An Interview by Michael Barrier
The animation career of Fred J. Kopietz (1909-1992) spanned almost the whole of Hollywood animation's golden age, from 1930 until just past the death of Walt Disney in 1966. He started with Ub Iwerks, spent most of the thirties with Walter Lantz, and devoted the rest of his career to Disney, with side visits to Bob Clampett's Snowball Productions and Hanna-Barbera. I interviewed Fred over two days, on April 29 and 30, 1991, at his home in West Sedona, Arizona, while Phyllis and I were on a driving tour of the Southwest with friends from the Seattle area. You can read the transcript by clicking on this link.
It's a long interview, one we supplemented through letters, but in reading it now, I'm aware of what we didn't cover—for instance, we didn't talk enough about his work on particular Disney cartoons (he animated on a lot of Donald Duck shorts, and also on Sleeping Beauty). I seem not to have asked him about Jack King, on whose Donald Duck cartoons he animated. Probably we would have talked more, and the interview would have been even longer, if my wife and my friends hadn't been tugging on my sleeve so we could head for the Grand Canyon. As it is, I think the interview is one of those that has a strong flavor of what it was like to work in the Hollywood cartoon studios seventy and eighty years ago; and what Fred says about some of the people he knew well, like the very young Chuck Jones, commands attention, too.
Fred was a collector, a saver, of Disney items as well as Western memorabilia. His Disney collection, specifically of plaster maquettes made for early features like Pinocchio, was written up in a magazine called The Inside Collector in 1991. I remember asking Fred to lend or make a copy for me of only one item, a small group photo from the Universal studio that included both Chuck Jones and Tex Avery. Fred was alarmed by the thought of parting with the photo even for a few days, and I never got a copy of it. Since his death, his Disney collection has, predictably and sadly, been scattered, items from it turning up sometimes on eBay; I've reproduced here a couple of photos of Fred from one such listing.
In conversation before the interview as we looked through items of various kinds in his studio, Fred mentioned that Basil Davidovich had been his assistant at Universal, "along with Fritz Willis." Fred mentioned that he started at Disney's on April 10, 1940. "I was always interested in the Disney studio, and I never thought I'd ever go to work there, because I was doing better on the outside than a lot of the Disney guys were doing, financially. But then, when Walt Lantz closed down, to renegotiate contracts, I was building a home in Toluca Lake at the time. I used the time to advantage in finishing the home up, moving in, and landscaping. He still hadn't reopened, so a number of the fellows—Gerry Geronimi, and George Nicholas, and Jack Dunham—who had gone over to Disney's from Universal kept after me to come over, so I decided to go over until Lantz opened up. Then I was going to quit and go back to Lantz's, but as it turned out, I stayed on. I was learning Disney techniques, which was an advantage to me. Of course, they knocked me way back in salary, but then I found out that by staying on and getting the work done, they started handing out increases, and I thought, well, eventually maybe I'll catch up. So I just stayed on."
The complete transcript follows, incorporating Fred's mostly minor changes.
Kopietz: I was born January 16, 1909, in Norfolk, Nebraska. From there, we moved to Washington state, from Washington state to California, back to Nebraska, and stayed there until just before the armistice in World War I. We came back out to California and stayed.
Barrier: What did your father do?
Kopietz: In his teens he was a cowboy. Later a mercantile clerk, accountant, carpenter, cabinet maker and telephone pioneer, to mention a few occupations. He was a jack of all trades. He amazed me because of the way he could go from one thing to another, which I could never do. With me, it was always some type of artwork or real estate. Real estate's been my avocation for a long time. I've had broker's licenses for a long time. I originally studied for my own dealings, so I'd know what I was doing, and the more I studied, the more I liked it. At one time at the studio, several fellows wanted me to handle their real estate deals, which I did. I sold something for Geronimi, and for [George] Kreisl. It got to the point where I either had to stay with the studio work or go into real estate and open up an office full time. I kept my broker's license, but I used it for myself from then on.
Barrier: The other guy I remember hearing about as being involved in real estate was [Disney story man] Harry Reeves.
Kopietz: Right. I remember when he was first getting real interested in real estate he was asking me questions, checking me out on things. We used to discuss real estate quite a bit.
Barrier: He went into it full time later on, I guess.
Kopietz: Yes, he opened up an office up there in the foothills, by Hanson Dam.
Barrier: You said you moved around the country...
Kopietz: As a matter of fact, when we moved back to Nebraska, my father bought the telephone exchange in the town we lived in—Hay Springs, a typical little cow town. About the time I was born, he was working a night shift patrol under my maternal grandfather, in Norfolk; One time they got word the train was being held up, coming into Norfolk, they rode out and managed to mount the train, and got three train robbers off. This was back just before I was born.
Barrier: Your grandfather was a lawman?
Kopietz: My grandfather was a sheriff there. As a matter of fact, both my grandfathers were sheriffs, marshals, justices of the peace, etc. They both had exciting lives in the later 1800s. In addition to law enforcement each maintained horse and cattle stock.
When we came back to California the second time, my dad got into the Weber Showcase Company, building showcases. I think it was from there that he went in with the old Hamburger store; the May Company bought them out later. He did showcase work for them. That was highly specialized, from the old country, and he'd learned it, back in the Midwest. He got into lots of things. He went into real estate later on, and after that opened the first gas station and garage in Eagle Rock, California.
Barrier: What kind of name is Kopietz?
Kopietz: That's a Czech name. My grandmother on my dad's side was from Austria, and my granddad was from Bohemia. They both came over in sailing boats.
Barrier: You went to school in L.A., obviously...
Kopietz: We lived on Fourteenth and Main; we lived upstairs in a flat. When we came back, some years later from Nebraska, we moved out to Fifty-sixth and Main; that was the growing area.
Barrier: You said [off the tape] that you went to UCLA after you got out of high school?
Kopietz: Yes; Richard Bickenbach and I enrolled at UCLA at the same time. We've known each other since high school days; we did art work and journalism for the school paper and annuals.
Barrier: Which high school was that?
Kopietz: Glendale High. We'd moved from Glendale to Eagle Rock, and I transferred from Glendale Grammar School to Eagle Rock Grammar. There was no high school nearby, so you either had to go to Franklin High School in L.A. or you had to go to Glendale. I preferred Glendale. Bickenbach and I were good friends all through high school. We went to art school together and went to UCLA together. I think it was at Chouinard where I first met Chuck Jones.
Barrier: You went to Chouinard after you went to UCLA?
Kopietz: Yes. One of my fraternity brothers, Scott Crosby, quit UCLA to go to Chouinard, and he kept working on me, wanting me to quit and go to Chouinard. I intended to graduate, and thought maybe I'd go to Berkeley first before going to art school. He enjoyed Chouinard and was learning rapidly down there the things he wanted, so finally Bickenbach decided to go to Chouinard, and I said, well, OK. I think we both quit at the same time and went to Chouinard. Nelly Chouinard was still heading the school at that time.
Barrier: When was it that you quit UCLA?
Kopietz: 1928. We were still at the old school on Vermont; they were building the new campus down in Westwood. I finished a year and a half's credits in one year. I wanted to finish two years' credits, at least, but the pressures were on me, so I changed to Chouinard. That's when I met Millard Sheets; we used to go sketching together. Arthur Millier at that time was the Times art critic, and I studied etching under him at Chouinard. Other classes were with F. Tolles Chamberlin, Lawrence Murphy, and Clarence Hinkle.
Barrier: You were at Chouinard from '28 to '30?
Kopietz: I'd gone there a half year earlier, during school breaks. I shouldn't say a half year—I put in a summer semester, then I put in a full year at Chouinard after UCLA. In June 1929, I was hired by the Hollywood Paperbox Corporation, to do commercial artwork. It was funny how that came up. Chuck Jones called me and told me that he was going to have an interview for a commercial art job, and he didn't have the experience and training in commercial art work and lettering, like I'd been doing. He said, "I doubt if I'll get the job. If I don't, would you be interested?" I said, "Yes, I could possibly be interested. I'd have to quit school, but maybe I'd be interested, if I could be learning and get an opportunity that way." I got a phone call from him later, and he was calling from Hollywood Paperbox, I guess. He said, "I didn't get it, but I spoke to them about you, and if you want to set up an appointment, you can bring your portfolio over and show it, and maybe you can get the job." So I made an appointment and went over, they looked at my portfolio, and I was hired. That was in June. I'd taken a week's vacation—went up in the high Sierras, did a little fishing—then came back and started work. The crash came in the following October, and in November, three out of the five that had been working there were gone, including myself. It left just the manager artist, Al Ganz, and his assistant artist—actually the key artist that did most of the work. His name was George Starkey.
It was after that when I started work for Ub Iwerks. Someone told me about seeing an ad in the L.A. Sunday Times; they knew I was looking for a new spot, and called me. I thought, well, it's right on the way to where I was doing a special project for the fair, up in San Francisco. I was working with George Starkey on that. We had a big painted deal in complex cut-out relief—you might say several elevations, all painted with cable cars and automobiles and high-rise buildings, all this sort of thing. A lot of work. We had to finish it up by Wednesday to get it shipped off by truck.
On the way to work, on Monday morning, I stopped by Ub Iwerks's studio. I didn't know who Ub Iwerks was, at the time. When I arrived in the patio, and there were seventy-five or a hundred people in line, waiting for an interview. I thought, I don't stand a chance. I talked to the last one in line, and he said, "They've hired one, but I understand they're going to hire two. So there's still a chance. The line's been moving very rapidly; you won't have too long to wait." As it progressed, we kept talking, and finally got up the stairway and inside. Ub started looking through my portfolio. He was going through it so rapidly I thought he would pass to someone behind me. Finally, he closed it up and lifted up the [gate] on the counter to let me through. He said, "Come on back in the back office." I went in and he sat down in the chair behind his desk and told me to sit down, and he said, "Do you want to start work today?" That really shook me, because I didn’t expect to be chosen and this would be my second regular, full-time job. It was more what I wanted to do than commercial art work, when I found out what it was all about. I told Iwerks, "I can't start today, for we have to finish and ship this project Wednesday, so at that point I can start work." He hired me, and I started work for him when we got our contract finished and shipped off.
Ub was one of the finest guys I ever worked for. He had that inventive mind; he was always experimenting with something. We had an eclipse of the sun, and I had a professional camera, a Graphlex, at that time. He knew about it, and he asked me if I could bring the camera in, so we could shoot some pictures of the eclipse. I had an adapter for the back, where we could use cut film, and we made our own filters, to photograph the eclipse. Everybody else was working, and he and I were out in the courtyard, taking pictures. That's the way Ub was. We got along great. He was interested in guns, the same as I was, and when he came back to Disney's, years later, in the forties, I got him in the Southern California Arms Collectors Association. We swapped back and forth.
Barrier: At the time you went to work for Ub, wasn't he on Western Avenue? And then he went out to Beverly Hills?
