Bruce Reitherman, Mowgli
I was 11 and my dad, Wolfgang Reitherman, was the director so it didn’t take much for him to see me on the sofa at home and have his lightbulb casting moment. I was the voice of Christopher Robin when I was six but had no other acting experience. I just sounded like an ordinary kid.
The makers wanted someone who sounded very innocent to play Mowgli, to soften the parts where, thanks to his lines, he might come across as a petulant teenager. But in the 1960s, it took four years to make an animated film – so if you cast a kid and didn’t get to the cutting room quick enough, you’d end up with an adolescent. And sure enough, the first Mowgli had had to be replaced after his voice broke.
I loved missing school and being treated like a grownup. What we were doing really mattered to a lot of people, so I knew I had to try hard. This wasn’t like doing homework! Every morning, I’d be sat down with a hot chocolate and a couple of people to go through the storyboards and act out my scenes. It was like having two professionals telling me a bedtime story. The recording sessions were quite intimidating: I’d be in the corner of a giant sound studio with a massive microphone; everyone else was on the other side of a huge pane of glass looking sceptical and having conversations I couldn’t hear. Fortunately, there was always someone feeding me my lines.
I never had a recording session with any of the other actors. They recorded all our voices before doing the animation. It is then the animator’s job to bring your performance to life with his pencil, responding to things he hears that make your character realistic. So in a way, it’s a joint performance. They also took some live action shoots of me jumping off a rock and throwing a stick. My mannerisms survived into the finished film. But the biggest challenge was learning to laugh. Actors practise this for years: the more you get it wrong, the harder it becomes to keep having another go. I’m glad there was always someone around to tickle me or leap around pulling funny faces.
Children were part of the DNA of Disney. My older brothers used to attach rubber bands to toy cars and catapult them along the long corridors of the studio. Once, the cars reached a door just as Walt Disney was opening it, and they flew between his legs. My brothers were terrified – but Walt just grinned.
Floyd Norman, storyman
Disney’s chief storyman, Bill Peet, had been adapting Rudyard Kipling’s novel for a year, but Walt Disney felt his treatment was too dark and insisted he start again with a fun, happy story. Bill wanted it to be faithful to the book so he walked. I’d worked on several Disney films and wanted to sit this one out, but one Friday afternoon I was called in by my boss and told I had to start as storyman on The Jungle Book.
Our head writer would draft rough outlines of scenes on a typewriter and hand them to half a dozen of us, then we’d develop the story visually in pairs. As we pinned our sketches to the storyboards, we’d add dialogue underneath, but the images always came first. The storyboards Bill had done impressed me, but Walt expected you to follow his lead. We did use Bill’s drawings of all the characters as our templates, though.
I was very much a novice – I was an animator and had no idea why I’d been put on stories. Walt always called me Kid. He gave us a great deal of freedom, letting us just get on with it. When our sequences were done, we’d show them to him – and he’d either love them or hate them. One sequence involved a rhino called Rockie, and Walt didn’t think it was funny – at all. He threw the whole thing out. He could be intimidating and critical, but he never berated people. He just wanted everything to be as entertaining as possible..
It was extraordinary when we saw our rough sketches fully animated: we were only a tiny part of the teamwork, but we provided the starting point for its whole look and feel. Before we began, we’d all been given a direct order by Walt not to read Kipling’s original story so we wouldn’t be influenced like Bill was. To this day, I’ve never read the book.
• The Jungle Book is out on Blu-ray on 5 August.
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