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1939 article on Disney’s Ugly Duckling

Last night a friend gave me an early Christmas gift of an old issue of Street & Smith’s PIC magazine, cover dated April 4th, 1939. PIC is an odd, oversized LIFE magazine knock-off, with plenty of articles covering Hollywood and Broadway. This issue featured a 3-page spread on the current (and last) Silly Symphony short, The Ugly Duckling (which was released on April 9th). I scanned the pages for you (click thumbnails below to read), but please excuse the fact that my scanner was barely able to scan the oversize pages. It’s a nice pictorial, giving the public a glimpse behind the scenes with story sketches and model sheets – once again stating that Disney cartoons are “never written, but drawn”.

(Thanks, Mark Trost)

  • Contemporary magazines also told the public that Pat Sullivan created Felix the Cat—and that Leon Schlesinger created Bugs Bunny.

  • Brad Constantine

    you can see that Walt was really pushing the realism in these designs…very nice.Thanks fer sharing, Jerry.

  • Stephen, Walt’s live action framing sequences and studio puff-pieces—made for public consumption—contain constant misrepresentations of history. If we’re to believe them, then Ub Iwerks had no involvement in Mickey’s origins; Donald Duck debuted in ORPHAN’S BENEFIT; Pluto debuted in JUST DOGS (two years after his actual debut!); the “Pedro” sequence of SALUDOS AMIGOS was born during “El Grupo’s” trip to South America; and so forth and so on. If we’re to believe THE RELUCTANT DRAGON, Disney films are post-synced. As late as the 1980s, Disney promoted footage of WHEN THE CAT’S AWAY as being from ALICE’S WONDERLAND.

  • Guy

    David: Lobotomy used to be considered a perfectly good medical procedure. I guess we can toss away that Germ Theory of Disease, then?

    I mean, if your point is that things that are wrong allow us to toss away things that are total common sense, as it seems to be.

  • Scott

    Nice Disney pr piece, but as we all know, both writing and drawing formed the stories at Disney and elsewhere. It’s all in house it’s utilized. There is no “one” or “better way,” now, or in the past.

  • It’s amazing that Walt is so clear over and over again in print and on TV, and other animators and story men from the golden age said the same thing, and still people don’t believe them. Writing cartoons with words didn’t work. Writing them with drawings did. I know that’s frustrating to wanna-be cartoon writers who can’t draw, but it’s true.

  • Guy

    David: I made my post before I saw your second. You seem to have confirmed it.

    Hey, guys, how about if we find out if Golden Age cartoonists did something really bad in their past? Like, they hit their wife or were really mean to the retarded kid in third grade! That way they would be completely invalidated and we wouldn’t have to worry about how they were better than the guys and cartoons we’ve got today and won’t have to have these supremely tiresome arguments of no substance but “I’d like to believe this.”

  • Guy: It’s not an “I’d like to believe this”; Scott, above, is right. I know he’s right—I’ve seen hundreds of pages of 1930s and 1940s documentation from Disney that prove it.

    My understanding of the 1930s Disney process is that a critical stage in early story development—often coming before any storyboarding—was for a projected short’s story crew to write out a detailed prose synopsis of a new (or developing) plot, then submit it round for additional ideas, revisions, gag contributions, and so forth. These could be submitted as drawings, but were just as likely to be submitted in prose.
    A good example is “Mickey’s Vaudeville Show,” the synopsis of which appears on page 58 of my _Mickey and the Gang: Classic Stories in Verse_ and which was split into MAGICIAN MICKEY and MICKEY’S GRAND OPERA during development. I’ve seen numerous storyboards related to these productions, but nothing predating the “Vaudeville Show” synopsis.
    Written synopses were used for more one-on-one approval issues as well. Example: the aborted Elmer Elephant sequel TIMID ELMER began with Phil Horne’s July 3, 1937 request for Elmer sequel ideas, whereupon individual story men submitted different typed treatments; Carl Barks’ typed submission is reprinted on page 84 of MICKEY AND THE GANG.
    Barks and Walt Kelly later storyboarded an extended visual interpretation of Barks’ submission (my book reprints a few excerpts), but only after the prose version was approved—and revisions made.