Kopietz: That's right. Just below Santa Monica, on Western, on the left side of the street as you went south on Western. It was on the east side, upstairs in a court. Then he moved to Beverly Hills. That's when Iwerks called me for an interview; he wanted me to come back to work for him. I took Richard Bickenbach along. Ub made me an offer and I was planning on leaving Lantz to go back, but I said I'd have to talk to Walt and give him notice. In the meantime, I told him I had Richard Bickenbach with me, and I could highly recommend him as a good man. I took Bick in and introduced him. Ub offered him a job, and hired Bick that same day after reviewing Bick’s artwork.
|Pete Burness, James (Tony) Pabian, and Chuck Jones mug for the camera at the Iwerks studio, early 1930s. Courtesy of James Pabian.
Barrier: Do you recall who the other person was who was hired the same day you were?
Kopietz: Yes, Tony Pabian [also known as James Pabian].
Barrier: At the time Tony Pabian went to work for Iwerks, I think he was still living with Chuck Jones's mother.
Kopietz: Oh, up on Mount Washington. That's where Chuck was living when we were running around together. I made a lot of trips up on that hill to his home.
Barrier: His parents were living apart then, weren't they, so it was just his mother?
Kopietz: Yes; and I think there was a sister living up there at the time.
Barrier: You said you knew Chuck when you were at Chouinard's, back in '28 and '29...
Kopietz: I'm trying to remember if I knew him before that. I think it was at Chouinard's where we first met. Then we were on beach parties—we had mutual friends, and he met a lot of my friends. I have pictures of him down at Jack MacLachlan’s beach cabin. Jack spent his life in animation and had a place on the coast, going up toward Malibu.
I guess it was when we were working for Ub, we went out on a barracuda fishing trip; I have those [photos], Ub Iwerks on the boat, a little cruiser, Chuck, Pabian, and myself and I don't remember who all.
About the time I left Ub Iwerks, Grim Natwick came in. I was hired to do layout and background work, and not animation, because of the experience I'd had in commercial art. But in those days, when you finished a picture, until things got organized you'd wash cels and maybe do a little inking, or whatever. I remember I did very little of that, because normally Ub had work for me of some type. I remember I was painting some backgrounds in color, and Ub said his would be the first color shorts to be released. The only color animation released before that, that I was aware of, was in King of Jazz, that Walt Lantz had done, in combination with live action.
Barrier: The very first Flip the Frog cartoon, Fiddlesticks, was two-color.
Kopietz: That was probably it. First color short.
When I went to Universal, from Ub's, that's what I was hired to do—layout and backgrounds. So I laid out all the pictures for both units, for both Walt Lantz and Bill Nolan. Each one was supposed to do twelve pictures a year—twenty-four total. I don't know whether they kept their schedules or not, but that's a lot of pictures to turn out, at around 550 to 600 feet, which is what they figured in those days. So I'd lay out the picture, from the storyboard sketches, then I had to paint each one. We used airbrush to save time; you couldn't do a real fine job, you were too rushed. We had lots of long pans, and repeat stuff, so they had to be kept simple, so they wouldn't detract from the animation.
Barrier: You said you were making them from the storyboards; how did you match the animation with the backgrounds?
Kopietz: I'd make the background sketch, and have approximate character sizes to work with that particular background. I'd make allowances; I don't know whether I always made sketches of the characters for placement. It's been so far back now. They were ready for the animator; when the sequences were handed out, there were the layout sketches, and they could go ahead.
Barrier: You were doing the finished layout before they did the animation.
Kopietz: Yes, right.
Barrier: Would you actually paint the backgrounds before they did the animation?
Kopietz: No. While they were animating, I'd start painting backgrounds. As I recall, we'd average twenty-five to thirty-six backgrounds per picture. It really kept me busy.
Barrier: That was a tremendous amount of work.
Kopietz: It was. They were simple, the way Ub had been doing them and the way Lantz did them, and I was able to do them, but they kept me busy. And then we'd still sit in on story meetings and things of that nature. At times, Walt Lantz had me do titles, because of the lettering background that I had. Jolly Little Elves, I think one of them was called.
Barrier: I want to go back and ask you a little bit about Chuck Jones. Chuck is several years younger than you are—he was born in 1912.
Kopietz: I know he was real young when he went to art school.
Barrier: If he was there in '28 and early ‘29, when you were there, he would have been around sixteen or seventeen years old. What do you remember about him, from when you first knew him? It's kind of surprising to me that you would have been such good friends with him, considering that there was an age difference.
Kopietz: All through my life, I've had close friends in different age brackets. To repeat, he got me that first job. Then I was influential in getting him in at Ub Iwerks. I told Ub about him, and he came out and got on with Ub. He left and went over to Universal, and was responsible for me getting on at Universal. I don't remember how he happened to leave Universal, but he was down on Olvera Street; that's when he was doing the sketches and drawings. Then he got in with Schlesinger—wasn't it?—after that. I was living in the valley, and he was living in another part of town, and I don't know, because of our work in different locations, different studios, we didn't have so much contact through the years. But our relationship was always real good, and we were close friends during that one period of our lives. I appreciated what he did for me, and I'm sure he appreciated what I did for him.
Chuck and I had talked about making a trip around the world, on steamers. His dad was a member of the Pacific Steamship board, I believe it was. Chuck said his dad could arrange for us to get passage on these steamers, get our seamanship papers and travel all over, or we could go over to Liverpool and jump ship, and make our way sketching and taking photographs, because I did have a professional camera. We were thinking about that, then I had what I thought was a heart attack, or some darned thing, at Ub Iwerks's, and I was off work for a while. It turned out to be what they called a "booming heart." There are recorded cases of it now, but at that time it was unknown. That queered our trip.
Later, Chuck had me over to his house, and gave me some photographs that were taken on Zane Grey's yacht. His dad and someone else had gone in and bought the yacht. They'd taken a cruise in the South Pacific and were preparing another one. Chuck said, "You can get on if you want, recording the trip, just taking pictures of the trip." It was another year or two years' cruise. I spoke to Lantz about it, and he said, "Well, I'm going to have to replace you, and I can't guarantee that I'll have spot here when you get back. If I find someone who's satisfactory, I can't let them go." I couldn't argue; this was the Depression, and things were already bad. I had to pass it up, which broke my heart. Later, Chuck mentioned again about a trip down along the coast of Mexico, toward Central America—I don't remember how far south they went. The boat caught fire or blew up. I understand they were hauling some contraband liquor back to the United States, and I thought maybe I was lucky I wasn't on that trip.
All I can say about Chuck is that we always got along great. I liked him and he liked me. I still have a lot of close friends I worked with, fifty or sixty years ago.
Barrier: What kind of a person was Chuck back in those days? Jim Pabian said that Chuck's family seemed more educated, more cultured, than a lot of people working in animation at that time.
Kopietz: Chuck was a bright kid. I think the people were a mix of all backgrounds.
[We talked at some length about the apparent changes in Chuck's personality over the years.]
Kopietz: That same thing happened to Gerry Geronimi. We used to be close friends; we golfed together, back in the early Universal days, before he left Universal and went to Disney's. We got along great. I accepted him as he was—he'd get a little crude once in a while. You know, you'd be going out to lunch, and we'd let some of the gals go through ahead of us, and he'd reach out and goose one of the girls. There'd be a dozen people there. It was a little irritating, because he didn't know what guy there might be going with this girl in the evening, because there was a lot of dating like that. But they'd say, "Oh, that's Gerry," and let him get away with it. He was a nice guy and a lot of fun, otherwise. Through the years at Disney's, with what success he had there, he got to be pretty obnoxious at times. I would be the last one to want to say it, because he gave me his acreage he had to sell, out in the valley—he hadn't been able to sell it, and he asked me if I'd try. I sold it right off the bat for him. I knew real estate; I'd built homes, and sold and bought vacant lots. Merle Gilson bought one of my lots, right across from Freddy Moore. With Gerry, I sold his property, and everything was on the up and up, and you have your deductions, and you go into escrow—each one contributes, buyer and seller, and it's itemized, what you pay to consummate the deal. Then he got mad: "What are these charges against me in the escrow?" I said, "These are normal escrow charges that both buyer and seller have to share. There are certain things the seller has to pay, and certain things the buyer has to pay"—title insurance, recording fees, etc. This had all been explained at the outset. Well, he finally got over it, but this was around the time he was starting to get a little bit carried away. Finally, Walt sent him on assignment to Europe, and gave him his termination papers while he was still there. He sent him a telegram.
Walt could be that way. He terminated Dick Lundy, and Dick came over to my house—where he unfolded the whole story. As a matter of fact, I'd worked on two or three of Dick Lundy's pictures, when I was first on the shorts at Disney's, in '40 or '41. I started on Fantasia, on that Bald Mountain sequence, with Johnny Reed, in special effects work. Johnny Reed found out I'd been an animator, directed, and everything before that, and he said, "Instead of following me up, why don't you help me animate this stuff, and Ralph can follow us both up?" Ralph Hulett was his assistant at the time, and another guy was following up Ralph Hulett. So I did; I was taking parts and animating the stuff to flow right in with what Johnny was doing. It had to be done right the first time, because these weren't being inked and painted as cels—this was special effects work, with the clouds and the characters floating through space and all that. Johnny Reed and I did a lot of animation, and later on, I wanted to get out of special effects and get on the characters. That's what I'd always done; I wasn't interested in effects at all. As soon as they could, they gave me an assistant and put me to animating on shorts. That's when I worked on some for Dick Lundy. I think I worked on something one time for Jack Kinney, then I worked with Ham Luske, and I animated for Jack Hannah and Woolie Reitherman. I didn't like the way he directed, particularly. He'd have me animating one scene, he'd have me reworking another, and maybe be considering changing another scene from entering from the left to maybe coming in from the right, and reversing everything. I was always working on about three scenes at one time.
Barrier: When would this have been?
Kopietz: Gosh, I don't remember. There were a lot of features that I worked on. I think it was on Dalmatians when he asked me to come back to work for him again, and I'd already told Ken Peterson I didn't want to animate on [Reitherman's] unit any longer. So they knocked me back as an assistant animator—I still got the animator's scale—until they could find a spot. I told Ken Peterson, "It's his method of directing animation that I don't go along with." He said, "Well, he likes what you're doing, if you want to stay with him." I said, "I've already made up my mind." Later on, I think it was on Dalmatians, maybe on a picture later than that, but Woolie wanted me to come back, and they were pressed, so I did. I went back and animated again, but he never changed a thing. Everything I did from then was used just as it was. And I found out I should have done that in the first place, right at the very beginning.
Barrier: Called his bluff.
Kopietz: Woolie always had a whipping boy. Harry Holt was one of them; Eric Cleworth was another. He just drove Eric Cleworth nuts. I wasn't a whipping boy, but, being a newer animator, he used such flexibility on everything, and it wasn't necessary. It was slowing me down on my production. Anyhow, when I worked with him after that, as I mentioned before, he used everything just as I had it. But I still got off the unit as soon as I was able to.
A lot of people had a lot of difficulty satisfying Ward Kimball, but the first time I worked with him, he said, "You should be animating." He was responsible for getting me back into animation again. That was another time; when things would slow, they'd lay off guys, and I'd go back and assist. I worked for Judge Whittaker at one time—same thing, he said, "You should be animating, not working as my assistant." They immediately gave me an assistant and a new room, and I started animating again. But through those years at Disney's, there were the old-timers, the old established ones—if I'd been there the nine and a half years I was with Walt Lantz, I'd have been all set. But I was from the outside. It was a little different than growing right up in the Disney organization.
