The Story Behind Seal Island

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Walt made 13 nature films in the 1950s, known as the True-Life Adventures series. Eight of them won Academy Awards. They were shown in public schools for decades and—judging by correspondence that is in the Disney Archives in Burbank—many young people went into the forestry service and related fields because of the influence of these films.

It was Walt himself, as he told interviewer Pete Martin, who coined the term "True-Life Adventures" from the phrase "true to life."

Even in the 1950s, Walt was worried about the vanishing frontier. So, in 1947, he had a husband and wife team, Alfred and Elma Milotte, go to one of the last remaining wildernesses, Alaska, and shoot everything they could.

He told them to shoot film of everything from Eskimos to businesses, homesteading to mining, and shipping to whatever moved and might capture the spirit of this disappearing outpost of civilization.

The Milottes were popular and respected photographers and lecturers who had specialized in the Alaskan wilderness for years. They owned a photo studio in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Studying reels and reels of unrelated shots sent back by the Milottes, Walt found most of the material mind-numbingly boring but zeroed in on footage of the playful seals. He asked the Milottes to keep shooting more footage of the marine mammals but to emphasize the lifecycle of the seals and not show any indication of man's presence.

The Milottes had already shot for several months and now spent an additional year shooting nothing but seals day and night. Alfred claimed the only communication he received from Walt during that time was an occasional telegram proclaiming simply: "More seals!"

The resulting film did not appeal to RKO-Radio Pictures (Disney's film distributor at the time) who felt audiences would not sit still for a nature film. So Walt asked a friend who ran Pasadena's Crown Theater to show Seal Island for one week in December of 1948, so that this nature film would qualify for consideration for an Academy Award nomination.

Though it was 27-minutes long (much longer than the usual short subject), Seal Island won that year's Best Documentary-Short Subject Oscar. The very next day, Walt took that Academy Award to his brother Roy O. Disney's office and said: "Here, Roy. Take this over to RKO and bang them over the head with it."

RKO unhappily agreed to distribute the film and two more like it. The film was too short to market as a feature, and too long to really be considered a short, and theaters were transitioning to double features and eliminating shorts.

Made at a cost of $86,000 the film grossed in its first run more than $434,000. The next True-Life Adventure, Beaver Valley, also done by the Milottes, was made at a cost of $102,000 and grossed $664,000.

The series was another of the many innovations of Walt Disney. It created a theatrical market for nature documentaries and provided the template of how they would be made, including incorporating humor, storytelling, music, and anthropomorphized animal behavior, as well as high production values. It was educational, but first, it was entertaining. Today, this type of nature documentary is quite common, but when Walt first did it, no one else had even come close.

How did Walt Disney get interested in making nature documentaries that at the time were primarily amateurish and isolated to the local lecture circuits and what was Walt's fascination with Alaska? That's an interesting story.

Walt had always had a fascination with live-action educational films beginning with Tommy Tucker's Tooth (1922) when a young Walt was hired by local dentist Thomas McCrum to produce an educational short about the importance of proper dental care for young people. The short was so effective that it continued to be used for over a decade. In 1926, Walt even made a sequel, Clara Cleans Her Teeth.

In newspaper columnist Hedda Hopper's December 26, 1948 column, Walt told her, "I learned much during the war years when we were making instruction and technological films in which abstract and obscure things had to be made plain and quickly for the boys in the military services…I began, with the return of peace, to plan the informative-entertainment series which now has jelled in the True-Life Adventures."

After World War II, Walt realized he needed to diversify if his studio was to survive because being too dependent on animation had almost closed his shop when his artists were drafted, materials were rationed, overseas markets were closed and more. He had barely survived producing instructional films for the military.

However, trying to continue that business in peace time by producing instructional films for a variety of businesses proved frustrating with all their needs for constant little changes. The True-Life Adventures gave Walt the opportunity to utilize his staff trained in this new form of combining education and entertainment in a product that was solely under the control of Disney.

