Wolfgang Reitherman remembered

Brian Sibly recalls the veteran Disney animator, Wolfgang Reitherman, who died earlier this year (1985).

Wolfgang Reitherman. © Walt Disney Productions.

It is a great many years ago now that I played truant from school and sneaked into my local cinema to see Walt Disney’s Fantasia for the first time, yet I recall the occasion as if it were yesterday. Since, like most children, I was infatuated with dinosaurs, I particularly remember the feelings of awe and terror which I experienced when, to the strident dischords of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, a tyrannosaurus and a stegosaurus battled to the death in a stark, primeval world. I had never seen a dinosaur move before (who had?). I marvelled: how was it done?

Some twenty years later, I was to meet the artist who had animated that devastatingly powerful piece of film, Wolfgang (Woolie) Reitherman, when he came to England to help promote the latest Disney film, The Fox and the Hound. A tall, gangly man with a smile-creased face, he had expressive artist-hands that said, in elegant gestures, what he rarely articulated with his slow drawling voice. One hand would make sweeping movements, as if sketching on air; the other, with its gold Mickey Mouse signet ring, made occasional stabs with a large, half-smoked cigar as if it were a paintbrush. ‘Animation’s terrific!’ he enthused. ‘It captures the eyeballs!’

And then, some months ago, came the sad news that Woolie Reitherman had died in Los Angeles on 22nd May, as a result of injuries from a car accident. He was 75.

Reitherman had become an animator by chance. His ambition as a young man was to be a aeronautical engineer, but he drew cartoons in his spare time at school and eventually decided to study art.

In 1932, Reitherman enrolled at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, where he trained, initially, as a water colourist. It was around this time that Walt Disney invited one of the Chouinard teachers, Don Graham, to run art classes for the Disney animators and, in 1933, Graham gave the young Reitherman an introduction to Disney.

‘Walt seemed to like my sketches,’ Reitherman told me, ‘but I wasn’t sure I wanted to make so many drawings over and over. He said to try it for a couple of weeks, which I did and I fell in love with movement.’

The first film on which Reitherman worked was the 1934 Silly Symphony, Funny Little Bunnies. He went on to work on several other Sillies and several Mickey Mouse shorts, including Hawaiian Holiday in which he animated Goofy’s hilarious attempts at surf-boarding. ‘It was an exciting time at the studio,’ Reitherman recalled, ‘We were into a new art form, and there was Walt – stimulating you at the front end and pushing you at the back end! Gee, but it was special!’

Aeronautics lost a potential engineer; Reitherman was hooked on animation and remained with the Disney studio for 48 years, until his retirement.

When Disney began work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Woolie Reitherman was assigned a sequence in which the dwarfs build an elaborately-carved four-poster bed for Snow White. It was to be one of several sequences dropped from the finished film because Disney felt that they slowed up the action too much.

‘Walt,’ explained Reitherman, ‘had a keen sense of pacing and timing, he knew instinctively what would work for an audience and what wouldn’t. That was his talent. If something didn’t work, he’d brood over it and everybody would talk about it, and pretty dam soon it got better!’

Although the bed-building scene never finally met with Disney’s approval, he admired the technique of the young animator who had worked on it, to the extent of giving him one of the most difficult and challenging sequences in the studio’s next feature.

In Pinocchio, Reitherman was responsible for the brilliant climatic whale chase, and his extraordinary animation of Monstro the whale crashing through the sea and sending up flumes of spray was one of the most stunning set-pieces in what must still be regarded as the greatest animated film ever made. ‘Sadly,’ said Reitherman, ‘it didn’t get the acclaim it should have; but we all worked our fannies off, and it’s one of the most gripping fantasies anyone’s ever seen.

The Rite of Spring from Fantasia. © Walt Disney Productions.

For the innovatory Fantasia, Reitherman undertook the battle of the prehistoric giants and demonstrated just how potent the images of animation can be. Much criticism has been levelled against Disney artists for the increasing reliance on the process of rotoscoping to create illusions of real life: yet here was Reitherman working with a subject where no live-action could exist for a guide, and producing, as a result, one of the most memorable and terrifying scenes in the history of film animation.

With the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941, Reitherman enlisted in the air-force and, by the end of the war, had risen to the rank of major. It was on a flight to the Philippines, in 1946, that he met air-stewardess Janie Marie McMillen who was to become his wife.

Woolie Reitherman returned to Disney after his war service ended and worked on all the major animated features which the studio produced, including The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad (in which he contributed to the breathtaking chase sequence when the Headless Horseman pursues Ichabod Crane through the darkness of Sleepy Hollow), Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp.

Sleeping Beauty, Disney’s last great fling with the baroque-style of animation released in 1959, contained another masterpiece of Reitherman animation in the sequence where Prince Philip fights the evil Maleficent, transformed into a monstrous black and purple dragon.

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