Elaboration on the Glendale crew

 

Since the initial release of ‘Pulling a Rabbit Out of a Hat’ just over a year ago, I have reflected on what changes or additions should be considered if ever requested for updates for a second edition.  One aspect on which I might elaborate is the environment in the Glendale unit…

 

It became apparent to Disney executive management and the producers of ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ that the animation crew at The Forum in Camden Town, led by Richard Williams, was not going to be able to meet the production deadline.  Richard Williams resisted a second crew and was not happy about losing control of the two important sequences, Toontown and the Benny the cab chase, when it was decided that an animation crew based in Glendale would be established.

Williams wanted to supervise the additional unit, but eventually agreed that he might be able to work with Dale Baer.  Dale Baer had worked at the Richard Williams Animation studio in Los Angeles in 1978-1979 and had started to produce his own commercials.  Dale and Jane Baer had incorporated themselves as ‘Baer Animation Company.’  They had completed a theme park film assignment for Disney.  Dale and Jane Baer were hired in July 1987.  Ron Rocha and Steve Hickner were involved in setting up the facility in Glendale and the Baers moved to the Air Way site to go through portfolios and identify a potential animation crew.  The ultimate participation of the Baers and an additional animation crew was still up in the air in early September 1987.  The bluescreen shooting for the Toontown segments was still scheduled at ILM for mid-October, therefore when the establishment of the Glendale crew was finally agreed to… the pressure was on immediately.

 

The script for the Toontown sequence had still not been finalized.  It had been worked on by screenwriters Peter Seaman and Jeffrey Price at Amblin.  Michael Peraza had been brought in from Disney to prepare concept art for Toontown.  After that, Hans Bacher and Harald Siepermann were sent to Amblin to work on concept art and storyboards.  Later still, Mark Kausler and Joe Ranft were at Amblin to work on gags and storyboards.  There was a bit of a disconnect between them and the screenwriters.  Robert Zemeckis was distilling the ideas from all of these sources, but even the ‘look’ of Toontown had neither been fully established nor communicated when the Glendale unit came on line.

In early September 1987, Dale Baer was working on storyboards for the Benny the Cab sequence.  Among other things, Jane Baer was managing the development of the Toontown ‘look.’  William (Bill) Frake was hired as Head of Layout for the Glendale unit.  He started work in Glendale on September 7th and was told to told to come up with a design and ‘look’ for Toontown.  Jane Baer brought freelance artist, Dave Dunnet, in on September 15 to help Frake.  Dunnet had worked previously at Disney and was known for fine rendering and elaborate concept artwork, of the grade typical of Disney Feature Animation productions.

It should be stated the Baers were of the understanding that the Glendale unit would be autonomous of the London unit, and not under the supervisory control of Richard Williams.  Both Dale and Jane Baer were hopeful of continuing work with Disney following the Roger Rabbit production.  They saw the Roger Rabbit assignment as an opportunity to demonstrate for Disney their capability to produce ‘Disney-quality’ animation.  It must have soon become apparent that Richard Williams would have some supervisory, or, at least, consultative, input into some creative decisions in the Glendale unit.

The personalities of Dale and Jane Baer were quite different and they assumed roles within their partnership that reflected their strengths.  Dale was easy-going, shy, and non-confrontational.  He was a strong draftsperson and had an excellent reputation as an animator, and was highly respected by other animators.  He was the Supervising Animator and more of the ‘creative’ side of the partnership.  Jane had earned her spurs when the animation business was fully dominated by men – when sexual discrimination was systemic and sexual harassment, as we currently recognize it, was commonplace.  She was gutsy and strong-willed, and not only survived… but flourished.  Her role in the partnership was more of business manager.  The continuing involvement of Richard Williams with the Glendale unit must have been disconcerting.  Jane saw it as a competition.

