Saturday, September 13, 2008

Which of These Men is Not Like the Others?

Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney, Darryl F. Zanuck and John Lasseter. All of them worked as studio heads and film makers, but one of them was significantly different than the others. I'll bet you're guessing Zanuck, who was head of 20th Century Fox, but is that the case?

I've just finished re-reading Michael Barrier's The Animated Man, his biography of Walt Disney (now in paperback). His portrait of Disney strikes me as being accurate based on my own knowledge and experience of Disney history. Starting in the 1920's, Walt Disney was an entrepreneur trying to build a business. It wasn't until the early 1930s, that he really began to see the artistic possibilities in animation, that his focus shifted. The culmination of Disney-as-artist was Snow White, a film that Disney was intimately involved with every detail of.

The problem in a collaborative commercial art form like film is that the delicate balance that has to be maintained between business and art. I could argue that Disney tipped the balance too far towards art with Snow White in that if the film had failed at the box office, the studio would have been in a precarious financial position. Disney had a weakness for taking huge financial risks (Disneyland being another example), but he was fortunate that his risks paid off.

The problem for Disney was that once Snow White was an established success, the studio had to be kept busy. Disney could have chosen to have only one feature in production at a time, with the shorts supplying the studio with work and cash flow, but he decided to launch an entire slate of features. None of the features that followed claimed his attention the same way Snow White did. It couldn't be otherwise. The urge to grow the company and to capitalize on success reduced Disney's involvement. His abilities, however strong, were diluted by the number of projects he put into play. From 1950 onward, with Disneyland, the TV series, the live action films, and the animated shorts and features, Disney functioned much the same way that Darryl F. Zanuck did at Fox: holding story meetings, watching rushes and taking a hand in post-production, especially editing and music.

Zanuck himself started out as a writer at Warner Bros. and rose to head of production there in the early '30s before leaving in a disagreement with management. He formed Twentieth Century pictures and when Fox was in financial trouble due to the depression, Zanuck's company took over Fox and he ran the combined operation for decades.

Disney knew Chaplin in addition to Chaplin being an inspiration to Disney's animators. While Chaplin was hugely successful as a film maker and was a partner in United Artists, a distribution company, he only made one feature that he did not write and direct. That film, A Woman of the Sea, starred Edna Purviance and was directed by Josef Von Sternberg. The film was never released and was later destroyed in order to take a tax write-off. Chaplin's studio existed for a single reason: to make films written, directed and starring Chaplin. He kept his crew on salary all year, regardless of whether he was actively shooting or not. He was rich enough to make films according to his own schedule (after 1925, Chaplin never released a film more frequently than every three years). All of Chaplin's mental, physical and financial resources were focused on one film at a time.

A short time ago, Pixar released the schedule for its upcoming features. I don't remember anyone remarking on the fact that none of the films would be directed by John Lasseter. Lasseter started out like Chaplin, excited about his medium and working on one film at a time. However, with Pixar's purchase by Disney and Lasseter's promotion to chief creative officer of the Walt Disney Animation Studios, Lasseter has stepped away from being a film maker and become a producer. He's gone from Chaplin to Zanuck (or Disney).

Because of the specialized nature of animation, animators often have to create studios in order to realize their films. Disney, Harman and Ising, Max Fleischer, Paul Terry, etc. all built studios from scratch in order to make cartoons. Later, Dick Williams, Don Bluth and Ralph Bakshi assembled studios to make their films. Unfortunately, the balance between art and entrepreneurship is especially hard to maintain when an artist is responsible for meeting payrolls and other overhead. I could argue that Williams, Bluth and Bakshi didn't pay enough attention to the business side, which truncated their careers. The irony, of course, is that Lasseter is paying full attention to the business side and this has also truncated his career as a director.

It's possible that John Lasseter is happier where he is than when he was directing movies. He's certainly busy and his full time job is to make creative decisions about every project going through Disney and Pixar. But just as Walt Disney's later work did not reach the heights of Snow White due to his increasing responsibilities, Lasseter's influence may also be diluted.

So while it may have looked like Zanuck was the odd man out, the real answer is Chaplin. While he was certainly a successful businessman, he stayed more focused as a film maker than any of the other three. The others were seduced by corporate growth and power. Barrier argues that it was to Disney's detriment. The jury is still out on Lasseter.

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