Barrier: Preston Blair talked about when he started work at Disney's; he'd been at Mintz—
Kopietz: He'd been at Universal, too. As a matter of fact, he lived in Eagle Rock, also, and he used to ride with me. Preston was just learning at that time; he was an inbetweener and then I guess an assistant, for Walt Lantz. There were two brothers who worked over at Warner Bros.; they lived in Eagle Rock, just a few blocks from where I lived—the McKimson brothers. One of Walt's first directors, Wilfred Jackson, was an Eagle Rock fellow. Wait a minute—I can't remember if he lived in Eagle Rock or Glendale, but he went to Glendale High with Bickenbach and myself. Oh, and Bob Clampett went to Glendale High, later on.
Bob Clampett lived down our street, Virginia, then they renamed it Vincent Avenue, in Eagle Rock. He was a few years younger than myself, also. He used to come up to my place—I had a little shack, built out in the back yard, and I used to go back there and draw. That was my little studio. He'd come back in there, and I'd have pencils and pads, and I was showing him how to draw. He'd ask me how to draw, and I'd show him how to make heads, and draw stuff on the pad for him.
When I got out of high school, and was working for Walter Lantz, his mother called one time, wanting to know if I could get him a job in the animation department. I said, "I'll do what I can, but most of the fellows that Walt hires are experienced. He tries to bring them in from other studios, like he did with me, or get them right at the very bottom and try to train them." I said, "I'll speak to Walt about him," and I did; I spoke to Walt Lantz about Bob Clampett, that his mother had called and he was interested in getting into cartoons. Of course, I was young myself, then. Walt didn't want to take a chance on something like that, so he didn't even have an interview.
Later on, Clampett did get in the business, and I started hearing stories about him, later on, when he got into directing. But I hadn't heard too much. In 1960, when he was starting his new studio, Snowball, on Seward Street, he contacted me and wanted me to come down and see him, so I did. He took me through the studio and showed what he was attempting to do. He said, "I'd like to have you as a co-producer and work with me on the series that we're signed up for." He made me an offer, and I thought, well—things were a little bit slow, it was one of those periods at the studio, in 1960—maybe I'll take it; I can always go back to Disney or to Lantz or to one of the other studios. I'd had offers before, but I'd never taken them. I'd had one with Paul Fennell, and at MGM they were going to start a new unit, and they offered me a job to direct. Another new studio opened up in North Hollywood when I was working for Hanna-Barbera, and they wanted me to come over there and direct, but I stayed with Hanna-Barbera.
Barrier: I'd forgotten you worked for Hanna-Barbera.
Kopietz: I worked for them a year and three quarters, then went back to Disney's. I was going to retire, when Disney wanted me to come back. I thought I'd go back for a year or two more, and ended up staying nine more years, so I retired at 62; I was planning on 55.
Anyhow, I told Clampett OK. When I got down there, he takes me all around the studio, introduces me to everybody again, and he says, "Well, I want you to direct." It wasn't co-producer; it was to direct. Well, that was all right; I didn't make any point of that. I had what was supposed to be the key unit, and what I couldn't handle, Earl Combs was supposed to be directing. Earl Combs had never directed before; he was an animator, from Disney. Later, Art Scott came in and directed, after I quit. I directed a number of pictures there, and Clampett's characters were like twenty years ago in design. I wanted to keep the same personality, same everything, but update them a little bit, with refinement. Only someone who worked at Disney's a long time could really see what was needed. I redid the model sheets and showed them to the guys in layout and background and the animators, and they all thought, gee, this is great, making them more believable and at the same time keeping the character. I took them in to Bob, and he really frowned on that; he didn't want to change them at all. So that was my first obstruction.
Then I called a meeting, like we used to do at Disney's, for the layout men, for laying out the picture, to make it better for timing, and the whole bit. George Goepper was one of the guys, and Goepper thought this was great, to be able to talk it over and get the stuff better jelled. Clampett happened to come in one door, and wasn't expecting us, when we were having our meeting. He stood there and listened a little while, and then he went on out. He called me in later, and he didn't want to waste any time on meetings like that. I told him, "Bob, this to me is one of the most important meetings you can have in preparation of a picture. It'll save time in the long run, [because] the layout men know more what they're doing."
I wasn't making any progress. In the meantime, Felix Zelenka was hired by Bob Clampett, to sort of oversee the inking and painting, and the handing out of stuff, things like that. I told Felix—it was in regard to something else I wanted to do, and Bob wanted to keep the same old way—"Tell Bob Clampett that I'm giving notice, that I'll be leaving after the first of the year." So he went in and talked to Bob, and he came back later after he managed to talk to him, and he said, "Bob says as long as you're quitting, you can make it effective as of this weekend." I said, "No, that's not how I do business. I gave you two weeks' notice that I'd be taking off. I'm here to the day I stated." He went and talked to Bob and came back and said it was all right. All the animators and layout men—Bill Southwood and Earl Combs and a whole bunch of them who were animating—said, "We want to give you a going-away party." So they reserved all the tables up on Vine, just below Hollywood Boulevard, for a noon-hour going-away party. Bob wasn't invited; they didn't invite him. Right at the last minute, like the day before, he finds out about the affair. He spoke to someone about it, and said, "I'll pay for the whole party, food, drinks, and everything," and invited himself. So he showed up, along with the whole studio.
But that's the way he was. While I was there, I started hearing all of these stories. They came and tried to move all his furniture out, because he'd leased it, to get his first picture done, then he'd moved it to this location—I don't remember if that was the first move or second move. Anyhow, they weren't able to get the furniture back, and they hadn't got any money back. A guy showed up at his house one night to collect and Bob springs out the front door and runs down the street like a madman, to get away from him. I heard all these stories—and that's another thing that influenced me to say, "I can't work for this guy, he's impossible." Art Scott came in, but Art Scott's kind of a laid-back, real easy-going guy, and he put up with it. Maybe Clampett, by that time, figured he may have to back up a little bit, too, if he wants this thing to get off the ground. Art Scott stayed there with him, and apparently things worked out a lot better. I talked to Art one time after, and apparently he was making some progress with Clampett.
That's when I went to Hanna-Barbera. They wanted me to come over, so I had a spot. George Goepper followed me, and one of the other layout men followed George, then a couple of the animators followed. He started losing men. The first thing I worked on was a Flintstone; I think Bill Hanna gave me a full short to do next, and he liked it. I may have worked on one more Flintstone.
[Taping resumed after an interruption.]
Barrier: I want to talk a little bit more about Clampett, because he's such an interesting character; everybody has very strong opinions of Bob. Some people who worked with him on the Beany and Cecil series have very unpleasant memories of him—Izzy Ellis does—but Jack Hannah worked with him for a while on it and said he had no problems, and Willie Ito worked on it for a while...
Kopietz: Jack Hannah did? I didn't know that.
Barrier: It may have been before you came onto it. Jack was working on the pilot, or something, after he'd been laid off from Disney's. When you knew Bob Clampett first, back in the late twenties, what kind of kid did he strike you as?
Kopietz: We were still going to school; I must have been a freshman in high school. It was way back. He was just a younger kid who lived down the street, and I was helping him learn how to draw.
Barrier: Bob would have been four years younger than you.
Kopietz: And, of course, I was out of Glendale before he came in, as far as I know; I graduated in the winter of '27. I remember seeing him down in Glendale a couple of times; I don't know if I was going to art school then, or UCLA, or I'd just started working, when I saw him the last time before he got into the business.
Then, when I went over to Hanna-Barbera, one of the film editors over there was holding one of the pictures—he had the negative and everything, and wouldn't give it back, because Bob hadn't paid him.
Barrier: Was this Bob Bemiller?
Kopietz: No, it was someone else. I hadn't met him before, but he was a film editor or film cutter that Bill Hanna had working for him at the Cahuenga Pass studio. That was before they built the new building; when I worked for them, they were in the rented bungalows, on the left side as you went into the valley. Then they built the new studio on the other side of the street, close to Barham Boulevard.
Barrier: Clampett seems to have been kind of a mama's boy when he was younger, then became kind of a wild character later. Is that the way he struck you when you first knew him, as a mama's boy?
Kopietz: Well, as a young kid, I didn't have any opinion; I didn't think about those things. He was just another kid down the street. The times that I happened to see him in Glendale, or run into him, he always seemed OK. At the time I went down and talked to him, I hadn't heard all these stories, and he seemed OK. But after I got there, after a week at Snowball, I started hearing all the stories that different ones were telling me, things that had happened; they wondered why I'd quit Disney's to come down and work with him. I wasn't let go at Disney's, I'd quit on my own, and they couldn't understand that. Some of them were in layoffs, and it was a question of take it or leave it. But after I was there a very short time, I started hearing all these stories, and I could see weird ways he was doing things. Every week I stayed, the more things unfolded, as far as I was concerned.
Then when I went over with Bill Hanna, he soon put me on my first commercial. When I did the first shorts for him, he said, "You got it right on the nose, just the way I want it. Don't deviate." Then he put me on commercials only; I was doing them for Winston cigarettes and Kellogg's corn flakes and all this stuff. I liked doing the commercials, because I'd pick up the story from Bill, and we'd talk it over, kind of what he'd like. From then on, he'd leave it up to me. I could change the layouts, I could change the concepts a little bit, as long as I retained the main message. I liked that; also, there was more money in it.
When I finished the first commercial, it came back, and he called me up and said, "Come on down to the projection room, I want you to see something." So we ran it. When I walked in, he didn't say a word. He ran the thing through, and then looked at me for my reaction. He was poker-faced, and I didn't know what to expect. I said, "Well, what are the problems?" or something like that. Then he broke into a big smile, and he said, "This is a letter from the company. I thought you might like to read it." I read it, and it stated, "This is exactly what we wanted and hoped to get. Keep doing them the same way." Bill said, "That's all I'm saying. Everything's perfect. Just do them the same way from here on. I'm going to have you do all my commercials, and what you can't do, if there are any you can't fit in, I'll give them to George Kreisl." So I did all of his commercials, but if a deadline was approaching and it was obvious I wasn't going to get the last one in, he'd call George to come in and pick it up, and he'd do it at home. He liked part-time work.
That was a perfect setup, except there was no relaxation. It was just one to another, just constant. The constant pressure started to get to me, especially when you're already thinking about retirement. It was worked out perfect, though, as far as picking them up, animating them, doing them—everything couldn't have been better. It was just the constant deadline pressure. They wanted them right as of now, two weeks, always. I was in picking up from Bill one time, and he said, "How's Gil Turner doing?" He'd been one of the animators there and had left. I said, "Last time I talked to him, he was doing fine." He was working for this other studio out in the valley; I can't recall what it was. I said, "After he started work, they called and wanted me to come over and direct for them." Hanna stated, "You didn't take it?" I said, "No, I told them I was satisfied working here and I was just going to stay on at your place." He reached over and picked up the telephone and called his secretary Gyla and said, "Give Fred a retroactive raise, as of last payday, of fifty bucks a week." He put down the phone and just went on with business. I never forgot that.
Barrier: So you left Hanna-Barbera just because the pressure was so great on these commercial jobs.
