Uncovering New Material
By Matt Gavin
As an Associate Producer for Sarah Colt Productions, my job changes day to day. One day I might be traveling with our Director to an interview shoot and helping our Cinematographer set up lights and camera equipment. Another day I might be scouring books for facts that will be crafted into narration lines. On Walt Disney, much of my time was dedicated to the enormous task of finding the archival footage that would bring Walt Disney's story to life.
Our production team understood early on that we would feature Walt Disney’s animations, films and television programs – a vibrant visual patchwork of his life’s work. We also knew we would rely on behind-the-scenes documentary evidence, ideally, like most American Experience producers, by going beyond the familiar footage and photographs already known to the public. Tracking down rare or never-before-seen footage for such a world-famous figure meant detective work and persistence. And it meant accessing not only the vast Disney Company collections but also the personal photos and home movies of Walt Disney’s friends and colleagues – such as Art Babbitt.
Babbitt was at one time one of Disney’s closest colleagues, regarded as one of the top animators at the studio, and credited with creating the character Goofy. He later became a key figure during the animators’ strike in 1941 – a pivotal moment in Disney’s biography.
I learned that Art Babbitt had documented the day-to-day goings-on inside Disney Studios with his personal 16mm camera, and was thrilled to discover that the Academy Film Archive in Los Angeles held a copy of his films. The material was a documentary filmmaker’s dream: behind-the-scenes shots of animators at the Hyperion Studio in the 1930s, employees playing volleyball on the studio lot, Walt Disney fraternizing with his staffers at a dance party, and more.
The problem? The only copy was a dusty VHS tape. I needed to find a better copy...VHS simply doesn’t look good enough on high definition television. I set out to find the original film reels.
I started by contacting Jake S. Friedman, who is writing a biography of Art Babbitt, and he recommended reaching out to Art’s widow, Barbara Perry Babbitt. During a phone call, Barbara invited me to join her for tea at her home during my upcoming trip to Los Angeles to perform research at the Walt Disney Studio Archives.
The day of my visit, I parked on the street outside of Barbara’s home, and proceeded to the front door though a small wooden gate surrounded by plants and shrubbery. I rang the doorbell, feeling nervous about how our meeting might go, but was immediately put at ease as a woman in her nineties with a warm smile greeted me. During our time together, Barbara exuded a lively spirit, and proved to be quite the storyteller and host – she shared personal anecdotes about her time with Art, and graciously allowed me to go through a collection of his photographs. She even showed me his old animation desk! The wealth of archival material in her home was staggering, and it became clear that she was not quite sure where the old film reels might be within it. Our afternoon meeting was coming to a close, and the search could have taken hours. I departed from Barbara’s place with some great photographs, but no further information about the lost 16mm films.
When I told Jake about my visit, he noted that he would be staying with Barbara the following month while in LA for a Disney historians conference. Given that Jake had much more experience navigating through Babbitt’s collection in Barbara’s home, I asked if he might be able to dedicate some time to looking for the reels. Jake agreed to help with my search, and once again, my hopes for finding the material were raised.
A few hours into his search, Jake found a collection of film canisters tucked away in a drawer in a room under the staircase, which Barbara used for storage. There was no way for him to watch the reels without a projector, but their labels were promising: “STUDIO SNAPSHOTS”...“DANCE AT BARNEY OLDFIELDS”…
This recently re-discovered footage of Walt Disney and colleagues at a party was shot by Art Babbitt, regarded as one of the top animators at Walt Disney Studios in the 1930s and '40s. Decades later, associate producer Matt Gavin tracked down the footage through Babbitt's widow, Barbara Perry Babbitt, for use in American Experience's "Walt Disney" documentary.
The next step was to transfer the reels to high definition video files at a post-production facility – allowing us to finally know once and for all if our efforts had paid off. It took some convincing for Barbara to agree to let the material out of her sight. The films are very precious to her, and we needed to persuade her that the reels would be handled safely, and returned in good condition.
After a month of back-and-forth with her and Jake, we scheduled a transfer with a reputable company in the Los Angeles area. To further ease Barbara’s concerns, we enlisted the help of a trusted production assistant Alex Dolce who we had previously worked with in California. The plan was for Alex to transport the films to the post-production facility, and then promptly return the reels to Barbara once the transfer was complete. It had taken nearly two months of coordination, but everything finally seemed to be coming together.
We anxiously awaited the delivery of the drive containing the files, and upon its arrival at our office, I immediately plugged it into my computer and our team gathered around my screen. We were overjoyed to see the shots that we had so hoped to find playing right before our eyes in high definition. We saw images of Walt joking and laughing, staff members socializing on the Hyperion Studio lot, and Art Babbitt himself seated at his desk animating – in color! It had taken months of digging, but the archival hunt proved successful, and we couldn’t wait to work with the material in the edit room.
It just goes to show that some of the most valuable treasures are not always in plain sight. Films can be misplaced and go missing for years, and archival research takes detective work, persistence and time. By asking the right people the right questions (and being dogged in your search) some truly amazing material can be uncovered!
Matt Gavin joined Sarah Colt Productions as the associate producer on Walt Disney. He began his documentary career as an intern with The Film Posse, a Boston-based production company, where he went on to work as a production assistant on The Fabric of the Cosmos: The Illusion of Time for NOVA, and as an associate producer on Silicon Valley for American Experience. He previously spent some time in Los Angeles, where he worked in the vault at Arcade Edit, a post-production house specializing in commercials and music videos. He graduated from Boston College with a degree in Sociology.