Winnie the Pooh is the latest animated film from Walt Disney, and it’s a throwback to the old 2-D classical animation that made Disney the powerhouse it is today. And to make a throwback, it’s good to have someone like Burny Mattinson involved. He’s been with the studio for over half a century, and worked with all the old masters. For Winnie the Pooh he was the story supervisor for the animation department, and he proved a great person to talk to about the film and the history of animation. Check it out…
How was this different than the other versions of Winnie the Pooh?
Burny Mattinson: This was one the very easiest projects to work on. From day one it was like a dream come true because everyone knew what they wanted to do, and it just kept getting better and better. The story went fast, we had had the story and comps in less than a year, and for animation that’s very fast.
Do you think that’s because it’s a well known property already?
A little of that, the characters are established and that’s helps a lot, so we had to find a Milne story, but we added our own version with the Backson. We had a story called “Rabbit’s Busy Day” and it was really a dry story, it didn’t have much going for it, but the confusion of the note found on Rabbit’s door “busy, back soon,” and then let’s have Owl interpret that the Backson has captured Christopher Robin, and then what do the characters do? That opened up a door for us, and became the backbone of the story, so it was marvelous – we played with Milne’s story.
Because this hopes to target young audiences, did you gear it to a short attention span? There’s the mini-stories going through it.
The first ones we did were episodic, but we didn’t want to do that here. We had three stories we were pulling from and we felt we wanted to have something to carry through. Eeyore’s tail, you could have paid that off in ten minutes, but we dragged it out through the entire picture. Pooh’s overall desire for honey – that was something we’ve done in every picture, so we figured that would carry through here as well. So what was interesting in the middle of it was the Backson. That was how we ended up constructing the story; we tried to make it less episodic.
How do you feel the character has been received over the years?
I think they love it, they really enjoyed it. Any time we’ve screened it it’s really popular. We recently did some screenings with college people, and it sold out, they’re around the block waiting to get in. The first ones we did were going to be done as a feature, Walt wanted to do it as a feature, but he got concerned and wanted to put it out as a featurette first to test the waters because the humor was so mild. It went out and did very well, and then we did a second one, “A Blustery Day” and that won an academy award and so we wound up doing the third and final one, and we put it together as a feature. Over the years it’s done very well, but Sears and Roebuck put it in their catalog I can’t remember when, and it shot through the roof. It’s been a great franchise in a way.
What is it about Winnie the Pooh that people cling on to, is it the pure innocence?
I think it’s a lot of that. He has a very simple approach, and it’s easy going. And with Pooh it’s all about the tummy.
I think one of the great things about this is that other than a brief “Raiders of the Lost Ark” reference, it eschews pop culture references, it’s very timeless, there’s no cell phones. Did you keep it from being modernized?
We tried to perk up the humor a little bit when we were doing it, but we tempered it because we didn’t want to go too far. I think we were very conscious of trying to keep it as close to Milne as possible.
The last film was the Piglet movie, did you work on that as well?
No, that was our television division, and they had gone through most of the stories before we got to this.
Did you watch all that stuff before making this?
I only watched a few of them, but I watched enough to know what had been used. But we did this one as feature animation. The last one that was full feature animation was “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.” They don’t treat it the same, I think they treat it more meant for kids to keep them busy, something to put on DVD. We treat it as “we want to see this movie too.” It’s really for us.
Was there ever any talk of this being done with CGI and 3-D, or anything like that?
No. I think that we wanted to do this as we had originally done – actually we were trying to stay closer to (Ernest) Shepard’s drawings.
What do you think the secret to Eyore is, that he can be so nihilistic but yet so endearing?
One of the first story people was Ralph Wright, and he was the voice of Eeyore. You’d come in in the morning and say “Hey Ralph, how’s it going?” and he’d say (does an impression of Ralph/Eeyore) “I’m all right, how are you?” and he had that very same delivery. It just seemed he was the perfect Eeyore, always on the down side. We loved Ralph.
How did he feel about having the character patterned after him?
He loved it, he was that character.
Can you do an impression of him happy, I’m trying imagine him pleased.
