Elaborate Train Sets, Sadness, And The Compulsion To Create
All of his zest for invention, for creating fantasies, seemed to be going into this plaything. I came away feeling sad
— Bosley Crowther
I hope I don’t offend any of our listeners. The men who have the elaborate miniature train sets always seem...like they are sad.
— Michial Farmer

I’m not sure what to make of this sadness, and again no offense to the man himself, bu the first person I though of was Bruce Zaccagnino.

Now, this could be our own cultural reacting. When I was in Germany I visited many elaborate model villages and experienced a sense of joy and whimsy. Likewise, I have fond memories of visiting model train installations with my dad as a kid. It was a shared interest and there is something magical about the amount of effort that goes into those things.

My dad had a model train that has stayed mostly in a box. There was a short time when he had it out and started working on it. I asked for one for Christmas and loved going to the model train shop in town to look at all the possibilities. Nothing much ever came of it, which is why I floundered around in my response during the podcast. Again, I have fond memories: bonding with my dad, looking at plans and engines, day dreaming. That’s obviously not what Michial was talking about.

Those with elaborate sets have neccesarily taken things to a whole new level. I suppose they could be bonding experiences as well, but I wonder if more often they aren’t more akin to the way “Lord Business” from The Lego Movie acts. Using the toy not as a way to see his son, but as a way to not see him. Compelled to fill some sort of emptiness. I suppose you could say that about any creative endeavor. Which is probably why I feel uncomfortable casting any judgement. It’s like Ian Morgan Cron says (I’m paraphrasing): People make the most beautiful and destructive things out of their wounds. Sometimes both.

Jason Kottke asks in relation to Bruce:

What compels people to do things? Especially things that don’t make sense to other people?

Somehow I think the compulsion must have a bit of the divine in it. No matter if it’s twisted or redeemed we all have the spark of the Creator in us and reflect His image. Therefore we create. It makes me think of Flannery O’Connor.


“Whether the work itself is completely successful, or whether you ever get any worldly success out of it, is a matter of no concern to you. It is like the Japanese swordsmen who are indifferent to getting slain in the duel… You do not write the best you can for the sake of art but for the sake of returning your talent increased to the invisible God to use or not use as he sees fit. Resignation to the will of God does not mean that you stop resisting evil or obstacles, it means that you leave the outcome out of your personal considerations. It is the most concern coupled with the least concern.”
— Flannery O'Connor

May we all find joy in resigning ourselves to the will of God.

The Disney Afternoon
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This block of syndicated programming, which aired nationwide and in countries across the world, became the touchstone of an entire generation of kids. So entrenched are these adventures in the collective subconscious that today you could approach most people ages 20 to 30-something and—even if they’re not a huge Disney fan—find they can instantly summon up a trademark DuckTales “woo-hoo!”
— Brittany Bell

That ‘91-’92 two hour block of afternoon television: Ducktails, Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers, TailSpin, and Darkwing Duck, may have been the peak of civilization. History will be the judge, I guess.

Nostalgia junkies click here for historic details, theme songs, ring tones, tee-shirts.

How Ub Iwerks Ended Up Back At Disney

Ub Iwerks is a fascinating character in the history of animation and with Walt Disney Studios. Co-creator of Mickey and inventor of the xerox style of animation would be enough, but the personal drama with Walt makes the story more human, tragic, and interesting. Plus he built his own version of the MultiPlane camera out of car parts and scrap metal?!

The Walt Disney Family Museum has a biography and overview of Ub’s contributions to the company.

Ub Iwerks was a man of many talents. He was a prolific animator and a brilliant technical mind. He was Walt’s Swiss Army knife, a man who was to Walt whatever he needed him to be. He was as necessary to the beginning of Walt’s career as he was to the end. He left The Walt Disney Studios at a critical juncture to pursue his own career, but eventually found his way back to the company he had once animated into success to engineer it to new heights.

Kind of a lot glossed over in that “left…at a critical juncture…eventually found his way back”

Creative differences with Walt wore on Ub and when offered the chance for artistic freedom and financial backing to run his own animation studio in 1930, he took it. Unbeknownst to Ub, this deal was through Pat Powers, one of the co-founders of Universal Pictures who had a complicated relationship (to say the least) with The Walt Disney Studios. Powers distributed and provided sound equipment for Disney’s cartoons starting with the seminal Steamboat Willie, but soon after, Walt and Roy became suspicious of his business practices and hired their first company attorney, Gunther Lessing, to protect themselves and satisfy their remaining obligations to him.

