8. Norman Ferguson

Posted in Uncategorized on October 14, 2011 by Grayson Ponti Animation: A Site Analyzing All Things Character Animation

Although many things make up animation, it’s all about the timing and the performance.  You can be the finest draftsman in the world, animate with all these refinements, and draw beautiful, perfected drawings but that doesn’t mean you’re a good animator.  It’s actually better to go with someone who doesn’t draw well in the common sense of the word but can draw characters that think, have weight, show expression through movement, and most of all put on a performance on the screen that the audience gets a big kick out of. To do this it’s been proven that it is a good idea fro animators to work very rough and loose so they can get the expression and feeling to the strongest possible zinth.  The one who turned the criteria for good drawing and performance in animation upside down is without question Norman or as everyone also called him “Fergy” Ferguson, number 8 on our countdown and the honoree of today’s post.

Norman Ferguson in many ways revolutionized and redefined what a good animator is and his outside of the box style and technique changed the direction of the art form forever.  His work was the first stuff at Disney to have the characters really think, never have the screen go dead and the character stop moving, use timing to show the emotions and personality of the character, and most importantly to focus and go to the next level with the acting, performance, and feelings of the scene.   Fergy’s work was very rough and loose oftentimes appearing like a huge mess and only having a few lines but underneath the mess was a character with true emotions, thought process, acting, performance, and accuracy in timing and movement. “Fergy wasn’t the artist but he was a sharp performer and showman- hard to know if his drawing was there or wasn’t there- he had his own kind of symbol,” praised honoree Marc Davis. “I liked the way he drew,, it was very rough but oh my, was it accurate,” remembered great animator Shamus Culhane.  “At first it didn’t look like anything but when you looked through the barbed wire that he concocted, there was a really good drawing in there and funny.” Fergy will always be remembered for his brilliant animation of Pluto in the flypaper sequence of Playful Pluto and his other animation of the dog in several other pictures but he did many other great animated performances including the Big Bad Wolf in the Three Little Pigs, the deep-voiced owl judge in Who Killed Cock Robin, the evil Witch in Snow White, the mischievous Honest John and Gideon in Pinocchio, the bodacious Hippo in Fantasia, the outspoken King in Cinderella, the crafty Walrus and Carpenter in Alice in Wonderland, and the charming Nana in Peter Pan.  However his place in Disney greatness is often debated and underappreciated.  While some think of Norm as an untouchable legend and extraordinary animator at the highest caliber of the art form others try to put his limitations as a draftsman against him and see him as nothing more than someone who could be great early in the development of Disney animation but not someone who has skill enough to be at the top of the all time greats.

William Norman Ferguson was born on September 2, 1902 in Manhattan, New York, making him the oldest honoree besides Ub Iwerks. Very little is known or has been written about his backstory and younger years but evidence points to the fact that he didn’t have a ton of money growing up and was at best lower middle class.  However one thing that is known about his time growing up and had an immense impact on his career was his fascination and influence in vaudeville.  Back in the early 1900s vaudeville was to people what television and movies are to many of us today.  It was the go-to entertainment of the nation and it was a huge phenomenon. Young Fergy was very intrigued at the performances he saw on stage and found the great personality, acting, and over-the-top exaggeration done by the performers as something very entertaining and interesting. This made him develop a mindset where he say everything as if it were up on a stage and performed to a live audience, which dominated his Disney work years later. “Fergy’s taste didn’t run to the intellectual,” wrote Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. “He loved old vaudeville comedians and this was probably his chief form of entertainment growing up. He saw everything as if it were on stage, rather than in terms of the involved movements some animators were able to do after studying live action.” Probably when he was around 1923 Fergy entered the professional world as a cameraman at the Paul Terry studio on the Aesop’s Fable Series, then the premiere cartoon series in the country. While in later years Terrytoons would grow notorious for the lack of quality, inspiration, and talent the studio had as well as the severe low budgets and stuck in the past nature of the cartoons (e.g.- Farmer Alfalfa was the studio’s biggest star in the 20s as well as the 1950s, it took until the early to mid 40s for the studio to even make a color cartoon, etc.) back then the industry was dry and lacked much inspiration so the Aesop’s Fables were actually quite high for their time.  However, a mysterious coincidence would change the young man’s life forever.  “I was staying late to finish shooting a scene when I discovered some of the drawings were missing,” told Fergy over and over again. “There was no one else around to complete the animation and no one to call, so I had to fill in. then Terry discovered my talent and offered me a job drawing. If this is all there is to animation, I guess I’ll switch over- it beats being on camera.” For the next couple of years he was a premiere animator at the studio and did a lot of footage.  However soon noise came about the excitement and innovations at the Disney Studios out in Los Angeles, the studio that had recently broke new ground with the first sound cartoon Steamboat Willie that starred Mickey Mouse.  In 1929 East Coast animators started moving out to Disney and other Hollywood studios, starting a huge exodus of talent from New York to California that would by the mid to late 30s result in almost all the top animators and quality cartoons being made out west.  Fergy was one of the first to go with the trend and after moving out in August 1929 started at the Disney studio.

During the period when Norman Ferguson started at Disney the studio was still very small and making films that were right for the time but didn’t have even a small fraction of the great virtues of the future films. However there was a sense of change going on at the studio and glimpses of potential were already visible: Walt’s storytelling, staging of gags, and inventiveness was already apparent and was distinctly different in those regards from any other cartoons made at the time.  However the characters still weren’t believable and lifelike either physically or emotionally.  The screen oftentimes felt dead and the movements and actions of the characters were well too often interchangeable.  One of the first times the mold was broken was on Fergy’s first important animation in his career: a trio of fish dancing in Frolicking Fish, a black and white cartoon in Disney’s Silly Symphony series.  The dance not only was by far the most precise, thought-out, and believable animation ever done by anyone in the world but it had very different sensibilities and solutions to problems than situations in other cartoons: to avoid making the screen feel dead and the illusion of life be destroyed Fergy made the fish constantly move and have the action go through all parts of the body. When one place stopped moving another started.  “It was the first Disney animation with moving holds, poses that were softened by movement instead of being rigidly and sharply defined,” explained the great Disney director Wilfred Jackson. “He slowed in, moved through. If one part held, some other thing moved. Before that time we’d get into a pose and hold it, we’d move into another pose and hold into it. We saw this and wondered what did Fergy do.” That same year Fergy did another huge breakthrough that showed even more potential for the art of animation: he animated the bloodhounds in the Chain Gang, which would eventually evolve into Pluto.  There are a couple of things that are significant about the bloodhounds. One is, on a technical standpoint, their scene was the first time anyone ever applied weight to their characters and their movements. Weight is very important because even in the case of cartoony characters it makes the animation seem more believable to the audience and enhances the illusion of the character living in a whole that’s real.  Another is that the drawing used for the bloodhounds is in comparison to the animation being done at the time pretty solid in terms of construction and shows caricature beyond just a simple, abstract representation of a dog. Last is that the characters FEEL real and there are real emotions as well as acting used in the sequences. You can tell these bloodhounds are searching very hard, are exhausted to no end, and are frantically sniffing around trying to find a scent. “Fergy was successful in getting a looseness into the bloodhound that exaggerated its ability to sniff and think,” reflected director and producer Ben Sharpesteen. “He succeeded in getting a feeling of flesh into his animation. No one realized what Fergy had done, however, until after the preview.” “The dogs were real, alive,” praised Don Graham. “They seemed to breathe. They moved like dogs, not like drawings of dogs. The drawings explained not so much what a real dog looked like but what a real dog did. “ After the Chain Gang Fergy continued to help develop Pluto’s character and animated the dog several other times.

