40. The Assistant Animator Part 1
There is a fairly good chance none of you understand what is going on. You’re probably saying to yourself “An assistant animator’s not a person it’s the name of an occupation. What they heck does Ponti think he’s doing?” The other question you might be asking yourself is “I thought this was a blog about 50 people? What’s going on?” Well why don’t you listen to my explanation and reasoning then you might not think I’m so crazy.
The deal is after the infamous strike of 1941 for decades it was all but impossible to be promoted to the rank of animator. Some of the top men like Eric Larson and John Lounsbery did continue to advance people but for the most part the top guys wanted their status and didn’t want any competition. This was a huge shame because it robbed the studio of taking efficient use of tons of talent. Unless you want bad movies you’ve got to realize that Disney needs to continue training new animators their magic and has to continue to advance people (today is no exception, for all the Disney executives that could be listening. Yes I do believe the Talent Development program needs to be expanded and there needs to be a few more young, rookie supervising animators. Don’t hate me this is in best intentions.) Combining the fact that the assistants back in the day were super talented and very influential but keeping in mind I can’t give them credit for a career as an animator they didn’t have I’ve decided for #40 I’m going to honor 5 artists under the title the assistant animator. Over the course of the next few days I’ll separately be putting up a tribute for five of the best assistants. Here is the first artist I’m honoring in this post:
#1 George Goepper
George Goepper started at Disney in 1933, a time of great expansion and growth for the staff at the Disney studios. Snow White was going full swing into production and tons of talent the studio didn’t already have was needed to make such a daring production. Artists were recruited around the country to work on this once-in-a-lifetime project that would change the medium of animation and even the film industry in general forever. However hard work was nothing short of expected from everyone working in the studio. Years later George Goepper told Milt Gray that when inbetweening back then “We all worked our little fannies off because you never knew when you were going to be fired.” He became an assistant on the one and only Norman Ferguson, oftentimes called “Fergy”. Fergy was the first animator to put in great showmanship and thought process into his characters, most famously in his animation of the flypaper sequence in Playful Pluto. He wasn’t a great draftsman and drew very rough despite his great understanding of staging and accuracy in his drawings. This required Fergy to have many assistants. Among these assistants besides Goepper were Jack Hannah, later the director of many Donald Duck cartoons, and most notably John Lousnbery, who would later go on to be one of the best personality directing animators at the studio for decades. “Although Fergy put more work into held poses, he cared less about action extremes and therefore would leave them to his assistants to finish,” explained Goepper to Milt Gray in the same interview used above. Among the notable projects George worked on with Fergy included Pluto in the famous short the Pointer and the Dance of the Hours segment in Fantasia.
Sadly Fergy began to have a decline in the quality of his work in the mid 40s leading Goepper to become the longtime assistant of Eric Larson, one of the humblest of the great Disney animators. According to Burny Mattinson in his interview on Animation Podcast Larson was relatively easy to follow up because he worked on fours and his structure wasn’t too complicated unlike the very particular demands and scenes on threes done with the assistants of Frank Thomas and Milt Kahl. Among the films George Goepper worked under him on included Bambi, Lady and the Tramp, and Sleeping Beauty.
Like Eric Larson, George Goepper was very humble and a very mild-mannered person. He was a big fan of film and was a sculptor as well. At some point Goepper left Disney for Hanna-Barbara where unlike at Disney he was able to be a star. His career was honored by the Animation Guild in 1988 and he also taught animation at Orange Coast College in California for many years. Unfortunately Goepper is no longer with us but his contributions stay in the scenes he worked on and he is one of the most underrated talents in the history of the Disney studio. I personally believed he would have made an excellent animator if he were ever given the chance for the job.