Biography - Disney Years
The World War II years came - 1939-1945. It was during this period that Johnny decided to try to put into action a long-held dream. For years he had talked about wanting to go to the Walt Disney Studios and learn to be an animator. He greatly admired Walt Disney from afar and what he was doing. Johnny had done a lot of sketches and cartoons for his own pleasure. He often would clip cartoons from the newspapers that appealed to him and make comments on the style of the artist. He made charcoal sketches of his family and cartooned humorous events around him, but he was never really satisfied with what he had done, so he tossed most of them away.
Johnny admits being a little scared when he got his appointment with Hal Adelquist, personnel manager of the studio. Previously a family friend and also an employee of Disney, Hal King, advised him to take along some samples of his work when he went for the interview.
The family still has the cartoon Johnny took with him to the studio. “I had a little string tied around my finger and I had a billy goat running towards me. I was bent over and the billy goat was going to butt me in the rear. The caption read, ‘Thanks pal for reminding me of my appointment Thurs. with Mr. Adelquist.’” Johnny would demonstrate how he looked bent over with the goat going for him – everyone would laugh who saw the demonstration and heard the story.
Adelquist enjoyed the cartoon, but he told Johnny, “Well, let’s put it this way. We are not hiring people your age. We like to get kids from high school; then we can break them into our methods. We like to mold our animators.” Adelquist went on. “However, we are hard up because all the kids are starting to be drafted and we need men. We need artists, and so we are going to have to hire older people; so you can have a try at it right now.”
It is certain that Johnny did not get the job solely on the basis of his cartoon nor the studio’s need for replacements. He also got it because he had good references and a lot of experience to help him.
When Johnny started working at Disney Studios on Buena Vista Street in Burbank, California, little did he know it was a momentous step that would change the direction of his future; going to work at the studio was the focal point of events that would greatly affect his life and the lives of his family.
“Right off the bat I was taken to Johnny Bond’s department in the animation section. I was put in a room flipping papers. These were practice animation sheets, as I later learned. Yes, Johnny Bond was the first person to show me how to flip the animation sheets, holding your hand so there is a sheet between all your fingers. As you flip the sheets you can see what animation is needed for the action. Then you draw in that action so that it seems continuous as the sheets are flipped.”
He continued his explanation: “Then the rough action is cleaned up and more defined as you proceed to flip and draw, correcting and examining carefully all the time you are flipping. When we were kids, there were little flip-books of cartoons, I remember, like Buster Brown, Happy Hooligan, Katzenjammer Kids and Mutt & Jeff. This is based on the same principle.”
Johnny Basmajian and Johnny Bond became good friends. As the years went by, their families stayed in touch with each other as well.
“That first day Johnny Bond told me to ‘sit here, Basmajian, at this table.’ He handed me some sheets of paper with five perforations at the bottom of each sheet – a bar, three holes and another bar. ‘Now flip these,’ showing me how to hold my fingers. ‘Flip them from the first to the last action. You have to train your fingers. Then you flip until your heart is burnt out,’ and he turned and left the room.” Expert flipping was the first step in becoming an animator.
The animator made rough drawings of the extreme points of action within a given sequence of motion. The “in-betweener” had to fill in the action between the animator’s extremes. This was also done in rough form with as many drawings as necessary to render the motion smooth. This was all pencil work. When asked once, Johnny said, “Yes, it’s true the animators sometimes use mirrors to help get the proper expressions or positions of their characters.”
There were three other men in the room doing the same kind of work: Milt Banta, Bruce McIntyre and Dick Lucas. Johnny had been introduced to them via the pointing finger of the animation head. The men each paused and shook hands with Johnny, then went back to their work. But they were friendly and Johnny watched them at their work when he could. They gave him a lot of sound advice and help.
Johnny had become acquainted with Ward Kimball, one of the top animators, about three days after he went to work at the studio. Kimball had a room just across the hall. As time went by, Johnny did work for Ward, although he was never stationed in his room. He did a lot of work with Freddie Moore. Bill Justice was another of the artists with whom Johnny worked. One time Johnny came back from his lunch hour to find a large caricature of him pinned to the front of the door. In it, Johnny was smiling broadly, showing a gleaming gold tooth. Johnny always said the caricature was done by Bill Justice, but it had not been signed by anyone. Throughout all these years, Johnny kept that caricature.
