Happy Awards Season! At this time of year, most of Hollywood commends entertainment industry innovation, such as Charles Randolph and Adam McKay’s breaking of the Great Recession story in “The Big Short;” Mark Ruffalo’s sundering of scenery in his “Spotlight” performance; or the smashing of box office records by “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” To recap, there is a lot of new stuff to celebrate.
On the other hand, there are Don Hahn and Tracey Miller-Zarneke, co-authors of “Before Ever After: The Lost Lectures of Walt Disney’s Animation Studio.” The architects of this freshly published, heavily illustrated, and very impressive coffee-table tome revel in vintage Disney, specifically notes from the specialized training that Walt himself provided for his staff artists. Examples of notable lectors are pioneering Chouinard Art Institute (Los Angeles) professor Don Graham, Frank Lloyd Wright, “The New Yorker” raconteur Alexander Woollcott, and an assemblage of additional mid-century cultural luminaries.
Execution of “Before Ever After” is extraordinary, and that is doubly true for the professional backgrounds of animation experts/authors Hahn and Miller-Zarneke. Hahn is the storied producer behind multiple animated film classics, such as “Beauty and the Beast,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” and “The Lion King,” plus Disney live-action films “Maleficent,” “Waking Sleeping Beauty,” and “Chimpanzee.” Miller-Zarneke is the author of eight additional books about crowd-pleasing animation topics, including “The Art of Planes,” “The Art of Kung Fu Panda,” and “The Art of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.” Hahn and Miller-Zarneke graciously answer LA Animation Examiner questions about their joint venture below, thereby illuminating a once obscure epoch in cartoon history.
LA Animation Examiner: Could you say a few words about your motivation to write this book?
Tracey Miller-Zarneke: Don knew about the existence of some of these lectures from his experience working in the training department for Disney Animation Studios years ago. He knew there was a wealth of information just collecting dust and wanted to unearth it for new generations.
Don Hahn: Considering the amount of material, lectures, history, and research that had to be done to make this book happen, I could see right away that I needed to do this in collaboration with someone. I’d known Tracey for years, and her expertise in animation and interest in the topic made her the only choice for this. Indeed, it was plenty of work for two people, and (at times) more, as we enlisted help from the [Walt] Disney Archives, the [Walt Disney] Animation Research Library, and Maggie Gisel, our long time collaborator on projects such as this.
LAAE: What are the most significant items that the two of you learned during your process?
DH: I was surprised at the deliberate nature of the training. So often, training in modern corporations is an afterthought, or is something that is done to “tick a box” on the corporate plan. Here, Walt Disney himself put money into the program, because he saw it as a competitive advantage in an industry that was satisfied with hiring cartoonists and not artists. Also surprising were the number of [non-animation] experts who came to lecture at the studio. The transcription of dialogue between people like Frank Lloyd Wright and Disney staffer T. Hee was accounted in great detail, leaving us (the readers) with a sense of what was important to the artists and to Disney.
TMZ: Not being an artist myself, I was an eager new student of the teachings of legends whose names I’d only heard in passing in my years at Disney. Central to these figures were people like Don Graham, a Chouinard Art Institute grad and fine artist whom Walt entrusted with running the training efforts, and also animators like Bill Tytla, whose expertise lives on through the lecture note transcriptions from recordings taken at the classes. Reading these gave me a greatly deeper appreciation and understanding of the art of animation on so many levels, plus a keen sense of the culture of that era as expressed through the topics and the language. Speaking of the language, I’ll admit that I giggled every time I read the word “fanny” being used in discussions about the way The Goof [Goofy] should move, or when the artists were viewing live action footage of someone walking.
LAAE: What steps did you take in pitching this book to Disney Editions (i.e., the publishing imprint)?
DH: Along with an outline, we prepared a series of photos and copies of the lectures and ephemera from the period. We stressed that these were virtually lost lectures (although a few artists with photocopies-of-photocopies-of-photocopies of a few lectures and I knew that they existed) and were never published. We explained the importance, not only of Disney history, but of early Hollywood history, as this book would describe the journey from black-and-white silent cartoons to fully and lushly produced animated feature films.
LAAE: How were you able to unearth the actual ‘lost lectures,’ or source material?
DH: Many of the transcripts were housed in the Walt Disney Archives or in the Disney Animation Research Library, but others survived only in the hands of collectors or others who had purchased copies at auction. Some even came from family members of those who lectured way back when. The same goes for the wide variety of art and photos used in the book.
TMZ: This book could have been several volumes of material! However, once we had a sense that we had located all of the lectures, we faced the monumental task of organizing and prioritizing everything to decide what would and would not be included in the book. We had a cap of 448 pages and tried to focus on the key figures in the development of the studio and of [theatrical] feature animation.
DH: Some, like Don Graham, had hundreds of pages attributed to his/her/their name(s), so we selected key lectures that showcased contributions to drawing and action analysis. Other artists or instructors who talked in more technical terms were included, but in many cases are represented by a few pages to show that particular person’s area of expertise, so as not to leave the reader numbed by technical jargon.
LAAE: Do you plan a sequel or a follow-up to “Before Ever After?” If so . . . details, please!
DH: There are not plans for a sequel at this time, but it’s important to note that, since not all of the lectures made it into this book, there is the possibility to publish the entire collection of lectures, or at least share them perhaps online at some point in the future for researchers and historians.
LAAE: Hooray, and thanks!
In closing, the LA Animation Examiner draws special attention to Chapters 3 (“Gangsters, Models and Passion”) and Chapter 9 (“Innovation”). These sections highlight the usefulness of physical, gag-driven comedy in overall storytelling, and in the necessity of merchandise licensing programs, respectively. The LA Animation Examiner intends to employ the aforementioned lessons to create new, consumer-friendly animated projects to celebrate in future awards seasons! She encourages readers to do the same.
To immerse oneself in more historical Disney splendor, go to the websites of Disney Books and Disney Editions.