Saturday, December 29, 2007

Ed Hansen

I was sorry to hear that Disney Animation veteran Ed Hansen passed away earlier this month (there's an entry on THE ANIMATION GUILD's blog). Ed entered the studio as an animation effects artist on PETER PAN and worked his way up to assistant director by the time of ROBIN HOOD. Shortly afterward he was promoted to the general management position over all feature animation, although I can't remember his actual title. He was to me and many of my generation, our first "boss" in the profession. He was also the first guy to fire me, a situation that rankled until it happily rectified.

In these corporate times of mind-boggling beurocracy it seems hard to believe that one single person oversaw the whole operation (Ed had one secretary, the always cheerful Jo Anne Phillips, and supply seargeant Joe Morris served as a sort of right hand man). Granted things were sleepier at the studio in those days, but Ed had what must have been the peculiar vantage point of rising through the ranks and peaking at a time when the old guard were rapidly retiring and new blood was flooding in like it hadn't since the 1930's. In the late seventies he was in his early fifties, literally bridging the age gap. He was casual (he looked and dressed like a golfer) but he could be flinty and hard-line when he had to be, although according to reports from "old timers" he was a big improvement over his apparently hard-headed predesesor. When I entered the training program under Eric Larson's auspices, Ed was one of the first people I was introduced to. He flipped through my sketchbook and suggested I make a test of a mouse character I had drawn, but I said I had something else in mind. Mistake. The temperature dropped about 20 degrees and I sensed right away I wasn't going to have an easy time with Ed.

To make a long story short, although I made it through the two-month trainee period, I only lasted another six months on production (THE FOX AND THE HOUND) as an apprentice inbetweener. I was so overwhelmed to be at Disney that every move I made seemed to be the wrong one and when I got fired I kind of knew I had it coming. At my exit interview I sheepishly asked Ed if there were ever cases where someone who got fired at Disney eventually got re-hired. Ed, (who knew my bad rep all too well) said in a very blase manner: "Well very occasionally something like that happens, but I don't think this is going to be one of those cases." I was doomed.

To make a longer story short, the experience did sink in and I spent the next seven years not only developing my skills but also working on my attitude. Late in 1986 I wound up doing some freelance with Glen Keane on THE CHIPMUNK ADVENTURE and he generously offered to submit my portfolio when he returned to Disney in '87, which he did. A few weeks later I got a call from Ed Hansen, who offered me a very sincere welcome back and a journeyman animator job on OLIVER & CO. I was pretty elated and will always be grateful I got the chance to mend the fence with the very guy I who made me aware of the damage. I wound up spending 14 of the following twenty years working at Disney Features (nine years at one stretch, five at another). When I saw Ed in person he was a kinder, gentler Ed and I hope I was a wiser and more experienced me. I was out of the doghouse in any case. In the shifting management sands of the late 1980's Ed himself retired before the decade was out. He had worked at Disney for something like 35 years and he spent the time since then in picturesque Solvang, in Santa Barbara. Ed hired (and fired) quite a few of us aging kids still in the business and for me he will always represent the happy resolution of a "second chance." My condolences to his family and friends.


Weirdo said...

Cool stuff. Can you tell me the features you worked on? I know you worked on Iago for "Aladdin" and you directed "Home on the Range" but I don't know much else.

Jenny said...

Wow, Will, what a story!

This: "...very occasionally something like that happens, but I don't think this is going to be one of those cases."
WTH?! It takes a heck of a man to not only relate that story, but own it. I never had any idea you'd worked at Disney rgiht out of the box, so to speak-and I rememeber from early days how much the Disney ethos meant to you as an aspiring animator/story man. My hat's off to you. I'll bet Ed would appreciate your grace in growing up and accepting the hard stuff as well as you did.

My only interaction with the legendary Ed Hansen was a letter I received when I wrote my first-ever animation fan letter after sitting through "Fox and the Hound"...sitting through it in an empty theater with a few toddlers one grey afternoon in Century City. Apart from some wonderful and compelling animation(bear fight goes without saying, I hope), the brightest spot in the film for me then was the animation of the little sparrow, "Dinky". I laughed every time he had anything to do, and he wasn't doing much-just hopping about, a few lines. But the timing was so great! It was a hilarious caricature of a real sparrow-the jerky, lost-frame movement, the odd accents. Anyhow that's how I remember it. So I wrote the studio, are of who knows, asking if whomever was In Charge would pass along my admiration for his or her work,tell them I wanted to be an animator and found it inspiring.

Ed wrote me back a warm and heartbreaking letter right away, telling me the scenes I loved were done by Cliff Nordberg (unknown to me at that time) and that Cliff had passed away not long before. He ended the letter by writing "He would have loved reading your thoughts about his animation".

How classy, I thought, for the administrative head of the department to answer my letter when he could just as easily have tossed it in the round file.

Thanks again for sharing your memories. How I envy Bowers being able to kibbitz with you now--seems like I never had any time to do so. Eh, I'm always complaining about that, though, aren't I? Hope all's well with you and that you had a merry christmas with the family!

Will Finn said...
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Will Finn said...

Weirdo, you can see the whole sordid story on IMDB, but I also worked as an animator on BEAUTY & THE BEAST, was head of story on HUNCHBACK and recently storyboarded on OVER THE HEDGE (where I also directed some ancillary odds and ends.)

Jenny, thanks, but I honestly had it coming and deserved the boot as much as I got it. In a way I'm glad, it taught me never to take a job for granted again.

Happy Holidays....!

mark kennedy said...

Hey Will - thanks for writing about Ed. It's good to learn something about him, because everybody talks about him but this is the first I've ever heard any stories about him.

Floyd Norman said...

Hey Will, that's a great Ed Hansen story. I've got one of my own.

I first Knew Ed when he was Woolie's assistant back when I worked in story. Ed's title was "assistant director," but it really meant the guy who does all the running around for Woolie.

Years later, I returned to Disney hoping for a shot at animation. Turns out I was too old for the training program. (I was 38)

I guess I became somewhat of a trouble maker, and Ed eventually fired me. No hard feelings, though. I would occasionally run into Ed in my home town of Santa Barbara, and my visits to Solvang where he retired. I was always pleased to see Ed, and never harbored any hard feelings because he booted me out of Disney. Like you, I was welcomed back a number of times.

I've worked for many jerks in my career. Even though he canned me, Ed was one of the good guys.

Weirdo said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
amir avni said...

Lovely post Will, always sincere and inspiring.

Michael Sporn said...

Ed Hansen was only just a name to me until I read this post. Thanks so much for putting some reality onto it and for inspiring some of your commentors to tell their own stories. It helps fill some large holes in my llimited education.