Spring 2024 / Quest

Hyperion

by Heather M. Surls

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Three-year-old Adam dips a stainless-steel measuring cup in bubbly water. He sits in a 15-gallon plastic container, set in the shower, solemnly pouring a glistening waterfall over Mater, his toy car. I sit on the bathroom floor beside the makeshift tub, watching my son douse the goofy, snaggle-toothed tow truck from Disney-Pixar’s Cars.

As I watch Adam soak Mater again and again, a story my grandpa, Papa, told me about his father drifts to mind. Papa remembered his dad, Polish immigrant Joseph Gayek, leaning over the edge of his tub, swirling the water with his hand and observing the drips and ripples closely. He had to memorize the movement so he could transfer it to paper.

Water is the most basic of substances, yet it’s incredibly elusive: colorless, formless, and rarely still. How would an animator in the 1930s, armed with only paper and a lead pencil, convincingly represent this wild, wet, and continually morphing element in two-dimensional form? My mind boggles as I consider the shimmering water and the man who was once consumed by the disparity between what he saw, what he imagined, and what he could capture on paper.

~~

Black and white portrait of a man in glasses holding a magazine with beagle puppies on the cover, with a price sticker reading seven cents.

The author’s great-grandfather, Joseph Gayek, poses proudly with a copy of Women’s Day Magazine, the cover of which displays a couple of the beagles he’d raised. Photo courtesy of Heather M. Surls.

Over the years, I’ve often shared that my great-grandfather worked for Walt Disney Studios. After this brief fact, though, my knowledge of him stagnated. An IMDb entry provided the faintest sketch of Joseph Gayek’s life: Born in 1905 in Warsaw, died in 1964 in Los Angeles; credits as an animator and special effects animator on early Disney movies, including Fantasia, Pinocchio, Bambi, and multiple Mickey shorts.

In the summer of 2023, wanting to learn more and spurred by Disney Studios’ upcoming centennial, I bought a 10-hour version of Fantasia. Naïvely, I had assumed that pre-digital animation was all pencils and paper, the drawing of exalted flipbooks. But, in unexpected hours of bonus features, the art of hand-drawn animation unfolded before me.

In a black-and-white scene, an animator at Disney’s Hyperion Studio in Los Angeles lit a match to watch how fire ignites and burns. In another clip, a cluster of crouched artists dropped a boulder into a tub of water to observe the splash, getting soaked in the process. Others threw baseballs at windows and then reviewed the film in slow motion.

How does glass break? they seemed to ask themselves. What does shattering look like? How can we draw it?

I examined the animators’ focused faces, which resembled those of scientists immersed in laboratory research, discovering through experimentation. They were primarily white men of European descent, wearing slacks and collared shirts. I hoped to spot my great-grandfather (whom I call Grandpa, like my mom and her brothers do). I felt confident I’d recognize him from the caricatured self-portraits one of my uncles had shared with me: short, with glasses and a biggish nose, nut-brown hair parted on the side.

I didn’t find Grandpa in the featurettes, but I gaped at the world exploding before me. I marveled at the notebook of Herman Schultheis, a German immigrant who meticulously recorded the special effects created for Fantasia. With captions in neat, capital letters, pasted-in photographs, and precisely drawn charts, his scrapbook reveals how early special effects created Fantasia’s dramatic, pageant-like melding of art, music, and story.

There were the twirling, geometric snowflakes in Fantasia’s “Nutcracker Suite,” for example, which reminded me of the digitally rendered snowflakes in Frozen: After creating individual, lacy flakes, animators painstakingly cut them out with scissors and mounted them on gears on a small track, obscuring the gears with velvet fabric. Then, while someone turned a crank to spin the flakes, cameramen filmed them from above. Combining the film sequence with Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s music, Fantasia’s creators evoked the wonder and glittering magic of winter’s first snowstorm.

~~

I tumbled down the tunnels of Joseph’s artistic pursuits like so many rabbit holes in Alice in Wonderland.

