An Interview with Wilfred Jackson

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DJ: What’s the dialogue reading?

WJ: The dialogue reading is visual interpretation of the frames of dialogue. On the exposure sheet each line represents one frame. Well one of the cutters in the cutting department would put head phones on and run the dialogue on the moviola scoring it down with little pencil and make marks [for exactly how long each syllable would take]. And he would lay that out on the master exposure sheet and if there was a lot of dialogue in a sequence it was my practice to take the dialogue readings that I got from the cutter after we had the whole thing put in order and timed the way we thought it was going to be, I would lay my action out first of all on that before putting it on the exposure sheet. Then the task of transposing the dialogue reading we got from the film editor onto the animator’s exposure sheet was handled by the assistant director. I have my scene cuts all indicated on the cutter’s dialogue reading and the assistant director would lay out each scene on the exposure sheet and he wouldn’t begin the thing at the top of the sheet - he would leave a little room for me to adjust the beginning of the scene and at the end of the scene I could always add or subtract something I wanted to. And he would lay it out with the scene number and the music room with all the different headings at the top. Those would probably be in my assistant’s handwriting- not necessarily but probably. And that would be what I would use to indicate the action over in the action column - the vertical column at the extreme left - I would describe what goes on so that the animator would know where those different things came. Now this last step of actually laying the action on the exposure sheet was usually not done by the director by himself. First if all, if music was in anyway involved closely with the action which it was on almost all our early pictures including Snow White and Pinocchio, there was a musician in the director’s room to work with him.

DJ: That’s why it was called the Music Room

Click image for larger view.
The Music Room c.1932
Click image for larger view

WJ: Yes. We call it that and the musician would play music what was to be with the action over and over for the director to listen to and work with and to make adjustments with so we would each know what the thing was to be like - we’d each make our suggestions until the musician was satisfied that he had something that made sense musically and the director was satisfied that the action could fit within the timing. This was very preliminary of course. How much of that was done on Snow White I couldn’t tell you. The sequences I had were pretty well worked out ahead of time, as far as music is concerned. Churchill (Snow White’s key song writer) and Larry Morey, who wrote the lyrics, would work together and present to the story department in a meeting with Walt their proposal of what music and words and sounds would go with the action that the, well, business of what the story department had on the storyboard. And that was pretty well worked out ahead of time on the sequences I had. And all the yodeling, for instance, and that sort of thing, already had been recorded by Churchill or some other musician and worked out with the story department so that a great deal of what a director does on some of the other pictures wasn’t done on my sequences on Snow White. That’s why I say that it was sort of a different approach from the average - because of Walt’s close involvement.

DJ: Now was it Fred Moore who did the dwarfs on your sequence?

WJ: Well, some of the scenes. There were others who also helped. Bill Tytla did the opening scene of the sequence and who was the one who did so many Dopey scenes?

DJ: Frank Thomas?

WJ: No

DJ: Not Fred Moore?

WJ: No, he was kind of the creator of the dwarfs... I give up. In any event, you’re correct in thinking that Fred took the lead on the dwarfs. It was our practice to give the more important scenes to the more capable animators and to augment their work with scenes that were not as important to the picture - action scenes, longer shots, group shots, things like that where the individual personality wasn’t the most important part of the scene.

DJ: Did you do that yourself, did you allocate which scenes went to which animator?

WJ: To a certain extent. Walt had a big hand in that on the Snow White picture. I probably less to say about who did what in Snow White than in any other picture I directed. Walt as I said was in on every detail.

DJ: Can you think of anything from the movie that was your idea, that was your own that made it into the picture?

WJ: Aside from the details of what action of the choreography of the action were to encompass were my major contribution, I would think. Plus the timing of it - how long a scene would be, where it would come in juxtaposition with other scenes.

DJ: For instance, the dancing style of the dwarfs, almost like a square dance, that was your idea?

WJ: I don’t think I approached it that way. We pictured the dwarfs as sort of folky characters and very probably I was thinking more of a mixture of country style Americana with a European flavor. As to the individual actions in that case, I don’t have a specific recollection of any of those things.

DJ: And I suppose the sneeze was already pre-determined, probably by Walt?