    None of this, by the way, resembled the modern scripting process, in which artists are often shut entirely out of story development. Nor do I mean to defend that process.
    But it’s not defending it to point out that prose played a very critical function at 1930s Disney, even if Walt himself liked to gloss over it for the public.

  • Those prose synopses you’ve seen were transcribed by a stenographer from meetings of artists with lap boards knocking out drawings. They were intended to remind the artists of the context of the drawings that had already been done, not to provide context to future drawings.

    The drawings done at gag sessions, which can be seen in my first article on the “writing” process in the golden age as well as in the second article, were meant to illustrate isolated situations and action based on a simple premise. These rough sketches were gathered together and hammered into an outline of continuity (see article three) and then worked out into a basic visual continuity in the rough storyboard (see article four). The next step was to pitch the board to the story artists, and lastly, apply what was learned from the pitch to the final finished board. (I plan to do articles on these final steps too.)

    Once the storyboard was locked down, the director’s assistants would transcribe the action and dialogue into words into a shot list. This made it easy to copy and distribute to the various departments who needed to keep track of continuity. These documents are often mistaken for preliminary scripts by people without experience in animation production, but they were actually drafted AFTER the story was written. A dead giveaway that a document came after the storyboard and not before it is if you see scene numbers, footage counts for scenes and calling of shots. None of that can be determined until the storyboard is finished.

    Hope this helps clear things up for you.

  • The documents I’m referring to have no scene numbers, footage counts or calling of shots. And I’m not calling them preliminary scripts—I’m calling them “synopses” and “outlines” as some of them actually call themselves.

    Here is the one for “Mickey’s Vaudeville Show,” as published in my MICKEY AND THE GANG book. While this may have been produced by multiple members of a story crew, it doesn’t look like a stenographer’s minutes to me:

    As I noted, other story suggestions are clearly preliminary outlines produced by individuals rather than a crew.

    Here is one for THE FIRE FIGHTERS (1930). The author here was also an artist—so sketched out a number of gags over the course of the document. But there were other sequences he felt more inclined to describe in words.

    Now here’s Carl Barks’ example from the unmade “Timid Elmer,” again as reprinted in my book. Once again you’ll notice the comment that one “action sequence” was depicted in accompanying illustrations—but Barks’ main preliminary outline was still in prose at this early stage.

    Finally, going through my records I’ve finally located a mimeographed “Preliminary Story Production Memo” breaking down the developmental process in more detail; this time as applied to another unmade short from 1937-38.
    The memo has an ordered table setting the order of relevant production steps in stone.
    First step as indicated on the table was “Preliminary Outline.” A writer submitted a one-page prose outline of the story, which was then sent out to other staffers in what was formally called the “gag assignment.”
    The results were groups of story sketches and two pages of gag synopses in prose, turned in twelve days later.
    In this case, prose definitely came first; drawings were immediately important afterward, but still not the only way that the developing story was told.

  • I thought I’d seen that little ol’ ugly duckling somewhere…


    I like Preston Blair’s take. Great animator.

  • Wait, The Reluctant Dragon isn’t 100% realistic? You mean Robert Benchley lied to me?

  • 1) Premise
    2) Gag Session Drawings
    3) Outline
    4) Rough Board
    5) Pitch
    6) Final Directors Board

    If you take a moment to read my articles, you’ll see where the documents you’ve seen fit into the production process and how the written documents are used to organize drawings rather than the other way around.

  • I’ve read your articles, Steve. Here’s what you say about the “premise,” the stage to which Disney’s so-called preliminary outline obviously corresponds:

    “The idea for a cartoon would start with a simple premise- a few sentences that described the general theme of the cartoon. For example… “Porky is a bullfighter.” or “Mickey, Donald and Goofy are ghost exterminators.” In the premise there would be no real attempt at describing details of the plot, just a simple statement of a situation or series of situations that might offer entertaining possibilities.”

    The preliminary outlines at Disney’s in the late 1930s were occasionally as simple as this (or like the Barney Google/Snuffy Smith example you reproduce), but not usually.
    Many are one or two full pages long, going into details with multiple paragraphs about character motivation and/or specific storytelling styles that might be used to put the plot over (i. e. film noir approach).

