Just wanted to make sure everyone knew that my next series the 50 Greatest Disney Scenes has been launched on my new site,http://graysonpontianimation.com/. So take a look and follow it if you’d like.
All the best,
Just wanted to make sure everyone knew that my next series the 50 Greatest Disney Scenes has been launched on my new site,http://graysonpontianimation.com/. So take a look and follow it if you’d like.
All the best,
Dear animation artists and fans everywhere,
I wanted to thank all of you for helping make the countdown of the 50 Most Influential Disney Animators an excellent journey and without a doubt the greatest learning experience I’ve had in my life. I’ve taken so much out of writing this blog, researching for it, analyzing and studying the work and lives of the honorees, and from all the people I’ve come across because of its existence. I find it so ironic that coming into this blog I thought I knew everything about Disney animation while after finishing it I feel like I know nothing even though obviously I know a ton more about it than I did when I started. That’s part of what inspires me about animation: it’s a constant learning experience, a never-ending struggle, and there’s always more to be accomplished. There’s a huge difference between having a skill or knowing something intellectually and actually understanding it. This is something that I’ve learned big time from this blog. I’m actually pretty amazed at how much all the honorees struggled during their careers and the fact that none of them are perfect animators! What’s important is they used their setbacks, flaws, and limitations to motivate themselves to do better and challenge themselves. I personally don’t think it’s the amount of talent that defines an animator but how he uses it and how much he understands what he’s doing and what he’s trying to say. In fact many of the top honorees weren’t naturally good draftsman and a ton of them came from situations as far removed from the animation industry as you can get. Even during their careers these people always loved to take on a challenge and the fact that they won them is part of what makes their work so special.
Another valuable lesson I’ve learned from this blog is the fact that all these people are very unique and really have their own personal voice. The originality, uniqueness, and meaning behind the work of the honorees is a big part of what makes their work special. Everyone of them did things in a way that was exclusive to them and their work reads like a signature. However they are all alike in that they really strived to do something good and something that had feeling behind it. This is really important in animation and is part of what separates these gentlemen from anyone else.
Last is I learned that the most important reason these animators really did great work and had phenomenal careers was that they sincerely loved what they were doing all the way and really had a strong passion for Disney animation. This was probably the thing I most took away from this blog: you’ve got to do something because you love it all the way and with that intention. It’s not about getting the job, the respect, the glory, or the destination but the fact that you love animation and really want to do your best at it. This means wanting to learn as much as possible, being willing to sacrifice for it, being strong enough to stay strong through setbacks, doing nothing short of perfection, and having your love for it resonate in your work. When you love what you’re doing you know you’re in the right place and can’t do any wrong. All the honorees really loved their craft all the way as well as their characters and the Disney studio. There’s no more fulfilling or powerful emotion in the world. It’s what made them able to do such sincere, powerful work and really make audiences fall in love with the Disney characters.
It’s also important to remember that this blog is intended to be subjective and that everything on here is my own personal opinion. My intent was to do a project that put my studies, analysis, and thoughts on who I feel are the 50 most influential animators in Disney history in the context of a high school student who is pursuing a career in the art form. I’m not trying to come across as an authority on Disney history or as someone who has been through the wars of animation. Everything on here is my personal opinion and is coming from my personal studies. I know that no one will completely agree with the list and I don’t’ want any of my writing to be seen as arrogant or disingenuous.
Since the last post I’ve thought a lot about all the honorees, especially Bill Tytla. All of their stories are so inspirational and everyone really had all the three things I described above that really separate them from everybody else. I’ve been thinking a lot about Bill’s love for his characters and the strong emotions that made his work possible. It’s tragic to think that someone so powerful suffered because of Disney animation and losing his place in it but it’s important to remember that he really did love what he was doing and that really enabled him to have a huge influence on the art of Disney animation. I think Tytla really would have understood what I’m saying about loving something all the way in a way that even I can’t. Study the Baby of Mine scene in Dumbo and you can really see that it wouldn’t have been possible any other way. Also Bill really worked hard to do better and really went past so many challenges to be able to do something with so much meaning. He really is the best example of what Disney animation is all about and the one whose work really empowers me to have the gumption to do something really exceptional in animation someday. I have so much more to go and I’m only at the very beginning of my journey but I really do feel I love Disney animation all the way. It shows me a potential for fulfillment in life that I just don’t see anywhere else. I feel that animation is where I feel the most comfortable in life, the thing I most understand, the thing that inspires me the most, the thing that motivates me the most, and the thing that most of all really speaks to me and serves as a place where I can express myself. I feel like I really understand the world, other people, and most of all myself because of my studies in animation and I think it’s really made me a better, happier person in so many ways. I can’t wait to see where I can possibly end up and have no idea where the destination is going to be but I do know that I love what I’m doing and that this is the road I feel is right to take. Maybe someday I myself might have a career in Disney animation. Who knows? However I can guarantee I’ll give it my best shot and that I’ll always love it all the way!
Acknowledgements/ Work Cited
Before wrapping up this blog I really want to acknowledge a lot of my key sources on this blog(next time I’m doing a work cited with each post and I can assure you the importance of that is a lesson I’ve learned from this blog) and thank some of the key people. Here are a list of the sources I used (since the last Work Cited I put up):
-The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston
– Of Mice and Magic by Leonard Maltin
-The Nine Old Men and the Art of Disney Animation by John Canemaker
-Vladimir Tytla: Master Animator by John Canemaker
– Hollywood Cartoons by Michael Barrier
– Enchanted Drawings by Charles Solomon
– Animation Podcast and Tag Interviews
– Animated Views Interviews
– Deja View website (very important for pictures)
– Great Animated Performances columns by Rhett Wickham
I also wanted to thank a number of people for their support, encouragement, advice, inspiration, and knowledge they’ve shared with me that have made the experience of this blog exceptional and possible. First of all I want to thank my dad, James Ponti, for teaching me about filmmaking, what makes a great film, and what makes one work. This has been really valuable in this blog and essential to my understanding of all thinks related to film and cinema. I also want to thank my family and friends for being very supportive and encouraging of my pursuit for a career in animation and all the help they’ve given me in helping me work towards my dream. I’m particularly grateful to James Nethery, the son of great Disney cleanup artist and assistant animator David Nethery and an aspiring animators, for the countless conversations and encouragement he’s given me that have helped make this blog as good as it is. As for the honorees I’ve been fortunate enough to have gotten to speak to most of the living ones during the writing of this blog and I definitely owe them all a huge thank you for the advice, encouragement, and understanding they’ve given me. I’m particularly grateful to Ruben Aquino, Duncan Marjoribanks, and Nik Ranieri for really going above and beyond to be a help to me. For all professionals in the industry I want to thank all the following people for in some shape or form being a help in the experience: Steve Anderson, Ruben Aquino, Debra Armstrong, Rasoul Azadani, Dale Baer, Tony and Tom Bancroft, Michael Barrier, Aaron Blaise, Andreas Deja, Tony and Barbara de Rosa, Ken Duncan, Russ Edmonds, Dawn Ernester, Rick Farmiloe, Brian Ferguson, Will Finn, Eric Goldberg, Ed Gombert, Milt Gray, Dan Hansen, Randy Haycock, Mark Henn, Jeff Johnson, Glen Keane, Mark Kirkland, Bert Klein, Alex Kupershmidt, the late Dorse Lanpher, Jamie Lopez, Leonard Maltin, Duncan Marjoribanks, Burny Mattinson, David Nethery, Sue Nichols, Floyd Norman, Sergio Pablos, John Pomeroy, David Pruiksma, Nik Ranieri, Karen Schultz, Bruce Smith, Mike Surrey, Barry Temple, Frans Vischer, Andreas Wessel-Therhorn, Rhett Wickham, and Matt Williames. Last but not least I wanted to thank the honorees, all the artists in Disney animation history, and of course Walt Disney himself for making this blog’s existence possible and for leaving behind the great work studied for it.
Disney animation is unlike any other type of animation. There is something about the power and strength of the feelings and emotions of the characters that make this word come to mind. It’s this pure, completely honest emotional connection that makes the Disney films impact people so much. They can make audiences feel these powerful emotions to the point that they feel them themselves and the stories are therefore real in their hearts. For this to be achieved in its strongest form there has to be no difference between the inner and outer emotions of the characters: it’s the feeling that is most important in this type of animation and technical aspects (draftsmanship, timing, spacing, etc.) should only be used to communicate this emotion. Animating is also a spiritual thing. When you animate you’re making a statement, you’re expressing something, and most importantly putting your thoughts and feelings on paper. This form of expression has a lot of heart and soul to it. There’s nothing like it. The connection between animator and character can be strong to a point that most can only fathom understanding. To achieve the maximum result in Disney animation it has to come from someone who really understands this, is willing to work their butt off on it, won’t let anything stop them from achieving this no matter how hard it can be, has inspiration flowing through them, has a strong sense of sincerity and sensitivity, has passion in their artistry, is strong and courageous enough to survive criticism and setbacks, knows exactly what they are doing, and most importantly cares for their characters as if they were real human beings. These qualities are what separates the animators who have made it on this countdown from the rest of the animators. This is what made them able to do animation that is so strong and fulfilling.
The possibilities and potential of animation are endless. It’s a never-ending struggle, a persistent drive, and one that could very well be just an impossible dream. The best stuff that’ll ever be done is hopefully still yet to come and the potential of the medium is going to be more and more fulfilled as the future continuously comes. With all these things in mind it’s essential that if you are going to do this and fully embrace this journey that you sincerely love animation all the way. This is the only way that the impossible dream of Disney animation will ever be achieved. One person who understood this was Bill Tytla, who is indeed in my book the most influential animator in Disney history and the subject of this post.
Vladimir or, as he was much preferably called, Bill Tytla is really the ultimate example of what the ideal animator is and the one who really proved the direction that Walt Disney wanted the animation at his studio to go in was possible. He transcended what could be done in Disney animation, did things in a way nobody else has ever done, and he really was the one who showed the world how strong and powerful the feelings and emotions of cartoon characters can be. In many ways Bill was in a sense an enigma. Not only did he have a unique style and approach but he also had an interesting situation: he doesn’t really fit in with the old time animators who were groundbreaking and innovative but unsophisticated and unable to keep up with the direction the studio was going but he doesn’t really fit in with the more refined, polished group that held the roost for many decades.
Tytla really was in a class by himself and was between these two generations. He was older and came to the studio with more experience that the second group (he also had an early departure that’s a whole other story) but unlike the first group he had formal art training, peaked in the feature area and wasn’t a star in the days of the shorts, and had animation that was more sophisticated, deep, and strong than anything ever done at the studio. Another interesting thing about Bill is that unlike many animators who have great acting and emotions but limited draftsmanship or have excellent draftsmanship but less impressive animation and acting he really was the big man on campus in both areas. His stuff has phenomenal drawing, acting, creativity, and feeling. Tytla didn’t have the limitations of an analytical style, the coldness of a technical approach, or limitations in his draftsmanship to stop him from getting the highest possible result.
His animation has no gap between the inner and outer emotions of the characters, making it even greater. The uniqueness of this situation allowed Bill to have a stronger influence on the art of Disney animation than would have been possible in any other case and the power and feeling in his work allowed him to animate at a level that certainly hadn’t been done before and arguably hasn’t been achieved since. “It was mentioned that the possibilities of animation are infinite,” he explained. “It is all that, and yet very simple- but try and do it! There isn’t a thing you can’t do in it as far as composition is concerned. There isn’t a caricaturist in this country who has as much liberty as an animator here of twisting and weaving his lines in and out. But I can’t tell you how to do it- I wish I could. To me it’s just as much of a mystery as every before. Sometimes I get it, sometimes I don’t. I wish I knew, then I’d get it more often. The problem is not a single track one. Animation is not just timing, or just a well-drawn character, it is a sum of all the factors named. No matter what the devil one talks about- whether force or form, or well-drawn characters, timing, or spacing- animation is all these things, not any one. What you as an animator are interested in is conveying a certain feeling you happen to have at that particular time. You do all sorts of things in order to get it. Whether you have to rub out a thousand times is immaterial. The whole thing in animation, as in any of the arts, is the feeling and vitality you get into the work.” “Bill Tytla was the greatest draftsman I’ve ever known- in animation or anywhere else,” praised Zach Schwartz. “He was not a cartoonist; he was a sculptor, and his work had tremendous power and a sense of form.” “Bill was all-out sincerity,” remembered honoree Eric Larson. “He’d act out a scene in his room and I thought the walls would fall in. he was a bundle of nerves, he exploded in his normal life.” “He had an intuitive feel for what a character should do,” simply put honoree Frank Thomas.
“He had such a connection with the thing he was doing it wasn’t really drawing,” explained George Bakes, who was Tytla’s assistant during his days working in commercials back east. “It was Bill that was coming out. He would feel it and struggle until it happened- the tremendous feeling that was him. That’s what sets his animation apart from anybody else’s.” He animated several of the greatest and most fulfilling scenes ever done at the studio. Bill’s best work includes the dwarfs (especially Doc and Grumpy) in Snow White, Stromboli in Pinocchio, Yen Sid and Chernabog in Fantasia, Jose Carioca in Saludos Amigos, and the elephants (Dumbo, Mrs. Jumbo, and the Gossipy elephants) in Dumbo. There’s never been anybody like him and he’s truly at the very top of the art form. Unfortunately Bill’s career was cut short when he mysteriously and abruptly left the studio in 1943 and virtually disappeared from the animation industry. It’s been found out in recent years that this was a decision he regretted the rest of his life and suffered greatly from it.
Vladimir Peter Tytla was born on October 25, 1904 in Yonkers, New York to parents that were immigrants from Europe. Although he was born in America he was unmistakably ethnic and was the first member of his family born in the country. Growing up with very little money and surrounded by lots of religion (which he resented), he found art as his escape as well as his passion and talent. When Bill was young he would copy from the comics in the paper and draw scenes on butcher’s paper. His interest went to the next level when he was in bed for a year due to an illness and passed time by drawing. When Tytla was 10 years old he went with his uncle to see Windsor McCay’s animated short Gertie the Dinosaur at a vaudeville theater and was blown away. “He never forgot it,” remembered his wife Adrienne le Clerc Tytla. “Even years later, he still spoke with the same awe and reverence he must have felt on its original impact. There was no doubt that Gertie the Dinosaur had changed his life forever. “ Going into his teens the young man began to take his talent more seriously and began taking tons of formal art classes. He would spend hours doing them and he was very intense with his studies. It got to the point that after one year of high school Bill dropped out of school. In fact his inadequate attendance sent him to a trail for truancy but the judge was so impressed by his work that he let him go. This allowed him to get even more serious with his formal art training and he took classes at the New York Evening School of Industrial Design.
At age 16 Tytla began working lettering title cards at the Paramount Animation Studio, where he met his future Disney colleague Ben Sharpesteen. Although in his late teens and early 20s he was uninspired by animation (it was very primitive at this time and there really wasn’t a lot to it) and didn’t have any desire to pursue a career in it his family needed the income and he learned his craft at John Terry’s studio in 1922. The following March he got his first job as an artist in animation when he was hired by John’s brother Paul Terry, who was starting up his Aesop Fable’s series. It was here that he first met future colleagues such as Norman Ferguson, Ted Sears, and Hicks Lokey. During his time on the Aesop Fable’s Tytla proved that he could do unbelievable amounts of quality footage at a very fast rate. This made him become one of the highest paid animators at the studio extremely fast. “Years later Paul Terry told me he would have given Bill even more money if he had asked for it,” remembered animation pioneer I. Klein. “Bill Tytla was a brilliant animator from the very start of his career.” However it was being an artist that was Bill’s prominent gumption and on the side he lived the young artist’s life taking tons of classes and working endlessly to make his work the best it could be. He wanted to work with the masters of fine art and work for them, eventually becoming one of them. At this time animation was fading and the brief period of success for cartoons had ended.
The traces of promise and artistry in Windsor McCay’s shorts weren’t at Terry’s and the quality of the cartoons was very low. During his five years working on the series Tytla didn’t change his attitude or interest towards animation so therefore in 1928 he left for Europe to make his dream of learning from the masters there a reality. During his eighteen-month stay he did extensive studies in sculpture, painting, and all forms of art as well as took in tons of inspiration. One of his best experiences there was learning from Boardman Robinson, a great artist and illustrator. “I heard he was really a tough guy,” reflected Bill. “He looked like a man and talked like one, and he had a very fine subtle sense of humor. He glared through one drawing after the other, kind of casually, and turned to me and said ‘They’re kind of clever, aren’t they?’ then he got to work on me. He insisted I drew with a sharp-pointed pencil so I would have to draw and no technique. He also recognized I tended to draw on the flashy side and thought this would help.” Another great inspiration for the young man at this time was Pieter Bruegel, a Renaissance artist who was his favorite artist of all time. He constantly went to study his paintings at a museum in Vienna, Austria. “It was my epiphany,” he told John Culhane. “I stayed in Viena and went back and back. I knew this was what I wanted to do but I wanted to make them move.” If you pay attention you’ll notice that in Tytla’s animation you can see aspects that show inspiration from Bruegel- drawings that tell a story, boldness, dynamic expression, simplicity, etc. Another great piece of inspiration that he acquired from his time in Europe was his studies in sculpture. This would have a profound influence on his animation and his drawings from that point on were always very sculptural: they’re forces instead of forms and are really 3-dimensional in terms of feel.
