The True-Life Adventures of Roy Disney

Filmmaker Roy Disney has made a career of working with animals from peregrine falcons to Mickey Mouse.

Feb 06, 2013

Roy E. Disney, nephew of Walt, has more in common with the globally recognized mogul of imagination than just the family name. Like his uncle, Roy is passionate about nature, wildlife, and making magic Disney-style. Roy started out as one of the original filmmakers of Disney's True-Life Adventures, a series of 13 Academy Award-winning nature films released between 1948 and 1960, and he's remained active in the Disney domain since. These films were released on DVD in December 2006, and Roy introduces each of the four volumes. Here, Roy talks to Scholastic's Parent & Child about the making of these movies, and why it's so important to care for the natural world.

Parent & Child: How did you first become involved in the True-Life Adventures series, and what was your role in the original production?
Roy Disney: My first job out of college was back in the Disney studios as an apprentice, and then later as an assistant film editor working on "The Living Dessert" and "The Vanishing Prairie" — the first two feature-length True-Life Adventures. I spent about a year and a half in the cutting room working on those two films, and then I went to Utah to work on a film about squirrels called Perry. Afterwards, I went back and worked as a gopher for Winston Hibler, the narrator and story man for most of the True Life Adventures. Eventually, when I was about 35, I found my way to doing them on my own.

P&C: Had you always been interested in wildlife and nature, even before you started working on the movies?
Disney: No, I sort of fell into it. I was just looking for work — I would have done anything. I got this job and, it turned out to be the kind of film I could understand. You know, working at Disney you always think you need to know how to draw, and I can't draw. But this job, working on a non-animated film, was fun. I got to be a kind of a convert to animals and nature.

P&C: So you learned a lot about nature making these films?
Disney: Yes. Making and watching these films, you gradually begin to get a worldview that's involved with nature and conservation. I think we created, in the course of making these movies, a lot of public consciousness of the natural world around them. The films are all fun and educational, every one of them. Each focuses on a new part of the world, or a new animal, or a new group of animals, and it's a new education you get to give yourself.

P&C: Which film, or which part of the series, is most meaningful to you? Why?
Disney: Well, I always say the one I made myself — Mysteries of the Deep — was the most important to me. To make a long story short, it was nominated for an Academy Award, and it should have won — I mean it!

P&C: How has the environment changed since you first made these movies?
Disney: I've noticed people's growing carelessness with the environment the most. Factories putting out smoke, people throwing stuff out of there car windows, people throwing things into the ocean because they just think it's limitless - but the environment is not limitless. We need to take better care of it than we have.

P&C: Have you personally made any conservation efforts?
Disney: Yes, I've been involved in conservation for a long time. I made a film starting in 1967 about the peregrine falcon. I didn't know it at the time we started the film, but the peregrine and some other birds were among the first victims of the DDT problem. I got involved with the Peregrine Fund, this group of people up in Boise, Idaho who were involved in the process of getting out to the nests, grabbing the eggs out from under the mother before she had a chance to crush them, and substituting fake eggs so she continued to incubate. Then they would replace the babies once they had hatched. I'm still involved with the fund. I'm on their board, and I was a chairman at one point. And I do other things. I try to practice what I preach.

P&C: If you were still making these movies today, are there any specific animals or environments you would choose to focus on?
Disney: I'd love to go back and make the peregrine movie again. I think we could really do something exciting. The peregrine falcon is capable of flying and diving at over 200 miles per hour, and I would love to find a camera that could stay with this bird and dive that fast. I actually started out to make this film in IMAX at one point and discovered that wasn't going to work - but we found a guy up in Washington State who's a Fedex pilot and a skydiver and a falconer. He jumps our of an airplane at 10,000 feet with the bird, and he falls at 120 miles an hour, more or less, straight down. He brings a lure with him, and this bird dives right along side of him. It's pretty awesome stuff. I haven't figured out a way to shoot it as well as I think we should.

P&C: Why do you think it's important for children to learn about nature?
Disney: Children need to learn about nature because they live in it, really. Even if you live in a city, you've taken it over from nature, and you need to understand the larger world that we all are in together. We're all holding hands here. It's our little marble ball floating around the sun, and we need to take care of it. The sooner young people learn that, the better, because the better they'll be as stewards of our planet. It's an easy generality to make, but it's true. That's why we made these films, to try and make people fall in love with animals. And we inspired many people over the years to find careers in ecology and animal conservation work.

P&C: Just for fun, what animals are you afraid of?
Disney: Anything from a housecat up, cat-wise. Cats make me nervous, the way they change their minds quickly. But I think if you respect any animal, you'll get a certain degree of respect back. I think that fear is the most dangerous thing you can have around animals, in general, because they know it — they know immediately that you're afraid. Of course, there are certain animals with which it doesn't matter if you're afraid or not, you're in trouble. But you've got to respect them all and treat them well, and they generally will be ok.

P&C: And who is your favorite Disney animal character?
Disney: Well I am most strongly connected to Mickey Mouse, obviously, because he and I are cousins. We go way back. He's a year and a half older than I am, but he looks better than I do, of course.

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