came in with a few changes, and said, "Go ahead and time it with Churchill, see what you can come up with in a timing." After a certain amount of work, I got the thing okayed. Well, I wasn't really going to get to animate a whole picture, [since] about half of it was these cut-out scenes, but I figured a half a loaf is better than none. So, after Walt had okayed the thing, I went back to my room, and I started to animate. I was working on my first scene, and I heard Walt's cough coming down the hall—you know Walt's famous cough. Part of it I think was a real cough, and part of it I think was just plain consideration. Walt was a real kind man, and I think he liked to let us know. Anyway, there was that cough, and you'd always come to attention. I heard it, and I heard Walt' s footsteps go by: they stopped. And the footsteps came back, and he stuck his head around the door, and he said, "What are you doing, Jack?" I said, "I'm animating my picture, Walt." He said, "Oh, oh, yeah. By the way, so-and-so in [Burt] Gillett's unit is going to be out of work, can you give him a couple of scenes?" I said, "Well, yeah." And so I got whoever it was and gave him a couple of scenes.
One thing led to another, and different people kept running out of work, and I ended up by animating one scene in the picture. I had to hand out all but one scene, to keep Walt's animators busy from various other crews, and I was back in my room animating on my one scene, Walt came by again, and he said, "Jack, what are you doing?" I said, "Walt, I'm animating my scene." He said, "Well, have you thought anything about your next picture? You know, you're going to have a lot of men out of work." That was the first time I knew I was a director. So I spent the rest of my days at Disney's trying to keep one jump ahead of a bunch of hungry animators who needed scenes. At that time, in retrospect I can see that the high opinion I had of my ability as an animator was a little bit biased. Actually, I simply wasn't keeping up with the competition that Walt was bringing in from the East.
Barrier: In what ways?
Jackson: First of all, my draftsmanship wasn't good. Second, these men were experienced animators; they'd been animating for years. I was learning how. Walt had put me into it without a long apprenticeship of in-betweening. You spend years and years in-betweening, you pick up a lot of tricks of animation. Well, I was in the process of working it out in scenes while I was animating, as if nobody'd ever done it before. What Walt did—characteristic of him—instead of putting me back into in-betweening, he kicked me upstairs, and tried me out directing, to see if I could do that. This was the boss I worked for; he was such a wonderful guy. Anybody else would have canned you.
Barrier: Now, the first one you directed was, I guess, The Castaway . Dave Smith, in this list, has you directing two earlier pictures, Mickey's Follies and Midnight in a Toy Shop.
Jackson: Dave is mistaken. I did not direct either one. Mickey's Follies is either one of the last Walt directed or one the first Burt Gillett directed. I don't know about the Toy Shop. Ub Iwerks might have directed it if he had not yet left the studio when it was made. At about that time Burt was directing Mickeys and Ub did the Silly Symphonies.
[After a break] Walt would often move us ahead before we were really ready. That's one reason he was so continually disappointed in the results that some of us got. I don't think Walt had any idea what it was like to not be a real creative guy like he was. He probably couldn't understand why we couldn't do the things he could do. He just seemed to have confidence that if we put ourselves to it, we could do anything. And I think it helped a lot of us to do things we wouldn't have otherwise done.
Clampett: In other words, he wasn't knocking you down all the time.
Jackson: That's right, that's right. He didn't understand anybody sitting back, or dropping back. It was a matter of pushing forward, it was a matter of doing another one and better, and different, and another one better and different. You keep going up and up and up.
Barrier: We saw Father Noah's Ark  this week, and what amazes me is how you coordinated that colossal amount of movement you had on the screen at one time. It's such a change from the early Mickeys.
Jackson: We used to try to visualize it, ahead of time, as completely as possible. You mentioned the change from picture to picture—another thing about Walt always wanting to do better, Walt wanted the characters to be believable as individual beings, and he wanted the action to be believable. He wanted the whole thing to seem as real as it could seem. All of us kept studying, and trying to learn what we could. As you no doubt know, he had the school set up for us at night, with Don Graham and those different people, who would help us try to find out how things moved, what happened when they moved. We used to shoot action pictures, and study it. We used to act things out. Of course, as animators, we did the natural thing—we used to act things out, and see how it felt, and then try to make a drawing that looked like we felt when we did it. That was really the essence of trying to get action.
Walt used to act these things out in story meetings, and he was terrific. He'd come up with some gag, something that a bear would do, and he'd pull his shoulders up high, and tuck his neck in, and get his long legs out there and move around. You could picture a bear moving around there the way he would do it. Or he'd be the little rabbit talking up to somebody, and he'd look like a little guy with a long neck, and somehow or other, he could project the feeling of a thing by his actions, in a wonderful way.
Barrier: You've mentioned him wanting to make consistently better cartoons, and I think you've already answered a question I've had: did he have a clear idea from the beginning of what "better" meant? You've talked about believable characters and believable action; was this what he was stressing from the very beginning in animating and directing, or did he have a clear idea of what direction he wanted to take?
Jackson: The first thing I can remember that relates to that is, in the very, very early days—this was maybe working on our first one or two Mickeys—I recall Walt saying, "Some day I'm going to make a picture as good as an Aesop's Fable." At the time I first came there, the first couple of pictures that I worked on at all were the last Oswalds that Walt made, and as I remember them—I haven't seen an Oswald for years—the characterization was not anything like what came along later on. When Walt made Mickey, Mickey was a real definite character, and Walt knew exactly what kind of a little guy he was. As a matter of fact, Walt knew what he was in a way that nobody else did, and that's one reason nobody else could do Mickey's voice for such a long time. Anybody can make the little squeaky falsetto voice, and say the words, but they didn't get the character in it that Walt knew was there, because they didn't understand Mickey. I don't think I have any idea how far ahead Walt saw as to where he was going, and I don't think I really know what he meant by "better," except that it had to top the thing that came before, in some way. But to have the characters believable, to have the action seem real, to have the audience care what happened—I think that's what he meant.
Barrier: Of course, Mickey was drawn as a formula character. I've been told— think Ward Kimball told me this—that they would actually have three sizes of Mickey heads, the fifty-cent size, quarter size and dime size.
Jackson: Some of the animators did that; I don't think that was a general practice for any very long time.
Barrier: But Mickey was a formula character, just like many other cartoon characters, and the striking thing about Disney in the thirties is how you slowly got away from the formula drawing.
Jackson: When I first came in the cartoon business, they were black and whites, projection was not good, resolution of the image on film was not good, the actual grain of the film—they were grainy; a lot of movie houses would have a pretty weak bulb in a projector. You remember how in the old pictures the actors and actresses used to have to use terrific makeup? A white face, black makeup on the eyes, lipstick? This is so you could read them on the screen. Cartoons had the same difficulty: they had to be drawn very simply, very crudely, very boldly. Any subtlety was just simply lost. As the technical ability of the image to be projected to the audience improved, you could get more subtlety in your drawing, in your rendering of the thing—all this had part to do with it.
Another thing that's involved there is, each character in a picture—since no one animator did a picture, no one animator would usually even do one character all the way through a picture, you had to have a model sheet for them to follow. Well, in order for the thing to come out so the character didn't change too much from one part of the picture to another, it had to be a model that several different animators could follow successfully. All the men did not have the same ability as draftsmen as all the rest of the men. So, in the beginning, when I was at the Disney studio, the artists were not as good draftsmen as some of the men who came along later. Now, you take your Milt Kahls and your Marc Davises and your Eric Larsons and your Ward Kimballs—I'm missing some, I shouldn't name people, there's a lot more of them there that are right in that same class. These artists were terrific draftsmen. As they began to be assimilated into the studio, and as they began to move up from in-betweening into animation, there was so much greater capability there, that you could begin to see things happening. This was a continual growth, and Walt was after all of us to grow individually, too. We'd go to school at night, and study whatever our particular thing was, and try to learn how to do it better. Every picture we made, we previewed it, and Walt went to the previews, and afterwards there was a session, and our shortcomings would be brought up, rather clearly. And we'd try to do better next time. So this change that you speak of was a matter of growth from several different points of view. And, as I mentioned earlier, there was the coincidence of the Depression coming along, and the wonderful talent that was available, that was hungry, that needed any kind of a job. So Walt gradually acquired more and more people, with real tremendous talent.
Barrier: Did he actively seek people who were better draftsmen? Of course, some of them applied, as you said, because they needed work...was it a matter of him seeking out their talents, or taking advantage of their talents once they became members of the studio?
Jackson: I think it was both. Plenty of them looked him up, there's no question about that. But there was a time, when he was getting into the feature pictures, when he needed to expand his studio, when he did have a talent search, I know.
Clampett: Instead of going into animation, I was supposed to go to King Features, down at the Examiner office, and Webb Smith, and Charles Philippi, and his wife, Flora, they were all there on the Examiner art staff. When I went to animation, everybody said, that's ridiculous, you can get more at the Hearst thing. Shortly after that, these people who had been there for some time were let [out], and ended up at Disney's, Webb Smith in your story department, Philippi [in layout]. Just as an example of people who were supposedly well established in another field, and suddenly the whole department was closed down, and that's when they went [to Disney's ].
