34. Cliff Nordberg
The Disney studio in the 1940s and 50s was filled with talent but unfortunately in that time period there was no interest in changing things: whether if it was getting young artists, rehiring veterans, or promoting people. It was hard enough to be promoted to the position of an animator and it was an even more ridiculous dream to be promoted to a directing animator. The studio missed out though and many of the character animators were equally talented to the directing animators. One of those bench animators that was in the equally-talented caliber was Cliff Nordberg. He isn’t given much credit for his talent but here I’ll tell you both his story and genius.
Born in 1917 in Salt Lake City,Utah Cliff Nordberg moved out to California in 1938 where he was quickly hired as an inbetweener. However he was a bit too late to find an empty top spot. Snow White, released the previous year, was a major breakthrough for many artists including the breakout performances of Bill Tytla, Frank Thomas, Wolfgang Reitherman, and Fred Spencer among others. There also were shorts veterans like Fergy, Fred Moore, Art Babbitt and Dick Lundy as well as promising assistants Ollie Johnston, Marc Davis, and John Lounsbery. Eventually Nordberg found himself under the wing of Wolfgang “Woolie” Reitherman. Woolie was a straight-ahead animator who was known for his suspenseful action scenes and his master-skilled broad acting. Colleagues remember that he would start out working so rough to the point you couldn’t tell what he was drawing because he was focusing only on how it would move and the essence it would have. Once he got he right he would then take another sheet of paper and draw it again this time in a clean manner. Reitherman’s straight-ahead, rough style would later show in Nordberg’s own animation. In the mid-40s Cliff began working as a full-fledged animator on Goofy shorts as well as the stylized All the Cats Join In segment in Make Mine Music and some work on the minor characters in Song of the South. In the 1950s he emerged as one of the elite animators in the studio and got tons of quality sequences. Among these included some scenes of the Duke, King, and mice in Cinderella, some good business with the Mad Hatter and March Hare in Alice, and the Indians in Peter Pan. His masterpiece as an animator though is probably the sequence in Lady at the pound where Nutsy takes the “walk.” “Only Cliff could handle such an assignment,” stated Frank Thomas in Ollie Johnston in the amazing book the Illusion of Life. “He had become known for his ability to create the unexpected, screwy actions where ordinary movements would have suffered. His talents gave wave a zany quality to mundane situations and were just right for this delicate spot in taking the last walk, but he was so comical about it no one could become overly concerned.” After having great animation in Sleeping Beauty and Dalmatians Nordberg began to for an unknown reason start to vanish in the realm of features. He has only a few sequences in Sword in the Stone and doesn’t reappear until Robin Hood ten years later. In the sequences he did have in Stone he doesn’t have the style that made him who he was so maybe a decline in quality work had something to do with it. Cliff’s career impressively resurrected with the Rescuers where he done great stuff with the crocodiles, dragonfly, and the swamp critters. In 1978 at the old age of 61 he finally became a directing animator on the Small One and eventually Fox and the Hound. Sadly he died in the middle of the Fox and the Hound in 1979.
Cliff Nordberg’s style stands out in that it’s very rough and is straight-ahead. His real gift was in putting comic broad acting into a sequence, particularly in action sequences. Nordberg was one of the animators like John Sibley, Woolie, and Ward Kimball that didn’t really play by any rules and thought more about the entertainment and comedy than about characterization and acting. However he didn’t have Kimball’s ability to be great at personality animation and put character behind the broad acting. This and his very rough style were by far his biggest traps as an animator. When Cliff animated a scene he thought about how to make it interesting and how to pull off the situation. The pound sequence in Lady and the Tramp I described is a great example as well as his animation of the Baldums and Sgt. Tibbs in Dalmatians. Almost every Nordberg scene is a lot of fun and oftentimes he really puts a light-touch on a subject that others would take too seriously.
Cliff Nordberg’s impact is much more immense and long-term than most of you would think at first glance. Like I described in the Eric Cleworth post the bench animators at Disney where very important in keeping the quality of the animation consistent and integrating the diverse styles of the top artists. In the 60s most of them where either laid off or began to have less of an influence as the top guys began to care more about their animation achievements and competition with each other than about making fulfilling sincere animation that’s complementary to a great integrated story (I do give some blame to the slump of the story department and to Walt’s growing disinterest in the medium.) Also many top animators today including animator Dale Baer and director John Musker were mentored by Cliff and learned a lot from having a veteran like him on the staff at the studio.
Cliff Nordberg’s work is inspirational to me in that it teaches you to make your scene fun and entertaining to watch. Also it reminds me that oftentimes it’s better to play by no rules in your animation than to be strict and conservative in your work. Also I can’t have enough of his broad acting and action sequences. They’re great to study and just pure fun to freeze frame. That’s where you really learn that this fellow his some amazing ideas. Thank you Cliff Nordberg for the amazing, creative work and for inspiring so many people including myself.
Make Mine Music- Animator on All the Cats Join In and Casey at the Bat
Song of the South- Animator on Minor Characters
Melody Time- Animator on Pecos Bill
Cinderella- Animator on Mice, King, and Duke
Alice in Wonderland- Animator on Mad Hatter and March Hare
Peter Pan- Animator on Indians
Lady and the Tramp- Animator on Pound Dogs
Sleeping Beauty- Animator on Malificent’s Minions and Crow
One Hundred and One Dalmatians- Animator on Sgt. Tibbs, Horace and Jasper
Sword in the Stone- Animator
Robin Hood- Animator
Rescuers- Animator on Crocodiles, Dragon Fly, and Swam Critters
Small One- Supervising Animator
Fox and the Hound- Supervising Animator on Woodpecker and Bird