Several weeks were spent just learning the flipping technique. Then one day Johnny was called to go down to the camera section.
“It seems there was a rush job and they wanted someone down there to put film sections between two glass slides and tape them together.” Not very exciting, but it was then that Johnny met Ken Brier, in charge of the department. This activity lasted about a week; then Johnny returned to his assigned room and found he had been given some actual to-be-used animation sheets to be cleaned up. Before this, it had all been practice.
Almost immediately after America’s entry into World War II, the government took over the studio. The army annexed everything, turning the place into a military base. They even stored ammunition in the parking lot and they made use of some of the buildings for sleeping quarters. They were preparing for a Japanese invasion of Southern California, so they said. Everything was topsy-turvy at the studio. Disney was directed to make training films for military use.
Johnny was assigned to work on a film adaptation of Victory Through Air Power, written by Major Alexander P. De Seversky. Disney placed great importance on the film’s message. Production on it was given high priority. In the 1940’s it was just an idea forming in military thinking. Seversky’s ideas were only tested towards the close of the World War II conflagration.
Johnny was responsible for lettering on the huge maps used in the film. They had to work many nights on them. Walt Disney was there overseeing the project most of those nights. Also in production at night were many other studio projects; this was necessary because of the heavy air traffic of military planes flying in and out of Burbank airport during the day, interfering with the sound stages.
Disney was also anxious to get the film done and have it over with. It was the second time around – the government rejected the first version so they had to do it over. That was the one reason Disney kept a close personal watch over the project. He also wanted to begin other projects he already outlined.
Disney cautioned Johnny not to let anyone change the maps in any way, even the Major. Johnny had to be very tactful not to lock horns when he had to politely, but very firmly tell the Major to see Walt about any changes he suggested first. Seversky did want to make certain changes and took the matter to Walt who said “OK.” This satisfied him, but the maps stayed the same until Johnny had Walt’s go ahead.
On completion of “Victory Through Air Power,” Disney threw a party for Seversky and other military officers at the studio. Johnny recalls the afternoon before the party, “I was walking down the hall with Johnny Bond and Walt came up to me and handed me some little sheets of paper with notes written in pencil on them and said, ‘I have to have some drink cards painted up tonight for the bar. You need to stay and get them out for me.’ So I stayed late and managed to get the drink card signs out in time, but I sure cut it close.” Some of the cards read: OUR DELAYED HI-BALL; SINK OR SWIM WITH A FLAT-TOP FRAPPE; TRY SASCHA’S DELIGHT, THE P47 THUNDERBOLT! YOU’LL TAKE OFF; THE CEILING ZERO – RICKY’S HI-BALLS AND COCKTAILS (“Ricky” referring to Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker). The party was in June, 1943.
Johnny’s wife, Edna, recalls that during the World War II years, “We had blackout curtains, food ration coupons and old aluminum pot and pan salvages. Whatever happened to all the cookware is hard to say, but we thought most of it ended up in a scrap heap, unused. There was no problem with gasoline rationing for us because Johnny sometimes moonlighted on weekends under his contractor’s license for the oil companies, lettering oil tankers, oil storage tanks and airfield landing strips and was able to get extra gas rationing coupons.”
“Once, Johnny was on a landing field of the military base located off the highway going from Los Angeles to San Diego. Camp Pendleton, I believe,” Edna recalled. “He was painting large letters and numbers on the runways. Suddenly the MP’s came racing up to him in their jeep, ordered him to get in, and rushed back to the gate entrance. It seems no one was around when Johnny came through the credential checkpoint. He had waited a few minutes; then he simply had gone to the work site, parking his red 38 Chevy pick-up truck at the side of the runway. After a bit of a furor, he was allowed to go back to work. This time the MP’s escorted him back to the job and the little red truck.”
She added, “I remember another time at the same base, when he was lettering the identification markings for the landing strips, a big military plane flying very low roared past him to another strip. They must have spotted the little red truck parked on the edge of the strip. This incident should never have occurred if prior information had been relayed to incoming planes since the strip was supposed to have been closed until the work was finished.” Johnny would laugh over these happenings as he recalled them in later years. He said, “I really ducked down fast that time!”