Jackson: Charlie Philippi was one of the first real good ones to specialize in layout. I remember Walt teamed him up with Burt Gillett, and the two of them began to turn out some stunning things. Charlie Philippi laid out our first color [cartoon], Flowers and Trees. I directed the first color Mickey, The Band Concert; that was a fun picture.
Barrier: I wanted to ask you about the development of the story department. You mentioned, of course, that in the early days of the studio everyone would come to a gag meeting at night. Would Walt have worked up a story line before then, and everybody would be asked to gag it?
Jackson: At the very first, of my experience at the studio, we would all come at a night and have a gag meeting. Usually, there would be a story line or a situation presented for us to gag. Sometimes it would be even before that, it would be, "What do you suppose it would be good to make a picture about?" We'd all pitch our ideas in. Then, at that time, Walt would take whatever he had gotten from us, add the rest himself, and come up with the story line and the synopsis, and break it down into scenes to hand out. As time went on, specialization came in. Some fellows who were outstanding in contributing ideas—people who were better with the ideas than they were with the animation, or something like that—would be encouraged to go into the story department. As it developed, some people were pulled into the story department who were not even animators, just good idea men. It was a gradual growth; as the studio grew, it became departmentalized, and more complex.
Clampett: Even after you had your story department started, didn't Walt still ask everybody in the studio to turn in an idea if they had one on a picture?
Jackson: Oh, yes.
Clampett: And that was always kind of exciting, where you felt, well, any new kid has a chance to give an idea that could be in the picture.
Jackson: Absolutely right.
[After a break] Barrier: We saw The Karnival Kid the other morning, and Mickey's voice is quite a bit different than the later voice, much deeper and more guttural. Did Walt do the voice from the beginning?
Jackson: Yes, in the very beginning Walt did the Mickey voice, and for many years he continued to do the Mickey voice most of the time. Eventually, Jimmy Macdonald got pretty good at the Mickey, but even so, on certain occasions Walt would come in—oh, even after we moved over to Burbank, once or twice, Walt would get in on a Mickey picture where the characterization was such that somebody else didn't quite get it. I don't know who else besides Jimmy did the Mickey voice ever; some others may have. But Walt did it, mostly. I don't think it was that he enjoyed doing it so much—I think he'd have loved it if somebody else would have come along and done it for him—but nobody else got the character right.
Barrier: When you were directing, and the story department had developed, to what extent would you work with the story department on the cartoons that you directed? Did you come in late, after they'd worked on the story pretty thoroughly, or...
Jackson: It would not always be the same: but after there was a story department as such, for the most part the story would be fairly well along before I would get in on it, up to the point where Walt had already accepted the story line and a good bit of the continuity of it. Then, as a general rule, I'd find that I would be assigned to some story that was coming up, and I would then begin to work with the story men. I would just simply spend part of my time each day going in with them, contributing what ideas I could think of, checking on what they had done, giving opinions on it, sort of halfway directing the story, halfway con tributing, and largely being entertained by all these wonderful guys and all the crazy things they could think of.
Barrier: Did you have any choice as to which stories you wanted to do? Could you reject a story if you thought it wasn't going to be suited to you? Or was it strictly out of your hands?
Jackson: One of the things that none of us—none of us mice—ever did successfully was to tell Walt how to run his studio. We worked on the things he assigned us. You could make suggestions, but you didn't tell him what you wanted him to do. Now, if I would have come up with some real good idea for a story myself, and said, "Hey, Walt, how would it be if we made thus-and-so into a story," I wouldn't doubt but what I would have been allowed to go ahead with it. But I was kept so doggoned busy trying to get what Walt wanted in the stories that I got, and keep up with the schedule, and try to keep somehow within some kind of a budget, and still make the changes that Walt wanted, that really, I didn't get that far ahead of the game.
Barrier: Speaking of budgets, did you feel a budget pinch when you were directing cartoons in the thirties?
Jackson: There wasn't any picture I made where I didn't feel a budget pinch and a deadline pinch. The reason was, no matter what you did, Walt could always think of a way it could be done better. I always wanted it to be as good as it could be; a different twist, a different idea'd come along, and I'd want to get it in there. We could have kept on remaking any one of those pictures, I guess, until today, and, I wouldn't doubt, maybe improving it. So there always was a pinch, there never was a time when we could really feel satisfied with what we were doing. Finally, you just had to face up to reality, and get the thing out.
Barrier: Did Disney have firm footage requirements for his animators at any time in the thirties, or was it always kind of a loose thing?
Jackson: I don't recall such a thing, but if it did go into effect, it would have been after I was not in animation personally.
Barrier: But you were not required to make the animators produce so much a week.
Jackson: I was not, as a director, no. Really, my direction there was much more as a director, specialized, than as a directorproducer. In most of the other studios—I think Bob will bear me out on this—a director was as much of a producer as he was a director, and I think was more responsible for the whole run of the thing. Isn't that more or less—?
Clampett: It was at Warners, yeah.
Jackson: During the years that you're interested in right now, Walt was so closely involved in the cartoons himself that the producer, as such, was Walt, and the director was more somebody who had the responsibility of taking what was agreed on, as the story, and making it into film.
Gray: Would you say that in a sense a drector at Disney's at that time was sort of a glorified production manager?
Jackson: Not that at all. We did have production managers, who did that part of it. No, the director was responsible for seeing to it that the various different artists' work was coordinated in such a way that the agreed-on story and continuity came out in a workmanlike manner as a picture. [lt was] not a matter of just seeing that so many dollars bought so much animation.
Gray: I guess I used the wrong word. I think what I really meant was, what degree of creativity was a director at Disney's at that time allowed? Was it pretty set, the kind of scenes he could put through, or could he add a little...choice of camera angles or whatever it may be.
Jackson: The director was allowed a great deal of leeway in the manner in which the thing was presented on the screen. But this was all done in agreement, through a series of meetings. Walt kept a very close hand on the things you're still speaking of in the thirties, now. Walt was very close to all this. Let me put it this way: the usual thing would be, I'd find out I would have a certain story assigned as my next picture. So I'd start working with the story men. From time to time, we would have meetings with Walt, and he would okay progress up to a point; he would ask for certain changes.
Finally, it would get to the point where either it looked good enough to Walt or the schedule said it had to go into work, and it would move into the music room, which was the room shared by the director, the assistant director, the musician, and the layout man. The layout man and the director would get together on how the picture was actually to look, breaking it down into scenes—the technicality of getting it into work. Breaking it down into scenes, developing the styling of it. The director would work out—in connection with the layout man—the camera angles, the scene cuts, where you have a closeup, where you have a long shot, that sort of thing. Breaking the whole thing down that way. With another bunch of sketches, we would remake the whole, complete storyboard. This was for the shorts, they were done this carefully. Walt would see this storyboard of layout man's sketches, which would depict the thing, not in the way that the story men did—it wouldn't depict all the gags—but it would depict all the scenes. So that Walt would see what camera angles we had in mind, and he would make his suggestions, and we'd get them, and work them out. Or he'd simply say, "I don't like the way it looks, do something else," and we'd try to do better.
Gray: You were definitely directing, then, coming up with the ideas, but under Walt's very close supervision.
Jackson: During the thirties, yes, very definitely so. Later on, when he got a lot of other things he was interested in, it was a different ball game. We did a lot more of it ourselves. But at the time you're talking about, in the thirties, Walt kept a very close hand on it. At the same time, the director was working with the musician, and working out a complete scoring of the thing. Before it ever went into work, Walt would come in, the director would stand up there, with a pointer, you'd have your storyboard, the musician would play the complete score, the director would speak the dialogue and point to the drawings, and show Walt the whole doggoned picture. We got pretty good at this; it was almost as good as seeing a picture on the screen, because you could visualize the thing very clearly. It's the way that you would sell the picture to Walt.
I'm going to jump now beyond the thirties—this developed into a thing where, sometimes before especially a sequence in a feature cartoon would go into work, the whole story department and the rest of the directors, and anybody who might have a good critical opinion of the thing, would come in, and before you got your sequence into work, you'd be out there with a pointer, pointing to this board, to a soundtrack, preliminary soundtrack, with the production dialogue on it, and, if music was important, a little piano track in there. You would sell that thing all over again, by pointing, drawing by drawing, so that they could see almost what was going to be on the screen eventually. This sounds like quite a bit to go through, but it was an effort to be sure what was going to be on the screen was going to justify what was going to be spent on it, because it costs a lot of money to get all those drawings made. If you make a hundred extra drawings, and you've got to throw them away, it costs just as much as if you were going to use them. So it was very important to be sure that a lot of extra business wasn't in there that wasn't going to pay off.
In this way, the director did a lot of creative work before it ever got to an animator's desk. The animators would be in on these meetings, too, as you got closer to production: they would put their ideas in, also, sometimes before they knew which scenes they were going to get. But they would be the crew that was going to be on it, and their ideas would be good, and they would be absorbed and worked into it. But the thing was pretty well set before it ever went to the animators—I'm now back into the thirties, the time you speak of. Then, when the animator came in, if an animator would have a sequence of scenes, usually the director—I would, anyway—go over with the animator, before I made the timing, and discuss the thing with him, the layouts, and get his ideas on it. If things in it didn't seem to suit him too well, we'd try to work his ideas, and his feeling of presentation into it, to the extent that it seemed compatible with what I understood was wanted. So it was give and take, every step of the way.
