9.27.2010

Disney's Folio: Two Guys Named Joe

It could be argued that no studio hosts a larger volume of famous personnel than Walt Disney Studios, and that is just talking about the Animation side of things. Sure, Pixar certainly added to that fame with its talented, award-winning and yet affable and ever-present crew. But you could still remove them from the equation and be left with a good number of famous names from the executives all the way down to the artists. This is perhaps best exemplified by Walt's Nine Old Men, distinguished and legendary animators, directors and eventual Imagineers, whose work not only defined the visuals of almost all of Disney's beloved early animated features but also its theme parks.


But the best ideas didn't always come from a Marc Davis or an Andrew Stanton or even Walt himself. John Canemaker's Two Guys Named Joe takes a look at two often-unheralded legends at Disney and Pixar Studios, who were at the core of many of those same aforementioned beloved animated features, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves all the way to WALL-E.


The Two Guys Named Joe are in fact Joe Ranft and Joe Grant. The irony of the title is that these are hardly your ordinary average Joes. Canemaker, a renowned animation historian himself, meticulously details the course of their lives and careers, both of which show that these were two of the most creative minds to ever walk Disney's halls. However, beyond those blue sky imaginations and boundless creativity, Grant and Ranft were divergent personalities, flawed in their own ways and who overcame their share of roadblocks in life and their careers.


Ranft's half of the book is very much a tribute to the art of storytelling and storyboarding. I always knew Ranft was a veritable wizard of storyboarding but I didn't realize his reach was so long and legendary. For a significant period of time, his craft was influencing Disney, Pixar and Tim Burton's Skellington Productions all at the same time. He maintained those relationships to the end, even after he became a full-time Pixar employee. That speaks volumes about the loyalty his colleagues felt towards him and how much his love for the art reciprocated.


Ranft had the unique perspective of having worked at Disney during it's lean, tumultuous pre-Renaissance era, and he was very often the casualty of that era's conflicted leadership. Canemaker and his sources don't pull any punches in describing the frustration at the studio, and specifically in Ranft's career at that point. (Interestingly enough, we later read that Grant had similar creative frustrations during his early years at the studio.)


Reading the sections revolving around the making of Cars makes me think of the movie in a different light. I always understood how much of a labor of love the project was for John Lasseter and respected his work in getting the film made. Whether or not you were a fan of the story or the performances, you certainly couldn't deny the pride and craft of the film. Now learning how much involvement Joe Ranft had makes me think of the film with added poignancy.


Joe Grant and Joe Ranft


Even if you don't know the name Joe Grant, there is no doubt that you know his work. From character design to story development, Grant was a driving creative force behind films such as Dumbo, Fantasia, Pinocchio, and Lady and the Tramp, and would later make key contributions to Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King, among others. Grant was one of Walt's key story guys


At the Character Model Department, Grant worked in a unique position which would garner some criticisms from colleagues. His (and colleague Dick Huemer's) success and certain freedoms they had at the Model Department irked those in Animation, a situation only exacerbated by their resistance to joining the animation strike in 1941. Grant also made some questionable maneuvers that didn't help his cause politically in the company, and with Walt. That said, there has never been a shortage of criticisms of the mood swings of Walt himself, no less his Nine Old Men. In fact, Grant himself had a long-standing feud with Ward Kimball, which the latter held to the bitter end.


As Grant seemed to take on the role of pariah, it might be easy to subscribe to those criticisms of him (however legitimate or illegitimate they may be) but there is no mistaking that the art he pushed for was on another playing level and seemed superior to what the studio was producing at the time. Canemaker shows that Grant was delivering innovative and artistic concepts at a time where Walt's attention was evolving from movies into TV and theme parks. As such, commerce often won out over art.


After Grant departed for greener pastures in 1949, he returned 40 years later right as the Disney Renaissance was lifting off. It's particularly enjoyable to read this familiar yet almost new personality of his in his elder years. A fearless, forward man who never stopped trying to improve a concept, Grant would walk into anybody's office to deliver an idea. I'm almost certain when you're done reading about the latter era of Joe Grant's career, you will admire his pluckiness amidst an atmosphere growing more and more corporate by the minute. Sadly, there aren't many characters like that anymore, in any industry.


