13. Hamilton Luske

When you’re an animator you’ll be a lot better if you have the skill of analyzing.  Analyze how your character thinks, moves, and feels. Also try to analyze real life people and situations, which will only help you give a more believable and sincere performance on paper (or on the computer.) When the Disney animators began to do this as well as using strong acting and technical skills the animation in the films became so good that they feel more believable and “real” than sometimes even real people and situations themselves.  As to who really was the eye-opener to this potential in the art form I’ll use this quote animation historian Michael Barrier said in his book Hollywood Cartoons: “As Disney and his animators had probably realized by the late 20s, anticipation and follow-through can clarify what a character is doing by pointing forward to it and back at it. In the early 30s, though, they began using these tools to serve a much larger purpose: by compressing a character’s actions and emphasizing anticipation and follow-through instead; a director and his animators couldn’t just clarify those actions, they could also enlarge their scope. Ham Luske was the first to demonstrate fully the potential of this kind of animation.” And it is Luske who is number 13 on our countdown and the subject of today’s post.

Ham Luske is one of the greatest analytical animators of all time and was one of a kind at creating effective procedures that everyone could follow.  “Ham always seemed to have a procedure with a step-by-step approach,” wrote Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston in their book the Illusion of Life. “However his animation was not mechanical in any way and was full of life as well as feeling of character. Ham couldn’t start a scene until he had the whole thing visualized.” He used caricature in his drawings but he stayed true to the lessons he learned from observing and analyzing real life as well as worked hard to do his scenes in the way that worked best for the picture. “There must be some way to exaggerate this pose” was a phrase Ham constantly said and one that’s intent is seen throughout his work.  On top of this Luske is very significant in that he was the very first supervising animator in Disney history and was the main animator on the first protagonist in a Disney film, Snow White (I know that’s kind of a controversial statement to some animation fans but it’s true.  I’ll address and compare the differences between the contributions Ham and that “other guy” later on in the post.)  After Snow White he would go on to become a big-time director of Disney animated films for over 2 decades.

Hamilton Luske was born on October 16, 1903 in Chicago, Illinois but he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in California sometime when he was in the younger years of his life although not much has been written about his life before he became a young adult.  He is unique in that not only was he one of the few animators at that time to have a college education but is the only honoree on this list that went to college that didn’t go to an art school.  Luske attended the University of California- Berkley where he majored in business.  However after graduating he began to make a living as a newspaper cartoonist in Oakland, where he worked throughout the 1920s.  Coincidentally one of the people who he crossed paths with at this time was Milt Kahl, who he would later bring to the Disney studio and also would become one of the greatest animators of all time.  Although Ham had little to no experience with life drawing at this time his newspaper drawings certainly showed a lot of personality and analytical thinking.  Soon however it was the Great Depression and work for a commercial cartoonist was few and far between no matter how good you were.  Fortunately at the same time the Disney Studio was looking for artists to work on their shorts, which were rapidly becoming better both in success and quality.  Not surprisingly Luske took the opportunity to apply for a job and was hired in April 1931.

Ham Luske had no prior experience or training in character animation so he quickly learned his craft at the studio and was mentored into going “the Disney way.”  He started out as an assistant but advanced rapidly to the point where he was a full-on animator by the fall of 1932. First Ham started animating on the black and white Mickey Mouse shorts being made at that time but soon moved up to animating on the wildly popular Silly Symphony series, which was made up of color cartoons structured around music.  Among his first assignments were animating the Sandman in Lullaby Land and animating a majority of the Piper in the Pied Piper.  Looking at his career in retrospective his early work isn’t very impressive and when you freeze-frame these scenes or look at them in motion there is sometimes a feeling of awkwardness in the motion and in the acting.  Perhaps Ham’s biggest “failure” in his animation career is that of the animation he did of Persephone in the realist short the Goddess of Spring. Along with Les Clark he tried very hard to animate the realistic-looking girl, modeled after Clark’s sister Marcel,  and were able to get the realism into the drawing but fell severely short at animating her in a way that would make audiences accept her as believable. “I apologized to Walt about it and he kind of sloughed it off and said, ‘I guess we could do better next time,’” said Les Clark many years later in an interview. “And I think the reason it didn’t come off, the character wasn’t designed to be animated. To me, the key to character animation is the design quality of the figure that you can use. I had a hard time with the figure, not that I didn’t know how to draw it but to animate it. I’m sure Walt was thinking of Snow White. Although he didn’t tell me that I assumed later because Snow White herself was designed so that she could be animated.” However Luske was at the same time showing seeds for his potential and his colleagues were soon noticing his excellent analyzing skills.  “Ham was studying animation all the time- it was his whole life,” remembered Eric Larson, who before becoming an all-time great animator in his own right was mentored by Luske and worked as his assistant. “One weekend we were on the deck of the Catalina steamer with out wives. All the sudden Ham pulled off his tie and held it out in the wind. ‘Look, Eric! Look at the overlap. See how the end keeps going down after the center part starts up.’ Every time we played golf it was the same thing. ‘Now watch close. See the follow-through on my putter.’” Others remembered him tirelessly observing and studying at the life drawing and action analysis classes taught at the studio by Don Graham and recalled him trying real hard to analyze the figure as well as how it feels and moves.