Where Powers was the saving grace for Mickey Mouse and The Walt Disney Studios in 1928, by the next year he was in the middle of a legal quarrel with Walt over box office receipts, and then the following year, he had signed away Walt’s best friend and animator and ceded the right to distribute Walt’s cartoons to his company’s parent distributor, Columbia Pictures. Upon learning of his new employer, Ub went through Roy to explain to Walt that he did not mean to take a job from Powers, and had he known who he would be working for, “he would never have gone into this.”

So heartbreak for Walt who at the time was still trying to build a utopian studio. But not much on how Iwerks eventually ended up back at the studio. We get to see his name in the credits once again for Make Mine Music, which is a fun surprise if you’re following along in chronological order. Here’s what Neal Gabler has to say about the reunion:

Perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of his regard for the ghosts of his past was his treatment of the man who had committed what was, in Walt’s mind, one of the worst betrayals: his old partner, Ub Iwerks. After leaving the studio abruptly in 1930, lured by the blandishments of Pat Powers, Iwerks had fallen on hard times. His own studio had failed, forcing him to subcontract with Warner Bros. and then Columbia, but these arrangements were ultimately terminated too. “He was one of the first—if not the first—to give his characters depth and roundness,” animator Chuck Jones explained. “But he didn’t have any story capacity, and I don’t think he knew very much about humor; he wasn’t a funny man at all.” In 1940 he was teaching animation at a local vocational school and had gotten up the nerve to write Walt that July about the possibility of opening a school of his own, presumably to help train Disney animators. Walt referred the letter to Vern Caldwell in personnel, who dismissed the suggestion. Meanwhile Ben Sharpsteen, hearing about Iwerks’s plight, phoned him, said that starting a school would be “belittling,” and offered him a job checking animation, which Iwerks gratefully accepted. Sharpsteen was obviously trying to broker a rapprochement between Iwerks and Walt, and when he told Walt that he had asked Iwerks back, Walt said it was Sharpsteen’s prerogative to hire whomever he liked. But on August 9 Walt and Iwerks had lunch at the studio, over which, as Iwerks later told it, Walt asked him what he really wanted to do there. Iwerks, always more interested in technology than animation, said he answered, “Prowl around.” Overlooking their past dispute, Walt assigned him to help develop a new optical camera for special effects, illustrating both Walt’s commitment to anything that would help his studio regardless of his personal feelings and his attachment to his old colleagues now that he presided over an increasingly impersonal bureaucracy.

And “prowl around” he certainly did. Here’s a summary from Michael Ruocco at Cartoon Brew:

When Ub rejoined the Disney studio in 1940, Walt Disney gave his old partner free reign to do as he wished. With Disney’s resources, Ub developed special effects techniques for animation, live-action films and Disney’s theme parks, much of which is still in use today. He helped develop the sodium vapor process for live-action/animation combination and traveling mattes, which he won an Oscar for in 1965 after utilizing it in Mary Poppins. He adapted the Xerox process for animation, which eliminated the tedious task of hand inking every cel. For Disneyland, Ub designed and developed concepts for many of the park’s attractions, including the illusions in The Haunted Mansion and the animatronics for attractions like Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and Pirates of the Caribbean. Disney even loaned him out to Alfred Hitchcock to help with the effects needed to create flocks of attacking birds in The Birds.

And Iwerks desert years weren’t a total bust either. His failed studio was a bit of a Forest Gump of the animation world :

Many animators got their start at Ub’s studio in the early 1930s, including UPA co-founder Steve Bosustow and Warner Bros. director Chuck Jones. Manga and anime pioneer Osama Tezuka was also greatly influenced and inspired by Ub’s work.

The Lion King, The Enneagram, And The Shape Of Our Imaginations

I had a friend tell me the other day that I’m loathe to see my gifts, and naturally I replied that was demonstrably untrue because I readily acknowledge my gift of self-deprecation.

But I’m not actually as callous as that, and I’ve been stewing on his loving correction for a week. Because something definitely has been off in my innards and it’s been spilling over onto the people I love.

So I pulled out a reflection tool today and started running through the questions. Right away I noticed two things: I’m living in fear of what others think of me, and I’m regretting the mistakes (real and imagined) that got me to this point.

I’m Simba!

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Ah, the power of imagination. Once I saw myself in the Simba narrative my thoughts crystalized: both in illuminating my false beliefs and behavior, and more importantly the possibilities ahead.

Like Simba I was choosing false peace over true peace. And like Simba I was loathe to see how my own contributions matter. Simba denies his place, denies his responsibility, denies that he offers any hope to Pride Rock. “Hakuna Matata,” one of the most seductive songs in all of the Disney Canon for falsely shaping our imaginations, became Simba’s theme.

