7. Milt Kahl

Animation is not a medium for people who slack off and don’t try hard. It is an art form designed for people who feed off the challenge, strive to experiment, aim for high quality work, and are intrigued by the endless possibilities that can give every last ounce of entertainment to a performance.  It also is one that takes strong intent and certainty: you have to know how to draw and animate your characters to be able to make them believable.  This all takes immense amounts of intensity, thought, intelligence, concentration, effort, commitment, artistry, draftsmanship, understanding, and a great work ethic.  All these were the qualities that made Milt Kahl able to be successful, number 7 on the list and the honoree of today’s post.

Milt Kahl was a brilliant animator who awed everyone with his exceptional draftsmanship, genius refinements in character design, and extraordinary technique as an animator.   He drew things almost no one else could draw in such a beautiful way and would in his work use poses and graceful movements that read, have strength, show who the character is, and are appealing.  “I’m perfect for this medium,” Kahl arrogantly praised of himself. “I have no limitations. I can do anything.” What really separates him as well is the intense, intellectual thinking put behind the drawings.  “Milt’s drawings are very, very involved and are all about having high opinions of things,” explains honoree Andreas Deja. “Uncompromising.  It’s very honest. Trying to be perfect.” “Milt transcended the medium,” stated Richard Williams. “He worked harder than anyone else.” Because of his abilities as a draftsman Kahl’s main specialty was in animating straight human characters that had to be believable such as Pinocchio, Alice, Peter Pan, Wendy, Prince Phillip, Roger, Anita, and Merlin but also could do many other types of characters such as the charming Thumper and Bambi, the geniusly-cherographed llama in Saludos Amigos, the broadly-handled cartoony tiger in Tiger Trouble, Brer Rabbit, Tramp, the menacing Sher Khan, and the exaggerated Madame Medusa.  “His drawing, animation, character design, acting, what-have-you were guideposts for all,” reflected his longtime head assistant Stan Green. “He was responsible for the quality of a film and would not compromise.” However as much of a genius and exceptional animator he was quite a few were turned off by his enormous temper, cold personality, occasionally rude comments, and overly outspoken candidness.  He was a perfectionist, competitor, and highly opinionated man who had no problem screaming 4 letter words across the D-Wing.  On the artistic end some people argue that Kahl’s work lacks much-needed sincerity, warmth, and heart. While it is true that some of his work is a bit cold and detached what some people don’t see is that he actually did care very much about his work and put the level of quality in his characters so high. Also he actually once you gave him a chance was quite a generous, even sweet man. “Unlike many irascible temperaments who have filled the halls of history Milt had a sweet, helpful side when he chose,” wrote Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. “He gave unstintingly of his time and talent when it was to help the picture and almost as often to help another artist with a problem. However he expected everyone coming for help to have worked hard and done everything- to have done his best before.”

Miton Kahl was born on March 22, 1909 in San Francisco California, where he grew up.  For all his childhood and young adulthood he was incredibly poor and had nothing.  For the rest of his life Milt always had a round hump on his back because of the malnourishment he suffered growing up.  Emotionally he faced psychological damage because his father, Erwin Kahl, abandoned the family when he was young leaving the young man severely hurt and angry.  Around the age of 6 or 7 Kahl began drawing first on toilet paper and soon was drawing on regular paper drawing that were very well done for his age.  Unfortunately in 1925 at the age of 16 he dropped out of high school to provide for the family, although for the rest of his life he resented not having a good formal education and felt a need to prove himself intellectually because of it.  That year Milt was hired by the Oakland Post Enquirer in the art department.  At this place he met a young man named Ham Luske, a future Disney great who later would change the animator’s life forever.  For the time being Milt was rather successful and after three years at the Enquirer he moved on to the San Francisco Bulletin, where his talent really began to show potential.  However the Depression hit and he was laid off making him move on to work drawings cards adverting movies for theaters.  Kahl did great work for the theaters but was fired due to a huge temper tantrum he threw when they refused to grant his friend tickets he had left him. Next he moved into working as a commercial artist and here he found great opportunities to improve.  For a time Milt shared a studio with Fred Ludekens, a great art director and illustrator who did fabulous animal drawings. Fred’s drawings had a precision and analytical thinking that greatly influenced the future animator and his style. At the same time he began seriously taking life drawing classes, which greatly improved his work and understanding of the human figure, both great assets when he went into animation.  By late 1933 Kahl was struggling to find any work in illustration and commercial art and was searching for something to give him a consistent income.  The answer came when Ham Luske recommended he come down to Los Angeles and work at Disney.  Always having an interest in cartoons, Milt quickly took the offer and was hired by the Disney Studio on June 25, 1934.