As inspiring as his stay in Europe was Bill began to realize he could never reach the artistic level of the masters and decided to return to America. When he returned he was immediately offered a job by Paul Terry at his studio Terrytoons which he expected in part because of the Great Depression and his desire to make his art move. While Tytla was an above average animator before he went to Europe he was at a whole new level when he came back. All of his stuff during that period shows great three dimensional and solid drawing as well as powerful forces in the movements. Bill was also significantly better at anything related to personality animation than anyone else at the studio making him always get cast when it was needed the most. “If it was a difficult or personality thing you’d give it to a fellow like Tytla,” stated Paul Terry. Actually by this point an animator like him was a very odd fit for a studio like Terrytoons. Terrytoons made very low quality cartoons and it was very hard for any animator to improve there. It was a very weird situation that an animator so inspired, brilliant, driven, and hard working would be at such a primitive and flaccid studio. “They were making tremendous amounts of money but we had to hire our own model ourselves and of course they wouldn’t even consider an instructor,” reflected Tytla. “The lead animators couldn’t do much if you took them off cats and mice. They couldn’t animate girls, we would have to. Or if there was a dance sequence you might go to dancing school and ask for a couple of routines. It was pure accidental that one or two of us liked drawing and went to art school. Finally we had to give up our models. The fellows would make wisecracks at the girls who posed for us. They’d say ‘What the hell do you go to art school for? You’re animating, aren’t you?’”
However when back at Terrytoons the animator met and fastly became best friends with animator Art Babbitt, who would later change his life. In 1932 Art moved out west to work at the Disney Studio and was hugely impressed by it. For over two years he insisted that Bill follow him to the studio and told him that he would never want to come back. However the other man was a bit reluctant to go on the bandwagon because he had a job in the Depression and was providing for his family. However in 1934 Bill could resist the temptation no longer and went out to California to take a look at the studio. “Jesus, I was impressed by the Disney Studio,” he recalled years later. On November 15, 1934 Bill Tytla was hired by the Disney Studio as a full-fledged animator and the rest is history.
For roughly his first year at the Disney Studio Bill Tytla spent his time animating on a couple of shorts. Even during this probationary year he showed his mastery and skill when using weight, anatomy, timing, and force in animation. Among his early assignments were Clarabelle Cow in Mickey’s Fire Brigade (this shows his ability in terms of acting and expression but for such a simple character his use of anatomy can be a bit overwhelming) and the Angel and Devil Foodcakes in the Silly Symphony Cookie Carnival (this shows his skill when it came to force, perspective, and depth in mass.) However the most significant of these early successes was on a short called the Cock O’the Walk, a Silly Symphony involving dancing roosters. To sum it up his animation on the short is simply brilliant. All the genius details (the weight, fluidity in movement, chorography, timing, acting, character walks, personality, and expertise in performance and movement) work very cohesively and effectively to communicate that this rooster is a big bully. I highly recommend freeze-framing the dance sequence to really understand how this all works together. Not only is the quality and depth of drawing in the animation spectacular but there also is something in that sequence that was completely new: power.
No animation had ever had such power to it and it’s one of the first pieces of animation done at Disney that suggested the potential strength that could come in an animated performance. This is not only strength in action and force but also strength in emotion and feeling. It’s hard to define because those two things are so interconnected in all of Tytla’s animation. This really is a big part of what sets him apart from other animators: these things are interchangeable and together they work significantly more effectively than they would if there was a distance between them. In many ways Bill’s animation in this short feels even more real than something realistic because of the real feeling depicted in the movement and the acting. It’s not realistic but it’s believable. “The first duty of the cartoon is not to picture or duplicate real action or things as they actually happen, but to give a caricature of life and action,” Tytla explained. “The point is that you are not merely swishing a pencil about but you have weight in your forms and do whatever you possibly con with their weight to convey sensation. It is a struggle for me and I am conscious of it all the time. You must phrase or force or define animated drawings so that the eye always follows. Very often you must do things you might call bad drawing in order to accent or force. On the screen it looks good but that one drawing in itself doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a continuation of a vast whole. You must force or accent certain drawings in order to get a certain mood or reaction across. If you always try to keep perfect form you will not get the feeling across. It will be without flavor. You can force or accent a hand and throw it way out and bring it back down. You can twist an eyebrow or a mouth, you can do something to the little character’s shoulder and cheat but it is a continuous flow and it always comes back to its original shape.”
His animation in the Cock O’the Walk got huge acclaim across the studio and it was where he really proved himself to everyone, including the boss. “Your animation in the short was a big step forward,” wrote Walt Disney with great praise. “Something was started which is what we are striving for. That is doing things which humans are unable to do.” At the same time Bill was really beginning to embrace the opportunities given at the Disney Studio and came to really appreciate them as well as really feel the sense of excitement and desire to improve that was contagious at the studio. Among the privileges he cherished were Don Graham’s action analysis classes and the sweatbox sessions. “I fell for them like a ton of bricks,” said Tytla on the action analysis classes. “It was really a life saver for me. I was in the period between the old and new stage of animation. Running films in slow motions was like lifting a curtain for me. The sweatbox sessions were another revelation. After all if you run your piece of animation over enough times you must see what is wrong with it. Formerly I never saw what I animated. We would catch a movie ever two weeks to see a scene we had experimented on for drawing or spacing or timing but we couldn’t get much benefit from one viewing. In the theatre they would only run the picture twice- the whole thing whizzed by and you forgot all about what you had tried to do. And unless you did go to the movie, you would never see what you had done. Furthermore, I never saw a thing run in reverse except once in New York when they ran a scene backwards of a fellow diving off a board. My boss in New York never knew about a moviola- he probably still doesn’t. When he got a letter from one of the boys here telling him about the tests-roughs, semi-roughs, semi-cleanups, cleanups, and finals- then the whole thing is done over again, he wouldn’t believe it. My boss thought it was funny as hell- a bunch of guys running around in hallways with pieces of black and white film in their hands looking at moviolas. He said ‘When I hire to a man to animate, I want him to know how.’ The things done here now, I would consider sensational and I know the fellows back east consider them sensational when they hear descriptions of the training and opportunities here. But here at the studio those things are considered commonplace. The average fellow her doesn’t even realize what is shoved on him. He is being coaxed and encouraged to do better work, and he probably thinks it is a pain in the neck. I really can’t compliment Walt and the organization enough for handing out the stuff. There is no other fellow who will do it. These things, plus all the art school training, influenced my approach to the work.”
In December 1935 Bill Tytla was one of the first animators assigned to Snow White, Disney’s first feature film, and along with Fred Moore was one of the lead animators on the seven dwarfs. There are a lot of notable differences between the animation of the two men in the film. While Fred’s animation is more appealing and charming it is Bill’s where the distinctiveness of the dwarf’s personalities and their emotions come out. While the dwarves are relatively interchangeable when it comes to acting and movement in Moore’s work Tytla’s work makes all of the men have strong personalities (e.g.- he clearly defines Doc as the leader and Grumpy as the cynical voice of reason through their acting and movements while in the former man’s work all the dwarfs are very jolly and pretty similar), specific character relationships, individual walks and movements, and best of all strong feelings. “I’ve never had a problem like that come up before because here were have a group of characters that are rather alike yet all different,” he commented. No other man could solve the problem in such an impacting way. While Fred’s sensibilities were prominent in most of the dwarfs it was Doc and especially Grumpy that worked best with Tytla. A great scene to study is the part in the Spooks sequence where the two of them are conversing. Bill tells you all you need to know about the characters just through his animation (even the lip sync is incredibly specific to the characters) and for the first time we really see the great understanding he had for emotional material. In that scene as in all of his animation in the film there is exceptional cartoon acting, which is the use of caricature and the principles of animation to communicate who a character is and what they are thinking.
Indeed Tytla’s acting in his dwarf animation is was the most complex and specific that had ever been done at the studio. One interesting example of this is the way he used expressive distortion to show the combination of the physical and emotional feeling of an action. “I got a huge kick out of the way Tytla would distort something,” commented his then-assistant Bill Shull. “Stretch it out as that it looks almost silly. When you see it on the drawing you would swear it would mean nothing but on the screen these things seem to hold the scene together.” You don’t see the distortion on the screen (part of the reason it works in his animation is it’s still very solid and retains weight) but you really do feel it and in turn you feel inside what the dwarfs are feeling. While there are way too many things that can be discussed and studied related to Bill’s animation of the dwarfs in a nutshell he has two real standout scenes in the film. The first is the song sequence where the dwarfs go out to wash. An interesting thing about the scene is that the timing with the music reflects how the dwarfs are similar but the movements and actions he applied show their differences. Not only the timing is great but also the essence of the personalities and the emotional complexity of the characters, particularly Grumpy. In this scene he animated forces before forms, meaning that instead of being focused on the graphic qualities of the character he focused solely on the feeling brought by the acting and action. In that section a must freeze-frame is the scene of Grumpy mocking the others while sitting on the barrel. His expressions are incredibly clear and the specifies of the performance is a great merit.
The second one is the scene where Grumpy tries to resist a kiss from Snow White but after walking away he realizes he really is in love with her and has deep feelings for her. This communicates the emotion to the audience so powerfully and we finally realize what his emotional situation is. Grumpy’s embarrassed about his feelings for Snow White and feels like he’s too smart to show such a soft spot so he tries to cover it up by resisting her but at this point he no longer can control it and it is revealed that he probably has the deepest feelings for her of the seven. This whole situation completely came out of Tytla’s mind and it was him that put in this element, which really makes the story that much deeper. In conclusion his work on Snow White really showed the potential for how powerful and strong the feelings of the Disney characters could be as well as how high the level of acting could reach in an animated cartoon. “Bill’s approach to animation is a confirmation of all that the instructors have been trying to do here for four years in drawing classes,” analyzed Don Graham. “It is the first time that these principles have been evident in animation and the first one to think in terms of forces instead of forms. Tytla’s work has been a revelation.”
Around the same time Bill married Adrienne le Clerc, who was a model for the drawing classes at the studio. Around this time he said these very inspirational words of wisdom at an action analysis class: “You fellows possibly may think that just because you are doing a bunch of Ducks and Mickey’s that all you must do is learn how to draw well enough to draw a Duck or a Mickey. But the funny thing is that the more you know about drawing the more ably you will handle the Duck and the other character. And besides five years from now you won’t be doing ducks anyway. The type of stuff we have been doing the last few years has been a change from what preceded it and will be different from what is about to follow. You men who have animated before will agree that there has been quite a bit of change since you started animating. Today we are not merely trying something- we are really on the verge of something that is new. It will take a lot of real drawing- not clever, slick, superficial, fine-looking stuff but really solid, fine drawing- to achieve those results and those results will have to be achieved by fellows who have absolute control over what they are trying to do. These animators will have to be able not only draw but to take a figure and no matter how they twist, distort, slap, or extended that figure it will still have weight. These animators will have to be able to put across a certain sensation or emotion- for that is all we are trying to do in animation.”
Having emerged to stardom with Snow White Bill Tytla continued to receive tons of quality assignments at the studio and became one of the most productive animators there. His first animation after Snow White was on the short the Brave Little Tailor where he animated the cartoony but heavy giant. This unfortunately for him began a string of typecasting towards heavy characters, something that he didn’t particularly enjoy or that really showed his full potential as an animator. Up next came the Sorcerer’s Apprentice (which eventually would become part of Fantasia but at this point was just a short) where he animated all of Yes Sid the sorcerer. He is a very reserved, intelligent, and wise character, which is clearly communicated through Tytla’s animation of him. An interesting thing about it is that the poses he used are so loose and expressive but the construction is really sculptural, detailed, and has great volume. However Bill’s signature work from this period is Stromboli in Pinocchio (he also animated some of Geppetto in his earlier scenes including a very meaningful scene where he realizes Pinocchio is alive.) Stromboli is one of the scariest and heaviest Disney villains and certainly is the most explosive. Many animators recalled in interviews that when animating the character he would act it out himself by jumping and summing around his room. The biggest criticism that can be given to Tytla’s performance on Stromboli is that there is too much movement and it’s overacting. Sometimes his animation can be a bit too much for the material and the acting is a bit overdone in terms of how much action is going on. However the acting is still top-notch if you can look past the overuse of it. Even studying Stromboli’s lip sync alone is incredibly interesting and from that little detail you can see the brilliance at work. You really feel the threat, vigor, desperation, and cruelty of the character through the way he acts and moves. I highly recommend freeze framing Bill’s scenes of Stromboli because you’ll see in full blast excellent acting, staging, timing, spacing, weight, poses, feeling, bold movement, and powerful animation all at the same time (it’s rare to see all these aspects working together so well and even better paired with fantastic draftsmanship.) However it was a character that Tytla struggled getting started on. “I gave it everything I had,” he recalled. “All of them said ‘Great’ or ‘Nothing else is needed.’ Finally, the time came for Walt to see it. He was subdued and said ‘That was a helluva scene, but if anyone else had animated I would have passed it. But I expected something different from Bill!’ well sunk a ship with that remark. It took me a couple of weeks before I could work again. I was crushed. But one day I took up my pencil and started to draw again differently. It was as if something hit me and I started all over again. This time Walt said ‘Great! Just what I was expecting!’ He never explained what was wrong. It was as if by some magic way you would know.”
After Stromboli Bill Tytla did his last heavy for some time and a very interesting one: the evil, powerful Chernabog the devil in the Night on Bald Mountain sequence in Fantasia. It’s arguably the most powerful and intense scene to ever be animated. “Never again has there been anything as powerful as Tytla’s devil,” stated the candid, hard to please Milt Kahl. “Bill had a pretty definite idea of just what he wanted to animate before we ever got to the live action stage,” reflected Wilfred Jackson. “The actor assumed he was there to give his own concept of the character. Bill came flat out and said ‘I don’t like it. I like it better when we went through it and I’m going to animate it that way. It would help if you would go in front of the camera and go through it that way for me.’ So I took off my shirt and we shot film of me as the devil.” “I’d look into this dark bottomless pit that snuffling and grumbling were coming out off,” remembered his assistant Robert De Grasse. “He would work for hours and never take a break. I doubt he even knew what time it was.” It is also indeed the flashiest thing that has ever come up on the Disney screen and there is absolutely nothing like it. Personally my favorite thing about Bill’s devil is the intensity of it: it really resonates in his animation and you really do feel tension when it’s on screen. He’s absolute pure evil in every way. From a technical standpoint it’s flawless: the draftsmanship is breath taking (personally I can’t believe how well drawn his hands are), the weight has a huge impact, the anatomy is completely accurate, and the movement is perfect. From an acting standpoint Tytla took it to the next level. “I imagined I was as big as a mountain and made of rock yet I was still feeling and moving,” he commented. It’s incredibly advanced and it really does feel like a huge devil made out of rock when he moves. The most powerful point of course is when the church bells ring and he posts his arms out to defend himself. It has so much dynamic power to it and really shows you this is one incredible animator doing this.
However it was the next film that really was Bill Tytla’s best work. The film was Dumbo and he was assigned to be the lead animator on all the elephants including the Gossipy elephants and the very emotional relationship of Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo. To sum it up this could very well be argued to be the greatest animation ever done anywhere in the art form’s history. The character relationship of Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo is without a doubt the most emotional, strong, and powerful one ever to come out of the studio. “I would hand out scenes to Bill but there would be others who worked with him who would do certain scenes,” explained Wilfred Jackson, who directed most of his scenes in the film. “Quite often he would knock out a few poses to get them started and would supervise what they did very carefully.” Even though they never speak to each other during the film (Mrs. Jumbo only has one line and Dumbo is completely mute) there is such a strong sense of sincere, endless love between the two characters and it really impacts the audience. For the inspiration Bill looked towards his experiences as a parent and his feelings for his two-year-old son Peter to find the emotional side of the characters and communicate it through his animation. “I don’t know a damned thing about elephants,” he explained. “I was thinking in terms of humans and I saw a chance to do a character without using any cheap theatrics. Most of the expressions and mannerisms I got from my own kid. There’s nothing theatrical about a two-year-old kid. They’re real and sincere- like when they damn near wet their pants from excitement when you come home at night. I tried to put all these things in Dumbo.” Indeed he was successful in putting them in. Tytla was able to use physical contact between the two to really make his animation warm and sincere. There is something in this animation however that can’t really be analyzed or explained technically- something that is just too strong, specific, and sincere of an emotion to understand or articulate. It’s the thing that makes the jump from trying to become a character and thinking about what they feel like to actually having the real feelings the character is feeling. It’s something so elusive and that’s what makes it so unique- it’s completely honest and real. This is why Tytla’s animation in this film is so personal. He really made a statement about human emotions, the meaning of the relationship between parent and child, what it means to truly love someone, and most importantly about himself. No other animator has come anywhere close to achieving this EVER. It transcends method acting, formula, analysis, and anything else- it’s just purely emotionally real. It’s pretty ironic that decades later it was actually discovered that elephants have similar emotions and relationships- here it was so strongly in 1941.
