Veteran filmmaker discusses creating the films, the shooting conditions, and working with Walt

With the upcoming release of Walt Disney Home Entertainment's 13 part, 4 Volume True-Life Adventure series on December 5, we had the opportunity to sit down with Roy E. Disney and discuss these early films. These True-Life Adventures, which captured the wonder of animals and nature and won eight Academy Awards -- epitomize the magic of Walt Disney. In classics such as "Seal Island," "The Living Desert," "The Vanishing Prairie" and "White Wilderness," Walt Disney blended his unique sense of innovation with creativity and technology to put together films that brought fascinating insights into the world of wild animals as well as attention to the importance of conserving our outdoor heritage.

What's it like for you who helped make these films so long ago to now see them arrive on DVD?

Roy E. Disney: I couldn't be more pleased. You always feel attached to work you did that you knew was good. To get it finally back out there in the public eye again, where a whole new generation will be able to see it is very pleasing.

Since you worked on these early films, can you describe what your job or jobs were?

Roy E. Disney: Well, I started out as an assistant film editor way back in the early 50s. Worked my way, gradually, up through the editing room... then I began writing for Winston Hibler who produced the films. I worked with him in a lot of capacities, and finally after the True-Lifes were all made, I went to Walt and said, "Why don't you let me do one of these on my own?" He said, "Okay." After that I worked my way up through being a writer and a producer and director. I finally wound up as Vice President in charge of the whole 16mm production wing, which was the nature films.

What were the shooting conditions on these documentaries like?

Roy E. Disney: We started out buying film from others; that was shot out in the field and used in lecture reels and that kind of thing. Mostly with old Bell and Howell's and old Bolexes... none of which had viewfinders where you could look through the lens. So there were focus questions constantly in a lot of that footage. Somewhere in the mid-50s, I guess, the Arriflex came along and the Eclair. Those cameras began to finally make life easier for us. Film stock, gradually over time, began to improve. It was all very gradual. Everything was difficult. Everything was mechanically a problem. The film was a problem because it didn't really get the images as well as you could see them with your eyes. Carrying gear around in the forrests, 20 or 30 or 40 pounds worth of gear, was a struggle sometimes when you're 10,000 feet above sea level. It was hard.

How long would it take to gather all the footage for one True-Life Adventure?

Roy E. Disney: I could give you a couple that took like 3 years. Typically, a year. If for no other reason than we were filming the life cycle of a particular animal, or a particular area. You needed to be there for a year. How much footage you shot was purely a function of what happened in front of the camera, and occasionally what didn't happen. There was enormous amounts of footage run of nothing happening.

Amongst all the films in the set do you have a favorite?

Roy E. Disney: Oh, I've got a bunch of favorites. I love them all because I was really, fairly, intimately connected with over two thirds of them. I love "Vanishing Prairie" and "Living Desert" because those are the two that I worked on as my very first job in the field. I feel so connected to those. "Prairie" in particular because I know every piece of the film in that thing went through my hands at one point or another.

With technology playing such a huge role in people's lives, do you think these films are a great way to remind people of the simpler things?

Roy E. Disney: Yeah, a bunch of things. It's a nice way to remind people about Disney's own heritage in the world. I think people have tended to forget that we were really leaders in this field a long time ago, and still feel that sort of responsibility toward the earth. It's good to know that people can look at these things and see the same kind of innocent values that we saw. The beauty of nature and the realities of nature and the fact of nature, being out there undisturbed is pretty nice. We need to be reminded of it constantly.

Who are some of your filmmaking influences?

Roy E. Disney: The guys I worked with. Walt... more than anybody because he was a pretty pragmatic guy when it came to filmmaking. If one thing didn't work, the first thing you needed to do was admit it and go on and try and fix it; do something better. I never had a style or a sense of something I was aiming for, what we did was to try and let the film tell us what it wanted to be.

What are you working on now?

Roy E. Disney: I'm working right now about a documentary on sailboat racing. It's specifically about the youngest crew ever to race from L.A. to Honolulu. We've recruited a bunch of really bright and talented young kids, and, we're gonna train them in Hawaii for 5 months in the spring. Then they're gonna do the race next July. Hopefully, they'll do well in it. We're shooting it as a documentary about how a team forms and comes together and survives the really ultimate questions.

Theatrically it will be released through Disney in 2008. I've been sort of doing the documentary business most of my life it seems like. Although, I spent 20 years in animation too. It's all film. Film has to be entertaining and that lesson you learned from Walt right from the start.

All 4 volumes of Walt Disney's True-Life Adventures will come to DVD on December 5 from Walt Disney Home Video.

Evan Jacobs at Movieweb
Evan Jacobs