Walt Disney and his company produced a lot of entertainment by the early 1960’s. They’ve created great animation from the short to the major motion picture. Even mixing live action with animation as in the Alice Comedies.
Once Walt and his crew got an industry wide domination of animation they started branching out into the world of live action with movies such as Treasure Island and The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men. Song of the South came out in 1946 and was another mix of live action and animation. Next, with television taking baby steps, the Disney company started strong with The Mickey Mouse Club and Zorro. And then of course Disneyland. What we don’t usually think about though are those incredible windows to the world of wildlife we saw in the Disney True Life Adventure Series.
The True Life Adventure movies were shorts and features of animals in their natural habitats from around the world. In today’s world with all of the documentaries we watch about wildlife on any number of channels on TV, its hard to believe that only 60 or 70 years ago not too many people had ever seen an African Lion in it’s natural habitat, or a Polar Bear on an Iceberg. Back in the day with the exception of a newsreels from RKO or Pathe’, viewing animals was restricted to the zoos or books. I can still remember in the early 70’s watching some of these movies on the reel to reel projectors in school. The opening credits over that spinning globe always got me excited and never failed to leed me to a great adventure. The best things about almost every one of these films was that there was always a story behind all of that raw wildlife footage. Whether it was true commentary on what was occurring on screen as in Seal Island or the deep storyline of Perri about a squirrel learning to get along in the woods. Another great feature in these movies is the use of animation. Any time a map was needed or a transition made or a point to be made, animation was close at hand.
In total there were 14 True Life Adventures. Beginning in 1948 with Seal Island, they were released in order as follows: In Beaver Valley (1950), Nature’s Half Acre (1951), The Olympic Elk (1952), Water Birds (1952), Bear Country (1953), Prowlers of the Everglades (1953), The Living Desert (1953), The Vanishing Prairie (1954), The African Lion (1955), Secrets of Life (1956), Perri (1957), White Wilderness (1958), and Jungle Cat (1960). They were very well received by the public. More so by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences otherwise known as the Oscars people thought so also. The above films in aqua won Academy awards. Quite a haul!
From the way the movies look, as you watch them, you would imagine that there must have been a big crew of producers and photographers to get to these far locations to get this great video. Well there, you’d be wrong. For the most part with few exceptions, a lot of the video gathered for these wonderful movies had been gathered by about 15 men and women working independently but with the Disney Company to create these great masterpieces. It’s cool to see that 5 of the people mentioned most in Cinematography credits are two couples and Lloyd Beebe. Should be three couples as in Lloyd’s wife Catherine did a lot to help him out. The other two couples were the Milotte’s, Alfred and Elma, and the Crisler’s, Lois and Herb. For this post, we’re going to discuss the photographer and animal handler that worked on a large collection of these movies, Llyod Beebe. I had the privilege to work on a transcription of a large interview he gave in 1985.
Lloyd was born in 1916 and spent most of his life in the north west corner of the country. He was a huntsman, guide and sometimes farmer. What he really liked were animals. And this love of animals started out very young:
QUESTION: Could you tell me how you happened to have a cougar in the first place?
BEEBE: Well, ever since I was a kid I always had a house and of course once in a while you get kittens and I’d take home and play with a raise him up until he got to eat too much if there were 3 or 4 of them, and then there was always the zoo that wanted them, you know, so when they grew up a lot of times I would let the zoos have them, but I was always spending all my time … I guess there wasn’t a month went by that I didn’t find something.
QUESTION: How was it that you happened to like to be out in the woods?
BEEBE: Well I was born and raised in the woods I guess, my father was a logger and western Washington was woods everywhere at that time and everywhere I ever lived I guess it was woods all around our house, and so that’s where you play when you’re a kid, and you head out the river and your mother says don’t go over and play but kids do that you know, and that’s what I did, and just gradually loved the woods, everyone did at that time. Lots of times there’d be squirrels, I’d find them in a nest and bring them home, and raise them, and turn them loose in the yard, and….fence around the place.
He worked on his own or sometimes with a team. He’s had such roles as photographer, producer and writer. In addition to the True Life Adventures he also worked on a lot of other Disney films that had animals. Did you know that there was a movie he worked on called The Incredible Journey in 1963? A story of a cat and two dogs going cross country to find their owner. If it sounds familiar, it was remade with Michael J Fox in 1993. All good movies truly are remakes. His job took him all over the world from one pole to the other and most places in-between. For the most part in the True Life Adventure footage, Lloyd would shoot footage that would then be sent to the Studios in California. The Story Guys would then take that raw footage and create a story around it, at least at first. As the process continued, stories began to originate from the studios for what the photographers needed to get. There are a lot of great stories about how sometimes things Luckily just worked out.