Although there was a huge amount of admiration and excitement about the work Fergy was doing in the early 1930s his magic didn’t rub off on the other animators that fast and it took a few years for the severe, sometimes disturbing gap between the quality of his work and the quality of everyone else’s. One of the first to come anywhere close to his caliber was Dick Lundy, most famous for defining and creating Donald Duck.  “I was working on a dance and I analyzed it, I animated it the way I thought it was but it wasn’t a dance,” remembered Lundy. “And Fergy said: ‘You want to give the illusion that this is happening; regardless of whether it does to not give it the illusion.’” He soon learned well and became the studio’s second best animator of that time period.  Although Fergy was breaking new ground and taking the art form to the next level, he still had his fatal flaw: he wasn’t a very good draftsman and drew extremely rough.  By 1932 it had come to the point where at first he’d just draw a circle, two lines for the body, and a whole blob of rough lines that had great expression and accuracy.  “He doesn’t know that you can’t raise the eyebrows above the head circle, so he goes ahead and does it and it has a great effect,” commented Fred Moore. Walt wanted Fergy’s animation but with the pictures becoming more sophisticated the rough, loose drawings needed to be cleaned up.  So a solution was devised.  Fergy would animate the scene rough and test it to see whether or not it was working and had the performance level he wanted. Then an assistant would take the drawings and clean them up so on the screen in the final film would be a genius performance done the way he saw it. This would lead to a whole shift in the way animators worked at the studio: the animator would work very rough and loose focusing primarily on the acting, emotions, and movements, then they would test their work to see problems that needed to be fixed, go back and solve them, and then have an assistant do the cleanup work for them to add in the refinements and details. This opened up the art form to a whole new level and allowed animation to mature in a way that otherwise very well could have been impossible. “Fergy was the first animator to test his work,” said Wilfred Jackson. “He made rough drawings of the dog and pencil tests were shot of the rough drawings. The great discovery was made that you could read action perfectly well from rough drawings.” After this transition was made Fergy continued to put great performances on the screen, now many of them in color cartoons.  He was the lead animator of Santa Claus in Santa’s Workshop, which displays his understanding of weight, movement of flesh, and timing.  Another success around that time was Noah in the Silly Symphony Noah’s Ark, which not only again used weight and movement to show character but also showed the animator’s great flair for caricature.  Fergy would then be the lead animator on the Big Bad Wolf in the Three Little Pigs, which was the juiciest character he had animated at that point. His animation clearly communicates the frustration and anger the wolf is feeling in the film and he used clear, strong poses as well as broad body movements that showed expression not just in the face but also in the entire body to show the character’s personality.   One brilliant scene in particular is the one where the wolf is breathing heavy and then blows it out. Fergy isn’t animating forms there; he’s animating forces (another example of his brilliant mind.) The marriage between the strong emotions the character is feeling and the ones they are feeling physically is perfect and the exaggeration and strength given to the action makes it even more believable than if someone animated it in a more realistic way.

However, the scene that Norm Ferguson animated that really took Disney animation to the next level and the first scene by anyone to ever really show the characters thinking was the famous flypaper sequence in Playful Pluto. In the scene Pluto gets annoyed, frustrated and angry when he gets stuck with this sticky flypaper on him (the scene is a MUST study for any animator- it is a textbook example of showing your character think and change emotions.) Storyman Webb Smith did the story sketches and boards for the sequence and it is oftentimes debated how much of the scene’s conception comes from the hands and minds of Smith in comparison to Fergy.  The controversy is that some of the layout and thumbnail drawings for the scene look a lot cleaner than what is typically Norm’s work, making it possible Webb drew the drawing (all evidence points to the fact that the originals sketches and boards are lost as is the case of most done in that time.) However whatever anyone said the animator was the one who really made it work.  There are a couple of things that are notably genius about the scene. One is the excellent staging of the situation and in the way the gags move into each other.  Another is that the sequence is completely driven by the emotions of the character.  As Pluto gets more and more annoyed and frustrated by the sticky paper the harder and stronger he tries to get it off.  The dog’s feelings change all the way through the scene and the audience clearly sees how this is going inside him.  Every thought that processes through Pluto’s head we clearly see making us know precisely what he is thinking. Last is the way Fergy timed the scene so the thoughts and actions are clearly expressed and the thing works to a great effect.  “In the laying out of Pluto’s action on exposure sheets before animating it is hard to anticipate the necessary feeling in certain parts where expressions will be used,” stated the animator. “This is sometimes necessary to add footage when such spots are reached in animation.” It is an understatement to say anything less than the flypaper sequence changed Disney animation forever. It inspired animators to make their characters think and time their work out to clearly show the thoughts and feelings inside the characters.  The scene started a buzz all throughout the studio and the animation industry. “I consider it to be an extraordinary merit,” simply put Walt Disney. “Fergy’s flypaper sequence was the big one among the milestones in our learning process because it was an outstanding example in its time of how to picture to the audience what the character is thinking, how it felt about what was happening, and the motivation of its action,” explained Jackson. “Animation, no matter how crudely done, that conveys inner life is far more effective than comparatively sophisticated animation that doesn’t. of course knowing how to make a cartoon character more in a convincing, believable way will greatly assist an animator to put across these things but skill in drawing the movements or action, in itself, is only a means to this end.” “The flypaper sequence in Playful Pluto is always mentioned as the best example of pantomime,” reflected great storyman Ted Sears in a lecture at the studio.  “This is because it illustrated clearly all of Pluto’s characteristics from dumb curiosity to panic. It is timed in such a way that the audience feels all of Pluto’s sensations- each hold expression after a surprise action was carefully planned and expressed some definite attitude causing the audience to laugh. Each climax builds up into a better sequence.”

A year after Playful Pluto, Norman Ferguson did some great animation of Pluto in On Ice and Pluto’s Judgement Day as well as some phenomenal animation in the Silly Symphony series. Among his hits at the time was animating all of the owl judge in Who Killed Cock Robin. The judge is very serious and shows little emotion so Fergy did a great job at not going too broad in his handling of the character.  His success would continue in shorts in 1936 but late in that year he was moved on as a supervising animator on the ambitious, risky project Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  Ferguson was one of the last major animators put on the film and animators such as Fred Moore, Bill Tytla, Ham Luske, Grim Natwick, Frank Thomas, Milt Kahl, and many others had already been on the film for months and in some cases almost a year.  It could be possible, however, that the intention of this was that Fergy’s style and limited technique wasn’t subtle enough to be put on most of the major character, making his only work on the film to animate all of the Witch as a crone.  Nevertheless his animation of the witch is actually very precisely timed (a challenge to the subtlety thought) and is some of the most frightening and scary work ever done at the studio.  Not only did he use Joe Grant’s unbelievably ugly design for the character (ugly is actually a compliment for this character) but also he made smart acting choices by making her relatively reserved but always communicating to the audience what she is thinking.  Study the scenes with the witch and the poison apple to see psychological precision and use of broad but contained expressions to show the feelings the character has.  However storyman Joe Grant felt that Fergy handled the witch a bit too broadly and envisioned her as a bit more reserved. Still she turns out extremely scary and most importantly the animator’s work is very effective in the film.  This also turned out to be the first significant collaboration between Norman and his extraordinary assistant and future Disney great John Lounsbery.  John was just what Fergy needed: a great draftsman who could animate in anybody’s style, in contrast to the mentor’s drawing flaws and very limited technique.  “Fergy didn’t draw well but he could sure tell a story- in the staging, timing, and personality he got in there,” he said years later about his mentor. “That’s the difference between a fine artist and a damn good animator.”  In conclusion I feel that the Witch is a solid example of cartoon acting and shows Fergy’s skill at performance and putting every emotion on paper to the highest degree possible.

