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    A Moment With Ted Thomas, Director of "Walt and El Grupo"

    For many Disney geeks, the opportunity to find find rare photo or footage of Walt Disney is a treasure in and and of its self. Even better than that is being able to hear from people who were able to interact with him when he was still alive.

    MouseInfo is proud today to partake in a total geek out with an interview with Ted Thomas. As the son of famed Disney Animator Frank Thomas, Ted Thomas practically grew up on the Disney Studio lot.

    Mr. Thomas has a new documentary, Walt and El Grupo, expected to hit store shelves DVD on November 30, 2010. This film offers a never-before-seen look into Walt's trip to South America during the start of World War II on a good will tour.

    We were fortunate enough to be able to take some time to speak with Mr. Thomas about his new film as well as his experiences growing up a truly Disney life.

    MI: What was the most interesting thing you learned doing research for this film?

    Ted Thomas: I would have to say the impact that this group of artists had on the world around them. That became an interesting thing to explore, how these artists engaged this world; they way they saw it, and the way that, in turn, worked its way into their art and the amazing impact it had on all of us.

    It’s quite something that my father went on this trip, and then the things he ended up animating afterward. Mary Blair and Herb Ryman went on this trip, and the contributions they made after that to Disneyland and the World’s Fair project on and off it’s quite something when you think about the lasting imprint that these artists had on the world.

    MI: How important was this trip for El Grupo?

    Ted Thomas: I think it was important to each of them on a personal level, and also on a level on what it did for our country at the time. It was really important for Walt and at this point in his life and his career.

    I think the trip got him back on track creatively, because he had gotten basically cut off and stopped by his financial troubles and also by the [Disney studio] strike. This [trip] gave him a chance to get back in the story work that he was so good at.

    This was a very important trip for the financial health of the studio, too, with all these commissions that came out of it. They were still in very tough financial straits.

    (l-r) Hazel Cottrell, Bill Cottrell, Ted Sears, Lillian Disney, Walt Disney, Norm Ferguson, Frank Thomas.

    MI: How do you think this trip affected your father, Frank Thomas personally?

    Ted Thomas: Well he was a twenty-eight year old bachelor and this was the first time he had been out of the country. I think it really broaden his horizons in terms of other cultures and customs which he continued to talk about for the rest of his life.

    He told one great story that was indicative of that. At the hotel they were staying at in Rio De Jinero [there was] a little street in back of it and there would be vendors that would go along; one would be a knife sharpener, one would sell papayas, another would bring laundry, and on and on like that. Each would have a unique song that they would sing that you could pick out what their trade was and so when you ask how this affected him, you have to go to an anecdote like that, that left an impression on him for decades.

    MI: Why do you think your father was chosen as the only animator to go on this trip to South America?

    Ted Thomas: Well, I think there are a couple of reasons; one he was further along with his assignment on Bambi than other key people. Olly Johnston and Milt Kahl were still tied up with Bambi and others were working on Dumbo.

    Frank was in a place where he could actually break free, but the story my father liked to tell was that he was also eligible for the draft at that time; there was a peace time draft before the U.S. actually got into the war, and Walt took him along so that he wouldn’t be drafted.

    MI: What would you like people to walk away with from watching Walt and El Grupo?

    Ted Thomas: I would like for them to have an enhanced feeling for Walt as a man. Because I think since the forty plus years since his passing he has become more and more legendary kind of a figure and people forget there was a flesh and blood guy named Walt Disney.

    Or sometimes people also have an image of Walt that’s been colored by something they read rather than actually seeing him. I actually think we have more footage of him for this documentary than any other film. So with this documentary, we want to give you as much time as possible with a man named Walt Disney so that you can form your own opinion about what you thought he was like.

    MI: What didn’t make it into Walt and El Grupo that you think people should know?

    Ted Thomas: Well, I got to tell you the first cut of this film was five hours long, and the second cut was about three hours and forty minutes. We also have a full length version which is just over two hours and then we have this theatrical version which is an hour and forty six minutes.

    So when you ask me what got left out... a lot of stuff got left out. It’s all stuff that I think would deepen your understanding and appreciation of the political context, behind the trip, and more anecdotal bends in the road in terms of where they went and who they met with.

    There is a whole twenty minutes that we took out from when they visited Mendoza. One of my favorite stories there, Ted Sears who was a great story man, met some people there in Mendoza and then they exchanged Christmas cards for the rest of their lives. Think about someone you met for a day and a half and then you continue to correspond for the rest of your life.

    MI: Something unique about Walt and El Grupo is you really get the sense that you are with Walt and the El Grupo throughout their trip. How and why did you decide on the Then-and-Now imagery shown in the film?

    Ted Thomas: When we began our research I realized that using the photographs and using the footage would be the best way to take the audience on a trip like El Grupo took. Okubo, the Producer of the film, and I would agree that should be what people felt when they watched the film, that they should have that same sense of excitement and discovery that El Grupo had and since we are in a visual medium, since you have photograph and film, to a certain extent that’s going to dictate what you put up on the screen.

    When we took our research trip, I had clips of the film on my laptop and had copies of many of the still photographs and in each of the countries we would ask our contacts do you know where this is? Can we go there?

    So anytime we could make a match between an old photograph and a current place we decided we should try and work that into the film. I for one am very excited about trying to build bridges between the past and present, because those connections between one generation and two generations are what make us who we are. You understand who we are by looking into your past.

    MI: How closely did you work with J.B. Kaufman on the book and this movie?

    Ted Thomas: We did a lot of back and forth sharing of information. By the time of our project, JB had already done a lot of documented research and had actually done a draft of the book. In terms of the paperwork side of it, it was a big head start for us.

    So what we were able to do was share a lot of our photographic and film research with him and provide updates of information with the interviews and contacts that we had actually made in Latin America. An interesting thing is that there was a daily itinerary, but that daily schedule got modified quite a bit and we were able to help him out on what changed and what remained.

    MI: Did you feel any pressure from your dad to become an animator or to get involved with the Arts like he was?

    Ted Thomas: Never did, but hats off to my father that with all my siblings he gave us the opportunities. We all took summer art courses or music classes, but we were never pressured to pursue any of that. And with all of us, we pursued music pretty earnestly but none of us pursued art to become professionals at it. I became a filmmaker but that’s the closest, I've never been a good draftsman, and I pursued some art but not like my father.

    MI: Do you have a favorite story about your father at the studios or his friendship with Walt and Olly Johnston?

    Ted Thomas: I have a very fond memory, from the late 50’s early 60’s. There was a yearly Christmas party that was held in the Studio Lot in the theater and Walt loved Vaudeville. He would get Jack Lavin, Casting Director at the studio at that time, and he would book all these old Vaudeville performers who were still around and still had these wonderful acts.

    There were dog acts, spinning acts, plate acts, people who could do all these amazing things, so we would go on a Saturday afternoon to the theater and Walt was there talking to people, and watching the show, it was just a very fond memory.

    Walt and El Grupo is available on DVD November 30, 2010.

    THE END!



    For corrections, please e-mail dlfreak, @mouseinfo.com

    Last edited by dlfreak; 11-19-2010 at 12:23 AM.
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  2. #2
    Meeska-Mooska-Mouseketeer MI Lead Moderator smitty-78's Avatar
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    Aug 2005
    Clovis, Ca
    What a great interview, I can't wait till the documentary comes out.
    Today's going to be a beautiful, busy day, and "we must keep our aim constantly focused on the future." —Walt Disney

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