17. Art Babbitt
An animator in the truest sense has to have two important, crucial abilities. First he must have the ability to observe motion and understand how it has meaning as well as how it shows the inner feelings of the character. Second he has to be able to take his observations and caricature them. If you animate something straight the way it is done in live action and don’t put any feeling or intent behind the character then you’re neglecting what animation does better than live-action. A perfect example of what I mean by “animator in the truest sense” is Art Babbitt, number 17 in our countdown and the subject of today’s post.
Art Babbitt is unique because he’s a “technique” animator but unlike many other animators of the same vein (Milt Kahl, Grim Natwick, Ham Luske, Andreas Deja, and James Baxter being great examples) he’s also a caricaturist (think Bill Tytla, John Lounsbery, Ward Kimball, Woolie Reitherman, Duncan Marjoribanks, and Eric Goldberg). The motion in his animation is very well though out, studied, and analyzed he makes it feel more appealing and spontaneous by drawing it in a looser, more caricatured style. This served Babbitt well when he encountered human characters( the Queen in Snow White, Geppetto in Pinocchio and Zeus and Vulcan in Fantasia) but he also did more imaginative characters such as Goofy( a character who turned into a superstar primarily because of Art’s contributions and work on the character.) However despite the great innovations and quality of work that Art Babbitt brought to the Disney Studio he remains probably the most controversial figure on this list primarily because of his involvement being a crucial part of the Strike of 1941. Although he had a fatally poisoned relationship with Walt and for a long time with the company towards the end of his life the Disney company repaired their relationship with Babbitt and has gotten great praise both from animation historians and animators alike.
Arthur Babbitsky (changed to Babbitt to make his Jewish ancestry not so obvious) was born on November 8, 1907 in Omaha, Nebraska in the Little Bohemia section but moved to Sioux, Iowa after finishing kindergarten. He was very intellectual and a great student growing up but was notorious for being a troublemaker and misbehaving. At the age of 16 Art choose to graduate from high school in order to avoid going to prison for his behavior. He had the ambition of becoming a psychiatrist and after some time in Sioux after high school moved to New York to get more formal training in the medical profession with the intention of going to Columbia pre-med. However Babbitt didn’t have the money required to attend the school and needed to provide for his family because his father was no longer able to provide for the family due to long-term injuries from a wagon accident he had when Art was 13. This made the young man turn to a career in commercial art (although he later said he wasn’t any good) before being hired to work in animation at Terrytoons in 1929.
Even though in the mid 20s Paul Terry’s cartoon series Aesop Fables was one of the most successful in the business by the time Babbitt arrived at Terrytoons things were starting to go drastically downhill in both the studio’s success and reputation. While the studios such as Disney and Fleischer were progressing in quality and had the goal of innovation Terry wanted to just make a profit and had very little awareness if any at all to the improvements happening at other studios. As a result it soon became the most exclusively commercial studio in the business and by the late 30s was by far the worst cartoon studio in America (of all studios in American animation history only Filmation was looked down upon more.) However around the time he was hired at Terrytoons Art say Disney’s first Silly Symphony and from then on, he said, “Disney was the only place I wanted to work.” A year later a young man striving to become a great artist named Vladimir “Bill” Tytla returned to America after a life-changing 18 months in Europe and went to work with his old boss Paul Terry. However, unlike before, the animator was now an inspired artist who began to animate what would become by far the highest quality and most 3-dimensional animation done at Terrytoons. When Tytla came to Terrytoons and met Babbitt the two fastly became best friends and soon were roommates. However in 1932 Art finally moved to California to pursue his goal, to work at Disney.
However the young man soon discovered getting the genius’s attention wasn’t that easy. Art recalls “No matter how many times you phoned, you just didn’t get to the master.” Determined to speak to Walt Disney he used “an old trick I’d learned from an advertising man. I wrote a bit latter to his secretary- and by big letter, I mean it was approximately 20 by 24 feet. I had to get down on the ground to paint it. I sent it special delivery, registered and all those things that would make her take notice.” Soon after his request for an interview was granted and was hired on the spot. Not too long after that though he made an important contribution to Disney history: he began the first drawing classes done at Disney. “One night I invited the guys who worked in my room-there were eight of us- to come to an art class because I very foolishly though that artists, animators, should know how to draw,” said Babbitt in an interview with Michael Barrier. “I got hold of a model, and we were very serious about just drawing. We had no teacher. I invited eight guys but 14 showed up. The next week I invited those 14 and 22 guys showed up.” It didn’t take long for the enthusiasm about the class to get Walt’s attention and after a talk with Art the class was brought over to the sound stage at the Disney Studio on Hyperion. Although he was the teacher originally soon Disney made a deal with Chouinard Art School and their instructor Don Graham began teaching the life drawing class which evolved into an action analysis class that involved analyzing movement and studying live action as well as the best of the old and new animation done at the studio. “I learned more from Don Graham than from any of the animators,” fondly remembered Babbitt.