WJ: The sneeze was definitely worked out before I took the sequence up even to the extent of having recorded a whole bunch of different sneezes, selecting which sneeze, which part of which sneeze went where was very much in my hands but I was working with track that was already [made].I was more like a film editor in relation to that. What they did, all those different things [such as the close-ups of the hands clapping as the scene reached its climax with the sneeze] were suggested by the story sketches and by the continuity on the storyboard and there were variations of what was done and what was done when ..that is, the sequence of action was mine. What I put together was not exactly what was on the storyboard, a,b,c,d,e,f,g. And the pacing of it was mine, the building of the excitement, the increase in tempo, making the scenes shorter - that sort of thing - than the previous ones – that was mine.

DJ: Was this sequence difficult and did you have any problems in getting it going the way you wanted it?

WJ: I suppose there were. No individual particular problems stands out in my mind other than getting enough work ready for animators fast enough to keep them busy. Trying to meet our deadlines but that was for all our pictures. I don’t recall problems with this sequence, it was just a joy to work on.

DJ: Did they film other actors for the dwarfs, besides yourself I mean?

WJ: Yes, different ones.. The fellas would do things. Pearce Pierce I believe did a pretty good Doc and was filmed for some of it. We used to have meeting, a whole bunch of us animators and directors would come back at night - we’d have a meeting over on the soundstage and we’d talk about the characters - we’d talk about what they were like and how they would act, how they would move and anybody who wanted to would get up and demonstrate his idea of what the guy should move like - how he should do this particular thing.

DJ: It’s interesting that you came in at night, after work. Was this a lot?

WJ: Oh yes. We had all kinds of meetings at night. This wasn’t just on Snow White but especially along about then. We had classes that we attended. Walt hired people from outside to come and teach us. Don Graham to teach the animators.

DJ: Did you go to those classes?

WJ: No, because I wasn’t one of the artists at that time.

DJ: When you first came to the studio, were you hired as an artist?

WJ: Yes, I was sort of hired as a pest that Walt hired another to fire me to get me out of his office. I was very persistent.

DJ: Now you came in 1927?

WJ: 1929. No it was 27, you’re right [note: actually it was April 1928]. 29 was when we were married. I came there .... I had met Jane who became my wife in art school when I was at the County Art Institute now Otis Parkins and we’d been going together and we liked each other a lot and we were quite serious about getting married and I needed as job and I had always wanted to be a cartoonist - I had wanted to be in animation. But as far as I knew the only animating studios were in New York City and I didn’t have way of getting to New York City. And I hadn’t finished my art school education, I wasn’t really a very good draughtsman, I needed a lot more study before I would become [one] but I found out by accident that there was a person in Hollywood who made cartoons named Walt Disney. One of the girls at the Art Institute had a boyfriend who was working for Walt Disney and from her I got the name and the phone number of the place and I called Walt up and asked for an interview. I didn’t know until afterwards that I hit Walt for a job right at the time when he had discovered that he had lost this Oswald character, the rights to it and the release to it. And he didn’t have anything else going yet - he was in a transition from that to the Mickies and I came with my samples, he granted me an interview, I came in with my samples and showed them to him and he said “Well you really aren’t ready to take a job as an animator yet. You don’t draw well enough, you need more training in drawing.” I said “All right, now I’m going to be an animator some day, what should I study at art school, where should I go and what should I study in order to learn how to be an animator?” And he said “Well, there isn’t really any place you can learn to be an animator except at an animation studio. They don’t teach it at anywhere that I know of.” I said “All right, that’s fine. How would it be if I come to your studio and learn to be an animator here and I’ll pay you tuition like I would have to pay at any other school?” And he said “Well godammit Jack, I can’t do a thing like that!”

DJ: He called you Jack right off?

WJ: Well he wanted to know what people called me. I can’t remember what the next thing was but finally he said “Look, come in on Monday and we’ll see if you can do anything useful around here.” So I came in on Monday and they put me busy helping the janitor cleaning off the ink lines and paint off of the cells and separating the ones that were too scratched from the ones that weren’t too scratched. And it was shortly after that that everybody left the studio except Iwerks, Les Clark and Johnny Cannon and for a while there was a Mike somebody [Marcus] who ran the camera. In any event, I counted that I was the thirteenth one when I was hired so I figured that thirteen must be my lucky number. So naturally when Walt began to hire people from the East like Ben Sharpsteen , Jack Campbell, Norm Ferguson, Paul Palmer and those guys, they were such great animators and so much better draughtsmen that I wasn’t really filling the bill very well. I had gotten to do - had worked up to the point that I was doing animation.

