An Interview with Wilfred Jackson

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DJ: Getting back to what you said about your nose to the grindstone. Did Walt have deadlines, specifically, letís say Snow White? When he put you there to direct some of these scenes and to get them to the animators, was there a deadline, like, by April first this scene had to be given out to the animators. Was there anything like that going on?

WJ: Not that kind of a deadline. Not scene by scene. When scenes went to animators was dictated by when the animator who was to do that scene finished what he was doing before. The cardinal sin was to let an animator be out of work. There were deadlines for the pictures and deadlines for the individual sequences within the picture as to when they should go to camera as far as the director was concerned. These deadlines could be, and often were, adjusted by the time we didnít meet out deadlines.

DJ: That must have been especially true on a picture like Snow White?

WJ: Yes. Could I digress and tell you a little thing about Snow White?

DJ: Please.

WJ: When Walt started to make Snow White, everybody that he talked to in Hollywood, all the best advice he could get, was discouraging. The consensus was that nobody would sit still to watch a cartoon, a feature-length cartoon, the audiences would walk out on it. With that in mind Walt went ahead and made Snow White and we had the preview I believe at the Carthay Circle Theater.

DJ: Thatís correct. December 21, 1937.

WJ: You know more about Snow White than I do. In any event, the picture was partway through when some people got up and started to walk out.

DJ: Oh, youíre talking about the preview. I donít remember where that was but it wasnít at the Carthay Circle.

WJ: Well, wherever it was, thatís right the Carthay Circle was the opening wasnít it?

DJ: Yes, I think the preview was at a Fox theater.

WJ: Youíve heard of this then.

DJ: They had to get back for a final exam or something.

WJ: Yeah they had to get back to school but Walt thought....

DJ: He must have been devastated. You all must have been devastated.

WJ: Yeah. Was a bad moment.

DJ: When did you finally find out?

WJ: Well Walt decided he better go out into the foyer and listen and see what they were saying when they went out. He got out there and ran into the theater manager who explained to him what was going on so he didnít have to commit suicide (laughs).

DJ: Do you remember the big story meeting when Walt got together several artists one night and acted out the whole story of Snow White, even acting the animal parts?

WJ: That would be par for the course on any picture. When we would have our story meetings, Walt would get up and act things out to demonstrate what he had in mind like the little baby bear that needed to break something and would pick up a rock and tip too far back with it and Walt acted it out and fell backwards on his chair (laughs).

DJ: I notice that in the early story stages of Snow White, there is a lot of comical routines that were later dropped, like the early arrival of the prince who originally serenades Snow White with his mandolin while his horse watches the proceedings from the wall, one front leg bent at the knee under his chin. I suppose that since the shorts were mainly comical, it would be natural that in the early stages, at least, Snow White would get a similar treatment.

WJ: We were all encouraged to make all kinds of suggestions. It didnít matter if we thought they were in line or not. Walt wanted any suggestions anybody had of any sort.

DJ: Do you remember any particular thing that you thought of that was actually used in Snow White?

WJ: No I donít. As I said, the sequences I had on Snow White were very well worked out before I got them. Very thoroughly worked out.

DJ: Do you recall who the script writers were for the scenes you did? WJ: No I donít recall. When you say script writers, we didnít have scripts, we had storyboards.

DJ: But wasnít it typed into scripts when the dialogue was to be recorded and also so it could be read and followed for each sequence?

WJ: That would be taken from the storyboard. Underneath the sketches was written the dialogue that would be spoken during that scene.

DJ: Since you worked on The Old Mill, you were involved with the multiplane camera. Can you tell me about Garity [the co-inventor] and the invention of this thing and some of the problems and miracles that it did.

WJ: What I can tell you about my experiences with it was the The Old Mill was supposed to be a test of the mutiplane, to see if it worked. Somehow, we were so held up in working on The Old Mill by assignments of animators because Snow White was in work at that time and animators that I should have had were pulled away just before I got to them and other animators were substituted because Snow White got preference on everything. And we got our scenes planned and worked out for the multiplane effects and by that time some of the sequences on Snow White were being photographed. The multiplane camera itself had all kinds of bugs in it that had to be worked out. We were held up until so late that I actually did work on another short - I donít remember which short. I donít even remember if I finished it up - did work on some other picture to keep myself busy while we could get facilities to go ahead on The Old Mill. By the time they had got the bugs out of the multiplane camera, they had multiplane scenes for Snow White to shoot and they got it busy on those first. Finally in order to get The Old Mill out the scenes that had been planned for multiplane had to be converted to the flat camera to do the best they could. You wonít find more than a very few multiplane scene in The Old Mill.

DJ: I wasnít aware of that.

WJ: Iíve had messed up schedules on pictures but Iíve never had a more messed up one than I can remember for The Old Mill.

DJ: Did you actually go to the camera yourself to see how it worked?

WJ: Oh yes, all of us had our noses in everything that was going on at the studio all the time.

DJ: Well, can you tell me about some of the effects. They mentioned about backlighting under the glass for some of the candle effects.

WJ: I donít know how that effect were worked out - or, I think there was a dark thing underneath with a pin hole in it and a light behind that.

DJ: Did you the man who designed the multiplane camera, Bill Garity?

WJ: Yes. Bill Garity was working for - he was an engineer, he was a sound engineer. Was it the silent film People in New York where they worked out a system of recording sound?

DJ: Pat Powers Cinephone was the first wasnít it?

WJ: Yes. Bill Garity came with that system to the studio in the very, very, very early days. That was a system - a method of reproducing sound by horizontal dark lines in the sound track instead of a wiggly line; and the broader they were or narrower they were had to do with the loudness and softness and the closeness together or fartherness apart had to do with the pitch. That was our first system that was used and Bill Garity appeared with this marvelous thing at the studio and he stayed on until he was in charge of the sound for years and years.