Unlike some other artists who were instantly destined for greatness at the Disney Studio it actually took quite a while for people to realize the greatness and talent Milt Kahl had. A lot of this was due to the fact he never went to college and had very limited formal art training. Also the main reason he got attention back in his inbetweening days was his very outspoken, rebellious nature.  “When I first met Milt his language was so peppered with curse words and you’d never have guessed he had a very high IQ,” remembered Ken Anderson. After a few months Kahl began working with bill Roberts, who he stayed with for approximately a year.  Roberts was an animator with very different sensibilities than the young man (in contrast to Milt’s very thoughtful, involved work he was a main of straight-ahead action and not a ton of analyzing) and weren’t a perfect mesh.  He however found stimulation and inspiration from attending action analysis classes taught by the great Chouinard teacher Don Graham.  “Don Graham was a fine instructor,” reflected the animator. “I disagreed with him on almost anything as far as drawing was concerned but he made me think. When you say someone’s wrong, and he’s given it some thought, you’ve got to defend your point of view and it makes you think.” Milt’s first time as a full-fledged animator was on Mickey’s Circus, a short released in 1936. “The first really good chance I had was when Ben Sharpsteen gave me a sequence of two or three scenes in Mickey’s Circus, which wasn’t one of our better shorts,” explained the animator. “Talk about control: Ben asked me to pose the whole scene out to show him what I was going to do with it. I brought these drawings in to him, and he looked at them, and then he sat looking out the window for quite a while, and I thought, “Oh, Jesus.” Then he finally said, “All right, that looks pretty good.” I pretty near had a heart attack in the meantime.” Pretty soon after though he was assigned into the unit of animators who would animate the animals in Snow White, which also included Jim Algar and Eric Larson.  Kahl animated several scenes on the film and did some very well thought out and studied animation, most notably in scenes involving the turtle character. I love the slow, lazy walk he gave the turtle and the grace with which he walks in.  The other animals too show a greater sense of understanding of anatomy and refinement in movement in his scenes than in those of the other animators on the animals.  After Snow White he returned to animating on shorts such as Farmyard Symphony but soon would find on the next feature film an opportunity that would change the course of his career forever. The film was Pinocchio.

Finding the character and design of Pinocchio proved to be a most difficult task for Walt and his men.  “The problem is everyone knows the story but they don’t like the character,” stated Disney in an early story meeting.  Unlike Snow White Pinocchio had a very structured plot and everyone knew it. Also since it was a more defined literary work the characters had more development and unfortunately Pinocchio had been conceived as a very dislikable, crude character in the book. In terms of design what proved to be the problem for Fred Moore (although he actually never animated Pinocchio in the final film), Frank Thomas, and Ollie Johnston when they were working on possible designs and exploratory pencil tests on the character was they handled him and drew him too much like a puppet, making him very unappealing.  So not only was it difficult for people to love this Pinocchio but he was drawn in the most unattractive, unbelievable way. “They were obsessed with the idea of this boy being a wooden puppet,” remembered Kahl. “My god they even had this midget who did the voice of Call for Phillip Morris. It was terrible! You can always draw the wooden joints and make him a puppet afterwards.” When taking the problem to director Ham Luske, Luske recommended that instead of complaining about it he should do something to solve the problem by making a new design of the character and animating a pencil test with the new Pinocchio. So what Milt did is he redesigned the character but approached him as a cute, innocent boy with appeal that unlike Fred Moore’s (which was totally natural and unrestrained) calculated and refined, which allowed his cockiness to be believable in a way that wouldn’t if he were out of control appealing.  After drawing the character as a boy the animator drew wooden joints on the character’s limbs and didn’t give him eyebrows so you could still see he was a puppet. In terms of handling though Kahl handled and animate the character like a boy but gave him an awkwardness in his movements that reminds the audience he’s just been given life and has a wooden body, although oftentimes you forget he’s a puppet because he moves and behaves like a real boy.  For the test instead of trying the complicated transformation sequence at the beginning of the movie like Frank and Ollie had he animated the character in the scene where he’s underwater and trips over an oyster. The redesign and test were such a hit that Milt’s handling and design of the character immediately became what the character was. “I made kind of a cute boy out of him and Walt loved it,” said the animator in an interview.  “This was actually my big chance. It was my move into being one of the top animators. “ This was absolutely correct.  Kahl soon was the directing animator on Pinocchio alive(Frank Thomas animated him as a puppet in the beginning before he was given life) and his animation is absolutely incredible.  Some of his best scenes include Pinocchio skipping off to school (textbook example of how to do a walk that communicates to an audience) and his transformation into a donkey (the poses in this scene are effective to no end.) The only scene in the film that Milt animated that didn’t work quite as well was the one where Pinocchio finally becomes a real boy. It was the best it could probably be but the cute boy approach to the character makes the transformation at the end not as powerful as it should be.  Although he didn’t animate much of the character (Ward Kimball, Wolfgang Reitherman, and Don Towsley did) Kahl animated a spectacular scene with Jiminy Cricket getting dressed while running. The use of timing, secondary action, and intense thinking it that scene is incredible.