In 1943 Walt Disney told a radio audience that, "It is not visionary or presumptuous for us to anticipate the use of our own medium (animation) in the curriculum of every schoolroom in the world."

In 1944, the people responsible for the prestigious Encyclopedia Britannica had approached Walt with the idea of a multi-picture deal of educational films for schools. Walt never explored the deal but that same year he went to the New York Zoological Society with the vague notion of a series of factual films about animals.

While making the animated feature film classic Bambi (1942), Walt had live-action reference footage taken of wild animals for the animators to study and he became intrigued by the raw footage and how it might be adapted into a live-action story.

His first idea was to somehow combine the live action with animated segments into a feature, much like he later did with Song of the South (1946), as a way to turn out material faster since live-action filming was cheaper and quicker than producing animation. He just needed to find a project worthy of that attention.

Producer Ben Sharpsteen had casually mentioned to Walt that many returning servicemen were beginning to homestead in Alaska and that there may be some sort of a story in that situation.

In addition, a treaty had been recently negotiated between Russia and Japan on seal hunting in the region. They had come dangerously close to turning the Pribilof Islands into a complete extermination repository with the sea otters almost completely annihilated, the walrus barely surviving and the wasteful exploitation of the seals for their skins.

Walt loved flying, new experiences and the great outdoors. On August 10, 1947, he took an offer from his polo playing friend, Russell Havenstrite, who had several business concerns in Alaska including an oil development and a gold mine and asked Walt to accompany him on an Alaskan trip to review them. Walt wanted to see Alaska first hand to help give him a better idea of what he wanted.

Walt took along his 10-year-old daughter, Sharon, on the adventure who, even 20 years later, remembered it as great fun and Walt being the most patient and attentive parent ever. One night Walt stood out in the cold with a bottle of Scotch in his hand watching the Northern Lights. He had tried to wake his daughter but she wanted to continue sleeping.

They flew in several small single-engine planes jumping from Juneau to Anchorage to Nome to Kobuk. At one point they slept at a tiny Inuit village and another time at the foot of Mt. McKinley.

During one portion of the trip in a plane that barely had room for the pilot and three passengers heading for Candle, they became lost and had no working radio. The visibility was bad, the gas was running low and the instruments weren't acting properly. They faced the very real possibility of crashing into a mountain.

The usual 45-minute flight had now taken more than two hours so they took a chance and dived out of the clouds and fortunately were able to land safely.

The concept for Seal Island came out of hours of footage Walt saw on Alaska. He asked the filmmakers to focus on the seals and their story.

Despite that almost deadly misadventure, Walt became enamored of the picturesque beauty of Alaska and felt its story needed to be told.

Walt had been watching amateur 16-millimeter Kodachrome shot footage of Alaska as early as February 1946 to try to get some ideas. He had the studio purchase 482 rolls of the film and blow some of it up to the theatrical projection size of 35 millimeter and do a rough edit of the material.

While he was fascinated with the results, it still fell short of what he had envisioned. Some of the best footage had been shot by the Milottes. In 1940, Alfred Milotte had approached Walt offering photos of animals in Alaska, but Walt had declined.

Alfred Milotte's uncle owned a successful and well-established photography studio and, as a young boy, Alfred spent a lot of time watching his uncle work, helping out in minor ways, and even buying a cheap film projector to study films.

With the death of his father when Alfred was 14 , the family moved to Seattle, Washington, where Alfred found work in a local hotel while attending the University of Washington. He transferred to the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts where he learned new techniques in art and photography.

When he moved back home, he found that it was difficult to find work during the Great Depression.

In 1934, Alfred saw an advertisement offering the Fisher photography studio for sale in Ketchikan, Alaska. The owner wanted to sell quickly so he could relocate to a warmer weather location. That same day, Al went to school teacher Elma Jolly, who he had been dating since 1931, showed her the ad, and proposed marriage. She agreed to the whole package.