    Stories didn’t have to originate with gobs of prose, but they sometimes did—and the Disney “Preliminary Story Production Memo” format makes very clear that in these cases, this stage really did come before any sketches.
    Dick Creedon, Grace Huntington and Leland Payne are some of the staffers who initiated stories this way; Payne’s “Deer Hunt” (1936), the story that evolved into THE POINTER (1939), is an especially good example.

    Note that I’m only talking about Disney in all of this. I’ll make no claim about the process at Columbia—or for that matter, Warners or MGM.

  • Premises were sometimes detailed and sometimes just germs of ideas. But they were just jumping off places- once the story artists went into the first gag session, all of the details in the premise were just suggestions. Nothing was locked in stone. In the “no no session” the basic idea was allowed to freely develop visually through the drawings, no matter what was written down by the individual submitting the basic premise.

    Outlines are a totally different thing than premises. The purpose of an outline was to organize individual gags into a fixed continuity- it follows the drawings. It doesn’t dictate them.

    The terminology for what the documents were called varied from studio to studio. It still does. But the functions of the documents was pretty consistent.

  • “Premises were sometimes detailed and sometimes just germs of ideas. But they were just jumping off places […] Nothing was locked in stone.”

    Never said it was. I used the “stone” metaphor ONLY to describe the order of production as outlined on Disney’s 1930s “Preliminary Story Production Memo.”

    My main point here has simply been to establish that text documents played an important creative role in the creation and development of some 1930s Disney stories; and that for Disney to publicly claim that its product was “never written, but drawn” was Hollywood mythmaking.

    My main point is NOT, however, to establish that text documents ruled all in the 1930s, set anything in stone, or that artists and other writers had to obey the holy premise-writer robotically.
    You must be thinking of the modern scripting process, specifically as abused in some modern TV animation.

    I think that process informs quite a lot of today’s beliefs about the 1930s processes.
    Let’s not let it.

  • My main point is that text documents did not serve a creative role in the development of story in animated films… they served an organizational role. I’m not saying that words were never used in the production of cartoons… just that cartoon stories weren’t written in words. It’s the function that the documents serve in the process that makes Walt’s statement “We write our cartoons with pictures, not words” totally accurate.

    I guess this is something that is easier to understand if you’ve been a part of the process of writing cartoons. I’ve drafted many premises, gag session notes and outlines myself over the years of working in animation. But I wasn’t writing. I was working in a production capacity, organizing the creative work of the story artists.

    The main difference between the way that Disney short cartoons were written as opposed to other studios was that Disney would often have multiple gag sessions with calls for input from the artists between each one. This made for a lot of dittoed story meeting transcriptions. Other studios got by with less back and forth, probably because their schedules were tighter. Written down accounts of gag sessions and draft outlines are very rare from these studios because everything after the gag session was worked out between the story man and the director. There was no need to distribute transcribed notes.

  • andreas Wessel-Therhorn

    love The ugly duckling. great short with moving animation by a young Milt Kahl.Still makes me choke up after so many viewings.

  • “My main point is that text documents did not serve a creative role in the development of story in animated films… they served an organizational role.”

    Sorry, Steve. I’ve seen dozens of examples of text documents provably serving creative roles at Disney in the 1930s and 1940s—often with attached memos verifying which point in the process the documents represented (so one can show that the texts existed before drawings in these cases).
    Dick Creedon’s three-page preliminary outline for one unmade 1936 short starts this way:

    “Everybody has experienced a guilty conscience. We know how a guilty conscience plus FEAR and IMAGINATION make everything look different, as if the whole world was aware of our little crime, ready to accuse us—the friendliest remarks make us cringe […] then that terrific relief, joy and resolution never to do it again, when we find out that the crime hasn’t been discovered and won’t be […] or, as it sometimes works out, [has transpired] “all for the best.” So that instead of being a culprit, we are bewildered and then delighted to find ourself [sic] a hero; BUT WE HAVE LEARNED OUR LESSON, ANYWAY.

    This seems like a natural theme for a PLUTO picture, using the STRANGE INTERLUDE VOICE device as it was used in MICKEY’S KANGAROO… to reveal Pluto’s emotions, thoughts.”