In late 1939 Milt Kahl as well as Frank Thomas were the first two animators put on Bambi, making them miss Fantasia. There they began to intensely study and draw deer from life as well as do their own tests.  On Bambi the animals had to be so believable, accurate, and lifelike that slow but thorough study was essential to its success.  This made these two men as well as everyone else on the production do an endless amount of research on how deer move, their anatomy, and all the mechanics of them.  However, like he did with Pinocchio, Kahl came in and designed the deer so they would be believable, appealing, and work to animate at the same time. “”We had to make certain concession away from the animal to make it animate,” he explained. “Bambi’s head had to be designed in a way that had full expression ….. which in a real deer isn’t proportioned that way. The eyes and mouth, two important elements of expression, are widely separated. You’ve got to have a mouth you can do something with its teeth and in turn with the eye. You’ve got to have a squash and stretch and give it a change… you actually have to have a different shape than an actual deer’s head. Where there should be a long, thin shape, this is a more compressed shape. You have a whole new set of proportions. This fawn is about as close as we could get to the real thing. “ Not only were his designs influential but Milt’s animation on Bambi is phenomenal and in my opinion his best work because it has a sincerity that is absent in most of his work.  “Milt’s work on Bambi was the best thing he ever did at the studio,” praised Frank Thomas.  Especially in his animation of Thumper and Bambi Kahl’s work on the film has tremendous richness of character, understanding of anatomy, expert use of expression, and is very appealing. My favorite scene of his on the film is the one he did where Thumper nervously and innocently repeats “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Study this frame by frame and you’ll see that he spent a lot of time thinking through what the character was thinking and feeling as well as the actions and expressions that support that feeling. “The situation: Bambi is learning to walk,” explained Milt at a lecture. “He takes some steps and falls down. Then Thumper says ‘He doesn’t walker very good does he?’ And his mother admonishes him. So in this scene he says ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.’ We try to squeeze every last drop out of every scene. The kid who supplied the voice was only 4 years old and he had a little trouble remembering the lines and it showed. So we got the same hesitation into the animation. We even added time between nice and don’t. so he says nice, takes a breath, and nothing comes out. He suddenly can’t remember a thing. He’s fooling around with his foot and looking at his mother out of one eye. He tries real hard to remember and almost has to squeeze the second part out. Then he’s proud that he remembered it and he turns to his mother but she gives him this admonishing look, and he’s sort of sheepish. The main thing is that in this case you have fairly subtle ideas, but the change of mood he goes through is strong enough to make the scene successful. They sell themselves to the audience.” What is great about his work on Bambi is that it is still retains a lot of the roundness and appeal of Fred Moore’s Disney style(but more refined and thought out) but it has an expert use of design to show character and expertise about making a pose communicate that it is the best of both worlds. I’ve always preferred Kahl’s style in the 40s and first half of the 50s to his later work because I feel it has more sincerity and that back then he did a lot better job at not repeating himself acting wise as well as making the character likeable (some of the later work is too angular and cold for my taste).  Another scene that I truly love in Bambi he animated is the one where Thumper gets Twitterpatted.  The sex appeal of the female rabbit and the subtle, shy expressions of the rabbit who’s falling in love are truly genius and have so much entertainment.  Milt also animated a lot of good scenes with Bambi and the other deer as well.

