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Monday, November 18, 2013

Where True-Life Was Made To Pay

Going To Disney's Nature School and Liking It

Nature was mostly served raw before Walt Disney made it a profit center with his True-Life documentaries. In fact, WD took the onus of education off nature shorts (later features) by making each irresistibly entertaining. Most called them breathtaking for keyhole view of private animal life. It was for Disney to make informative content pay, luring admission for what schools had been force-feeding. Yes, there had been "nature" subjects before, most aimed at exploiting wildlife for shock or sensation. What were folks going to movies for, after all? It didn't occur to most that straight recount of creature habits might engage. Exploration themes had clicked, like Chang, Byrd at the Pole, and others such, but four-footed friends cycling at life was beyond what even Hollywood-trained magicians of the camera could capture, that is, until Disney got his revolutionary idea and commissioned outsiders to execute it.

First off, he'd shun the human element. Nix on native women hauled off by gorillas, or Killers Of The Sea making meals of frogmen. Walt wanted animals to speak for themselves, so put stringers in far-flung fields to document habits ... survival, mating, feeding, and otherwise ... from which best of the best, as in millions of feet perused, would be shaved to half-hour or so length. Camera/nature bugs Alfred and Elma Milotte shot miles of footage on Alaska (frozen) soil using 16mm Kodachrome, Seal Island the boiled-down result of effort that took a year. Disney sunk "some $75,000" (Variety) into the finished 27 minutes, from which he refused to cut an inch despite RKO entreaty that his long short was, for booking purposes, neither fish nor fowl, completion-date of 1948 being also one that favored double-features, as in features, not hybrids.

Disney had qualified Seal Island for Academy consideration by getting a late '48 LA date and thus sealing bid for a Best Short Subject Oscar. That came off with the expected win, and though RKO still sought cuts, they'd give in to Walt's determination that there would be none. Migration of seals was to venues summer-booking a Disney reissued pair, Dumbo and Saludos, Amigos, the program "designed to lure vacationing moppets into theatres," said Variety. Seal Island was a hit to modest extent that any three-reeler could be, but confidence was such that Disney announced it as first of a series of True-Lifes, their next, The Amazing Beaver, already in progress on northern Idaho location. Speculation was that Walt was really doing these things for television, being that Seal's 27 minutes was ideal for a half-hour programming slot. Disney had, after all, intimated willingness to embrace the tube. Meanwhile, Seal Island was racking up further awards and making Walt a friend to school teachers nationwide.

As to brilliance at marketing, 1950 was where Disney's outfit really came into its own after a years-long slump. Cinderella was out of the gate for an animated feature comeback, and an all-live actioner, Treasure Island, cooked with frozen funds thawed in England, was ready for summer release. Walt sent invites to camera hobbyists for sneak glimpse of his next True-Life, now named Beaver Valley. This was by small way of how Disney smartly made outreach to patron corners his competition ignored. Amateur photographers were no inconsequential niche, but a force thousands-strong and connected by lines of communication strong enough to swell lines for whatever Disney produced that interested membership (The Amateur Cinema League, Inc. had a monthly magazine that Walt Disney followed). These camera buffs raved over True-Life, calling WD a visionary for putting nature photography front/center for mass appeal, and giving reps of the amateur army, Alfred and Elma Milottes, opportunity to see their work displayed before millions.

A biggest so-far pay-off came with Beaver Valley. WD sales force had formulated an "All Disney" program policy that would serve variety to all ages, a three-pronged approach with Beaver Valley and a fresh cartoon served as appetizers to the main course that was Treasure Island. Ads cried, Don't Send The Kids --- Bring Them! Thus was born truest concept of Disney as "Real Family Entertainment." Beaver Valley got the expected raves, Variety calling it a "wonderment," and "one of the novel film highlights of the year." Heads-in-sand RKO still had doubt of Beaver Valley pulling weight as a so-called second feature, and tried pairing it with mis-mates Joan Of Arc, Our Very Own, and others off the company's release chart. Best results, however, were obtained with the pure Disney mix, although Beaver Valley also sat well in offbeat berths like Cleveland's Tele-News, a 500 seat newsreel house that used Disney beavers to buttress bulletins off baseball fields and out of Korea.

An incidental boost for Beaver Valley, but a meaningful one, was the hit Christmas song, since a standard, that emerged from Paul J. Smith's lively score for the nature short. Variety had lauded Smith for the "brilliant undertaking" that "materially" enhanced Beaver Valley, and indeed, it's hard imagining the True-Lifes without his accompany. One segment, "The Frog Symphony," was noted in particular, and from that came lyrics and further arrangement by Don Raye, whose idea it was to lay Christmas wreath upon nature's canvas. Result was Jing-a-Ling, Jing-a-Ling, which was promptly issued as sheet music, and recorded by the Andrews Sisters, Tommy Tucker and his Orchestra, many others (this You Tube link should ring a bell).

The ongoing success that was True-Life Adventures would enhance Disney programs ahead, and in fact, came to at least partial rescue of occasional clucks like 1951's Alice In Wonderland, the next feature to get a True-Life infusion in theatres (Nature's Half-Acre). When the whole show was good, as with Peter Pan in 1953, the animal acts were like icing on a rich cake, Bear Country a bonus that made grown-ups glad they'd taken Junior to the cartoon. True-Lifes would graduate to feature-length in 10/53 with The Living Desert, and incidentally become mainstays of the Disney non-theatrical market, 16mm prints renting from a 1954 launch to eager schools and elsewhere that paid $10 for a day's use of Seal Island, Beaver Valley, and others from the shorts list. Price would triple by late-70's juncture, the True-Lifes becoming evergreen as backgrounds they celebrated. All are gathered since as four DVD sets from Disney, and highly recommended.


