I had the pleasure of spending a day at the Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank last week for the press junket of Winnie the Pooh. After viewing the feature, we visited an ADR stage and several journalists volunteered to voice Piglett, which was amusing.
We moved on to witness drawing demonstration from Eric Goldberg, who was the Supervising Animator for ‘Rabbit,’ and had an opportunity to draw ourselves with Mark Henn, the Supervising Animator for ‘Winnie the Pooh’ and ‘Christopher Robin.’ Step by step as he drew Winnie the Pooh, we followed along – his and my drawings can be seen here in this article. Mine looks like Winnie the Pooh’s grandfather!
After lunch was sat down with the voice talent, including Jim Cummings who has been playing Winnie the Pooh and Tigger for many years, taking over from his idols, Sterling Holloway and Paul Winchell.
We spoke with Jim Cummings about his iconic character in a conference room, which was directly underneath the Sorcerer’s Apprentice hat, which towers over the complex.
You’ve been part of the Pooh world for 20 years. You stepped in taking over for Sterling Holloway and Paul Winchell. What kind of onus did that put on you to live up to those standards?
If I knew what onus meant, I would tell you! The first thing I always say is that you kind of have to start with the voice, because you’ve got to sound like the guy. You have to be true to it for all sorts of really good reasons, you’ve got to dance with the one that brung ya, right? Well, that’s the voice that brung ya. That’s the character.
The first thing is to literally sound like [does the voice of Winnie the Pooh] Stirling Holloway did way back when. That sort of fluttery, quaky little whimsical voice, and then from there you step into the personality.
Pooh will never be the bully, you’ve got to stay true to the character and hopefully expand it from there. It’s like a recipe. You have to follow the original recipe, but you can put a little of your own salt in there.
With Tigger, Paul Winchell, my old buddy, was great and we talked about it. He had retired prior to the end of the first couple of projects we did, and he told me that he always thought of Tigger as a kid from Brooklyn, or the lower eastside in New York, one of the Bowery Boys and a little bit of the Cowardly Lion.
I stayed to the original, and pushed it forward. I think we did a magnificent job of that in this movie.
If you look back at the original, [this movie is] everything you liked about it, the one from the sixties, and it’s a little better. We’re better at this now, all of us. It just sounds great and it looked great, so in that sense it was brought up-to-date.
Did you ever shoot a scene where Tigger and Pooh are together at one time?
Back and forth in a conversation? I used to do it on a couple of the shows, but I quit doing it that way a few years ago, because I thought I would segue and a tenth-of- a-syllable of Pooh would be left on Tigger’s first syllable. So I said, ‘We’ve got to stop that, I never want that to happen again.’
Nobody ever noticed it but me, and I’m not necessarily a perfectionist, you can tell by looking at me, in that I don’t take myself seriously, but I sure do take my work seriously, because these things live forever.
Speaking of living forever, what do you think is the secret behind the success of Pooh? Why is it enduring?
I’ve given that a lot of thought too, and the fact is there is no fad there. These stories will always be sweet, these characters will always be great, they don’t need skateboards, they’re not selling Frisbees, nothing against either of those.
Good is good, and it’s the same reason that Mark Twain still sells now. They’re not linked to any trend, kids are always going to have wonderful childhood memories to draw from, and it pulls on every heart string you have. They’re evergreen, they’ll always be there. No batteries required, just bring your heart and you’ll be happy.
Do you feel protective of Winnie?
Yes, I do feel very protective. Disney has a division called Disney Character Voices, and I think it was [the campaign] Just Say No, in the early nineties when they got all the cartoon characters that were on Saturday morning at the time, just advocating that kids don’t ever start the first drugs or cigarettes.
It wasn’t Disney writing it, they were loaning us out so to speak, and the line from Winnie the Pooh was (does it in Winnie’s voice), ‘If anybody asks you to smoke a joint…’ and I said, ‘Guys, I’m so not going to say that. No, can’t do it.’ So, yes, I do feel very protective. Pooh won’t be doing that.
Sometimes nowadays they do some of the animation together where you’re not all by yourself – do you do animation like that as well?
I like having everybody there. I like that more, I come from the theatre and it feel more like a play, and I like that, because if somebody does a little tweak on their line then you can respond to that, and it’s got that organic feel. But nowadays it’s almost never that way. Geez, I’ve sung harmonies with people who weren’t there!
Do you do anything special to protect your voice – is it insured?
Health insurance, I guess. I actually looked into that years ago. Lloyds of London said they would would do it for $500,000 a year and I said, ‘Never mind, I’ll gargle!’