Simba was paranoid and mistrustful of what people would think if they found out the truth - or his perceived truth - of the stampede and the fact that he’d been living in self-imposed exile. “No one has to know” he tells Nala when she asks what everyone will think when they find out Simba is alive.

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Because of his mistrust he started looking to authorities, but he found that unsatisfying as well. “You said you’d always be there for me!” he screams in frustration to the stars that represent Mufassa and all the great kings of the past.

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This all leads to a state of stagnation. Unable to trust himself or authorities to make decisions he gets stuck in a cycle of neglecting facing his problems, covering those problems in the sticky gooey sentimentality of Hakuna Matata, and living in reaction instead of possibility. “You think you can just show up and tell me to live my life?”

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By the time Simba does make a decision his home is in ruins. “You want to fight your Uncle for this?” Timone asks incredulously. But by that point Simba has moved back into a healthier place. He’s seeing things not as they are but as they will be. God will be gracious to the land once again.

Psalm 85:1 - 4

You have been gracious to your land, O LORD: you have restored the good fortune of Jacob.

You have forgiven the iniquity of your people : and blotted out all their sins.

You have withdrawn all your fury : and turned yourself from your wrathful indignation.

Restore us then, O God our Savior : let your anger depart from us.

Close readers whose minds are shaped like mine by the imagination of the Enneagram will see here that Simba’s narrative arc follows very closely that of a nine on an Enneagram. The peacemaker who when unhealthy trades true peace for a facsimile of peace, believes they don’t matter, and moves toward the traits of a six. (Yeah, I just typed a fictional lion, did you expect something else?)

The healing words I needed today, and that maybe you need too are these: If God can withdraw his fury and His indignation toward me, shouldn’t I do the same. If God sees a restored land in the future, not defined by the mistakes of the past, shouldn’t we live in that same hope and possibility.

Shouldn’t we be Simba?

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Walt Disney's Alice Comedies And The First Faltering Steps To Blending Live Action And Animation

This is from the failed Laugh-O-Gram studios in Kansas City, a catalyst of sorts for what later became Walt Disney Studios. After making this movie the studio went bankrupt before ever getting it distributed, prompting Walt to leave Missouri and head to California. To borrow a cliché, the rest is history.

Perhaps Walt losing interest in the animation side of his studio shouldn’t be all that surprising; he was always practicing the art of pushing technology into the adjacent possible. He’s certainly doing that here. And, there is a joy in seeing him doing that. Even watching this nearly 100 years on (!) there’s a palpable sense of wonder and energy in those “rubber hose” animations. The Look-What-We-Can-Do playfulness still stirs the imagination, in many ways more effectively than what we see in The Three Caballeros.

The Disney Animation Strike of 1941

A very brief summary of the strike, told by Tom Sito, President-Emeritus of The Animation Guild. In other words, not Walt’s side of the story.

Walt felt personally betrayed when Art Babbitt, his highest-paid animator, resigned as president of the Disney company union to join the Guild. Three days after Disney brazenly fired Babbitt, the Disney strike began on May 29, 1941.

The strike lasted for five weeks, forever tearing the social fabric of the studio.
— Tom Sito

Around The Network: Sectarian Review, Episode #50: The Wolf Man
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As part of the annual Christian Humanist Network Massive Crossover 2017 discussing the Universal Monster Movies, Michial went over and guested on The Sectarian Review.

Take a deep dive into the film’s story, background, and subtexts. Freud, Feminism, Class Struggle and more. Also, the team tackle questions about the film from listeners via Twitter. Plus, Danny makes an impassioned defense of the 2010 remake of the film.

Show Notes

Bambi: A Life In The Woods by Felix Salten
Young Diane herself complained to her father that Bambi’s mother needn’t have died, and when Walt answered that he was only following the book, Diane protested that he had taken other liberties and that in any case he was Walt Disney and he could do anything he wanted.
— Neal Gabler in Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination
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Documenting the Recycling of Scenes in Disney Animated Films

What I love in here is the argument presented that the films were never really meant to be watched the way that we watch them now, where we can take the time to slow down and really analyze them, and create books, podcasts, youtube documentaries, essays, and more around them. I like that ecosystem of art: where once it’s in the world, it can support whole other endeavors that weren’t in the mind or even the imagination of the creator; all these Odes to Grecian Urns that we undertake. Yet the films can withstand it.

I was surprised to learn that this copying of previous work was happening prior to the use of xerography, although the xerography certainly seems to have provided an uptick in how much the technique was used; however there were several other factors involved there as well.

