Disney Legend Wilfred Jackson

A Life in Animation

by Ross Care | Release Date: December 8, 2016 | Availability: Print

Directing Disney

Part diary, part correspondence, part historical essay, this unique book presents the life of Walt Disney's most acclaimed director, Wilfred Jackson, whose long career began with the earliest Mickey Mouse shorts and continued through Snow White, Lady and the Tramp, and many more.

Wilfred Jackson was universally recognized by his colleagues and by animation historians as the best and most thorough of Disney directors.

He is the man behind Academy-Award winners The Tortoise and the Hare, The Country Cousin, and The Old Mill and the director of some of the most famous sequences from Disney’s animated features.

For seven years, “Jaxon” corresponded with Disney historian Ross Care. In his letters to Care, he discussed in tremendous details his career, his thought process, and his work on the Disney shorts and features. These fascinating letters are a treasure trove for Disney history enthusiasts.

In addition, while preparing this volume, Ross and editor Didier Ghez discovered Jaxon’s unpublished diary as well as a series of captivating letters that the director sent to his family in 1945 during the filming of Song of the South.

All these priceless documents as well as Ross Care’s in-depth essay about Jaxon’s career are presented in this book for the very first time.

Table of Contents




Disney Legend Wilfred Jackson

Appendix A: Song of the South

Appendix B: Letters

Appendix C: Journal

When Didier Ghez first told me about the existence of the diary of Wilfred Jackson, I literally felt my heart rate go up.

This may seem an overreaction to those who’ve never heard of “Jaxon,” one of the best liked and respected of the directors who worked under Walt on the animated films. But Jaxon was easily the most articulate and exacting of the directors, not only in his work, but also in speaking and writing about it.

Jaxon was inexperienced when he started at Disney in 1928, yet quickly became one of the very first directors of Disney’s short films. His passion for the work led him to figure out how to synchronize picture and sound. He was the first to create running reels (what we call storyreels or animatics today), as well as bar sheets—a tool used for decades to plan and organize the picture as a whole. He directed several sequences on Snow White and would go on to have major contributions to most of the features until his retirement in the early sixties. Given Jaxon’s close collaboration with Walt, I couldn’t wait to read this inventive and exacting man’s observations about the daily workings of the studio. I wasn’t disappointed.

Reading the journal, I was nearly moved to tears. This is probably a strange thing to admit of a document containing entries like “Finished last Navy picture. Delivery print okayed on Occluded Front.” But the diary was a revelation on many fronts.

Directing an animated film is a job understood by few, then or now. Some have dismissed the Disney directors as nothing more than glorified assistants, merely fulfilling Walt’s fastidious orders. But these men were not just expected to make the films Walt okayed in story; it was assumed they would improve them. Directors had to be able to tell when Walt was “just talking,” as Jaxon put it—testing out an idea to hear how it might play—and when he was giving detailed instructions as to what he wanted to see on the screen. Directors had to assess the cost of Walt’s notes; were these ideas worth the expense, or would they be better to reinterpret or reinvent? When a film faltered creatively, they got an earful from Walt. When a film went over budget, they risked being labeled as negligent. Missteps in either direction could cost them their jobs. And of course they had to relay orders and collaborate with the animators and artists on the show, who often had their own strong opinions on what would work and what wouldn’t.

Watching the finished Disney films today, they appear so perfect and well made that it’s easy to assume they came together effortlessly, appearing fully formed in Walt’s mind. But even a casual peek into this diary proves otherwise; each moment went through tireless scrutiny, sparking changes, adjustments, and overhauls.

It’s tempting to look at the work environment in those days as easygoing and smooth. But Jaxon’s diary tells of creative disagreements and confusion. People are assigned, reassigned, and taken off projects with surprising frequency.

All of this is no stranger to those of us who work in the animation business today. And this is why reading the journal hit me emotionally: it’s all so familiar. Change the names and dates on this document, and any of this could have happened yesterday. It’s not easy to make these films, and here was someone else who went through the same struggles, the same ups and downs that I experience as a director every day.

If you’re as fascinated by the making of these amazing films as I am, I suspect you’ll be mesmerized by this peek into the daily life of one of the key men at the Disney studios in its heyday.

No doubt many of us reading this can recall whiling away enjoyable moments at home (or boring moments in school!) by doodling a sequence of simple figures on the corners of a tablet or notebook and the ensuing pleasure of seeing them “come to life” in jerky motion when we flipped the pages. The process evoked a mild sense of wonder and discovery and in some cases launched a lifelong fascination with the more advanced techniques that moved these tiny, lively jottings to amazing life on the big movie screen: animation.

Among such budding enthusiasts was a young boy with the sometimes problematic name of Wilfred Emmons Jackson, thus the nickname “Jaxon.” After his family moved from Chicago to Glendale where he attended grammar and Glendale High School, he unknowingly found himself at the right place at the right time, that time being the dawn of a new technology which would become one of the major art forms of the 20th century, motion pictures, and, by association, animated motion pictures.