On Monday, September 28, Jane told Frake and Dunnet that the rough drawings and concept art for a Toontown design had to be available for presentation to Robert Zemeckis on Friday, October 2nd.  She learned that Richard Williams would also be present at the Friday presentation and on Tuesday she told Frake and Dunnet that she wanted the artwork the next morning.

Dunnet was known for his clean and polished drawings.  He submitted fully rendered and moody concept drawings.  Frake submitted simple sketches that were full of whimsy, and which pushed the anthropomorphism of some earlier concept work much further.  Jane Baer felt that the Glendale unit’s further participation in the project, and participation in future Disney projects, might hinge on the success of the meeting with Zemeckis.  The Baers were under a lot of stress. Jane chose to promote the ‘Disney-quality’ concept work at the meeting, and on Friday afternoon included Dunnet in the presentation.

 

This has all been a preamble for the purpose of providing background understanding into why the book chapter on the Glendale unit might be upgraded.  In the book, Jane was described with adjectives such as overwrought, impatient, nervous, high-strung, and angry during this period of time.  These are all descriptors that were provided by crew members in interviews conducted in the course of preparing the book.  There is ample reason why anybody in her position might behave similarly in these circumstances, but some of these descriptors tend to be used more for women than men, and may be seen as pejorative.   I am not sure whether her behaviour would have been described in this way, or whether I would have used these adjectives, had she been a man.  The behaviours might otherwise have been described as competitive, tough, demanding, and legitimately anxious.

In the Friday afternoon meeting, yelling could be heard by people outside the meeting room.  Richard Williams burst out of the room holding Dunnet’s Toontown concept drawings and went to the front lobby, where he proceeded to tear up Dunnet’s work while yelling, “We’re not doing portfolio pieces here.”  The incident has been used to illustrate Williams’s temper and erratic behaviour and there is no doubt that the incident was regrettable.  Nevertheless, his underlying assertion may have been appropriate.  His feedback on the Toontown development work should have been directed to Jane.  Whether Jane had misjudged Zemeckis’s intent for Toontown or whether it had not been well communicated – the presentation did not meet expectations.  Both Zemeckis and Williams ended up liking the simple whimsical drawings, and Frake and Ron Dias proceeded to develop the cartoony anthropomorphic look of Toontown.

 

The other aspect of the Glendale chapter that could be improved is an explanation of some confusion in the crew’s perception of the roles of Dale and Jane.  Both Dale and Jane were involved in the hiring process. Dale was credited as chief executive and supervising animator.  Jane was credited as coordinating animator.  The hierarchy of supervising animator/animator/assistant animator/in-betweener/clean-up artist is well-established within the animation industry, and there is usually a parallel production management/administrative line of response.  The pool of assistant animators and in-betweeners understood clearly that Jane was their boss.  The animators understood that they responded directly to Dale and took their direction from him.  They chafed when Jane came to them requesting changes to work that had been approved by Dale, although they knew that, as a partner in the Baer Animation Company, they had to treat her with a certain amount of deference.  They thought that Jane was overreaching in demanding changes to their work.  Her demands were often made while Dale was away.  The animators often went to Dale with their grievance when he returned.

Dale tended to avoid confrontation, and was happiest when he was busy animating.  The underlying confusion in roles, and the consequent issues, were never resolved.  In that confusion, the perceptions of the animators tended to be a little different than the perceptions of other crew members… and may have infused some negative light into their perception of Jane.  Dale certainly had some responsibility in that confusion in role perception, and for not clarifying the situation throughout the production.

In spite of that, all members of the Glendale crew whose interviews were referenced in the book described a positive experience and excellent camaraderie within the crew.  They raised their game in response to the comparisons with the London crew.  They mostly remember being very busy and the stress of crazy deadlines, but they remember that time as being fun, instructive, and empowering.

 

The Baer Animation Company was recognized by Disney for the high quality of its animation and its ability to meet tough deadlines.  Among other projects done for Disney following ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit,’ the Baers did much of the animation for Disney’s ‘The Prince and the Pauper,’ released in 1990.