An Interview with Wilfred Jackson

By David Johnson

 

 

 

 

Wilfred Jackson was one of cartoonís greatest director. Coming to the studio in 1928 as Walt was in the throws of the Oswald debacle, he got into directing quite by accident, having helped Walt work out synchronization problems for the early sound cartoons (a method still used to this day). He remained until his retirement in the sixties. For Snow White, the worldís first feature-length cartoon, he directed two major sequences, the entertainment section and the final sequence of the film beginning with the montage of the change of seasons. His work remains on this and others (he directed The Old Mill in the Multiplane Cameraís debut in 1937) exemplary and helped to set a standard by which all subsequent cartoon directors must be judged. Here, from an interview in Winter 1988, shortly before his death, he speaks at length of Snow White, Walt, Frank Churchill, arguably cartoonís greatest composer, as well as his own beginnings in the cartoon business, all in his own unique and self-effacing manner.

Note: Will Jackson was filmed dancing with Marge Belcher (now Champion) in imitation of Dopey on top of Sneezy to be used as a guide to the animators for the entertainment section of Snow White, fragments of which still exist.

This image is a blow-up of one of the rotoscopes of Jackson dancing with Marge Belcher. It was used as a gag and pinned up on a storyboard (Marge modelled for Snow White and would later be married briefly to Art Babbitt, animator of the Queen).


David Johnson: Was the soundtrack (of the Silly Song) at that time, when it was being filmed, just a piano accompaniment?

Wilford Jackson: To the best of my recollection, it was originally to a piano track. Now whether they made a preliminary orchestral take of that Iím not sure. I donít recall it being orchestra. That early in the cartoons we didnít usually pre-score music.

DJ: Would Frank (Churchill) have been there playing live or would they have done a loop for the soundtrack? When they filmed this, for study purposes?

WJ: Probably a piano track.

DJ: By him playing it for you [live] or it being already recorded?

WJ: More likely [the latter], but it was done either way.

 

DJ: Now, besides the entertainment section, what other parts of the movie did you direct?

WJ: The other one that comes to mind is the scene toward the end of the picture where the dwarfs are gathered around the [casket].

DJ: From there to the end of the movie?

WJ: Yes. Iím vague on whether I had any other sequences in animation. You see, in those days we worked closely in connection with the story deptartment during the development of the various sequences and I was in the story work and in on the preparation for animation for so many different parts of the picture but those two are the only ones that I recall actually directing.

DJ: So what exactly does a director do? I know you were in charge of some of the live action. But what else does a director do, for instance in the last scene.

WJ: Youíre speaking strictly of Snow White?

DJ: Right.

WJ: First of all, as the story work was nearing completion.... Youíre familiar with storyboards? As they were being prepared and hauled over and beginning to take shape after a series of meetings with Walt and the director, the story group - the director would work in there and get his ideas incorporated into the thing, then the sequence would be delivered to the director to begin his work. His first task was to time each scene and visualize the choreography of the action - what action went with what parts of the music, if it was a musical sequence, or, as in the ending here, [prior to the closing with the song ďSome day my Prince will ComeĒ] there would be a recording, a pre-recording of the dialogue of all the vocal sounds. The director would be in on that usually. Having recorded those sounds, the director would see to it that the whole thing was timed, put together on a sound track. If there was music involved the director would play out the scenes where you have this scene and you cut to a close-up and then you cut to something else and so forth, working with the layout man to prepare the visualization of the thing. Timing it was a matter of seeing if there was the right amount of time for all the different actions that had to take place and the pacing of the scene. The director in effect served as the film editor pre-cutting the picture before it was made. Does that make sense?

DJ: Yes, it makes sense.

WJ: Thereís a reason for that, if you care to know about it.

DJ: Well I know that itís because.

WJ: Because of the terrific expense. The pace of this particular sequence (where the prince comes down to pay his last repects)-- I believe that the sound was pre-recorded on that song and so it was my task partly to time the picture in such a way that it would look all right with the pre-determined length of the thing. Sometimes we would have to cut out actions that had been visualized and agreed on. Once and a while we would have to find some way of inserting action or expanding scenes in order for it to come out [correctly]. The music at the ending Iím not sure whether that was pre-recorded or not, when she road away on the horse.

DJ: Do you recall some of the discussions on this particular scene and how it would work for instance the animals would bow their heads and the dwarfs do likewise and Grumpy goes up and put the flowers on SW. Now, whose idea was it for G to go up and put flowers on SW?

WJ: Goodness, that idea originated in the story department early, before I picked the scene up, so I canít say. Of course... Let me say this about Snow White. The directors of Snow White didnít direct in the same way as they did on other pictures. In effect, Walt really directed that picture, he was so intensely involved in everything about it. And he was right in on everything that was done, right done to what color a character was painted. On Snow White, Walt was in on every last detail, it was Waltís picture, one hundred percent from beginning to end. That canít be said of any other picture that Iíve worked with him on after the very, very early Mickies and Silly Symphonies, very early.

DJ: So that could have been Waltís idea?

WJ: It could have been. It could have been somebody in the story department. It could have been....My goodness, Walt talked to everybody about his pictures, he shaped them up that way. He talked to the gardener or the janitor or anybody he could get hold of. He worked the thing out in his own mind by telling and re-telling and re-telling the thing - bouncing it off of anybody. If you had an idea he would listen to it.

DJ: Were you involved in the very early stages of Snow White, say in late 34 and taken off of the shorts in and put in as.

WJ: No, quite to the contrary. I was very busy keeping animators busy and I was working on shorts during the preparation of Snow White and not able to spend as much time as I would like to have with the story then because I was terribly interested in our first feature, of course. So I was kept quite busy with short subjects during all the early preparation of it and to a much greater extent than in later feature work the story was quite well prepared, quite well rounded out in pretty much detail before I was involved in any of the sequences. Snow White was a unique picture in the way it was made. No other picture was made like that at the studio during my time.

DJ: Would some of the animation already have been done by the time you were called in?

WJ: Yes. The pilot sequence, the very first pilot sequence I saw was the one where the dwarfs, one scene or two or three scenes, where Snow White was asleep in the dwarfs bed and they came in and they were all around the bed there and they were ready to attack the monster, and she makes a little sound and moved and they all shot down behind the front of the bed and then they came up one after another with their noses popping up. That was the pilot scene.

DJ: Did you, as a director, write out the dialogue on the exposure sheets that were then given to the animators, I mean on your own sequences?

WJ: Yes

DJ: So that those sheets are in your handwriting?

WJ:Yes

DJ: And Bill Cottrell would have written the dialogue on the sheets he afterwards gave Art Babbitt?

WJ: Yes, he wouldnít put the dialogue reading on.

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