It was one long creative process, to try to keep the whole original thrust of the thing, to try to improve every part of it, to try to take advantage of all these ideas from all this terrific talent that was coming in. But it was up to the director to coordinate all this. Now, any good ideas I had that were acceptable to the rest of them, I put in. If I had some great idea nobody liked, I wouldn't put it in. So it was not a case of a director getting up there and thinking, I'm God, I'll make this picture some particular way. It was a matter of give and take, and working with these people, and trying to take advantage of all this wonderful creative talent. So, by the time an animator would get a scene down to his room, and start working on it, it was pretty well agreed on what would happen, how it would happen, and the animator had been in on it, so he understood.
Usually, my practice in those days—I would already have timed the whole thing with the musician—but my practice in those days usually was to make out the exposure sheets just roughly, then to get the animator in and go over the sheets with him, and at that point, he and I would agree definitely on every move in the thing, every gesture in the thing. Quite often, he'd make sketches of what he'd see, and I'd make my crude drawings of what I thought instead, and he'd laugh at those.
[After a break] Clampett: [The relationship between Walt and Jackson] sounds very similar the way a director at Fox would work, like John Ford would work with Zanuck. Zanuck would set a story, develop the screenplay, assign it to John Ford, and then John Ford would make the film. Ford's work is considered very creative, even though he was handed a story, and Zanuck looked over his shoulder in certain respects. So, in some respects, I think you can consider a Jackson picture in the same context.
Jackson: It's an odd kind of creativity. It's not the kind of thing where I do the whole thing, and when I'm through it's my picture. I always did feel they were my pictures, but it was not a one-man operation, I'll tell you that. And as good as Walt was, and as insistent as he was on his own ideas when he had some specific thing he wanted, it still was not a one-man operation, by any means. Walt made every use he could of all the talent he could get hold of. One of the things I remember about Walt, right from the early days, right on through, was the way he would work his ideas out, try them out on anybody and everybody—the gardener, the janitor, some big shot who came to visit him—anybody he'd run into, he'd go over these ideas, he'd get what he could from you, he'd feel them out, he'd try it out and see what your reaction was, see if it was getting across, he'd try to tell it in such a way that he'd get the right punch on it, in an effort to see how to put it on the screen that way.
Barrier: You've discussed the thorough preparation that went into the shorts, and later into the sequences in the features: yet your first direction was on a cartoon made up of sequences cut from earlier Mickey shorts, and Walt was famous for dropping sequences from his features. Despite all the preparation, it seems there was never any point when you could say that something was definitely going to be in the picture.
Jackson: No, that's right: it was creative right up to the point of the final release.
Barrier: There was always time to change your mind until it was in the can.
Jackson: Yes, and the last way you could change your mind was to cut bits and pieces out, to try to improve the timing.
Barrier: I'd never heard before, until you mentioned it, that Walt would cut sequences even from the early Mickeys.
Jackson: Back in the silent days, Walt used to make his animation pictures much longer than the release, because once you had a bunch of drawings made, you could photograph those this way, that way and the other way. You could take a cycle and repeat it any number of times you wanted, you could take a scene and cut it in any number of times you wanted, so that Walt used to do a great deal of experimenting in the silent days, seeing how much he could do with how few scenes of animation. So, he would photograph and put together a thing much longer than it would come out. Then he would edit it, which is more nearly the way you work with a live-action picture. If you've got a set and it's all lighted, and you've got a bunch of actors there, it doesn't cost much more to let the scene run a minute or two longer, and then cut it out if you don't want it. If you get something real good, you've got something real good. But with a cartoon, you make all those extra drawings in a long shot, and you make the same extra drawings in a closeup, you've paid for it twice.
Clampett: Some of the early vaudeville pictures, with Mickey on the stage, almost look like some act from some other picture had been put in there, where there's a combination of vaudeville acts.
Jackson: I don't recall that sort of thing being done too much, in the twenties and thirties. Really, the business of my putting these cuts together in the first picture, I think the reason he was using the out-takes in The Castaway, I think, was because he didn't know what I could come up with as a director, what Frank could come up with as a musician, and he didn't want to gamble too much money on it. I can remember, not one of the great high moments of my life was after the preview of that picture. We previewed all our pictures, and when The Castaway was previewed, boy, I was right there. It just wasn't quite the greatest picture that had ever been made, and I wasn't too sure what the scuttlebutt would be outside the theater; afterwards, we all would come outside there and discuss the thing. So I came out, and out there in the lobby was Walt, and he had his coat way up around his ears, and his hat way down over his eyes, and he was standing there like a wet bird. Roy was there talking to him, looking real serious, and as I got within earshot, Roy was saying, "But Walt, it just doesn't look like a Walt Disney picture." So I just kept right on walking.
Barrier: We noticed a number of cartoons from the early thirties didn't look like "Walt Disney pictures," but had a New York look. Obviously, the influence of the New York animators was being felt. All the characters have a New York look, with pop eyes and these bulbous noses.
Jackson: Yes, they had a certain way of drawing; they had a hard time adapting it to the style that Ub had set. I remember the first one that came out was Ben Sharpsteen; he was the first one from New York. And we heard—Ub, Johnny Cannon, Les, me, the crew—we heard that some real animators were going to be brought out from New York, and we were kind of thinking about this. The first one that arrived was Ben Sharpsteen. Ben had worked most recently, I think, on the clown pictures, "Out of the Inkwell." He came in, and was given his place to work, and given a scene to do, and he spent the whole morning working on it. We were real curious to see what he had done, and so when lunchtime came, none of us wanted to go to lunch, we wanted to see what he'd done. And Ben was a new guy there, he didn't want to be the first guy to go to lunch. So we were all there working, twenty minutes after our lunch hour, before Ben finally said, "Hey, don't you guys ever go to lunch around here?" And we all pretended, "Oh my goodness, yes, it's lunch time, "and Ben went out, and so we all went over to Ben's desk to see what he had done. Ub took the drawings and flipped them, and we all stood respectfully back to see what Ub's opinion would be. After he flipped them, Ub said, "Huh! They look just like the clown." Ben did draw Mickey with funny little eyes that were like the clown, and a kind of a pinched little nose, at first. He had a lot of difficulty adapting the style he'd been working in to Ub's particular round, flowing style. The other fellows did, too. I remember Jack King used to have an awful time getting his Mickeys to conform. Yes, you're right; the characters took on kind of an odd look for a while, but it pulled into line. They got with it.
Clampett: Wilfred is talking about flipping someone else's drawings and there are so many stories given out about Walt going around after hours, and flipping everybody's scenes.
Jackson: Yeah, and don't you think he didn't!
Clampett: They always interpret it as if he was spying on the employees. I always felt that it was a little more being anxious to see what had developed that day.
Jackson: You bet that was it. You bet that was it. Walt was just real interested in everything about the thing. Walt was not a guy to spy on people, not a guy to be little about things. I'll tell you a thing about Walt; this is in line with that. This is very much in Walt' s character. This was during the early days. We used to horse around, and kid around a lot; we were a bunch of youngsters. We used to always be pulling pranks on each other. We got some work done, too, but there was a lot of horseplay went on. There was one time when there was some real hilarious thing happened—I have no idea what it was, it was just the little group in that Hyperion first little front building—and the whole thing got over with, and we were all sitting down and getting back to work, and there was this great big burst of laughter at the final payoff on this prank we played on somebody—we all sat down and got to work just as Walt, by coincidence, walked in. Walt gave us the devil; he said, "Look, I am not a slave driver, I don't care if you have a little fun once in a while, and if you're having a little fun, and I happen to walk in, I don't want you to stop having fun just because I walk in."
But that was one thing that he was not, he was not a small snooper, going around checking up on people. He was just real interested in getting a fine result on the screen, and he was really interested, as you say, in what was developed during the day, when he'd come around and look at the drawings. And he was also keeping a close check on things, and seeing if there was something going a little bit astray, and heading it off before it'd go too long. You catch a man a quarter of the way through animating a scene, if he's got the wrong idea and it's not going to work out, if you can head him off then, you've saved yourself a pocket full of money.
Barrier: Getting back to your own direction, I was thinking, just now, about what you did to get across your idea of a scene to an animator, besides describing the scene, showing him the drawings, acting it out.to what extent in the thirties, on the shorts, did you use live-action footage for an action?
Jackson: On my own pictures, I don't recall any, excepting such things as this: not for specific scenes, not for specific actions. If we would be making a picture like Mother Goose Goes Hollywood, where we're having caricatures of actors, naturally we would get hold of pictures that those actors were in and study them like the dickens, so as to get not only the appearance of the person, to caricature the looks of them, but to caricature the way they acted, the kind of expressions they had, too. Also, action in general, all kinds of action—we were all of us, but especially the animators, going a couple of nights a week to classes in action. Live action would be studied, models would be studied. Sometimes we would study each other—doing things, moving, how did we move?