It’s February 1905 in a city within Russian-ruled Polish lands. Troubled orchestral music permeates the scene. Lower- and middle-class Europeans hurry to work while czarist guards patrol streets with Old World architecture. A baby is born under curdled, snowy skies. Immediately after the birth, his mother and father don’t make eye contact. They name their son Joseph.

In the next sequence, the mother carries her bundled baby on a walk to the bakery. Along the way, a Russian soldier harasses her. He lifts his boot and offers it to her, suggesting she lick it. She flinches, lowers her face into Joseph’s blanket, and ducks away.

With softening music, the scene pans out to a ship approaching Ellis Island, New York. The young family stands on the deck, hoping to glimpse the Statue of Liberty. A second man hovers behind them.

I was startled out of the imagined scene playing in my head to see my uncle Jon on a video call, narrating my maternal family history. After settling in Chicago, the Polish immigrants reshuffled, he said: When Joseph’s biological father discovered his wife having an affair with the man from the ship, he shot at him with a pistol and wound up in jail. The young lovers married, and young Joseph’s last name was changed to match his new father’s. Joseph Gayek.

I listened wide-eyed. Already this Zoom conversation with my mom, Susan, and my uncles Jon and Brian, about their grandfather seemed promising; I’d certainly never heard these details of my family history. Like an amateur historian, Jon elaborated on the meager facts I’d gleaned about Joseph from the internet, referring to a security clearance form he filled out in 1959.

Looking at the typed answers on my screen, I can almost hear Grandpa clacking on the typewriter keys, the ding and whiz at the end of each line:

Elementary school: Chicago.

High school: Detroit.

One year at Western Reserve University in Cleveland. (No field of study mentioned. Art, we surmise?)

From Cleveland to Tucson, University of Arizona. (Again, no major mentioned.)

1932: Married Faye Lockhart, traveled to Mexico for “honeymoon and painting.”

1933: My grandfather, Richard Gayek, was born.

~~

As children in southern California, my sisters and I munched fresh, chewy bagels our grandfather had bought from our favorite bakery. Morning sun poured in through the French doors. Papa sat with us at the dining table, his thick silver hair parted and combed to one side just like his father’s. With stories of pranks he played as a U.S. Navy medic and then as a veterinarian, he elicited giggles from us little girls wrapped in our quilted robes.

After breakfast, we dove into a drawer holding Beauty & the Beast coloring books. To this day, the smell of crayons evokes Papa and Grammy’s living room, where I laid on the carpet, coloring Belle in her blue village dress and yellow ball gown.

I know the glow of creative fire, the impulse to transfer imagination’s fireworks to paper. 

I was only dimly aware of it then, but all around my great-grandfather, Joseph Gayek, whispered: from the woven basket in the hallway, which he brought from an Indigenous American tribe in the Southwest; from the framed picture in the dining room of a loom, which he’d painted; from the filing cabinet of VHS Disney films in the closet. Even our hours of coloring followed in his footsteps. Crayons were invented in 1903; perhaps, as a child in Chicago, Joseph had a box of his own. What did he draw in the days before TV, Tamagotchis, and Polly Pockets?

As I gripped crayons, filling outlines with pigment and paraffin wax, my developing brain engaged. Under Papa and Grammy’s roof, I made my initial forays into artistic expression. Like most kids, imagination was latent within me; only time would tell how I’d choose to cultivate my creativity as a tween, teen, and adult. Would I, like my great-grandfather, nurture the germ of art inside me, coaxing it into hobby and vocation?

As a girl, I was hardly aware that my great-grandfather helped create some of the movies I enjoyed after a good coloring session. Snuggled into Grammy’s recliner, I was simply, innocently swept into animated worlds created by others’ minds and hands, submerged in their imaginations.

A young girl with a red bow in her hair, sitting in a yellow teacup at Disneyland.

