In Their Own Words: The People Who Worked on the True-Life Adventures

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Noted historian and author Didier Ghez has finished his monograph about The Origins of the True-Life Adventures the first volume of a five-part series about Disney's wildlife documentaries.

Didier's commitment to accuracy is well-known and the world of Disney history has been enriched by his own books, as well as the ones he has helped shepherd to print, like the Walt's People series. I am honored to count him as a friend and I know how difficult it is to do research on many Disney history topics.

Sometimes when you are involved with researching Disney history, you stumble across something that you have no clue what it is or why it was produced. I recently obtained for my collection a 16-page pamphlet, copyrighted 1952, that simply states "The Story of Walt Disney's True-Life Adventure Series from Walt Disney Studios Burbank, California."

It is composed of half page summaries of eight True-Life Adventure films (some forthcoming at the time) and several short essays by people who were involved in the making of the films. There are two pages devoted to photos and identification of the photographers who filmed the series.

At first, I thought it might be something intended for use in schools and then considered that it might just be a fancier publicity publication for the media but there is an entire page devoted to how wildlife cinematographers can submit their films to the Disney studio. It is very detailed in terms of how subject matter should be covered and how the actual film should be handled.

I've certainly never heard of this pamphlet before and stumbled across it by chance since I wasn't looking for it or anything on the True-Life Adventures series. It is illustrated by black-and-white drawings with highlights of orange.

In the past, under the pseudonym Wade Sampson, I wrote about the True-Life Adventures series and I wrote about it under my own name for the Walt Disney Family Museum, as well

In my past research, I have never run across these essays, so I have transcribed them to share here so that this information can be more widely available for researchers on the subject.

Especially as I get older, I hate having to try to read an image of a document from a magazine or a newspaper (perhaps because of my early years as a researcher where I had to maneuver through microfiche in libraries). I much prefer reading it as regular text and think some of you do as well.

Disney created 13 True-Life Adventure films, eight of which won awards.

In case the names of the people who wrote the essays are not immediately familiar even though they are all now official Disney Legends, here is a quick reminder of their Disney connection.

James Algar was a director and writer on many of the True-Life Adventure films as well as writing and producing Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln for Disneyland. Paul Smith wrote scores for Disney animated features and roughly 70 animated shorts as well as most of the True-Life Adventure films. Ben Sharpsteen was a production supervisor or associate producer on most of the True-Life Adventure films as well as animating and directing many Disney animated shorts.


By Walt Disney

"All the world's a stage and all the men and women in it are merely players." – Shakespeare

When the Bard of Avon wrote these oft-quoted words from As You Like It, he might have added, "and so also are the birds, animals, the insets and the flowers of the universe."

For the development of our True-Life Adventure series, we have found that nature not only offers to the motion picture camera the world's most fascinating thespians, but also provides a stage extending from the equatorial to the Polar Regions.

No less than with humans we have discovered the drama, the emotions, the humor and the perpetual struggle for existence which goes on in the little known world of primal nature. In a personal way, we have been initiated into a sphere where God's master plan for the existence of this planet is dramatically enacted every second of the day.

We have been refreshed and stimulated by this series of pictures and have been encouraged by the reception accorded them by audiences on all levels to project our production plans years ahead. Scientists, naturalists and educators have been very kind to us in their comment on the series.

In the beginning, we sought with the True-Life Adventures to create something new in screen entertainment. That they combined education with entertainment was a natural development.

Thus far these pictures have been limited strictly to the entertainment realm. It is our hope and our objective, however, eventually to make them available in the non-theatrical field.

To my staff and all the scientists and naturalists whose cinematographic skill has helped us create the standards of the True-Life Adventure series, as well as to the officials of our National Parks and Fish and Wild Life Services, I wish to express my sincere appreciation. To the exhibitors and audiences who are responsible for their widespread distribution, my deep thanks.

Triumph of Patience Over Nature

By James Algar, Director

Basically, Walt Disney's True-Life Adventures are stories of nature's creatures and their behavior, recorded by the motion picture camera in dramatic but completely authentic continuity.

They are photographed in color in the native habitat of the animals, birds, insects, amphibians and all manner of living things which comprise the subjects of the series.

Each picture is a film adventure "off the beaten path". Each adventure brings a phase of living nature to the motion picture screen. The camera records are made by eminent naturalists and expert wildlife cinematographers, collaborating with Walt. Every subject is thoroughly researched for accuracy and appraised for its entertainment and information value.