By the time Snow White was released Norman Ferguson had become a huge legend throughout the animation industry and people constantly tried to figure out how he possibly could put on the performances he did. He’d always say however “Why are you spending so much time studying the way I did something because I’ll probably do it different next time.” On the second feature film, Pinocchio, Fergy was given a very juicy, fun assignment that proved to be some of his best work ever. It was supervising and animating Honest John the fox and Gideon the cat, even getting credit as a sequence director.  They are quite possibly the closest we’ll ever get to seeing two vaudeville comedians in a Disney film as well as have some of the wittiest dialogue, actions, and personalities ever to be animated on screen. “Other animators might have made the Fox more dramatic, more villainous, perhaps sillier, less believable or more sincere,” wrote Thomas and Johnston. “Only Fergy saw the special kind of entertainment that both the Fox and the Cat could offer this picture. It was the kind of character development he understood and loved.” I absolutely love the animation done of Honest John and Gideon. It shows great understanding of character relationship and contrast, has a very unique tongue and cheek approach, and clearly shows the character. It is made clear that Honest John is intelligent, extremely arrogant, witty, insincere, a liar, and only wants money because he has a very egotistical walk, has sly facial expressions, and moves in a way that shows his wit and dishonesty.  Gideon is clearly a stupid cat that doesn’t think at all before doing anything and is very lazy because of the way he moves and the expression shown through his movements and poses. The use of timing and poses too is completely expert.  “On Gideon and the Fox they shot live action with what’s-his-name of the fox,” Kimball told Steve Hulett. “They did the dance steps that Fergy and John Lounsbery would use, just to look at. Lots of times, especially if you weren’t familiar with music or dance, you didn’t know what the leg did.” Although Fergy did some animation of the Fox and cat (a must study scene is the one where they’re conversing with the coachman and Honest John leans over+ classic Fergy pose that says everything about the character, situation, and personality) he mostly supervised them (T. Hee directed the scenes) and animators John Lounsbery, Norm Tate, Hugh Fraser, and Preston Blair did most of the actual animation.  It was on Fantasia, however, in my humble opinion where he did his best work and animated his absolute masterpiece.  On the film he was the supervising animator and director alongside T. Hee of the genius, brilliant Dance of the Hours sequence.  “The Dance of the Hours is perfect,” directly praised Ward Kimball, who wished he had worked on that segment instead of the Pastoral Symphony.  Although Howard Swift, Jerry Hatchcock, Hicks Lokey, John Lounsbery, Ray Patterson, Preston Blair, and Hugh Fraser did tons of phenomenal animation on the segment Fergy himself did some amazing stuff with the female Hippo.  My favorite scene he animated on the film is the one where she looks at the mirror off stage and she has this really prissy expression. You can tell she’s a big time diva just from that one drawing! It’s a textbook example of the perfect pose, expression, and caricature from animation. You see girls do that expression in real life but by exaggerating and caricaturing it Fergy was able to make it 1000 times as powerful and effective than if he had done it straight.  The weight the animator used on the hippo is also very brilliant.  In a nutshell what I love about the Dance of the Hours and Norm’s work in particular on that film is the way it satires ballets and uses caricatured, cartoony animal clowns to make fun of human emotions, characteristics, and feelings that we are all familiar with while taking them to the next level with the caricature and exaggeration.  If I could use any particular Disney Animation to teach great animation, it would be the Dance of the Hours.

Unfortunately after Fantasia Norman Ferguson was reluctantly taken away from what he loved, animating, and didn’t get to sit down with the pencil again for eight years. Now he was a director and his first big assignment exclusively working as a director was directing sequences in Dumbo.  The two main sequences he focused on were the dramatic, suspenseful Pyramid of Pachyderms scene and the surrealistic, creative, and weird Pink Elephants on Parade.  Fergy was fortunate enough to have directing animator John Lounsbery as well as animators Hicks Lokey, Hugh Fraser, and Howard Swift do tons of footage and quality work on those two scenes.  During the production of Dumbo the Strike of 1941 occurred and Norman stayed very much on Walt’s side as well as was very vocally against the strike and stayed devoted. However soon after his relationship with Walt began to have scratches and a slight friction would develop between the two men.  During the summer of 1941 Fergy went with Disney and other artists on a trip to South America where they were doing research for upcoming Latin American-flavored films.  When they got back home the animator was the director of the tow films Saludos Amigos and the Three Caballeros.  During the making those films for some reason that from my knowledge is unknown Walt somehow felt offended by Fergy in some way and tension developed.  If you know anything about Disney’s personality once you turned on him or he developed tension with you  no longer had his support and there was nothing you could ever do to repair your relationship with him. This would begin a decline in Fergy’s career and was the start of his downfall.

It is a bit of a mystery what Norm Ferguson did during the second half o the 40s. Besides the fact we know he was still at the studio there is no credit or information written about his involvement and work in that time period.  What we do no is that Fergy would no longer be very involved in directing and soon was moved back to animation, where he didn’t find himself as welcome as he had before. A new guard had developed on the Animation Board and they felt their work was superior to Fergy’s as well as many of them didn’t want the competition of an animator of his caliber.  His return as a directing animator occurred when he was the main animator on the King in Cinderella as well as some of the Duke and even a scene or two with Brutus and Lucifer.  The King is a very entertaining character that is very over the top, outspoken, and has no gap between his inner and outer emotions.  I love the timing Fergy used on the character although like with most of his 50s work I don’t think the psychological precision of his earlier work is present in its entirety although I feel his work from this period is still pretty good and underappreciated. My favorite Fergy scene in Cinderella is the one where when the King is talking to the duke about the ball he pantomimes the actions of the ball and impersonates one. Brilliant scene! On Alice in Wonderland he again was given two characters that show his strengths: the Walrus and the Carpenter.  I feel like Fergy was covering old ground with these characters and don’t consider them anywhere near as good as Honest John and Gideon but there is a lot of great slapstick comedy and strong squash and stretch in their scenes that is pretty enjoyable.  Peter Pan proved to be his last feature film and he mostly focused on animating Nana the dog, a natural choice given his past work with canines.  After Pan Fergy returned to shorts where he animated Pluto in a couple and for his swan song animated all of a short titled Social Lion.   By this time he had a ton of trouble keeping up with the refinements of Disney animation as well as adjusting his narrow technique to the new system. The quality of his work wasn’t the same and instead of being a fast top footage man like before on all three of the 50s films he worked on he did the least footage of any directing animator. In July 1953 the Animation Board, despite the fact many of the members owed a lot to Fergy for the inspiration and mentorship he gave them, fired Norman.  For the remainder of his life the animator found himself very lost and had several health problems, mainly his heavy use of alcohol and diabetes.  Soon after Disney he worked for a brief time with Shamus Culhane, who had looked up to him so much when he was at Disney.  However Ferguson just wasn’t Fergy at this point and being a painful experience for everyone involved the stint ended quickly.  Another unsuccessful job for the animator was briefly working in the Chuck Jones unit at Warner Brothers.  His stuff didn’t fit in Jones’s style at all and he constantly had to get his work done over. As perfect as the combination sounds on paper Fergy’s time at Warner’s only produced uncredited animation on the one shot short To Itch His Own and he was gone after 4 months.  On November 4, 1957 Norman Ferguson passed away of diabetes but his influence, inspiration, and innovations have stayed in the art of animation forever.