An offer to buy was wired to the owner who accepted. Al and Elma pooled their funds to purchase the studio, store connected to it, Kodak finishing equipment, furniture and laboratory. The entire cost was $2,200, which was a sizeable investment during those Depression years. The Milottes paid $100 dollars down and agreed to pay $75 a month for the next 28 months.

Al boarded a boat to Ketchikan immediately while Elma finished off her teaching responsibilities to the close of the school year. They got married in Ketchikan on June 15, 1934.

The small, quiet fishing village provided a wonderful opportunity for the Milottes. Previous to their arrival, photo engraving, line cuts for commercial, newspaper and book work was outsourced to Seattle, Washington. The Milottes now provided those services, as well as quality portraits, fishing industry images and "spot news" pictures.

Alfred taught a class in photography at the local YWCA, but also participated on local sports teams, including basketball and softball. Elma spent time directing plays for the local theater company. She had always been interested in theater since her college days and sometimes was able to encourage her husband to participate in the local productions that she directed.

The couple loved the outdoors and their new home provided many opportunities to explore the surrounding forests and snap pictures of wolves, bears and moose in their natural habitat. In addition to the abundance of wildlife, the scenery itself was inspirational and the subject for many photos.

On a 15-month horseback journey, they followed the proposed route of a highway meant to connect the United States to the Territory of Alaska (which didn't become a state until January 3, 1959).

During the trip, they took photos of the Alaskan interior and the animals of this wild environment. They did this with two movie cameras (shooting thousands of feet of film) and two Leica cameras. While they had a rifle, it was only fired once in the air to frighten off a bull moose who was preparing to charge. At one point they battled through a snowstorm that became a true blizzard.

They turned the edited footage into the basis for a lecture series, a popular method used by nature photographers to recover costs and fund future expeditions, as well as educate an audience about the wonders of nature. Their portrait and other photographic work in their studio helped pay expenses, as well.

In 1940, the Milottes opened another photo studio in Fairbanks, Alaska. This new location offered even more photo opportunities from the dancing lights of the Aurora Borealis to the majesty of Mt. McKinley. They took thousands of pictures that inspired oil paintings done by Alfred when he later retired.

Their work has been featured in magazines the world over, including National Geographic, Reader's Digest, Life, Vogue, Newsweek, and countless others.

The Milottes lectured and showed films on Alaska for many years, until Walt Disney happened to see some of their work and they ended up spending roughly 11 years as independent producers supplying footage for the Disney True-Life Adventures documentary theatrical series. They won six Academy Awards while working for Walt Disney: Alaskan Eskimo, Beaver Valley, Bear Country, Nature's Half Acre, Water Birds, and, of course, their first foray into the world of Disney, Seal Island.

For Disney, they also filmed in Florida, Africa and Australia. They retired from motion pictures in 1959 and spent their last years as tree farmers.

They died less than a week apart. Elma Milotte died April 19, 1989 at the couple's home near Tacoma, Washington. She was 81. Her husband, who was ill and lived in a nursing home in Gig Harbor, Washington, died five days later. He was 84. They had no children.

The Milotte Scholarship Fund continues to offer a grant each year: "To individuals who share their enthusiasm for exploring, chronicling and spreading the magnificence of the wilderness through artistic communication."

In the Pacific Spectator magazine (Winter, 1950), director and writer for the True-Life Adventures, James Algar, echoing Walt's same beliefs, said:

"[That the series was] based on the premise that information can be entertainment if interestingly presented…Too many so-called education films fall under the supervision of people who know their subject thoroughly but their medium very little.

"They remind us in the film business of some of the technical advisers assigned to (the Disney Studio) training films during the war. A technical expert usually loves his subject…So he makes a film which takes for granted that you are interested and want to learn.

"And, sadly enough, the thing turns out dull and fails of its purpose. One of the first lessons of film making in the entertainment field is this: you must win your audience. All entertainers know this, instinctively. And it is a discipline that can well be carried over into the teaching film of the future. It is in this respect, perhaps, that Seal Island offers something new."

