True-Life Adventures

A History of Walt Disney's Nature Documentaries

by Christian Moran | Release Date: July 2, 2017 | Availability: Print, Kindle

The Natural World of Disney

Walt Disney used to say "it all started with a mouse", but really, it all started with a farm, the one in Marceline, Missouri, where Walt grew up and where his love of the land, and all things upon it, first took root.

Many years later, Walt's commitment to nature and to conservation took cinematic form in the Academy Award-winning True Life Adventures series. These educational but entertaining films showcased the natural world that Walt loved so dearly, and that he knew must be preserved for future generations.

In this follow-up to his best-selling Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow, about Walt Disney and technology, documentary filmmaker and historian Christian Moran turns his attention to Walt Disney and nature, exploring Walt's commitment to the environment and analyzing each of the True-Life Adventures films, from Seal Island to Jungle Cat.

Moran also looks at the Disney company's continuing commitment to the environment, after Walt's death, through such projects as the Animal Kingdom, the planned Africa Pavilion at Epcot, and the Disneynature series of feature films.

Come visit the biggest Disney theme park of all—the planet earth.

Table of Contents

Part 1: Introduction and Origins

Part 2: The True-Life Adventure Shorts

Part 3: The True-Life Adventure Features

Part 4: The Periphery of the True Lifes

Part 5: The True-Life Legacy

Part 6: Disneynature

Appendix: Supplemental Material



Christian Moran

Christian Moran is a filmmaker, writer, and futurist who was born on March 29, 1985, in Columbus, Ohio. He completed one year at Ohio State University, majoring in archaeology, before moving to Los Angeles at the age of 19 to attend film school. He is the author of Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow (Theme Park Press, 2015). His first documentary, Ayahuasca Diary, was completed in 2008, and his second documentary, Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow: The Futurism of Walt Disney, premiered in 2016. Along with his writing and filmmaking he heads his family’s charitable organization, the Grant Town Foundation. Christian’s admiration of Walt Disney began by visiting the Disney parks as a child, but has evolved into an immense appreciation of the man, his ideals, and vision. Today, Christian lives in San Diego with his exceptionally talented wife, Christina; their son, Ronin; and their three pets, Calvin, Nyx, and Tini.

The first True-Life Adventures film, a short entitled Seal Island, happened because Walt saw all the footage the Milottes were shooting in Alaska, didn't quite know what to do with it, and then had one of his brilliant ideas: let's make it about seals.

Seal Island, released in 1948, is a fantastic example of both the genius of Walt Disney and his ability to nurture talent. He sent the Milottes back to Alaska with literally no idea what the finished film would be about, yet, when all was said and done, that film would win an Academy Award.

After seven months of the Milottes filming everything from fish canneries to glaciers to Eskimos, Walt still was not sure what he had. Elma Milotte remembered:

We had no storyline. We just went out and took the pictures that we could get and then they took those pictures to make a story. We didn’t begin with a story and try to fill it in with pictures. We really didn’t know how they were going to use the film. We just kept going. We’d send the film down to the studio and it would be processed and then they’d send us these little teeny clips so we could see what we had, that’s all we ever saw. But we never did know exactly how it was going to end up. You’ll have to realize we were, for instance, up there, no mail came in, so we were through there before we sent the film out. So we were long gone from Seal Island before we got any report.

Even Roy O. Disney, Walt’s brother and partner, began to question why so much money was being spent on the Alaska project. Ben Sharpsteen suggested that Walt might be creating a “glorified travelogue.” In a 1968 interview with Richard Hubler, Disney screenwriter and director James Algar recounted:

I think what Walt had in mind about a story in Alaska was that we would tell a story about the last frontier. In other words, here was a kind of romantic outpost of civilization, and we would kind of show the pioneer efforts.… Here was a new part of our nation to be carved out of the wilderness and so forth.… For some reason the sawmills, the salmon canneries, the fisheries, didn’t come up to our hopes.

Walt had editors begin to file the footage coming in by subject. Nothing he saw interested him. In an effort to quell his own interest in Alaska, he decided to travel there accompanied by his younger daughter, Sharon, then only ten years old. The two journeyed all around the state and nearly met their deaths when the plane they were traveling in lost radio contact while flying through dense fog. Upon returning home, Walt began to zero in on the footage the Milottes had taken of seals on the Pribilof Islands the previous summer. In Bob Thomas’ An American Original, Ben Sharpsteen remembered Walt saying:

I’ve been thinking about those Alaska films. Why don’t we take what we have and build a story around the life cycle of the seals? Focus on them—don’t show any humans at all. We’ll plan this for a theatrical release, but don’t worry about the length. Make it just as long as it needs to be so you can tell the story of the seals.