In terms of style it is important to understand that Norman Ferguson really was NOT a very good artist and draftsman.  He couldn’t draw very well at all in the conventional sense of the word and his stuff was rough to the point you could barely see anything was there. However underneath those rough drawings there was actually if you take a different perspective a very brilliant, excellent drawing. What made it great, however, wasn’t the refinements but the performance and thinking behind the drawing.  This made assisting and backing up Fergy no easy task. “When you had to inbetween those drawings, oh boy,” remembered Jack Hannah, then one of Fergy’s assistants who later would become the main director of the Donald Duck series. Although Fergy put more work into held poses, he cared less about action extremes and would leave them for his assistants to finish,” explained George Goepper to Milt Gray. I like to say what Fergy had was substance behind a drawing. When I say substance I mean what you really want to put inside your work: intent, intelligence, creativity, character, personality, feeling, movement, action, and anything else that creates great animation.  Although there was intense thought process and feeling in his work Norm was unable to put great subtlety in his work and he only really worked well with broad, exaggerated characters.  He didn’t have the ability of caricaturist animators such as Bill Tytla and Ward Kimball to use the caricature to show greater subtlety in emotion and stronger believability in the character, all these transcending broad and cartoony characters.  Fergy on the other hand had a very limited technique and a lot of his work is at times a bit repetitive as a result, although he without question was a great cartoon actor.  Staging and timing were two technical fundamentals he did do very well and to study Fergy’s work and learn from it, you’ve got to know it’s all about the TIMING.  Timing is what made him more than just a good animator and made him able to transcend the medium and have such broad influence despite his drawing handicap.  “It has been found easier to cut down stalling in the rough tests than to build up undertimed situations later on,” explained Fergy.  “The reason for this is that the animator works spontaneously when he feels the situation and trying to crowd things into a given footage handicaps him to the extent of breaking the spontaneity of his work.” “Norm was a fast, quote, animator,” reflected Ward Kimball. “He saw everything in the movement. Now he wasn’t a great artist, if he had been he would have been untouchable. He had this great flair of timing- he was the first animator to employ timing and to achieve better comedy. The flypaper sequence with Pluto was the first time an animator had timed anything like that out of what the character was thinking. Norm drew very fast. He’d whip out a sheet so fast you could hardly understand the numbers. You saw his stuff, you felt it. He made just a few lines on a drawing. If he had to commit himself to a complete drawing he wasn’t able to do it but he had this spontaneity. He would get this and so we always had to make sure that Fergy had a good assistant who could interpret these- no, reinterpret these few lines into a finished drawing where the inkers could trace and you could paint. You had to be talented to be Fergy’s assistant. To make sure that the spontaneous he was creating made it to the screen the way he saw it. If you saw some of the roughs there were four or five lines with a number but it was still timing and the spacing between a head bounce or a turn that made him a real good animator.” ‘He worked very rough for the first tests- usually just a circle and two lines for the body,” wrote Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston.  “This kept the staging simple and gave him a guide that was easy to change. With a quick test on his first rough drawings he could see whether he had something to build on. He could keep making fast changes, never feeling that he had invested so much time in a scene that he couldn’t discard it and try a new idea if something wasn’t working. This style suited Fergy because he was always trying something out.”

Norman Ferguson is one of the most important and influential figures in the development of both Disney animation and character animation in general. His use of thought process, timing, weight, performance, and feeling behind a drawing redefined what a great animator is and what one does forever.  Fergy was the first to be more than just an animator but someone who was a real actor and really did great stuff on the screen.  Because of his success and talent more and more animators at the studio were inspired to make their characters feel and think as well as communicate this through the animation, movement, and expression. This was a crucial development in making the characters in Disney films believable enough to be accepted by the audience and be able to support stories such as those of a feature film.  On the technical standpoint Fergy changed the way an animator worked. Clean, finished drawing were no longer the concern and from then on for the most part animators have worked very rough and loose when animating, focusing on performance, emotion, and acting.  Norman also was the first animator to really use timing effectively and began a move into animators testing their work through pencil tests.  Pencil tests have allowed animators to improve their craft and fix problems in a way they have never been able to before. Finally I feel Fergy has influenced animation in that he has changed the way animators approach their scenes. They began to see themselves as actors who were great showmen. These improvements and influences will stay in animation forever and every animator owes a lot to Fergy for making it possible to achieve the level of success possible in animation.

In regards to personal inspiration I think I’ve very much been influenced by Norman Ferguson, his approach, and his work. I love the rough, loose but accurate and precise way he drew as well as his skills as a brilliant performer and cartoon actor.  This has inspired me to think of art in terms of composition and think of it as on stage or in a film.  I think about the character I’m drawing as if it’s an actor portraying something real and personal to him. Also Fergy’s work has made me realize the importance and value of timing, staging, and spacing. By intensely studying his scenes frame by frame I’ve learned animation is all about the timing and that through timing is how you show the feeling, action, and character.  He’s also influenced me into loosening up and looking for the substance behind the drawing.  Last Fergy has gotten me to appreciate the importance of making the character think and inspired me to work hard to try to make the character I draw communicate what they’re feeling both inside and out as well as their thoughts.  This has really helped me a lot and I feel very appreciative to his work in making me have this new approach to my drawings and studies. Thank you Norman Ferguson for your contributions to Disney animation and the inspiration you’ve been to me as well as so many other people!

9. Eric Larson

Posted in Uncategorized on October 7, 2011 by Grayson Ponti Animation: A Site Analyzing All Things Character Animation

Animation is a form of communication and therefore when you’re animating you’re making a statement: a statement the character, the story, the feelings and emotions the character is feeling, human characteristics and emotions, actions, personalities, archetypes, etc.  If you want to have the audience get involved in the story, connect with the character, and feel the emotions needed to sympathize and relate to that character you must make a positive statement. To make a positive statement you have to know your character and their personality, have a devotion to your craft, know how to use your art to express the statement you want to make, apply feelings and emotions that are strong and real to a fantasy story, and most of all have sincerity.  If you don’t have feelings and emotions for your character, how can it even be possible for the audience to? Few people have ever understood sincerity and making a positive statement better than Eric Larson, number 9 on our countdown and the subject of today’s post.

