Category Archives: Faculty Perspectives

Faculty Perspective: James Bohn on Researching in the Disney Archives

For the past five years I have been working on a book about music in animated features from the first three decades of the Disney Studio. One of the most significant challenges of my research has been getting access to primary documents. While most studios are very protective of their intellectual property, they are not very good at preserving it. Fortunately, a little over a year ago, after much persistence on my behalf, I finally received permission from Disney Enterprises to do research at the Disney Archives. Happily, I was able to travel to beautiful downtown Burbank this past August to do research for my forthcoming book.

 

One of my goals was to unearth more detail about the careers of some of the earliest composers who were resident at the Studio. To that end, I was able to peruse four issues of the Mickey Mouse Melodeon (1932-33), the Studio’s earliest employee newsletter. This newsletter was largely written by Walt Disney’s personal secretary, Carolyn Kaye Shafer.

 

Fortunately for researchers, Walt Disney was notoriously fond of documentation. The filmmaker typically had transcripts made of story meetings, storyboard meetings, and sweatbox sessions. Animation tests were shown at sweatbox sessions, which were so called because of the tremendous heat of the unventilated room in which they were shown, as well as that the animators’ work was under great scrutiny from Walt during these sessions. Since music was an intrinsic part of these films, the Studio’s composers were typically in attendance at such meetings.

During my research session, I was able to look at selected meeting transcripts from Bambi, Lady & the Tramp, and Sleeping Beauty. The transcripts from Sleeping Beauty are notable due to the inclusion of an earlier composer assigned to the project, Walter Schumann. Schumann was fired from the project and none of his music made its way into the film. Walt’s frustration with the composer is palpable in the meeting notes.

I was also able to spend time doing research at the Disney Music group, which is also in residence at the Studio. The Disney Music group has been actively scanning scores. So while I was not able to do any hands on research of original documents, they made numerous scans of scores available to me. I spent most of my time looking at various drafts of scores for early shorts (1928-1937), as the authorship for the soundtracks to many of the Studio’s early shorts is not firmly established. By looking at the music manuscript I was able to form more of a time line of who likely created various drafts of a number of scores.

Most Hollywood studios are not concerned with documenting the film making process, let alone with preserving such records. Furthermore, most studios have thrown entire libraries of musical scores into landfills. Disney, through their archives, offers scholars a unique opportunity to investigate the creative process from story treatment through completed film.