Bill’s animation of the gossipy elephants is also a big accomplishment as well. You can tell that he must have been observing a lot of gossipy women for inspiration because it really is so real and familiar. Not only do I love the acting and performance Tytla used on them but also the 3-dimensional sculptural drawing he did of their faces and best of all the brilliant timing. A great scene to study is the one where the matriarch is talking about how elephants are always supposed to have dignity. Not only does the timing really communicate the point of the scene and is right to every rhythmic beat but the performance is spectacular and incredibly specific to the character. You can read clearly how this character is and their personality. The expression in the scene is also phenomenal. However there are two scenes Bill did in Dumbo that truly stand out. They show that he really took serious Richard Boleslavsky’s advice to heart: “If you are a sensitive and normal human being all life is open and familiar to you.” The first is the bathing scene, which is truly a beautiful piece of animation. It really shows us how deeply emotional Mrs. Jumbo and Dumbo’s relationship is and how close they are. This really makes the picture work and makes us feel for the characters. The second scene that truly is phenomenal is the one where Dumbo comes to visit his mother in prison and he swings in her trunk during the Baby of Mine Song. This is without question the most emotional scene ever animated at Disney and personally the one that speaks to me more than anything else done at the studio. You could spend days analyzing the greatness of the scene but there is one shot that really shows how great of an animator Bill Tytla is. While anyone else would go straight for the tears when Dumbo sees Mrs. Jumbo’s trunk and think through the acting analytical, what he did is he shows the elation first and then goes into the tears. That one change makes all the difference: it’s so much more powerful and real. There’s absolutely nothing analytical or insincere about that shot. It’s pure emotion and a strong one. “He was telling the audience exactly what he wanted to tell them,” explained Frank Thomas. “He wasn’t showing how smart he was or how much he knew but was doing what was right for the picture. His animation just overwhelms me.”
As sad as it was the good days couldn’t last much longer. Bill Tytla found himself in a very awkward situation where he had to choose between his best friend Art Babbitt and staying loyal to the studio he loved when Walt Disney fired the animator for labor activity and lead a strike against the studio. Under pressure and extremely torn Bill chose his friend and on May 28, 1941 was out on the picket line. The extent of his involvement in the Strike and the vigor he had towards out has been a subject of much debate for decades. While some try to say that Tytla didn’t want to do anything against the studio and even though he technically went on strike really was just at home miserable for it, others say they were surprised at how vicious he was even about the subject of Walt and cursed at them. Emery Hawkins remembered it as he really wasn’t there much at all and hide at home upset he ever went out while Joe Grant remembered him suggesting he should replace Walt as head of the studio. Personally I don’t think we’ll ever really know exactly what his motivation and situation was regarding the strike. While I don’t completely believe he wasn’t vicious at all during it I do believe that he didn’t want to do anything against the studio. He had this to comment on the subject: “I was for the company union, and I went on strike because my friends were on strike. I was sympathetic towards their views but I never wanted to do anything against Walt. I tried to work out a solution with him but somebody told him not to work with me.” While it has been written that Tytla left the studio directly because of the strike and was gone right after it happened, that’s not really the reality of the situation. When it ended in fall 1941 he was immediately back at the studio and actually did quite a lot of good work after the strike. The greatest of these would probably have to be his animation of Donald Duck and Jose Carioca in Saludos Amigos, which has beautiful choreography. “Bill worked me over as I directed him,” remembered Wilfred Jackson. “When the parrot was to pat the duck’s head he would pat my head to see what it was like.” However while Jackson’s description sounds pretty consistent with the Old Tytla some others remember him being a changed man after the strike. “He was aloof,” reflected animator Bob Carlson. “He just stayed by himself. He didn’t mingle with the guys very much anymore. He just came to work, stayed in his room, and went home.” Others recalled that he constantly yearned his farm back east. On top of this Adrienne wanted to move to the Connecticut farm and the work during the war was pretty unsatisfying for an artist like Tytla. Among his final work for Disney is a witch and Nazi teacher in the brutal short Education for Death and a fight between an octopus and eagle in the feature Victory Through Airpower. His last credit was on the short Victory Vehicles. In January 1943 Paul Terry went out to Los Angeles and gave an offer to Bill that he accepted. On February 25, 1943 he resigned from the Disney studio and abruptly disappeared from the Hollywood animation industry. We’ll never know exactly what made this happen but we do know that it was a depressing loss for the studio and one Tytla would regret for the rest of his life.
At the Terrytoons studio Bill Tytla quickly became very unsatisfied and really missed the Disney studio. The quality of the cartoons wasn’t much better than it was during his previous time there and he really struggled adjusting to it although he actually did do some good animation at the studio and even a few places show faint traces of his greatness (something that’s very hard to do in a Terrytoon.) “I think it was frustrating for him,” explained John Gentiella. “He really couldn’t do what he wanted to do. He was such a perfectionist.” Ironically to save finances Bill was let go from the studio in the summer of 1944. He soon found work as a director at Famous Studios, which turned out to be not much better. While his cartoons have better staging than the rest of the studio’s work they are for the most part interchangeable from the work of the other directors and he wasn’t a very good director. Around this time he tried to convince the Disney Studio to send him work to his farm to animate but that was unsuccessful although he would try to come back to the studio many times later. After leaving Famous in 1950 he paired up with former Disney colleague at Tempo Studio in New York, where he struggled with the modern style of the work. After this he worked in commercials in the east and struggled greatly. He missed the style and fulfillment of Disney animation greatly. As much as he wanted to come back the committee at Disney didn’t want the competition and prevented this from happening although people suggest that Walt would have accepted him back. While it pains me deeply to talk too much about the sadness and depression of Tytla’s later life to the point I’m writing about it as briefly and delicately as possible I will tell you it wasn’t a happy ending for him and it was a true tragedy (read John Canemaker’s monograph on him to learn more about this. Thanks Rhett Wickham for letting me borrow a copy.) The worst thing is the loss was mutual. Bill was precisely the piece that the studio needed during the late 40s, 50s, and 60s. The power and feeling he wanted was the only thing needed to make those films even better than the classics they are. You can only imagine the greatness that could have been achieved. On December 29, 1968 Bill Tytla died on his farm in Connecticut after a severe long-term professional, physical, and emotional decline. However as terrible of an ending as this may sound there is some happiness to be seen. No matter what Tytla’s influence will live on at the Disney studio forever and his greatness will never die at the heart of it.
Bill Tytla’s style is very unique and dynamic. His stuff could range from realistic bold anatomy to caricatured expressive distortion. Acting wise he could go from an evil devil to a baby elephant so there really was nothing the man couldn’t animate and animate well. The most important thing to understand however in his style is that feelings and emotions always came first for him. Bill did everything possible to get this out of him and really struggled with it until it all came together emotionally. These feelings can range from very bold to incredibly subtle but they always had a great dynamic power to them. A huge influence on his acting was the book Acting: the Six Simple Steps by Richard Boleslavsky. Tytla intensely studied this book and really took the advice from it to heart. It talks a lot about method acting and if the term is possible he was in many ways a ‘method animator.’ Bill really cared for his characters and did everything possible to get as much inside them as possible. He tried to become the character and always felt real emotions towards them, therefore making his animation very strong and incredibly personal. Draftsmanship wise Tytla’s work can be a bit on the flashy side and has great strength. It’s got a very sculptural feel and is very versatile. Another important thing to realize about his animation is that he really tried to animate forces in actions and movements. Instead of being focused on the form he was most concerned with the feeling obtained by going through that movement and action. Not only does this involve the feeling of the action but also the feeling inside the character emotionally. These two are very connected in Bill’s animation and therefore have a much stronger result than they could if they were more distant. Last is Tytla’s animation was very sincere and has great integrity to it.
Obviously the influence that Bill Tytla has had on the art of Disney animation is incredibly overlooked and truly is immense to no end. Like I’ve tried to say throughout this entire post he really d transcended what was thought to be possible in animation. There’s nobody like him and his uniqueness is part of what makes him so influential. For one thing Tytla was one of the first animators to really take acting seriously. He really got inside his characters and did everything he could to make them have an impact on an audience. This really changed the way animators thought of acting and this inspired them to try to do the same thing in their own animation. Also the intensity and strength of his work really influenced everyone at the studio to really try to find very personal, strong, and powerful work that was completely their own and really spoke to people. Bill’s work really makes a statement and is artistic expression to the highest level. Another thing is that he was the one who proved that it’s important to really animate forces in animation and that it’s even more important than focusing on the forms. This really made Tytla’s work unique and strong. It’s also important that he proved that animation is at its best when there is no gap between the inner and outer emotions of the characters. Disney animation is supposed to be sincere and this is really the way you do it. You have to really make that inner emotion resonate in the animation and come out for the audience to feel it. Last is Bill Tytla really inspired the animators at the Disney studio to really take their work to the highest possible level and really get inside their characters emotionally. No one else did work so personal and honest. The other animators really picked up on this and tried to emulate it. As a result the feelings and emotions of the characters has been the top priority for Disney animators ever since and everything else is just there to support them. If it weren’t for Tytla no one could ever know the potential that was there and realize how strong they could be. Of course there are many more ways that Vladimir is influential but these are just a few that come off the top of my head.
Personally, Bill Tytla has had a strong impact on me. His work changed the direction of my life and was what really made me feel passionate for animation. I still drop my mouth at how powerful, emotional, beautiful, personal, and strong his work can be. It’s true merit and exactly what I value most in an animator. I remember freeze framing through the bathing scene in Dumbo and feeling in my heart ‘Wow something this honest and emotional is possible. A man could put this down on paper? I really have to try to do this.’ It really struck me in the heart and ever since then I’ve had no doubt that animation is my sincere passion. First Bill’s work really has influenced me to think about animation as a form of artistry and expression. If anyone was ever an artist as an animator it was definitely Tytla. He expressed himself through art in a way that few people ever have. Everything Bill animated at the studio was incredibly personal and done to the highest quality. This really shows and makes his work some of the strongest stuff ever done in animation. Second is Tytla’s influence really made me decide to take my studies and art seriously. He was such a hard worker and it was his determination, persistence, need to improve, desire to learn, and most importantly strive to understand that allowed him to do what he did. You have to have this gumption, drive, and passion if you’re going to pursue a career in a field as rugged and intense as animation. I’ve learned from this that it’s important that you always keep learning, continue to progress and break levels, and of course always do all you can to get the best possible result. You can’t just focus on the details; you’ve got to use them wisely to achieve one cohesive big picture that really speaks to people.
Bill’s animation talks about what it means to express your feelings and make a statement through the art of Disney animation. I also am really inspired by the almost-spiritual approach Tytla had to animation I described at the beginning of the post. It’s incredible to be able to find something so fulfilling and emotionally involved. I’ve learned that the farther you go in animation the more it helps you understand the world, people, human emotions and relationships, feelings, situations, and especially yourself. I’m only at the very beginning of this but I’ve already found my studies and work on my artwork has really helped me understand so much and see the world in a totally different perspective that’s much more philosophical and spiritual. I can’t wait to see how far this understanding can go and where it’ll end up when I’ve actually gone farther on my journey. This really speaks to me in all of Bill’s work more so than it does in anybody else’s. Another important way that he’s influenced me is in understanding the importance of the emotions and feelings of the characters. This is what you’re out there to capture and perceive. This is what this is all about. Without them animation is nothing special much less magical and believable. Particularly in his work in Snow White and Dumbo Tytla demonstrated how far this can take you and the power they can have on people. It’s unbelievable how much a drawing can impact a person emotionally. Last is I feel that Bill Tytla’s work has made me understand the importance of integrity in one’s work and what it means to love something all the way. This should always be your motivation to doing any endeavor or making any decision. You’ve got to be honest if you’re going to be an artist and have to know exactly what you’re doing. If you don’t believe in your work then why would anyone else care about it? The possibilities of animation are endless and it’s impossible to know how strong it can be. What’s important is that you really do all you can and keep that drive. You’ve got to not be focused on the destination and really embrace the journey. Loving something all the way is something that’s very hard to describe and something that’s very hard to understand. It has such strong meaning and it is really prevalent in all of Tytla’s best animation. He loved Disney animation all the way and loved his characters all the way. When it comes down to it it’s really the final test. If you don’t love animation all the way then there’s no reason to bother warrioring through it. This fulfillment is what makes it all worthwhile and ultimately what allows you to be able to transcend the medium, do really meaningful heartfelt work, and best of all really put your own feelings and emotions into your animation. I want to be able to do this someday and hope to really be able to understand it. I feel that loving something all the way is a really important thing to do in life. I feel it’s important with your passions, relationships, and with yourself. There’s nothing more sacred than this and to feel this way you’ve really got to be open minded and understanding. This is probably the greatest thing I’ve learned from animation. I’m really so grateful for everything I’ve learned from this experience of the blog and feel like a better person coming out of it, which is a very wonderful feeling to feel. Thank you Bill Tytla for your contributions to the art of Disney animation and for the inspiration you’ve been to me and so many other people!
And here we go with my first ever posting of a piece of my original artwork….
The possibilities of animation are endless and infinite. Its potential is limited only by the imagination of the person animating the scene and their ability to clearly communicate their thoughts and feelings using art. However many people are rather conservative and straight with their handling in animation or they go far out with no intent, purpose, or the skills needed to pull it off. In other words the stuff done is oftentimes realistic and restrained to the point of grotesqueness or boredom or on the flip side isn’t believable because of the lack of intellect, understanding, sincerity, or artistry. Animation in its purest form is expressive and believable but also caricatured and exaggerated to make the statement the animator is making strong and clear. When this “spark” happens it’s hard to find anything that transcends the magic of it. One of the men who really was a wizard at turning on this spark was Ward Kimball, number two in our countdown and the honoree of today’s post.
Of the great animators that have walked through the halls of the Disney studio none have had the best combination of imagination, creativity, satirical sensibilities, uniqueness, a desire to expand the medium, and an eccentric personality than Ward Kimball. He stood out because of how he used his wacky sensibilities, solid draftsmanship, and genius mind as well as his flair for caricature, excellent observational skills, and understanding of the principles of animation to do animation that is very original and in a unique way very sincere. There is complete integrity in Ward’s animation and a great amount of intelligence, separating him from the conventional comic animator who is just about the screwball qualities and tongue-and-cheek treatment. He’s very important because he proved that an animator could do something that is completely contradictory to what the standard of Disney animation points to but still retains sincerity and is equal in quality. “If I could have been any of the great animators at Disney I’d definitely be Ward,” stated honoree Duncan Marjoribanks. “His comic sensibilities don’t match up mine at all but I still love and admire his work,” explains young talent Matt Williames. “Along with Fred Moore he’s probably the one of the Disney guys who’s work has had the biggest impact on me,” said honoree Eric Goldberg. “When Chuck Jones saw my animation of the Genie in the Friend Like Me sequence for Aladdin when he visited the Disney Studio, he said ‘That’s a bit like Ward’s animation in the Three Caballeros.’ I like that compliment.” “He was quite the character,” remembers honoree Andreas Deja. “Ward Kimball’s work has an expert blending of the broad and the precise,” praises animation historian Michael Barrier. Not only was Kimball an exceptionally good animator but he was also perhaps the most innovative and imaginative of the honorees. While many of the others were more conservative in what they did and found doing similar assignments a never-ending rewarding enjoyment Ward always wanted to do something that was a completely new challenge and strived for innovation as well as expansion of the art form. He did things virtually no other Disney animator would ever dare to do and his unique taste was a great addition to the studio. “My final two cents worth of advice is to develop an all-consuming curiosity for things both exotic and living,” explained Ward. “Read, observe, analyze, and above all be flexible. Keep an open mind. The world is ever changing fast. Don’t get caught in the corner of the ring. Keep an open mind and have fun. Take it from me, it’s worth it!” Among his greatest accomplishments as a character animator include Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio, Bacchus in Fantasia, the Reluctant Dragon, the Crows in Dumbo, the title sequence of the Three Caballeros, Pecos Bill in Melody Time, the mice and Lucifer in Cinderella, and several characters (Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum, the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the Cheshire Cat) in Alice and Wonderland. After leaving feature animation Kimball had a great career directing innovative shorts and projects at Disney most notable his music shorts series (Melody; Toot, Whistle, Pluck, and Boom) and his space television series. “Ward Kimball is one man who works for me that I’m willing to call a genius,” famously stated Walt Disney.