Eric Larson was a terrific animator who had the great ability of having sincerity about his work and making characters believable and have them feel real on the screen.  He truly cared for his characters and had a gift for taking something that people are familiar with as well as an emotion and personality they’ve seen or experienced and utilizing those two things to make the audience fall in love with a character.  “”Make a positive statement,” stressed Larson. “Don’t be ambiguous in what you’re saying. Make it strong and clear.” He was an expert at animating believable animals such as Figaro the cat in Pinocchio, the Pegasuses in Fantasia, Friend Owl in Bambi, Sasha the bird in Make Mine Music, Peg in Lady and the Tramp, and the vultures in the Jungle Book but his best work includes humans such as Cinderella and the boy and girl in the Once Upon a Wintertime sequence in Melody Time.  “Eric really cared for characters as human beings,” remembered excellent character designer Dan Haskett. “I was doing a pencil test of a baby boy and he started pantomiming patting the little kid on the head and got lost in what he was doing because he was thinking about the character so completely.” “Eric was very, very gentle and he knew timing like nobody’s business,” said animator and dancer Betsy Baytos.  In real life Eric was a very giving, gentle, and unselfish human being who always helped mentor others and for decades was largely responsible for keeping together the sometimes egocentric and hyper aggressive top animators at the studio.  He had no ego and people always felt comfortable asking him for advice and guidance. Larson for the last 16 years of his career worked pretty much exclusively on running the training program at the Disney studio and was very successful at finding talent (honorees Mark Henn, Andreas Deja, Duncan Marjoribanks, Ruben Aquino, Dave Pruiksma, Tony deRosa, Will Finn, Ellen Woodbury, Dale Baer, John Pomeroy, and Kathy Zielinski all either went through Larson’s training program or were hired during his time as head of the training program.) However there was a drawback to his nature because many of the other directing animators as well as at times studio management pushed him around and as a result of his unselfishness and reserved personality he hasn’t always been appreciated as much as he should be.


Eric Larson was born on September 3, 1905 in Cleveland, Utah but moved to Salt Lake City around age 10.  He was born into a Mormon family and would continue to be devout and active in the faith all through his life although he didn’t talk much about his beliefs at the studio.  Larson grew up on a ranch and became fascinated by the animals that live there and their personalities. “I was born and raised on a ranch,” he remembered in an interview. “And I always wanted to be a rancher up to the time of my second year in college. It’s still a life I love, would still like to do.” Other things that particularly intrigued Eric were writing and drawing (the later he started doing around the age of 10.) Although he never took cartooning very seriously until he got to the Disney Studio at age 27 throughout high school at Latter Day Saints University he drew for the school yearbook and was the art director of it in his final year there. On the side Eric sold illustrations to Westerner Magazine.  Soon he entered the University of Utah where he studied journalism and wrote for the university paper the Chronicle as well as studied drawing on his own private time and he drew cartoons for the university humor magazine.  In spring 1927 a personal incident that he never mentioned to his colleagues at Disney (in respect to Eric’s wishes I’m not going to repeat the story here but you can read about it in John Canemaker’s book) took place that made the young man leave the university as well as Salt Lake City forever. “My whole attitude and whole hope after getting out of school was to just write and travel,” he remembered. Larson then moved on to work as a commercial artist in Los Angeles for 6 years.  While working there through a window he saw a beautiful woman named Gertrude Jannes and immediately told the person sitting next to him that’s the girl he was going to marry. Eric and Gertrude quickly fell in love and the prophecy was fulfilled when the wed in 1933. Now married he wanted to find a job with higher dignity and pay so he decided to pursue a career writing in radio.  Larson was sent to get advice from former radio writer Richard Creedon, who then was working in the story department at the Disney studio.  Creedon liked his work but said that in the meantime he should get a job working at Disney.  At first Eric was reluctant but after the writer told him “The animated film will challenge any creative ability you have or will develop,” he was intrigued and started as in inbetweener in 1933.

At first Eric Larson wasn’t too happy at Disney and almost quit early on in the first few days largely because of George Drake, a man with no talent who was in charge with the inbetween bullpen only because he was married to Ben Sharpesteen’s cousin.  “Drake would sit down and make a correction for you but he couldn’t draw worth a damn,” the animator remembered.  However Eric stayed with it and after 5 weeks as an inbetweener the great Ham Luske discovered his talents and through request made him his assistant.  As I explained in my post ton him Luske was an intense analyzer who constantly studied life and action as well as applied this knowledge to his work.  Finally Larson had found someone who could enlighten him to the great possibilities of animation and mentor him to make his talents shine.  “Ham had to work like dickens to draw,” he explains. “Freddy Moore just wrote it off but Ham had to work his fool head off to make a drawing. Every action had to be honest and to have character and sincerity.” Ham’s thoughts on sincerity would influence Eric’s approach and thoughts on animation forever.  Also he became the first assistant animator to be in charge of the cleanup of the main animator he was assisting. “I moved in with Ham and first word I got was now the assistants were going to be responsible for all the cleanup work,” Eric said in an interview. “I wasn’t too sure what a cleanup drawing should be! Ham was very patient and he helped.” After a year working as his mentor’s top assistant the animator started to animate his own scenes but even still he worked primarily for Luske. He started animating on shorts such as animating the chorus girls in Cock O’Walk, a Silly Symphony released in 1935(It also was the great Bill Tytla’s breakthrough film.) One of Larson’s first major assignments as a full-fledged animator was being assigned in the unit of animators that would animate the animals in Snow White.  Ham supervised the unit (although he only actually animated Snow White herself) and the group included such promising young artists as James Algar, who would go on to direct the Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment in Fantasia as well as sequences in Bambi, and Milt Kahl, who would go on to become one of the greatest animators of all time.  “When we started working in features we started to spend more time on personality because Walt knew we needed strong personalities for the features to work,” explained the animator. On many of the scenes especially the ones he animated with the animals walking around Snow  White and the ones of them cleaning up in Whistle While You Work Eric animated all the animals on separate sheets of paper to concentrate on them separately. He also used thumbnail sketches for every 2 feet of animation to help feel the composition. In later years Eric grew very critical about the animation he did of the animals and resented the way they turned out. “You could hardly call them deer,” he unhappily stated. “They were stacks of wheat. When we got to Bambi, the idea was to be honest with them.” It was however the next feature film that would prove to be the film where Larson became a star. The film was Pinocchio and the character was Figaro the cat.