Here is a treasure from my collection that appears no where else on the Internet.

From NATURE Magazine (Vol. 42, No. 6) June-July 1949 in an article titled "Disney: Finds the Fur Seals" by Herman Quick. Quick talked personally with Walt about the ground-breaking first True-Life Adventures film and here are Walt's direct quotes from that article:

"The entire footage of seal, and neighbor animal and bird life on the Pribilof Island of St. Paul is motion picture camera film made directly from the animals in the natural state and behavior. The only cartoon animation in the picture is a brief section of map to show the seal migration through the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea.

"This makes for better understanding of the herd life during the period ashore. It is an organized and extended candid camera visit on and about the island, designed to please general audiences, as well as those especially interested in Nature. Frankly, we at the studios are enormously pleased with current audience reactions to our off-the-beaten-path wildlife spectacle.

"Seal Island allows no monkeying with Nature, no humorous anthropomorphic indulgings, either in context or treatment. Mickey and Donald are taking care of that in our regular fantasy department. The purpose of the 'True-Lifers' in theater entertainment is to show wildlife—whenever animal life is the subject—in its natural state, undirected, unrehearsed, completely objective.

"Our cameras are now roaming the world for suitable subjects, both animal and human. To meet the picture requirements of our editorial policy, the only gilding of the lily that we are permitting ourselves—if you care to call it that—will consist of editing the natural footage so as to pack the material into a three-reel format that runs along in sequence, and with a sense of suspense and climatic action.

"The Alaska fur seals, I may add, slid into this pattern without a struggle. They're Nature's own actors, you know. And the same applies to our second short feature about the life of the beaver which we've tentatively called 'An Adventure in Nature'. [NOTE: It was actually released in 1950 as Beaver Valley and won an Academy Award for Best Short Subject.]

"The Fish and Wildlife Service, and other government agencies operating in the Pribilofs, gave us every assistance in filming and correctly documenting Seal Island. And they have, incidentally, done a magnificent job of helping to restore the once depleted rookeries. Without their present and past work, our film would have been impossible.

"Although the narration in Seal Island is based upon careful research, it does, to a slight extent, playfully compare some of the seal behavior to human antic; but this is not done with any sense of distortion of the animal activities. Whatever parallel is implied merely notes the resemblance of all vertebrates in their basic concerns with food and sex and survival.

"Naturally, the motion picture shots of the seals in their summer home have to do largely with birthing and the development of the young. It is the story of a place where 3,000,000 seals congregate to perpetuate their species. It is a show of Nature's patient and persistent, and occasionally feverish, efforts to conserve and multiply her creations.

"Our picture completely eliminates all phases of sealing that invoke the killing of animals, and the handling and marketing of seal furs. Such scenes are in no way appropriate for general theater audiences. This point—let me insist—must be made perfectly clear!"

The True-Life Adventures films, beginning with Seal Island, drew criticism from naturalists that Walt didn't merely document the activity of animals as had been the tradition in the past but through editing manipulated the narrative.

Winston Hibler, who wrote the narration with James Algar for Seal Island, admitted that the narration had been written first and that then images were located from miles of footage to match the narration.

Seals, for the most part, look alike to the average person so the episode of the lost pup was actually shots of several different pups filling in for the same "character." However, the basic story of a lost seal pup trying to find its mother was not only true but something that happened frequently.

The pups were not placed in certain positions or prompted to move in a direction or perform some other activity. However, Disney with its cinematographic tricks of a multitude of camera angles, close-ups, cuts and more did enhance and edit the situation for the greatest theatrical impact.

Seal Island was a new experience for theater audiences who had never seen such a "real" animal film that included a very violent (and unstaged) struggle between the older male seals and the younger pups for mates. Today, even with its focus just on seals, it continues to fascinate.