After Bambi Milt Kahl immediately went on Wind and the Willows but the project was put on hold when World War 2 began, making him go work on war films and shorts.  Around this time his style was beginning to go into a unique period because unlike the bulk of his work that is very refined and realistic from Saludos Amigos all the way to Song of the South he went through a stage where his work was rather cartoony and caricatured.  Although he actually liked to do comic cartoony characters a lot Milt didn’t quite have the flair that animators like Ward Kimball, John Lounsbery, and John Sibley did for doing very archetypical, broadly-handled characters although personally I think the cartoony stuff he did get to do was terrific.  However, there still is quite a bit of difference in his broad style compared to those of the other guys. The other guys used broad action and cartoony expressions to make the emotions of the characters more strong and expressive, so even though they were believable they were animated in a way that was almost as similar to the work of a study like Warner Brothers than it was to the subtler work at Disney. Kahl’s comic characters, on the other hand, move with a great grace, have stronger poses(the ones I mentioned before were more skilled in using strength in movement and timing to show character and emotion), has a deeper but less intuitive thought process, and is choreographed in a unique way.  The first time this stage of the animator’s style took place was in his animation of the llama in Saludos Amigos. Personally I am an absolute nut for Milt’s timing on the llama as well as the absolutely brilliant grace, pantomime, and choreography he gave the character.  However during this period there was one notable exception to this “comic cartoony” phase. It was in the short Education for Death, a very dark short about a kid who becomes a Nazi. On the short Kahl animated a shot that showed the great pain the mother felt for having her son taken away from her. The subtlety and restrained motion of this scene makes it very powerful and you really feel the horrible pain she feels into letting her son into this horrible thing.  However most of his other war work (Winged Scourge, Three Caballeros, etc.) was on the comic end. In 1945 Kahl animated almost all of the tiger in Tiger Trouble, which is by far the broadest and most cartoony character he had ever done. I love the fact that although he is handled broadly the feline still has great psychological precision, expertly structured poses, and brilliant timing done in a way that only Milt did. “Milt was the butt of remarks implying he wasn’t capable of animating outlandish cartoon character,” recalled Ken Anderson. “Then one day on Tiger Trouble he got a far-out cartoon tiger to animate and the results were so fantastic they quieted the remarks forever.” On Make Mine Music he was the main animator on the Martins and the Coys segment. If you study his work on this film you’ll truly learn to appreciate how good and precise Kahl’s understanding of movement was. The dance scenes he did exhibit some of the best timing and precision ever done in a dance sequence anywhere. Although handled broadly they are so accurate you buy it!

Of Kahl’s work in this period you’d probably have to say his best work was his animation on Song of the South, where he animated what in my opinion is the best acting he ever did at Disney. Instead of casting by character the animators were cast by sequence so he, Ollie Johnston, John Lounsbery, Marc Davis, and Eric Larson animated tons of footage of all the characters and really got to go inside the character relationships.  The real secret to the brilliant animation, solid character relationships, and character consistency to the animated sequences of the film was the storyboards done by Bill Peet. Peet was an extraordinary storyman who had the unique gift of being able to develop a situation, stage a scene, show character in his boards, and develop something with true merit. It is important to know that Milt was actually more of a refiner than a designer. He didn’t design from scratch but rather took drawings done by storymen like Bill and refined them to epic proportions. So this collaboration between animator and storyman really created excellent results and this made the characters work that much better. This was the first time Kahl and Peet worked much together but they would continue to work together for many years to create some of the best characters and scenes done at the studio. In the case of Song of the South, the animator really helped define and refine the designs of the Fox, Bear, and Rabbit to satisfaction. The main sequence in the film he focused on is the one where Brer Fox is holding Brer Rabbit by the ears and Brer Rabbit begs him to through him into the Briar Patch. The acting in the scene is phenomenal: the expressions are clear, the poses show the emotion, and the contrast between the two personalities is always present.  “My best animation on the picture was mine on the rabbit, when the fox has him by the ears and he’s trying to talk him in to throwing him into the briar patch,” said Milt. “It was the most difficult to get the result of any animation I can think of.” I love the angular, refined appeal but caricatured designs he did of the characters because they animate so well. I also really like how Kahl used the amounts of energy and walks to show the characters as well as the understanding he had for their characterization. Song of the South was his favorite assignment at Disney as it was for many people because of the richness of character and the fun he had in handling the characters.