    Paragraph after paragraph follows, analyzing Pluto’s mindset and describing the action and tension (“like Claude Rains going back after the fatal note or telegram in CRIME WITHOUT PASSION”) as he struggles to steal a bone from the fridge and then cover up for it, hampered by what he’s capable of doing as a dog—but still perhaps doing too much undoglike stuff, as Creedon notes is a concern and will have to be dealt with in development.

    A cover note from Creedon makes clear that as the story idea was presently all in text (“explanatory” format), certain sequences would be enhanced with “typical Pluto gags” at later drawing stages.
    Nevertheless, what’s here is quite in-depth, does include plenty of gag descriptions, and creates magnificent atmosphere. True; all this could also have been done in drawings—but for Creedon, like many whose text documents I’ve studied, it may simply have been more expedient to get it all down in prose.

    At Disney, it’s quite clear both drawing-based and text-based storytelling were approved of and used often. To claim that “writing cartoons with words didn’t work; writing them with drawings did” is to do a flat-out disservice to history—at least in terms of Disney.

    And what is all of this IN service to? It’s inescapable, Steve, that your dismissal of writing in golden age cartoons is linked to your strong belief that writers are a drag on animation production today. If you can prove that writers were dispensable in the 1930s, I guess, you can make a better case for them being dispensable now.

    I’d like to suggest that the problem today isn’t the writers. Sure; there are a lot of bad writers on cartoons, many of whom actively dislike the animation medium and view themselves as “slumming” between live action jobs.

    But these writers, however lousy, can’t be blamed for taking whatever work is available when it is offered to them.

    Why not shift the blame to where it really lies: with the suits who’ve sought out these bad writers, often as a deliberate attempt to disempower others (both writers and artists) in the system who really give a damn? And it’s these same suits who often demand that storyboard artists adhere to these bad writers’ scripts without making any creative contributions of their own. That’s not the bad writers’ fault, however bad their work may be. It’s the suits’ fault.

    I’m sure studio middle management just loves watching writers and artists duke it out—because as long as that low-level battle goes on, the real culprits will always stay safe.
    Stop fighting the symptom and fight the disease.

  • This is a very cool find. I love the old storyboards!

  • When I worked for Bakshi, an old timer named George Bakes (who assisted Milt Kahl on Sleeping Beauty) animated Nails, the spider. One day, George was in a panic. He had torn his office apart. Stacks of paper and boxes from his desk were piled up in the hallway and he was loudly cursing a blue streak.

    I asked one of my production guys what was wrong and he said, “George lost one of his extremes and he freaked out. I don’t know what the big deal is, it’s just one drawing. He can just draw it again.” I grabbed the guy and two other production assistants that were working in the bullpen and took them to George’s office to help him find the drawing. After a half hour of digging they found the stray drawing.

    George dissolved into a pool of relief on a couch and the production assistants came back to my office to let me know the drawing had been found. They asked why one drawing was so important to George. I explained to them that animators don’t animate one drawing at a time. They have a stack going that they flip. They work various elements in different overlapping passes. The movement of the head might be animated with a completely different timing than the movement of the body or the overlapping action of the folds of his clothing. If one drawing is missing, the only way to replicate it is to go back to square one and recreate all of those passes one by one. It might take almost as long as reanimating the entire scene.

    The PAs had a general knowledge of how animation worked, but the nuts and bolts of how it is actually accomplished wasn’t obvious to them from watching from outside. There are some aspects of the animation process that are more understandable when you’ve worked closely with animators. The process of creating cartoon stories is self evident when you have been able to sit in on story meetings and work with the artists organizing their work. Looking at the various documents and detritus of the process from outside isn’t really going to give you a full understanding of how all those pieces fit together.

    The modern process of writing TV cartoons is totally backwards. I’ve worked on a show under that boneheaded system too. But I’m not talking about that here. I’m talking about the golden age…

    Walt definitely wasn’t lying when he said, “We draw our stories, we don’t write them in words.” And Walter Lantz wasn’t lying when he said that all of his story men drew the stories and didn’t write them in his TV show. And Frank and Ollie weren’t lying when they wrote in detail about the process in Too Funny For Words. And Leo Salkin wasn’t lying to me when he told me that they tried writing scripts for cartoons back in the early days and it just didn’t work. Otto Englander’s widow told me that her husband would come home cursing the incompetence of a particular story guy who didn’t draw but was good at taking three hour martini lunches while Joe Grant drew his work for him. Bob Givens made a horrible grimace when I asked him about writing cartoons with words. He wasn’t playacting. And the Disney tryout book for Snow White which was given to prospective employees wasn’t lying when it said that all story men had to be proficient with drawing skills. This isn’t just PR on the Disney TV show. It’s a broad spectrum of animators from many different studios all saying the same thing… Back in the old days, cartoon stories were created in drawings, not words.