DJ: Not just inbetweening, you were actually animating?

WJ: Yes, I was doing my own scenes and I wasn’t doing too well. I didn’t know that, I didn’t realize how poor my work was compared to the others and I used to come back at night. Walt encouraged us to come back if we wanted to and to animate our own scenes, our own ideas and to show them to him. I was back one night doing that and Walt got into a little trouble editing and putting sound to one of the pictures. I helped Walt work out their method of synchronizing.

DJ: The metronome, right?

WJ: Yes. And I helped him tie the sound up with the picture and I helped him with some things like that and I’d had a little bit of time working on the editing of the pictures and that sort of thing. And one night when I went back there - I wanted to animate a whole picture myself - I was that conceited. I thought I could do it. And I was interested in animation; I liked to make the characters move on the screen, that was what I wanted to do. And I said: “Walt, sometime if it would work out, I’d like to handle a whole picture, if you see a way to let me try it.” And I used the wrong work. I meant animate. He thought a meant direct or produce. I didn’t find out till after he had already decided to try me out on it that we had a misunderstanding about it. And I was in there happily animating some scenes and he sends Rudy Zamora in and Rudy said:”Walt told me to come in and get some scenes from you, I’m out of work.” And so I thought, well gee wiz, here it goes, I’m not going to get to animate the whole picture after all and Walt said I could do it.

DJ: What short was it?

WJ: This was the Castaways. It was picture when Walt had a lot of...he was behind on schedule and needed something to catch up with and he a lot of footage that had been cut out of other cartoons and it was saved in the morgue. All the animation was done and my first job was to make some kind of a story where we could use all this discarded stuff. The only way I could see to tie all this stuff together was to have Mickey be cast away on an island after his ship was wrecked and to be sort of a Robinson Crusoe character and had all kinds of materials that had come from the ship, including a piano, and all the things that were needed for all the different scenes and it would be on an island were there jungle creatures to use gags about and jungle animals in the various out footage. And Walt had hired a musician when he put me to work on the thing. He said: “I got a new musician I just hired and I want you to work with him on your picture. I want to see if he’s any good and if we can use him.” So I said fine. That musician happened to be Frank Churchill.

DJ: Could you tell me a little about Frank Churchill. Did he ever tell you, for instance, what his musical influences were? Did he like Mozart or Beethoven, or was it Tchaikovsky or Wagner?

WJ: Oh the only thing that comes to mind there right off...boy this is going back. I recall one time Frank saying Schubert...something about Schubert’s use of melody. Melody was the thing about Schubert that was so arresting. It’s all very vague.

DJ: Well Schubert was known for his melodies.

WJ: I don’t recall Frank telling me much about his influences.

DJ: Would you say that he liked classical music or did he prefer popular music as a musician himself?

WJ: Frank had great facility in playing either on the piano. Frank was a pianist. He was a pianist more than he was a composer.

DJ: Really?

WJ: Yes. Before he came to Walt to work, he had been playing mood music and, of course, when sound came in they didn’t need this but he had been playing sad music when the actors were supposed to be acting sad and happy music when they were supposed to be happy to help them with their acting. In fact, he had a little folding organ that folded all up. It had bellows that you pumped with your feet like this and he didn’t have any use for it any more so he gave it to me. And I had that for many years - the girls used to play with it. But Frank was pianist. Working with Frank was so different from working with Leigh Harline, for instance.

DJ: I know that Leigh Harline was the more sophisticated musician.

WJ: Yes, he was a composer first and he played the piano sort of like doing the pick and shovel work. Frank, when he sat down at the piano and played the music that you were working out for the picture, the score that resulted never sounded any better than the way Frank played it on the piano. With Leigh Harline you had to learn to make allowances for the fact that you’d hear the melody he was playing when the thing was done, but the feeling of it, the mood that it would create, the feeling that it would extend to you, wasn’t there with the piano, you just had to trust Leigh that it was going to sound a whole lot different after he orchestrated it.

DJ: Did these composers do their own orchestration or did they have another person, for instance, did Churchill actually orchestrate his songs or did he have an assistant [do it]?

WJ: He very possibly did in the very early days but it wouldn’t have been long before they would have had someone to orchestrate.

DJ: And you wouldn’t recall who that might have been for Snow White?

WJ: No, we already had expanded the music department quite a bit by that time. I’m not sure if Al Mallotte was there already or Paul Smith.