Kopietz: Yes; I'd probably never have left if I'd just had more time. But everything was hurry, hurry, hurry, and I figured I was getting too old for that.
Barrier: Was Art Babbitt involved with the commercials when you were there?
Kopietz: No, Art Babbitt wasn't there at the time I was there.
[Fred said he left Disney's late in 1960 and returned there late in 1962.]
Kopietz: Another thing I did—Bill Hanna had three openings made [for The Flintstones] that they'd intersperse for their shows, and I did two of them. Dick Lundy—I'd animated for him at Disney's, and I gave him the third one, that I couldn't get out on time. He was working upstairs in the same building. It was almost like a reversal.
Barrier: You were telling me earlier what happened when Dick Lundy was let go by Disney.
Kopietz: Dick had been wanting to get in touch with Walt for an assignment, and hadn't been called in. I guess he called again to get an appointment with Walt, and Disney’s office finally called to have Dick Lundy come up to see Walt. Dick went in the room, and Walt was looking out the window; he wasn't facing the doorway. Dick said, "All the time I was in there, he never turned around and faced me. I questioned him on an assignment, and Walt made some kind of a statement that made me wonder about my status there—about more directing, or whether I was going to animate, or what the deal was." Finally, I think, Dick made the statement, "I don't know whether I'm going to be an animator animating or a director directing any more." Walt had made some kind of statement like, "Which are you, a director or an animator? As of now, we don't have an assignment for you." So he got his notice from Walt, and he wouldn't be directing or animating, either one. He came by our house—Jane and I were living on Moorpark Way at the time, in Toluca Lake—and Dick was practically in tears. He said, "Doggone, I was one of the first employees hired by Walt. I helped him build the animation desks, I helped him in getting things organized, and he didn't even turn around to face me when he was letting me go." Dick was really upset, because he was loyal to Walt, he really was.
Barrier: He started in July 1929, so he really was early.
Kopietz: I started in March of '30, so he had a nine months' lead on me, in the business. I tried to console him a little bit. I didn't know that much about Walt at that time, but I learned through the years. Walt could be very unpredictable; some would get through and never have a problem, as long as [they] did what he wanted and didn’t cross him. Ub told me himself, "You know what I'm working for here? I came back to work for [Walt] at seventy-five dollars a week." Ub had told me, when I started working for him, that Disney had offered him a partnership sort of a deal in the business, with a $500-a-week salary and a percentage. Ub declined it to start his own studio. Ub figured, if Walt can do it, and I'm his key animator, I can get the backing and do it. Of course, they pulled the rug out from under him financially, later. I knew the guy; he was with Ub, and I knew him at the time I started working with Ub. I can't recall his name. He was the business man for Ub.
Barrier: There was Pat Powers, Charlie Giegerich, a bookkeeper named [Emil] Offerman...
Kopietz: Offerman—that's the one. He used to be around the studio. Ub was more interested in the product, and not so much the business. He had problems along the line, financially.
I started at Disney's in April , and it was June, July, somewhere in there, that Ub came over. Walt Disney had said, "If you leave me, that severs everything. Don't come back to me for a job." Then Ub and Disney got together, and Ub told me that's what he was offered, seventy-five dollars a week. He said, "Disney figured I wouldn't take it, wouldn't come back, but I figured I'm going to take the job and prove my worth to him, once again, and make him feel bad about the whole thing." And that's exactly what happened. In a while, Ub was getting new awards and doing great stuff for Walt once more. Pretty soon, Ub was making good money again.
Barrier: I've heard they were not ever friendly with each other again.
Kopietz: Not from then on. Ub told me himself, "I just hate to go into meetings with him. I avoid every meeting I can with him on a personal basis. I've had Walt pound the table and yell and scream when we were meeting on something, and I don't go with that. The less personal contact I have, the better."
Walt got angry with me one time, because I wanted to put my collection of western memorabilia in Frontierland, at Disneyland, on a consignment—just get a percentage, or rental, off of it, to help pay for my investment. Walt said, "Will you sell the whole collection?" I said, "No, Walt, it isn't for sale. This has been a hobby of mine. I spent years hunting for this stuff, and collecting it, and I don't want to dispose of any of it. He turned around in a huff and walked away from me. I don't know whether that had anything to do with anything that happened to me in the future, but later on, I came back from one of my trips up in the mother lode, where I found a western collection for sale. I got the price on it, and I looked at the collection; some of the stuff was good, and some wasn't so good. I told [Walt] about it, and he said, "That's a lot of money to put out for something like that"—it was $50,000. I guess he appreciated me telling him, but he didn't go for it.
Barrier: Did Walt bear a grudge against you for not wanting to sell your own collection?
Kopietz: I can't say that he did. I don't know. Sometimes he'd forget things like that, and sometimes he wouldn't. I've wondered about it at times.
Walt died four years after I went back to the studio. They made it real easy for me. I was working with Ollie Johnston, and I was doing VIP tours and public relations stuff; it was a snap job, especially pre-retirement. I couldn't quit; they made it too comfortable.
Barrier: I want to go back to when you first went to work in animation. You said you were hired in March—do you remember what day?
Kopietz: The fifth of March; it was the first part of the month.
Barrier: How many people were already working there when you started work?
Kopietz: Just a handful. Ham Hamilton...Chuck came in a little later...myself...[and an animator], I saw his name in one of the books some time back. He ran around with the heavier-set director who married Pat Brown—Tex Avery. We were all close friends and partied together. Tex married one of the Universal girls. After Tex died, Pat was over here in Phoenix visiting, [and] she called up here to talk to us. She worked in the ink and paint department [at Universal]. [Avery] was a close friend of this fellow, the other animator who was working with Ham Hamilton.
Barrier: Ben Clopton.
Kopietz: Ben Clopton. He was one of the early casualties in the business. I've been to parties where he'd get to drinking, then he'd get belligerent and pick fights. Not necessarily with who was there, but people out in the street—some stranger walking up. He'd get into trouble, and passed away at an early age.
Barrier: So there were just a few people working at Iwerks when you started there.
Kopietz: Then there were more, when I went back to work after I had the thing with my heart. I worked till probably toward the end of November, that same year , with Ub, and that's when Chuck had them call me from Universal and offer me the background job.
Barrier: So Chuck was at Iwerks very briefly before he went to Universal.
Kopietz: Yes, he quit and went to Universal. After he called me, I quit and went over to Universal. I don't remember just how long Chuck was there [at Universal], but I think he got caught in a layoff; I'm not sure. The next thing I heard, he was doing his sketches down on Olvera Street. I probably talked to him at that time, too, because I was concerned about him. Then he got on at Warners, I guess it was, after that.
Barrier: He was back at Iwerks a while, then he went to Schlesinger's, after that. So you were at Iwerks just from March to November, 1930.
Barrier: I assume you left Iwerks for Lantz for better money; was that the incentive for leaving?
Kopietz: Lantz doubled what I was making, as I recall. So I went over to Lantz at more money to begin with. In the meantime, Ub opened up in Beverly Hills, and that's when I went down with Bickenbach. Iwerks wanted me to come back, and I was going to go. I told Lantz, and he said, "Well, I'll better the offer." That's when he offered me a contract with three-month, six-month—I can't remember whether there was [a raise at] nine months—increases, and yearly increases in the contract from then on. So I had to call Ub and tell him I couldn't come back after all, but he did get Bickenbach at that time.
|Ed Benedict, Cal Howard, and Tex Avery outside the Universal cartoon department, March 1, 1932. Courtesy of Cal Howard.
Barrier: When you went to Universal, I guess Tex Avery was already there.
Kopietz: Tex Avery was already at Universal.
Barrier: What do you remember about Tex from those days?
Kopietz: He was a jolly, fun guy. In those days, there was a lot of clowning around, a lot of practical jokes going on; I could relate them one after another. But one of the bad ones was done by Charlie Hastings; he was at the desk right in front of me, if I recall. Tex was over here, to my left, against the other wall. Charlie called, "Hey, Tex," or did something, and snapped one of these clips, a regular oval clip, with a rubber band, and caught Tex right in the eye.
Barrier: A paperclip?
Kopietz: Yes, a metal paperclip. Boy, we were so mad at [Charlie] Hastings—Tex Hastings, we called him. Particularly in my case; I couldn't imagine doing such a stupid thing as shooting toward someone's face with a paperclip. But we were all young, and Charlie Hastings, he'd do some crazy things, too, that resembled Bob Clampett stories. Good artist. He should have known better, he was older than the rest of us. Of course, Hastings was all upset about it, also, after it happened, but it was too late.
Barrier: Did you notice any change in Tex Avery himself after the accident? Was he a different person at all, or was he pretty much the same guy?
Kopietz: He left after that; Tex Avery left before years I did. I stayed with Lantz clear up until the end of '39. That's when he was negotiating for that new contract. Once before, Lantz had negotiated for a new contract, and that was about 1935. I was one of four guys that signed we would stay with him, so he'd have some power. He wanted to handle the finances and total production. Prior to that, Universal Studios paid the salaries directly; they more or less did the hiring and firing, on Lantz's word. But Lantz wanted to have the whole say about everything financial and otherwise, and that made good sense to me. I signed, along with several others.
|Bill Nolan outside the Universal cartoon department, early 1930s. The building in this photo is the same one visible behind Tex Avery in the photo just above.
Barrier: Was Bill Nolan gone by that time?
Kopietz: Yes, Bill Nolan was gone. Bill Nolan died early. We all built homes near one another, in Toluca Lake. Bill Nolan had one, Gerry Geronimi had one, [and] Walt had one; that was the first home he built. I built, I think, a year or two after that. Gerry Geronimi built the year before I did, then I built in '35. Bill Nolan built before Lantz; it must have been '32 or '33. So we used to see a lot of one another, all of us. Manuel Moreno built on Clybourne, by the country club. Manuel had a nice home, which he sold in the early ’forties, went to Mexico and started his own animation studio in Mexico City. He wanted me to come down, and I planned on it; he offered me such a good salary I couldn't turn it down. He wanted four animators. I forget who it was, another well-known animator...
Barrier: Carl Urbano went down there, I know.
Kopietz: There was Carl to go, and Manuel, and myself, and he found a couple of other fellows. I can't think of the name of the other party that took my spot. I'd had military training at UCLA, and figured I'd be called in the draft. I started getting worried about that. A lot of things were happening back in those days. But [Moreno] went down there, and later was having trouble getting Technicolor film.He said Lantz was grabbing it all up, trying to get his allotment of film. Finally, he gave up, came back, and started a [photographic] studio in L.A. He also had a film lab, and camera store before that. I'd have had a couple of years down there at the most, probably, as it turned out. He wanted me to go with him, when he was negotiating and setting this thing up.
Barrier: We were talking about Tex Avery, and whether he had been changed any by his injury.
Kopietz: Up until I last saw him, he seemed like the same old Tex. I think that the loss of his eye was always a big handicap to him, with drawing and everything. I've had some eye injuries, where I've had to try to animate with one eye while I had a patch over the other. I know how it handicapped me, and it must have handicapped him a tremendous amount.
Barrier: I've never been clear on how long before he left Universal it was that he lost his eye.
Kopietz: When the accident happened? That would have been the latter part of '31 or the early part of '32. At least two or three years before.