The author as a young child, pictured on the Teacups ride in Fantasyland at Disneyland Resort. Photo courtesy of Heather M. Surls.

~~

From 1934 to 1937, hundreds of men and women worked day and night in Disney’s original Hyperion Studio to create the studio’s first full-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Animators — many of whom were previously trained as newspaper cartoonists and advertisers — sat at slanted desks lit from below to draw each frame on paper. Some had stripped down to their undershirts. Occasionally, an artist lifted his face to a mirror to check the facial expression he was drawing. A layer of cigarette smoke hung near the ceiling.

After animators completed their frame-by-frame pencil drawings, these were photographed individually. This film was developed and viewed with a simple projection machine so animators could check the smoothness of motion. Then their still-colorless artwork moved to the inking department, where “hundreds of pretty girls” (the literal wording from a 1938 video) in an air-conditioned building transferred each pencil drawing to celluloids — clear, plastic transparencies known as cels.

For Snow White, 250,000 cels were inked. These were then advanced to the paint department, where chemists had developed 1,500 colors using undisclosed formulas. More women applied these colors to each cel, using tiny paintbrushes to achieve the required detail. Finally, each cel was photographed on top of a watercolor background, then synced with voices, sound effects, and music, and recorded with precise timing.

The resulting film — comprised of half a million exposures — is still considered by the American Film Institute to be the greatest animated feature of all time. When I study Grandpa’s work history, I find that he and Faye moved to the Los Angeles area at the tail-end of the Depression. In 1937, the final year of Snow White’s production, Joseph Gayek began his first stint as an animator at Disney.

A black and white photo of two men — one seated and smiling at the camera, holding a pen and a drawing of a rooster in a vest, the other posing with his arms bend and a cigar in his mouth.

Animators working for Disney’s Hyperion Studio in the 1930s smile for the camera with a drawing of one of the crows from Disney’s 1941 film, Dumbo. The crows’ caricaturization of Black people, which employed racist stereotypes, regardless of the intentions of the artists, serves as a reminder of how Disney’s works reflect both the positive and negative aspects of United States culture. Photo: Walt Disney Productions / Alamy.

~~

When I rewatch Fantasia, released in 1940, I feel like I am viewing a portfolio for Disney’s future. In every one of the film’s eight scenes, I glimpse characters or animated effects that I recognize from the movies I grew up watching. 

Blue luminescence in “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” a non-narrative scene experimenting with color and light, resembles the glow surrounding the three fairies in Sleeping Beauty. Iridescent bubbles in “The Nutcracker Suite” bring to mind those floating around Cinderella as she scrubs floors. And in the profoundly peaceful “Ave Maria,” cloaked figures carry rose-colored lights as they walk among slender, misty trees — a scene evoked 70 years later in the floating lanterns of Tangled, Disney’s 2010 retelling of Rapunzel.

The elements of invention, observation, and experimentation in Fantasia are unbelievable. To help them draw frolicking hippos, elephants, and crocodiles, animators watched a costumed dancer and requested specific poses from her. They injected a vat of gloppy mud with air from submerged hoses and studied the outcome, preparing to draw sequences of volcanic activity. The artists watched and sketched, watched and sketched. One even used a stopwatch to time how long it took for rising bubbles to explode.

The animators’ focused faces … resembled those of scientists immersed in laboratory research, discovering through experimentation.

Animator Frank Thomas described the trial and error involved in Fantasia’s filming. “Twenty times [the art] had to be threaded up and run through the machine,” he said. “And you didn’t have any computer to make [the timing] exactly the same each time — you had little pencil marks … and you had to be absolutely accurate or you had nothing.”

The film’s final scene — which runs for 217 feet of film and moves meditatively through forests of leafy trees — required three filming attempts of several days each. A multiplane video camera moved along a studio-wide track through artwork painted on glass panes and mounted on movable stands. On the first shoot, videographers installed the wrong lens on the camera; during the second, an earthquake jostled the equipment.

