Roy Disney: Back to Real Life - "Morning Light"

Roy Disney: "Morning Light"

Here’s a little known fact about Roy E. Disney.

After graduating from college, the son of Roy O. Disney and nephew of Walt didn’t start at the family concern. First, he actually did some time under Jack Webb, as an assistant editor on Webb’s hit TV series Dragnet.

In fact, the younger Disney didn’t join the MouseWorks until 1954, where he was gainfully employed again as an assistant editor…on Disney’s then burgeoning documentary division.

“Yeah,” the now Director Emeritus of Disney remembers. “I started as a film editor and wound up doing a little bit of everything over a number of years. It is a lot of fun. I spent 20-plus years working on nature documentaries. Then I spent 15 more working on the feature animation films.

“You know my problem with animation is I can’t draw. That makes it a very restrictive problem. But one thing I learned through it all is filmmaking is filmmaking is filmmaking, so I always felt at home whether it was the documentaries or the features. Each is just its own form of storytelling.”

Not that this Disney hasn’t made his mark, both as a documentarian and for Disney’s animation department. In 1967, shortly after Uncle Walt’s death, he would eventually join the board of directors at his family’s company. He would become instrumental in many of the more experimental films of the early 80s, including Tron and Black Cauldron. Roy E. Disney also was instrumental in the hiring of Michael Eisner, and together they were key to the whole animation industry renaissance. From there, he most undoubtedly had a hand in Eisner’s dismissal, and the current placement of key execs CEO Dick Cook, TV boss Robert Iger, key creator John Lasseter and Steve Jobs; which in turn put new life into the venerable studio.

Heck, he even recently produced the animated short “The Little Match Girl,” which garnered him another Oscar nomination.

But that isn’t what Disney flew all the way down to Miami for. He was there to promote his return to the documentary, Morning Star.

You see, Disney has another passion besides his family’s concern, and that’s yacht racing. Somehow he has managed to eke enough spare time to have become a record-setting and multiple cups winning sailor.

“My dad was in the Navy during World War I,” Disney said. “Since that, he always had an affinity for the water. Still, neither my dad nor my uncle sailed that much. I got into it because I was a bit of a romantic. I wanted to sail to Hawaii. It was the most romantic thing I could imagine. Hawaii is a beautiful state and the sunsets along the way are absolutely gorgeous.”

And, as it happens, every two years there’s a yacht race that goes from the California coast to Hawaii. It’s called the Transpac, and Morning Light is about one team, which he admittedly assembled, who participated in the competition. As anyone who sees the film will soon find out, this is a much more rough and tumble, if not out-and-out grueling competition when compared to the better known America’s Cup.

“We wanted to introduce a lot of people to this business of off-shore sailing,” says Disney. “People don’t get to see it because we are way outside of land. They don’t see what we do. Probably the biggest difference is the Transpac goes across an ocean while the Americas Cup takes place in protected waters around land. The Americas Cup is also only during the daytime. Everybody goes home at night.”

Opening on October 17, the film shows that this sport is no old man’s game, neither on the boat nor off. While watching the film it will readily become evident that there’s hardly a person over 30 on the yacht’s crew, and when they finish the race, the wear and tear left them clearly exhausted.

What you don’t see is the amount of work that went on around the boat either. Disney was smart enough to hire fellow producer Leslie Demeuse, an ESPN veteran, to handle the mechanics of the filming. He also hired Tom Pollack, another sailing veteran, to direct.

“I’ve covered a lot of projects like this,’ says Demeuse. “Yacht racing is one of my company’s specialties. The difference is covering this way out in the ocean with no land in sight. It literally triples your production budget. It’s not just the flying around either. It’s also the salty air and water effects the cameras and other equipment. We ended up using a chase boat, a helicopter and a camera boat. All in all, we used five cameras on board; three fixed and two rotated.”

Disney also acknowledges his experience as a film editor, documentaries in particular, played an important role in the production.

“Enormously,” he said. “Putting a boat together, obviously, is like putting together any kind of athletic team together. You need people who can do specific jobs. But you also need to make sure that all of them understand what’s at stake. They have to operate as a unit. Like a lot of things in life, it involves more than one person. The true documentary has no script or plot. You don’t have a story until you shoot all the film. It’s only then you can figure out what it can be made into.”

As for the future of Disney itself? The last week of September, Cook MC’d a presentation of the company’s new projects at Hollywood’s Kodak Theater. At that time, he officially announced there will be a second Cars movie as well as a bunch of shorts featuring the same characters called “Car Toons.” It also sounds like the studio has locked up Johnny Depp for the indefinite future, as he will voice the Mad Hatter in Tim Burton’s stop motion epic Alice In Wonderland, confirmed he will be back as Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates 4 and will star as Tonto in an upcoming film based on The Lone Ranger.

“We do those several times a year because we feel it’s important to tell the public who we are and what we do,” says Disney. “Here I am (again) doing documentaries. The truth is the company has grown so much over the years since I started there, we’ve got to be very diverse in many ways. Still, what matters is we’re still in the same business we’ve always been, just bigger, and maybe, hopefully, a little better.”

And if the reaction to a pre-screening of Morning Light is any indicator, the Disney documentary division is off to a good start.

Morning Light hits theaters nationwide on October 17th. The story of how those 15 made the team is captured in a one-hour special "Morning Light: Making the Cut," airing on ESPN2 Oct. 8-9, 2008. The special is slated to air during primetime on the East Coast on Wednesday, Oct. 8 at 8 p.m. ET (7 p.m. CT, 6 p.m. MT, 5 p.m. PT and 2 p.m. in Hawaii). It airs during primetime on the West Coast Thursday, Oct. 9 at 9 p.m. PT (6 p.m. Hawaii, 10 p.m. MT, 11 p.m. CT and midnight 10/10 ET). The program will also air across a variety of ESPN International networks, including Australia, Africa, Middle East, Israel, Caribbean and Canada.

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