On Melody Time Milt Kahl entered a new stage of his style: one that worked well with handling characters rather straightly and drawing them in a way that was like a more refined, tied down version of what he had done on Pinocchio and Bambi. On the feature he got two assignments that rather bored him: Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill’s girlfriend Swing Foot Sue. “There’s nothing hard to do in animation that nothing,” grumbled Kahl. “Appleseed is a very mild character. He never got mad. He never elated about anything. Everything was kind of in the middle. He was a weak character.” Su didn’t do much more to intrigue them even though he did a rather good job on her and I’m an absolute nut for the sexy, graceful walk he gave her.  After Melody Time Milt returned to working on Wind and the Willows but this time it was going to be just half of the package feature Ichabod and Mr. Toad.  He did some great designs of the characters though.  However, soon the package features were over and Kahl was thrilled when Cinderella started up. “It felt great to finally be working on something important,” fondly remembered the animator.  One error that is commonly said even in Disney historical books is that Milt was the lead animator on the Prince in the film. This is actually wrong because Eric Larson was and he didn’t even do a single scene of the character (Some places say he did some of Cinderella but he didn’t even do a scene of her either and didn’t design her.) However Kahl did lots of excellent animation on the King and Duke as well as animated all of the Fairy Godmother.  The Godmother is in terms of design a refined, more angular version of a round Fred Mooreesque drawing and she is animated very well. I love the gestures and subtlety in drawing that Milt gave her. You can always tell what she’s thinking and you completely believe her. The godmother also is one character that you can use very well to challenge the common argument that Kahl didn’t have sincerity and can’t put warmth into his work.  The duke also has always been one of my favorite characters because I love his personality and the way it’s expressed in the poses. One Milt scene that is a must to study frame by frame is all of the business done with the King and Duke up in the balcony at the ball. The two characters are so clearly defined in the way they’re handled and their expression not just in the face but also in the body and movement is addicting.  A great touch is the one where the Duke rolls his monocle through his fingers. “He used hands to put across the acting through subtle body language,” explained Iwao Takamoto,  a long time assistant to Kahl who later would design and create Scooby Doo.  “During a talky scene between the King and Duke, Milt had the Duke take off his monocle, put it onto his hands and roll it between his fingers to give him something to do during this reflective dialogue. He often drew his way out of problems.”

On Alice in Wonderland Milt Kahl was primarily responsible for being the directing animator on Alice and the Dodo, although he resented the fact he had to share the former character with several other animators as well as the fact he didn’t get to do a more fun character like the Cheshire Cat or Queen of Hearts (Ichabod Crane and Captain Hook would be on this list as well for other features.) His Alice’s characterization is much more mature and opinionated compared to the other animators who more focused on her innocence and made her rather passive. In terms of drawing he drew her more tied down and with more complex construction. Up next was Peter Pan, which was an assignment that Milt wasn’t too crazy about. He had to animate Peter and Wendy; two characters that had to be handled very straight and therefore would be a great challenge. “Peter was interesting in that you had to make him fly but after that was over he became a chore,” said Kahl.  Despite not being happy with his casting (Ron Clements remembers that years later he was talking to Frank Thomas about how much he resented the fact that he was assigned Hook instead of him) his work on the film is actually pretty good. Peter is one of the more interesting male protagonists of the first generation films because he isn’t very heroic, has strong opinions of things, and has a nonchalant attitude towards life.  Milt’s animation of him totally embraces that as well as has great grace, expert timing, and an appealing design.  Wendy, originally cast to Ollie Johnston, was also hard but fortunately Hal Ambro was able to take a lot of the weight of her footage to spectacular results.  Up next came a character that worked perfectly with Kahl’s strengths: Tramp in Lady and the Tramp.  Tramp is a rebel who does what he pleases and is a free spirit, all things that the animator could pretty intuitively connect with.  My absolute favorite scene Milt did on the film is the one where Tramp wakes up because not only is the weight and thinking behind the scene brilliant but just in that stretch we know everything we need to know about the character. Communication is what animating is all about and this scene is a textbook example of that.  I particularly love the walk and design Kahl gave Tramp because they clearly communicate the character and give a good contrast to Lady’s design and movements, making the differences and attractions between the two characters more believable. On the film he also animated the beaver at the zoo, which is a good example of his ability to do more whimsical, broad characters.

