K.C.: I think you proved that point with ‘A Christmas Carol”.
R.W.: “Christmas Carol” we animated fully, but it was a race because we had just seven months. We went bananas! That was before we became heavily unionised.
K.C.: I’m surprised. Why, then, did you put so many perspective shots in the film; soaring over rooftops with the backgrounds animating along with the characters?
R.W.: I hate the flatness of animation. Even though “The Thief” is a flat style, it is full of space. Most animation consists of little animated characters standing facing you against a background painted by somebody else, and it looks awful to me. We tried to be more dramatic. You see “Christmas Carol” was realistic and I didn’t want to do it that way, I put up a big fight. Chuck Jones had seen our ‘Light Brigade’ titles and he said, “I want that.” We said, “We can’t do that in full, we haven’t got the time or the money.” But Chuck insisted, “Well, just hold them or something.” I didn’t want to do that either so I suggested, “Why don’t we try a drawing-style version of the old illustrations, and that way – just possibly – we might be able to animate it fully.” So we did! It was a way to make the film interesting.
Chuck wanted the sound of sleigh-bells in the film. I said, “Why? They didn’t exist in Dickens day. If you want an authentic film, there’s no place for American sleigh-bells.” He smiled, “Well, I just like the sound of them.” So we put them in – and nobody noticed! And then he wanted a pan over the rooftops of London and I thought ‘that’s death’. Then we thought ‘All right, you want it, we’ll do it’. We did it from above and that made it visually interesting. Roy Nesbitt animated it and made Chuck very happy. I remember Chuck wanted Scrooge to wink at the audience at one point. Ken Harris was aghast, “You’re not actually going to do that, are you?” he asked. I said, “No!” and rejected the suggestion.
But really Chuck was great, because right at the end when we were in danger of not finishing on time, he brought in a little unit of his own – Hal Ambro, Abe Levitow and George Nicholas (an ex-Disney animator). I think we paid Hal and George, but Chuck donated Abe because Abe was the director of his own Specials’. They came over and helped us for the last six or seven weeks. Abe was wonderful – he could really draw. It was a great loss when he died.
Chuck was a wonderful producer – he left me alone! He was an adviser to ABC-TV. He was leaving and as executive producer he got the money and hired us to make one last hit film – he got it. We all did well out of it. He put it in for an Oscar nomination, I never would have done so. He ran it in Los Angeles so that it would qualify. He was wonderful!
K.C.: Did you ever finish “Circus Drawings”?
R.W.: No! I keep trying every now and then I do a couple of day’s work. I did a scene a little while ago and I hate it because I was doing a lot of commercial work at the time and the result was too slick.
K.C.: What about the 40-minute projected film on Gogol’s “Diary Of A Madman”?
R.W.: That’s scrapped, although we finished the track. I would like to finish the CIRCUS film but the commercials take precedence, “The Thief” is second -and my cornet comes third!
K.C.: I know about your love of music. But tell me, you were studying Winsor McCay’s films at one time. Did you see these in America?
R.W.: Let me see … a fellow came into the studio with Woody Allen. I think it was Marshall Brickman, he is a writer for Woody Allen. I’m not sure but I think it was him. I visited him once in New York. He was a collector and had some of McCay’s early films. They knocked me out because of the depth. He was drawing the backgrounds with the characters and moving everything. Even though the timing was strange, the ideas were much better than some of today’s. John Canemaker made a marvellous film about McCay including parts of The Sinking Of The Lusitania”. The idea of drawing the backgrounds moving which they used to do in the early naive days, helped to break my mind away from the conventional ways of animation. Our simple methods do not get you very far – you soon run out of steam. The knowledge they developed at Disney’s in the late Thirties was a group product and no-one here seriously attempted to master it until we started our seminars.