Of the seven months the Milottes spent filming in Alaska, they only spent one season filming the seals. During her 1985 interview, Elma Milotte remembered:

It was, at that time, difficult to get there [the Pribilof Islands], they didn’t fly in there like they do now. We were under the control of the government officials there on the island. They didn’t want anything to disturb the seals. We were there just for the summer. The reason for that was because the seals were only there for the summer. Al went up first so he got there in time to see the beachmasters come in, and they’re the big bulls who come in and take their position on the shore. I got up there a little bit later and the females had already arrived and the harems were already pretty well established. Then when the little babies came along there was a lot of activity among the little babies. We had to wait to get the babies swimming. That was the very last thing and the babies had to learn to breathe underwater, so the day that we left we got our last shot of the babies in the pool. It was a pool away from the sea and they were swimming in that pool. Very lucky.

Once Walt had settled on the concept of the seal film, he assembled a team to put it together. The core of this team was composed of James Algar, Ben Sharpsteen, and Winston Hibler.

Continued in "True-Life Adventures"!

If the money hadn't run out, the centerpiece of Epcot might not have been the American Adventure, but an immersive, visually stunning pavilion showcasing equatorial Africa.

Any student of Disney History knows that countless projects dreamed up by Walt Disney Imagineering have stalled out during various phases of development. From small attractions to entire resorts and theme parks, long is the list of tombstones in the Imagineering graveyard. (For a great resource on this topic, check out Disney Unbuilt by Chris Ware, also published by Theme Park Press.) One of the most storied of these unrealized concepts is the Equatorial Africa Pavilion within the World Showcase at Epcot. Intended to be placed between the Germany and China pavilions, and to be completed one year after the opening of the park, the Africa Pavilion was very far along in its development before it was canceled. It was so far along, in fact, that two films, both produced by former True-Lifers, were shot, edited, and ready to be installed as the main attractions at the pavilion.

Unfortunately, like so many other things during that era of the Disney company, the money could not be found to finish the project. Attractions and pavilions at Epcot were built with money supplied by various sponsor organizations. For the World Showcase pavilions, the money came from both the governments of those nations and from corporations doing business within them. To secure funds for the Africa Pavilion, representatives were sent to various countries in Sub-Saharan Africa in an attempt to secure money for the project. The problems they encountered were twofold. First, the vast majority of nations in the region, though rich in natural resources, were pre-industrialized and did not enjoy an excess of funds with which they could support the development of the pavilion. Second, the one nation that was Industrialized and did have an economy secure enough to support the project, South Africa, was loaded with the heavy baggage of apartheid and racial inequality. Ultimately, Disney decided to scrap the project altogether rather than move forward with a government the company found to be not an ideal partner.

The project, which was spearheaded by Disney animator Ken Anderson, was edging toward completion before it was dropped. Miniatures and various scale models were built and ready to be used as starting points for the actual buildings. The centerpiece of the pavilion was to be an enormous sixty-foot tall tree house, based on a tree Anderson had found while doing research in Africa. One of the attractions was to be a “sound safari” in which guests would walk along a path where noises made by elephants and other animals would be heard coming out of the brush a short distance away. Traditional dances and songs would have been performed live by native Africans, and a fifteen-minute documentary hosted by Alex Haley, author of Roots, would have been featured as well.

The centerpieces of the pavilion, however, involved two large-screen films, both directed by True-Life Adventurer Jack Couffer. In his 2010 interview with Didier Ghez, Couffer spoke in depth about both films:

I was there pretty much from day one until it ended. [Ken Anderson] knew I’d been living in Africa for years, knew Africa, that I had made successful shows for Disney and elsewhere, and asked me.

Couffer shared an office with Anderson, who worked on the design and layout of the pavilion, while Herb Ryman worked on concept art. All three answered to Disney Imagineer Marty Sklar. The first of the two films Couffer worked on was part of the tree house show. As Couffer explains it:

The idea was that people would enter the hollow tree in dim light, darkness outside, they’d climb up a ramp and stand at handrails on a downward sloping floor, looking toward the outside through a wide “hole” in the tree. The safari guide narrator would softly caution them to be quiet so as to not spook the animals they were about to see when the light came up at the waterhole.

A light would then slowly brighten to illuminate the waterhole. Real trees, logs, and flowing water formed a three-dimensional frame around the screen, upon which would appear a 70mm rear-projected film. Couffer shot the waterhole film in one continuous take, allowing upwards of four minutes of action to occur, depending on how long it took the guide to usher the guests out. Couffer continued:

I built and lit the set and shot on 70mm. The camera was placed on a scaffold to give the correct perspective at the height of the tree house “window.” We even placed a log at the foreground edge of the waterhole to give proper ripples to the pond when animals disturbed the surface and wavelets splashed against the log. Trainer Hubert Wells managed the animals, and we shot in one night after a week of construction and rehearsals at a game park in Texas. … There was a mother and baby elephant, zebras, giraffes, eland, roan antelope, maybe kudu, maybe others.

Along with the film, projected sounds, scents, and heat would have created a truly immersive experience.

Continued in "True-Life Adventures"!

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