Soon after coming to Disney Art Babbitt’s skills and potential as a great analyzer and animator were seen in his work. Among the best of his early accomplishments is the scene towards the end of the Three Little Pigs where Practical Pig lifts the lid off the pot and carries a can of turpentine. This scene was one of the first scenes ever animated at Disney to show careful observation and a real breakthrough. Art also animated almost all the scenes of the Wolf that Norman Ferguson didn’t do. Also among Babbitt’s early highlights were animating a majority of the scenes involving the Mayor in the Pied Piper as well as some great scenes in Playful Pluto. However his big break came when he took a minor character named Dippy Dawg and transformed him into a superstar Goofy. Art Babbitt’s animation of the character in shorts such as Clock Cleaners, Moving Day, and Mickey’s Service Station showed a thought process and depth of personality that was only rivaled by Fergy’s animation of Pluto in scenes such as the flypaper sequence in Playful Pluto. He really put deep thought into Goofy’s personality and wrote it down on paper, something that is still practiced at Disney today. However unlike Fergy Babbitt’s animation didn’t have great spontaneity and feels studied, even though it’s expertly done. This would be a problem that many other analytical animators struggled with.
Around the same time Bill Tytla moved out to work for Disney and the two began to share a house together as they had in New York. In late 1935 Bill was picked as one of the leads on the ambitious first feature-length Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs while Babbitt remained in shorts for almost another year. In this time frame he and Les Clark animated the short Country Cousin, which has since been said by many to be one of the high points in both men’s careers. Art did great squash and stretch on the mouse when he’s chewing as well as a genius scene of the Country Mouse drunk. Like in his animation of Goofy these scenes show real thought process and caricatured but accurately analyzed movement. Soon after Babbitt was moved onto Snow White, which turned out to be a most difficult feature for the animator to work on. He was originally assigned to animate the dwarfs and started out by animating them in the Spooks sequence (the scene where the dwarfs enter the cottage and are suspicious of what may be residing in it.) However Art soon learned that the exploration of character and breaking the roles by doing things like adding extra footage that had helped make him an elite shorts animator were no longer tolerated when it came down to feature animation. Tytla and Fred Moore had already done lots of animation on the characters and extensive story work was done to develop their personalities, putting Babbitt in the position where his job was to stay true to the character development already done instead of do his own thing. After getting criticisms for his animation on Dopey, which was contradictory to the rest of the business done with the character, he was given the difficult and unappealing assignment of animating the reserved, jealous Queen in her sequences. Art Babbitt and Dick Lundy(who encountered similar problems on the dwarfs) were the only two animators that didn’t receive a bonus on the film. That same year he married Marge Belcher, the live-action model for Snow White and later the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio, but their marriage was brief and they divorced in 1940.
For the next film, Pinocchio, Art Babbitt was once again assigned to a realistic, unappealing character: Geppetto, the toymaker who was granted the wish of turning his beloved puppet Pinocchio to live. “I flipped through the Photostats several times to get an idea of what occurred in the scene,” he recalled. “I looked for what little mannerisms I might be able to get out of it, and those drawings were cast aside.” Art, along with Bob Stokes and Bill Tytla who did some scenes of the character that occur early in the film, struggled with not getting too realistic and staying away from live-action influence. This made Walt bring Fred Moore onto the character to add appeal. The results were excellent and Fred’s pencil test really added a nice “spark” to the character leading to a more appealing, caricatured design that appears in the finished film. At the end Babbitt did the best stuff on the character and a majority of the footage. It was the assignment he would later claim was the one he was proudest of. After Pinocchio he moved onto Fantasia where he animated on both the Nutcracker Suite segment (the Mushroom dance and the Russian dance) and the Pastoral Role segment (Zeus and Vulcan). To prepare for the former assignment Art took dance lessons and learned the fluid motions that come with dancing, which shows brilliantly in the finished film. Next came Dumbo where he animated all of Mr. Stork, whose design was based off of voice actor Sterling Holloway, as well as a good amount of the scenes where through shadows we see the clowns complaining about their working conditions and pitching the idea of Dumbo jumping from a thousand story building.
As great as his career was going Babbitt’s relationship with Walt was quickly turning in the wrong condition. As early as 1935 the boss had suspicion of the animator’s attitude and behavior(in a critiquing memo sent to some animators by Walt the subject was of this instead of the quality of his work.) This was not helped when Art became the president of the Federation of Screen Cartoonists, an independent union run by studio employees. By December he had become seriously aware that the Disney brothers weren’t found of the union and insisted that it block the efforts of other unions. However that month the Screen Cartoonist Guild claimed that they represent a majority of the employees and its presence grew stronger, leading to a very intense situation. By February 1941 Babbitt had resigned from the federation and joined the guild, leading to him getting fired on May 27. The next day, however Walt got the shock of seeing almost 300 employees picketing in front of the Disney Studio including Art Babbitt as well as Bill Tytla (although Tytla didn’t have anything against Walt and was doing it primarily to stick up for his friend.) For weeks everyday the strikers would yell at anyone who crossed the picket line and Art would scream through his speakerphone to Walt as well as the top men who were staying loyal to the studio. Eventually the strikers won and the guild was brought to the Disney Studio(something that had strong opposition from many of the other employees who remained loyal to Disney.) However , unlike Tytla who was accepted back by Walt as well as Disney-loyalists such as Wilfred Jackson, Joe Grant, and Marc Davis, the boss as well as the loyalists held an overwhelming grudge against Babbitt and that October he became a victim of studio layoffs that included many of the other strikers.
