Today, the proliferation of nature and animal series programs on cable and regular TV could fill Seven Seas Lagoon. Everywhere you turn, shows like “Planet Earth”, “The Blue Planet”, “Wild Africa”, “The Life of Birds” and countless others are attracting more and more viewers. The beauty and scope of these modern “Nature Documentaries” about our planet enthrall millions. But I wonder how many viewers know that Walt Disney, the animation and storytelling genius was the first to pave the way for these nature programs we all love?
So how did Walt, who created Mickey Mouse, and produced so many beloved full-length animation feature films, become involved in live-action educational films? For you Walt Disney history buffs, you may recall that in 1922, when Walt with his struggling Laugh-O-Gram studios in Kansas City was hired by local dentist Thomas McCrum to produce a short film about the importance of proper dental care. This animated short was in black and white, and without sound, but proved so effective, it was utilized for over ten years. Walt made a sequel, Clara Cleans her teeth in 1926. This sparked young Walt’s interest in “Educational Films”.
During WWII, Walt in order to stay solvent was commissioned by the government to produce instructional films for the military, which barely kept the studio afloat. In addition, Walt always loved animals, gleaned from his short time living in Marceline Missouri. During the filming of Bambi, Walt in his quest for realism, had filmed live action footage of wild animals for the animators to study. He was captivated by the footage and began thinking how he could adapt it into a live action tale. Walt first wanted to combine live footage with animation, since filming live action was more cost efficient than animation; he just needed a platform for his story. It was then he decided to venture into the field of nature films.
It was a remark by producer Ben Sharpsteen that many returning servicemen from the war were purchasing land in Alaska, and that there might be a story into why. On August 10th, 1947 Walt’s friend Russell Havenstrite, asked him to travel to Alaska with him so he could review several business concerns he had in the territory. (Alaska was not yet a state then!) It was an opportunity for him to see Alaska first hand. During one short plane flight, the weather was so bad, the plane was in danger of crashing, but at the last minute, they broke out into clear weather and landed safety. But the beauty of this future state mesmerized Walt and he wanted its story to be told.
It was when Walt saw video footage taken by naturalists Alfred and Elma Milotte of Alaska, he asked them to garner some general footage of Alaska, at the time, he had no story yet in mind. When they returned from their shoot in 1948, they had hours and hours of film, with everything from homesteading, mining, shipping, Eskimos, and businesses. After sorting through hours of films, Disney found that most of the material was boring. Walt zeroed in on shots of large numbers of seals on Alaska’s Pribilof Islands, where the seals migrate to each year, he loved the shots and asked Elma and Alfred to concentrate on them and not show any sign of man’s presence. Walt decided to give the moniker of his new project “Seal Island” and he decided to apply the storytelling techniques he and his animators learned from their animation films and apply them to this new “Storytelling Venture”.
The result of this new project was a half-hour featurette entitled “Seal Island”, and this was the start of Disney’s “True-Life Adventures series”. This award winning series was produced from 1948 till 1960. It consisted of seven half-hour mini films and seven full-length feature films. Many of the films were given the Academy Award, together with Walt Disney’s famous 1954 wins, the record for the most wins for a single person in a year. Two of the wins were for the True-Life Adventure films; “The Living Desert” and “Bear Country”. These Adventure Series were the catalyst for the Jungle Cruise attraction.
However, when the half-hour Seal Island featurette was first presented to then Disney’s film distributor RKO Pictures, they did not think a nature documentary would be popular in theaters, they refused to release it. But Walt Disney, the quintessential man that he was, contacted his friend who ran the Pasadena’s Crown Theater to run the film for one week so it would qualify for the Oscars. Not surprisingly, it won the Best Live Action Short Subject (Two reels); now RKO Pictures was happy to distribute Seal Island and any other True-Live Adventure series to come. And RKO should have been pleased with the results…Seal Island was made at the cost of $86,000, and in its first run grossed more than $434,000. Walt second endeavor, Beaver Valley cost $102,000 and came away with a profit of $664,000.
It was Walt himself who coined the term “True-Life Adventures” from the phrase “True to Life” as he spoke in an interview with journalist Pete Martin. In another interview on December 26th, 1948, Walt Disney told newspaper columnist Hedda Hopper this…”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.”
This series, of course, was just another of the many innovations Walt had created over his lifetime. Because of him, there was now a histrionic market for nature documentaries. Walt crafted the template of how to produce and create them, including storytelling, music, humor and including anthropomorphized behavior of the animals. It was educational, but also entertaining. Walt was the first to do it, leading to the type of nature documentary that today is quite common.
Of course, despite the accolades and popularity of these documentaries, there was criticism from naturalists, stating that Walt did not record the animal activity as in the past, but did so by editing the film, the narrative and even using different animals. Winston Hibler, American screenwriter, film producer, director and narrator, wrote the narration with James Algar also a film director, producer and screenwriter for the Seal Island series. Winston admitted that the narration was scripted first, and images were placed for miles of footage to match the script.
This is what rankles the nature lovers. Seal Island is not a traditional documentary, i.e. the pictures on screen are shown in exactly the sort they happened in the wild. Director James Algar used the talents of the musicians and narrator Winston Hibler to tell a story, much the same way that they would in animation. One seal is represented for another, for example, to better fit into the narrative the filmmakers are crafting.
In an interview with the Pacific Spectator magazine, director and writer for the True-Life Adventures, James Algar aped Walt’s views on the series… “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” “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.”
Winston Hibler added… “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”.
Walt’s ground-breaking new series was a fascinating experience for movie-goers at the time. Here they say unstaged and violent disputes between male seals and younger pups for the right to mate. Even today, is endures, and still holds audiences spellbound.
And what of the Milottes? After Seal Island and Beaver Valley, they continued for the next 11 years, working independently, to supply film footage for the Disney True-Life documentary series. They garnered six Academy Awards in Disney’s employ… Alaskan Eskimo, Beaver Valley, Bear Country, Nature’s Half Acre, Water Birds, and, of course, their first incursion into the world of Disney, Seal Island.
So remember the next time you tune in your favorite nature series/documentary, the it was Walter E. Disney that, much like Mickey Mouse, “Started it all”