Another way of defining a True-Life Adventure is to call it a triumph of patience over nature's unpredictable time-table. The patience of the cameraman, that is, who must wait in some remote ambush for days, and oft times weeks on end, to capture what he is reasonably sure will take place in that vicinity some time during the seasonal cycle of the animal he is stalking.

To begin with, Walt Disney gave as a cue for production guidance to his studio associates and for cameramen in the field, the admonition that "no condescending attitude" was to be taken toward nature. Creatures were to be viewed not as "dumb animals" but as "our friends, the wise animals".

This was a big stride away from the usual patronizing, amused attitude in picturing wild life in entertainment films. It characterized the True-Life series from the initial issue, Seal Island.

All evidence of human beings is carefully left out. Man's relationship to his lesser neighbors is never indicated. It is not permitted to disturb the completely detached inspection of animal and bird life in its free state. Animals are not even aware that they are being photographed. Hence, their behavior is dictated only by their own nature, in scenes never before shown in this kind of dramatic continuity.

In our narration, we are very careful not to spoof the audience nor to share some facetious aside to get forced laughs. There is enough natural clowning in nature's wondrous scheme – clowning caught in many of our True-Life incidents – to leaven the more sober concerns of living and survival without having to resort to tricky narration.

Perhaps the real essence of a True-Life Adventure is to be found in the fact that the wonders of nature are truly wonderful and its actual facts as fantastic as any artful contrivance.

Unlike most movies, these are not tailored to a screenplay. They can't be. Animals in the wilds do not hold still to have their portraits made. They behave as the urge of the moment prompts.

We define the story outline and theme we expect to get with thorough research on a particular subject. Then the cameraman's instructions are simply to cover the broad subject as thoroughly as he can, fortified by knowledge of how the bird or animal species is likely to behave, by infinite patience and by being at the right place at the right time.

Alfred G. Milotte, who photographed Beaver Valley, for instance, and his wife, Elma lived in a trailer beside a beaver pond from early May until well after snow flew in November. Later they spent nine months in the Florida Everglades country.

Herb Crisler, who photographed The Olympic Elk, and his wife, Lois, spent more than two years gathering that camera record. The elk habitat in western Washington is as rugged as any land in America. Not even pack horses could be taken into the back country of the Olympics, so all of the Crislers' equipment had to be carried on their own backpacks.

Food for their mountain caches was dropped by helicopter and consisted of the most frugal rations. They were days travel from even the nearest outgoing trails, high in the craggy solitudes.

The Crislers adventure in following and photographing the elk herd indicates the kind of stern living and hardships often endured by wildlife cameramen and women to record the drama and life cycles which are the very essentials of the nature series.

And, of course, there is always the very present element of danger, too, if not from frightened or angry animals, at least from misstep on alpine slope, slippery trails, and streams to be forded with the handicap of heavy camera luggage.

Originally the material is shot on 16mm film. For our final production, it is transferred to 35mm Technicolor film. On some of our subjects the cameraman may shoot 50,000 feet of 16mm film. This is the equivalent of 125,000 feet of 35mm film. Out of that total we must select a relatively few thousand feet for the final production. And that's where the director enters the picture.

The director's part in these films is rather unorthodox. Quite obviously you cannot "direct" the workings of nature. You cannot order birds and field mice around in the fashion that you might actors. The director's job is to get an interesting story about some phase of nature onto the screen. His task is that of interpretation – of editing, narrating, and dramatizing until the essential true story is presented in the most convincing manner.

One of the reasons we do not send a shooting script out with the cameraman is the fact that we hope he will capture those unexpected and unpredictable happenings that cannot possibly be written into such a story ahead of time. These are the little episodes that even naturalists may see only once in a lifetime and which become highlights of a Disney True-Life Adventure.

In approaching the problem of story telling, once we have the basic footage, we use the same technique to be found in the Disney cartoons. We look for personality, and we do this for a reason. If audiences can identify themselves with the seeming personality of an animal, they can sympathize with it and understand its problems better.

For example, the beaver who was the central figure of Beaver Valley was portrayed as a cautious, plodding, conscientious, hard-working fellow who never stopped worrying. He was a good provider. He was not unlike some people we all know, and his problems not unlike our own.