Ward Kimball was born on March 4, 1914 in Minneapolis Minnesota. Growing up he lived in an environment of instability and uncertainty. For one thing his father was a businessman who was unsuccessful at everything he did and the family constantly had to move around the country. Also while Ward’s father was an intellectual, he recalled “My mother was just plain dumb.” They were a liberal family just as his would be when he grew up but the economic and constant changes made it sometimes a bitter situation. When he was seven Kimball went to live with his grandmother for a year because of the financial problems the family was facing. It was actually here where Kimball first became encouraged to do art and was the place where he was first introduced to drawing. “During my stay with my grandmother I developed an avid fascination with newspapers, especially the multicolored comic pages of the Minneapolis Journal,” he recalled decades later. “This early love affair with comic strips inspired me to ‘publish’ my own edition of the Sunday paper.” Growing up Ward was very interested and fascinated by all times of performance and entertainment, especially vaudeville. This stuck to him forever and if you study his work you’ll notice that a lot of the performance qualities, movements, and timing hold a candle to this form of performing. Kimball studied all types of performing arts from music to ballet. Around the age of 10 years old the family continued to move around but they did so more in the western side of the country particularly in the state of California. While this lifestyle was very hard on Ward he coped with this by creating a very extroverted, outspoken personality to make friends fast and easily. Fortunately he also had art to give him some sense of stability. This really came out when his school teacher gave a contest where the person with the best drawing got a candy bar. He was determined to get the prize to the point he worked as hard as he could until he got it. However this creative energy appealed to Kimball and he would continuously work religiously on his cartoons. His commitment was rewarded when he was offered a scholarship by the Santa Barbara School of Arts after high school, which he accepted. “Father banned me from the house for my adolescenttemerity but forgiveness came when I explained that applied design, drawing, and painting was more important than pennants, pompoms, and fraternities,” remembered Ward. Here he worked towards finding a career as a commercial artist and flourished with his studies although he approached them in an at best semi-whimsical way. However in 1933 the young man saw Disney’s short Father Noah’s Ark at a theater and was completely struck. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing and was most impressed by it. Soon after came the Three Little Pigs which appealed to Kimball even more. While at first his parents were reluctant to drive him down to Los Angeles to try out at the Disney Studio, eventually his mother decided to take him down. Ward did so and his portfolio was soon accepted. They were impressed by his ability to caricature what he observed and make it feel believable. The animator was hired on April 2, 1934.
At first Ward Kimball worked as an inbetweener in a bullpen, which was a less-than-ideal experience. Not only did he not enjoy doing such crappy work but he also had a terrible relationship with George Drake, the head of the department. The two men mutually hated each other and annoyed each other to no end. Drake constantly tried to get Ward fired and the young man was only saved when Ham Luske picked him up as his assistant. The mentor had a solid reputation for being excellent at explaining procedures and the principles of animation as well as serving as a good leader for the young animators. “Ham gave me a lot of responsibility and that’s the way you learn,” recalled Kimball. “He’d give me little secondary things to animate in his scenes. I would do the drapery follow through. This is the way I learned the rudiments. He told me you couldn’t caricature until you can analyze, draw, and shot the real object, the real character.” Among the shorts he first work on as Ham’s assistant include Orphan’s Benefit, the Goddess of Spring, and the Tortoise and the Hare. Around this time Ward also developed a reputation at the studio for making caricatures and playing practical jokes. His social life include hanging around in a cliché that included Walt Kelly and the great Fred Moore. Kimball was really embracive of all the energy and attitude at the studio at the time. “There was more to the cartoon film business than I ever could have dreamed of,” he enthusiastically explained. “You had to first be an artist, a draftsman, an actor, and you had to use mathematics to make it all work. And most of all, you had to have patience.” Ward soon became a junior animator and his first short as a full-fledged animator was Elmer Elephant, a Silly Symphony released in 1936. However his real breakout performance was on a cello-playing grasshopper in Woodland Café (1936.) the super-fast timing, fluid but greatly exaggerated and caricatured movement, and the precisely accurate rhythm of the scene was soon to impress many people. “I was really impressed by it,” remembers Ken Peterson, best known for being the head of the animation department for many years in the 40s and 50s. At the same time Ward married the beautiful Betty Lawyer, who was an ink-and-paint girl at the studio. While the girls and boys were typically separate at the studio, the long hours of overtime and night shifts on Snow White had brought them together and during that time there were a lot of marriages among studio artists. On the film Ward primarily worked on two sequences with the dwarfs: one where they were going to eat soup and another where they were making a bed for Snow White. He worked super hard on the scenes and completed them. However it was not long before both scenes were decided to be irrelevant in advancing the plot and both were cut entirely on the spot. This left virtually none of Kimball’s animation with the film (the exceptions being scenes with the vultures and the shot where the dwarfs put up their noses on Snow White’s bed. “I was very discouraged because I had worked so hard,” reflected the animator.
Furious, Ward Kimball took the deletion of his scenes personally and thought that it meant they didn’t like his animation. He was ready to quit but when we went to tell Walt he received a surprise. The maestro persuaded Ward to stay and told him that he was intending on him doing a cricket character in the upcoming film Pinocchio. The animator was immediately back on the Disney train and left the office feeling like it was the best place in the world. Originally a minor character the cricket evolved into the major character known and loved as Jiminy Cricket. It was ultimately Kimball’s design of the character that was used and he was the directing animator on the character. “Pinocchio was the first picture where I operated as an animation supervisor,” the animator told Steve Hulett. “Walt began to take the older, or more talented, or whatever you want to call them animators and make what he called animation supervisors. Maybe two or three of us would go on a picture early — try to take the story sketches and develop a character, draw a character that would work in animation. Lot of times, a story sketch wouldn’t work. The cricket had been drawn like a little black grasshopper, and the problem there was getting a character that Walt would accept. Now, that was a tough job because like I tell everybody, the cricket looked like a cockroach. So each time I’d go up there, Walt would kind of frown and say “He’s not cute enough,” or something. So by a process of elimination, I dropped all the cockroach stuff so what we had was a little man, with a cut-away coat, which I suppose you could call wings, the way they come to a point in back, but there they stop. There’s a collar, top hat, and umbrella, and his face is an egg with cheeks. No ears, two lines on top, reminiscent of the feelers, and his nose. You couldn’t put on anything that looked like nostrils or holes or things that looked ugly. Before that, we worked for six months on the sequence, and I don’t think the cricket was in it, and Walt realized it wasn’t working. And he threw it all out and started over … I tend to forget the problems we had, and that’s the tendency of everybody, but Pinocchio was no soft touch. In fact, I thought it was harder for everybody than Snow White. We finished Snow White and we said, “Ha. We know how to do features!” And everybody went into Pinocchio with this great load of confidence. Boy, six months later we found out, and Walt found that, that what you learn in one picture doesn’t necessarily work on the next picture. Then Walt brought in the cricket, added that little personality. The story needed something to bounce Pinocchio’s problems off of. How do you bring a marionette to life? How does he know the facts of life unless he has some tutor? … See, the cricket has educated Pinocchio and you get a kick out of Pinocchio’s mistakes and his naïveté, his unworldly approach…”
“If the Cricket’s mouth is drawn too close to the nose it makes him look too cute,” explained Ward. “Mouth works as a hinge. Don’t draw a tricky Mickey Mouse mouth, which seems to be working on the side. In drawing the Cricket try to figure him like Mickey. Divide him into thirds, then make a teardrop in normal relaxed poses. Try to make him funny. In other words be sincere, and realistic in the drawing always. You must make him real as much as possible because he is to begin with an abstract design of something that is small and cute.” “I had a lot of problems with the Cricket,” he described to Charles Solomon. “Normally an artist caricatures an animal by learning to draw it correctly- then the caricature becomes a simple problem of degree. But with an insect you’re in trouble because insects are very ugly and unappetizing. A cricket looks like a cross between a cockroach and a grasshopper. For the first designs, I started with a real cricket with toothed legs and antennae but Walt didn’t like it. I did twelve or fourteen versions and gradually cut off all the appendages. I ended up with a little man, really, wearing spats and a tail coat that suggested folded wings; he likes like Mr. Pickwick but with no ears, no nose, and no hair. The audience accepts him as a cricket because the other characters say he is.” While Ward wasn’t too keen to the results of the Cricket’s design, it is truly among if not soley his best work and is the one that best challenges the urban legend that he was incapable of true sincere, personality animation. Kimball’s timing is noticeably slower in this character than it is in his typical work and the solidity of drawing as well as expert use of animation principles and performance skills make this one truly believable and sincere performance. My personal favorite thing about his animation of the cricket is the honesty behind it and the great blending of caricature, sincerity, and precision that’s done with him. He’s such a dynamic character and one that is entertaining as well as heartwarming. He tells the story and we really connect with him. What’s better than all of that?
Up next for Ward Kimball came Fantasia, where he animated Bacchus in the Pastoral Symphony sequence. While his animation on the character is pretty top notch (the design is very appealing and the way the timing shows the weight is pure brilliant), it was far from among his personal favorite assignments and wishes he had instead worked on the satirical Dance of the Hours. “Few things in life are perfect but the Dance of the Hours is perfect,” admits Ward. The animator had more fun on the looser, more groundbreaking animation style of the Reluctant Dragon, where he animated almost all of the dragon himself. “Some of the conservatives at the studio resented the fact that the dragon sounded pretty gay,” remembered Kimball with a laugh. So I guess we can say the Reluctant Dragon very well might be the first homosexual cartoon character in the history of animation. Anyway I highly suggest you freeze-frame Ward’s animation of the dragon and study it intensely. This is cartoon acting at its best and has some of the most expressive, clear gesture poses ever to come across the silver screen.
Up next came Dumbo, a film that was a personal favorite of Kimball’s and one where he feels he did some of his best work. “Walt went through the whole story in five minutes in the parking lot,” remembered the animator. “He said ‘I want you do the dance sequence where the crows teach Dumbo how to fly.’ And listening to him tell the story, I could tell that the picture was going to work.” Ward’s animation of the birds in the final film is without a doubt one of the greatest performances of all time. Not only beautiful choreographed and has amazingly musical as well as precise timing but the crows also have a great emotional complexity and have a lot of the sincere qualities that the animator applied to the Cricket. Funny enough Kimball actually cast Cliff Edwards, the voice of the Cricket, as Jim Crow, the leader of the group. “Cliff Edwards doing the voice of Jim Crow really made the whole sequence, because he was quite adept at doing kazoo solos on his old records, and he could vocally imitate other instruments,” he explained in an interview. “Many of the instrumental effects on the track were done by Edwards. Voice-wise, he really sounded more black than the blacks [from the Hall Johnson Choir] we had backing him up… The development and differentiation of the (crow) characters really began on the night that we started recording. I decided that Jim Crow would be the big, dominating boss crow with the derby… By the time the voices were set, you have a pretty good idea how they would individually look, react and even function in the sequence.”
The sequence was directed by Jack Kinney, known for his great satirical and broad comedy Goofy shorts, and storyboarded by the great Ralph Wright. “Jack did his work; he took care of the loose ends,” Ward told Michael Barrier. “He took care of making out the sheets. I liked him, because he’d say, “Do whatever you want here.”He’d just rip off a pile of sheets, and I’d say, “I’ll phone up the timing.” I did that all the time. Jack was flexible about that; he didn’t try to push his weight around. He was open, and he was good in that respect. He did exactly what he should have done with an animator. He set up the recording sessions, and we were invited to it. He talked over story points, and we made our suggestions, and we’d argue now and then. It was sort of a good relationship.” However as much as his working relationship with Jack worked out there were a few clashes with supervising director Ben Sharpesteen, who was pretty conservative in his decisions and taste. “I wanted to try something different, I wanted to make each crow a definite, separate character,” explained Kimball. “One example was the little crow with the big horn-rimmed glasses. When he rolled his eyes, the eyes went out beyond the head mass, they rolled around inside the rims of the big glasses. Ben objected to that, and we had a hell of a fight. I said, “Look, Ben, some people wear magnifying glasses; they distort things.” He couldn’t quite see it. This was how dense he was about caricature in graphics. I refused to change my animation. Finally, Walt saw the sequence and thought it was great. He was the final Supreme Court.” In a nutshell this worked very well and the musical number is very memorable as well as nothing short of geniusism in every use of the word.
While most of the people at the studio found the years of World War II unhappy ones Ward Kimball was an exception. He found the shorts as great opportunities to experiment with new ideas and fool around with his love of satire and caricature. Kimball had a great time making these films and basically did his own thing. One of the best examples of his attitude towards the time period in contrast to those of others is the short Education for Death. While Bill Tytla, Frank Thomas, and Milt Kahl unhappily struggled with very dark, dreadful, and ultra-realistic material that was most unsatisfying for them Kimball lived it up with his hilarious scenes of Hitler having a love duet with an obese Hermann Goering dressed in Brunhilde drag. This is one of the few moments in the wartime shorts that is watchable much less entertaining. “It got tremendous laughs but they cut down on her expression because they were worried people would think she got the finger or something,” reflected Ward. Ironically it was director Gerry Geronimi who did the censorship, who Kimball absolutely despised and was actually quite vulgar in his studio behavior. Around the same time the animator also animated some of Pedro in Saludos Amigos, which turned out to be one of the weakest assignments of his career. The film, written as a very humorous segment, was turned into one beginning for sentimentality and the whole thing didn’t come together very well. However the second film in the Latin American series, the Three Caballeros actually turned out to be an absolute highlight of Ward’s career. He animated the extremely entertaining and brilliantly choreographed Three Caballeros song sequence. The whole thing is not only timed out like nobody’s business and has great actions/gestures to support the lyrics clearly but it also is hilarious and very visually rich. “That’s the only animation I ever did that I’m uncritical of,” explains Ward. “I look at the damn song I did and I laugh and I grin as hard as the day I did it.”
In the package features of the second half of the 1940s Ward Kimball continued to flourish and serve as a frontrunner of the animation studio. The round, cartoony but solid style of 40s cartoons worked very well with the animator and the look of these films was just phenomenal even though story wise most of them are substandard. First came Make Mine Music where Kimball animated most of all the characters in the satirical but tragic the Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met (a short about a whale who can sing and fathoms of becoming an opera singer) as well as the cat, duck and the huntsmen in the Peter and the Wolf segment. Study the shot of the huntsmen walking and you’ll see a textbook example of balance, spacing, and weight in an action. Then came Fun and Fancy Free where the animator reprised his role of Jiminy Cricket as well as animated Bongo and Lumpjaw the villain black bear in the Bongo segment. Probably his best animation from this time period however is in the third of the four package features, Melody Time. In it Ward was the primary animator on the legendary Pecos Bill. Personally Pecos Bill is one of my favorite parts of a Disney film and his animation in the segment was one of the things that first inspired me to get into animation. I love the cartoony style of the short and find its broad but precise and witty sensibilities a non-dangerous drug. This is also a notable instance because it’s one of the few times that Kimball had a successful collaboration with his rival, Milt Kahl. The two had very different opinions on animation and their personalities clashed to the point that they were studio nemeses. Milt even bashed him frequently in interviews and said that his work as well as that of Frank, Ollie, and Marc was far superior to Ward’s. However in this segment the two styles go together perfectly and there is a lot of great animation (Kahl did almost all of Swing Foot Sue.) “They were both raised to a height that they never could have done alone,” explained Ken Peterson. “Milt broadened out his caricature and held Kimball down a little bit.” Last came Ichabod and Mr. Toad where Kimball did Toad’s escape and some of Ichabod and his horse in the nighttime ride sequence.
Cinderella was Disney’s triumphant return to classic full-length storytelling and for many it was also a return to realism. While the package features had a ton of room for exploration, fun, and loose caricature the animation of the human characters in the film were all shot in live action and most animators were forced to use this reference as a tool. Although Cinderella is without a doubt one of the strongest Disney films story wise and from a visual, art direction standpoint is absolutely beautiful a lot of the animation is very straight and occasionally feels too close to live action. However the animal characters were exempt from this restricted handling and the animators were free to make their own acting choices on them and be more imaginative and creative with their animation. To no one’s surprise Ward Kimball did the lion’s share of these characters. Largely storyboarded by the one and only Bill Peet the cat-mouse conflict of Cinderella is one of the film’s strongest virtues and serves as a great reflection of what the humans are doing. However unlike some films like Pocahontas the animal characters are well integrated into the film and help make the film richer than it could ever have been otherwise. This film has a lot of Ward’s best work and his animation shows great understanding of character, staging, sharp timing, entertainment, appeal, performance, and use of animation principles to communicate a character. One scene that’s particularly worth studying of his is the scene where Lucifer is looking through all the different cups trying to find Gus so he can eat him. The timing and use of details to communicate the big picture utilized by Kimball in this scene shows you just how much of a genius he was. “It’s as good as anything Chaplin had ever done,” stated honoree Andreas Deja. However it wasn’t unnoticed that Ward was having a good time on this film. “The other animators knew that Kimball was enjoying himself and resented it,” wrote Michael Barrier. “Ward always had a talent for protecting himself,” remembered Frank Thomas. “He’d smell which way the wind was blowing and take advantage of it.”