Soon, however, Ham Luske’s hard work and effort would pay off.  One of his first true successes was the animation of two penguins falling in love in Peculiar Penguins(1934.) The movements of the birds begin to show the great skill Ham had at caricaturing movement but doing so in a realistic, believable way. It also shows his strength in exaggerating poses and animating with an effective use of analytical thinking.  A year later Luske would animate on the short that proved to be his biggest breakthrough yet: the Tortoise in the Hare (1935), directed by the great Wilfred Jackson who was known for his attention to detail and ability to “plus” the quality in a sequence or short.  In the film he animated almost all of the egotistical and obnoxious Max Hare in everything except for the run at the beginning of the race and the sprint to the finish line.  This animation really shows masterful, believable movement that completely communicates the character, his personality, and intentions.  “The awkwardness of so much of his earlier animation, of the Pied Piper and the Grasshopper, is nowhere evident in his animation of the Hare,” wrote Michael Barrier.  “What Luske shows the Hare doing is clearly impossible but he makes it seem possibly by brining to his animation what he had observed of athletic action and what he knew from his experience on the playing field. As the Hare prepares to run, or skids to a halt, or plays tennis with himself, he moves with the authority of realistic movement; but the exaggerated patter of anticipation and follow-through, and the Hare’s speed itself, are not realistic at all. Luske’s analytical bent- his concern with how things really moved- thus eased audience acceptance of what might otherwise have seemed as tiresomely farfetched as the old impossible things that Disney had banished.”  Another great aid to the animation turned out to be the storyboards and writing done by the great Bill Cottrell, who did a brilliant job at making the characterization of the Hare rich and clear.  “Ham played a lot of tennis, so when he was give the chance to animate Max Hare in the tennis sequence in the Tortoise and the Hare, he knew exactly what to do,” said Eric Larson of his work on the film. “Ham Luske was opening the door to a new refined approach in which everything one has is put into the first test,” praised Thomas and Johnston of the animator.  “This required an uninterrupted continuity of thought. It may take days to do the scene but you must not lose the thread, change your mind, or lose your confidence- you have to be sure. Ham had to struggle with his drawing but he had a natural feeling for animation, story, and for what was entertaining.”

Again in 1935 Ham Luske animated almost all of a character that helped influence Disney animation forever. This time the film was Who Killed Cock Robin and the character was Jenny Wren. Based off of the storyboards and designs done by now-writing partners Bill Cottrell and Joe Grant (Grant was an absolutely excellent caricaturist in a Los Angeles newspaper before going to work at Disney) Jenny Wren was a bird that was heavily caricatured after movie star and sex symbol Mae West.  In the film Ham absolutely nailed making the bird not only have the essence of Mae West but also move, act, and behave in a way that really felt like her.  West herself even wrote the studio a letter praising Disney for the outstanding job they did at caricaturing her.  What makes Jenny Wren unique is that alongside being an outstanding caricature she really feels sexy and has brilliant characterization as well as acting that support it.  Personally Who Killed Cock Robin is probably my favorite of the Silly Symphony Cartoons and the one that I feel has the best combination of story, design, production quality, and most of all cartoon acting, a lot of the blame going towards the amazing performance Luske put on paper.  One of his last major assignments animating in shorts was to animate the vast majority of two characters, Elmer and Tilly the Tiger, in the short Elmer Elephant (1936).  Again Ham demonstrated his excellent technique and analyzation skills in this film.  Freeze frame the scene where the shy Elmer is constantly pulling up his trunk. The movement wouldn’t necessarily happen in real life but it feels very real and believable. Tilly also is a success for Luske and his performance on that character shows a great amount of sincerity and heart.