It was after Lady that Milt Kahl’s style began to make its truly dramatic evolution and change.  While before his sensibilities were very appealing and had appeal but in a refined way his work at this time started to become much more angular and stylized. From an animation standpoint the poses began to dominate more leaving the movements as less important and his work started to become colder and more detached.  Yes the technique and vitality of his drawings in his later work is amazing but personally I prefer his rounder, more appealing and warmer earlier stuff. The film that this evolution really showed first was on Sleeping Beauty, which turned out to be Milt’s least favorite assignment. He was the lead animator on Prince Phillip, a very boring and straight character. Kahl complained for decades about how despicable and boring it was to work on that prince.  However, there is one incredibly brilliant scene he did in the film that he does seem to have enjoyed. It was the one where Phillip lifts up King Hubert and waltzes him around. The weight, spacing, timing, and accuracy in movement in the scene is absolutely amazing and is definitely on the freeze frame recommendation list.  “In Sleeping Beauty, there’s a scene where the prince is really exuberant, he runs across the stage, he grabs his father the King, King Hubert, and waltzes around with him, carrying him,” explains Milt. “The guy we had doing the live-action for the Prince was Ed Kemmer, and King Hubert was Don Barclay, who was a fat little circus performer, a really baggy-pants comedian. Kemmer could never possibly lift him off the ground, so this was a case where I had to animate it. I did that damned thing, and it’s believable. The King has weight, but the Prince is strong enough to lift him off the ground, and it looks convincing—as convincing as any of the stuff that was taken from live action. I can do that, and I think that other animators should be able to do it. I don’t think the surface has been scratched, really, with our kind of picture. I think you should be able to animate princes, or princesses, or any kind of difficult character, and make them believable. I don’t mean realism; I mean you should be able to do things with them that a human being wouldn’t be able to do. But make them convincing, make people be able to believe in them.” Milt had a little more fun working on One Hundred and One Dalmatians and personally I think it is some of the best work he did for the studio. He primarily focused on animating Roger and Anita, two excellent examples of believable, straight characters that are caricatured in a way that works well together.  They are handled straight and have subtlety because the audience has to believe in their affection for their pets but they graphically aren’t very realistic and are caricatured which makes them even more believable if they were animated in a straight way.  One interesting thing about this couple is that in many ways they are Disney’s first “sexual” couple because they flirt with each other and the way they communicate is definitely not asexual (one example of how this film has a very modern approach.) A good example of this is the one where Roger is singing Cruella De Vill and is grabbing and dancing Anita in a very flirtous way, something that just doesn’t happen in Snow White.  I have also found a lot of inspiration from Kahl’s animation of Roger because of how strong, clear, and well structured his poses are. One of my favorite scenes the animator ever did is the one where Roger and Pongo are freaking out and the dog jumps into his lap.  The timing is brilliant and the drawings have immense clarity.  Milt also animated some of Pongo, including the scene where he’s limping after the puppies are born.

Sword in the Stone proved to be one of Milt Kahl’s favorite films because he got to have a lot of fun doing the broad characters, which he hadn’t done in so long.  On the film he animated the stuffy and egotistical but wise Merlin, the wacky Madame Mim, and the interesting character relationship of Sir Ector and Sir Kay.  “It didn’t do so well but I thought it was one hell of a picture,” Milt told Calarts students at a lecture. “The characters were consistent.” I agree with the animator on the fact that character consistency is a virtue of the film, especially since it disappeared after Bill Peet left the studio.  However I do have a problem with the repetition of acting patterns he starts to use from this film on. His human characters begin to have similar walks, which I feel is ironically lazy on his part.  Up next came the Jungle Book, which proved to be another highlight of Milt’s career.  He spent the bulk of his time on the film animating about 95% of the animation on Sher Khan (John Lounsbery animated a few scenes of him). The tiger is very effective because of the restrained, elegant, and menacing way he acts and moves.  By this time Kahl knew animal anatomy so well that he spent only a week researching tigers! One huge inspiration for both the design and animation of Sher Khan is without a doubt George Sanders, who did the voice of the character.  If you look at the artwork done in preparation for the film you’ll notice that Milt also took a lot of inspiration design wise from the character designs Ken Anderson drew of the character but he did major refinement of them for the final design.  The must-study scene the animator did in jungle Book and my personal favorite in the whole film is the one where Sher Khan confronts Kahl. The contrast between the two characters is brilliant and the way Milt uses everything (timing, design, poses, movements, expressions, energy levels, etc.) to communicate the feeling, story, character, and situation of both characters is a perfect example of great acting and technique combined together in animation.  In all the scenes with the tiger though he used weight and graphics in the best possible way. “The stripes helped, gave it shaped,” Kahl told Dick Williams. “But on every drawing I know exactly where the weight is. I know where the weight is coming from, where it is traveling, and where the weight is transferring too.” In a nutshell the combination of subtle acting, excellent draftsmanship, understanding of anatomy, and expert use of the principles of animation done by the animator on this film created one of the most affective and elegant performances ever to come across the Disney silver screen. On the film he also animated Kaa (in his first scene in the film), King Louie (his is more angular and has more fur than Thomas’s and Lounsbery’s), the vultures (when they’re up in the tree), some of Bagheera and Mowgli (in the scene where they’re climbing up the tree,) and even a scene of Baloo (where he’s lost Mowgli and is yelling “Bagheera.”) On the Artistocats Kahl began to become colder both stylistically and personality wise. He closed his door (he had always had it open before) and his outspoken comments became not as much candid and honest but rude. Also Milt stopped doing drawings for other animators, which was a real shame since he could make the scenes of animators even at his caliber better by just giving them a single drawing to help out.  On the film he animated Thomas O’Malley and Duchess in their earlier scenes (Ollie Johnston took care of them later) as well as Edgar the Butler, the old lady, and the lawyer.  Up next was Robin Hood where he animated a lot on Robin Hood, the Sheriff of Nottingham, and the Rooster as well as some of Little John.  Although he did some technically excellent work on the film by this point his influence, creativity, and brilliance in character development just doesn’t seem to be there.  By the time the Rescuers started he decided he had enough with most of the people at the studio so “I divorced myself from the studio and did the best damn possible performance on those two characters.” The two characters are Madame Medusa and Snoops in the Rescuers, his swan song at the studio. Medusa was one of his favorite assignments because he got to do all of her and she didn’t have to be handled straight.  She is very graphic in terms of design and animation, partially due to the huge inspiration Milt had found in Pablo Picasso by this time period. Although I think Medusa has great acting and performance, personally I think Kahl should have focused more on her character than design, done more original acting (her walk is the same as Sir Ectors and Sir Kays), and done more to integrate her in the picture (part of the problem of this time period was the story department was in such bad shape that oftentimes animators could hide in a corner and do things that didn’t work with the rest of the picture. However the animator certainly didn’t feel that way and constantly crowed about his achievement on the character. “My Medusa stuff will stand out so far,” Kahl praised of himself. “Anything good done in the picture was done by me.” On April 30, 1976 after much tension and arguing between him and management Kahl retired and left the studio never to return although he did follow through on an agreement to do a few character designs on the Black Cauldron at his home. Soon after retirement he moved back to the Bay Area and started working a lot on wire sculptures.  With the notable exceptions of old friend Marc Davis and avid young fan Andreas Deja Milt had minimal contact with anyone at the studio and didn’t even interview for Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston’s book the Illusion of Life (even Art Babbitt interviewed for that one.) On April 19, 1987 Milt Kahl passed away of pancreatic cancer but his legacy and influence will stay at the Disney Studio forever.