Barrier: Did Tex Hastings stay at Universal very long after he put out Tex Avery's eye?
Kopietz: No, he didn't stay around too long after that, and I don't know what happened to him.
Oh, Les Kline was another of Walt's animators at that time; Les was the other one that signed up to leave with Lantz, in case he didn't get his contract agreement. Les Kline, Moreno, myself, and George Nicholas. Thereafter, it was Walt Lantz Productions.
Barrier: How did you get into animation, from starting as a background painter and layout man?
|Manuel Moreno, 1937. Courtesy of Ed Benedict.
Kopietz: I liked to cartoon. At that time, I figured I eventually could make more as an animator than as a layout and background artist. Lantz said, "If I can get somebody that can take your spot, I'll put you on to animation." He tried one man for a picture, and it didn't work out, so I had to go back to layout and background again. In the meantime, while he had me working on animation, I had no experience with it. [But] I could draw, and I was used to cartooning. I think the first scene I had was a railroad engine, coming up in perspective, and in the meantime all the poles and everything are going by. I got a lot of help and [answers to] questions from Manuel Moreno.
George Moreno was his brother that came in later; he went to England and had his own studio later on. As a matter of fact, I had two offers to go over to England to work; one was his studio. George died early, too, from drinking; he was like Ben Clopton. He liked to fight, and he liked to drink.
Manuel was the one that really helped me along, by giving me the principles of animation. He was a good director for those days, and a good artist. Basically, he was a good little cartoonist. A lot of the guys they were bringing in weren't that good, and they'd weed them out, the same as Disney did. For every one that stayed, there'd be five in and out, it seemed. He gave me an awful lot of help, and we liked one another, and got along well together. Of course, I'd been disciplined in life drawing, and in cartooning I'd taken a W. L. Evans course, and Landon. Bickenbach and I—he had a Landon, then I shared a Landon course with somebody else who took it.
Barrier: So you never were an assistant animator with Lantz.
Kopietz: Only to the extent that if I finished with the layout and backgrounds, and had one or two days without anything, if they wanted to rework a story on a picture or something like that, then Lantz would let me inbetween. Of course, inbetweening then was what later became breakdown and inbetweening. The inbetweeners do breakdown and inbetweening, according to charts. Well, that part I could handle with no problem. But it was learning to put in action, to make the little characters come alive or do what they were supposed to do, and to make everything work so that it wasn't too fast, wasn't too slow. We called it timing. That's where I had to learn. Moreno would help me, and I'd go right ahead, and after I'd get a certain amount done I'd flip it, and I'd take it over to him, and he'd flip it. They later made him a director, and I think it was partly because of that. Anyhow, I really sweat. I was trying to earn what I was being paid for doing, and I wasn't worth that much when I was occasionally doing the inbetweens. Then when I got into animation, again I felt I was way overpaid for what I was trying to do. So it was basically just cramming, and for that first year animating, boy, I sweat. Believe me, I sweat, and Manuel helped me an awful lot. The second year, things started coming fairly well. By the end of two years, I figured I was earning my money.
Barrier: When did you actually start animating? Do you remember what year it was?
Kopietz: Sometime in late '32 I probably went into animation full time. Ernie Smythe—I remember the guy they finally got to replace me. Ernie Smythe stayed until Willie Pogany came in.
Barrier: Did Lantz stick with the idea that one person would do all the layouts as well as the background paintings? Or did he finally split up the jobs?
Kopietz: One person handled both jobs as I remember. I left there at the end of '39, and by that time there was another director that Walt had brought in, after Moreno left. Burt Gillett was directing for a while; as a matter of fact, I animated with Burt Gillett. We did another ghost picture; at Disney he directed a ghost picture, then Lantz did a ghost picture. I worked with Gillett on several cartoons, and about then Lantz took off on a trip, and he told me that I was going to direct a picture while he was gone. There wasn't enough story, and I had to stretch it to get enough footage. That's another thing I sweat on, because it was just a last-minute decision. I don't really remember the animators that worked on that short, other than George Nicholas and Les Kline.
Barrier: So Walter was still directing pictures himself at that time?
Kopietz: Walt was still directing, as I recall. And Manuel; then Manuel left, and can you recall—
Barrier: Alex Lovy?
Kopietz: Alex Lovy; he was another director. I think I worked on at least one picture he directed, and I believe it was around that same time when I did this other one for Lantz.
We were doing Meany, Miny, Moe; Andy Panda; then we did a series of specials, and Burt Gillett worked on some of those. They were in color, and more money than Walt normally spent on a picture. They were supposedly in the neighborhood of $18,000 or $20,000.
Barrier: Originally Bill Nolan and Walter Lantz were both directing, and you worked for both of them, is that right?
Kopietz: I was doing the layout and background for both of them, and it seems like I animated for both of them. I know I did animate on some stuff that Bill animated on, so it must have been one of his pictures. But it was mainly Walt's unit until Moreno started. We used to sit in on story meetings and mull over gags. Pinto Colvig was there in those early days.
Barrier: I've heard it was real loose at the Universal studio back in those days. You really wouldn't get a lot to work with.
Kopietz: No, in the early thirties everything was rush-rush. It had to be—twenty-four pictures a year. [Lantz wanted to] get them photographed and on the screen.
Barrier: You'd been doing layouts, and all of a sudden you were animating, and you had layout drawings from Ernie Smythe...
Kopietz: I remember mainly Ernie Smythe's work, because he was the one that stayed on. They'd be his layouts, and we'd just go ahead and animate the stuff. We'd have our model sheets to go by, of course, and I used to make—as I recall, I did it on all the pictures—I made rough sizes for the character for that particular background, so that when you got the background painted, they'd work together.
Barrier: Later on, at Disney's, and other studios, too, they'd have to be careful about matching the animation to the backgrounds, and they'd make blue-line tracings and that sort of thing. Was anything like that done at Lantz?
Kopietz: Yes. We used to use red and blue Scripto pencils; besides black, that's all anybody worked with. On tracebacks, you'd indicate if you wanted it to be photographed—well, as a matter of fact we didn't animate in the rough and photograph it and then have it OKed or changed, and then inked and painted. The first time it was animated, in pencil, that was the way it was used. You wouldn't see it until you saw it on the screen. All finished.
Barrier: You didn't have any pencil tests.
Kopietz: Didn't have any pencil tests.
Barrier: You mean all through the thirties at Lantz, you didn't have any pencil tests?
Kopietz: All the early thirties, for sure.
Barrier: So the only way that Walter Lantz or Bill Nolan could see what you were doing was by flipping the animation.
Kopietz: Yes, just what you'd see in flipping. I don't recall even flipping much animation for them to see if it worked. It might have been once in a while, but generally speaking, you'd just go ahead and lay it all out, and then they'd go into ink and paint, and then they'd shoot the stuff.
Barrier: You mean they wouldn't even look at it before you sent it in to ink and paint?
Kopietz: Most of the time, I don't remember showing my animation very often as far as flipping or anything. Our training then was do it so it's acceptable and works the first time. We had no pencil tests; you couldn't experiment. You couldn't say, "This is going into position too fast," or "The pan's moving too fast, you want to slow it," or vice versa. The only way, as I recall, was if the scene came back, on film, and [it was] too bad, maybe you'd rework it. That was bad news, so we tried to avoid that, by all means. The budgets in the early thirties were unbelievably low.
Barrier: I knew they cut corners compared with Disney, but I had no idea it was that bad.
Kopietz: When I went over to Disney's, you could see why they were making a lot of progress. They'd redraw, rework animation. I remember, when I was with Ward Kimball, they'd pull out a whole sequence of scenes; Walt wouldn't like it and [he would] discard the whole thing. I don't know whether I can recall any particular pictures. Walt’s story concept could differ from the director’s, so sequences were altered every once in a while, completely changed around, especially with Woolie Reitherman. Walt sometimes would say, "Let's take a different approach on this whole sequence," then it'd be redone. He'd tell what he wanted, maybe. Woolie Reitherman was always in a state of flux, as far as making decisions, but Walt knew pretty much what he was shooting for, and was trying to get it, but he wasn't the artist. Someone else was doing it.
Different ones like Ham Luske and Jack Hannah, I had no problems getting along with them. We'd talk it over, animate it, shoot the rough test, and if it was all right, we'd use it the way it was. Maybe you'd make slight changes; no one minded that. We were trying to improve and make a decent product, the whole time, and that's why I stayed on at Disney's instead of going to the other studios. This was a learning process for me. You could get old films, you could run them on the Moviola, you could study them if you wanted; we didn't do much of that, but we could. Now all these newer animators, they have everything to work with, and the training and the teaching. They've had old stuff to project and study and slow down and really analyze. Well, we didn't have that amount of time in those days. If you were too darned slow, you'd be out even if you were doing a good job.
Barrier: When you were first hired at Iwerks, you were completely new to the business. Did you have trouble adjusting to it, or was it an easy thing for you to get into?
Kopietz: It was an easy thing for me, as far as the layout drawings and backgrounds, and getting a quick perception of the whole thing. The biggest challenge later was movement, timing, and trying to make characters become alive so it was realistic and believable. Even then, animation was still slapstick. My main concern at Ub’s was not animation. All the animators and all the directors held Charlie Chaplin in high esteem and studied his stuff for what they could get out of it. Animation slowly, then later, rapidly progressed.
Barrier: When you were first doing the layouts and backgrounds for Iwerks, they didn't have storyboards at that early stage...
Kopietz: Ub a lot of times would make little drawings, little sketches. Several boxed sketches on one sheet of animation paper. There could be a series of these.
Barrier: Oh, thumbnails.
Kopietz: Yes, he'd refer to them more or less as thumbnail sketches. I remember he had a certain way of drawing trees, and simplifying things, and what ones I made, I tried to make them to tie in with his way of drawing so it looked like his style. I figured, this is what he's been doing, this is what he wants.
Over at Universal, I was really on my own. Whatever concept I had of following through and getting the drawings all laid out, I'd do it. As I recall, Walt never gave me any hassle on any of the stuff, layouts, titles, or backgrounds.
Barrier: They didn't have storyboards at Universal that early, and I gather that the stories were worked out pretty roughly...
Kopietz: Pretty roughly; it seems like we had different sketches that were stuck up on a board. We had boards, and we'd stick up different ones, with pushpins, and they'd change [the sketches] during story meetings—just very rough sketches, to try to keep some continuity in the thing.
Barrier: How did you know how to break your layouts down into scenes at Universal? How did you know what should be in each scene?
Kopietz: It seems like Walt or Bill had rough pads, where they had a lot of miniature drawings sometimes. If I’m not mistaken, that’s partly what I worked from. I remember that one of my main efforts was to have continuity from one scene to another.
[Fred added the following paragraphs in correspondence, responding to my notes about some comments he'd made after the tape ran out.]
As I recall, we averaged around 25 to 30 individual backgrounds and "pan" backgrounds per short. The rough storyboards and gag sketches were in their infancy in the early thirties but along with the smaller pad drawings I managed to break down the picture into scenes.