“Pinocchio today would be impossible to make,” Eric Larson told Steve Hulett. “They wouldn’t spend the amount of money that would be necessary. We just wouldn’t do it now. Where in the world would you ever get the underwater effects? Where in the world would you get the ocean effect, the water effect when Pinocchio and Gepetto were on the raft, escaping from the whale?” In many ways Figaro is his signature performance because it displays all of what he did best: giving animals believable human personalities, combining caricature and fantasy with believable movements and real feelings, using walks and poses to show character, brilliant timing, inspiration, action analysis, and last but not least sincerity. For the inspiration Eric used his nephew, who influenced the cat’s personality and antics. “A 4 year old kid is quick to feel hurt if he doesn’t get what he wants,” he explained. “He is probably going to put on a show for us, a tantrum. Take an animal, like Figaro, move him around as a kitten would move. You don’t take any liberties with that kind of acting but now you inject into him a personality of this young kid who is used to having everything he wanted. This is where we would cross from realism to fantasy, in my opinion.” Larson’s animation of Figaro is brilliant because like he explain he’s completely believable as a cat and has the movements of a cat but has expressions and feelings that are very human.  The animator did a brilliant job at using pantomime and expression through the entire body to make the cat’s personality and emotions resonate well with the movement.  Not only is the timing brilliant but there is a great combination of having Figaro realistic enough to be believable but caricatured enough to make him fit into the story and have the audience accept his human expressions.  Last is there is a great honesty and sincerity in Eric’s animation of the cat. It is so apparent that he cared very much about his character and craft making the audience believe in him more. There are two Figaro scenes that are must-studies: the one where he gets out of bed and closes the window (pantomime and combining realism with caricature as well as timing at its best) and the one where he pouts about having to wait to eat his dinner (great use of clear poses and showing character.) Larson had now proven himself a top animator at the Disney studio and would continue to do great work but perhaps the intimacy between animator and character was never as present in his other work as it is in Figaro.

After Pinocchio was completed Eric Larson was moved on to be a directing animator on the Pastoral Symphony sequence in Fantasia alongside such household names as Ward Kimball, Fred Moore, Ollie Johnston, and Art Babbitt (his mentor Ham Luske directed the segment.) His Fantasia work would bring one of his biggest successes in his career but also would bring one of his strongest resentments and failures.  On the high note it had his absolutely beautiful animation of the Peaguses flying. The flying horses move gracefully, are expertly timed to the music, and have the great essence of a horse moving as well as the balanced flying motion.  On the flip side Eric’s animation of the centaurs in the segment (he primarily did them in the scene where they’re carrying the baskets while Fred Moore did a lot of them in the part where they fall in love with the centaurettes) was grotesque and clumsy in a way no other Larson scene is. This bothered him for decades and he was still honestly upset when talking to trainees about it in 1980.  ‘They were lousy to animate because their design was completely wrong,” Eric sighed to his students. “We didn’t analyze the live action sufficiently to get a horse action in there. If you watch the front legs of these centaurs they have a certain human feeling and it shouldn’t have been that way. If I had just thought about it then it would be so much better.” Eric and Ollie Johnston moved onto Bambi in spring 1940 after completing their work on Fantasia joining Frank Thomas and Milt Kahl as the four supervising animators on the film.   However although he wasn’t on the crew the animator did do friend Ben Sharpesteen a favor by without screen credit animating the animals cuddling together in the Baby Mine sequence of Dumbo, where he did all the animals except for Tytla’s Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo.  On Bambi Larson supervised a large crew of over 30 people including 10 animators such as Don Lusk (a great underrated Disney animator known for his specialty in animals and strong draftsmanship who did some stunning, magnificent animation on the Great Stag on the feature) and Retta Scott (the first female animator at Disney who animated the hunting dogs in the film.) “On Bambi he had the largest crew of any of the top men and there was always someone in his room with a problem, often nothing to do with the production,” wrote Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. “Eric was always patiently listening, occasionally counseling, but somehow he was still one of the best footage men in the studio. And to top it all, he was able to get footage out of most of his crew.” As for his actual animation on the film Bambi was casted by sequence but Eric primarily worked on doing most of the scenes with the outspoken and sometimes paranoid but always intellectual Friend Owl, which allowed him to work more broadly and he did a brilliant job at getting into the character as well as applying that personality to the action and performance, and the reserved but majestic Great Stag, a very difficult assignment and probably the subtlest character the animator did in his career.  My favorite scene he animated on the film is the one where the owl is talking to adult Bambi, Thumper, and Flower about being Twitterpatted and is doing all the actions and poses displaying how that is like. It’s a good example of showing how emotion affects character: owl, who usually is pretty calm and well spoken in manner, is becoming crazy and all over the place because he’s feeling inside him his attitudes and opinions towards what he sees with people falling in love. On top of that the actions supporting the feeling and dialogue is spectacular.

During World War 2 Eric Larson stayed at the Disney studio and spent most of his time doing some very subtle and warm animation of the boy in the Flying Gauchico segment of the Three Caballeros but he’d continue to shine on the package features animated in the second half of the 1940s.  On Make Mine Music he animated Sasha the bird in the Peter and the Wolf segment, which was a very warm, believable performance displaying great usage of timing to music and looseness in movement to show expression and feeling.  “I had the musicians put down on the exposure sheets each and every note that involved Sasha,” explained Larson.  That same year Song of the South was released, which in the animated segments showed some of the best character acting that he ever did for the studio.  Although he animated all three characters Eric’s animation for Brer Bear has always been a favorite of mine because the performance he did is so true to the character and the personality Bill Peet had planned through the storyboards.  He clearly communicates through his actions, gestures, and walks that the bear is indeed an idiot who doesn’t think to hard about anything, is dumb, and just wants to get it over with.  To show this Larson made his walk very uncoordinated and showing tremendous weight while making his gestures and poses very unpolished and having the expressions show he isn’t thinking that hard.  The next film, Make Mine Music, would also turn out to be a tremendous triumph for Eric where he animated some very sincere, subtle, and warm animation of a young boy and girl couple in love in the romantic Once Upon a Wintertime segment as well as the crazy bird in the Samba segment. In the Wintertime segment he did an excellent job at staying true to the beautiful, stylized Mary Blair designs and sketches while adding to them a three dimensional quality and roundness that makes them seem believable and real (hard to do with a Blair drawing!) I love the understanding of emotions and relationships he shows as well as the subtle expressions and gestures that are held back but communicate so effectively.  The bird, on the other hand, is unique in that he is by far the broadest character Larson ever animated and has a wackiness and cartooniness that would be expected in a Ward Kimball or John Sibley scene but is completely unconventional for Eric.   However on the next film the animator’s hard work and effort was completely ignored because he was given no screen credit for his work on Ichabod and Mr. Toda, where he animated a lot of great scenes in the Wind and the Willows section. Don Lusk was credited for all of his scenes after work resumed on the project (Larson started working on it immediately after Bambi but it was shelved due to budget cuts.) He was very hurt because he felt he did a lot of his best work on the film, including crediting the part where ratty says he misjudged Toad as the best dialogue he ever did. “I guess Toad was one of my favorites,” stated Eric in a television interview. “I think some of the most enjoyable actions I was ever able to get on the screen was Toad’s defense of himself in court. I felt that I did get a tone that is the peak of arrogance in that figure of action.


