Words and Images care of Dorse Lanphers memoirs “Flyin’ Chunks and Other things to Duck”
In 1979 I was comfortable in my position as department supervisor at Walt Disney Feature Animation but there were political clouds forming on the animation horizon. Don Bluth, along with Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy felt the studio wasn’t being true to what they thought Walt Disney himself wanted of animation. There were others who didn’t agree and tensions were mounting.
Don, Gary and John had set up a part time animation shop in Don’s garage in Culver City , California . Don had written a script for a short cartoon called “Banjo the Woodpile Cat.” A group of Disney animation aficionados joined him in the garage to help make an animated film with the purpose of learning how to make an animated film in the Disney tradition. Everyone worked in their spare time for the love of the art, the fun of the project and a promise of some sort of success in the distant future. Everyone would arrive at Don’s garage after a full day at Disney’s and work late into the evening and most weekends, developing their skills as cartoon animation artists. Everyone was hoping to make a little film which would be noticed by the big world out there. I had a conversation with Don about staying at Disney’s because all the equipment was there, a complete animation facility. He replied “It’s just buildings.”
Eventually there was enough of “Banjo” completed to show money people what promise the artists had as animators. A company called Aurora Entertainment was interested in putting up money for a feature film. They had a connection in Chicago ; a commodity broker who was interested in animation and had lot’s of spare change to invest. Don had suggested that I could come with him to supervise the effects on the Banjo and then we would do The Secret of NIMH. I was torn because I really liked my position at Disney’s. I was working on “The Black Hole,” a live action film with animated effects and I felt that I had a professional obligation to finish it. After that I was going to be on to “The Fox and the Hound.”
Heidi Guedel, Lorna Pomeroy, Linda Miller and Emily Juliano.
All animators depicted here before resigning from Walt Disney Pictures early 1979.
Don, John and Gary secured backing for their feature film “The Secret of NIMH.” Don had bought the rights to the book, a Newberry Award winning children’s book. With financial backing in place, Don quit the studio on his birthday, September 1979, along with John, Gary, Lorna Pomeroy, Vera Macaluso, Heidi Guidel, Diane Landau, Dave Spafford, Skip Jones, Linda Miller, and Sally Voorhies. They all just walked out. There was much political haggling in the animation department at Disney’s at the time, with several ex Cal Arts students competing with Don Bluth for the power position, whatever that was. The three, Don, John, and Gary knew the time was now. It made the front page of the New York Times. A picture of all of them in the back of Gary’s Toyota pickup accompanied the article. The exodus set back the production of “The Fox and Hound” six months. It turned out to be a bigger deal than anyone anticipated and a lesson that reveals the importance of the artist.
The next day Ron Miller called an emergency meeting of all the remaining animators. We were to meet in his conference room at 2:30 that afternoon. The whole studio was talking about the mass resignation. I had decided to resign from the studio to join Bluth in what I thought would be a great adventure. No one but Don knew of my decision to join a handful of artist silly enough to think we could start an animation studio and do a successful feature in the next year. Since I had not revealed my future resignation I had to attend the meeting with Ron Miller. Every one, maybe 20 or 30 people, were seated around the very big Walnut conference table waiting for the king, Ron, to enter. There was excitement in the air. Finally Ron entered the room. He was late but no one was going to contest it. Not only was he head of the Walt Disney Company, a much, much bigger entity than the animation department, he was a 6 foot 4-inch tall ex- pro football player. A very tanned, hansom, formidable figure. He sat down at the head of the very large shiny table, paused for a moment, and said “Well, now that the cancer has been cut out…”
All my friends who I thought were attempting to save the art of “classical animation” had just been called “a cancer” by the head of the Walt Disney Company and the greatest animation studio in history. Wow. My brain circuits all blew at once after hearing such a strange beginning to what was to be very tense meeting. After some group babbling and power struggling attempts the meeting was adjourned. It seemed everyone was excited about a new beginning for the Disney animation studio. With that troublemaker Don and his buddies gone there would be more creative room for the artist left behind.
The day had finally arrived for my exit. Don was ready for me to begin on “Banjo.” I had written a long, heart felt, letter of resignation which I was going to present to Ed Hanson, the animation Administrator. The morning was at hand. It was chilly, wintry, November day. I called Ed and ask if we could talk. He was open to it so I bounced into his office all excited about what was to be Dorse’s next big adventure. I handed the envelope to Ed. He opened it, pulled out my letter and began to silently read my brilliant good bye. In the letter I had given two weeks notice, all very proper. Ed very quietly finished reading the letter and as he lowered the letter he raised his eyes to meet mine and said “Dorse, you’d better get out of the studio, Rons coming in this afternoon and he’s going to be upset.” I mumbled something about a two week notice and he said “never mind that, just get out of the studio.” Gee, not even thanks for all the good work I had done. I felt like such a heel. I went back to my room, cleared my desk and fled. A few weeks later Don Bluth sponsored me for membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Ed Hansen was on the board of the Academy. My application was rejected.
Don Bluth Productions was planning to screen a rough-cut of “Banjo” at a theater in Hollywood . It was planned as a first get together of the new crew so everyone could see the film and become aware of how much work we had to do to finish the picture. The night of the screening I drove to Hollywood from my apartment in Burbank . I pulled into the dark parking lot across the street from the theater. As I walked out of the darkness toward the crowd of artist in front of the theater everyone started cheering me as if I were the Holy Savior. They were just very happy that I had decided to join the new company as the Effects Supervisor. We all knew we were out on a limb and we would need each other’s total support to make this effort succeed.
The next year I reapplied for membership in the academy and I was accepted.