One picture I recall—Peculiar Penguins —that I directed because the penguin is kind of an odd little creature that none of us have a lot of experience with, we did get a man who had three, I believe—anyway, a small number of penguins, in Hollywood, and he brought them over one evening to the sound stage. All the animators and story men that were going to be on the picture were present, and I was, and we also shot some action of the penguins. Mostly, we watched them, but we did shoot some action of them, to try to catch how it was they walked, that funny wobbly walk that they do. So to a certain extent that was done, when we would run into some particularly unusual thing, of that sort. For the most part, the thing that was desired in a scene was worked out with the animator, as a result of the story drawings, as a result of acting the thing out, getting up and going through the actions yourself, or him doing it. Or, the animator would make little sketches, I'd make little sketches—ways like that.
Barrier: Of course, you were still dealing with cartoon characters then; I guess the use of live-action footage wasn't really necessary at that point.
Jackson: Not so much. But even with the human characters, I don't recall, on the shorts during the thirties, much if any live-action being shot, for specific scenes.
Gray: A story I heard about Fred Moore, sort of third hand, is that when Fred Moore first went to work at the studio, he was trying to work up to the position of being an animator, and Walt gave him a couple of chances, and Freddy had a lot of trouble trying to animate the way the animation was generally being done in the studio at that time, and would go home at nights extremely frustrated because he just couldn't do it. Sometimes he was so frustrated he would actually break down and cry, and he would always say, to the fellow who was his roommate, "I know I've got it in me, but I just can't get it down on paper, there's something wrong, I can't come to grips with it somehow." So finally Walt says to him, "Why don't you take a scene and do it entirely your own way, as an experiment, to see how it goes?" So Freddy does it, and what Freddy did was to get away almost entirely from the mechanical methods he had been taught by whoever, [to] a completely free-form [method of] drawing the characters. Of course, being his first scene, it wasn't his most successful, but it was quite good; it had a certain spark, a certain flair. Walt liked it, and he said, "Well, try another one." That was much better than the first one, and the third one was much better again than the second one, and Walt liked what Freddy was doing so well that he let him go ahead and sort of establish the next new style of the studio, and people, as far as possible, had to align themselves after Freddy' s style.
Now, my feeling on that—in addition to this story I was told—was that Freddy was, yes, a very talented and a very creative person, and also he came along at just the right time. Perhaps, if Freddy had come along five years later, his stuff would have been relatively ignored, he wouldn't have been given such a degree of freedom, creative freedom to do his own thing. And in relation to that as well, it's been my observation that a person who is allowed to do more his own thing, than being told to imitate someone else's style, or some other established style, a guy who's doing his own thing is always going to d a little better work, because it is something that is more natural to him, comes more easily to him. Anyway, Mike and I were wondering what you might have to say about that.
Jackson: Well, first of all, it's the first time I've ever heard that story about Freddy. I don't question it; I just hadn't heard it before. In connection with that, I didn't work very closely with Fred during most of the time that he was first animating; he was on Mickeys, and I was mostly on Sillys. Burt Gillett was doing most of the Mickeys then. So it very well may be the way you repeat it from what you've heard, and I would not have known it, because I was not close to Fred. I also am not aware of how Freddy's wonderful style of animation did get into the pictures. I do know that the other animators admired it, and studied it, and learned what they could from it.
And I know one other thing, too. One of the characteristics of the Disney studio was, none of us tried to keep what we had from anybody else. It was a real team effort. And any of us who had anything that we could impart to another fellow, to help his work be better, we wanted to do. And that went a hundred per cent, all the way through the thing. Everybody wanted to help everybody else make a better picture, which was one of the things that made it such a wonderful place to work. About the latitude to do a thing your own way...I don't hold to the theory that people were particularly held down from doing that at the Disney studio, excepting to the extent that it was necessary to coordinate the efforts of several artists into an acceptable unity, for a picture. The picture that came out had to have an integrity, from beginning to end. Each part of it had to look like part of the same whole thing. And to that extent, you couldn't have somebody going clear off—you couldn't have a completely abstract batch of animation in part of it, and a completely round, real, third-dimensional, realistic animation in another part, without having some excuse for it, like a dream sequence, or something like that, to excuse it. But if it was all supposed to be part of the same character, doing the same kind of things from time to time, it simply wouldn't hold.
So, to that extent, the differences between the different artists had to be curbed somewhat. However, ones who had a flair for really putting out some particular thing—like Freddy Moore, with his characters, or like Fred Spencer, with what he could do with the Duck, or like Art Babbitt, with what he could do with that Goof—those fellows were given a pretty free rein, by giving them a complete sequence to do, where there would be a complete change of mood, or something to give you a break between their work and somebody else's, or by [giving] them all of a character throughout a whole picture. We used to get into some real complicated feats of direction, at some points in the thirties. Individual animators were given a character, right throughout a picture, and if you had Art Babbitt's Goof, and Fred Spencer's Duck, and Fred Moore's Mickey, say, in the same picture, you'd have to have all three of them in the same scene once in a while. You had to be pretty careful what you chose to have happen in that scene, because you didn't want anybody to get too creative there, or he'd bollix up what the rest of them were doing.
You talk about what the director did that was creative; some of the things that you did that were creative was to keep yourself from getting in a mess in cases like that, but to still give these fellows the freedom to do what they could do, to do their thing, with their character, in the picture. Believe me, you've got to be ingenious sometimes to work around those things. But I don't hold to the theory that people were restrained from developing what they could do, at all far from it. It's my impression that they were very much encouraged to add anything they could add to the quality of the pictures, in any way.
Gray: Let me maybe shade this a little bit, building on what we've just said. Let's say that enough animators liked the way that Freddy did what he did, that they aligned themselves with him to the extent that he could do his own thing a little bit more than he would have if the other animators didn't like his work so much. Then he would have been the one who had to follow them. I know it's just a matter of degree, but to the extent that it's a matter of degree is to the extent that Freddy, or whoever, could either do his own thing more easily, and more naturally, or have to try to align himself a little more with something else.
Jackson: I'll say this: anybody who would do an outstanding piece of animation would get plenty of attention from the rest of the animators. And the scene would be studied. I remember the picture [Frolicking Fish, 1930] where Norm Ferguson did the three fish, that sang a trio, in front of the mike. This was the first animation that didn't come into holds—there were moving holds. He slowed in, moved through. If one part held, some other thing moved. Before that time, we'd get into a pose and hold it; we'd move into another pose, and we'd hold it. Gee, this was something [when] we saw this: "What did Fergy do?" Right away, the thing was picked up, and understood, and everybody benefited.
Clampett: Walt would go around the studio and say, "Hey, go look at what so-and-so's doing down there," just to jack him up and also to point it out, didn't he?
Barrier: Was there any "Disney style" in the thirties, any standard that everybody measured themselves against, or was it constantly working its way out, from picture to picture?
Jackson: I am not conscious yet of there being a Disney style. To this extent, maybe: Walt, with the great help of his brother Roy, was able to find a way to spend more on his pictures—more time, more effort, more money, in the long run—than most of the other places. Walt was able to inspire a tremendous desire on the part of all of us to do the very best we could, and to try to get what he wanted on the screen. I feel that his great desire for the things to be believable led to a kind of animation that was—what would you call it? Three-dimensional and realistic, not the least bit abstract. To that extent, I guess you could say there was a Disney style, in that it went toward realism, toward believableness, toward three-dimensionalism, toward trying to make the characters seem like real, living things, not like drawings. I always thought of the characters in my pictures as real things, I didn't think of them as drawings, and I think the animators did, too. I think all of us thought of them, and felt of them, as real living things, and tried to get that on the screen.
To that extent, as compared to perhaps a place that wasn't able to spend the time, or the money, on the pictures, and that maybe didn't have Walt digging his spurs into you all the time—to that extent, maybe by comparison, there was a flatter, more two-dimensional, more honestly drawing effect, to what was done in the other places. To that extent, maybe I can say I sense a Disney style. But the one thing that Walt never did let us do, was to think that we could make another picture just like some other picture we made, because it was easy and we could do it quick, and maybe get ourselves out of a jam on the schedule or something like that. He didn't want us to think that way. Some of that is being done now, you know; things taken out of old pictures and redone, and so forth, and I feel that it shows. I suppose it's an economic necessity, but it's not anything we were encouraged to do then, I'll tell you that.
To that extent, I think there was a Disney style, and I think it is interesting that in the beginning the big reason I wanted to get in animation was, I liked to see drawings move, and by my great good fortune of being associated with Walt, which I'll forever be grateful for, I was pushed completely away from the one thing I thought was so much fun, which was to see drawings move. The kind of gags I used to like in pictures were the things that they could do because they were drawings—the impossible things. You feel like you could do it: I feel like if I stretched hard enough, I could reach out there and get my hand on those things [reaching toward some sandwiches six feet away]; well, a [cartoon character] could shoot his hand out, and pick one of those up, and eat it. The kind of gags that I felt were terrific was like in The Castaway when the lion was chasing Mickey, and Mickey was running away from him and the lion was gaining on him, and Mickey turned around and reached inside the lion and got ahold of his tail and pulled him inside out so he was running the other way. If you take a sock, and reach in, and get hold of the toe, and pull it inside out, it's going the other way. It's based on a [real] thing, but you could only do it with drawings. You'd do a thing like that, you'd destroy a little bit of the realism of the character: well, things like that are out when you're going after all this realism..