DJ: Do you recall Walt ever discussing with you about his plans for the multiplane or his discussing any dissatisfaction with the pictures or about getting more depth or realism?

WJ: Well, only in that that was one of the aspects of the pictures he always emphasized.

DJ: You mean the realism?

WJ: Yes. You see we faked that before we ever got to the multiplane by using sliding cells - we moved the foreground cell faster than the back cell.

DJ: Who figured that out?

WJ: My goodness, I donít know.

DJ: I thought maybe you did.

WJ: No. That was used quite a while before the - before I remember the concept of the multiplane camera. The multiplane camera was really just an extension of that you know. It was a matter of instead of having the cells just on the flat bed and moving them differently, it was a matter of separating them. So that would too automatically get the difference in speed. So instead of having to guess how it would look if you moved one 3/16s of an inch every frame, and the other one 1/8 of an inch every frame, instead of guessing at it you got a more realistic effect because you were actually using perspective. But how and when and by whom that was conceived I really donít know. Itís such a natural thing that probably more than one person had the idea. It was a matter of finding a way to make it work with the cartoons.

DJ: Garity seems to get credit for it. On the original US patent drawings, Garityís name is given along with McFadden.

WJ: I donít recall that name.

DJ: Now here on this layout sketch is the term ďTruck in cam[era] to 3 field.Ē Would you as a director make that kind of decision, or for a truck in for a close up?

WJ: Essentially I would be responsible for it but whether I would suggest it or whether the layout man would suggest it I donít know. Our layout men were sort of the equivalent of a camera man in a live action picture. They created the camera angles that were used.

DJ: I thought that was the director, I thought that was your job.

WJ: Well, we worked together. But to actually put in down on paper it was their job to make the drawing that indicated the actual setup. A lot of it came right directly from the story department. You find two different sketches that obviously should be in the same scene by moving the camera. We all worked closely together. Itís awfully hard to say whose idea anything was. It was a team effort.

DJ: So a typical day for you was to go to the studio. Where did you live at that time [when Snow White was in production]?

WJ: Itís difficult to say. We moved quite a few times until 1936. Then we moved from a little apartment up on Hyperion Street right near the studio out to our three-acre place in what is now Sunland. We had owned it for quite some time and I didnít want to go in debt so I was saving up enough money to build a little house on the place - we bought it years before. The builder, Frank Pearlhearst was the same one that built several of the buildings on Hyperion Street for Walt.

DJ: You drove to the studio?

WJ: Yes. Sunland is in the foothills north of North Hollywood - up in the Verdego Hills.

DJ: Did you have your own office at the time?

WJ: I was in the Music Room. I shared that with the musician, my assistant director.

DJ: Who was that?

WJ: Graham Hyde I think was with me at that time.

DJ: And Churchill was there and Leigh Harline?

WJ: Well on Snow White I donít remember who the musician was in the Music Room. It wouldnít have been Churchill. Churchill and Larry Morey worked together in their own office in a different part of the building. There would have been some musician with me - quite possibly it was Leigh Harline, he was with me for many years.

DJ: He did a lot of the background music for Snow White.

WJ: Yes. He was with me on the shorts along about that time. Probably he was the musician. And in the adjoining room with a door through so you wouldnít have to go out in the hallway was the layout mansí room - would be the layout man with two or three assistants.

DJ: Why was the entertainment section that you were on so much fun, as you said?

WJ: Well, partly because we worked closer with Walt on that picture than any since the very, very, very early ones. Partly because it was a fun sequence. The gags were funny, the music was fun to work with. The problems we had were interesting ones to work out. The animators I worked with were great guys, everything.

DJ: Do you remember any of the interesting problems that were worked out?

WJ: Just the adaptation of the business to the soundtrack. You got a storyboard there and you got a soundtrack and you got to make one fit the other. And there are a myriad of decisions that you have to make. Partly it was the excitement of the whole thing.

DJ: Would it be safe to say that you at least partly choreographed the dwarfs dancing around in you sequence?

WJ: Let me say this. It was my decision what would be done regardless of where the inspiration came from. The action to be used, it was my decision to decide which one of the possible actions would be used, within the limitations of what I understood from Walt. I tried to be an extension of Waltís fingers. I tried to put on film what I thought was in Waltís mind. The details, making it work, how it was to be done, were up to me. I didnít make Jackson pictures, I made Walt Disney pictures.

DJ: Yes, but it would have been different from some else.

WJ: It would have been different. Maybe better.

DJ: I doubt it. And the last sequence was such a beautiful scene because thatís the one scene... itís interesting that you had that scene. Of all the movies that Disney ever made, that sequence is the most up-lifting. Thereís never an ending to any other picture that quite compares with magic of the dwarfs jumping around and saying goodbye.

WJ: This wasnít feed by just that scene. This was done because Walt was able to create a picture that lead up to that scene and which the audience felt very strongly sympathetic to the dwarfs and to the little animals. It was through the empathy for the dwarfs that the picture was successful. Snow White as a character - it wouldnít have hit you with the same impact what happened to her. You wouldnít have cared as much what happened to her as how the dwarfs felt about it. So what is so good about that scene is the feeling that has been built up in the audience before they get to that scene plus some wonderful animation of the grieving dwarfs.

DJ: But the way you did it I still think was commendable.

WJ: It worked.

DJ: It certainly did work.

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This article is Copyrighted © 2000 by David Johnson, and have beed printed here for the first time in Animation Artist Magazine with Johnsonís permission. David Johnson is a regular columnist for Animation Artist Magazine, and we thank him for his insight and willingness to contribute his knowledge and talent to the animation world.

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