Working on Disney’s “The Small One”

Disney's The Small One - Crew

The Small One (1978).

Here’s a publicity photo of Don Bluth with some of the new Disney animators and animator trainees who were preparing to animate The Small One. Note the ruff storyboards against the wall.
The group of artist in this photo have worked on many animated films since this was taken, a couple them have done live action films. You, in the industry, will probably recognize most of these artists, but I’ll list them anyway, from the left, Don, John Pomeroy with his back to the camera, 1st row: John Musker, Brad Bird and Jerry Reese, 2nd row: Heidi Guedel, Linda Miller and Emily Jiuliano, 3rd: Jeff Vareb, me, Chuck Harvey and Bill Hajee. Missing animators are Lorna Cook, Ron Husband and veteran Cliff Nordberg.

There were 127 artists, camera operators and administrators involved in the making of this film, many of whom were not credited. In those days, as a new animator, you had to have created at least 100 feet of animation in a film (about 68 seconds) in order to receive a credit on the film. If your employed position was below the level of a character animator, a layout artist, background artist, effects animator or a department supervisor, you would not receive a credit on a film. How times have changed.

Disney's The Small One

Disney’s The Small One

Eric Larson, a legendary member of Disney’s “Nine Old Men” was a master animator and the mentor to many of us animation trainees. He had nurtured the promising story artist, Pete Young’s idea to bring the Charles Tazewell book, The Small One, to life as an animated short film. Working with veteran storyman, Vance Gerry, and with Eric’s guidance, Pete was able to flesh out the storyboards for the 30 minute short. Eric ushered the project into production with the intention of producing the little film and having his long-time animation assistant, story artist and animator, Burny Mattinson to direct the animation. However, the studio’s animation producer/director, Woolie Reitherman had begun nurturing Don Bluth to be the next animation feature-film producer/director.

Watch “The Small One”

Unbeknownst to Eric, Woolie announced to the crew that Don Bluth would be the Producer/director for The Small One. This caused much concern to Don and to the young turks in the Disney animation training program. The trainee’s mentor, whom they had expected to produce the film and would have continued to tutor them on the film as well, would not be the producer of the film. There was a bit of anger and an effort to quash this decision by approaching the-then company chairman, Ron Miller. They made a plea to have Mr. Miller approach Woolie to reverse the decision. That did not happen. Don became the new producer/director.

The Small One concept drawing by Mel Shaw.

The Small One concept drawing by Mel Shaw.

Don, on the other hand, was surprised by Woolie’s decision to cast him in this position so soon after his debut as the Director of animation for Pete’s Dragon (1977). And, worst of all, the announcement was made without notifying Eric. But that was Woolie’s plan, to see if Don could stand the heat and handle the adversity. Don was very aware that Eric was involved with Pete Young’s presentation and that he had been mentoring Pete on this project for months. The challenge would be difficult.

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4 Responses

  1. Spokavriel (Daniel T. Stack) says:

    Reading that I can’t help feeling that the animosity continued for some of those in training all the way until Don was out the Door and making Brisby, if not longer. Still a beautiful movie and a fun back story for the donkey that Mary rides on the trip to pay the taxes.

  2. Daniel Pollman says:

    The Small One is such an essential Christmas season short film. Every year I see more and more people talking about it and that makes me very happy.

    Thank you for sharing!

  3. Brian says:

    Wow, sounds like some pretty tough ways of doing things in the studio. Almost animator-eat-animator! I suppose it’s kinda like a parent bird teaching it’s fledgling to fly, knocking it out of the nest after it feels like the fledgling is old enough, correct?

    I haven’t seen this in ages! I don’t even think I knew it was a Disney project until right now. I don’t recall too much, I guess I was really young the last time I saw The Small One. I remember the tanner offering to buy The Small One, the fleeing, but that’s about it. Thanks so much for posting a youtube vid of it! I will definitely be watching it later.

    From one story that dealt with a close relationship between a person and his special quadruped, to another. I just learned that Alan Young has passed away at the age of 96. I probably best knew of him from reruns of Mr. Ed when I was a kid in the 80s (I practically lived on Disney Channel and Nick at Nite shows back then). So, I was wondering if Mr. Bluth or Mr. Goldman got to work with him on any projects? Perhaps something with Mr. Young lending his voice to Scrooge McDuck? Or perhaps some other character?

    Anyway, thank you again for sharing some really cool stuff with us. I’m lovin’ these behind-the-scenes and throwback Thursday memories!
    Have a great weekend! 🙂

  4. Gracefully Done. I love this cartoon and very inspirational.

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