Barrier: That sort of leads into something else I've been thinking about this week: the extent to which the design of the characters affected their animation. As you go through the thirties, you go from formula characters like Mickey to very complexly drawn characters like the Seven Dwarfs, for example. How did the design of the characters and the animation interact? In some of your cartoons, like The Grasshopper and the Ants  and The Tortoise and the Hare, you have characters who are sort of intermediate; they're getting away from the formula, but they aren't as complex as, say, Jiminy Cricket was a few years later.
Jackson: It's a matter of the development of the ability of the team. As I said before, your model sheet has to reach a common denominator of the animators that you've got. If you make a thing so complex that only one of your animators can draw it properly, you've got trouble. As the capability of the team—the whole crew—generally grew, the quality of the drawings of the characters, the complexity of the drawings, was able to grow. This business of the change in drawing was a thing that made a lot of trouble with Mickey, as you no doubt know. The first Mickeys were made in those old black-and-white days, when the reproduction that you could get in a theater was crude; you had to have a pretty simple character. Then, as the ability of the artists, plus the ability to reproduce them—or [any] subtle thing—improved, you were able to make much nicer drawings. Well, Mickey was supposed to still be Mickey. He started out, a little guy with black pipe-stem legs, and just the black eyes with the area around [them], like a little mask, and there were all kinds of troubles. You couldn't get him to look sharply at a thing, with eyes like that. All he had was pupils, he didn't have any outsides to his eyes, there was no way to direct the glance. There were all kinds of troubles that you got into like that.
And as new characters were added, years later, you developed Goofy. Well, you've got an artist like Art Babbitt working on a thing like that. He doesn't make a crude little drawing, he doesn't make anything that looks like the first Mickey. But Mickey's in the picture. You couldn't take a Steamboat Willie Mickey and put it in a picture with Art Babbitt's Goofy in the late thirties; it wouldn't fit. Then, how do you change Mickey, and how does he still stay Mickey? This became a great problem. Of course, if you look at Mickey today, with his long pants and his eyes, and the kind of ears he's got, and all that, and compare it with the Steamboat Willie Mickey, you'll see that there's been quite a change. But bringing that about—how to do it and when to do it- things like that were big problems for us.
Barrier: So the design of the character actually affects the way he can be animated. You can get subtler animation if you have more subtly designed characters.
Jackson: Well, yes. An example is what I said about Mickey's eyes. If you have eyes that have pupils, within an oval, or within a shape, you can get a look out of the corner of the eye, in a way that you can't if you've just got a pupil just floating around in a face without being contained.
Barrier: I've been wondering if you could divorce the animation of a character from the way that character is designed. I've felt that you could not, that they were interrelated.
Jackson: I think that definitely you cannot. The whole thing is a single, whole creation.
Barrier: When you were directing, to what extent would you control the design of the characters, or oversee that? Obviously, the character designs would make a great difference as to what your picture looked like, and how well it worked. Would you participate in the design?
Jackson: My own case may be unique. The other directors at Disney's stepped off the top of animation into direction. As I told you earlier, I was kind of kicked upstairs into direction, and this always put me in a kind of a peculiar position, all the rest of the time, because actually, I didn't have the capability as a draftsman that any of the men I was working with, as a critic of their work, had. So, I was always in the position of finding out what was wrong with, and what had to be changed, or of finding out what was right with, and having to approve, something that was done by somebody who could do a thing that I couldn't do. The same thing applies to the designing of the characters. I would have suggestions, I would have ideas, I would give my reaction to the model sheet, to the person who was designing it, but I was completely dependent on him to be able to do what he could do. There was no way I could sit down at a drawing board and say, "This is the way that character should look, do it the way I have drawn it." So to that extent I could not contribute. But I could think it might be better if he tried this or tried that. Usually, though, I don't think I had too much to do with it [in the thirties], I think Walt had that pretty well worked out before I ever got my finger in it, in my pictures. Usually, he worked very closely with whoever was setting the thing.
Barrier: This would be worked out in the story department?
Jackson: In the story department, or in connection with just what was—if it was a standard character—then being done. In that case, it would have been worked out with Walt and the animators, usually. In the case of a new character—you mentioned The Grasshopper and the Ants—there we didn't have any character out of any other picture. There, I guess, probably the story man and the layout man and I would look at the drawings, and we would like some better than we would like others, and cast the thing in that direction. But in a case like that, the animators who would first get on the picture would have an awful lot to do with it, too. Very often, you would have pilot scenes on a picture with characters that were not the standard characters. You'd get your strongest animator and give him a few scenes ahead of time, if you could spring him off of whatever else he working on. Production would always get in the way of making a good picture—schedules, things like that. But you'd give a few scenes to an animator who you thought might develop a character, and see what he did. And it would be recognized that these scenes might or might not be used in the picture. They usually were. But that would help develop it. But that would not be an animator just going off into his room, and you'd say, "Draw me a grasshopper," it wouldn't be that: he had the benefit of all the previous work.
Clampett: The speed effect in The Tortoise and the Hare was a landmark in cartoons at the time: I was wondering just how you arrived at that.
Jackson: It's my recollection—maybe if I recalled longer, I'd get hold of something else, but right off the top of my head, it's my recollection that the first thing I knew about The Tortoise and the Hare was when I was called into a story meeting, and there was already a storyboard—not on the whole complete thing, but just sort of a synopsis-type thing—and some awfully nice drawings of the characters. I don't know who made them. I can very vaguely recall some of the people in the story group, but I don't know who made the drawings. But it was a storyboard, and there was a group of us there, and I think I understood I was going to get the picture. It seems to me that Walt told me to go to the meeting, and he said, "We've got a character there that can run just like a blue streak, and what we've got to get on the screen is, we've got to get a character running like a blue streak"—among other things that he told me. So as far as I know, before I got on there, the definition of the character was, "he ran like a blue streak." How we got it—there was a considerable experimentation before it actually worked out, the particular technique of how it was done. But we knew what we were trying to do from some time before I got on the story.
Clampett: I wondered if you looked at films of speeding cars, things like that.
Jackson: Among other things, we did, trying to arrive at how to achieve the effect. But the concept of it was there at the time I first got on the picture.
Barrier: Do you recall what led to your being named a sequence director on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs ?
Jackson: Yes; Walt named [me]. Snow White was in the works, it was in the story department, we were all terribly excited about it. I know I spent as much time going around [and] kibitzing [about] what was going on in the different story rooms as I did working on what I was supposed to be doing. I think the ones of us who were directors more or less took it for granted that we would have a piece of the action. I can't remember exactly, for sure, the first moment I was told really what it would be, excepting I would suppose it would be whenever I got the notice—the pink [memorandum]—that said on such-and-such a time there's going to be a meeting in so-and-so's room on such-and-such a sequence. But I think I was probably in meetings on several sequences in the story department before I was assigned to any particular one.
|When Wilfred Jackson directed the entertainment sequence in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, he was filmed in mid-1937 dancing with Marjorie Belcher (later known as Marge Champion) as Snow White, with Jackson himself taking the parts of Dopey and Sneezy. Photostats were made from the live action to guide the animation, and some members of the crew had fun with the 'stats by adding dialogue to them. "Art" was Art Babbitt, who was romantically involved with Marge Belcher and, as of August 8, 1937—probably just after this film was shot—her husband. Courtesy of Wilfred Jackson.|
The first sequence I was assigned to was the entertainment sequence, where the Dwarfs and Snow White are together the first night, after they have come home and found her there. I didn't have that wonderful sequence where they found her in bed, but I had the entertainment sequence, where they come back to the Dwarfs' cottage at night. I worked very closely with Bill Tytla on a lot of those scenes. I know Freddy Spencer did little Dopey, mostly I think Art Babbitt may have kind of taken the front in Grumpy. Bill Tytla did a lot of those dancing scenes, though. It's too bad Bill Tytla isn't still with us. If you could have an interview with him, you'd have an experience. That wild Cossack! Handing a scene out to Bill Tytla was a workout. I'd tell him what I wanted, he'd act it out. When he was doing the Stromboli things in Pinocchio , when Bill Tytla would pick up those Stromboli scenes like where he would pat Pinoke on the cheeks, and all that, Bill would work me over. He was the most intense individual.and what wonderful animation. Superb.
Barrier: Did your methods as a director change when you went into feature work? Did you have to be more elaborate in your instructions to the animators?
Jackson: On Snow White, it wasn't too different, because—actually, on Snow White, it was more like going back a little bit. As Walt became interested in developing the feature, the first feature, he paid a little less attention to the shorts that were going through at that time. Suddenly, I found a lot more was up to me, I had a lot more latitude. There were more and more times when I would call Walt and say, "We need a meeting, we've got to make certain decisions." He'd say, "Well, what's on your mind?" I'd say, "Well, there's this and there's that," and he'd say, "Use your judgment." That didn't happen much before that time. So I'd go ahead, and if I was right, great, I wouldn't hear anything.