In December 1935 Ham Luske made history by being chosen by Walt Disney to be the first animator put on the production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first animated feature in American history.  He was to supervise the animation of Snow White herself, making him the first supervising animator in Disney history.  “Ham’s expertise was evident, especially to Walt, where it mattered most, and it was thus into his lap Snow White, the most plum of all assignments fell,” wrote David Johnson. “Ham was the only other animator who could draw let alone animate a believable girl,” praised Grim Natwick. Even when working in shorts Luske was great at supervising people and many of his assistants went on to become great animators including Larson and Kahl as well as Ward Kimball.  “Ham Luske moved up quite fast,” recalled director Wilfred Jackson. “He was one of the first guys I remember who had more than just an assistant- promising young guys he would hand out little scenes to. One of the first guys who had a crew to supervise. Then on Snow White he took complete charge- the girls, the animals. If you were directing the sequence with the girl you didn’t have to direct the girl because ham did it. He knew the way it was supposed to be done. He shot most of the live-action on it too. He came up very fast and he showed his ability to organize and put things together.” However Snow White was a most difficult assignment and when he began to start animating the character he really struggled and his pencil tests didn’t turn out so well.  Things got even more intense when another animator animating on Snow white began to really clash with Luske on not only the design of her but on her personality, characterization, and how she should be approached. The animator was Grim Natwick. Natwick was significantly older than most people at the Disney studio (he was in his mid 40s in a studio dominated by people in their 20s and early 30s) who had extensive art training and had worked in animation for decades before being hired by the Disney studio in late 1934.  He was a “technique-draftsman” animator and one who was very sophisticated both artistically and personally.  While Ham saw the heroine as a gentle, sweet and innocent 12-year old girl with cartoony proportions Grim saw her as a much more mature, sexually aware young woman drawn with realistic anatomy and movement. For example in some of the rough drawings remaining done by the later animator we see a woman who is aware of the fact that she’s beautiful and that her looks get her more as well as an awareness that she is being sexually-desired in a way that is discouraging.  However two main things kept Natwick down despite having the better draftsman abilities: he was, whether he acknowledged it or not, working for Ham Luske and the characterization he had for the girl was completely contradictory to the one Walt wanted.  Walt didn’t want sex, egotism, and other superficial values and matters to have even the slightest imprint in his film: he wanted an innocent girl and a story that put a lot of weight to the love that the animals and especially the dwarfs felt for her.  However Grim refused to cooperate and that, along with the suspicion Luske felt for old animators from the east like Natwick, lead to a huge tension between the two men.  “By the summer of 1936 tensions between the two men were running about as high as the infamous September weather in Los Angeles,” Marc Davis told David Johnson.  Many people today even still believe in the myth that Natwick was deprived credit for his work on the film and that it was he, not Ham, who deserves credit as the main animator on Snow White.  However, even though he did a lot of the actual animation on the girl, it was unmistakingably Luske’s Snow White that dominates the film and is the one generations of audiences fell in love with.  “These characters are the way Walt sees them,” he said in a Snow White meeting in 1936. “There is no need to find a way to change them; this is the way he wants them. This is a pattern.”

