A Matter of Life and Disney: “Changing Times – A Letter For My Past Self”

 July 31, 2014
By Albert Gutierrez

 

Recently, I viewed excerpts from animator Randy Cartwright’s Studio Tours. These consisted of home video footage he shot at three different times of his life: 1980, 1983, and 1990. Each time, he took viewers through the animation studios, showing how they changed over time. At the time, Cartwright probably didn’t expect such footage to be so valuable, but sure enough, they proved to be a rare look at the working environment of the landmark animation studios. In 2010, this footage became the backbone of 2010’s seminal documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, which traced the revitalization of Disney animation in the twilight of their post-Walt years, up through their peak with 1994’s The Lion King. It’s quite odd at the on-set to see Cartwright cheerily greet Ron Miller, who’s been famously elusive from the Disney scene since his ousting as president and CEO of the company in 1984. But at the time, it was business as usual.

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What struck me most was a fleeting shot in Cartwright’s 1980 studio tour. A few minutes in, Cartwright and his camera man John Lasseter (of Pixar) proclaim, “IT’S CHRIS BUCK!” as this beguiled young man of twenty years looks at the camera. Now, here we are over thirty years later, with Buck no longer as beguiled and young as he was in 1980, yet with a lot more to show for it. Mainly, recent wins at the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, and Annie Awards for his co-direction work (with Jennifer Lee) on Frozen, Disney’s most successful animated film since The Lion King. A lot happens in three decades. Isn’t it amazing how time can change our perception of things? Or, most importantly, how time can change us?

 

So much can change, sometimes beyond our control. Cartwright’s next studio tour took us to 1983, only this time, the camera was being used to say goodbye as he signed on for an animating position in Japan. Several faces of 1980 were nowhere to be seen this time around, like Tim Burton and Henry Selick. Cartwright’s camera man, John Lasseter, was also on his way out, even talking about how the studio passed on The Brave Little Toaster. Lasseter offhandedly mentions that maybe it’ll be made in the future – an eerily telling sign of things to come. 1983’s tour comes towards the end of Ron Miller’s era, the slight unease we sensed in 1980 becomes much more apparent now. Such is the way of the world, although present-day viewers know of the oncoming storm to come.

 

By the end of Cartwright’s studio tours (upon his return in 1990), the environment, though much improved, has also transformed into something a bit more clinical, more professional when compared to the laid-back nature of the first video. No longer do animators just happen to have the pencil animation from Peter Pan sitting by their desks. No longer are hallways showcasing the history of Disney animation with light-boxes for added effect. No longer do the Ghosts of Disney’s Past reside by each table, behind each pencil line. Disney has moved on to the next generation. For Disney fans, this material makes for quite a scandalous and intriguing look into Disney’s “dream factory,” using a phrase often quoted in relation to old-school MGM musicals. But for Cartwright and his companions, this was real life.

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And real life changes more often than we wish. Sometimes, for the better, and sometimes, all too sudden. Nine years past, my Disney College Program neared the end of its completion, as I struggled with the realization that I would leave the Disney bubble to head back into a more proper “real life.” Ironically, at this time last year, I found myself back in Orlando, getting used to a new, but familiar life back in the Disney bubble. And yet, I wonder: what could I say to my past self, to that college kid that feared the magic would be over forever? What words could I give him for reassurance? Would he believe me, would he even care? I imagine, I’d say something like this:

 

Dear Albert,

 

Well, here you are, all set to end your Walt Disney World College Program. My memories of those glorious seven months have faded somewhat as time went on. I don’t know our locker combination anymore. I struggle to remember the names of every person we saw every day. Yes, people like Rachael and Jack will remain with you, albeit online. Yes, you’ll lose contact with some good friends like Bill and Ashley. That’s the price we paid for this particular brand of magic. People come and go, but the magic endures. It endures much more than you think right now.

 

I know you’re afraid. You’ll change universities when you get back home. You’ll be starting anew, unsure what the future will hold. It’s a scary time, I know. I’ve already been through it. But you’re in for a terrific ride. Sometimes, you’ll wonder why you didn’t just stay behind, roughing it out in the wide world of Orlando. But it’s not time yet. You have to go home first. It’s where you’ll find your true calling. I won’t lie to you, it will happen in a bittersweet way. It’ll confuse you at first, make you question everything you thought you knew, but you’ll be inspired, so inspired. You’ll work hard, you’ll find support in the most unlikely of places. You’ll reconnect with old friends, make new ones, and lose a couple more on the way. Such is the sacrifice as time goes on.

 

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And one day, you’ll be back here. I’m not talking about future College Programs (yes, they do happen). I’m not talking about the family vacations (naturally). I’m talking about being part of the Disney fold again. You get to work in the parks on a daily basis once more. No longer will you be that starry-eyed, young college kid that would happily spend twelve hours in an Adventureland pajama costume. No longer will you hear William and Morris banter in that pre-show for Enchanted Tiki Room. Instead, you’ll find yourself in a training position, in a lead position. You’ll go from wearing costumes to business-casual. And you’ll find new, unique ways to channel your Disneydom.

 

Chief among them, you’ll make friends that grow into your closest confidantes. People you never thought you’d converse with in real life are suddenly at your apartment watching Disney movies. You’ll play in the parks with friends that haven’t been there in years. You’ll reconnect with Rachael again, while continuing to try and convince Jack to make a return trip. You’ll sing television theme songs with Aaron Wallace whilst riding the monorail. And everyone in the car joins in. You’re in for a bizarre-but-heartwarming year, even if it’s still a long way away. Sometimes, you’ll wonder whether these next nine years to this moment are worth the wait. I’m already there, so it’s rather empty-handed of me to say anything otherwise. But, yes. Yes, it’s worth the wait. And not just for all the fun you’ll have. For the magic. That magic that you thought eluded you all those years, it’s come back.

 

You’ll see magic within the ordinary days, those ordinary moments that pass others by. You’ll recognize just how every little detail could make or break a guest’s experience. You will try to document them, part of some self-conscious effort to remind yourself that magic still exists. It does, I assure you. And it’ll be wonderful.

 

Magic happens. Unequivocally, undeniably, unmistakably, it happens. Sometimes, we fail to see the wonders of our own world. We fail to see how little things are big things, how kindness is paid forward, how every action we take puts us in direct correlation with complete strangers, whether we know it or not. The joy and the astonishment may sometimes be enough to take our breath away. Hindsight helps especially. A small incident in the span of thirty seconds may be forgotten in an hour, but cherished in a year. Whether we call it magic, karma, faith, it contributes to that wonderful, blessed mystery of Life itself. Magic, in all its names and all its forms, remains a living, breathing entity; it ensures a happiness and gratitude among one another. And it happens. Now and forever, it happens.

 

Have a magical journey.

 

All my love to long ago,

Albert

 

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