But on Snow White, one of the reasons that picture is so outstanding is, there is more of Walt Disney himself in that particular picture than in any other picture he made after the very first Mickeys. And, of course, this was a much different Walt Disney than when he made the first Mickeys. He also had developed. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, there wasn't anything about that picture—any character, any background, any scene, anything in it—that Walt wasn't right in, right up to the hilt. Plenty of decisions were made by other people, but before they ever got in the picture, they were reviewed by Walt and okayed or not. So much of Walt went into that picture. If anybody wants to know what a Walt Disney picture is, I'll say, "Look at Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," because that picture, while it lacks the superb technique of the later animation— really, that ending sequence, which I had, where the prince and the girl go away...it was the best we could do with the human characters, with what we had to work with, and the time we had to work on it—the jittery action and all that—but in spite of that, the heart that's in the picture is the thing that Walt could put in a picture.
That's a picture where—it achieved the thing that I think Walt always wanted to achieve, which is, what happens to the characters would matter to the audience, that they would care, that it would seem like the cartoon drawings were real things. I don't think the Dwarfs seemed like drawings to people, I think they seemed like living beings. And even Snow White, although we had so much difficulty technically with the girl—I think she seemed maybe like a kind of a doll to people. I don't know how people reacted, but it's my belief that they didn't think of her just as a drawing. And I think they cared what happened to her in the picture.
Barrier: Wasn't Snow White the first picture on which you used live-action footage for the actual movements of the characters?
Jackson: Yes, we had to do that with the human characters. And we did it with the others, too, with the Dwarfs. This was, I think, perhaps in an effort to coordinate throughout a whole big long feature, the work of many men. We tried to work out the character of the Dwarfs not only as to appearance, but as to the way they would act. And in connection with that, different ones around the studio would get up and act things out with the storyboards. Ones who would strike Walt's fancy, he'd say, "Well, why don't you do what happens in a few of these scenes, and we'll take a picture of it?" It helped kind of establish the characters. But especially with the straighter ones, like with the girl, we had to do it.
Barrier: Had there been any comparable analysis of the characters for any of the earlier shorts, or was this unprecedented, this getting into the Dwarfs in depth?
Jackson: I don't recall that we shot live action of the characters, but we tried to analyze them and develop them thoroughly.
Clampett: On the Dwarfs, you also had that little burlesque comedian, who would act out some of Dopey's actions. He used to play in the Jones family in the Fox films. He was a little fat fellow. And Billy Gilbert on the sneeze stuff.
Jackson: Did we photograph him on some of the Sneezy action?
Clampett: You told me about ten years ago that you did.
Jackson: We very possibly did; some of these things are a little vague in my mind.
Barrier: Do you recall how long you were actually directing on Snow White, how long it took to do your part? I was just wondering if, from the time you went on it until the time you finished your sequences, if you noticed any changes in the animators you were working with, or in your own methods as a director.
Jackson: During the making of the picture, I'm not aware of anything of that sort, but that doesn't mean it was just made in a day. I know we worked on it for a considerable length of time. I'll tell you, it was such an exciting thing that a person could hardly find time to go home and sleep.
Barrier: Wasn't this largely true throughout the thirties, this desire to work long hours and do the best job possible?
Jackson: Well, yes, but gee, the "feature-length cartoon," as we called it, Snow White, it was such an exciting thing, such a big thing for us all—and such a challenge, too. We were all aware of the fact that all the best brains in Hollywood had told Walt, "Don't do it, it's financial suicide, nobody will sit still long enough to look at that long a cartoon, they'll walk out on you."
Barrier: Was there a desire to prove them wrong?
Jackson: You bet there was, and Walt had the strongest desire of any of us.
I recall the preview of Snow White at the Carthay Circle Theatre, the first time the picture was shown to an audience. About two-thirds of the way through the picture quite a number of people scattered throughout the audience got up and walked out of the theater all at about the same time. It was an awful moment. We, all of us from the studio, just about died on the spot. But then, after this early large group left, no one else walked out until the end of the picture. Afterward, we learned there been a large number of students in the audience from some nearby school dormitory where they had a curfew, so they had to leave to keep out of trouble. But, for a few moments, it looked as though the people who had warned Walt, "No one will sit through a feature-length cartoon" were right.
Barrier: Did you go directly to work on Pinocchio after work on Snow white was completed?
Jackson: I don't recall; it seems unlikely that I did. I don't recall what shorts I worked on, if I did work on any in between there. When was The Old Mill  released?
Barrier: That was 1937, before Snow White. I forgot to ask you about that. That must have been a difficult job for a director, because of all the technical aspects involved. Were you deeply involved in the planning for the multiplane?
Jackson: Yes, very much so. One of the difficulties was—as I say, we worked as a team, and there were other directors, and one of the difficulties was the disbelief of the other directors that it could possibly come out an interesting picture, with no story, with no characters, with no nothing going on—"Jackson, you're out of your mind, why don't you beg out of this thing?" Why Jackson didn't beg out of it was, Walt had told him to do it.
Barrier: Did Walt explain to you his reasons for wanting to make it?
Jackson: It's my recollection that the thing I was supposed to try to do was to see whether a picture—primarily as a matter of styling... I can't find words for it...a picture that depended more on the pictorial aspects of it than on characterization of personalities.whether it could be successful. An effort to do something—it's a dangerous word to use—artistic, rather than cartoon-like. I don't mean by that to downgrade anything. I can't find the right words, but I'll tell you what he was grasping for already, it was things like the—I want to call it "the concert feature"—the Fantasia  picture. In his mind, he was way off on things of that sort. It was an effort to explore something other than the personality, character thing for an audience, to see if something could be done that people would respond to.
Barrier: The Old Mill is usually described as a precursor of Snow White, but I guess it was really to test the multiplane, and the multiplane wasn't used much in Snow White, was it?
Jackson: [The Old Mill] was partly to test multiplane, there's no question about that, technically, yes... To develop the technicalities of the multiplane was a big part of it. I don't know, either, it may be that the big thing Walt had in mind was, "I've got a great big expensive camera here, let's see if it will work, but I've got to sell Jackson on this and see if he can't make a good picture, too." I'd never know how much I was getting built up. But I was made to feel that there was more than just trying to see if a camera would work involved.
Barrier: What was your principal responsibility on Pinocchio?
Jackson: It was basically the same as on the other features in which I directed sequences. It was a little different than on Snow White, in that Walt didn't work quite as closely with each detail, and there were more decisions left up to me, more initiative had to be taken on my part... He had other things to put his mind on, and Walt was real tired after we finished Snow White. For one man to do what he did, as intensely as he did, during the length of time it took to make Snow White—I mean literally that he had his finger in every detail of that picture, including each line of dialogue, the appearance of each character, the animation that was in each scene...nothing was okayed except eventually through his having seen it, on that picture. And in the creation of the story, I know that a great deal more of that came out of him—a [much larger] percentage of it came out of him—than was the case in the other features.
And after we finished Snow White, Walt was tired. I have understood that he said to somebody, "I don't ever intend to go through again what I went through on that picture." So, he was putting more off on the other people. And, of course, he had proven that people would sit down that long to look at a cartoon, so he didn't have that hurdle to get over, and he had developed a tremendous staff of wonderfully talented people, who had proven that they could get together and make a feature-length cartoon, so he was able to trust us a little bit more, too. I wouldn't blame him if he wondered if we would do it right the first time. I think all of those things may have been involved. But I was given more latitude to take initiative on Pinoke than Snow White.
Barrier: Do you recall anything in the picture that sticks out as something you made your own decision on, and went ahead with?
Jackson: Not so much that; I don't think it came in such big steps as that. It was a more gradual thing. It was more a matter of, once again, there would be times when I would say, "Walt, the schedule says that I have to put this into animation. You haven't seen the last storyboards." And he'd say, "Well, I'm busy. Have you made many changes since the last time?" I'd say, "Well, you wanted this, you wanted that, we made that, and there's another thing I put in over here," and I'd [describe] it and he'd say, "Well, it sounds all right, why don't you go ahead." I don't mean that that was the general thing, but it would happen some times. Or there would be a sequence that had to be—we made rough animation and photographed the whole thing, and then we would okay for cleanup, and quite often we wouldn't start cleanup okays until we had enough of the rough sequence together to know that you wouldn't want to make cuts, because we didn't want to waste money on cleanups. So, on Snow White, you couldn't put anything into cleanup until Walt okayed the whole rough animation test reel. Well, on Pinoke I think there began to be cases where the schedule would say we needed to go into cleanup, and he'd let me use my [own judgment]—things like that.
But I don't mean there was any great thing where I was allowed to make my decision. If I had, the story would have been a different story. In Pinoke, there was one thing where Walt and I had quite a difference of opinion, and of course he had his way. I was very, very unhappy about the fact that Walt cut out the sequence where Pinocchio went to school, and the boys made fun of him because he was a wooden boy. He was an outcast, he was not acceptable, and he had to go away by himself. I felt that that was the guts of the whole story, and that that was the thing that made the ending have some meaning. I tell you, I was so disturbed about it when Walt cut that out. I guess it was about the biggest argument I ever had with him, and about the best one I ever lost. But I really did think, and I think to this day, this is one case where I believe I was right. Because when the picture was all done—this may be just my own individual reaction, maybe the audience generally would say, "Oh pooh, it's great the way it is"—but I felt myself that when Pinocchio did get to be a real boy, I thought, "What a comedown. This little guy who could burn his finger and it didn't hurt, this little guy who could walk around under water and didn't have to breathe—all these things this little guy could do, and now he's what, he's just this kid like all the other kids."