Up next from Ward Kimball came Alice in Wonderland, another film that was difficult for most of the crew but not for the animator. He was given juicy assignments such as Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, and a few scenes of The Walrus and the Carpenter the understated Cheshire Cat. “The film turned into a vaudeville show,” remarked Ward on the film. With the exception of the Cheshire Cat(which John Lounsbery did the majority of), he did a large amount of the footage on most of his characters and the consistency in them is a rare treat in that time period when characters were way too many times split up between way too many animators. John Lounsbery, Woolie Reitherman, and Cliff Nordberg did a good job following Kimball up in the scenes they did. The enjoyment that Kimball had on the film really shows in his work and the result is some of the juiciest, most entertaining, and brilliantly comic characters to ever come out of the studio.
My favorite thing about his work in Alice is the understanding of performance he uses and the skill in the acting. He isn’t just goofing around; he’s really thinking about these characters and making a statement with a pencil. It works because Ward took so much out of observing from life and used his imagination to caricature or expand that to make something that felt even more “real” and expressive than something that is real. With all of his characters in Alice they’re thoroughly conceived, believable, and the acting is the best of the best. What sequence in Disney history is more entertaining than the Mad Tea Part scene? It’s sculptural drawing, exaggerated gestures and actions, integration of voice with character, understanding of emotions, use of technique, and draftsmanship is out of this world.
Up next came Peter Pan, where Kimball had a bit of a hard time finding his place in. He was by this point one of the few animators in the studio who never went to Milt Kahl for drawing advice and therefore didn’t acknowledge his nemesis’s influence on the Disney style. This made it difficult for him to have a place in films that were becoming more and more focused on pure sincerity and straight handling. The animation was also becoming less imaginative and more straight, making it harder for the man with the wild imagination to express himself. Kimball by this film was also rather bored with animation and wanted to find a new challenge. So on Pan he mainly focused on minor characters such as the Indian Chief and some of the Lost Boys. The Indian Chief, although a small part, is quite a character because of the flexibility used in his face and the understatement used to make his essence more powerful. After Peter Pan Ward did some brief minor work doing layouts for Sleeping Beauty before doing some designs and pencil tests for the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp. However the designs didn’t really fit in with the picture and ultimately he was taken off the project. “He tried to do something new with his cat designs but the other animators said they didn’t fit into the picture,” explains Ward’s son John Kimball. “They were continuing with the warm, rounded look. He had more of an edge to the characters. He was really hurt.”
While struggling to find his niche in the current environment at feature animation Ward Kimball looked for other outlets of his creativity and his first attempts were directing and animating in two groundbreaking musical shorts, Melody and Toot, Whistle, Pluck, and Boom. Both were huge successes and were the first Disney films ever to use limited animation. “My contention was there were certain types of comedy staging that were best done with limited animation,” described Ward. “A lack of movement would put over the gag.” In 1954 the animator moved out of feature animation all together and moved upstairs to work on the space series for the Disney TV show. “I was so relieved to get away from animation,” stated Kimball in an interview. “I knew how to do it. I wanted to have some say about the content.” And that’s exactly what he found because in the Space series he embraced a creative freedom very few artists have ever had in the animation industry at all. “The Space Series was the creative highpoint of my career,” he reflected. However the good days couldn’t last forever and in 1961 while working on the live action Babes in Toyland a huge rift occurred between Ward and Walt, which almost got him fired. He was spared but he was sentenced to doing Von Drakes for television, which he hated. Although he constantly tried to experiment for the rest of his career more and more Kimball didn’t feel welcome in the creative environment at the studio and the management did more and more to try to control him. This lead to him taking an extended vacation in 1972 and officially retiring on August 31, 1973. However over the years the retired Ward and the studio grew closer again and he was always very encouraging to the young animators at the studio. Ward Kimball passed away on July 8, 2002 at the age of 88 in Los Angeles, CA.
Style wise Ward Kimball was a caricaturist and had a brilliant, endless imagination. He always tried to find the most entertaining way to do a scene and searched until he found the way that was the way he wanted. However it’s important to remember that Ward isn’t your typical comic animator and really has much more depth than that. There is an emotional complexity, integrity of feelings, and precision in his work that is rarely found in comic animation and this combination of sensibilities works really well. You believe in Kimball’s characters in a way that you usually don’t in broad characters and they are able to carry a story in a way that typical comic fare couldn’t do. For example Jiminy Cricket and Jim Crow actually help carry the emotional weight of the story, something that animators of this breed aren’t known for doing.
It’s not the intellect, creativity, expert precision, or performance alone that makes Ward’s work special but the COMBINATION of all these things. I personally am an absolute nut for his timing and it’s interesting to see how he does his timing just fast enough to make it funny but just slow enough to be accepted in a Disney film. It’s also important to remember he was an excellent draftsman and his observational/analytical skills were very advanced, making him able to do things in animation that are very unique but are still believable. If you read an interview with Kimball you can tell he knew what he was doing and was always in complete control. He really thought through his work and put in his personal voice and passion into his scenes. The combination of all these things is exceptional and few people have ever been able to be as big of an animation genius as Ward.
Ward Kimball had a very unique influence on the art of Disney animation and the work of the studio. He was the first animator that was a front-runner at the studio but was going in a direction that was significantly different than the one the rest of the studio was going in. Usually there is a standard that everyone tries to go up to and everything is compared to them. Ward was never the standard but he was always as good as the standard; he just was doing something completely different but still strong. This really defined that an animator should try to do their own thing, find their own sensibilities, and have animation that is completely original as well as true to their personal voice.
Before this pretty much everyone tried to imitate who were the top men at the time and didn’t do anything more. Now animators were being encouraged to really do something interesting with their characters and something that’s specific to that character. Also Kimball is important because of the way he valued innovation and encouraged people to really try different things. He never repeated himself and once he felt he mastered something he always went on to break a new boundary rather than try to live up to his past best work. Last Ward is influential because he proved that broad satirical animation can be sincere, meaningful, and precise. This opened up a whole new door for possible Disney characters and really changed the way things were done. Who can possibly imagine where animation would have been without Kimball?
Ward Kimball has been a great inspiration to me. I love his sensibilities and find studying his animation something that’s completely irresistible. Ward’s work opened my eyes to the endless possibilities that can be found in Disney animation and how you can really stretch what is sincere, sentimental animation. There are well over a thousand ways you can do a scene and the work of people like Kimball opened my eyes to this realization. Animation isn’t something that’s narrow, easy to classify, or that stays the same: it changes all the time, is endless, and can do anything. There is always something better out there to be done and Ward really preached this. His work also taught me the importance of understanding something before animating it, getting to know the real thing and have the draftsmanship to draw it before trying to caricature it, how animation principles can be used to communicate a scene, the importance of precise timing, the value of caricature, and the range a comic character has to cover. He also was one of the first people whose work spoke to me in a strong way.
Kimball taught that you really have to work hard to be able to get there and you must really learn to observe, take in inspiration, and express yourself as an artist first. You have to struggle to get what Duncan Marjoribanks says is the lightning strike that makes everything come together and the feeling really work. Last is I feel Ward has really influenced me to have an open mind about animation and really think about the future. I realized there’s so much more to go in our understanding of animation and that even though we’ll never know all of it we’ve got to try our best to get there. If something doesn’t progress and stays the same it dies. If someone stops learning they fall apart. Same is true to Disney animation. It has to keep progressing and you have to be willing to adapt to the changes that occur. Thank you Ward Kimball for your contributions to the art of Disney animation and for being a great inspiration to me as well as so many other people!
The summer of 1937 was a most intense time at 2719 Hyperion Avenue. Walt Disney and his studio were desperately and vigorously working to complete Snow White and challenge the common belief that a cartoon feature would be a complete failure. The fate of the whole studio was at stake and everyone on the crew was very well aware of this. If the feature failed, it would make it all but impossible for someone to be willing to try an animated feature again and the Disney studio would likely go bankrupt. To prove that an animated film could be successful and connect with an audience what had to be done was to have characters that were believable, relatable, and most of all had emotions that were very real. By this point most of the film had been completed and most of the major scenes had been animated. However one of the few remaining was one that was quite possibly the most difficult and one that absolutely needed to work to prove that an animated feature could get an emotional response from the audience. It was the scene where the dwarfs mourn the supposed-loss of Snow White and cry over her body. This was something that no one had ever dared to do before in animation and to work it had to be real. This scene had to make an audience feel much more stronger and emotionally than any one done before as well as make an audience far sadder than a drawing could ever be. These emotions had to be felt inside them or all would be lost. As crucial as this scene was Walt had virtually no options in terms of people who could possibly animate it. Fred Moore had designed all the dwarfs and done some great animation as the leads of the characters but he was burnt out, busy, and didn’t quite have the thinking or deep emotions needed for the scene to be affective. The logical choice would have been Bill Tytla, who did have strong emotions in his characters and already had done work on the picture that had far exceeded anything done before, but he had been on the picture for well over a year and had to work on other scenes. The situation seemed absolutely hopeless. However one day Walt had a thought come to his head. He thought that maybe there was a slight chance that a 24 year-old animator who was really proving himself on the film could somehow and someway have the chops to do it. Just when everything seemed like it was going to fall apart, it just worked. The results for the scene were most impressive and in turn the picture worked incredibly well both artistically and emotionally. This is the story of how Frank Thomas, number 3 in our countdown and the honoree of today’s post, became a star.
Frank Thomas was one of the greatest actors to ever come across Hollywood but instead of using his body he used his pencil. What he lacked in draftsmanship he more than made for with his analytical thinking, high intellect, understanding of acting and emotions, determination, persistence, attention to detail, intensity, concentration, and drive. Perhaps no one in the history of animation was ever as determined to succeed and put on the greatest performance possible than Frank. He never repeated himself, loved trying new things, was excited by innovation, never let himself do substandard work, and always used motion and acting to communicate his deep and emotional thoughts. “Frank’s work is absolutely incredible because of the way it feels,” praises honoree Andreas Deja. “He wins the struggle with his drawings. He has something in his mind that he’s after. Just getting there is a little hard for him. Everything is solved through motion. Frank had a way of moving through it in very subtle ways. It is the series of drawings that sell the thought.” “Frank took this as a serious business and his acting was amazing,” explains honoree James Baxter. “He was a giant of an artist and a wonderful accomplished and gracious man,” remembers his son Theodore Thomas, who currently is making documentaries about animation. “Frank was a task maker but wonderful,” reflected his longtime assistant Dale Oliver. “Very exacting, he knew precisely what he wanted.” “He’s the Lawrence Olivier of animation,” simply stated Warner Brothers cartoon director and animation legend Chuck Jones. Among Thomas’s best work is the dwarfs in Snow White, Bambi and Thumper ice-skating, the Stepmother in Cinderella, Captain Hook in Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp eating spaghetti, the fairies in Sleeping Beauty, and Baloo and Mowgli in the Jungle Book. Not only is his work very thought out and brilliant but it is also very sincere and emotion. You can very well make the argument Frank is the most dynamic of all the honorees.
Franklin Thomas was born on September 5, 1912 in Santa Monica, California but he soon moved away from Santa Monica to Fresno. His father was an educator and would become the president of Fresno State College when he was young. Frank was encouraged at a young age to really get a good education, appreciate the arts, be intellectual, and to pursue any honorable path he pleased. Growing up he wasn’t very social so he would do more individualistic activities such as reading and art. Thomas’s first exposure to drawing was when his older brother Craig began doing it. “I started drawing because Craig was drawing,” he recalled. “It always seemed natural to draw. I never thought much about it.” The competitor that he was Frank got into it too and began to work very hard on his art. However drawing was by no means an easy thing for him and he wasn’t exceptionally naturally talented at it. Even when he was working at Disney as one of the greatest animators of all time he still felt he was a flawed draftsman and it was a constant struggle to him. In many ways this actually made Thomas a better animator later because he challenged his struggle so much and it really made him do everything he could to do the best possible work. After high school he attend Fresno State College for two years, where his father was the president. Between the two years Frank went done to the University of Southern California to attend a few summer classes and it was there were he developed a passion for film. Realizing his son’s real passion was the arts his father gave him a deal that after finishing his college degree he would pay for two years at any art school he wanted to go to. So Thomas finished his degree by attending two years at Stanford University where he worked for the school newspaper the Stanford Chaparrel. Here he not only met future Disney colleagues and friends Jim Algar and Thor Putnam but more significantly his lifelong best friend Ollie Johnston. Once he completed his degree at Stanford Frank moved down to Los Angeles where he attend the Chouinard Institute of Art. He intended on becoming an illustrator but found that he really struggled in this. To make his work better he attended some drawing classes with Don Graham but when he returned to illustration classes things weren’t a ton better. “The interesting thing was that when he went to the Disney all the emotions that he didn’t get into the illustration seemed to come out in his work there.” In 1934 Thor Putnam and Jim Algar both moved down to Los Angeles and got hired by Disney Animation Studios. Frank decided to follow their lead and he was hired on September 24, 1934.
At the beginning of his career Frank Thomas worked in the inbetween pool at the studio and would work on the scenes of various animators. He worked in this pool for six months but not long after he found an enemy in supervisor George Drake. Drake had absolutely no talent or understanding of art or animation and the only reason he even had a job at the studio was he was married to Ben Sharpesteen’s sister. He wasn’t a very kind man and constantly irritated the inbetweeners. Apparently Drake intended on firing Thomas but he was saved when Fred Moore picked him up as his assistant. At the time Moore was the frontrunner and gold standard for the animation department and even though he didn’t with Frank make quite the difference he made with his friend Ollie Johnston the young man did have great admiration and respect for his mentor. He also sought out advice and help from top animators Ham Luske and Les Clark as well as director Wilfred Jackson. Around this time Walt Disney began to put together extensive classes and studying sessions after work to get his animators to be able to analyze and draw better, the most notable being the Action Analysis Class taught by Don Graham. This was a tremendous and important learning experience for Thomas as well as so many of the other animators. “Almost immediately this easy life of sitting there and drawing little pictures and laughing disappeared,” he remembered. “Walt put us into art class, he put us into studying action analysis, looking at old films, studying characters, studying filmmaking. These are the things that appealed to me.” In Don Graham’s class Frank made a pencil test with a girl who had a dog in her suitcase that was incredibly well received. Ben Sharpesteen was so blown away by it that he promoted him to the position of animator. Thomas’s first animation was on Mickey’s Circus but his first standout work was on Mickey’s elephant, where he animated a great scene where Pluto puts his tail under his butt. These scenes show great thinking and analysis behind them therefore showing great potential even at this early stage. “That was fun to do,” the animator recalled. “Course I could run to Fred anytime and say ‘Hey, draw me an elephant here. What am I doing work?’ He’d laugh and draw me an elephant, a Mickey, a Pluto. All these drawings. He liked to work over someone’s else’s drawings. Milt like that it. It bolstered their ego cause they were the top authority on this. “ Another early achievement was some very impressive animation of Hiawatha in Hiawatha’s Hunt. While Thomas was rapidly becoming a star and showing so much promise there were some situations were tension developed out of resentment of the old timers. They felt that they deserved to be stars because they had the most experience and were used to having their cartooning school tricks work but the things were changing and many couldn’t keep up with the direction Disney was going therefore making them angry and resentful towards younger animators like Frank. “Walt let it be known he wanted the guys who had been into cartoons in school and had art school training,” the animator reflected.
Already a rising star on the shorts on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Frank Thomas would take things to the next level and get a place as one of the top caliber animators at the studio. He was one of 8 animators on the dwarfs and besides leads Fred Moore and Bill Tytla did more animation than anyone else on the characters. What is so great bout the bulk of Frank’s work on the feature is the specific emotions he gave to each dwarf, the effort he utilized in putting every possible juice of entertainment into each scene, and the effort he did in giving them walks and movements that expressed their personality. Among his scenes on the film are Doc calling out Heigh Ho for the first time, the dwarfs slowly walking into Snow White’s room, and the dwarfs showing their hands to Snow White. Thomas really gave it his all on everything he did on the film and it really impressed everyone at the studio very strongly. His devotion to the picture was so strong that oftentimes he would come back in at night and redo the animation in scenes of the dwarves he thought were substandard. Thomas’s real achievement on the film though is the scene where the dwarfs are mourning the loss of Snow White and crying over her believed-dead body. “It just felt like they should all move as little as possible,” he explained. “These guys were consumed with grief and wouldn’t be moving around. They’d have strong body attitudes that could be held for the most part, and maybe a sagging move on the head here and there, just enough to keep it alive. Even a sniff seemed to be too much action for the mood. Frank Churchill had written a great melody that really carried the sequence and my problem was more of not breaking the spell than establishing how badly anyone felt. Sad eyes, slow blinks, and a few tears were all we needed.” This less-is-more approach to the sequence was a complete success and it couldn’t have been done more effectively. It also has a great touch when Grumpy realizes how much he loves Snow White and is the one to cry openly, therefore building on Tytla’s establishment of Grumpy’s feelings for her. “It was exactly the way I wanted to see it,” said Walt Disney. However the intensity that Frank had on the film took it’s toll and after the production was over he went to the hospital because of intensity.