  • By the way, I’ve seen Saturday morning scripts like that Pluto one you quote. When you hand all those words to an animator, all he gets out of it that is useful is, “Pluto steals a bone and feels guilty about it. He is happy when he thinks he can get away with it, but gets his comeuppance in the end.” All those fancy words to express a simple two sentence premise!

    Was Creeden partnered with Joe Grant? Mrs. Englander was too polite to give me the name of the person her husband told her about. She described the guy as a Hollywood type with fancy three piece suits who would rush to the front whenever Walt entered the room to do Sarah Bernhardt style “acting” and spew flowery prose to sell his ideas- Then after Walt left, he would grab his hat and tell Joe Grant to sketch it all up while he took a three hour martini lunch. He had demanded that Grant be his “assistant” because he realized that he was probably the most talented story men at the studio. All the easier to coast through the workload.

    Apparently, this guy got his when he was asked to pitch one of his boards (which he had never taken the trouble to look at before the meeting!) He stumbled and bluffed his way through it trying to figure out what the pictures meant as he went, but Walt stopped him and called for Joe Grant to pitch his board instead. Joe hit the ball out of the park and the hotshot “writer” was out on the sidewalk with a pink slip in his hand before the day ended.

    Great story. Mrs Englander was a very smart and entertaining lady.

  • “George lost one of his extremes and he freaked out. I don’t know what the big deal is, it’s just one drawing. He can just draw it again.”

    Steve, I am not boosting writing here to put down drawing. Not for a second. I know plenty of animators personally and understand George’s feelings 110%.

    “And Leo Salkin wasn’t lying to me when he told me that they tried writing scripts for cartoons back in the early days and it just didn’t work.”

    I didn’t say Disney used scripts. I’ve presented lots of written documents in this discussion, but I’ve never contended that a single one was a script.

    “Otto Englander’s widow told me that her husband would come home cursing the incompetence of a particular story guy who didn’t draw but was good at taking three hour martini lunches while Joe Grant drew his work for him.”

    One non-drawing story guy being incompetent (and a jerk, or so it sounds!) does not invalidate the role of words in the animation process. Please lay off the guilt by association. I’d have hated to work with Mr. Martini—but I’d also have hated to work with Burt Gillett, a story man who did draw and whose personal failings I’ve also heard a lot about.
    Regardless, the fact remains that Englander’s incompetent jerk was a story guy who didn’t draw; showing that Disney definitely had such people on staff, regardless of the talents of any given one. This contradicts your earlier implication that the system had no place for these people.

  • My documents on the Pluto preliminary outline show that Bill Cotrell encouraged Creedon (note spelling) to submit the idea to Walt.
    I do show Creedon having been on the SNOW WHITE story crew with Grant, but Creedon’s name appears on many more projects after that, so I can’t believe he’s the superficial fraud of Mrs. Englander’s story.
    On SNOW WHITE, Creedon’s role began with compiling the staff’s earliest SNOW WHITE plans into the 21-page “Snow White Suggestions” document of August 1934.
    Years later I show Creedon collaborating with Al Perkins on “Pieces of Eight,” a lengthy typewritten feature film proposal for Mickey, Donald, and Goofy. This went on to storyboard as “Morgan’s Ghost” before the move to war production necessitated its adaptation, instead, into an early comic book story produced in-house by the duck unit, Carl Barks and Jack Hannah’s famous “Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold” (1942).
    The contrast between “Pieces of Eight” and its storyboard, by the way (both of them reprinted in Set I, Book 1 of the 1980s Carl Barks Library), show that once artists got their hands on the story, plenty of elements were revised and changed around—just as should happen in any fluid creative process. But plenty of concepts from the prose version stuck, too. Good ideas came out of both words and drawings.

