I am known as a story analyst and consultant but I am also a produced screenwriter. True, my screenwriting output has been modest. I can claim a “screenplay by” credit on only one produced feature film, the 1996 animated feature JESTER TILL, or as it was known in Germany, TILL EULENSPIEGEL. And I have a credit of “additional story material by” on THE LION KING, shared with about twenty other people.
But that’s not quite the whole picture. I have another writing achievement in the world of feature animation.
I wrote the screenplay for Disney’s 1961 classic ONE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS.
Hold on a minute there, buster, you animation buffs are saying. The record shows that veteran Disney animator Bill Peet gets sole “story” credit for adapting the novel by Dodie Smith.
Chris Vogler’s name appears nowhere in the credits. How is it possible that I could have written the screenplay for a Disney cartoon feature released in 1961, at which time I was a 12-year-old living in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri? Was I a child prodigy? Or did the modern-day Vogler get into the WABAC machine with Mr. Peabody and time-travel to 1961 to deliver the script?
It was neither childhood precocity nor time travel and yet, I must insist, I wrote the screenplay for 101 Dalmatians, even though my name does not appear on the movie or in the record books.
This is how it came about. In 1994 I was employed by Disney as a story analyst and researcher. I had worked my way over ten years into a dream job, where I was paid to research subjects of great interest to me, topics like current trends in comic books and children’s literature or the movie potential of fairy tales and legends from world culture. I had won the reputation of being able to respond quickly to densely detailed assignments and was often tapped for the inevitable emergencies that arise in the story department.
One day I got an urgent memo from a Disney executive saying the studio was undertaking a new effort to make live action feature films from some of Disney’s classic animated features. They had decided to start with One Hundred and One Dalmatians.
According to the corporate brainstorm, it should be relatively easy to develop live action versions of the animated features, using the script of the animated film as a first draft. Just stroll over to the animation department file room, make a copy of the screenplay, and hand it to the live action screenwriters as their first draft. Much of the heavy lifting of plotting, characterization and dialogue was already done. It could save months or years of costly development.
Good idea, but there was bad news from the animation archivists. They reported that there were no screenplays in existence for the classic animated features, because in those days, they didn’t write screenplays.
The technique of creating full screenplays for animated features didn’t come into vogue until the 1990s when Jeffrey Katzenberg took an interest in running Disney Feature Animation. Until then, the animated features had been created from short outlines and storyboards, using hand-drawn images to lay out the sequences and actions of the proposed film. In Walt Disney’s time, and in the decades since his death, no one ever bothered to write down all the visuals and dialogue in screenplay form. The story existed in the form of the story boards, but mainly it lived in the collective minds of the animation team.
Writing credits for animated features in Walt Disney’s day were rarely if ever expressed in terms of “screenplay by”. Typically credit was given for creating the story with terms such as “story adaptation” (Snow White, Pinocchio), “screen story by” and “story development” (Dumbo), or just “Story” (Cinderella, The Sword in the Stone). Credit was usually shared among eight or ten animators, except in a few cases such as One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Sword in the Stone, where Bill Peet got the high honor of sole writing credit in the form of “Story by”.
In the case of 101 Dalmatians, the closest thing in the archives to a screenplay was a highly technical document called a “continuity” which was simply a list of the lines of dialogue along with precise notes on timing and movement for the animation camera department. There was also Bill Peet’s original outline adapting the novel, something that we would call today a “treatment”. But there was no screenplay, with shot-by-shot descriptions of characters and their actions interspersed with dialogue.
So the studio turned to me. Create a screenplay, they said. Here is a videotape copy of the animated film, here is the continuity with all the dialogue, here is Bill Peet’s outline. From these materials, we would like you to create a document in screenplay format, accurately reflecting the finished film.
And we’d like you to do it in three days.
So I put myself in a small room with a VCR and a typewriter and reverse-engineered a screenplay, describing the movie shot-by-shot and inserting the appropriate dialogue.
It was largely a technical exercise, with only a small amount of creativity required to bring some life to the shot descriptions. I was not making up any of the actions or dialogue, I was not creating the humor and suspense. And yet I felt the pride of authorship, for where there was no screenplay before, there was now a screenplay.
I turned in the script, my script, on Monday morning. I made a case that it should be treated as a special kind of authorship, and that in addition to my story analyst time for doing the work, it should be submitted for consideration of getting me into the Writers Guild so I could secure all the good stuff that comes with it. But no dice, said my supervisors in the story department. No way would the studio ever pay a penny over the union hourly rate. I was already making a small fortune in overtime, they pointed out.
The best I could do was to insist that they put my name on the script in some form. We agreed to “Screenplay assembled by Chris Vogler” and that’s how it went into the studio archives.
But still I can say I wrote the screenplay for 101 Dalmatians. It’s a teeny tiny footnote (just a toe-note really) in animation history, but I thought you might find it interesting as an example of the oddball assignments that sometimes come along for story analysts and consultants in the movie biz. It takes nothing away from the brilliance and warm humor of Bill Peet, or the artistry of directors Clyde Geronimi, Wolfgang Reitherman and Hamilton Luske and the rest of the talented Disney team. “Assembling” a screenplay from their work, which I had so admired and enjoyed when I saw the movie in 1961, only gave me a greater appreciation of their amazing talents.