I think if it had been a thing where he had been rejected, and then got to be a real boy and was accepted by the other boys, and it wasn't just Geppetto glad because he wasn't drowned, and the Blue Fairy came and whacked him over the head, but it was a thing where then he went off and played with the boys—I had a feeling that it would have meant more. Anyway, like I say, I lost the argument. I didn't think of the sequence; it was in the book. The sequence was all worked out in story, and the picture was too long, something had to be whacked. I guess probably if I had to decide what else would you take out, I wouldn't be able to come up with anything else that you wouldn't miss more.
Barrier: Wasn't there another sequence cut, when Pinocchio is escaping from Pleasure Island—
Gray: They had searchlights and machine-gun fire and everything; that's the story I heard. And Walt thought it was too out of keeping with the rest of the story. It had more of a World War II flavor than a fairy-tale flavor.
Jackson: I think you're right; that sounds right. There were several parts of the thing—and I don't mean that these were cut out after they were all animated and done, they were taken out of the story as story work.
[Back on the latitude he had as a director on Pinocchio] Well, I was given the latitude of arguing with Walt and losing an argument. That's one thing I'll say about Walt: he liked it if you you would voice it when I disagreed. He didn't like it if you'd go around saying yes when you meant no, or no when you meant yes.
Barrier: But he also expected you to obey his final decisions.
Jackson: Well, if he said "Do it this way," he expected you to do it, of course.
|At Bill Tytla's request, Jackson posed shirtless as an aid to Tytla's animation of the demon Tchernabog in the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence in Fantasia. Courtesy of Wilfred Jackson.|
Barrier: On Fantasia, you worked on the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence with Tytla again. Can you tell me what went into your direction of that sequence?
Jackson: When I was working the timing out on the scenes, I knew Bill Tytla was going to do the animation, or practically all of it on that character [Tchernabog]. In working out the timing, before I'd go too far with it, I'd get Bill up and talk with him, although it was far from handing out to him, to bring him into it, to get his ideas, and work with him, because Bill was a very creative guy, and you didn't pass up a chance to make use of him. Also, you don't take a chance on giving him a scene a way that he's going to top, and change the whole thing, and then you've got a big hassle trying to fit it with the music, because the music was set on that, you didn't go adding measures. So, in doing this, I'd act out what I had in mind, Bill would act out what he had in mind, I'd go through the motions the way I thought they should be as we would run the record, and Bill would see me doing this devil stuff.
So when we got to the point where we were going to shoot the live-action, and—who was the guy we hired? Bela Lugosi. He looked pretty impressive as the old devil. We played the music, and he acted this stuff out, and he would begin to put into it what he felt, [and] it wasn't what Bill and I had talked about. Well, Bill didn't like that. Bill was there, and Bill was a pretty persuasive guy, a very intense individual. The result was, we got something that was sort of half this, half that. Bela is not somebody that you hire and he just comes over and you say, "Do this," and he does this; he creates, too. The upshot of it was, when we got that, Bill Tytla said, "Jack, I like it the way you do it better. I'm going to do it the way you do it. I'm going to throw this live action away because I don't like it. It would help me a lot if you'd get in front of a 16mm camera and go through this for me." So I figured, well, all right, Bill's the doctor. With a good animator like that, you don't force him, you know you'll get the best thing if you can give them their head. So I got in front of the camera and went through the thing that Bill and I had talked over on each scene. That's the background on the thing.
Clampett: Without a shirt?
Jackson: Yeah, without a shirt. And don't think some of the fellows around the studio didn't have a lot of fun with those photostats.
Barrier: At that time they were making photostats from the film, was that—?
Jackson: At least of extremes; I wouldn't say every frame. And that doesn't mean that anybody just copied that film, either. What Bill would add to Wilfred Jackson was quite a bit before he ever got that drawing [finished].
Barrier: Did you work on any other sequences in Fantasia?
Jackson: "Ave Maria."
Barrier: How did you feel about that sequence? It's probably the most criticized part of the picture, the concept is. Did you feel it worked?
Jackson: I felt that it had a beautiful soundtrack, and I felt that we captured the mood of the sound track very nicely, with the backgrounds, and I felt that if we hadn't been quite so late on schedule, and if I could have had just another few weeks, we could have redone some of the parts of it that had the most imperfections, technically, and smoothed out some of jumpy action a little bit, and I think we might have ended up with a rather nice thing. I don't think maybe it would have been the greatest piece of animation in the world, but I think it would have had a real nice mood. But I think the technical imperfections that we ran into there, very late in the schedule of producing the picture, that we didn't have a chance to correct... You say "very much criticized," I know my criticism of it was, the poor action kind of destroyed the beauty of the sequence. Purely a technical difficulty.
Clampett: I remember in the original showing [of Fantaia] when the camera came to where...the trees suddenly looked like a church, or cathedral.
Jackson: Like a stained-glass window.
Clampett: Yes, and the whole audience at the Carthay Circle kind of gasped, or oohed and ahhed.
Jackson: Wasn't that right where the Fantasound came around, too? That was quite a thrill.
Clampett: The bell, of course, originally would ring behind you, everyone would turn around to see where it was coming from.
Jackson: Yeah, that was at the end of the devil. It was kind of creepy when that sound came right around you. It was a beautiful sound track. Working with Stokowski was an experience on that; I mean a real wonderful experience.
Barrier: You worked with him yourself?
Jackson: To a certain extent. He was in on meetings, and definitely in on the re-recording, you can bet, and in on some of the final sweatboxes. And he was in on the cut I made in the sound in "Night on Bald Mountain." Poor Ed Plumb! Ed Plumb was the studio musician who, among the other things he did on Fantasia, also served as a liaison between Stokowski and the animation people in relation to the music. We had a situation where the picture I was given to put on the screen and the soundtrack I had, they just didn't fit. There had to be more picture, or there had to be less sound. Walt's decision was, there's enough picture, you don't need to put the more expense in it, and dragging the scenes out would have done no good. The music was supposed to be absolutely sacred in that. I was given no help as to what to do about it, it was up to me—"See if you can't work something out."
Working over and over the thing, I had a pretty good grasp of the soundtrack, and I'm no musician, but when it comes to a point where it does the same thing over again, it looks to me like after the—near the end of the part that goes to the first repeat, if you went to the second one, it seems like it ought to sound all right. Well, the musicians at the studio shook their heads—"No, this is classic music, it has a certain form, you can't do that sort of thing." Musically, I think they're probably right. But I wasn't too sure that I couldn't make it work, so I had the cutter make the cut: I ran the thing down on the Moviola myself—nobody would do it—I ran the thing down on the Moviola myself, and I marked it here and then I marked it there. And I tore the film. I took it down to the cutting department and I said, "I've torn this thing, and here's where the thing fits." He said, "There's a piece gone, there's a little corner here beyond this mark." I said, "Just splice it where the mark is." He did it [said in a tone of voice suggesting that the cutter wasn't too happy about it].
The word got around, and Stokowski was going to be in the studio, so I asked him if he would come and just look at what we were doing. Well, he'd be glad to. I said, "I have a rough reel; some of it is in animation, most of it is just poses from the storyboard, but I'd like you to see what we're doing. And so he came in, and we all sat down, and I said, among other things, "I've made a little change in the soundtrack, and I'm hoping you'll approve it." Nobody dropped a pin, but you could have heard it, so we started the machines up, and went through, and he said, "I think the picture fits with the sound very nicely." He had one or two suggestions here and there, and he said nothing about the soundtrack. So I finally said, "Well, you know I did make a change in the track," and he said, "Oh, yes, that. Well, it fits very nicely with the picture where you did that." He didn't say it was all right, but he didn't say not to do it, so we went ahead with it.
Barrier: What if he had said not to do it?
Jackson: We would have put it back in and figured out what to do with the picture. It would have taken longer, it would have cost more, it would have been harder to do, and in my estimation, it would have made the sequence drag a little bit. You never know if you're right about these things; you can't do it both ways. I lose sleep over things like that.
Barrier: Did you work with Tytla again, in Dumbo, on the elephant characters?
Jackson: Yes. The part I recall working on is where the package is delivered to the mother, and the elephants don't approve. That's the sequence I recall the best. Then there's a gap in my memory. Somewhere in there there are more sequences—not a lot, but something else. The next thing that I get to is where Timothy puts the idea in the ringmaster's ear.
Clampett: Who did the pink-elephant sequence?
Jackson: Fergy took the lead in that.
Gray: As director, or as animator?
Jackson: As animator. When I say "animator," by that time an animator like Fergy, or like Bill Tytla—I could name several of them—would have a crew of less capable, less experienced men who would be associated with him. Scenes would be handed out, like to Fergy, or like to Bill Tytla, but there would be others who would work with him who would do certain scenes. The more important, more vital, more interesting scenes would be done by the lead animator. His crew—the ones associated with him—would do others, which was a great way to spread the talent of these more experienced, more capable people, and also a great way for other animators to learn things, working right directly with them that way. So, to a certain extent there, they would become sort of semi-animators, semi-directors, on the thing. So, it's quite possible when I say "Fergy," maybe somebody else did most of it.
Gray: Howard Swift is the guy I was told did a lot of it.