Ross Care

Author/composer Ross Care was among the first writers to publish serious criticism and histories of classic era Disney music and composers. One of his first published articles on Disney, Cinesymphony: Music and Animation at the Disney Studio, 1928-42, written in collaboration with Wilfred Jackson, was published in the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound in 1977. His Disney musical histories have appeared in The Cartoon Music Book, Soundtrack, and The Cue Sheet.

Ross has also written extensively for the Library of Congress, including for the book, Wonderful Inventions, an in-depth discussion of Frank Churchill’s Bambi music, based on scores in the Music Division and including musical examples. His other LOC articles include features on Cole Porter, the film music of Alex North, John Green’s score for Raintree County, and an overview of Hollywood music at the end of the studio era, 1950/1965. He has been developing the last article into another book on the era, Main Title, End Title.

His other articles have appeared in various books and publications, including the magazines Scarlet Street and Film Quarterly, and in the book, Music in the Western (2012), edited by Kathryn Kalinac. Several quotations from his Mary Blair letters were used in the 2014 Blair exhibit at the Disney Family Museum.

As a composer he has worked in a variety of styles from art songs to theater music. His scores for short films include Otto Messmer and Felix the Cat and The Wizard’s Son. His musicals of Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and Gibran’s The Prophet have been performed nationally. His Rock Mass was recently performed in Ventura, CA., where his score for The Glass Menagerie was heard in the Rubicon Theater production.

Wilfred Jackson discusses his work on the Mickey short, The Castaway.

I wanted to animate a whole picture myself and I used to come back at night and work a lot, and if Walt was doing things he’d let me help him, like cutting, editing the pictures, and things like that. One time I caught him in a real good mood and I said, “Well, if it ever turned out that way sometime, I’d like to handle the whole picture myself.” I meant animate, but it was a misunderstanding and we never did get that cleared up. I spent all the rest of my time at the studio trying to be a director.

Anyway, my first picture was a Mickey, we called it The Castaway. When I asked Walt if I could handle the whole picture, he said, “Yeah, Jack we’ll see.” Then a while after that he called me into his office and said that thing we talked about the other night, we’re a little behind schedule and I’ve got a whole lot of clips we’ve taken out of these Mickeys and he said, “I want you to get them out of the morgue, and I want you to look at these scenes and come up with something you can do with an idea of how you can tie as many as possible together into a picture somehow.”

He also said, “I’ve got a new musician coming in and I want to find out if he’s any good, so you can work with him to see if he can do anything.” That was Frank Churchill. That was footage of Mickey playing something on a piano, and footage of a lion chasing Mickey and Mickey turned around and reached in the lion’s mouth and pulled the lion inside out so the lion was running the other way. The only way I could figure to tie this together was a Robinson Crusoe thing where he got shipwrecked and a lot of stuff was washed ashore, lions, gorillas. So we made The Castaway.

I thought, I’m not going to get to animate much of this picture, because I salvaged a lot of stuff and it worked out fine: scenes to tie one another, worked out a music score with Churchill, and Walt finally okayed it and said, “Go ahead with it Jack.” I started making layouts and took it back to my room where I used to animate before I started working on this thing and animated my first scene. I was working happily away on this and I heard Walt’s footsteps go by. He stopped, came back, and said, “What are you doing, Jack?” I said, “I’m animating my picture, Walt.” He said, “Oh yeah, Rudy Zamora is out of work, you ought to give him a scene.”

It ended up I got one scene. I no sooner got started, Walt’s footsteps went by, stopped and came back. He said, “What are you doing, Jack?” I said, “I’m animating my scene, Walt.” He said, “Oh yeah, have you thought about your next picture? You’re going to have a lot of men out of work here.” I didn’t know I was going to do another picture. We never did get that cleared up, so I spent all the rest of my time working like hell trying to keep some scenes coming out.

The fact that he salvaged this stuff…he didn’t throw anything away.

When Castaway came out, Walt, Roy, and Johnny Cannon were talking. I was there and some of the other guys were standing around. Walt had his hat way down and his coat up around his ears. He looked like a wet bird. I walked by, and on the way by I heard Roy saying, “Walt, I don’t know if we should release this, it doesn’t look like a Disney picture.” But they had to, they were behind on schedule.

Continued in "Disney Legend Wilfred Jackson"!

In a letter to his wife Jane, dated March 8, 1945, Wilfred Jackson recounts traveling with fellow animator Ken Anderson to work on the animated sequences of Song of the South.

Ken [Anderson] is homesick too, so we are comforting each other. We’ve been doing it since 6:30 last night when the train moved the first inch away from home. I can’t say we had a miserable night, however, on the contrary most of it was fun. Ken is a swell traveling companion. The private compartment on the train was just like having a tiny little house all our own on wheels. There is a toilet, wash basin, clothes closet, card table, chair and couch all neatly arranged in a space about 8 feet square. To say nothing of the wide window through which we watched the scenery zipping by at pre-war speed. After dark, Ken taught me how to play gin rummy, but he didn’t teach me well enough—he consistently beat me. In spite of the feeling of strangeness and loneliness for you and the Little Big Squab and Bug which persisted in the background, the game kept us amused until 10:30 when we decided to turn in and get a good night’s sleep.