As disappointing as it must have been to go no credit for his work on Toad Eric Larson was indeed given credit for his work on the next assignment, which was a much more important one and arguably his best work. The film was Cinderella and Eric had the challenge of being the first animator on the film and having to bring the charming, sweet heroine to life for everyone to fall in love with.   This was the first cohesive story Disney had done since Bambi and the success of this picture was vital to having a successful future for the studio.  Cinderella was a challenge for several reasons. While in Snow White the love and affection the dwarfs and the animals as well as the jealousy of the queen were able to tell a lot of the story and take a lot of emotional weight Cindy had to take a large amount of the weight in the story because she had to connect so many plots to each other: the Stepmother, the conflict between Lucifer and the Mice, and the King, Duke, and Prince plot.  She also had to be very sweet and have a homely feel but she had to have an intelligence and strength to be able to stand up for herself and make her dreams come true so she couldn’t be too passive but had to stay warm-hearted and believe in herself. The last main challenge was that Cinderella as a film, with the exception of the animals, was all shot in live action so the animators had to be able to use it as a resource to make the action realistic and believable but it had to be caricatured and creative to avoid making it too realistic and having it remain appealing.  While Eric animated Cinderella first and animated the majority of the footage Marc Davis came on a little later and the two didn’t necessarily see eye to eye on the character (a little bit of a reflection and taste of the much more hostile and intense conflict between their mentors Ham Luske and Grim Natwick over Snow White.) While Larson wanted a girl who was very warm, soft-spoken, comforting, and sweet and saw her as a sixteen year old girl with a pug nose Davis saw her as a bit older, more sexually aware, witty, intelligent, less passive, and what the other called “a more exotic dam with a swan neck as only Marc Davis could draw.” In many ways unlike the earlier conflict the two men actually used their two interpretations of the character in a way that actually benefited the story and the result was the most interesting and possibly the most dynamic Disney heroine ever: Cindy is warm and sincere but also is intelligent and has emotional strength.  However it was the heart and soul that mattered the most as well as the sincerity so ultimately you could saw Eric’s girl is ultimately the one that won the battle and the one girls all over the world of all ages have fallen in love with for decades.  Although Marc’s Cinderella is more tied down fortunately the drawings were made to work together thanks to an unsung hero. “Ken O’Brien was able to make Marc’s gals look like my gals,” stated Larson. O’Brien is an underappreciated animator who was brilliant at subtle movements and especially at animating females (then he was still just a cleanup artist.) Personally Eric’s animation of Cinderella is very inspirational to me and I credit his work on the film as one of my prime motivators into deciding to pursue Disney animation as a career.  I love how delicate and sincere she is! Larson did a great job at making her movements timed very evenly and using subtle delicate gestures and expressions to communicate her feelings and desires. One scene I particularly love is the one where she is waking up in the morning and talking about how wonderful a dream she had. This one really shows the sensitivity Eric had in full tact as well as a textbook example of warm, sincere animation in a character. He also animated Cinderella in the scene where she’s looking out the window and her dancing with the prince at the ball, to name a few. Larson also was the lead animator on the prince on the film (a character that has mistakenly been credited by many people as being animated by Milt Kahl although he didn’t even do a single scene of him or Cindy.) “The nice thing about Cinderella is that you know what she is thinking in every scene.” the animator simply stated to Andreas Deja.

While Alice in Wonderland was as much of a triumph for Eric Larson as Cinderella it still contains a lot of good work from him.  His main focus on the film was animating the stubborn, rude Caterpillar, which proved to be a good challenge because it was very hard for him to look appealing.  Eric had a hard time being cartoony and broad with the character the way the film was supposed to be, although several animators on the film with the major exception of Ward Kimball failed to be able to contribute to the goal of making Alice a cartoony feature (it wouldn’t be until Aladdin 41 years later that Disney proved they could do one.) also on the film the animator animated some of Alice, particularly in the scenes before she goes into Wonderland and she’s singing In a World of My Own.  Larson’s Alice isn’t as tied down as Marc and Milt’s were but she is very subtle and has sincerity in her performance.  Last on the film he animated the Queen of Hearts when we first see her where she is yelling and demanding to know who painted the roses red. I think Eric’s Queen is appealing and has solid acting but I think it wasn’t necessarily good casting and Frank Thomas certainly gave her a psychological precision and craftiness that was needed for the character that just wasn’t in the other gentleman.  On Peter Pan the animator had a very challenging assignment: he had to animate the sequence where Peter and the kids fly into Neverland.  This required Larson to have to use an expert knowledge and utilization of mechanics as well as focus more on technique than is usually done in his scenes. However, there still is a great spirit and feeling to the animation that only he could add. “We not only used multiplane, we had to work the hell out of that camera-per-fields and in-and-out exaggerations, going away from you and coming at you,” explained Eric. “Besides drawing that we put emphasis on it by using camera tilts. It was a very beautifully worked out thing mechanically. It really has a certain thrill to it.” Up next for the animator was a really juicy assignment that he thoroughly enjoyed and in my opinion is alongside Cinderella and Figaro as his best work. It was animating all of Peg, the sexy female dog who is a free spirit and has a strong affection for Tramp, in Lady and the Tramp.  Only Ollie Johnston’s girl in Reason to Emotion is the only Disney character anywhere close to being as sexy as Peg. Larson did a brilliant job at using touches in the way she walks and moves to enrich that personality and the acting is top notch.  In particular a huge inspiration to him on the character was Peggy Lee herself, who voiced the character. “The way she sang the song was a great inspiration,” he remembered. “Also the way she walked because she had a pretty nice movement and these are thing that you try to pick up from human beings and translate into animals.” True to what he explained I’ve got to admit I’m a real sucker for the walk he gave the dog: that alone is enough to tell the audience she’s seductive and is a free spirit due to the tone of the walk and the spacing between the steps.  The design is something I love too.  “It was interesting because here was Eric, who’s a Mormon, and he’s animating this sexy girl and having the best time,” chuckled Burny Mattinson.

Sadly however the next film he worked on proved to be a very negative experience for him and turned the direction of his career in a negative way that he was never able to overcome.  The film was on Sleeping Beauty but this time he was in the director’s chair.  Sleeping Beauty had begun story work in 1951 and voices were recorded soon after but in December 1953 Wilfred Jackson, who up to that point was directing the project, had a heart attack and had to step down. It is unsure why Eric was the one they picked but likely it’s because of his success supervising units of animators. However the production proved to be extremely difficult and things moved extremely slowly.  “Eric got his first sequence to work on in Sleeping Beauty and had very little help,” remembers Burny Mattinson, who would later assist Larson for a dozen years. “Even his longtime assistant George Goepper was modeling things for Disneyland. So everything moved very, very slowly.   Eric was also one of those very precise people so when he handed out sweatbox notes, he told you exactly how to correct the situation. The notes were very long and detailed. I think management looked at those notes and though, this guy’s making too much work for these people. It was wrong that he got a lot of blame for it.” Although he was good at paying attention to detail and was always very patient, he ultimately didn’t have the guts and leadership to put everything together and keep the production moving. Larson also wasn’t very good at being a hammer and didn’t do much to prevent tensions and problems on the production, such as Eyvind Earle’s over dominance of the film.  He also got a lot of blame for the large budget of the film. Sadly in 1958 Eric was removed as director of Sleeping Beauty and Wolfgang Reitherman and Gerry Geromini finished the picture.  After Sleeping Beauty the animator only got to be a directing animator one more time, which was on One Hundred and One Dalmatians were he animated a lot on the puppies. Larson’s most notable scene on the film is the one where all the Dalmatians are watching TV, which has some beautiful personality animation and great warmth.  Unfortunately however things were getting a lot more cliché at Disney and with Wolfgang Reitherman as the director of the films it was quite easy for a unselfish, laid back animator like Eric Larson to go underappreciated and pushed around. As a result on Sword in the Stone he was demoted to character animation and only animated a few bits and pieces on the film.  On Mary Poppins he animated the farm animals and did some very good stuff on them.  The demotion was still held during Jungle Book but he did get more scenes that in Stone by quite a bit including Mowgli arguing with Bagheera and a lot of stuff on the vultures.  His vultures show the animator’s extensive knowledge of animal anatomy and strength in the fundamental of timing in animation.  On Aristocats he was continued to be phased out and did some animation of Scat Cat as well as a lot of the mouse.  His last feature was Robin Hood, were he animated only a few scenes of Little John and was gradually phased out during the production. So in 1973 Eric put down the pencil and decided to spend all his time on his more important endeavor, his job as the head of the Disney training program.