Many times Johnny would take several of the studio workers who lived in the San Gabriel valley area to work and back during the rationing period. Ward Kimball and five or six of the “ink & paint” girls rode with him, some of them seated on cushions in the back of the open bed of the little red ’38 Chevy pick-up. That little red truck certainly helped contribute to the war effort!
Ward Kimball and Johnny became good friends. Kimball was a lively person, very talented and interested in many things. He was a teacher for a live art class set up for his fellow artists. He also formed a Dixieland Jazz Band called The Firehouse Five Plus Two mostly made up from guys in the Animation Department who sometimes jazzed up the studio lunch hour with their brass.
Kimball owned a large piece of land in the San Gabriel Valley of California. Interested in model trains and in the real ones, too, he had built a railroad track on his land to run full-scale old-fashioned steam engines and several cars to roll along these tracks. He had also acquired the set of the train depot used in “So Dear to My Heart.” Today, Kimball’s railroad memorabilia, the old steam locomotives and the cars have been given to a railroad and trolley museum in Perris, California. Many times we had taken our Scout troops over to see the trains.
Kimball also had an old 1914 American La France fire engine. He had Johnny show him how to do the gold leaf for the lettering, pin striping and scrollwork on the truck. Johnny said when asked about it, “Ward wanted to know how to size the stuff and lay the gold leaf. Once I showed him, he did all the rest of the work on that fire engine himself; the son of a gun was good; I went over to have a look when he finished and it was perfect!”
When Walt Disney was beginning to formulate ideas for “The Three Caballeros” and “Saludos, Amigos,” the studio opened a Spanish language class for studio members who wanted to participate. Both Johnny and Kimball attended the language classes. Johnny went to the live art classes as well.
Everyone Johnny met at the studio liked him. Even the carpenters made him a sturdy sign kit to replace his own worn-out one that he carried everywhere he went. He always took it to the studio saying, “I might need something in it anytime. You never know.”
Occasionally, Johnny brought home cartoons to show the neighborhood kids. He obtained Little Hiawatha to show at the school’s Halloween Carnival. They couldn’t charge an admission fee, so bags of popcorn were sold for 10-cent tickets for a free admission to go see the show.
Early in 1945, Johnny was made assistant animator to George Kreisl, drawing Pluto, (room 1C-15, animation building, phone number 298). George Kreisl was the supervising animator of Pluto at that time. Johnny was also assigned to work on the animation of Figaro the Cat (introduced in the film Pinocchio) when that character was used in later cartoons. Johnny was never the innovator of any Disney characters.
Johnny moved up in status in those years from in-betweener to backgrounds, to assistant animator. Later he worked in the publicity department.
It was an extremely hot August day in 1945 when Edna’s Girl Scout Troop visited Disney Studios. Johnny had arranged everything. There were about 25 girls with some parents. They all had lunch at the commissary as guests of Walt. The troop installed him as an honorary member of Girl Scout Troop 319 of Park School, Alhambra, California. “Walt had a kindly look and a twinkle in his eye as my daughter, Lucia, pinned the Girl Scout badge on him,” Johnny would later comment. “I watched his face closely and wondered what he was thinking. I could see that he was enjoying the moment, though.”
Later, the girls asked for Walt’s autograph. He suggested that since there were so many girls, he would see that they received the autographs later in the day.
Then the troop went to a preview showing of a cartoon the studio was about to release. “Every noon they projected a cartoon in the theater there,” Johnny said. “This happened to be the latest one [Mickey Mouse] Walt had completed, and the kids enjoyed it so much they almost raised the roof off and that pleased Walt very much.”
The last event of the day was going to Walt’s penthouse office and receiving the promised autographs. He showed the girls around, pointing out pictures of his daughters. It was quite a day for the Girl Scouts. The troop received a letter of thanks from Walt and kept in touch with him for a long time afterwards.