Blogger Dave K said...

Once again, Disney was way ahead of the curve seeing entertainment and commercial potential where the rest of the industry saw nothing. And, once again, this was all possible because of the technical brilliance of resident genius Ub Iwerks! The liquid gate optical printer he devised, built by co-worker Bob Otto, made scratchy 16mm field footage suitable for 35mm release... a big factor in the True-Life success story. You can see the original contraption on display today at the Disney Family Museum in San Francisco.

10:58 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

"Nature In The Raw" -- that's the only time I've seen that slogan used in anything other than a low-rent '50s exploitation picture.

And that "Killers of the Sea" bally about hand to hand battles... with turtles? That's kind of an unfair fight if you ask me.

3:03 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson discusses strategy as practiced by the Disney company during the 40's and since:

Some late-night amateur speculation:

With the exception of "Fantasia," Disney's animated features tended to run pretty short . . . B-movie length. I'm guessing Disney or somebody in his employ realized they needed something to extend the program to a moneysworth's playing time. And since putting extra cartoons in front of an animated feature was overkill, that created a need for a suitably prestigious and family-friendly live-action short.

Problem was, such shorts were going the way of the one-hour B feature. On top of that, Walt probably bristled at the idea of his latest and greatest effort sharing billing with another studio's program filler -- the indignity of RKO double feature pairings was bad enough. Thus Disney found himself in need of quality live action shorts just as Hollywood was abandoning the form. And for quality assurance, branding and profit, Disney needed to make them.

So Disney -- again -- went into a business nobody else saw money in and reinvented it.

That extra reel made "Seal Island" too long to wedge into a typical double feature -- were ANY non-cartoons short enough to fit? -- but about right as a side dish to an animated Disney feature ("Dumbo" and "Saludos Amigos" combined clock in at less than two hours). And while it may have been pricy as a short, as a component of a larger Disney program (and as a non-dating asset) it was a bargain.

As you write, this solidified the all-Disney program as the concept expanded to include live-action features. Disney's short subject schedule likewise expanded to include the People and Places series (which seems to be locked away somewhere), select episodes of the Disneyland TV show (broadcast in B&W, but shot in color), and freestanding excepts from the package films.

Disney also produced a series of animated specials, even while winding down production of the traditional one-reel cartoons. These tended to run at least slightly longer than the Mickeys and Donalds, and ranged from one-joke oddities to the three "Winnie the Pooh" adaptations, which reversed the usual course by being repackaged as a single feature-length film.

3:46 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer contemplates Disney's Tru-Life Adventures:

The technical brilliance of the Disney organization was especially evident in the beautiful color photography of the "True Life Adventures," which set them apart from all other nature films until that time.

The key was combining lightweight 16 mm cameras and long lenses, which could bring back images shot in the field, with Kodachrome film stock, which conveyed those images in deep, natural color. Kodachrome was a 16 mm process unsuitable for commercial prints, but as Dave K noted, here the genius of Ub Iwerks was displayed.What Iwarks was exploiting was the availability of Technicolor's single strip Monopak system for 35 mm cinematography. By enlarging the 16 mm images with his liquid gate optical printer, he was bridging the gulf between what could be done in the field and what could be released to the theaters.

Like Kodachrome, Technicolor Monopak was a single strip reversal film. This was not a coincidence, as Monopak was based upon Kodachrome Commercial, but it meant that the Kodacrhome could be developed in the same fashion as Monopak. After developing, the 16 mm image was enlarged in the optical printer and transferred to the same 35 mm black and white separation negatives used in the Monopak system. Matrices were then made from the 35 mm negatives in the same manner and used to generate the release prints.

Monopak was grainier than three-strip Technicolor, and the images of the "True Life Adventures" were grainier still, since they had been enlarged from 16 mm. This was especially noticeable in the entries which had animated introductions. Given the pleasing depth of the color, however, it is not all that objectionable.

If a criticism could be made of the series, it was that they were structured to tell little stories, as though beaver and seal were not so different from the rodents familiar to fans of Disney cartoons, with their struggles and triumphs. This meant that the "True Life Adventures" had a point of view and a very human one at that. It is a key to the popularity they enjoyed in their time, though their value in documenting a world which even then was fast disappearing ought not to be dismissed simply for that.


2:53 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson responds to Dan Mercer's comments on the True-Life Adventures:

The early True Life films could and would treat their subjects as characters, most infamously with the square-dancing scorpions (another bit of optical printer magic). But perhaps in response to critics, the films did become much more scrupulous as they went on. There was still occasional trickery to get some shots, but the story told was increasingly true to life.

By the time Disney was making True Life features like "The African Lion", most critics of the earlier films were won over. The early reputation lingered, probably because the earliest films kept on playing, not just in classrooms but on the TV show as well.

5:21 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

One of the "True-Life" films unfortunately featured a bit of faking to depict lemmings committing mass suicide, something they never actually do:

12:16 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson adds a footnote to the True-Life discussion:

Snopes has the essentials right -- The lemming migration in "White Wilderness" is staged, and the extras on the DVD actually explain how.

What Snopes misses is that the actual narration on the film explicitly dismisses the suicide theory, suggesting the lemmings think they've come to another crossable body of water.

5:59 AM  

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