After Snow White Frank Thomas had achieved stardom and continued to receive juicy assignments. First came some exceptional animation in Mickey Mouse shorts the Brave Little Tailor (where he did some great acting scenes of Mickey telling the story of his encounters with giants and going into pantomime) and the Pointer(where he did some amazing dialogue and personality scenes with the help of filming Walt’s gestures and expressions while reading the script.) As for features the next film was Pinocchio and Frank was given the assignment of alongside Mile Kahl being the directing animator on the title character. While Milt did a ton of scenes of Pinocchio being alive the other man focused more on the scenes where his being a puppet is most prevalent. He animated Pinocchio as a puppet in the Wooden Head Song(where he did some great fluid movements and showed great technical skills) and him performing in the I’ve Got No Strings scenes(which is a textbook example of a great dance scene in an animated film.) “I felt pretty strongly that it ought to be very amateurish,” explained Thomas. “He’s never rehearsed this. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do. He’s making it up as he goes along. I even had him be late on his sync on some of the words.” After Pinocchio the animator skipped Fantasia when he and Kahl became the first animators on the ambitious project Bambi. “We knew Walt was determined to do something very unusual with this story and he was counting on us to bring it to life,” said Frank. “On Bambi all of the research, inspirational sketches, and story construction we had done held onto our ability to breathe life into drawings. Animated characters must be created to communicate story ideas in the most entertaining way. Just being alive was not enough.” He was completely devoted to the feature and early on Walt called him and Milt’s tests pure gold and told them that they were this picture. Throughout the film Frank did a ton of exceptional animation including Bambi meeting the butterfly, many scenes with Bambi and Thumper, scenes of Faline, Bambi’s mother, and a little bit of Flower. His best and most memorable scene on the film however was the brilliant scene of Bambi and Thumper iceskating. “I was like Bambi,” Frank admitted. “I couldn’t stay on my feet.” To get the feeling of the scene he practiced iceskating and used his experiences from doing it to make the scene believable. In all the timing, action analysis, understanding of character relationship, and precision of the scene is absolutely incredible. In all of Thomas’s work in Bambi shows incredible personality, understanding of acting and emotions, and extreme passion.
In 1941 Frank Thomas went on Disney’s visit to South America to research for the Latin American films and was the only animator who went on the trip (although Norman Ferguson went as a director.) However soon after he came back World War 2 started and almost all of the content of the studio’s output became in some shape or form about the war. Although he did some great animation in shorts from this era like Education for Death and Victory Vehicles he wasn’t interested in any of the material at all and soon felt very bored. Although Walt asserted that he’d make sure to keep him Frank decided to enlist in the air force in December 1942 and started working in cartoons for the war. There was a lot of talent in this unit including animation legends John Hubley, Jules Engel, Bernie Wolf, Rudy Ising, and Bill Hurtz. It was an interesting mix because here the Disneycentric and loyalist Thomas was getting along quite fine with people who were key picketers in the Strike of 1941. Here he got a chance to direct and it was a positive experience for all involved. After the war Frank married his wife Jeanette and returned to Disney in April 1946. Since there weren’t many people to do the job and because options were low he actually went into directing when he first came back for a brief time but found out that his true passion was animating and soon went back(he didn’t receive a screen credit although he was at least for a time a director on the Johnny Appleseed segment in Melody Time and at one attempt to bring out the Wind and the Willows as a feature.) Thomas’s first animation back was on Ichabod and Mr. Toad, where he animated in both the Wind and the Willows segment as well as animated the intense, suspenseful, and exciting ride of Ichabod Crane where he is sitting nervously on the horse. The scene has such great psychological precision, change of expression, and understatement of acting. Because the movement is held back it has so much more meaning and we really feel like we’re in Ichabod’s shoes and character. A lot of help came from the storyboards of Ed Penner and Joe Rinaldi as well as from the soundtrack by Oliver Wallace. “I couldn’t really miss because the other guys had already pyramided the thing so well,” commented Frank. In a nutshell the controlled-but-deep intensity of it really makes it work. “The burden of the development and the entertainment in the acting rested on my shoulders alone,” he wrote. “Such sequences are particularly tricky to do because of the need for the tempo to be maintained and the action to become more and more tense, so the scenes will build continuously to an ever-greater pitch of excitement. An action that is just too slow or a choice of business that is too ordinary can kill the overall effect. Story structure cannot do much to help in this case. The layouts and settings and the cutting play a more important part, along with the constant experimentation, correction, and revision of the animation. The sequence must be kept loose until it really works.”
After Ichabod and Mr. Toad Frank Thomas again got a hard assignment in being the directing animator on Lady Tremaine the Stepmother in Cinderella. Few villains are as evil and dislikable as the Stepmother but she also was difficult because she was in no way comic and really had to be straight in order to get the right menace and coldness needed for the animation. In order to get everything absolutely perfect live action was shot of all the human characters in the film and photostats were given out to the animators. Although one of his biggest accomplishments Thomas didn’t necessarily enjoy it and didn’t have fun using the photostats although he tried to resist using the crotch of live action too much. “The stepmother was a terrifying chore but she was the thing that made the picture work,” he reflected. Frank animated most of the footage of her with the exception of some great stuff by Harvey Toombs. My favorite thing about the Stepmother is the coldness and precision of her: you always know exactly what she’s thinking and the understatement of her acting makes the thoughts resonate so strongly. One major inspiration for Thomas was Eleanor Audley, who did an incredible vocal performance on her as well as some great acting in the live action reference. After Cinderella the animator went on to Alice in Wonderland, where he animated the Queen of Hearts and the Doorknob. The Queen of Hearts is probably the broadest character that Frank ever animated and his sensibilities for subtle, intense acting make her interesting. She’s comic and whimsical but in a very menacing and cruel way. However Thomas had trouble knowing what direction to take her and oftentimes found Walt little help in her handling. Ultimately the result is pretty satisfying. The timing, weight, and expression in the Queen is also very good making up a terrific performance. The doorknob was more fun for him to do and the lip sync and three-dimensional quality to the character is astonishing.
Up next came Peter Pan, where this time Frank Thomas had the assignment of animating the villain Captain Hook. At first there were a lot of problems surrounding the character in terms of who he was and how he was to be handled. Storyman Ed Penner say him as a very comic, broad, eccentric, and whimsical character and boarded him that way while director Gerry Geronimi was convinced he should be a menacing, serious character. There was no unity in these two vision and the two weren’t coming together at all. This made Frank very confused as to which way to go and as a result his first tests of Captain Hook were in his opinion so bad it was one of the low points in his life. It was weak to the point Milt Kahl even told him not to show it to Walt because “It’s absolutely nothing.” However Walt actually liked a quality he saw in the test and told Frank to keep going forward with him. Fortunately when voice actor Hans Conried came on to voice the character and do the live action everything started to come together. “He helped pull the character together because he could be supercilious and he would still have this underlying strength.” Although Wolfgang Reitherman went with the broad comedy direction with the character ultimately the two visions work and Thomas did some of the best animation ever done at the studio on the character. Some standout scenes of his on the film include Hook’s first appearance in the film and the scene where he is talking Tinker Bell into telling him Peter Pan’s hideout. The precision and mental complexity of the acting of Hook is in my humble opinion astonishing: How can someone animate something so precise and juicy? I highly recommend studying Frank’s hook scenes frame by frame because you’ll see very strong changes in expression, incredibly accurate timing, and some very complex motion that really make you feel the acting. After Peter Pan came Lady and the Tramp where he animated the famous and iconic spaghetti sequence as well as a lot of Jock and Trusty (his scenes of those two characters show great understanding of the character relationship and the usage of movement to show feeling and emotion). What is so great about the spaghetti sequence is how simple it is while still being incredibly warm and romantic. If you study it frame by frame you’ll notice the movements are very limited but subtle. It’s incredibly well analyzed too: it does feel the way any first romantic date feels and the gestures of the characters are exactly what any human would do in this situation. Thomas really observed, studied, and thought deeply through things making his scenes so much richer and more sincere. This really shows in a strong way in the spaghetti sequence. It really makes the picture work and helps round out the emotional side of the story. “Two dogs eating spaghetti while being serenaded by a couple of romantic chefs with a mandolin and an accordin did not seem like the most appealing situation for a romance,” wrote Thomas and Johnston. “Besides the comedy implicit in the whole broad story concept, the very thought of dogs digging into a plate of pasta sounded unattractive and crude. Even Walt was not sure this would not defeat the main story point here- that the dogs were falling in love. The rear of the restaurant where Tramp usually got a bone or two was not a romantic setting but it did fit the realism of the dogs looking for a handout. The surprise began when Tony saw that the second dog was a lady of class and deserved something better than a bone. He ordered his assistant to serve them the best in the house, complete with a tablecloth and dishes. Next came the music, and with it the challenge to the animators. Could the human characters convince the audience that this was a real situation? Could the actual eating be entertaining? Could Lady be made appealing and attractive and dainty while consuming long strands of spaghetti? Tramp’s gift of the last meatball, animated the way it was, is a charming indication of his love for her. It is not a sure-fire message of affection but the gentle way he pushed it toward her and his expression as he looked at her left no doubt about his feelings. This demonstration of his love was set up by the unexpected contact as they chewed their way to each other on a single strain of spaghetti. The excitement of that moment demanded a reaction on his part. It relied on the buildup in the preceding scenes, and on the fact that the dogs believed it all themselves. This was actually a big evening to them and not a farce or a gag. Once that point was established, everything else in the rest of the picture followed naturally. If we had failed to make this relationship believable for the main characters, none of their later actions would have had the ring of sincerity needed for this type of story.”
Up next for Frank Thomas came Sleeping Beauty, where he and Ollie Johnston animated the Three Fairies Flora, Fauna, and Meriwether. The amount of research, studying, analyzing, thinking, and planning the two men did for the characters was phenomenal. They worked together to get to know the relationship of the characters so well and this really shows in how fleshed out they are in the feature. However this production was a very long one and a very stressful one. “Frank was working so hard on those characters and supervising other animators working under him,” remembered Dale Oliver. “The stress on him was overwhelming. He was going to the doctor once a week. Stress just killing him.” Not very surprisingly for the second time in his character Frank ended up in the hospital because of the intensity he put in his work. The next feature, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, proved to be a much easier and relaxing one. In this Thomas mainly concentrated on animating Pongo but also did some of Perdita and the puppies. He really made the Dalmatian incredibly believable in the way he moved and acted. One of his masterpieces in my opinion is the one where Roger is rubbing the believed to be dead puppy that’s just been born and Pongo is intensely looking until it turns out the puppy makes it. I love the strong emotion in the scene and the acting behind it- absolutely incredible. Up next came the Sword in the Stone where Frank animated the squirrels sequence as well as Madame Mim, including the Wizards’ Duel. The scene with the squirrels has become a much-studied one because of the intelligence and understanding shown behind the way the characters act. I love the timing behind the scene because it clearly shows the differences in the characters. “I really wanted that girl squirrel to have an innocent emotional quality,” the animator explained. “At a Firehouse Five gig I’d seen a girl who I thought was the right type in the dancing couples. She just sort of radiated appeal. She was cute but not pretty-pretty. But it was mainly her timing, her movements, how quickly she moved. She was quite a girl!” I really love Thomas’s animation on Madame Mim because it’s so rich in performance. He really got that character and she’s so entertaining.
The next film proved to be one that was a true highlight in Frank Thomas’s career and really shows strongly his great acting ability as an animation. The film was the Jungle Book and along with Ollie Johnston he was responsible for bringing to life the incredibly emotional and meaningful character relationship of Baloo and Mowgli as well as animated a lot of King Louie, Kaa, and the dancing monkey at King Louie’s ruins. All of Frank’s animation on the film is phenomenal and the amount of emotion as well as analysis and understanding utilized in his scenes is overwhelming. Most of all it’s incredibly sincere, which makes everything work. “You never knew where it came from but you had a feeling of a strong friendship here which we wanted and needed so badly for the picture,” Frank commented. Among his best scenes in the film include the scenes where Baloo and Mowgli are boxing and the incredibly complex one where Baloo has to tell Mowgli he’s going to have to take him back to the man village. “There should be an aimless feeling to Baloo’s walk, in contrast to his normal expansive confident manner,” wrote Thomas. ‘He has nervous vague gestures as he searches for an idea. If he is too nervous, or has too many expressions, he becomes excited, or evasive, or even overly desperate. Our bear is desperate but he is not excitable or evasive. He is a simple, direct character who meets everything head-on. He is used to settling his problems with physical force and this predicament is really beyond him. He is too honest to be evasive and too simple to have a complicated thought process. He should be desolate and lost, yet his love for the boy is so genuine that he cannot walk away from the problem.” Up next came the Aristocats where he animated the Geese and the dogs as well as some of O’Malley, Dutchess, and the Butler. However this film wasn’t that strong story wise and as a result it doesn’t give any opportunities for the strongly emotional animation that Frank did best. There also, like most of the films in the Reitherman era, is a very slow feeling to the movie. There were many production problems on the film including one where Thomas had a somewhat-villainified role in. It was where he supposedly stole all of Eric Cleworth’s scenes of the dogs Napoleon and Lafayette behind his back and thus he left the studio. How much Frank was behind this is unknown and personally I think it’s better to remember the good things. Then came Robin Hood where the animator did the scenes of Robin Hood dressed up as a stork, scenes of Maid Marian, the Bunnies, Toby, and some of the Sheriff. After that came the Rescuers where Thomas finally felt more satisfied with the material and thought that more heart was pleasant resulting him naming it the best film they did without Walt. On the film he animated a lot of Bernard, Bianca, the Crocodiles, the Chariman, Ellie Mae, Luke, and Orville. He did some very sincere animation on the film and there are some rather good flashes of great times past in the movie. Finally came the Fox and the Hound which proved to be Frank and Ollie’s last feature with Disney. He did get directing animator on the film but he mainly only animated the scenes showing the character relationship of young Todd and Copper. On January 31, 1978 the two men decided to put down in the pencils and leave the production to focus on writing their book the Illusion of Life, which came out in 1981. The book is an absolute gem and personally is where I’ve taken a lot of my understanding of animation from. It’s by all means excellent and one of the deepest and most analytical pieces of literature you’ll find anywhere. For the rest of their lives the duo of Frank and Ollie wrote tons of books, promoted Disney around the world, helped out countless animators and animation students, and were very encouraging towards innovation and progession in animation. He was one of the biggest supporters of computer animation and really believed in it early on. “This is what Walt was waiting for,” reflected Thomas. “I wish I was young enough to really try it.” On September 48 2004 Frank Thomas died in Flintridge, California at the age of 92.
Like I said before to understand Frank Thomas’s style you’ve got to understand it’s all about the thinking and the analysis. He could concentrate like nobody’s business and was incredibly particular as well as deep when he prepared his scenes. Frank always knew exactly what he wanted in his scenes and was determined to win his draftsmanship struggles to make a performance that was sincere, believable, strong, original, and right for the picture. To do this he would analyze human behavior and relationships constantly so he could really understand the nuts and bolts of everything that was going on. This really shows in his characters and they are all that much more believable because of it. You really feel these characters in a very intimate and fulfilling way that rarely happens in animation. I agree with Chuck Jones’s comparison to him being the Lawrence Olivier of animation and think that makes a very good point. Of course Olivier was from Britain where they used the approach of starting by thinking about the character, finding out who they are, and really having it work on the outside first before becoming the character emotionally. You are acting like the character and really understanding them rather than actually becoming them. On the contrast American acting usually teaches method acting where you really become the character emotionally and then the rest comes to place. In my opinion you could very well say Frank’s approach to acting in animation is more of British sensibilities. While other animators actually try to really use pure emotion in their animation and do it rather intuitively his work always started with endless planning and thinking about the acting as well as the character relationship and personality. Thomas would usually then plan it out on thumbnails to get a visual idea for how the scene would look like. He would wrestle with it nonstop until he knew exactly what he was going to do and knew precisely what he wanted. Then he would start animating the scene and usually did his work on the very particular, complicated threes. I’ve always loved the precision in his scenes and think it makes the performances work very affectively. It’s important to remember that although Frank had a very analytical approach that his scenes really did have warmth and strong emotions. I like to think of him as a midpoint on a spectrum that has Milt Kahl and Ollie Johnston as two extremes. He has the planning, control, intellect, and particularness of the former man but he has the emotional quality of the later man.
