Thursday, June 14, 2012

Daddy's Coming Home

"Finding the Father" is an ancient story motif. Since the beginning of families, a defining feature of fathers is their constant leave-taking and return. As a boy, I marveled at my father's mysterious excursions into the great beyond to engage in manly tasks and challenges. They were likely board meetings, sales presentations, bank negotiations and other similar aspects of the modern business hunt. Nevertheless, his going and returning was a source of wonder and anticipation. Especially because he traditionally returned with surprises.
Now I am the hunting, gathering, father. I endeavor to keep up the tradition of providing for my children. Thinking of all this, I penned a short story poem for Father's Day. Enjoy!

Daddy's coming home today
He took a journey far away.
He set out in the early morn
with a bleating blast of his hunting horn.
Perhaps he's caught the questing beast
and brings us back a royal feast.
Perhaps he met a grizzly bear
and wrestled with it in its lair
to free the captive maiden there.
Perhaps he found a secret cove
and got a pirate's treasure trove.
Perhaps he put some in a chest
and stuffed his pockets with the rest
to bring us baubles, gems and rings
and other fascinating things.
Perhaps he went where penguins go
and rode his sled across the snow.
Perhaps he went to jungles dense
and rode an elephant, immense.

Whatever regions he did roam
today he's coming home.

That is, unless he met with strife
and suffered threats upon his life.
What if a shark bit him in two?
Or an  angry rhino ran him through?
What if he was thrown from a speeding train?
Or struck by lightening in the rain?
Will we ever see our dad again?

But wait, his car is coming up the drive...
He's stepping out... He's home alive!
And look, he's carrying a sack
with all the treasure he's brought back.
Let's see.. there's eggs and milk and apples too
and celery for us to chew.
There's pancake mix, a lettuce head
a bag of chips, a loaf of bread,
some cheese and burgers for the grill
peanut butter, pickles, dill
bananas, carrots, cantaloupe
toilet paper, laundry soap
diapers, wipes and teething rings
Epsom salts and first aid things.
But there, the best, is something sweet
an icy, creamy, chocolate treat!

There's yet more treasure to be told.
It is a wonder to behold.
We marvel, awestruck, and are glad
for such a bold, heroic, dad.

Happy Father's Day everyone!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Gags into Stories

Back in 1995 and 96, I had the privilege of being on the opening team for the Disney Institute. I was the resident storyteller in charge of Story Arts. One of my favorite programs was one I called "As Walt Would Tell It" in which I could lead guests through an exploration of Walt Disney's development as a storyteller. It is well known that Walt stopped drawing pictures early on and focused instead on story, developing the story board process and using storytelling to lead his company.

You can follow his maturation as a storyteller by following his creative work. In the early days, he and his artists were turning out gag-driven comedies. All they needed to do was find a good situation and string a bunch of gags around it. This was during the early "rubber-hose" animations with the Alice and the Oswald comedies. He was still doing heavily gag-driven stories when he began his Mickey Mouse shorts. You can see how a set of gags dominates the film in this Mickey Mouse short, The Fire Fighters, from 1930:

A few years later, in 1936, Disney releases a Silly Symphony called Elmer Elephant. You will find the same kinds of fire-fighter gags, but now they are in service of a story about an underdog becoming a hero:

As an aside, part of the special alchemy of Disney's power is the way in which his technology developed as his story sense developed. I will explore that in more detail elsewhere. Simply put: as the films went from Black & White to Color, the stories likewise became more colorful.

By 1941, Walt and his team are really growing up. they are entering their 40s, becoming family men and women and watching their children grow. (This development will ultimately lead Walt to conceive of Disneyland.) You can see their maturation in the growing maturity of their stories. This is the year of Dumbo. The following year will see Bambi. These are two of the most enduring, sophisticated films of Walt's career. All artists, of any merit, invest their work with their own life experience. In Dumbo, you can sense the gravitas of parenthood. Story artist, Bill Peet, famously watched his wife bathe their newborn as he created the storyboards for the Dumbo bath scene. Also in Dumbo, we can see how the same gags that drove The Fire Fighters and Elmer Elephant, have been completely subsumed by the story. Here is the clown sequence from Dumbo. You will see the same kinds of gags from the earlier years. But, ironically, you will also see that the effect they have is the opposite of a cheap laugh. Instead, they deepen our empathy for the hero.

Walt discovered that gag-driven stories can only take you a short distance. But gags used in service of larger themes and ideas, can take a story far. Bad gags are self-centered distractions. Good gags are a glittering refraction of the larger story.