The porter then rearranged the furniture!! The card table miraculously disappeared into the wall; the couch became a bed with two pillows! And part of the ceiling swung down to become another bed, also with two pillows!

Then we settled down to get a nice long sleep after finding out we didn’t have to get up until 7:00 in the morning. But the window wouldn’t open. Careful examination showed it wasn’t supposed to open. The air conditioning pumped nice canned air in at a temperature that was about like that in the public library. With the window shade down, it was about as pleasant as I would imagine a submarine would be. So I kept the curtain up, giving the illusion, but none of the benefit, of an open window. Of course this allowed each airplane beacon all across the desert to stab blinding flashes of light into my face each time I started to drop off to sleep. Then when I would become sufficiently accustomed to this to doze off, the train would thump, bump, jerk, rattle, bounce and shudder to a stop in front of a station illuminated by a glare of lights that would put the noonday sun to shame. After the initial shock of this 3rd degree treatment wore off, I would become so intrigued with watching the people outside, that I wouldn’t feel like going back to sleep again until just before reaching the next station.

About 3:00 a.m., I heard Ken rustling around up above in the part of the ceiling that was now a bed. I found out he wasn’t having any better luck sleeping than I was. Also he was just as miserable about being away from his family. We each told the other how unhappy and homesick we were, and mutually wondered how we could be such suckers as to be talked into working on a picture that would uproot us from our happy homes and transplant us to foreign soil. We each gained enough comfort from the other’s troubles to settle down happily to go to sleep.

At 3:30 I just closed my eyes when suddenly it was somehow 7:00 a.m. and the porter was making us get up because we were almost to Phoenix. I now know how Ginger feels in the morning. I’m sure I could have slept for two weeks solid.

We struggled out of bed and into our clothes with our heads just as clear and our outlook on life just as bright as though we had been out on a big drunk. But after a very nice breakfast life again seemed interesting, if still a trifle unusual.

With about 30 minutes until we would reach Phoenix, we returned to our bedroom, which had changed back into a combination living room, bathroom and clothes closet. It was light, so we settled down to watch the scenery again.

We looked and looked, trying to see something that looked enough like Putnam County, Georgia, to justify coming all this distance to shoot the picture, but it all looked big and flat and empty ... and very, very much like southern Arizona.

Suddenly we were in Phoenix where we were met by Dick Pfahler and a chauffeur (driver, in case the misspelling might fool you) with a big shiny Cadillac ... and whisked in the most elegant fashion imaginable two blocks to the Hotel Adams, which is filled brim-full of Disney people and Goldwyn people, all of whom greeted us like long-lost friends. They all wanted to know what was happening in Hollywood, as though they had been lost on a desert island for years, but we didn’t know of anything in particular that had happened since they were there, which seemed to be very disappointing to them.

There was no hotel room for us, so Dick Pfahler put our luggage in his room to keep it out of harm’s way while we were driven out to the set (about 5 miles out of town). On the way, we looked with even greater interest than before, to see what Putnam County, Georgia looked like. But it still all looked pretty much like Arizona to me. Then, we turned a corner on a dirt road, and there was a red dirt lane leading through a grove of stately trees, past Negros’ shacks to a large colonial mansion. It didn’t seem possible, yet there it was!

Since there seemed to be 4 or 5 days before we would start shooting any scenes that concerned the cartoon part of the picture, Ken and I spent a leisurely day cooking (and I mean cooking) in the hot sun, while looking around for the best locations in which to shoot our scenes. We were mostly waiting for tonight when we were to have a conference over the one record of the soundtrack and our sketches for our section. After the conference, if our sound and layouts were approved, we would be able to loaf around for 3 or 4 days while waiting for the duplicate acetates to be shipped out from the studio.

After the day on location, Ken and I were driven back to the hotel. I thought it best to see Perce and find out when the meeting would be tonight, before we cleaned up and went out to eat.

I found Perce. Walt was with him. During the day, they had changed the shooting schedule. Now, we are going to start shooting our scenes tomorrow!!! Instead of shooting all our scenes during two or three days, starting 3 or 4 days from now, they will shoot 1 or 2 scenes each day for 10 days. They didn’t think there was any use having a conference tonight because there wasn’t time enough to change anything now anyway. However, in about 5 minutes, Walt did talk radical changes into about half our scenes.

Ye Gods! I have only one record of the sound. If it breaks, the shooting schedule will be all mixed up again while we wait for the duplicates to arrive in 3 or 4 days, as originally planned. Our props won’t be here, so we will have to avoid using them until they arrive. The changes Walt is talking about making won’t work with the soundtrack of the song that I have with me.

Ken and I ate quick. We didn’t even bother to clean up much. Then we came back to the hotel. We both promised each other, that if we didn’t have a room yet, we were going back home and let Walt shoot his old picture himself ... even if we got fired for doing it. Unfortunately, someone was moving out of a room just as we got to the hotel and they moved us right in.

We started re-planning our sequence while they cleaned up the room, as much to their annoyance as to ours. Ken gave up and went to bed about 11:30 and I started this long beef to you. He just emitted his first snore a minute ago, so I’d better stop writing pretty soon.

Continued in "Disney Legend Wilfred Jackson"!

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