Like I’ve explained throughout the post Milt Kahl’s style really evolved and changed over time.  To say it simply his earlier work was more round, loose, and appealing while it slowly developed into very angular and graphic work.  One of Milt’s greatest assets as an animator was that he animated poses that are very clear, expressive, and communicate. “Milt’s drawings hold better still than anyone else’s,” praised his best friend Marc Davis. “Every pose holds up as a still, as a design, the way it sits on paper, the way it’s composed, the way it’s drawn,” explained Andreas Deja. All his poses are structured in a complex way that makes all these different parts that are timed separately work cohesively, which is a very hard thing to do.  Also his work is very refined and has great draftsmanship. However, he wasn’t one to design from scratch out of his head. What he would do is look at story sketches and concept art from people such as Ken Anderson and Bill Peet, take them, and refine them in the way he saw them.  Then he would do exploratory pencil tests with the characters he did to try to define the character, take the key poses in those tests, and put them on boards to use as model sheets for the animators. “My usual function on these pictures is to get a character started, to say ‘This is the character,’” explained Kahl. “I move around the picture a lot, helping people with drawings and that sort of thing, and actually animating later.” Because of his abilities in finding the perfect drawing to put in a scene he oftentimes had people come to his door to get a drawing to help out with their scene. With the exceptions of Fred Moore, Bill Tytla, Ward Kimball, and Marc Davis (the four of them always designed their own characters and did work independent of Milt’s) pretty much all the other animators came to him for advice or to do a single drawing to define the scene. “I was very appreciative for how much his drawing could make my scene so much better,” fondly remembered Frank Thomas.  Before animating a scene he imagined it in his head and had the thing worked out mentally to the point where he could basically just trace what he saw in his head. “Milt’s concentration and intensity was something else,” reflected his longtime assistant Stan Green. In terms of animation Kahl’s work not only has complicated drawing but also has very complicated technique and timing. While someone like Marc Davis had complicated drawing but had his timing pretty even, he always worked on the extremely particular threes and would have movements and actions that are very complicated.  To explain his technique here is what Milt told Michael Barrier about how he worked: They exposure sheets look like instructions from the music room, but they weren’t, because the animator and the director would talk things over. The notes on the exposure sheet were to remind the animator of points covered in his discussions with the director. In a dialogue scene, you wouldn’t need anything like that; you’d do it through thumbnails. But there are scenes that don’t involve dialogue, where your timing is completely loose. Then, I will put notes on the exposure sheet. I’ll go through it with a stopwatch—especially if it’s a long scene—and time it overall, and then I’ll begin timing details. I’ll time it from one thing to another, all the way through. I’ll do it several times until I’ve got it pretty well down. Then I’ll put it on the sheet, because there’s no sense in doing it all over again. That was what the directors were doing even back in the shorts days. You can bet your hat that the notes on the exposure sheets for Norm Ferguson’s scenes, or Fred Moore’s scenes, were contributed to by both parties [the director and the animator]; the director was not a dictator. Sometimes you get people that you have to hand work out to, as a director, who really shouldn’t be doing it, but somebody has to do it. [The notations on an exposure sheet] would amount to instructions, because you’ve both talked them over, and you’ve decided that this is what you should do, and you’ll probably stick to the plan. It’s the way I do it myself; as I said at this seminar, I’ll do all my exploring in thumbnails, and kind of decide how I’m going to do it. By the time I get to actually animating a scene, I know how I’m going to do it. Any full-size drawing for that scene is a very specific thing that I’ve already decided on. I’ll stick to that plan, unless I get a big brainstorm.”