So-called fade-ins and fade-outs were used occasionally between scenes or ending a picture. If you wanted a 24-frame fade-out/fade-in you would use a compass and calculate circles evenly spaced from center of field to outer field edges. One circle on each black field paper and then cut out circles using openings as an iris from full field on scene closing in to smallest cut-out opening, then all black sheet. Next, you reverse order (smallest opening on new scene to full field on new scene). Camera would place the black paper cutouts over scene drawings and backgrounds shooting all frames as indicated by animator.
Regarding toners: If we wanted a night sequence, that section of film could be oned in blue to be more convicning. Toners were used on the old black and white film infrequently and more or less experimentally.
[Taping resumed on April 30.]
Barrier: One thing I wanted to follow up on with you is the extent to which Walter Lantz actually directed the pictures when you were working for him, or had Manuel Moreno or other people doing the actual direction. How closely were you working with Walter?
Kopietz: Most of the time Walt didn't hand out the scenes himself. Manuel Moreno would hand out the scenes, or Bill Nolan. As I recall, Manuel did most of the handing out for Walter. As long as the director was satisfied, there was no problem. You just picked up the scenes, animated them, they were shot that way and used that way. If it looked all right, if the scene flipped OK, they'd put it under the camera and start shooting when the backgrounds and cels were finished.
Barrier: Later on, at Disney's or Warner Bros., when a director handed a scene out to an animator, there would be a lot in the way of drawings and other material. The staging and everything else would be pretty well set. But when you got a scene from Manuel Moreno, was a lot of it left up to you as to how the action was staged, and how the characters acted, things like this?
Kopietz: It was pretty much up to each animator. The best I can recall is maybe talking a scene over and what would be expected in the scene, and then you'd go ahead and do it. You didn't have a lot of drawings, like later on.
Barrier: No character layouts to speak of.
Kopietz: No. Things were as simple back in those days as they could be, really. If I remember right, talking about pinups, storyboard clippings, and things like that, in the story meetings we used to use those. There'd be rough drawings made and inserted here and there to help carry a story.
Barrier: But nothing like what you'd get at other studios later in terms of a lot of preparation by the director, showing exactly what he wanted in a scene.
Kopietz: That's right. Later on, you'd always have your model sheets, of course, and if you had two major characters working in a scene, you might have a drawing as to the relative size of the two.
Barrier: The same kind of thing you had done before, when you were doing the layouts.
Kopietz: Yes. But as far as any indication of any action, or anything really happening, it wasn't there. Later on, at Hanna-Barbera, when everything was limited animation, and they had regular layout men working there, like Bickenbach and different ones, there might be two or three drawings per scene, showing sizes, action, the perspective in the foreground, or the distance or whatever. That was an aid to a lot of the animators, but most of the seasoned animators didn't necessarily need all the drawings that were furnished for a scene. But they did it, and that way they kept a better control of what was going on.
Barrier: So for each scene, you would get several drawings of each character over the course of the scene?
Kopietz: I don't recall getting a lot of drawings, at that time, in '61 and '62. You'd get a layout, and then there'd be a drawing or a couple of drawings of the characters, and you'd have your exposure sheets, of course, with the music and dialogue indicated. We had records at that time, and we had the little machines to play the records on, so we could listen to the dialogue. Of course, it'd be marked on the sheets, but we'd listen to it, and then we'd try to interpret all of our dialogue mouth action and body action to the dialogue track. Later on, when they started shipping animation overseas, they probably added more and more drawings.
But in the early days, we used metronomes a lot, and we'd set the metronome to the beat—whether it'd be a walk or whatever, just to kind of set the beat, to know how to prepare our action. I remember each of us would have a metronome, and we'd set it up according to the beat we were going to animate to.
Barrier: When Manuel Moreno gave you a scene, would he specify the beat in that scene, as an eight-frame beat or a sixteen-frame beat, or whatever, or would you determine that yourself as you animated the scene?
Kopietz: That's going back so far now, I can't remember. It seems that we may have had the beat specified on the exposure sheet, if we were working to music, but maybe we didn't. But we'd know the beat, and we'd work to that—or find out what the beat was. If we had something that had to work to the beat, I know I'd always set a metronome and get the thing swinging back and forth and try to work to it. That phased out later on, and I don't recall ever working to a metronome at Disney's.
Barrier: Looking at the Lantz cartoons from the thirties, later in the decade the drawing gets a lot more elaborate. Do you remember, animating at Lantz, was there gradually a little more money, a little more time, a little more pressure to do things better?
Kopietz: Yes, there was always the quest among the animators to do a better job, and the budgets did go up, slowly, through the years. I think every animator improved considerably during the years I worked there. The same thing happened at Disney's, when the old loosely animated figures—we called them rubber hose—[gradually disappeared]. It was a little bit that way at Universal in the early days, because Bill Nolan worked that loose way. We had other animators that kind of followed up on that technique. Through the years, we gradually got away from it. We tried to get a feeling like Disney. We were doing the same thing, making progress all the time.
Barrier: And they were gradually giving you a little more time, a little more leeway to do this? The way you described it earlier, there really wasn't any give in the system.
Kopietz: Well, that was fairly true the whole time at Universal. They wanted you to do so much film footage a week.
Barrier: What were your footage quotas?
Kopietz: They varied all the way, depending on what you worked on, as to whether it was a more expensive picture as far as cost or allotment, like some of the color series we did there at Universal—we took more time on those. Burt Gillett directed on some of them, and Burt wanted more quality. He was continually striving for more quality, and that's one of the things I liked about working with Burt. Even if my footage dropped down, if I could get it better, that was great, so Burt and I got along real well together.
Barrier: Of course, he didn't last very long at Lantz.
Kopietz: No. He was drinking at the time; he was having problems. I think from the time he left Disney, it hit him hard. So there was a big problem there, but when he was feeling right and in the studio and working at it, he was still striving for quality.
But the film footages—as I recall, probably the average we were trying to maintain was twenty-five feet a week. In some cases, they would really like to get thirty out of you, or thirty-five, if possible. On the other hand, the lows were probably eighteen feet to twenty feet a week. If they consistently stayed that low, you'd probably be in trouble.
Barrier: And this was the cleaned-up drawings with nothing left but the inbetweens, is that right?
Kopietz: The animators in those days were keying out the animation and roughing in the breakdown drawings, so it was mainly in-betweens that your assistant would be doing. They had the animators and inbetweeners, and later on they got more into animators' assistants, and the assistants doing inbetweening, too. The assistant would take on more responsibility later. The reason they didn't at the beginning was that most of the assistants weren't that capable of taking extremes and making everything work, even according to charts. I found, in my own case, I'd make my charts, and I might make one drawing in between, to where from that it'd start to slow in or slow out. Then you might even rough in the action, but it would be up to them to proportion it and to make a good drawing out of it—as good as they were making them at that time.
Barrier: But as far as your own extremes were concerned, you would typically clean those up?
Kopietz: Yes, I always cleaned up all my extremes. I'd rough out a scene, normally, then I'd go back and clean up my extremes and throw in what extra breakdown or necessary drawings would be in between, then I'd have my charting for them. The inbetweeners in those days would go pretty much according to chart, just making them inbetween. Then we found that by making arcs, whether it'd be a low arc or a high arc, or straight ahead into position, we'd kind of indicate that. Or if an arm was swinging around, like someone throwing a ball, and you had a drawing to make in between, and the arm went out of position, you'd rough in the arm. Or maybe a leg would be out of position. We started getting more and more into that, where everything didn't work at the same speed. Something would work faster, something slower, and they'd indicate it with separate charts or separate little indications.
But it evolved; through the years, Lantz cartoons and artwork was constantly improving, just like it was at Disney's or Warner Bros. or anywhere.
Barrier: But I guess there were absolute limits on how good you could get at Lantz, in a way that there weren't at other places.
Kopietz: Yes, that's where Disney was able to make the most progress. You weren't really tied down and restricted to just cost and charting it and getting it out. The directors were partly responsible for that, because they wanted to get better products, and of course, Walt himself was constantly striving for a better product. When I arrived at Disney’s, all the rough scenes were photographed, and they'd tie a whole picture together in the rough and run it. If a scene or a sequence needed changes, you'd go ahead and re-rough it and re-do it. The chance to learn, the chance to experiment, was greater at Disney's, and it showed in the product. If the same conditions had extended to the other studios, the same progress could have been made, because there were good men at all the studios. Lots of good talent—during those Depression years, they had the choice of a lot of experienced young and middle-aged commercial artists that could come in and do this work. Of course, they were bringing in a lot of young people, too, and mainly the ones that were willing to start out at a low wage and learn and had a future ahead of them. During the first part of the Depression years, a lot of those artists who made good money felt that they'd eventually get back into making good money in some other kind of artwork without having to start at the bottom in animation. So a lot of that little older talent, highly competent artists, didn't get in the business, for that reason. They'd maybe come in as layout men or background painters, where their starting salary would be a little higher.
Barrier: At Disney, both Charlie Philippi and Hugh Hennesy were newspaper cartoonists.
Kopietz: Yes, I knew Charlie Philippi and Hugh Hennesy down at the old L.A. Examiner. While I was still in high school, I used to go down and visit them. They called up one time and said they had a job for me in the art department. I declined, because I felt I wasn't ready yet. At that time, I think I was going to UCLA—I'm not sure. But I knew it was an opportunity to get in the newspaper business. That was another thing: I wanted to be a political cartoonist. That was my original intent. But by the time I was ready, and in the commercial art job that Chuck got me onto, they were starting to lay off political cartoonists. The political cartoonists in those days were making several hundred bucks a week. I thought, well, there's no use trying to strive to become a political cartoonist when political cartoonists that have big names can't get work.
Barrier: Something I meant to ask you yesterday, about Tex Avery...evidently he in some sense directed a few cartoons at Lantz, before he was fired. Do you recall anything about that? Did he ever hand out work to you?
Kopietz: If he did, I don't remember that he was directing at that time. But it could have been. As a matter of fact, when I was doing the layout and background work, he might have done it then. But I can't remember having discussions with him, or handing backgrounds and layouts over to Tex, unless I gave them to Walt, and Walt and Nolan gave them to Tex. That's going back a long way, and I'm not sure on that. I know Tex helped Bill on some shorts.
Barrier: Evidently it was just a couple of pictures, and Bill Nolan delegated the work to him.
Kopietz: Well, maybe that was it. See, Bill Nolan was building a home back in the early thirties, and possibly he gave some pictures to Tex to hand out and direct. But my connection was mainly with Walt Lantz. Talking things over, doing the work, and giving it to Lantz. He was the one that really OKed everything that I did, and the one that I talked to about everything. I had some discussions with Bill Nolan, too, but my memory says that most of everything was dealt through Walt.
Barrier: Do you remember what happened when Bill Nolan left Universal? Did he have any kind of dispute with Walter? I know that he worked on a Skippy series later.
Kopietz: No, I can't enlighten you on that. I have no memory of that, at all. I know Walt and Bill, from all outside appearances, seemed to get along very well. I don't remember ever having a problem there, between the two. Actually, they built almost across the street from one another, in Toluca Lake. Bill built his home first, on the north side of the street, and Lantz was just a couple of houses down on the opposite side of the street. Gerry Geronimi built one down at the end of the street, on Valley Spring Lane. Manuel Moreno had already built a home there, just a few blocks away, and I built near Manuel Moreno's home. As far as I know, everybody was getting along real well.
