Wednesday, December 16, 2009
R.I.P. Roy Disney
Today marked the passing of Roy Disney, Walt's nephew, and the last truly great man (as far as I'm concerned) to carry Walt's legacy. I had the great privilege of meeting the man, several times actually, during my 8 years working at Walt Disney Feature Animation. I first met him back in 1994, when I had just started working for Disney, moving to Florida after living in Ireland for three years. Since Roy owned a house in Ireland where he spent time each year, we had something in common, and we talked for a while about life in Ireland, and also about the history of animation. He was extremely humble, warm and engaging, and I liked him a great deal. The fact that he looked a lot like Walt, made it that much more interesting to talk to him. But what made the greatest impression was the complete and utter lack of bullshit that came through. He took a genuine interest in every artist that worked at Disney, and he made it abundantly clear that he admired and respected any artist who made it into the Disney studio. Read on and I will tell you who Roy Disney really was....
In the next 8 years, while I was working for Disney, I watched in horror as the studio slowly transformed itself from an incredibly supportive, creative, and exciting place to work, into a faceless corporate entity ruled by fear, lies, and the 'bottom line'. By 1998 the studio had decided on an extremely aggressive production schedule, that would have us releasing a brand new feature film every year. My take on that strategy, was that they would shoot themselves in the foot by saturating the market. And on top of the 'one feature film per year' schedule, they also began to release a ridiculous number of poorly animated direct-to-video sequels of their great classics, even further saturating the classical animation market, as well as degrading the public perception of the 'Disney Quality' that they had come to expect.
Although I was still pretty happy to be working at Disney, and we were starting production on what turned out to be the most enjoyable production I have ever worked on (Lilo & Stitch) I was disillusioned by the overall direction that the company seemed to be headed in. The 'president' of Disney animation at the time, Tom Schumacher, was in my eyes, literally dragging the studio down the tubes with his creative meddling, and bizarre production decisions. I watched aghast as tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars were thrown away on ill-conceived productions that were not followed through after countless millions were squandered. But when the studio started to falter and box office numbers began to slide, it was the hard working artists who took the brunt of it, even though they had seen the folly all along and had been trying to raise the red flag. Blame was put everywhere except where it belonged, directly on the shoulders of the profit driven suits who were making all of there decisions based on fear and greed.....
Then in 2003, Roy Disney resigned, and sent an incredible letter to Michael Eisner and the Board of Directors. In it, Roy echoed my exact sentiments of where the company was heading. Here are a couple of quotes from that letter:
"consistent micro-management of everyone around you with the resulting loss of morale throughout the Company"
"The perception by all of our stakeholders-- consumers, investors, employees, distributors and suppliers-- that the Company is rapacious , soul-less, and always looking for the "quick buck" rather than long-term value which is leading to a loss of public trust"
"The creative brain drain of the last several years, which is real and continuing, and damages our Company with the loss of every talented employee"
At that same time, Roy partnered with Stanley Gold and created the SaveDisney.com website. I'll keep this short, you can 'read all about it' all over the internet, but in short, over the next several months, Roy brought down Michael Eisner and ultimately Eisner was shamefully ousted from the company.
This all happened at precisely the same time that I left Disney and returned to Canada, to raise my son far away from the stifling corporate culture that was apparently strengthening. On my way out, I spoke to my colleagues, imploring them to get out while the getting was good. My warnings were almost word for word the same words that I read in Roy Disney's letter just months after my leaving.
And that was when I knew, that Roy was the real deal. A man of principle, willing to stand up, with his family, and fight the likes of Michael Eisner. My respect and admiration for him are of the very highest order. He was the last gasp of the true Disney legacy.
And so today I mourn a great man, and I pray that there is somebody in charge, somewhere in that massive corporate engine that is the Walt Disney Company, who can steer the behemoth in the right direction. With 'The Princess and the Frog' just coming out, it looks like the dream of the Disney Legacy, making marvelous, timeless cartoons, might actual live on. (I haven't seen the film yet, review coming shortly) And I believe that without the strength, conviction, vision and character of Roy Disney, the company may never have gotten back on track again.....
Blessings to you Roy, and to your family. As animation artists, we will carry your torch, forever. We will keep the light table fires burning, we will flip the pages, we will be true to our creative selves, and we will not allow corporate blindness to drive the creative engines of animation....