There is no way to list all of the ways that Frank Thomas has influenced the art of Disney animation. He took acting in Disney animation to the next level and had a very deep, analytical approach that has greatly influenced his contemporaries, the films he worked on, and the next generation of animators. Frank animated many of the most emotional scenes in Disney history as well as several of the highest-quality ones. The way his stuff feels is amazing and there is a strong quality to it that has helped shape the studio forever. Personally I feel that in many ways Thomas’s personality really has changed Disney animation for the best. For one thing he was such a hard worker and his persistence is definitely one that is ideal to emulate. Frank was very critical of himself and was always hard on himself to the point that he was never really satisfied. This really got him to get what was deep down inside him out of him and therefore having a lot of the greatest scenes in Disney history result. Also Thomas really had a strong passion towards his work and was so devoted to getting the best result possible. He knew what he wanted and would push himself until he got it. There was no slacking and he would never repeat himself. His goal was to deliver the best performance possible and get all the juices in it. Last is I feel that Frank’s love for innovation and openness to change has really influenced the studio. He understood that it’s always best ot do something that’s completely new and that it was Walt’s plan for animation to complete progressing. At the same time the animator knew that for this innovation to work that it would still have to retain the heart and soul of Disney animation. This has had such an impact on the art of Disney animation and this attitude has made it possible for computer animation to have the potential to break new ground as well as do everything that could have been done in 2d while expanding it.
I don’t even know how to list all the ways I’ve been impacted by Frank Thomas. I’m a huge admirer of his work and I find it as a huge inspiration. He’s so relatable because he struggled so much to get what he wanted but he used his persistence and determination to get to the place he knew he precisely wanted to be. Obviously I feel he’s had a huge influence on my understanding of animation acting, performance, technique, character development, character emotions, character relationship, and understanding of this medium. When I read the Illusion of Life I realized fully for the first time that animation was my passion and that it is something I really need to work towards. I view Disney animation in a way similar to the American Dream: it’s nearly impossible for you to reach and you don’t know if you can master it but you know you have to drive for it and work your hardest to try to achieve that dream. It takes an open mind, a strong passion, persistence, determination, effort, an acceptance of change, a strong sense of understanding, and most of all a sincere love for it. These are all things that Frank Thomas taught and ones that have really inspired me. I have no clue what my journey in animation is going to be or where it’s going to go but I do know that I really do love this art form and that I’ve got to work my best at it. There are going to be struggles and changes in it but you’ve really got to be able to try to win them and move along in the direction with the art form. Frank also really influenced me to really begin to analyze, think about things intellectually and emotionally, and to really think for myself. Thinking and the mental process is so much a part of great animation and it’s really important to think. I really admire how Frank never did the same thing once and never settled for second best. So many animators repeat themselves and it really doesn’t make the scene the best it can be. Last is Thomas has really influenced me to realize that progression and innovation in animation is very good and important. In many ways his philosophy is what made me fall in love with computer animation. I realized that it’s really an expansion of hand-drawn animation and really can have the potential to have that same personal, heartfelt foundation as well as take it to the next level. Animation has to progress and keep moving or else it’ll die. Thank you Frank Thomas for your contributions to the art of Disney animation and for being a great inspiration to me as well as so many other people!
Just to let everyone know there won’t be a new post next week since I’ll be out of ton in Los Angeles for the CTN Expo. I’m also going to be looking at some colleges to possibly attend, looking at a few studios, and meeting up with some people in the industry(including a few honorees!) I’m really excited for this and hope it’s a great learning and inspiring experience. I’ve got so much to learn and so much more to understand so it’s amazing to me that at only 16 I get to go on this trip. I hope all of you are doing well and yes the posts will resume in 2 weeks to complete our countdown.
All the best,
It’s pretty hard to find someone who doesn’t recognize the Disney style: appealing designs, squash and stretch, richness of character, round three-dimensional shapes, cohesive poses that have clarity and strength, charm, sincerity, and so many other aspects make up this wonderful style. Not only is there a lot of style in the drawing but also in the animation. The movements, expressions, and acting of the characters are very distinctive and communicate the personality of them in a way no other studio ever has. Both of these are vitally important to the success and popularity of both the Disney characters and features. Without a doubt no one was more influential in this area than Fred Moore, number 4 on our countdown and the honoree of today’s post.
Fred Moore will always be the man who defined the Disney style of drawing and animation. His work had a life, vitality, roundness, appeal, charm, warmth, personality, character, flow, fluidness, and cohesiveness that had never been seen before in animation. Fred’s characters were alive and believable, something that couldn’t be said about the work done before him. “Fred Moore was Disney drawing,” simply states honoree Marc Davis of the influence the animator had over the studio’s work. “We’ve all done things on our own but that was the basis of what Disney stood for.” The interesting thing about Moore is that he had no formal training in art, desire to improve, or deep analysis and didn’t have to put in much effort or thought but somehow he was able to do work that was sophisticated, accurate, rich, and had everything in the right place. The man just didn’t do bad drawings and his intuitive draftsmanship is unbelievable. “Fred was just right for the time,” reflected great animator and close friend ward Kimball. “He was the first one to escape from the mold of the rubber hose, round circle school. He began getting counter movements, counter thrusts, in the way he drew. He decided to make Mickey’s cheeks move with his mouth, which they had never done before because you drew everything inside the circle. He squashed and stretched him more and was right at the time but Fred was a high school trained artist and he more or less emerged drawing that way. Nobody seems to remember any development. It just came there and started, but the interesting thing is he never went beyond that part. The rest of us came into that place. It was a strange place, we adapted to it and we kept trying to improve and change, and we became students of it. Milt Kahl, myself, Frank and Ollie. We knew it was a tough art, and there were many nuances of techniques and conceptions regarding the way you drew, and the thing we saw was that there were millions of things of things to be learned yet and to try. Fred never thought of that. He wasn’t a student of animation; he was just a naturally gifted animator whose style and development was perfect, timing-wise, for that point of time of where the studio wanted to go.” “Don Graham can give you the rule, I just say it looks better,” repeatedly said Fred to his colleagues. The animator first broke through the wall of the rubber hose in his animation of the pigs in the Three Little Pigs and will always be remembered for the brilliant designs and animation he did on the dwarfs in Snow White but he also redesigned Mickey Mouse (the new, superior design was first applied in the Pointer and Sorcerer’s Apprentice) as well animated all of Lampwick in Pinocchio, a lot of the centaurs and centaurettes in the Pastoral Symphony in Fantasia, Timothy in Dumbo, Donald and Jose in Saludos Amigos, the All the Cats Join in segment in Make Mine Music, Katrina in Ichabod and Mr. Toad, some of the mice in Cinderella, some of the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, and the mermaids in Peter Pan.
Robert Fred Moore was born on September 7, 1911 in Los Angeles, California. He was born naturally with exactly the sensibilities in drawing that would later make him thrive at Disney animation: appeal, cohesiveness, fluidity, and just about every other fundamental needed for great animation. Moore knew exactly where to place everything to make a good drawing and could intuitively tell what looked appealing as well as what didn’t. Even at this early age the flow and control he had over his pencil was staggering. Not much has been written about Fred’s back story but from what we do know neither his situation nor education was very sophisticated. Although he was rather charming nobody remembers him being deeply educated, intellectual, critical, analytical, or hard working. His talent was natural and it just seemed to be there. In high school Moore did take some art classes and that’s where his talent really matured. It’s likely however his training here was pretty basic and there is little to suggest that he got any very advanced teaching. After high school Fred went on to work as a janitor at the Chouinard Art Institute in exchange for drawing classes. As limited as this training was he did show great talent at this point and soon the event came that turned his life around. There are a couple of urban legends as to how Fred Moore started at the Disney studio. Some say that he was never really hired and just showed up in the place of somebody else. Others say that the people at Chouinard were so impressed by the drawings he did as a janitor that they brought them to the Disney studio. Some have even said that the drawings Fred submitted to the studio were on grocery bags. However, the story that is most likely true is the one that his close friend Chuck Couch explained here: “I encouraged a friend to apply for a job at Disney but that friend suggested Fred as a substitute. I took some of Freddy’s drawings over to the studio and Walt flipped right away.” In any case of scenario Moore started at the Disney studio in August 1930 at the age of only 18.
Right from the start of Fred Moore’s career at Disney people were blown away by his drawing ability and the amazing natural talent he had as well as sensibilities that were perfect for Disney animation. “Fred would sit there with his arms folded for one minute then start drawing,” remembered Jack Cutting, an early Disney animator who eventually became in charge of the foreign translating department at the studio. “He hadn’t been there for more than 24 hours and he was already making these great drawings. I couldn’t believe it. By the end of a couple of days he was starting to animate something. Everything came so easily to him.” While it’s clear that no one remembers much development in Moore’s style and that everyone thought he was unbelievable from the start he actually started rather low on the totem pole and it took some time for him to proceed up (this defies the urban legend that he was immediately amazing and didn’t improve over the years.) When he first came to Disney he was put as an assistant animator to honoree Les Clark, a brilliant animator who had previously been Ub Iwerk’s assistant and now had taken his mentor’s role as the key Mickey Mouse specialist in the studio. In terms of the arc of their career at the Disney studio the two men were opposites. While Fred was a superstar who was seen as a standard but didn’t stay there for an awfully long time Les was a good animator but not necessarily a top animato rand one who was very consistent for a career that had immense longevity. Also their approaches were very different (while Fred could write something up and just intuitively animate a brilliant scene Les constantly worked to improve, learn more, and put his best in a scene.) However in regards to sensibilities there were quite a bit of similarities between the two men. Both drew very appealing drawings, had rather sentimental animation, and put tons of charming personalities into their work. Clark quickly grew to have large respect for Moore and was amazed by his talent. “Animation came too easily to him,” reflected the mentor. “He didn’t have to exert any real effort.” Although Les was Fred’s mentor another animator proved to be the one that really inspired the young man. The animator was Dick Lundy, an animator with an amazing gift at timing, staging, and draftsmanship. Lundy had learned under the legend-in-making Norman Ferguson and by this time was one of the best animators in the studio. In October 1932 Moore began to be given little scenes to animate alongside being an assistant and his first time animating in a significant role was on the short Santa’s Workshop. It would however be the second short he worked on as a full-fledged animator that would show his full potential and really be the short that started the development of the Disney style. That short was the Three Little Pigs.
In the early 1930s most animators suffered from the severe handicap of the rubber hose. Rubber hose was the very first animation style to become the standard in the animation industry and it was named because the style usually had limbs and parts that moved and felt like a rubber hose. They lacked solidity or construction, felt very flexible, weren’t very believable, and moved in a way that was very mechanical and lacked any lifelike vitality. Another issue that was prevalent in the work of many animators was the fact that the vast majority of characters animated in cartoons were animated very generically and not given any specific characteristics to reflect the feeling, acting, or personality. Movement was only used to have the character move just enough to keep the story going and nothing was done to really make them feel alive. However then there was Fred Moore’s animation of the Three Little Pigs. While Dick Lundy was the lead animator on the pigs the other man did the most important scenes: the ones where the pigs were introduced to the audience and their personalities were made clear. Unlike what most animators at the time would have done Fred animated each pig a different way giving them characteristics, mannerisms, expressions, poses, and movements that clearly defined their personality and distinguished them from the other pigs. There also is a vitality, life, energy, use of squash and stretch, poses that read in silhouette, and all the animation has all the parts put in the right place. Those characters were believable to the audience and this made it arguably the most successful animated short ever made. Although the animation of these pigs in the scenes that Moore did seems rather simple and standard today at the time it was incredibly groundbreaking and work that had great distinction. Never before had a character that was a drawing had come to life the same way. Never before had a character actually seemed real and alive in its world. Never before had an animator done something so appealing and used technique in a way that was put in exactly the right way. Overnight Fred had become arguably the best animator in the world and the one who for some time would be used as one of the front runners of the Disney animators setting an example and influence for all the rest of them.
Fortunately Fred Moore’s distinct sensibilities and appealing style of animation lead to his work becoming the basis of the Disney style and soon the other animators at the studio began to adopt his techniques. After the success of Pigs a lot of his animation was on Mickey Mouse, a character that he animated very well. Fred’s animation even when using the old Iwerks design had a great amount of personality, sincerity, appeal, and counter movements. His version of the character is always believable and he truly is arguably the greatest Mickey animator ever. Moore’s work during this period stood out for a bunch of reasons. One important one was that it was graphically much more defined and flexible than the work of the other animators. It had none of the rubberness and awkwardness in movement that some of the other animators used but it also wasn’t stiff and his animation had great flexibility. Another important one was the way the poses were structured and how the drawings were used to communicate. The majority of animation done in the early to mid 1930s just simply used generic expressions and actions that were just plausible enough to make the story move along and showed enough to show the idea visually. Things only moved when they were required to communicate the gag and the actions as well as expressions were indifferential to the character in the scene. Everything felt very flat, awkward, and stiff. Fred’s work on the other hand was all but generic to the character. Every design and pose was tailored clearly to the personality and everything about the animation was used to enhance the characteristics of the character. There isn’t a Fred Moore drawing out there that doesn’t tell you exactly who the character is and what their personality is. This doesn’t just apply to the drawings but also to the acting and performance. A really good example is that Fred was the very first animator to define the fact that the pose and action of the body should define the acting while the facial expression should communicate what the character is thinking. This makes a lot of his poses and action much more dynamic and believable and the work of an average animator. Some animators just communicate with the expression making the body feel stiff while others just communicate through the action and body which makes the inner thoughts and feelings of the character completely absent. It’s absolutely crucial that both are present and communicate in the right way which is really proven true by Moore’s work and animation. He also proved it was very important to have these two things on the same page and be connected with each other. His work was always cohesive and stayed away from the problem many animators have about the details moving independently of each other. Also another virtue to Moore’s style is that although it was more complex and lifelike than most designs it was simplistic and not overly complicated or realistic. Oftentimes really realistic and complicated drawings become grotesque, completely destroying the believability. Fred’s drawings never had this problem and they always had appeal. Last is that the animator was one of the first to pay much attention to using poses that read in silhouette as well as one of the first to really pay attention to using walks and movements to define the character. All of Fred’s poses read so clearly and he truly inspired animators everywhere to master the art of making a pose read in silhouette. “Fred’s great facility with his drawing fascinated everyone,” wrote Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. “It was uncanny the way he could put his line down with so much accuracy. He could control them all. His line was beautiful; it almost had a quality of shading. When he naturally made the line thicker at the bottom of the dwarf’s jowls, it gave them an extra feeling of weight and dimension.” ‘At that time we were talking about cute things- cute poses, cute this, cute that,” recalled honoree Eric Larson. “You never had anybody stand up straight; they always bent at the waist, leaning forward, leaning backward, sideways- attitudes that would give a rhythm and movement to the drawing and throughout the picture. This was Freddy’s big influence; he never did anything that didn’t move or flow.” One of his most influential pieces of animation was the dialogue scene in the short the Flying Mouse. This is an example of how much he revolutionized lip sync in Disney animation and was really the first to ever do it in a believable way. Here finally there were actually cheeks on the character and when the mouth moved the rest of the head did as well instead of the rest staying still and the mouth generically and oftentimes awkwardly moving as it was standard to do at the time. Another short that shows Moore’s true genius is Pluto’s Judgment Day, where not only did he do a lot of the best stuff on Mickey but also did tons of great scenes with Pluto. The scenes he did with the latter character show how he really knew how to put everything in exactly the right place, what was an appealing drawing, and what is a pose that reads clearly as well as affectively. Among all this success however there was one assignment he was given that turned out to be a failure. It was a short called the Golden Touch, where he animated the charming elf who gives King Midas (animated by Norman Ferguson) the ability to turn everything he touches into gold. This short was an experiment to see if whether or not human cartoon characters could be believable to an audience. The short was a miserable artistic failure and one that Walt Disney was rather ashamed of. However this would not be a road block for the Disney studio for long. Walt was quickly developing his first full length animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and in December 1935 Moore was the second animator assigned to the picture (Ham Luske was the first.)