QUESTION: Do you remember the specific problems that you had getting footage on the Vanishing Prairie?
BEEBE: Only, there was another photographer with me, he was a better photographer, I guess he’d been in their business for a while. And so a lot of that if we didn’t need 2 cameras or I wasn’t needed to handle an animal or something, I would be working with the animals and they weren’t friendly at all. They’d do things you know, and we had all kind of things, climbing trees like almost finding a fawn which was the longest scene. There was this scene of a cougar who walked all the way around the fawn, and it was 33 seconds long, it was the longest scene we’d ever done, I guess, the fawn was asleep in the middle of the… the cougar was walking around him close, and then away and missed him and didn’t see him. That was the kind of worrisome thing, because I had to go ahead of him because he didn’t like me particularly, he put up with me he knew I wasn’t gonna bother him, I had to kind of almost lead him with a piece of meat around the fawn and still be ready to save the fawn. So that was probably the most worrisome thing we did, but it all turned out just right.
Lloyd was also asked about how to treat animals as you raise them. His answer is a great answer as it was intended for bears, cougars or tigers, but does fit well for large dog breeds.
QUESTION: You mentioned you start thinking early on how you handle an animal.
BEEBE: Yeah, I do because if you play with an animal rough him up and a little, he’s gonna do the same thing when he grows up, and then he’s gonna be as big as you are and you can’t handle him, so you got to get rough back, and you end up in a bad relationship. You have to let him know you love him and pet him and do all those things, but don’t urge him to play and roughhouse, because if you do that someday you’re gonna have to stop him and animals are stubborn when they want to play like a cat, that’s what they love to do more than anything. If he grow up playing with you, he’s not gonna quit it when he gets older, and at that time it’s your problem, you either don’t go around him anymore, or you aren’t friends anymore, one or the other, you have to stop that somehow, so the only way you can be friendly all his life is to respect each other a little. If you don’t play with him when he’s little, he won’t play with you when he’s grown up, and so then you can be friends all his life, otherwise you’ve got to punish him or do something, and then he won’t like you anymore So you got to start out trying to make him the way you’d like him to be when he’s grown up.
When asked about Walt, Lloyd’s wife Catherine told a couple great stories.
CATHERINE: Well we had a bunch of executives from the studio come up and they arrived a little early one day and I was having spaghetti for lunch for the men because I fed the crew. So they came in and ate it too. And after the dinner, why one of the men came in and asked me if I didn’t realize that you just don’t feed important people spaghetti for lunch and I said, “Maybe you don’t, but I do”. So then he wanted to know what I was going to feed them for dinner and I just couldn’t help myself. I looked at the table and there was some spaghetti left, so I said, “Oh, we’ll finish the spaghetti.” So then he came in real early to look around and see what I was going to have for dinner, which I had planned to have steaks all the time but he had to find them first. So it’s kind of a little trick I pulled.
QUESTION: Did he ask you what you were gonna…
CATHERINE: Yeah and I said spaghetti, ’cause we got some left, but I had planned all the time to have steaks, so then he came in early that night and started looking through the refrigerator, in the bedrooms and everywhere else to see if I had anything else that I was gonna give him. But I had them well hid, but I had steaks.
Walt and Roy would visit Lloyd up in Washington state. The Disney Company Executives refused to let the brothers fly together in case of the worst event. While working with the Disney Company Lloyd created and opened the Olympic Game farm. A description from their current website:
Olympic Game Farm worked exclusively for Walt Disney Studios for 28 years, filming here at the farm and on the Olympic Peninsula, as well as on many different set locations. A few popular titles produced with our past animal actors, are “Charlie the Lonesome Cougar”, “The Incredible Journey”, “White Wilderness” and “Grizzly Adams” television and movie series. In 2012, we had used our black bear “Kitty” and wolf “Brutus” in “Serenity Farms”. In winter of 2013 we used “Kitty” once again in a National Geographic documentary on black bear in the city. Summer of 2014, “Leland” a black tail deer was used in the filming of “Captain Fantastic” as well as Olympic Game Farm used as a filming location for a scene.
From 1972 until today it is open to the public to take your car and drive around the grounds. Check out their website for a lot of great information and history. Now to the sad and touching part of the story. Lloyd Beebe passed away on Jan. 6 2011 and his wife Catherine followed him on Jan. 8, 2011. The Olympic Game Farm is being run by their son and family to this very day. The True Life Adventure series is available with the Walt Disney Legacy Collection, check them out.