This video does the side by side comparisons, but also gives another overview of the history of Disney Animation Studios.

The Eras Of The Disney Canon
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As we converse through the Disney Animated Canon in chronological order sometimes we refer to the Silver Age, or the Dark Age (in the image above more charitably called the Bronze Age). Other than the wartime/package films era being a pretty clear line between the Golden Age and the Silver age, the rest of the eras are more debatable. For example Michial said during our 101 Dalmatians episode that he thought we were entering the First Dark Age, although many people put the start of the Dark Age after Jungle Book and Walt Disney’s death. Although honestly, Walt had definitely lost interest in the animation for several years before his death, and it may be a better delineator to call this the xerography era. Those debates are all part of the fun of looking at these movies. Either way, this graphic from Network 1901 is a pretty good one, and the video I grabbed it out of ain’t bad either if you’re looking for a nice overview of the entire canon. I disagree with a few of the narratives presented in the video, but it’s an overview so there’s not a ton of room for nuance.

And, if you’re just looking for a list of the films in the canon - Wikipedia is your friend : )




The Adjacent Possible and Xerography

On the show Michial and I spent a fair amount of time discussing the new technology, xerography, that both allowed animation to be cost effective at Disney, and ushered in a new aesthetic that perfectly matched the Dalmatians.

Steven Johnson is the popularizer of an idea called the adjacent possible. As he puts it:

The phrase captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation.
— Steven Johnson

It’s a particularly apt idea to describe what happened with 101 Dalmatians because of the convergence of so many limits and potentials. The combinations of technologies that makes xerography as an animation tool an adjacent possible. (I’d love to know more of that story - Ub Iwerks, the guy who first animated Mickey Mouse, is a key player.) The xerography itself that makes animating 99 puppies an adjacent possible. Choosing to adapt that story makes the other modern art style decisions adjacently possible. And of course all these ideas are smashing into one another at the same time, which is another big idea in Johnson’s book: Where Good Ideas Come From. Very nicely illustrated in the trailer for the book below.

Matt Draper has a nice video that further explores some of those smashing together limits and potentials. If you listened to our episode you already know them: Walt Disney’s losing interest in animation, the financial struggles after Sleeping Beauty, etc. If you’re only interested in the actual technology of Xerography, skip to about 3:40 for a nice visual explainer.

Back to Johnson:

The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations. Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point. Keep opening new doors and eventually you’ll have built a palace.
— Steven Johnson

There’s no doubt that Disney already had a palace by the time 101 Dalmatians was released in 1961. However a whole new wing was opened through the use of the Xerography, not only to allow animation to continue at the studio, and to expand the types of stories that were told.

If you read all of Johnson’s Wall Street Journal article adapted from his book he gives one more example of the adjacent possible from the Apollo 13 movie. And as this has to be one of my favorite scenes in cinema, I couldn’t resist sticking it in here as well.

The space gear on the table defines the adjacent possible for the problem of building a working carbon scrubber on a lunar module...They are the building blocks that create—and limit—the space of possibility for a specific problem.
— Steven Johnson



Pink Is A Boys Color
For example, a June 1918 article from the trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department said, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”
— Jeanne Maglaty

It seems gender neutral was becoming the fashion at the time of 101 Dalmatians in ‘61, and remained so until 1985!

When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?

Podcast Recommendation: Sticky Notes

For more on appreciating classical music, Michial and I recommend this podcast, Sticky Notes. Here’s an episode on Joseph Haydn and particularly the comedy of his pieces (although oddly he left out the bassoon fart)

He also has some more episodes that would be of particular interest to Fantasia lovers:

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A Christian Humanist Review of Treasure Island
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During the 101 Dalmatians I was bumbling around trying to remember the live action movie that was reviewed on the flagship website. I swung twice and missed before giving up. And to add insult to injury Treasure Island wasn't even released in the 60’s which was the decade we were speaking of.

Over on the flagship's website, Coyle Neal (of The City of Man fame) gives us an overly kind shoutout in his review of Treasure Island (The rare Disney movie that was live first and animated later, but we'll get to that when we get to Treasure planet)

I thought I'd return the favor and direct readers here over to his review. Here's a quick taste, but do go read the whole thing.

The plot is surprisingly involved for a movie only about ninety minutes long, and numerous themes run through the film. One of the most interesting of these is the idea that a part of coming of age is growing to understand the complexities of character. An aspect of transitioning from childhood into adulthood is realizing that human character is often a mix of good and evil. We are all of us both made in the Image of God andtainted in every part of ourselves by original sin.