22. John Sibley


Many animators try to obtain realism in their animation and it doesn’t always work that well. Many others try to make their animation cartoony and it oftentimes turns out pointless and unfocused. However very few try to use caricature to show how something really feels and the animation looks even more believable and real than the action in reality. This rare type of animation was the type John Sibley did best. He’s the subject of today’s post and number 22 on our countdown.


     Sibley is known best for being the Goof master at Disney for many years. He animated Goofy on over 40 shorts and really did some of the greatest stuff on the character ever done. He also did lots of entertaining, brilliant animation in other shorts and in features. However John unfortunately was viewed down upon as a B-animator and hasn’t gotten the recognition that he deserves. This is a shame because he’s a very unique talent and one we’ll never see anybody like again.


     John Sibley was born on January 12, 1912 in Danville, Illinois. He quickly became interested in art and by high school had come to be particularly fascinated by animation. Sibley would take pads of paper and make flipbooks with them. He then went on to get formally trained in art at the Corcoran School of Art inWashington and at the Chicago Institute of Arts. After struggling some in his career as an artist John just happened to stumble upon an ad from Disney Animation Studios asking for artists. He immediately came out toLos Angeles, got an interview, and started working there. Soon after John Sibley’s girlfriend Jane Crockett came out and they got married. He started as an inbetweener the closing months of the production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  After working as an assistant animator for 3 years Sibley got his first screen credit as an animator on the How to Ride a Horse segment in the Reluctant Dragon, although he is listed in the animation drafts on the Rite of Spring sequence in Fantasia. Through World War 2 and the 40s John worked on tons of Goofy shorts including How to Play Baseball, How to Be a Sailor, Tiger Trouble, and Hockey Homicide. Although there weren’t many entrees to the series in the second half of the 40s he went back to animating on them in the 1950s. During that time the short and features animators were working together on package features while waiting for a full-length story to be ready for production. In Make Mine Music Sibley animated on the Casey at the Bat, Martin and the Coy Boys, and All the Cats Join In segments. On the Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad he did a lot of the best scenes in the Sleeping Hallow segment: Ichabod preparing his appearance to meet Katrina, him walking over to her and escorting her while carrying her packages. John also did a lot of the best animation in the Headless Horseman sequence along with Woolie Reitherman. While Reitherman and many others went to work on Cinderella after Ichabod and Mr. Toad Sibley and a few others remained in the shorts department, a vehicle he found very well suited for his talents. In real life he was very happy-go-lucky and easy to work with my all accounts. Sibley was also very spontaneous, funny, and didn’t have an interest in studio politics. Outside of work he hung out with many of the top talents at the studio including Fred Moore, Wolfgang Reitherman, and Marc Davis. However soon Sibley started to work in features starting with Lady and the Tramp, where he animated on the Siamese cats. On Sleeping Beauty he animated most of the scenes with the drunken lackey and on Dalmatians he did a good chunk of Horace and Jasper along with John Lounsbery and Eric Cleworth. Sadly though soon the quality of Sibley’s work declined (the energy and spark just wasn’t there) and he came to the studio less and less. No one really knows why: Was his heart not in the work? Was the style of features not well suited for him? Was he uncomfortable because of the growing role of studio politics as Walt grew less attached to the department? Whatever the case John Sibley was laid off in 1965 with his last credit being Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree. This turned out to be the end of his career in animation and he also stopped doing magazine gags on the side, something he had been very successful in. Sibley stayed very low profile and out of the light up until his death from a stroke on February 15, 1973.


     What makes John Sibley stand out as an animator is that his work is that he uses caricatured movement to show how something feels. Although his work is not realistic and is very cartoony it is believable because of the emotion it’s showing. Sibley was a natural animator and worked pretty intuitively. Like Woolie he animated straight-ahead, meaning he drew the drawings in the order they appear on the screen. Unlike Reitherman though he didn’t have to do a lot of sculpting and hard work over his drawings because of how natural he worked. My favorite Sibley scene is the one where Ichabod meets Katrina. The lanky, shy walk he gives the professor is hilarious and communicates his character very well. Freeze-frame him picking up the packages and you’ll see that the action feels real because the movement has intent and feeling behind it. Although movement is the focus Sibley has in his scenes he was also a spectacular draftsman. Look at the scenes of the lackey in Sleeping Beauty and you’ll see what I mean. Not only is the animation very imaginative it’s also very well-drawn and looks great on the screen. Last is that John always did his scenes the most entertaining way and added a lot of energy to his scenes. This is well displayed in the sequence in How to Be a Sailor when Goofy dances the hornpipe. The movement is not only very fluid, caricatured, and believable but is exaggerated to the point where it’s very well communicated and each drawing is very distorted as well as unique.


     Impact whys I think John Sibley is important because of the inventiveness and creativity he added to the screen. Nobody in animation history has his style and nobody ever well. Sibley inspired animators to loosen up and to use caricature to make an action or movement seem more believable and real than it would be than if it were done the realistic way. It’s the emotion and feeling that makes the wacky, cartoony animation look real, it’s not like John just moved things around with no purpose or reason. Also I think Sibley is very important because of the high-quality he gave to the shorts well after most top animators had moved on to features. He didn’t resent this either and took full advantage of that vehicle. There never was another John Sibley and there never well.


     In terms of inspiration I think the way John Sibley has most affected me is that his animation inspired me to use caricature and cartoony animation to show the real feelings of the character. Just like how Bob Clampett cartoons work because they use their zaniness and distortion to show the character’s emotions and how Charles Dickens novels work because the characters represent emotions Sibley’s work works because he uses the distortion and extreme movement to show the feeling the character has when undergoing the action. This has made me try to master using unrealism to make the characters feel more real than if done the conventional way. Also from studying John’s work I learned how to make a scene imaginative and inventive. It’s much funner and when done right rewarding to do a scene the creative way like he did it than to do it so close to live action. Thank you John Sibley for being an inspiration to me and for animating such high quality, creative work. 

Sibley’s Work

Snow White(1937)- Inbetweener

Fantasia(1940)- Animator(uncredited) on Rite of Spring segment

Reluctant Dragon(1941)- Animator on How to Ride a Horse

Saludos Amigos(1942)- Animator

Victory Through Airpower(1943)- Animator

Three Caballeros(1944)- Animator

Make Mine Music(1946)- Animator on All the Cats Join In, Casey at the Bat, and Martin and the Coy Boys

Fun and Fancy Free(1947)- Animator

Melody Time(1948)- Animator on Pecas Bill

Ichabod and Mr. Toad(1949)- Animator on Ichabod, Horse, and Katrina

Lady and the Tramp(1955)- Animator on Siamese Cats

Sleeping Beauty(1959)- Animator on Drunken Lackey

Dalmatians(1961)- Animator on Horace and Jasper

Sword in the Stone(1963)- Animator on Wolf

4 Responses to “22. John Sibley”

  1. John Ewing once described Sibley’s animation as “chiucken stratches”, which would be very rough drawings and that Sib needed the best assistants.

  2. Sibley was one of my favorites! Also regarding “chicken scratches”, there are mannnnnny animators who make use of great assistants, and having previously been an assistant I actually enjoyed having to figure out stuff and get it looking nice for ink and paint!

  3. David Robbins Says:

    My father was also from Danville and went to school with John Sibley. John Sibley drew the cartoons in my father’s old high school yearbook. I always wondered what became of him. His work even in High School could hardly be called chicken scratches.

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