Canemaker utilizes a vast collection of interviews, recollections, and quotes to help fill in the stories of his subjects, an especially admirable feat when you consider that Joe Grant's story began over 100 years ago. However, he never gets too heavy-handed in his storytelling, even when discussing Ranft's untimely death or the fountain of boundless youth that Grant seemed to drink from towards the twilight of his life. Canemaker recognizes the poignancy of the stories being told and, like a good historian, lets those stories unfold naturally and unadorned with overplayed sentiment or the syrupy


The book is surprisingly blunt and is certainly not sprinkled with pixie dust. Canemaker utilizes often-uncensored quotes and paints honest portraits of his subjects. This is often quite indicting of the Disney corporate culture as there is much criticism of how it intruded on the art itself. While this is mostly prevalent in the pre-Renaissance era of Disney animation, you'd be surprised at how much even Walt himself seemed to run off-track and missed out on a wealth of inspired ideas. On the other hand, the literal painting (and drawing) is a revelation in this book. Old photographs, storyboards, character designs and illustrations accompany the the words in very vivid detail. And many of these illustrations are not just of Disney characters or stories; many are caricatures of the artists drawn by themselves or of their colleagues. (I particularly enjoyed the extensive representation by John Musker, better known for his Renaissance-era directing.)


In telling the stories of Ranft and Grant, Canemaker has also provided a study on the art of storytelling in animation, whether it be through storyboarding, character designs, or getting to the core of a good story. Going all the way back to Snow White, there have been very few animated features that truly succeeded on every level without some great sense of story. In recent years, we've marveled at Pixar's uncanny storytelling craft while bemoaned Disney's own seeming aversion to it. Perhaps they should make Two Guys Named Joe essential reading among Disney executives!



9.02.2010

A Match Made In...


On a recent trip to my parents’ house, I discovered a cigar box full of old Walt Disney World matchbooks and matchboxes that my parents had collected during our trips in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. During every trip, my family would grab these for novelty’s sake and to perhaps light a cigar or two. Unbelievably they have lasted the 20-25 years since those trips. My family doesn't have as many souvenirs from those trips as I would've enjoyed, but I found these to be uniquely fascinating little mementos with an interesting story.

Disney matches aren’t your typical collectors' items and I doubt would fetch much on eBay, but it’s amazing how something as innocuous as a matchbook could be such a relevant window into the past. I have little use for matches, but they were an extension of hotels and restaurants at the time. And Disney of course branded them appropriately. It was as much a part of the theming as everything else Disney did. As such, they offer quite a compelling window to the history of many famous Disney locations. I don’t mean to overload on pixie dust, but I truly felt the rush of nostalgia looking through these matchbooks. You can easily transport yourself to the old branding and style of the Polynesian and Contemporary Resorts during their ‘80s heyday.

It’s also a curious look at a time not long ago where smoking was encouraged even in a theme park! Nowadays you won’t find many matchbooks anywhere as laws prohibit many establishments from allowing smoking inside their buildings. I imagine it was decided that matchbooks would only encourage guests to skirt these laws and there no longer was a reason to give visitors fire-starting instruments. Also, overall safety concerns are much stricter than they were 20 years ago so leaving an implement of potential destruction so easily accessible is simply not going to happen in a family-friendly theme park, and certainly not in this post-9/11 world.

A matchbox for the Tobacconist shop on Main Street, U.S.A. is a particularly telling souvenir and window to a vastly different time. For years, this shop adorned the main thoroughfare from the entrance of Magic Kingdom. It sold cigarettes, tobacco and other related smoking accessories. All at a park named after a man who passed at an early age….of lung cancer!! Obviously these were different times. Many of you may recall flying to Orlando aboard airplanes filled with smoke and visiting Disney hotels, theme parks and restaurants with large smoking areas. Thankfully the times changed. People started valuing oxygen once again and the Tobacconist gave way to plush. (As much as the Tobacconist is an almost quaint throwback to an earlier era, there's no doubt in my mind it doesn't belong in a family theme park.)

In this day and age of merchandise saturating and branding of almost every item imaginable (i.e. Mickey Mouse waffle-maker), it may be hard for some to recall a time when it took a lot just to get to Walt Disney World and as such, you didn't get to leave with a lot beyond those amazing memories. You had to use your imagination to connect to those memories as I have often detailed in past reviews of many of Disney's pictorial souvenirs and books. But something like a postcard or a matchbox was also a fun little keepsake and a prompt for the brain to transport to the Gulf Coast Room, the Polynesian Village Resort, and other long forgotten memories.