There were two very important solutions to the problems that occurred because of the Luske-Natwick tension.  One was that Marc Davis, Grim’s primary assistant on the film, cleaned up and fixed his drawings so that they remained consistent with what was being done by Ham Luske. Also Ham himself shot all the live-action of Snow White to be used as reference material, which Davis said “gave a unity of acting.”  Keep in mind that the live-action used in Snow White wasn’t what you think of as normal live action and it wasn’t trace over, it was just used as a way for the animators to understand the movement and acting in the sequence as well as get a sense for how it should look like on screen while the animator would still make creative decisions and changes to make it done in what he thought was the best way. The model in the live action was Marge Champion, who later would do it again for the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio.  “The method we used all the way through was that they would show me the storyboards and they would play the voice, if there was a vocal track of any kind,” Champion recalled in an interview. “I would rehearse a few times, most improvisationally. I would do it over and over again for the camera until they felt they had all the pieces they needed for her to be drawn.” Even when he was a director Ham was notorious for being incredibly particular when directing the live-action that was used as reference material for the films.  In addition to animating and designing Snow White (he animated the Huntsman as well) he had to supervise a very large crew on the production.  On the girl herself there wasn’t just Natwick and his assistants (which included Davis and Les Novros) but also had in it Jack Campbell, a great animator who dealt with many of the realistic scenes in the film such as the one at the well in the beginning, and Bob Stokes, who was known for being a great draftsman particularly at the figure (before coming to Disney he worked as the life drawing teacher at Chouinard Art School) and animated a lot of the Queen in Snow White as well as Snow White in scenes such as the one where she’s taunted into eating the poison apple.  Also in his crew were the animators who animated the animators, which included Milt Kahl, Eric Larson, and James Algar (who came on to direct the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Fantasia as well as sequences in Bambi and live-action documentaries in the True-Life Adventures series.) Kahl and Natwick would animate the Prince in his few appearances but that turned out to be a huge failure and the animation of him is very poor in the film (the reason why he appears in the film as minimally and briefly as possible.) While some of the animation of Snow White herself is indeed over the top and could have been drawn better Ham’s version of the character ultimately is a success and her warmth and charm really reaches across in every scene in the film. If it weren’t for the great job he had done on the character who knows if Disney feature animation would have worked.

About briefly returning to animating on shorts (Ferdinand and the Bull) Ham Luske was assigned by Walt to spend most of his time supervising other people and mentoring the younger animators into animating and drawing the Disney way.  He took this assignment very seriously and it brought him into being a supervising director on Disney’s second feature, Pinocchio.  “On Pinocchio Ham Luske handed out most of the scenes,” explained animator Lynn Knapp. “After I worked on them, Eric would check them out. It was the supervising animator’s job to try to keep good track of what we were doing. We’d animate it, and he’d look at it and see if it was pretty good. But in terms of assigning animation it came through Ham.” He definitely directed many juicy sequences in the film: the opening sequence where Pinocchio comes to life and we meet all the major characters, the one where the Blue Fairy gets Pinocchio and the Cricket out of the cage, and the one on Pleasure Island where Lampwick turns into a donkey.  Next came Fantasia where Luske directed the Pastoral Role segment, which put together Beethoven and characters from Greek mythology matched with beautiful layouts by Ken Anderson.  For a time frame of over 2 decades Ham directed many of the most memorable sequences in Disney history: The Reluctant Dragon (in the Reluctant Dragon), The Whale Who Wanted to Sing At The Met (in Make Mine Music), Once Upon a Wintertime (Melody Time), the mean Stepsisters tearing off Cinderella’s dress, Cinderella and the Prince falling in love at the Ball, the exchange between Alice and the Doorknob, the crafty Captain Hook talking about his resentment towards the invincible Peter Pan(actually he animated the seagull in the sequence, thanks Randy Cartwright),  and the dogs watching TV in Dalmatians.  While Ham was very well respected by his colleagues, he probably played a more passive role in the production of the films. He never gained the admiration people had towards Wilfred Jackson or the hostility they felt towards Gerry Geromini. “Ham was a good director but a delegator,” said Milt Kahl of his directing career. “I thought he retired the last 15 years he was a director. Ham is sort of an enigma to me, still, when I think about him. He was awfully sweet; that was the word for him. An awfully nice person.” From what I have heard about his time as director he was very good at working with the animators and helping them put together their scenes in a way that made the films high quality.  He tended to work best in scenes that were sincere and stressed character relationships; he avoided broad comedy, action sequences, and theatrical musical numbers.  Luske’s last time working in feature animation was supervising the animation sequences in Mary Poppins. After that he worked primarily in television at Disney up until his death on February 19, 1968.