Barrier: Do you remember anything about what happened when Tex left? As I recall, he wasn't getting a raise he wanted, and he said he lay down on the job and wasn't producing the animation that they expected, so they fired him. Was there surprise around the studio when he was let go? Do you recall anything about the circumstances?
Kopietz: As I recall, it was a surprise to me when Tex left. But all the studios at that time were in such a state of flux. Guys were coming and going, they'd get an offer elsewhere for more money, then they'd take off. Or they'd get caught in a layoff, and they'd go elsewhere, and then later on maybe come back to the same studio they'd been working for. Similar to what I told you happened in my case. These things were ongoing with all the animators, so it was never really a surprise when someone left. Either they weren't getting the footage out, or the quality of footage they thought they should be getting for what they were paying, [or] maybe they had an offer on the outside and they left of their own volition. It was kind of difficult to tell. We were all young, and we didn't think too much about it. In later years, when a person would be pretty well established at a studio and doing a job, and get caught in a layoff, you'd wonder what the problem was; you'd think more about it. You'd start relating it to yourself. But back in those days, it was come and go, and there was usually a spot for someone that was capable. He might last only a year or two at one studio and get caught in a layoff, but there'd be another one that would be moving on at the time. Some of the younger fellows got a little frustrated—some that possibly weren't as talented, and couldn't get the drive of animation as readily. I recollect a lot of them finally gave up.
To get back to someone like Tex Avery, I always felt that some of those fellows weren't very good draftsmen. They weren't good cartoonists, actually, except [that] they had far-out ideas. I used to think of Chuck at one time as being like that. He had a lot of ideas, like Walt Disney had, but I always felt that his drawing could be better. I’m speaking of the 1930s.
Barrier: When you knew Chuck at Chouinard and Iwerks, you didn't think he could draw very well?
Kopietz: I thought he had limitations at that time. I thought Tex Avery was very fortunate to be animating, considering his style and technique of drawing. But I recognize him as being a story man, or a gag man; he excelled in that way.
There were others that could draw very well. Don Williams was a good draftsman; Ed Benedict was a darned good draftsman. I could name lots of them that were very good draftsmen, or cartoonists. Some were purely cartoonists, others were just good all-round. Bickenbach is an example; he was a good cartoonist, a good draftsman.
When I first went over [to Disney's], I often wondered how Fergy [Norm Ferguson] was able to be the animator he was, the way he rendered his drawings. Freddie Moore, on the other hand, was an exceptionally fine cartoonist and a fine animator.
Barrier: Did you work with Fergy at all?
Kopietz: It seems like I worked on a scene of his at one time; I just can't recall for sure. But I remember seeing and flipping a lot of his drawings, and scenes. Les Clark wasn't the draftsman, either. I assisted him for a while. He had a good name at the studio, he got off some pretty good scenes through the years, but when I was assisting him, it was fantastic the amount of drawing change I had to make, to make the animation look and work the way Walt and the director wanted it. I had to redraw the stuff completely, in some cases I'd soften the timing a little bit or do different things. Les liked what I was doing; Les was a real fine person, and we got along great. I liked working with Les Lcark when I was assisting, because it gave me more of a workout, something more to do. It wasn't just cleaning up a rough drawing, in other words. I don't mean to detract from any of these fellows, because what they missed in some way they would gain in another way, maybe in the storytelling way they'd animate something. Everybody worked a little differently. Even Frank Thomas's were really worked over—lots of lines, picking them out, but he put a lot of thought into everything. Now Ollie [Johnston] was more rendered, cleaner to begin with, and he tried to get it all more or less as he went along. Ward Kimball could work very rough on up to finished drawings, either way. Working around with the different ones in the studios, I really had a chance to get an overall picture. When things would get slow, I went back a number of times to assist some of the guys, until there was again an animation opening.
Barrier: I would assume that when they did put you back in assistant work, you were always assisting some of their best people, because of your own experience.
Kopietz: At one time or another, I probably did some work for most of the Nine Old Men, Woolie, Larson, Frank Thomas, Lounsbery, etc. Les Clark I assisted, Ollie Johnston, Hugh Fraser, Ward Kimball—I mentioned that earlier.
Barrier: With Ward was on Three Caballeros?
Kopietz: Yes, among other pictures. Clark Mallory came in and took my place. I was in animation for a considerable time, as I recall, after that. Years later I worked with Kimball again.
Barrier: Disney's had a big layoff around 1947...
Kopietz: At that time, I was animating, and George Owens was an assistant for me. He got caught in the layoff and they gave me a new assistant—I can't remember who it was. They assured me that I wasn't going to be touched, and I continued to animate for a while, but they'd cut down so low that I think I went back to assisting for a while.
Barrier: I've heard of that happening to other guys, like Hicks Lokey.
Kopietz: I didn't mind it, because I was from the outside to begin with. I was like ten or twelve years late getting to Disney's. If I hadn't been at Universal all the time, it'd have been a different situation. I didn't mind it; I'd work at whatever they'd give me. Fortunately, they'd nearly always put me in a real good spot with somebody, and then as soon as things loosened up, I'd go back into animation.
|Fred Kopietz as a Disney animator.
Barrier: When you first came to Disney's, how long did you work as an assistant before they gave you animation?
Kopietz: I worked on Fantasia, at the tail end of the picture on the special effects, with Johnny Reed. I was helping him in some of the animation on that, and I was getting the lowest pay you could go, almost. They knocked me back from a good salary down to the bottom, but I figured, well, it'll correct itself down the line. Then, before the picture was finished—they felt they could handle [the effects] and get it out on deadline—they assigned me as assistant to Judge Whitaker, on duck shorts. Frank McSavage was in charge of the duck cleanups at that time. I was supposed to help him, and I worked with him one day and he said, "You don't belong in here. You should be animating. Judge Whitaker has Eric Cleworth working with him as assistant, and Eric doesn't know the business yet. We'll get you in there, and Eric can work behind you." I didn't like that idea, moving someone out and moving me ahead of him, but I didn't have any say about it. So I assisted Judge for a very short time. He gave me some little animation things to test me, I guess—small parts of scenes—and he said, "You should be animating." So they set me up with an assistant, and I went into animation on ducks myself. So it wasn't too long a time. I can't remember just what the time periods were. I stayed in animation, as I recall, [until] after the strike, I believe it was. They laid off half the studio after the strike, and they kept me on. I felt I was fortunate, because I was new, from another studio. I went out on strike, too, because I could see all these inequities happening, all these things going on. I was from the outside; I had no control over it. I didn't think I'd ever go back to work at Disney's [after the strike], but I wanted to give the artists my support. I figured, I'm going out on strike to help them, and if the strike ends in favor of all of us, I'll gladly go back to one of the other studios if I’m not recalled. But they called me, and I stayed on.
Just before the strike came off, about every two weeks I was getting an increase. I'd get a notice, and here'd be an increase. Another week and a half or two weeks later, there'd be another increase. They were trying to hang on to the ones they wanted. It the same as doubled or more than doubled what I was making, in just that short time. I thought, well, if they can do this with the threat of a strike coming up, and I do stay on after the strike, maybe they'll appreciate some of the talent they have here. I think that's what happened; they tried to retain the more experienced men.
When I came back from the strike, and animation dried up again, I'd done a clean-up scene or two for Ward Kimball; I'd been knocked back, so it was like an assistant doing a scene for Ward Kimball, or possibly two scenes. He asked Johnny Bond to trace down those two scenes, to see who had done the work. He found it was me. Bond came and said, "Ward Kimball wants to know if you want to be his assistant." I said, "Sure." But I was hoping to get back into animation. That's when I worked with Ward, and he was responsible for me getting back into animation again. This was after the strike, when I went back into animation for the second time.
Barrier: So you were hired as an assistant and had gone into animation, after working for Judge Whitaker. Then you were knocked back to assistant, after the strike...
Kopietz: Yes, after the strike I was knocked back again. Then I worked with Ward, and he was really responsible for speaking up for me. This [being knocked back to assistant] didn't bother me, because sometimes they didn't even cut my salary; I was making animator's salary.
Barrier: It's interesting that they were raising your salary, too, before the strike, because they were in such terrible financial trouble. They must have really been impressed by your work.
Kopietz: There were lots of inequities at Disney's during those days, and most of the studio did go out on strike. Very few assistants didn't go out; mainly it was Walt's Nine Old Men, that group, that stayed in.
Barrier: We were talking about Les Clark earlier. From what I know of Les's work, he never seemed to quite fit with the other Nine Old Men, like Frank Thomas and Milt Kahl—never seemed to be in the same league. Of course, he started with Walt back in '29, but there were other guys who started with Walt that early, like Dick Lundy, who weren't treated nearly as well as Les.
Kopietz: That's right. That's what I say, there were lots of inequities there. A lot of the fellows didn't get a fair shake. I could go back through one of the old phone books, and pick them out, one by one, that got a bad deal at Disney's. Others could seem to do no wrong. They were in Walt's [good] graces, I guess, from way back, and they just held that spot.
[After an interruption.]
Kopietz: I don't think there were too many [people in the animation business] who came from well-to-do families. It seems like most of us were victims to some extent of the Depression. The guys were coming out of school, or had started to work and were fitting into business. I fit right into that category. I couldn't even go to school, like [the University of Southern California]; I went to high school with John Wayne, and he went to USC. I had to go to UCLA because it was more like fifty dollars a semester. And I went to Chouinard just the year and that one summer session. I wanted to continue my education, but if you got a job, the money incentive was there, because most of our folks were having rough times. The guys that did get the jobs, most of them worked hard to get their footage out and do a good job and keep their jobs. Because things were tough.
Barrier: On your screen credits, I gather there was a minimum amount of screen footage you had to have to get screen credit—
Kopietz: That's it.
Barrier: A hundred feet, was that it?
Kopietz: A lot more than that, as I recall. I worked on numerous features, but mainly shorts. Personally, I preferred to work on shorts—not realizing that down the line the features were going to be the big thing. But you'd get on a short, get off of it in a short time, and then you'd be on new product. On a feature, you were on it for months and months. I'd be called on a feature, a lot of times, and I'd be on the tail end of it, to get it out, and then maybe I'd go back to shorts again, or I'd go to a featurette. Ward Kimball would know. Ollie Johnston knows, too; I worked with Ollie at the end. He was the last animating director I worked with. I was fed animation a lot of times when I was working as an assistant, as Ward could tell you. Then again, as I say, sometimes when I was assistant I was still getting minimum animation scale, and they'd boost me up when [I got] back into full-time animation again. But I didn't mind; I always had other things going for me, a lot of varied interests.
Barrier: It seems as if they almost took advantage of your skills, whenever they needed you, but never gave you the kind of recognition that they would have given somebody who had been there earlier on.
Kopietz: I really feel that. That's the one resentment I have at the Disney studios. I wouldn't blame Walt for that from the time of the Disneyland thing, when I told him my collection wasn't for sale. All through the years fairness was questionable in positioning personnel. It happened to others.
Barrier: John Freeman was really bitter about this. He believes he was kept down by some of the Nine Old Men, and kept from getting screen credit on Lady and the Tramp.