The story of most of nature's creatures is, in some form, this story of survival. The very art of editing is to sharpen and highlight and dramatize this story. But we do not distort or fake nature. We remain always within the realm of truth.

The True-Life Adventure films have won acclaim for their educational content. They are a good reflection of Walt Disney's personal philosophy of education.

It is his belief that information can and must be made entertaining to be effective. Entertainment doesn't need to mean, always, making people laugh. You may be said to entertain people if you interest them in something, especially if you do it in a provocative and stimulating way.

This, in essence, is the whole technique of the True-Life Adventure, a film that for very practical, economic reasons, is designed from the beginning to be entertaining, since at this stage it must pay its way in motion picture theaters.

However, this doesn't lessen the educational worth of these authentic nature studies.

They are, in effect, reliable records on film of natural science subjects and wildlife which many educational authorities already have envisaged and enthusiastically proposed as valuable visual aids to school instruction by book and lecture.

Role of Music

By Paul Smith, Composer

Music plays an unusual part in the True-Life Adventures.

Always an indispensable entertainment element in the Walt Disney productions, its application to the wildlife series calls for an entirely new approach.

The instrumental score must have the same "factual" appeal to the ear that the color cameras bring to the eye in nature's living spectacle or bird, animal, insect and all creation in action. This may sound obscure and it is indeed hard to define specifically.

First of all, the composer has to ponder the basic questions: What is the music of nature? What equivalents are there in our musical structure for all the murmurings and outcries of creatures in the primitive concerns of living and survival? How can the very spirit of visible nature be melodically summed up and orchestrated?

For the kind of factual informative entertainment which Disney puts into his True-Life Adventures there was no musical precedent. Music libraries have no ready-made formula. It has to be created. And it has to be positive and eloquent in its own right, as well as complementary.

Honesty of approach is keynote.

Like the cameramen who capture nature raw and stark, beautiful and violent in courtship and battle, competition and survival, the musician-composer must of necessity also be a naturalist. To bring his part in wildlife drama to the screen, he must have some knowledge of and respect for all earth's living things in its mysterious but sublime designs.

His attitude cannot be facetious. Caricature can only rarely be used for emphasis, although the music of nature has exuberance and ecstasy and matters for laughter as well as solemnity and harshness in its rhythms and meters. A patronizing note is completely out of place.

Technically, the purpose of music in these nature pictures is to set the pace, to point up the action, as the narrative does, and to dramatize the emotional content. This requires musical skill and experience, of course. But the composer's chief concern, first and last, is to enhance the audience's delight in and reflection on the wonders of the world around him.

Plans for the Future

By Ben Sharpsteen, Associate Producer

Walt Disney's innovational True-Life Adventures are only in the first stage of the expansive plan he has for delving cinematically into many aspects of universal life and facts having some recognizable bearing on our own human concerns.

But while this long range program is tentatively shaping up, the next few years will be devoted largely to the kind of wildlife themes which thus far have identified and developed the series.

At least a dozen major photographic projects are in some stage of completion or preparation. They include Prowlers of the Everglades, Bear Country, The Prairie Story, The Desert Story, The Life of the Bee and other yet untitled sagas of bird and beast from the sub-Arctic wastes of Alaska to the jungle and river regions of central Africa.

Film records of strange and spectacular bird and animal and insect behavior continue to come to the studio from many leading American naturalist-cameramen who have collaborated with Walt. Much of this material undoubtedly will be incorporated in further adventures at the rate of two to three per year.

The Life of the Bee is one of Walt's pet projects. It has been in his mind for years, and has been carefully researched as perhaps the most important insect in the life of man since antiquity. The theme, projected through the detailed behavior and social activities of the bee, will expound the invaluable service it performs in the culture of field, orchard and garden.

As consultant on this story, Walt has secured the collaboration of Rutherford Platt, America's most popular author on botany.

The Prairie Story will weave together the lives of the inhabitants of the plains and western grasslands, from prairie dog to bison and antelope. This is the land where man and animals came most violently into contact during the early settlement of America, and where survival of the larger species was most difficult.

Although no human being has thus far been shown, or suggested, Walt has indicated that man himself may soon be the subject of contemplated True-Life explorations – man in his physical nature and scientific exploits.

But the keynote will continue to be informative entertainment addressed to the layman in easily understood terms along lines of his common interests and curiosities about the world in which he lives and its multitude of inhabitants, human and animal.