Disney’s employees completed the third filming and syncing with audio just four hours before Fantasia’s premiere.

~~

Hank Tucker, who’s worked in film and TV animation since 1974, admitted that often, his job is like anyone else’s: He works to get a paycheck. Sometimes the work is not fulfilling or inspiring, and shows can be downright nightmares. But he also spoke of the invention and experimentation involved in Disney’s early years with respect and admiration.

“People would leave the studios they were at and take less money to go work for Walt because Walt was doing something new,” Hank told me.

He talked about my great-grandpa like he knew him, even shortening his name to Joe. Hank’s worked in animation more than a decade longer than I’ve been alive — for companies like Warner Brothers, Disney, and Fox — and yet he and his peers still consider early Disney artists “animation royalty.”

I asked Hank about “Little April Shower,” a scene from Bambi that we know Grandpa worked on as a special effects animator. In the scene, rain begins to patter on plants, one pearly drop at a time. A hooting clarinet accentuates each splatter. Water pools and collects on leaves, slowly, until they tilt and spill over, and orchestral and choral music swells as small streams ripple along on the ground. A field mouse darts to find cover under a mushroom. A pheasant hurries along with wings spread over her chicks. From within a thicket, a fawn watches the gathering storm in wonder.

“The elements seem alive, they seem personable,” Hank said, describing the water, wind, and light in this hand-drawn scene. “That was the great thing about the effects animators. It wasn’t just about, ‘Okay, this is how a rock falls, or this how fire burns something.’ That’s kind of academic. What the effects artists had to do was make it feel like it was part of the movie and that it was directed. Like the fire has an agenda.”

An animation still of Bambi at the edge of a sparkling creek amidst raindrops.

In the iconic “Little April Shower” scene from Disney’s animated film Bambi, released in 1942, the young deer witnesses his first rainfall. Photo: Walt Disney Productions / Alamy.

My great-grandpa was able to animate at this level; otherwise, Disney wouldn’t have hired him, Hank told me. Otherwise, Walt Disney himself would not have visited Joseph’s La Crescenta home to convince him to return to the studios after he quit in November 1941.

~~

When Walt came calling, he came with a bribe, Mom said: storybooks for Richard, who was eight years old when his father left the animation rooms at Disney.

In the fall of 2023, I sat with these books, both enclosed in big, resealable plastic bags. Before he died several years ago, Papa told Mom the antique storybooks would go to David, my older son and his first great-grandchild. They are his inheritance from a great-great-grandfather he never knew.

I pulled Disney’s version of Pinocchio from its bag. Published by Random House in 1939, its blue cloth spine was disintegrating. I opened the book gingerly, and my breath was taken for a moment.

There was the frontispiece, signed by Walt Disney himself. His cursive looked just like the whimsical, looping font that sprays across the castle at the beginning of every Disney film. Mom, Jon, and Brian hadn’t known exactly when Walt visited Joseph with this gift — but certainly after he quit in 1941 and before he returned in 1948.

Naïvely, I had assumed that pre-digital animation was all pencils and paper.

The months leading up to Grandpa’s quitting were volatile ones. World War II was not kind to Disney Studios. The international market for animated entertainment collapsed, and Walt’s burgeoning dreams were stymied for a time, his employees devoting most of their efforts to creating patriotic propaganda films for the U.S. government. In addition, several months before the U.S. joined the war in December 1941, around half of the studio’s 1,200 employees picketed for unionization and fair wages.

“There was no rhyme or reason as to the way the guys were paid,” said then-Disney animator Willis Pyle. “You might be sitting next to a guy doing the same thing as you and you might be getting $20 a week more or less than him.”

Rightful credit was also a huge issue; for example, Bambi’s original credits list only 57 names, including musical credits. Chinese-American Tyrus Wong, whose work inspired and set the standard for Bambi’s dream-like backgrounds, was simply named with the rest of the backgrounds artists. Big names like Walt Disney and Ward Kimball swallowed those of minor artists — the hundreds of in-betweeners, inkers, and painters. Brian recounted how irritated Papa remained about credit even after his father’s death — indicating perhaps that Joseph vented his frustrations to his young son at home.