No. In this picture I had to do the scratch track for Eeyore and Piglet, and I remember Ralph, and that down deep in his voice and (does impression) “he was always on the down side” then Piglet was always (does Piglet) “ah, ah oh Pooh I can’t do that.”
Was there anything new you discovered on this? As we get older we see different things in them.
I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know if I should say this. Early on we treated these characters very reverently, but someone said “these guys are a little bit like One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. They’re a little zany, they’re a little nutty, and I think once we got that, we looked at it differently “let’s have more fun with this.” They’re a little loony in a way.
I have horrible impression in my head of Winnie the Pooh smothering Tigger.
Winnie’s the Indian. That’s terrible.
In our story meetings we start talking about things like that, and terrible jokes like that, but sometimes when we get there, we find funny jokes that we try to incorporate into the picture, but not as crude.
So when you started the poo jokes were ridiculous?
Oh yeah. They’ll get silly, in fact we made a whole book we made out of those jokes – which we don’t show anybody. (laughs)
Is that essential being an adult working on something that is so geared to people under ten, that there’s an outlet to the adult side of things?
Yeah, but you know we’re grown up kids, too. We go to these meetings and make jokes, and then we incorporate things from it. The nice thing about those story meetings is that sometimes we’re in there for four hours a day, and you can say anything, the dirtiest jokes, very dumb or very brilliant things, but it doesn’t matter because you don’t want to discourage anyone out of it, because people will riff on it, and it will get bigger and better, and that’s the way to go. We do that, it’s an open forum to have fun to think about what these characters are doing.
Was there a sense with this one that some characters should be played up over others, or do you treat it like an ensemble?
I think we treat it more like an ensemble. Certainly Piglet got a little more play than he’s got in past pictures, so he was fun in that, and they become a great team together. The scene I love is where Pooh has got Piglet on the edge of a fulcrum, and he’s going to throw him into a beehive.
It’s Laurel and Hardy
Exactly, and everyone in the room started made it bigger and better.
I heard Roo was upset he had some lines cut.
We had a line in there where Kanga says “I’m with child” and then she said “send in the pig.” And then we thought that a mother would never say that, so we gave that to Roo, so he should be happy we gave him something extra.
Out of the three original ones, what is your favorite?
The Honey Tree because that was the first one and we really worked on that. We had a lot of extra stuff from that, and we cut it down to twenty minutes from an hour and a half. I had Owl come down and sing a song to Pooh while he’s stuck in the hole. He walks up to him and says “would you like me to sing you a song to pass the time?” And Pooh says “that would be lovely, Owl.” And he (clears throat) sings “It’s a fine thing to be feasting, but feasting to doesn’t pay, for you have feasted and increased in a most obese-ly way.” (laughs) So I loved that little song, and we had to lose it, unfortunately.
What led to you working on this film?
I think I worked on the film because I come from the early days, I came here fifty eight years ago, and I worked with the nine old men when they were working on, so I have a history – there aren’t that many of us left here who go back that far – and also I’m in story, so they asked me to do a beat board, which is like thirty drawings per story, so I did letter-sized drawings of it, and they said “would you present it now to the bosses at the studio?” So I did that, did the voices and pitched the story, and they said “let’s do it as a feature.” It was in, so we were very happy.
What’s the challenge of working on something so long ago and then now working with new people?
That gave me a lot of concern because I didn’t know how the new people would think about this. But they had better ideas than we had thought about, and they were wonderful. Everyone in our story crew – there must have been about five – they were new and they did a wonderful job. Our directors were pro-story, and they knew their business there, and I had a chance to kibitz, and put my thoughts in too, but those guys were aces with great lines and ideas.
Having worked with the nine old men, do you get a lot of reverence? And also do you have a favorite anecdote?
Well, Milt Kahl was the one who has been talked about the most because he was the most cantankerous when he wanted to be, he had this outward bravado. He would be working here on a drawing and if it didn’t work, he’d tear it off, and throw it in the trash can, and stomp on it, and you’d see him with a trash can on his foot. He was the most fun around here, he was also one of the best artists around here.
Winnie the Pooh opens July 15. Check it out.