Jackson: Howard Swift did a whole lot of scenes, I know, that were handed out to Fergy on a lot of—he worked right closely with Fergy, I believe. However, you know Fergy did get onto directing and producing and it may be that there was a transition then I wasn't aware of. I didn't know of Fergy getting into directing—that's just directing, and not animating—until a later time. But it could have happened.
Barrier: I wanted to jump ahead to Song of the South , because you were director of all the cartoon portions of that.
Jackson: Combination, also; cartoon and cartoon with live action combination.
Barrier: Milt and I both admire the handling of those cartoon sections as much as anything in Disney animation in the forties. The animation seems so much wilder and quicker and sharper than a lot of earlier work. Do you recall what went into the planning of that, that got that distinctive style?
Jackson: I had more fun working on Song of the South than any other one picture I ever made. I guess maybe working on Snow White was more exciting, and I guess maybe there were others that hit high spots in some other ways, but out of all the different pictures I worked on, Song of the South was the most fun. The group of people that it was my good fortune to work with was such a wonderful bunch of talent.
Perce Pearce was there: he was associate producer, and he didn't only associate produce the live-action. He was also right in with us on the cartoon parts. I had his wonderful help on all the recording of the dialogue, and I mean wonderful help. Perce was quite a guy. On story, we had Ralph Wright and Bill Peed—Peet, it is now. He changed his name legally, I believe. The two of them are just terrific story men, and Bill was really hitting his stride, and the story sketches that he made, the terrific feeling and action and character that he got into the story drawings—I tell you, if you published a book of that storyboard, you'd have a wonderful bunch of illustrations. There was that. Walt was a little more closely interested in that picture than he had been in quite a few. He'd been kind of getting a little farther from pictures, and he seemed a little more interested in that one. It was easier to get him in on meetings; he'd come in more times just on his own hook to see what was going on, and you had a chance to try things out on him instead of waiting until it was a stale thing and you wouldn't bother to bring it up at a meeting. The animators...there was Milt Kahl, who kind of took the lead on the fox...Marc Davis on the old bear...and Eric Larson on the rabbit, and Ollie Johnston and Johnny Lounsbery and the others...I hate to name names, because I leave people out. Somehow or other, the cream of the studio was in on it.
Ken Anderson was in, in charge of layout. There were other competent layout men, too, to follow through, but Ken helped set the camera angles and work out the staging of the thing, and Ken worked so hard with me on working out the details of how to fit the combination sequences, where the live action and cartoon work, together...on the voices, and on the action of old Remus, was old Jim Baskett. He was a marvelous individual. You guys should work with some competent actor sometime, trying to get a combination cartoon and live-action thing, where the actor has to do his part first, the animation hasn't been done yet, and the actor has to act to a character who isn't there. You'd be surprised what great talent can't do anything that you can use. Actors are used to projecting themselves against another individual, and taking what bounces back, and making something out of it. It's like playing tennis; you play with somebody, and what they do tells you what you do. It's not like hitting a ball up against a handball court, by yourself. With actors, it's that sort of thing. And when the other character isn't there, they're stymied. Not all of them, but you'd be surprised how some of them that you would think wouldn't go to pieces just can't do it.
Old Jim, you'd go through a scene with him there, you'd get all set up in the camera, Ken would have that layout in his hand, and he would okay the camera setup, so there was always room for the cartoon character to be added in there, if you could keep the live-action cameraman from messing things up. The cameraman was so used to making a good picture of what he could see that it was hard for him to leave enough empty space at one side for the cartoon character that wasn't there and to photograph an unbalanced pictorial composition. We'd lock the camera down; you had to, anyway, so it wouldn't bounce. If you panned it, you'd be in trouble with your cartoon background—your cartoon character and the background; it's hard to match the character to a pan, unless it's a fast one. The action of the cartoon, is what I'm trying to say. Then I'd get up there, and I'd go through the scene, and I'd say, "The rabbit is here, he's there, he's there, he's here when he says this, he's around here when he says this, and over here he jumps right up like that." Old Jim would get that in his head, and he'd go through the thing to play back, and he'd be looking at the whole thing. When the rabbit would come up here, he'd look cross-eyed, and when he'd go back here, he'd go down—you don't get them like that. What fun it is to work with a bunch of people like that.
Clampett: Baskett passed on about a year after the picture came out, didn't he?
Jackson: Jim was a sick man when we shot those scenes. He was a sick man: there were times when he had to go to the hospital and be treated a little bit and come back, and we had to shoot around him. But boy, you'd never guess it to see him in front of that camera
I also recall Mary Blair doing the styling on the picture. Mary made some beautiful sketches, and they were a little bit on the flat side, for having live-action in them. She made sketches for the cartoon, the styling of it. They were beautiful things, and Walt wanted so much for the picture to be styled like Mary Blair's pictures she had made. There was a difficulty in adapting them, keeping them as close to hers as Walt wanted, and making it so it was something that would look right with live-action and the dimensional cartoon characters that we had. I had a feeling that we did a pretty good job—by "we," I mean mostly Ken Anderson, because he was head layout on it, and it fell mostly on his shoulders, although I was looking over the shoulder, and okaying. But I really thought we did a pretty good job of compromising.
After it was all over with, Walt told me that the thing that was so disappointing to him was that we didn't get Mary Blair's styling in there. He had kind of hoped we do that, he'd asked me to do it, and he just felt that we didn't get it. I was so impressed by Walt's disappointment [over] that, that I guess I overdid it a little bit later on, in "Johnny Appleseed." There, Mary Blair did the styling again, and I stuck to the styling so faithfully that what came about was the thing I was afraid was going to happen in Song of the South. You can't always tell these things when you're working on the way through. You've got to see the final thing, all put together, before you really know. But you use your judgment, and if you're right, great, and if you're not, then you've got something that doesn't quite come off. In "Johnny Appleseed," we got Mary Blair's styling real well, and I think the picture looked just as pretty as her drawings— don't know what Mary would think. But it ended up by kind of flattening the thing out, and it stymied the animators to the extent where the animation didn't have the convincing quality that it could have had if they'd had a little more latitude with the backgrounds, a little more support from dimension in the backgrounds than we put in.
So I made an error in judgment in one of those two; whether it was not getting enough in Song of the South, or too much in "Appleseed," or some other thing, I don't know. I goofed somewhere in there.
Gray: I guess that's the supreme test. With all the planning that goes into a Disney picture, if there's still that element of the unknown until it's finished, that's an indication of how tough it might be on other pictures where there's not that amount of planning.
Barrier: I wanted to ask you about pencil tests. I gather from what I've been told by other people that after sound came in, you started by pencil testing certain scenes, and gradually worked your way up to full pencil tests.
Jackson: Yes, that's right. The first pencil tests that I know of were when I was learning to animate and had been at the studio only a short time. We were allowed to use short ends of film that weren't long enough to shoot a scene with to shoot our own personal tests, if we wanted to come back at night and develop them ourselves. We could experiment with our own animation. I used to spend a lot of nights at the studio, down there, trying my own things, and running it through the camera, and developing it. If I had something I thought was real good, I'd show it to Walt, and see if he thought it was real good, and he usually didn't. Then, as we went along, if there was some action that was particularly difficult or unusual, or in some question, we'd shoot a test of the scene. Then, as we got into the cartoons where the music was more elaborate, and where there were a greater number of animators on the picture, and there was more need to coordinate one man's work with another—when one man would do a whole sequence, usually he'd be pretty good about making the beginning of one scene hook up with the end of another, and if you flipped the drawings, you could tell. The director would flip the drawings, and look at the exposure sheet on all the scenes before they went to ink. Some of them you'd shoot tests on; some of them the animators would want tests on.
Then, I don't know exactly how it came about, but we got to shooting more and more tests, and Walt rather encouraged us to, because we would often make good improvements, that way. Finally, somehow it evolved to the point where we were shooting—well, it was found out that we could save a lot of the animators' time by having them make rough drawings, and having somebody else clean the characters up, because the animator could write this stuff off, roughing it out, and he could cover a lot of territory. And somebody else who didn't have the capability to animate could make the characters look like they should on the individual drawings. Then, when you got to that point, it became worthwhile to shoot rough tests, to make sure they were all right, before you had the cleanup man clean them up. Then we would shoot rough tests on the whole picture. We'd cut in, and put it against the score, and this gave Walt a wonderful chance to get a rough preview of his picture. So he could do a lot of his editing before you did the cleanups, before you did inking and painting and the final backgrounds and the final camera work. If he'd cut a hundred feet out there, he'd save himself a handful of money, so this became worthwhile. Eventually, it got to the point where cleanup tests were made, and they were put in. Finally, it got to the point where we would shoot a rough test and a cleanup test and you'd have the whole thing, and even, finally, when we were having a hard time getting Walt in on story conferences—he got real busy with other things—we could get his okay easier sometimes on a story sequence—if we already had a prescored track for the whole picture—if we would just shoot stills of the storyboard and show him our timing, and let him get a feeling of the picture.
Barrier: This was the Leica reel, I guess.
Barrier: What do you recall about Walt as a critic of animation? When he would see the pencil tests and make comments, what sticks in your mind as to what he would look for?
[The tape recorder was shut off while Jackson considered his answer to this question; when taping resumed, the recorder malfunctioned and failed to record his answer.]
[Posted July 31, 2015]