“All those buildings full of artists having to produce one cel at a time — lots of people didn’t get credited,” Brian said. “It’s probably only through excited animation researchers that Grandpa’s name is even on any database now.”

I set Pinocchio down and reached for the second storybook, Bambi. Still images from the film and simple sketches of forest creatures accompany the text, based on a novel written in 1923.

Even though Bambi was still in production — though Grandpa had helped create the raindrops in one of Disney’s most famous scenes — he and many of Disney’s employees quit after the strike’s conclusion. They spread to other film studios in the Los Angeles area; Grandpa spent four months at MGM Studios, four years at Screen Gems (now owned by Sony), and three months at Jerry Fairbanks Studios.

By the end of 1950, his career took a decided turn from cartoon animation to more technical — and classified — work. Employed as a technical illustrator for companies like Librascope, North American Aviation, and Douglas Aircraft, he likely drew operation manuals for aircraft, perhaps some of those used in the Korean War.

I wonder if he missed the imagination and color involved in producing animated cartoons, the childlike attention and wonder the job demanded. To me, drawing military planes sounds dull in comparison. And though Walt did succeed in bringing my great-grandfather back to Disney, Joseph only stayed for two short stints between 1948 and 1950.

I wonder if he felt a sense of disappointment in his career path, a sense of loss.

~~

For several weeks after my conversation with Mom and her brothers, I tumbled down the tunnels of Joseph’s artistic pursuits like so many rabbit holes in Alice in Wonderland. Initially, I was surprised that Grandpa had worked for Disney for only six years. But learning about the rest of his career added depth to his portrait. He wasn’t just an extension of Disney, as my childhood self would have believed. 

I watched two of Grandpa’s digitally preserved 16-mm films. The first, Indian Country, produced in 1962, features wide shots of desert and shows Grandpa’s love for the Indigenous American tribes of the Southwest, where he had met my great-grandmother while she was working as an RN on an Arizona reservation. The other, Sir Dennis of Westwood from 1956, tells the story of a prize-winning canine from southern California and reveals my grandfather’s passion for raising beagles. “Gayek has passed the screen test as photographer, writer, sound editor and producer — all in one,” an undated Glendale News-Press article raves about the film, shot during a dog show in a shady park.

Seemingly, whatever Joseph did, he did well. Mom said Papa called him a perfectionist. “Probably as an artist, he had to be that way,” she said thoughtfully. “I remember your grandfather telling me once it was hard because things had to be done a certain way. When you’re drawing perfect raindrops, you see things in a perfect way.”

“You had to be absolutely accurate or you had nothing.”

I think of Grandpa pulling his fingers through his young son’s bathwater, and I wonder: How many baths did Papa get with a present-yet-distracted father? I think back to watching my own son Adam in the bath and how often I am distracted by my inner artistic fire. 

Many days, while driving David to school, exercising in our neighborhood, or people-watching in a coffee shop, my brain is writing — often to the point of distraction. Sometimes, Adam notices my focus drifting from the toy cars and blocks on the rug beneath us. “Mommy!” he shouts. “Play!” Already, he can recognize his mother’s wandering mind.

Perhaps this is Grandpa’s legacy in me, my intangible inheritance: a mind that must capture the world in its perfect images or exhaust itself trying.

~~

I’m not sure if Grandpa lived long enough to see all his dreams come true. At age 59, he died of complications from scarlet fever, leaving Faye a widow. 

After Grandpa’s death, Faye asked a young Jon to help with some chores. In the crawl space beneath his grandparents’ cedar-paneled house, which Joseph had designed and built, Jon found gobs of animation cels.

“I asked Daddy and Grandma, ‘What am I going to do with these things?’” Jon told us.

