I recently wrote about Richard Amsel’s fondness for Disney, and his unfulfilled dreams of becoming an animator. It was one of the reasons he moved from New York to Los Angeles in the summer of 1985. Tragically, his health rapidly declined soon after, and he died the following November. Some dreams, it seems, were not to be.
I had heard testimonials about Amsel’s attempts to get his foot in the door at Disney, in the years leading up to his move. He certainly had the talent and the drive. But a number of things were against him.
It’s important to remember that the state of Disney animation was very different at that time. Years before the Disney “renaissance” began with 1989’s THE LITTLE MERMAID, traditional animation had experienced a number of significant changes and hardships. There were many factors that led up to it, even before Walt Disney’s death in 1966.
Animation had grown increasingly expensive, and with WWII limiting worldwide revenue, the studio had only a number of commercial successes. Then, SLEEPING BEAUTY – one of the most visually ambitious efforts in Disney’s history – was initially deemed a box office bomb in 1959 (though subsequent rereleases made the film very profitable). It was the advent of Xerox technology that helped save animation, and led to what was called the “Xerographic Era”. Instead of the fine, colored ink cells used during Disney’s Golden Age, pencil cleanups could now be Xeroxed, saving millions in production costs.
People still debate about the creative pros and cons of this process. On one hand, the results often looked rougher and sketchier. On the other, it helped to preserve some of the aesthetic spontaneity of the animators’ initial work. Regardless, there’s no denying that the best films of that period, such as 101 DALMATIONS and THE JUNGLE BOOK, are well regarded classics in their own right. They were also, it must be said, extremely commercially successful.
The 1970s and early 1980s also gave rise to a number of new, more independent voices in animation, now well outside the Disney realm. Nor were they always family friendly; Ralph Bakshi’s FRITZ THE CAT, AMERICAN POP, FIRE AND ICE, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, as well as Canadian productions such as HEAVY METAL and ROCK & RULE, presented animation for older, more adult audiences. There were also notable contributions from Richard Williams (RAGGEDY ANN & ANDY), as well as Rankin/Bass and Japanese Topcraft (THE HOBBIT, THE RETURN OF THE KING, and THE LAST UNICORN among them).
I can’t help but wonder how Richard Amsel might have been a part of such endeavors.
Yet perhaps the most notable effort made outside of Disney during this time came from a team that originated within Disney itself. In September 1979, twelve animators – including Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, and John Pomeroy – had grown so disillusioned by the cost-cutting measures of the studio that they defected to form their own animation company. Their first feature, 1982’s THE SECRET OF NIMH, was a return to the classic style of the Golden Age of Disney animation. While the film underperformed within that year’s crowded summer box office, it nevertheless won much critical acclaim and is still revered today as a classic.
Who better to discuss the state of animation during this time (particularly with Disney), than with one of this team?
I had been in touch with both Don Bluth and Gary Goldman over the years, and even took a year-long animation training program under Bluth’s tutelage -- a wonderful and challenging experience. (Note to the uninitiated: Hand-drawn animation is damn hard! Never again will I make disparaging remarks about even seemingly “cheap looking” Saturday morning cartoons.)
Unfortunately, Bluth’s ongoing work commitments – he runs both Scottsdale’s Front Row Theater and teaches multiple ongoing classes every week – prevented us from scheduling an in-person interview. (Maybe next time, Don!)
Thankfully, Gary Goldman came to the rescue. I had first mentioned the documentary to him during Pasadena’s ToonCon last fall, and he was immediately intrigued. We reconnected recently, and he graciously invited me to spend a day with him at his sprawling home in Arizona to finally film an interview.
After my long drive from California, Goldman greeted me warmly at his door, and welcomed me inside. The walls of his house offer a gallery of gorgeous original art, animation cells, press clippings, family photos, and – yes! – movie posters…including, coincidentally, Richard Amsel’s illustrated poster for THE SHOOTIST.
“I saw the stuff you showed me, but never knew he’d done that one!” Goldman exclaimed after I pointed out Amsel’s signature. He laughed, “Now I really have something to talk about!”
One can only imagine what Amsel might have accomplished as an animator had the circumstances been right, and he had been given the opportunity.
“So you think he would've excelled?” I ask.
“Yes!” Goldman answered. “Oh, God … he's got something really, really good and it's too bad. But I don't remember here, I know you told me that he died, what was it, 37?
“Yeah, in 1985.”
“Yeah, yeah. I bet you that even if he came out (into animation) at 19, you know, and say, ‘Can I try doing that?’ And he, he would be fast and…get (it) really fast. … He could have actually gone upstairs (at Disney) and being the person that is actually painting the backgrounds. If he wanted to do that, what would stop him?”
I mention Amsel’s animation pencil test of Lily Tomlin’s Edith Ann character, and how we’ve never been able to locate that footage. Goldman hears this and sighs. I get the sense that he immediately understands this loss.
“He looked like he was a really nice kid,” he says.
“That’s what many people told me,” I reply. “What would you say to him if he was still here or if you had the opportunity to meet him face to face?”
“Oh, if he had gone (into animation),” Goldman says, then extends an arm as high up as he could reach, “he'd be up here.”
My heartfelt thanks and gratitude to Gary Goldman for giving me both an interview, and a wonderful day I’ll cherish forever.
Above: A variety of photos I took of Gary Goldman's office, including trade clippings, character maquettes of Dirk the Daring and Mrs. Brisby, and a Saturn award for THE SECRET OF NIMH -- which was only the 2nd film ever to be awarded in the Best Animated Feature category.