Milt Kahl’s influence on the art of Disney animation is one of the most important legacies the studio has. The refinement, expert technique, hard work, and constant effort to put on the best performance possible he gave has intrigued and inspired animators for decades.  While he was working there Milt had great influence in the style and design of the pictures because he did so much to help the other animators and did so many beautiful designs. The work he did also helped set the bar for the quality of Disney animation and his contributions really helped the films as a whole.  Graphically he had no limitations and every Kahl scene is very brilliantly done. To the second generation he really influenced the animators because they studied his work extensively and felt compelled to try to emulate him.  In many of the more recent films there are several designs and characters that have aspects that can be regarded as Kahlesque.  Ultimately Milt Kahl was a phenomenal animator, designer, and refiner who changed the style of Disney animation forever and helped set a very high bar for the quality of the Disney films.

It’s no surprise that I, too, have gotten a lot of inspiration from Milt Kahl. His work has made me realize the importance of making poses that read and show character, refinement and subtlety in drawing in animation, making your scene cohesive, planning before actually animating, thinking about your animation thoroughly, and creating characters that are consistent and believable. This knowledge is very valuable and really opens up your mind. As outspoken and temperamental as Milt was, I still have found that he was a very good man and one worth admiring.  He believed in working your hardest, doing the highest quality work possible, concentrating extensively, helping out other artists, and collaborating to make a great picture, all things that I believe are important and essential.  Kahl always gave everything his all and worked to do the best thing possible, which is what I want to do in animation.  Also beneath his temper and four letter words he was ultimately a very sweet man who was very generous and helped make everyone else’s work the best it could be.  The only problem with being influenced by this animator is that he did such beautiful work and gave such high effort that it can make you feel intimidated because you don’t know if you can do the same. Thank you Milt Kahl for your contributions to Disney animation and for the great hero and inspiration you’ve been to me as well as so many other people!

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7 Responses to “7. Milt Kahl”

  1. All of these posts are so fantastic, just spilling with information! Do you mind my asking how it is you know so much? Keep up the great work!

    • Answer- research. For years I’ve done tons of research on all things animation and have done just about everything to find the answers to my questions. I’ve looked through books, websites, etc. One other valuable thing is being able to talk to professionals in the industry, including most of the living ones on the list. Last is there’s a lot of analysis and observation that comes with this too. I study the person’s work and put my observations, thoughts, and analysis done. If you’d like I can email you a list of animation books I find particularly insightful.

  2. I thought Milt would top the list, I’m surprised to see him here, but interested to see where you go from here.

    • simple – the warm guys with heart. He still hasn’t done Glen Keane, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Fred Moore, Art Babbitt, Ward Kimball, or Bill Tytla. (whoever doesn’t make the cut will be sorely missed.)

      And here’s something that you surely must know – if the person doesn’t fucking WORSHIP either Milt Kahl or Rod Scribner, they will put Bill Tytla at #1.
      (I love everybody who doesn’t look like anyone else; even with my soft spot for Ben Washam/Carlo Vinci/Bobe Cannon/Milt Kahl for their unique and free styles of posing; but i go for bill tytla.)

      You know how we animators are – it shouldn’t bother anyone that the guy who voiced geppetto was a nazi, or Ken Harris was almost fascistly right-wing, or Frollo was animated by a chick while Esmerelda was animated by a dude, or that the guy who drew ‘He’s a Tramp’ was devoutly mormon. So what if Kahl was prone to the occasional expletive? He killed himself to work this awesomely.

  3. Jane Doe Says:

    Hi, I love your work and the depth of your research and analysis is incredible! It is incredibly difficult to find information on characters who lived quite a while ago and the amount of information is astounding, staggering even! I was wondering if you would be kind enough to suggest some links, works. I spent about a week reading up all this, absorbing the vast knowledge you have so generously shared
    I have heard than Canemaker’s ‘Nine Old Men’ s is highly informative but is so terribly hard and $$ to find,
    I admire your work and am a most fanatic follower, great job and am looking forward to many titbits!

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