Fred Moore and Bill Tytla (who was recently hired to the studio to help make the studio talented enough to make a feature) were assigned to be the supervising animators on the animation of the Dwarfs in Snow White. In every way the two men were worlds different. While Fred was a natural talent who had childlike sensibilities, relied on intuition, and could just write things off Bill was a man who had experienced the world (he was already 30 when he was hired by the Disney studio in late 1934), had extensive training in art, saw himself as an artist rather than an animator, thought deeply about every single thing that he did, used deep emotions and advanced acting skills to make his characters believable, and was the most versatile and brilliant draftsman in the history of animation. While Moore had been nutured at Disney and only knew what he knew Tytla had just come to the studio and because of his experience outside the studio knew how to appreciate everything at the studio and make the most of it. Walt hoped that the two would work together extensively on using their skills to make success but this never happened. It was too humiliating for either men to have to ask for a drawing from someone and the two worked rather independently although the two visions did come together well. Tytla would do his experimental animation on a musical sequence involving the dwarfs washing while Fred took up the task of trying out the bedroom sequence. This proved to be a most difficult scene. Not only was it extra important that the dwarfs were clearly defined as distinct personalities since this was the scene where they were introduced but it also had the heaviest use of dialogue that had ever been animated before. Back then animators tried to stay far away from dialogue scenes and lip syncs were very hard for many animators. Before this animation could be successful Moore first had to solve the problems related to the designs of the dwarfs. In the story sketches done early on the film the dwarfs looked a lot like gnomes: they were unappealing and unattractive old men who were very short and looked almost exactly alike. While in the original story the dwarfs are indifferential and don’t have individual personalities Walt knew that making the dwarfs individual, strong in personality, and appealing was vital to the success of the film. Unlike the other human characters such as Snow White, the Queen, and Prince Charming who had to be animated straight the Dwarfs could still have the roundness, life, and appeal of the typical Disney style. Although Fred’s original model sheet wasn’t too significant of an improvement or solution to the challenge the one he did in September 1936 proved to be one of the most important model sheets in animation history. Here all of the Dwarfs are distinct, appealing, round, cartoony, believable, and have the lifelike vitality that he did best. Unlike the unappealing old men done before the dwarfs are drawn much younger (the white bears were added later), were given simplicity in design, and best of all allowed expression and movement. “They designed the dwarfs so they had the potential of move in all parts of the body,” wrote Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. This is very important because giving them this ability allowed the cartoon acting to reach a level never reached before and for the characters to be believable to the audience in a way only fathomed about before. Also this new model sheet communicated the distinct personalities of the dwarfs and made them differential. By far the character that was most significantly changed during the new model sheet was Dopey, who was now given baby proportions and drawn with great charm. The only one that wasn’t given as much Moore flavor was Grumpy, who very well matched Tytla’s sensibilities (Bill also did as much if not more than Doc than Moore did.) In a nutshell these designs were a turning point for the film and were largely responsible for the visual development of the film. After completing this model sheet Fred returned to doing rough animation on the film and resumed tackling the bedroom scene. This very challenging scene turned out to be a huge success. Every dwarf is clearly introduced to the audience and the acting of the characters is flawless. I personal recommend studying this scene because it’s a good example of how poses, movements, acting, and dialogue can clearly define characters to the audience. The key poses are incredibly cohesive, appealing, and clear (most read in clear silhouette.) Moore also did a ton of great animation in the Heigh Ho sequence (Dopey’s introduction, Dopey goofing around next to Doc, Dopey throwing in the sack), the Silly Song sequence (Dopey and Sneezy posing as a tall man), and of the dwarfs leaving the cottage. At the very least the animator’s work on this film is brilliant. There isn’t a substandard scene he did in the film and the charm he gave to the dwarfs as well as sincerity made them able to drive the picture in a way that made the whole film work. It is through the dwarfs’ love for Snow White that the emotional perspective of the story is told and the one that really drives the plot. This made it essential that they were incredibly appealing and entertaining but at the same time sincere and dynamic. The work done by Fred, Bill, Frank Thomas, Fred Spencer, Les Clark, Dick Lundy, and many others on the character made this able to be a reality. Although his animation was phenomenal Walt was extra sure to be extremely critical of the animator not only because he wanted the best results possible but also he was using him as the standard and wanted to make him look good inspiring the other animators at the studio to take influence from his work. You can make the argument however that the best and most important animation on the dwarfs wasn’t done by Moore but rather by Tytla. It is undeniable that their styles on the film were incredibly different. Although Fred was the more influential one in terms of design and sensibilities there isn’t always a lot of strong distinction and defining done in how their personalities are different and their acting is sometimes on the simple side. They’re all cute cuddly jolly men who have simple feelings and moods even if very expertly done. On the flip side Bill made the distinctions between the seven men incredibly strong, used very advanced acting technique, and made the feelings of the dwarfs not only very strong but very specific to the personalities of the dwarfs. In all of his scenes with the characters they all have very distinct personalities (e.g.- Doc is the leader, Grumpy is the cynical one, Dopey is curious and naive) and have very specifically tailored character relationships (e.g.- the way Grumpy makes Doc very nervous and intimidated.) The most significant example however is the character plot that Tytla created himself where Grumpy eventually turns out to have the strongest feelings for Snow White and to really be in love with her. The psychological precision and strong emotions Grumpy felt so brilliantly animated by Bill just weren’t in Fred’s vocabulary (the promising young talent Frank Thomas also did some animation of the dwarfs that exceeded anything Moore had done acting and emotional wise.) The one that closed the gap between the two men’s visions of the dwarfs was honoree Ollie Johnston, who was the head assistant on the dwarfs. He was able to make the two men’s dwarfs mesh together to become united characters on the screen. Thanks to this in the final film the work of the two men goes together exceptionally well and the two if anything complement each other.
Fred Moore’s influence and success during Snow White made his stardom at the studio go to the highest possible level. Everyone wanted to emulate him and everyone wanted to do work that was just as good as what he was doing. To spread his talent Walt personally selected him as well as honoree Ham Luske to spend most of their time mentoring the younger animators at the studio. Ultimately this didn’t turn out to be necessarily the right decision. While Luske took the task very seriously and soon was working as a successful director at the studio Moore just goofed off during this time period and as Ollie Johnston remembered, “just fooled around with the secretaries.” He just couldn’t handle the position and this made him fall apart. It was animating that Fred loved to do and felt most comfortable doing, not being a teacher and taking a role of leadership. “Supervising animators was a responsibility Fred couldn’t accept,” explained Ollie Johnston. “He just kept leaving earlier and drinking more and horsing around more and next thing you know he got divorced. He had to be disciplined. If he’d been left animating he might have lasted longer.” However during this time period he did do some of his best work on a few shorts. One was the Brave Little Tailor where he designed Mickey Mouse and supervised the animation of the character. This is one of the all-time best Mickey shorts and one where his personality is in its prime. Unlike many other cartoons where he is pretty passive this one shows him as this boy who is very naïve and wants to prove himself. Although he didn’t do much animation Moore did one phenomenal scene where Mickey says goodbye to the people and then after showing he’s nervous slowly says I hope. This scene is excellent because of how it shows the change of emotion and in the way it defines the character. Here is this character that wants to prove himself but really is very shy and a bit of a worrier. Fred clearly shows this in the way Mickey walks and the posture in his body. Soon after however things were going to change in regards to the character. The more he worked with Mickey the harder time Fred had at the handicap of the mouse’s body and the limitations it gave. The character’s design hadn’t evolved and felt out of place in the Disney universe by that point. To solve the problem Moore decided to redesign the character making him have eyes with pupils, a pear shaped body, and all of the other aspects that make up the face of the character we know and love today. The design was accepted and was the for the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a piece originally intended to be a special short that turned out to be a segment in the feature Fantasia. Fred did some great animation of the new-look Mickey in shorts such as the Pointer (1939) and Little Whirlwind (1941.)
Because of Fred Moore’s nonchalant attitude towards being a supervisor and wasting his time a furious Walt Disney decided to bring him back to animation. The film was Pinocchio and unlike before he had a ton of competition among the other top animators (not only was there Bill Tytla but also Frank Thomas, Ward Kimball, Milt Kahl, Art Babbitt, and Wolfgang Reitherman among others.) While originally assigned to design and animate Pinocchio Fred’s version ultimately got scrapped for Milt Kahl’s and he ended up doing no animation of the character on the film. Although he did some scenes of different characters the main focus he had on the film was animating all of Lampwick, Pinocchio’s naughty brat for a friend on Pleasure Island. Although only a minor character Moore did an excellent performance on him. He clearly communicated Lampwick’s severely flawed personality and the performance is genius because of how archetypical he is. In many ways he’s like a character in a Charles Dickens novel or William Shakespeare play: one that is exaggerated to the point of being unrealistic but is even more believable because he represents a real personality trait and emotion. We’ll never meet someone who is as snotty and uncaring as Lampwick but he is very real to us because we all know people who have that type of personality and we recognize it because he represents an emotion that is very real (we all feel very nonchalant sometimes and want to just do whatever we feel like on occassions.) I’ve always particularly loved the poses Fred gave to him; they’re just so simple but yet clear and containing so much personality. In addition to Lampwick he also animated some of Geppetto (he was brought on to help make the character cuter) and even some great ones of Jiminy Cricket. After Pinocchio Moore moved on to Fantasia where he was a supervising animator on the Pastoral Symphony. He designed and created the centaurettes, a new mythological creature created for the sequence that had centaurs that were half horse and half woman. For the woman side the drawings were taken from sketches of the famous Fred Moore girls, sexy drawings the animator did of women. They were out of control popular at the studio and were incorporated into those designs to give sex appeal to the centaurettes. One particularly sincere and heartfelt scene done by Fred on the segment is the one where the cupids set up the lonely centaur with the lonely centaurette. The expressions on their faces and the sincere joy they feel when they see each other is clear and very affective. You feel for these characters and the intuitive animation done of them really communicates this. The centaurettes ultimately work because they ultimately move like horses and not like people (something that wasn’t successfully done with the centaurs.) Another great scene to study frame by frame is the sexy walk the centaurettes do when they come out. It so communicates their character and makes their sex appeal very prevalent.
After Fantasia Fred Moore was considered by Walt for being a lead on Bambi but ultimately instead ended up working as the directing animator on Timothy Mouse in Dumbo while doing some work on the boy in the Reluctant Dragon in between. Dumbo proved to actually be quite a hard film for the animator. For one it was a film that relied so heavily on cartoon acting, character relationships, and strong emotions; all things that were pretty hard to excel in when you have a simple approach like Moore’s. While he had if anything receded since Snow White Tytla on the other hand had gotten significantly better (therefore making there quite a gap between the two men) and was doing arguably the best animation ever done at the studio with his animation of the very emotionally strong character relationship of Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo. Also, and more importantly, this was the production where Fred really started to write everything off, have lousy working habits, and drink constantly. Even Ward Kimball, then his closest friend at the studio, had admitted he had severe problems by this point. Although his animation on Timothy is relatively good it can be argued that his scenes can be somewhat shallow, predictable, and weak in character. On the flip side it’s only the genius work done before that makes it feel that way. While his most famous scene on the film is the one where the mouse gets drunk my favorite has always been the one where Timothy makes the realization Dumbo can fly. The passionate, exaggerated response to that really gives you the feeling of the scene and clearly communicates what the character is thinking. The technique used for the jump and the gestures are also pretty top notch. This is a scene I try to use to challenge the common belief that Fred’s work wasn’t sophisticated and that the reason he receded was because his work wasn’t good compared to current standards and that the Disney style had moved past him. I feel that even as he wallowed in his personal troubles that his style was the foundation of Disney drawing and that when everything went right he was capable of doing work as good as anyone else’s. After Dumbo was completed Moore went on to animate on Saludos Amigos, where alongside Bill Tytla he animated Donald Duck and Jose Carioca. I love the animation he did on this film and the timing done in his scenes is pretty amazing. After that then came the Three Caballeros) where he again animated on Donald Duck and Jose), Make Mine Music(where he animated some sexy Fred Moore girls in the stylized All the Cats Join In segment), and Fun and Fancy Free(where he received his last directing animator credit and animated Mickey Mouse.) Although still a good animator everyone at Disney had used up all their patience on Fred and most of his colleagues by this point were completely alienated by his bad habits and behavior. While some like Ollie Johnston and Cliff Nordberg stayed loyal to him because they felt they owed so much to the man in August 1946 the decision was reluctantly made to fire Moore from the studio. Even Walt himself felt terrible doing this and even told his secretary that letting him go was the hardest thing he ever had to do.
While Fred Moore’s habits and behaviors had disturbed so many people at the Disney studio to people at other studios he was simply a legend and talent anyone could want making him quickly find work as an animator at Walter Lantz. There he did some animation on Woody Woodpecker shorts and other cartoons. Although some of this stuff is pretty good a lot of it only shows small traces of his Disney greatness. Feeling sorry for Moore the studio decided in 1948 to hire him back, although in spirit it was pretty much just an act of charity. Surprisingly the animator made quite a triumphant comeback on his first film back, Ichabod and Mr. Toad. In the Sleeping Hallow segment he did tons of excellent, beautiful footage of Katrina as well as a few of Ichabod. His animation on the girl is subtle, appealing, and for the lack of a better word sexy. Katrina is a girl who everyone would love to have and this is clearly communicated by the subtle way with a taste of sex appeal Fred gave in his animation, particularly in the song where he animated pretty much every scene with her. Up next came Cinderella where he animated some of the mice as well as the Court Announcer. Although he did some great drawings on the film for the most part on this film Moore returned to the quality he was producing when he was let go and making it seem as if his work on Ichabod was in a sense a fluke. On Alice in Wonderland he animated some of the scenes with the White Rabbit in the later parts of the film. Fred’s last film at the Disney studio was Peter Pan, where he animated some of the Lost Boys as well as the mermaids. On November 22, 1952 tragedy took place when Fred Moore was killed in a car accident on his way home from watching a football game with colleague Jack Kinney. Sadly some have tried to make up versions of the story where he was killed by drunk driving. Personally I feel this is terrible and that it is wrong to assume that someone died from a flaw like that. Although he left us so soon in a way Fred Moore will always be with the Disney studio at his prime because of the influence and inspiration he has on the Disney style and on the animators who work there and will continue to work there.
In terms of style Fred Moore is all about character and appeal. When he made a drawing he knew exactly where to put everything so it was exactly in the right place and made the most appealing drawing possible. All of his poses and drawings have great life, personality, charm, sincerity, cohesiveness, clarity, and simplicity. In every sense of the word Fred was and still is the Disney style. Like I said before everything done since is pretty much just an expansion or tweak of the foundation and principles his sensibilities set up. This exceeds design and goes into characters: he really defined giving life and believability to the characters, which completely elevated what Disney was able to do. Design wise Moore’s drawings are very round and have a lot of S-shapes, giving them a nice fluid feel. Pretty much every Fred Moore drawing is great to look at and all really communicate the character as well as the thinking. “They love to see the drawings move and the characters think,” he always told people. “Remember that! It’s what they like to see in our scenes. We should always let them see what the characters were thinking!” In terms to his approach to animation Fred was very intuitive and relied on instinct rather than intellect to make the magic in his scenes happen. Instead of spending lots of time analyzing and thinking deeply about a scene he just would time it out on an X-sheet (his timing was top-notch) and just draw what he thought would look good. The key poses are always very strong in his scenes and really inspired animators to try to find strong poses that read clearly. To sum this up here are some points of animation Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston wrote down that they felt were important to Fred and his approach: 1. Appeal in drawing. 2. Staging. 3. Most interesting way? 4. Is it the most entertaining way? 5. Are you in character? 6. Are you advancing the character? 7. Is it the simplest statement of the main idea of this scene? 8. Is the story point clear? 9. Are the secondary actions working with the main action? 10. Is the presentation best for the medium? 11. Does it have 2 dimensional clariy? 12. Does it have 3 dimensional solidity? 4. Does it have 4 dimensional drawing? 14. Are you trying to do something that shouldn’t be attempted?
Fred Moore had more influence on the Disney style of drawing and style of animation than anyone ever has and ever will. He redefined it and really established all the qualities that make up the style graphically. So many of the key aspects of Disney animation come straight out of Fred’s imagination and pencil. In terms of characterization he really established that an animator’s goal is to make a character appealing, believable, and sincere. All of this opened up a whole new level of possibilities for the medium and even today is very important in how it influences the style of the Disney films. I would say almost anything done at the studio since has in some way been directly descended, refined, or expanded from the foundation Moore set up. Last is the fact that his talent and sensibilities really inspired so many animators to excel and really do the best they could do. Among this list included Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Ward Kimball, Milt Kahl, Marc Davis, Art Babbitt, Cliff Nordberg, and yes even Bill Tytla. They were able to really push the boundaries of Disney animation because of what Fred had done in breaking away the handicap of the rubber hose. Without that animation would just still be rubbery and generic with nothing special or unique. It saddens me that so many people try to undermine the influence and greatness Fred Moore had by saying his animation wasn’t timeless and didn’t have the sophistication needed to have what it takes. In many ways it’s incredibly sophisticated and advanced. There’s just so much character, personality, and gerniusism there. I’m also saddened by the fact that people try to use his problems with drinking to make this point and portray him as a washed up talent. Like one great Disney animator once told me: “It’s important to try to just remember the good things.” I feel this statement is very true with any great animator and Fred is no exception.
Personally I feel I’ve taken a lot of inspiration for Fred Moore and that I’ve learned a ton from studying and analyzing his work. As anyone with taste is I’m an absolute nut for his style and sensibilities. The roundness, life vitality, expressiveness, personality, charm, sincerity, clarity, appeal, and honesty in his work is amazing and something I can only fathom about emulating. I’m always reminded when I see Moore’s work that he really is the one who set the standards for everyone else and showed everyone else the way. When I study the work of other animators I almost always see qualities that come straight from Fred’s pencil and a lot of the aspects are just refinements of what he did. In terms of drawing I feel that his work has really been a source of knowledge for me. The most important lesson I’ve personally learned from his work is that you need to use the facial expression to communicate the thought process while the body should be used to show the acting. I also realized that it’s important to make your poses clear and to have everything cohesive to each other instead of all over the place. Last I’ve learned from Moore that it’s important to always make your drawings look the best they can and to really communicate the personality of the character. It’s amazing to me how talented he was and I’m a huge fan of his work. Thank you Fred Moore for your contributions to Disney animation and for the great influence you’ve had on me as well as many others!