As I said before the most important things to realize in understanding Ham Luske’s style are his skill at analyzing, his ability to apply what he learned from analyzing into his animation by caricaturing it, and his excellent knowledge of character relationships.  To see what I mean I recommend studying by freeze frame his animation of both Max Hare and Jenny Wren. These two performances really show Ham’s virtues as an animator and help you understand his style.  In the case of Snow White and other realistic characters he worked best with caricaturing the proportions and making the design cartoony in texture but moving the character in a way that is believable and feels real.  By studying Luske’s best animation you’ll learn that he was great at exaggerating poses to make them clear and give you insight into the character as well as using gestures, anticipation, and follow-through actions that give an authenticy to the scene. “He acted out the characters, finding the elements in a pose that really pinpointed the position of the feet and body, the right place for the hands, the arch of the back, the title of the head, right down to his famous ‘oooh” mouth,” said Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. “Our first job is to tell a story that isn’t known to the audience,” said Ham Luske in a studio lecture. “then we have to tell a story that may cover several days, or several years, in a little over an hour; so consequently we have to tell things faster than they happen in life. Also we want things more interesting than ordinary life. Our actors are more rehearsed than everyday people; if somebody gets on a horse or opens a door or sits in a chair, we want to do it as simply and professionally as possible. Our actors must be more interesting and more unusual than you and i. their though process must be quicker than outs, their uninteresting progressions from one situation to another must be skipped. Our actors are drawings. We cannot work on the inspiration of the moment as an actor does but must present our characterizations through a combination of art, technique, and mechanics that takes months from the conception to the finished product. And we have to make the audience forget that these are drawings. We can’t risk ruining a sequence or good characterization with some mechanical imperfection or jitter that reminds the audience that we are dealing with drawings instead of real beings.”

Ham Luske’s influence on the art of Disney animation is massive and forever lasting. He really was the first one who proved the strength of analytical thinking in animation and really inspired everyone at the studio to start to deeply analyze and think about their animation.  Also Ham’s ability to combine a caricatured character with believable movements and gestures that feel real to an audience.  You also have to remember that his lectures were really influential at the time and that he was a great mentor to many of the best animators at the studio (Eric Larson in particular learned a ton from Luske and really utilized the principles his mentor taught him in his career.)  It’s true that it’s important to not only have good observational skills when you’re an animator but also be able to think about what you are seeing, understand and analyze it, and use technique and caricature to put what you learned from your observations on paper so it can become a believable, sincere performance.  Last Ham Luske will always be remembered for being the very first supervising animator and the main animator on Snow White, the first protagonist and Disney history in a Disney film.

Obviously Ham Luske has been a great inspiration to me and I’ve learned a ton from studying and analyzing his work.  His example reminds me that you need to really think about your animation and to never do anything in a scene that doesn’t have purpose or meaning. You have to know these characters and to be able to put the knowledge you learn from your understanding of character and observing into the performance to put it together. Also Luske’s work taught me that you can make a caricatured character believable if you have studied real movement and gestures and can apply that to your scene.  His understanding of subtlety and character relationships has really impacted me as well. Last Ham’s work helped me realize that you really need to combine emotion, analysis, technique, determination, understanding, and knowledge together to make great animation.  Thank you Ham Luske for being a great inspiration to me as well as many others and for your contributions to the art of Disney Animation.

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6 Responses to “13. Hamilton Luske”

  1. Hello Grayson,

    I’ve been enjoying your well-researched writing. Wonderful! One correction: it is Ollie Johnston (with a “t” ) as opposed to Johnson.

    Keep up the great job!

    Mark Kirkland

  2. peggy luske finefrock Says:

    Hi, I am Ham Luske’s daughter, and I was so honored that you have selected him to be one of the 50 most influential Disney Animators. Of course, our family always thought so, but now that others are recognizing his talent, we are doubly pleased. Thank you for your wonderful tribute to my dad and his work. The only thing that you might be interested in is that my mom, his wife was the initial model for Persephone. I always knew this, but to confirm, googled Persephone model disney, and on page 1 of the Animation Mag, it says that “the heroine on movements acted out for him by his wife,……….. it was a wonderful write-up. Thank you from all of my family.

  3. Alex Mann Says:

    I had the honor in high school of meeting Ham Luske’s wife. I have great memories of what a wonderful and kind woman she was. Learning that I was a young animator interested in Disney animation – she took me out to the Disney Studios for a tour of the Animation Department. She was so encouraging of my interest in character animation. Because of her I was able to meet Ken Anderson and Eric Larson. These two gentlemen shared with me their personal experiences with Ham — the impact Ham had on their lives and art was tremendous. Ham truly advanced the art of Disney animation and his legacy lives on to this day.

  4. […] it’s in Santa Barbara. Brad’s mother Peggy is the daughter of famed Disney Animator Hamilton Luske Her childhood dog was the inspiration for Lady in Disney’s Lady and The Tramp. There is […]

  5. Hey! This post could not be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my previous room mate!
    He always kept talking about this. I will forward this article to him.
    Pretty sure he will have a good read. Thank you for sharing!

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