Art Babbitt briefly worked at Warner Brothers in Bob Clampett’s unit before joining the marines in World War 2. After the war he won the court case surrounding his firing and returned to the Disney studio where he animated on the Bongo segment in Fun and Fancy Free. However Walt never spoke to him again and the cold atmosphere made Art leave the studio for good soon after. Babbitt would go on to have a career animating and directing at UPA before going into commercial work where he won tons of awards(most notably when he served as head of the commercial program at Hanna-Barbara in the late 60s and early 70s.) In the last five years of Tytla’s life he did his best to make up for damaging his career at Disney by reworking Bill’s work at Hanna-Barbara so he could continue working although he was long past his prime and had great depression(he died in 1968 soon after being turned down one last time by Disney after several attempts to return.) Beginning in 1973 Art Babbitt began his association with Richard Williams and worked part-time at his studio in London. Nine years after retiring in 1983 he passed away at the age of 85.
Like I said above Art Babbitt was a very analytical animator with a great reputation for careful observation and caricaturing movement. He was one of the first animators at Disney to take drawing classes very seriously and put in a lot of thought about developing the personalities of the characters. For all of his characters Art would take a piece of paper and write out all the important characteristics as well as personality traits relating to the character. If you own a copy of the Illusion of Life I highly recommend going to the back of the book and reading a lecture that he gave about Goofy’s character and personality. It gives you a very insightful look into Babbitt’s thought process and his character development. What is genius about him is that he took his observations and thoughts about the character’s personality and utilized them in animation that was completely believable and caricatured. The movements in his scenes are always very fluid and accurate (study the Russian Dance frame by frame to understand what I mean) but don’t feel too close to live action the way some other animators do. Two of the best scenes to study that show Babbitt’s genius skills are the scene in Moving Day where Goofy struggles to move a piano into a truck and a scene in Pinocchio where Geppetto looks at the time and yawns. Both very effectively use subtle movements and secondary actions that show the character’s feelings and their thought process. Another great asset of Art’s animation is that he was great at using live action but doing his best to avoid making it to stiff and unappealing. A great example of this is the Queen in Snow White who, although very reserved and realistic in terms of movements and gestures, is simplified and caricatured just enough to avoid looking too much like live action. Last is Art Babbitt was excellent at making imaginative actions look believable to the audience. This is best seen by studying the mushrooms in Fantasia, who constantly change size and perspective, which amazingly works.
In terms of impact on the art of Disney animation Art Babbitt is most significant in that he was one of the first animators to really thoroughly analyze his characters and work hard to study real life. Like I said above he helped start the life drawing and action analysis classes at the studio, which were crucial in improving the quality of the animation done at the studio and getting young recruits to shine. Babbitt helped define the importance of understanding the character’s personality and developing his characteristics. Also I think he proved that you can still do believable, analytical animation but not have to stay too close to reality and caricature movement. I like to think of Art Babbitt as the first of a group of what I call the feature generation (I also consider Ham Luske, Les Clark, and Bill Tytla in this group.) In my humble opinion I think they’re the bridge between the earlier animators who defined Disney animation but couldn’t keep up with the Disney style(Fred Moore and Fergy being prime examples) and the more refined later animators( Frank Thomas, Ward Kimball, and Milt Kahl among them.) While these guys were older than the younger group they were superior to the earlier group in that they were very sophisticated, well-trained as artists, and when they were in animation were able to keep up with the developments of character animation (I feel that Tytla, Luske, and Babbitt would have continued to be top animators if they stayed animating at Disney and would be seen as being in the same caliber as the guys that ended up dominating those decades.) These guys were really important because they were able to take the techniques and innovations done by the earlier animators and utilize them more effectively by studying and analyzing their characters harder as well as getting more formal draftsmanship. This made them able to bring Disney Animation to the peak of artistic maturity it reached in the early 1940s. Regardless of your views and opinions related to the strike I feel me as well as many other people wish that Art Babbitt had stayed at Disney and continued to do great animation there. He was fortunately able to continue to influence Disney though by serving as a mentor to many animators at both Richard Williams and through his classes at the union that eventually ended up at Disney including Andreas Deja, Eric Goldberg, and Ruben Aquino.
I personally have very high respect for Art Babbitt and feel his art has very much influenced me. From studying his work and reading about him in animation history books he inspired me to put more importance into analyzing life and thoroughly thinking out the character’s personality. When I think about characters in my mind I sometimes take a piece of paper and write about their personality on a sheet of paper just like Babbitt once did at Disney. Also his passion and intelligence relating to the art form was contagious and very inspirational. Last I feel that Art has had a big influence on my perspective on character development and in the way I think about the movements that occur in a scene. Thank you Art Babbitt for your contributions to Disney animation and for the inspiration you’ve given so many people, including myself!