Kopietz: I think this can be true. Regarding screen credits, however, I had enough from Disney alone to qualify for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, of which I was a member.
[Freeman] worked with Milt Kahl. Milt always struck me in the wrong way. Milt never went out of his way to plug anyone. A darned good animator, good draftsman and everything, but I wasn't too fond of Milt. We had a great bunch of guys—we couldn't have had a better organization—but there were three or four people, in the whole studio, I don't know whether it was [personal chemistry] or what...I get along great with most people, but once in a while, no matter what you do, there's somebody you can't get along with, that strikes you wrong or something. It wasn't that bad with Milt, but I just tried to avoid Milt. I never got close to him. But Ollie Johnston and I got along great, Ward and I got along great, Frank Thomas and I, what connections we had, got along great, Les Clark and I got along great. Most of them—Johnny Lounsbery, Hal King. But if they'd given me an opportunity to work with Milt Kahl, I'd probably have refused it.
Barrier: How about Eric Larson? He seems to have been difficult for some people to get along with.
Kopietz: Eric Larson and I got along fine; never any problem with Eric. The only thing, I thought the Nine Old Men could have pushed a lot of people who were working there that were right below them, a step below them. I considered myself in that step, right below them. If they had really pushed us, we could have been a lot more valuable to the studio, and had more recognition. That's the one thing I missed. Lantz gave me lots of recognition. I had it with Clampett until I quit, I would have had it with Ub if I'd stayed there. Bill Hanna gave me recognition. But I've always resented that at Disney. I got treated well and everything, but recognition could have been better.
Barrier: It seems almost that by singling out the Nine Old Men, Walt gave them a vested interest in not letting anyone else advance to that level.
Kopietz: It was almost like that.
Barrier: And then, of course, as these guys began to retire or go into direction or whatever, big holes started opening up in the animation crew.
Kopietz: I don't think they looked too far ahead at Disney studios, in the late 1960s. I talked to Card Walker one time about it. I felt that the studio was being very shortsighted in not training and bringing in new people that would be taking over when we started to retire. Card Walker knew that I was planning on retiring; we were pretty good friends, I was trustee on that land thing that we went into together. We used to have meetings, the group of us. I tried to tell different ones that they should be training people, bringing them up, and Don Bluth was about the only one. Then, years later, Don Bluth took off with half a dozen or more—nine of them, weren't there? A lot of shortsightedness. I think even Ken Peterson, who was head of personnel with the animation department, could have done a lot more in equalizing things, helping to push those that really had the experience and ability. By that time, I wasn't caring so much, because I was looking forward to retirement.
[Fred mentioned that not only did Romer Grey work in animation, by starting his own studio, but that Loren Grey, Zane Grey's other son, worked briefly as an inbetweener at the Lantz studio, around 1935.]
Barrier: I want to go back to when you were hired by Disney, because it was unusual, as you say, that somebody who had such a long career at other studios would have been hired. I think you said yesterday that several people you worked with in the thirties, like Gerry Geronimi, were paving the way for you...
Kopietz: They were wanting me to come over long before I went. Gerry Geronimi lived in Toluca Lake, and in 1940, just before Lantz closed down, I'd started building a new place in Toluca Lake also. When the Lantz studio closed down, we moved into our new home. We were living in Hollywood at the time. I got the property all landscaped and everything, and Gerry kept dropping by—"Why don't you come over to Disney's? You're going to take a big cut, but eventually you'll get to making money again." George Nicholas, another one—he'd been animating for Walt Lantz, also, and he'd gone over to Disney's. Jack Dunham had gone to Disney's and became head of personnel there at one time; he was wanting me to go over. There could have been one or two others who would stop by the house and say, "Come on over to the studio, they need help, they need guys." I said, "I'm not interested in going over to Disney's." I had my career going on the outside. I figured I wouldn't make any more money at Disney's than I was making, even if they put me in the same relative spot. But finally I did. When I was all through with our place, moved in and settled, Lantz hadn't reopened yet, he hadn't settled his contract, so I told Gerry and Nick, "Maybe I will come over." But secretly I didn't expect to stay at Disney's.
Barrier: When you went there, they had just moved into the Burbank studio, I guess.
Kopietz: Yes, they'd just moved in. They hadn't consolidated everything, even when I was there.
Barrier: What kind of contrast did you notice between the new Disney studio and where you'd been working at Universal?
Kopietz: Everything was so relaxed by comparison with Universal, I couldn't believe it. When I entered “E” wing, they had a coffee shop—Mary Flanigan. A special place built in the one wing. When Johnny Bond took me into my room, I met Johnny Reed, Ralph Hulett, and Dan Noonan, I think was his name. Dan Noonan was helping Hulett, and Hulett was assisting Reed. First thing, they brought in coffee and milkshakes or whatever you wanted. So we sat around and talked a good bit, got acquainted. Everything was so easygoing, with no real push, I couldn't believe it. Here I was used to push, push, push all the time. I thought, boy, this is like going back to art school; this is a dream. That's when Johnny Reed, after I'd worked with him half a day, said, "Well, you should be assisting me." I felt bad about that; that was the first time that had happened. Then Ralph was to help me, and Dan Noonan was following up behind him. The second day, I think, was when Johnny Reed started saying, "You can help me on the animation; you've been an animator." Then he went in to Josh Meador, who was the head of the special effects department, and spoke to him and said I should be animating; at least I should be getting top assistant scale or animation scale, because I was an animator.
Josh went to the guy that was the head of budget at that time. I can't think of his name; he was later let go at the studio. Hugh Presley—he went to Hugh Presley, and Hugh said, "We just can't give any increases, we can't give any promotions where there's money involved. But I'll put him down on the list. When money loosens up, he'll get more money and we can move him ahead." Then Josh came back and told Johnny Reed that it couldn't be done at that time. I didn't know Johnny Reed was doing all this on his own. I let Johnny know that I didn't want to stay in special effects, I wanted to get into character work. So as soon as they could see daylight on special effects, of making deadline, that's when they moved me over to Judge Whitaker. They placed me with Frank McSavage first; Frank McSavage, the second day, had me working for Whitaker, then Whitaker got me into animation. But you had to have someone speak up for you. In each case, someone spoke up, and I got into animation, I'd stay in animation until something at the studio changed. That was the way it started out.
Barrier: And somehow you would always be singled out as one of the guys who would be put back in assistant work.
Kopietz: There were a number of us. An example: animator Bob Youngquist. We were up and down like Yo-Yos. I didn't mind it too much, because each one I worked with, I was learning something new. Ken Peterson, whenever there was a problem with an animator, when he didn't do scene planning properly or the mechanics on a scene, with the pans and the trucking and all that, he'd put me in those spots to work them out. Cliff Nordberg never could figure out his scene planning and his mechanics. I remember one time Ken Peterson had me going on his scenes that weren't working for multiplane camera—they were so complicated that scene planning couldn't get them to work right, and he'd call me in to do all the necessary changes to make the scene work. I'd revamp it just like I'd animated it. That's another thing I resented the hell out of, because here he was, at that time, undoubtedly making more money than I was, but I would have to make these scenes work. I resented that a lot. But I never complained; I went ahead and did it. I'd wait until something opened up again. Then I'd be back a couple of years animating again. I don't remember who told me—maybe it was Andy Engman—but he said, "You're one of them who can be placed in any job and fill the spot. That's where you're valuable to the studio. You can animate on a feature, you can animate on shorts, you can animate on a featurette, you can make another animator's scene work, you know your mechanics, your scene planning. You can be placed as an animator or an assistant or even special effects." I held that as a compliment, but I didn't like the idea of salary Yo-Yos and not consistently having all capabilities utilized. Maybe part of it was my fault.
The majority of the people I worked for at Disney's were great to work with, and the ones that I worked with me: George Miller, George Owens, Morrie Zukor, and Bill Southwood, now retired in Flagstaff, Arizona. I worked with many good men through the years in all the studios. I enjoyed being around them, as friends and co-workers. That's the part I miss. Actually, I don't miss much of anything else.
During the Universal days, there was so much diversity on the lot, so much going on, it was exciting—except for two years during the Depression when it was hard-hit, and our department, Lantz's, was practically the only thing going strong, all that time. That was a slow period. The first days with Ub were exciting, all of Universal was exciting, [and] Disney had its exciting times. When they started getting into live action, some of the fellows I'd known at Universal came over to work, and that made it a little more interesting. I guess I'm a little different than the average guy. I couldn't get into animation and spend my whole life and livelihood just with animation; it'd bore me to death. I have to have change, and I enjoyed being involved with a lot of outside interests. I've never been able to understand—like Eric Larson; that was his whole life, animation, teaching animation and thinking animation.
Barrier: I've heard that Ham Luske was that way, too.
Kopietz: There were a number of them like that.
Barrier: When you went from Universal to Disney, was the equipment a lot better?
Kopietz: Oh, yes. That was a big advantage, right away, of going to Disney's. At Walt Lantz, we had maybe two or three Moviolas that we could use, and at Disney's, you could have a Moviola in your room the whole time, to work with. There wasn't that pressure for footages, there was more of a stress on quality, getting it right. The air conditioning alone was a big thing. At Walt Lantz's, the first years there in the old cottage building, we'd sit in there practically stripped in our shorts sometimes; it'd be hotter than heck, and you'd have the fans going and all. In the wintertime, you'd freeze; you'd have electric heaters plugged in. When we moved in the new animation building, we had air conditioning; we thought, this is going to be great. The air conditioning didn't work; it was out of commission practically all the time I was there.
Barrier: This was the building that fronted on Lankershim Boulevard?
Kopietz: No, this set back from the main entrance buildings at Universal. It was a more substantial building—masonry, or brick. We had the whole upstairs. The downstairs was used for something else.
Barrier: But the first building was that little bungalow, the frame building...
Kopietz: The bungalow. From the bungalow, we went to the old dressing rooms that were along the side. They were all opened up so you could go from one dressing room to another. You could enter in the west side and walk clear through to the east side. Then each one of those [dressing rooms] had a door that opened up to the outside. Boy, that was miserable. And it was partly overshadowed with a big stage for the storage building, so in the wintertime it just got freezing cold in there. It was worse in the winter in that building. Now, in the first bungalow building, we could keep a lot more comfortable. We'd still use electric heaters and fans, but it wasn't nearly as cold in the winter. So it was bungalow, the dressing rooms converted to animation rooms, then into the newer building. When we moved into that new building, that was like heaven by comparison, because you could turn on electric heaters and be comfortable. But in the summertime, when it'd get hot, it was really miserable; and the air conditioning wasn't working most of the time, as I mentioned before.
Barrier: And you were in that building until you left Lantz.
Kopietz: Until I left.
Barrier: I know that later he had a building that opened out onto Lankershim Boulevard.
Kopietz: That was when he reopened, right. It was in 1940 when he moved in there. I never worked in that building; that's where I would have worked if I had gone back. But Disney was so comfortable, just having air conditioning, and not having to worry with electric heaters and fans—to me that was worth twenty bucks a week, just in itself. Fifty bucks a week, really. We had nice views to look out, everything was new, we had a good commissary. Everything was like going from shantytown, you might say, to a deluxe townhouse situation. That was the contrast.
[Posted June 6, 2011]