Q&A with Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Burny Mattinson

At last month’s D23 Expo in Anaheim, John Lasseter, head of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios, surprised longtime Disney animator Burny Mattinson by bringing him onstage to celebrate his 60 years with the Company.

Burny began as a messenger at The Walt Disney Studios in 1953—at one point he was tasked with cashing Walt Disney’s paycheck for him! Burny ultimately became an animator and story artist, writing, directing and producing along the way; his credits include 101 Dalmatians, The Jungle Book, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. With so many years of experience under his belt, he’s an incredible source of knowledge and wisdom working alongside the filmmakers at Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Disney Post stopped in to visit Burny and pick his brain about storytelling, creativity and the Disney legacy.

If you had to pick a highlight from your career, what would it be?
Mickey’s Christmas Carol was an exciting one for me. It was my first time directing, working with the musicians and everybody. Another one is The Great Mouse Detective, which I was able to produce and direct on. Working with Henry Mancini, that was a big highlight for me.

You worked your way into the Animation Department after starting as a traffic boy, delivering items around the lot. How did you ultimately transition to doing story?
I was animating when Frank Thomas asked me to come up and do storyboards on The Rescuers. He said to just come up there for a couple of weeks. I thought, “Oh, shoot, I just started animating, I’m really into it,” and then I have to go up and work with Woolie Reitherman, and he’s a tough taskmaster. So I went up there and I could hardly wait to come back, and Woolie came in and looked at the boards and said, “Would you stay?” And I said, “Well, yeah! Yes!”

What’s the most difficult part of the animation process?
It’s story. It’s coming up with the right thing. Something that really is sincere, compelling and got a lot of heart in it. That’s a real hard nut. But the idea that you’re solving a problem keeps you going and you get a lot of help from each other.

After working as an animator on early Pooh films like The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, you came full circle and supervised the story on 2011’s Winnie the Pooh. What was that like?
There are some pictures you work on and they just sing through, they’re just easy as can be.Winnie the Pooh was one of those. Everybody was on the same page and we all knew where we were going with it, and it really came across. We had several [Pooh films] that were being done by our television group, so I didn’t think we were going to get one. Then all of a sudden, John Lasseter came to the directors and said, “Hey, come up with some ideas, because we’re interested in doing another one.” We had a lot of story material, and we also had a lot of young people who had never boarded before, and they came up with some great ideas. We had a wonderful story team.

What drives you as an artist?
When I’m drawing, I really am excited. I don’t know where the day goes. When you’re putting a drawing down, you’ve left something of yourself—it’s part of you there and it says something. A good drawing, people will look at that and say, “This gives me ideas,” and all of a sudden it excites somebody else, their creative spirit.

What does Disney mean to you?
When we were working on The Great Mouse Detective, we needed a villain. I’d seen this picture called Champagne for Caesar, and in it Vincent Price was a comic villain. I thought he was perfect for the role. So I called him, and he said he’d come out for a test. I asked him to test, the reason being he was 71 and I thought he may not be the same Vincent Price that he was in 1940. He did this beautiful test, he was absolutely perfect. And he told me later, “You probably wonder why I came out just to do a test, when everybody knows what I sound like.” I started to fumble something, and he said, “The reason I came out was, being in a Disney picture, you know as an actor that your voice will be heard for eons. Nobody will forget you if you’re in a Disney movie.” That’s why you want to be a part of it: There’s a longevity to it that you can’t get anywhere else.