DJ: Paul Smith worked on some of the incidental music on Snow White. Did Leigh Harline do his own orchestrations, do you think, since he was a composer?

WJ: He would have been much more likely to have done it.

DJ: It’s amazing that Churchill wrote so many memorable songs and yet as you say, he wasn’t really a composer. He must have had a lot of talent under his belt.

WJ: Frank was something else when it came to working with him.

DJ: What was he like, can you talk about it?

WJ: Yeah, Frank was just a fun person to work with. He did what he did with such apparent ease and he was so willing to adapt his music, to change it to what you needed. He seemed to be able to take notes out or add notes in and still make it work. If you’re having a little trouble fitting your action to the music, he had great facility in adjusting the music and still make it come out right. He had such a variety of different tunes, of different things that he could suggest when you were first working with him on a short subject. And you’d have a sequence of action and you’d talk to him about it and the feeling of it and so forth and he’d suggest music for it and if you didn’t like it he’d suggest something else and he could just go on and on and on and on.

DJ: Could he remember the music without writing it down, like if you preferred one of the earlier options?

WJ: I don’t recall he had any trouble if you wanted one of the earlier suggestions he played. He’d play something: “Was this it, was that it?” “Yeah, that was it” and we’d work on that one. However, when we selected a tune, he’d write down a melody line with a signature on it. We’d have that to come back to.

DJ: Do you remember any of his pranks. I understand he was very playful, he liked to... Shamus Culhane told me he liked to sit at the piano and fart and then pick out the note and put that in the song.

WJ: Yes (laughs).

DJ: That’s true, then?

WJ: Yes. Also, he and Earl Duval got caught by one of the secretaries when she came in the room, trying to light one. He was bent over and Earl was there with a match. The minute the door opened, Frank said: “Where is that knife, I dropped that knife here somewhere.”(becomes convulsed with laughter).

DJ: Who was the secretary.

WJ: Carolyn Shafer, she later on married Frank.

DJ: Oh that was Walt’s secretary.

WJ: Yes. I have a knife that Frank Churchill gave me which was the knife, in fact, he said he was looking for. He picked it out of a claw machine.

DJ: Claw machine? Oh yes, I remember those, in the amusement parks.

WJ: Yes, you put your nickel in and it grabs some candy but there’s also little things in there. Frank was very good at operating that thing. He used to like to show off and say: “What do you want out of there? What do you want out of there?” Whoever was with him would say: “See if you can get that.” And he was very good at getting the thing over and grabbing it and it pleased him that he could do that better than practically every one else. Another thing I remember about Frank and the playful end of it was seeing him on driving range hitting golf balls. He had the most unprofessional stance I have ever scene. He played with both knees bent sort of in a half squat and he didn’t have the twist that other people had - he hit the ball like you would with a hockey stick or a baseball bat and he’d give the thing a vicious cut and he could send it a long way from where he wanted it. He was good at it, but I don’t mean professionally. He couldn’t get out with the real pros but compared with the friends he played with he was good. I didn’t play myself but often would go with him and Earl Duvall.

DJ: Who was Earl Duvall?

WJ: He was one of our early story men - an artist and an idea man and he had made layouts with me for a while and that’s how come he and Frank were together in the Music Room the time Frank was looking for his knife.

DJ: That must have been some times.

WJ: Yes there were a lot of pranks going on. Walt didn’t discourage it. We didn’t just clown around - we worked hard but Walt didn’t measure your value to the studio by whether you had your nose down to the grindstone for exactly eight hours every day. It was the contribution you made - as long as you got your job done and didn’t interfere with anybody else getting their job done how long you took and when you did it didn’t matter. I got in there, as I told you, very accidentally, I got into directing pictures without meaning to. I had absolutely no qualifications for being a director, none whatsoever. Had few enough to be an animator. But Walt didn’t understand that anybody who wanted to couldn’t do anything they wanted to do. He could, he didn’t understand that other people couldn’t. So I spent the rest of my years there doing a job I didn’t know how to do, working up a plow horse to try to keep up with the race horse and putting in a lot of extra hours in order to come out even.

DJ: You’re very modest. Some of your work is considered the greatest work ever done.

WJ: That may be others’ opinions, it’s not mine.

DJ: You did The Old Mill, I understand.

WJ: Yes.

DJ: Well, that’s just one of your highlights.

WJ: I loved to work with musicians. I like musical pictures.

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