Their response was brief, astonishing to me: “Throw ‘em away.”

Brian, Mom, and I let out a collective groan.

“We could have been millionaires,” Mom joked. (Hank later told me an original Disney cel can fetch $24,000.)

“So they all got thrown away?” I asked.

“I don’t remember saving any,” Jon replied.

~~

In late November 2023, my 10-year-old son David and I went to see Wish, Disney’s 62nd full-length animated feature. Throughout the movie, we whispered about the combination of hand-drawn and computer-generated animation used in the 100th-anniversary film.

The backgrounds were soft, dreamy — most definitely water-colored. Every few minutes, I spotted throwbacks to past movies: the poisoned apple near the evil Magnifico’s cauldron was from Snow White; Magnifico’s staff resembles those of Jafar from Aladdin and Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. As Star, the interactive “wishing star” of previous Disney films, whirled around the protagonist in the final scene, I was convinced her dress would turn into a glittering ball gown, just like Cinderella’s.

I was simply, innocently swept into animated worlds created by others’ minds and hands, submerged in their imaginations.

When I climbed into bed that night, I wondered, What was Grandpa’s wish? What was the glow in his bones that kept him dreaming? My own wish, to capture through writing the pain and the suffering, the grace and the glory in the world around me, has become one of my life’s guiding stars. Certainly, Grandpa did not live long enough to see all his dreams come true, but he did see many of them come to life on screen, cel by cel.

~~

After Jon told us he couldn’t remember saving any of the celluloids found under Grandpa’s house, Brian retreated from the camera. A few minutes later, he returned with a pile of artwork. We all leaned in as he held a single animation cel before his computer’s camera.

One was saved — chipped paint waltzing in a void.

Without a background behind the clear celluloid, the three painted figures looked a bit strange. But still, I recognized Pinocchio, Honest John the fox, and Gideon the cat. With the image on my screen now, I can imagine the background of a cobblestoned village street. I can hear the characters singing and see them dancing. The terror of Pinocchio’s prodigal journey, followed by the shimmering calm of his transformation from wooden puppet to “real boy,” whoosh over me like I’m a child again.

A celluloid showing Pinocchio, Honest John the fox, and Gideon the cat.

Early Disney films were comprised of hundreds of thousands of celluloids, each encapsulating a single pencil drawing from one of the studio’s animators. After Joseph Gayek’s death, “gobs” of celluloids from the films he helped animate were discarded — all except this one, from the 1940 film Pinocchio. Photo courtesy of Heather M. Surls.

~~

Brian shared other digitized artwork with me — comic strips, caricatures, watercolor paintings of the Southwestern desert. 

Are these what Grandpa’s wishes looked like in his mind’s eye? I wonder. How close was he able to imitate them with pen and ink? How many times did he erase or throw away his work as he inched toward imagination’s ideal?

I know the glow of creative fire, the impulse to transfer imagination’s fireworks to paper. So often, the words I write are just faint glimmers of the shooting stars in my head. So many days, I deal with the disappointment of not being able to make that transmission perfectly. How can I enable people to see what I see?

Grandpa would understand the challenge. Sketched before me now, he’s a sympathetic branch of the family tree. He would understand how this afternoon, I left a pot of raw milk on the stovetop to pasteurize and forgot about it. He’d get why it took an hour before I left my writing to sprint to the kitchen, the smell of burning milk hitting my nose.

After submerging the pot in my sink’s cold water, I watched the milk’s surface twitching, a web of protein chains clicking together. Suddenly, Grandpa was standing beside me. Grinning, he looked down at the water in the sink, the milk in the pot, and his mind, like mine, started working.

We’re in the animation studio together, conducting an experiment.

You write, I’ll draw, he says.

Heather M. Surls

From her adopted home in Amman, Jordan, Heather writes about Middle Eastern culture, refugees, and spirituality, while raising two energetic boys and enjoying friendships with women from Palestine, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq.

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