Johnny often talked about how, during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, the labor unions moved into Hollywood to organize the movie industry. It was a time of unrest and uncertainty; of Communist exaggerations and union corruptions. The mafia muscled in on the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). Willie Bioff was the underling in charge of the screen capital’s recruitment for a labor union. The studios were in real trouble then. Most, if not all, of the movie studios were targeted.
In the beginning, Walt Disney Studios was not affected. The staff were not members of any union, at least not openly. So the studio went about its business normally. This fact was probably due to the relationship between Walt Disney and the employees. They regarded him as a friend, respecting and standing a little in awe of him at the same time. He was rather a father figure, regardless of their main grievance against his policy for not giving screen credit for the contributions of others, until Snow White.
Snow White helped Disney Studio out financially. When times were tough, Disney told his men he would give them bonuses and raises when things got better. So the employees continued to work with no salary increase because they expected to have a share in the Disney profits. However, it never quite worked out in the way Walt had said. He said he had to put everything he could back into new productions.
The Hyperion studio was bursting at the seams, so they moved to the new Buena Vista Studio location in Burbank. The artists patiently waited for their increased benefits. The only screen acknowledgements were to be given to feature movies now, no cartoon credits.
Financially, things must have been very rough for Disney with the new studio expansion. Indeed, he finally had to sell stock in the open market. Stock was also offered to the employees at approximately $2.00 per share. He didn’t want to, but it was necessary for survival. Moving to the new location caused Walt to have to delegate more organizational and studio concerns to other people.
Disney Studios became the objective of the Screen Cartoonists Guild, led by Herb Sorrell. He signed up a lot of employees already disgruntled by what they felt were Walt’s unfulfilled promises. Sorrell prevented a “right of choice” secret ballot from taking place. Walt wanted the men to vote on a closed shop. Sorrell threatened Disney with national boycott. He declared Disney would be put on an ‘unfair’ list all over the country.
Johnny recalls, “I have movies of that strike. It was an ugly one. I got the film from a participating studio friend. Only less than half of the men walked the picket lines. The rest crossed over them.”
“I never walked the picket line. I didn’t believe all the rumors going around about Walt and the operations of the studio. I know he tried to tell the strikers at a special meeting what his position was. I think he felt betrayed, right or wrong. He was hurt because some of the men he had trusted very much were against him. He was even booed at the meeting.”
After that, things changed at the studio; Walt withdrew from his employees. The old camaraderie was lost. Johnny used to say, “All I know is that when I first went too work at the studio, it was like an honor system. You came to work, you did your job and when you finished you left. There were no strings on coffee breaks. Often you would go down to the cafeteria and sit ant talk to Walt over a cup of coffee. There were no time clocks. You were trusted to perform your allotted task and you did just that.”
Afterwards, when things settled down with union demands having been satisfied, there was a complete turn-around. Time clocks were installed, punched in and out for everything. Coffee breaks were limited. Walt did not fraternize with the men. He stood more and more apart from them. Decisions were being made by in-between executives.
Johnny liked to visit the ink and paint department, watching the deftness and skill of the girls at work. When the assistant animator had cleaned up and defined the action lines, all done in pencil on the animation sheet, the drawing went to the ink and paint section. The girls would trace over the pencil lines with ink on the top side of the cel. Then they would reverse the cel and put in the colors on the back side of the sheet. The perforations or registration holes on the bottom of every cel or piece of animation paper is the same and keeps everything aligned with no slippage. The artists all use what are called peg boards to make sure of this. The registration holes and the peg board are critical in the making of a cartoon. Sequential development is also a very important factor.
Colors are charted by number to facilitate painting. The medium was water-based. Of course, in handling the cels, white cotton gloves were worn by everyone to prevent smudging or fingerprints.
From the very first time Johnny went down to the camera department to bind the slides, he was very impressed with the camera and the way they put the cartoons, composed of thousands of cels, together for production. The camera was about fourteen feet high, encased in an iron framework. The idea of the multi-plane camera is to put separate cels on separate planes according to the perspective you want. The distance to the lens works with the illusion of size from foreground to background.
“I went to work at the studio about the time the multi-plane camera was perfected. I think the first prototype was used for filming The Old Mill, totally using three-dimensional effects. The picture won an Oscar for Disney in 1937.”