    Moving on—classy dismissal of that Pluto outline, especially as I didn’t give a single example past the introduction of how it fleshed out that simple plot and made it worth reading in extended form.

    You: “When you hand all those words to an animator, all he gets out of it [is] a simple two sentence premise!”

    So Creedon was wasting effort writing his long-form treatment just because the premise was fundamentally simple? I can boil Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” down into two sentences, too. But try and tell me an artist would not be well-served by reading the poem in its entirety and drinking in the atmosphere.
    I don’t even like many Pluto cartoons as produced, but Creedon’s long description brought his plot to life in a way that a short description wouldn’t have.

  • I would love a xerox of that Pluto document. The stuff you quoted is amazing. (It’s the sort of purple prose that story artists love to make fun of.) Did Creedon write anything that was actually animated? Was he one of the radio gagwriters that demanded that a Tyrolian house be built next to the lot to put them in the mood to write on Snow White? Nothing they did ended up making it to the screen. They were the “we tried that way back when, but it didn’t work” guys that I’ve heard some hilarious stories about.

  • Steve, your statements suggest you didn’t know of Creedon before yesterday (apologies if I’m wrong). Now you’re guessing about the man’s career and success rate all on the basis of your own dislike for what you perceive as his wordiness or hamminess.
    Realistically, if he’d advised building a Tyrolean house off to one side of the studio, you can bet he’d soon have been living in it… and subsisting on a diet of crow.

    “[Creedon] tried that way back when, but it didn’t work,” you say—so Disney kept Creedon, and other non-drawing writers, on staff for at least six verified years during the studio’s acknowledged golden age? Something doesn’t add up.
    Mind you, I’m not saying non-drawing writers made the golden age what it was, or that they were any more important than writers who could draw. Just that if they were all such dead weight as you’re telling me, they’d have been thrown under the bus in no time.

    I’ve found another reference to Creedon: Walt enlisted him as “story director” to instruct Carl Barks after one of Barks’ own unfinished cartoons, “Northwest Mounted” (1936), didn’t cut the mustard. At the time, Barks was an in-betweener hoping to become a full-time story man. Creedon’s notes about (relative) illogic in Barks’ story survive and were reprinted along with the storyboards in the 1980s.
    After Creedon’s lessons, Barks submitted a new idea—for what became a segment of MODERN INVENTIONS (1937), and its success led to Barks’ instatement with Harry Reeves in the new Duck unit.
    Whatever you may think of Creedon or Barks, Creedon’s role here appears both pivotal and indicative of some level of respect Walt (and Barks) had for him.

    I’ve no intent to go ballistic here, but I’ve never actually known an artist who had the level of seeming scorn you depict for words as a medium. It’s as if words never had any power to conjure an image, or are somehow innately pretentious.
    Would any artist worth his/her salt really tell, say, Dickens, Lewis Carroll, and John Updike to “keep it simple, stupid… if you expect this story to be adapted visually, boil it down to two sentences, then let me reinvent all the visual details”? It’s almost an unflattering portrait of artists: incapable of being inspired by anything complex.

    K.I.S.S.: A hallucinatory man is pining for his lost love when a big, spooky bird lands on his house and won’t leave. The man goes berserk trying to interpret the bird’s presence in light of his loss.

    >Squawk!< Nevermo— er, never mind. I say too much.

  • Scott

    “Writing cartoons with words didn’t work. Writing them with drawings did”

    And of course, Worth is an anti-factualist. I can’t imagine why he’s in charge of the ASIFA archives. sigh.

  • Berkeley Brandt

    My name is Berkeley Brandt and Grace Huntington was my mother. I don’t have much to contribute to this discussion, but I would like to know more about my mother. She died when I was very young. I have a box full of material from her time at Disney. There are a lot of drawings, so I think they were important to her work. She was hired as a writer but seemed to use drawings a lot. I recently published her autobiogragphy (Please Let Me Fly) in which she describes her time at Disney. I would appreciate any additional information about her.

  • Robert

    Shot pool with George Bakes. His Dad owned the Cuetown pool hall in Staten Island. Sometimes Goerge drew while sitting behind the counter. Facinanting to watch. He was a good pool player and a better chess player. His Dad was a neat guy. I was his regular checkers partner.