In the beginning, Disney shunned any and all publicity about the multi-plane camera. But he was very proud of that camera.
Disney had long held the idea of a camera that would produce the illusion of depth. However, it was Ub Iwerks, who had been with Disney at the beginning, who perfected the multi-plane camera. Iwerks was interested in special effects and improved ways of animation. After personal difficulties with Walt, he left the studio on Hyperion. After a time, he returned to Disney and continued to work on a moveable camera that was not as cumbersome as earlier attempts. This was a vertical multi-plane camera, later refined with the ability to move horizontally. This refinement permitted simultaneous movements, vertical and horizontal, across the frame as well as into it. Larger backgrounds could also be used now.
Johnny learned about the camera and its function from cameraman Ken Brier. Johnny had to go to the camera department many more times throughout the years. He tried to explain in layman terms:
“The camera took inverted shots from where it was placed in the top of the framework. There were grooves in the shelves, which were on different levels. The cels to be photographed were put in the grooves sequentially and filmed. The camera could also be used for many cels to show the movement across it.”
Johnny often remarked, “I didn’t understand some of the technical stuff, but I did know that the camera took some beautiful three-dimensional pictures. I did learn the working principles of it first hand, and I saw it in action.”
When asked how they animated before the use of the multi-plane camera, Johnny replied, “I guess it was a slower process, all by hand. Brier told me they started with all the cel drawings to be used. These were all numbered, of course, to keep them in proper order. The camera was fastened to a table lighted by mercury bulbs. Then they put the background on pegs fitted to the size of the drawings and matched all the holes of the cel and background.”
Johnny further explained, “Brier told me they clamped a pane of glass over the drawing to press it smoothly. Then they could photograph. The glass comes up from the drawing and goes on to the next. According to Brier, they had a hard time getting depth so they tried to do it by removing the top cel and photographing the under cel.”
Once, for some reason, Johnny had to go to the projection booth. He did not know the army brass was previewing one of the classified strategic films. The projectionist whispered loudly as he opened the door, “What the hell are you doing here! Quick, get in that corner and sit still before anybody sees you! If they do you’ll be in the calaboose and they will toss away the key!”
So, in the corner sat Johnny, “I didn’t see anything of the picture. The projectionist did not want me to see what it was all about. He wanted to be able to truthfully say that I knew nothing if it came up; all went well, however, and nobody else ever knew I was there.” Johnny made his exit after the big boys had exited first.
Later on, Johnny was sent to the advertising and publicity department handled by Hank Porter to work with Joe Reddy (room 240 S – the shorts building - phone number 625). When asked what projects he worked on there, he said, “Well…projects I worked on…Let’s see. We were making Song of the South, I had Luanna Patton and Bobby Driscoll…I looked after those two kids and their publicity. I did the pen and ink drawings and lettering on articles. All that stuff you saw in magazines, on posters and newspapers, I had charge of that.... They were good little actors...such nice kids, and that Luanna Patton, she never missed a line.” Continuing, he sadly commented, “It really bothers me very much that poor Bobby Driscoll died in Greenwich Village [age 31] from drugs.” Johnny was responsible for the children, including their moms, for some time during the making of Song of the South. Concluding, he pointed out, “You know, the actor who played Uncle Remus, James Baskett, suffered a heart attack while it was in production. He later came back and finished the picture. In the meantime, the scenes were shot around his character.” The film was premiered November 14, 1946 at the Loews Theater in Atlanta, Georgia.
It was during Johnny’s time in the publicity department that he was approached about going to New York to work. Johnny said that he was not interested because he had lived back there and didn’t want to uproot the family. But he always felt it was a great compliment.
Then there came a sudden reorganization of the studio. Efficiency was going to be the prime aim, not creativity. At any rate, the entire studio closed for several weeks – only top executives remained. Johnny was discouraged. There were bills that had to be paid. Things were pretty shaky at that point, so he never returned full time to the studio when it reopened. Instead, he went back to being an independent commercial artist and general contractor in partnership with his brother, Leo. However, he did remain connected with the studio as a free lancer into the fifties and continued to stay friends with some of his old pals from those early days at Disney’s throughout the remainder of his life.