While many animators and artists at Disney didn’t care too much about the future of Disney animation, were focused on battling with each other and extending their careers, and were at best passive to the issue that they hadn’t done a good job of training new artists and finding a continuous flow of talent to the studio.  With the Disney films not in as high quality as they used to be and artists beginning to get old, retire, and in some cases even die Eric Larson, who was one of the few very concerned about passing on the legacy of Disney and the future of the studio, sacrificed his career so he could devote full time to training a new generation of artists.  “Eric loved to teach because he loved young people,” fondly reflected Andreas Deja. “He was someone you’d want to have as a grandfather.” Eric’s training program was essential in setting the foundation for the second generation to shine and found such talents as Ted Kierscey (1970), Dale Baer (1971), John Pomeroy, Ron Clements, Andy Gaskill (1973), Glen Keane (1974), Ed Gombert, Randy Cartwright, Dan Hansen (1975), John Musker (1977), Brad Bird, Jerry Rees, Mike Giamo, Chris Buck, Mike Cedeno (1978), John Lasseter, Hendel Butoy (1979), Andreas Deja, Mark Henn, Barry Temple, Joe Ranft (1980), Kathy Zielinski, Dave Pruiksma (1981), Ruben Aquino(1982), Ellen Woodbury, and Duncan Marjoribanks(1985). However in that time frame he had some bad experiences. First of all his beloved wife Gertrude passed away in 1975, which made him very depressed.  One infamous one is being removed as the director of The Small One. Larson had intended for this to be a film where the young guys could shine and learn as well as learn from him and such veterans as Mel Shaw, Vance Gerry, and Cliff Nordberg. However as Burny Mattinson explains, “So we came in on Friday, everything was happy. Monday, everything in our rooms was gone.  Everything! Every storyboard, every drawing we had on it. The rooms were wiped out. We found out that management had over night decided to turn over the project to Don Bluth to direct.  It was a horrible thing to do. It originated with Eric. It was for Eric’s use and then these guys just moved in. Eric stayed teaching but things were never the same.”  Many people blame Bluth taking over the Small One as the event that broke the piece at the Disney studio and began all the politics and battles that would extend well after Don Bluth departed in 1979. Whosever side you were on the family, college campus feel to the studio was over and Eric, who wasn’t happy at all with the politics, had to constantly tell people to concentrate on the art.  However 7 years later he again had hard feelings towards management when the takeover took place and he was forced off the Disney lot alongside the rest of the animation staff to a warehouse in Glendale.  Larson wasn’t at all happy with the new management and after the move felt very depressed in his enclosed office with no windows contrasting his sunny, nice office he had worked in for 40 years.  At the age of 80 he retired in 1986 although he went into a deep depression after and felt very homesick for Disney.  On October 25, 1988 Eric Larson passed away at the age of 83. The prince in the Little Mermaid was named Eric in his memory.

Style wise Eric Larson’s greatest asset as an animator was without question his great sincerity that was to an extent that is almost never found in people. Although he wasn’t a flashy or phenomenal draftsman there is a warmth touch and great amount of personality and understanding of character in his work that is heart warming and beautiful.  You love these characters because Eric was so submerged and focused on the character in a way almost no other animator has ever been.  When you see his stuff up on the screen it feels very intuitive and the character is always very rich and complete.  To understand his characters and figure out his animation Larson would not only act out the scenes but he would imagine the scene in his head.  Everything he drew and animated he first saw in his head.  After imagining the scene he would analyze and think very thoroughly about the character and their feelings and personality.   In terms of design Eric’s stuff is very round and appealing looking with more curved, sparse lines than an animator such as Marc Davis or Milt Kahl. His designs were always in the Disney style but were more conventional and not very stylized.  As I mentioned before Larson was particularly gifted at timing and worked his scenes out on diagrams and exposure sheets and timed it out expertly before actually animating it.  Assisting him was rather easy because he animated relatively evenly. Eric’s scenes are on fours instead of twos, giving and organic, even feel to the movement and lacking the complicated, sometimes overdone technical animation of some other people.  “There’s only two things that limit animation,” the animator explained. “One is the ability to imagine and the other is the ability to draw what you imagine. The basic thing that animation has to have is a change of shape. When you change the perspective of the shape, the charm of animation is how you time that after you’ve gotten all the character into pose drawings. That’s weight to be concerned with. We don’t take steps, we fall into them. You take what you know is real and honest and you exaggerate it, you caricature it for all it’s worth.  Then you begin to get the humor, whether it’s an action, expression whatever. The interpretation the animator gives as an action will depend on the quality of the animator.  If we can’t relate to the audience, we might as well give up. This is what Walt wanted.”


Without question the influence Eric Larson has had on Disney animation is immense and is still very influential today.  As an animator his warm, believable work and intimacy between animator and character is something anyone should be inspired to do that’s in the field.  Eric’s work has a very sincere quality and it is very true to what the heart of Disney animation is about.  When he was animating he was a great inspiration in that he helped keep the animators together and was vital to mentoring younger guys as well as counseling and helping solve problems always in a patient, gentle way.  Larson deserves a lot of credit for his excellent performances in the Disney films and it is sad to be that oftentimes his contributions are ignored. For example I’m shocked at how rarely it is mentioned that he was the main animator on Cinderella! His animation on her is some of the best stuff ever done with a Disney heroine but no one even acknowledges that he was the key to her. As for his inspiration as a mentor and impact on preserving the Disney legacy it is indescribable the impact and influence he has had on the second generation. You could even say quality Disney animation could very well have died if it weren’t for the passionate, talented artists Eric mentored and nurtured to their highest potential.

Eric Larson is one of my biggest inspirations and heroes not just in the realms of animation but also in life. His sincerity, love for his work, and sweet, gentle nature is something I want to emulate and strive to stay true to everyday of my life.  In terms of animation his richness and indulgence into the character and expert use of timing is inspirational to me in a very strong way.  Larson is for the lack of a better word an idol to me: I look up to him and want to emulate him both as an artist and as a man.  I will always remember this great quote the animator said: “All an artist has is sincerity.” Perhaps no single quote has spoken to me in such a way as this one. It reminds me that we need to set down out egos and instead give animation our fully heart, passion, and take out the best in us to do the best possible work we can. Thank you Eric Larson for your contributions to the art of Disney animation and its legacy as well as for being a great hero and inspiration to me as well as so many other people!

10. Mark Henn

Posted in Uncategorized on October 1, 2011 by Grayson Ponti Animation: A Site Analyzing All Things Character Animation

If there is one thing that you must have a strong initiative and drive for in Disney animation hands down it’s sincerity.  The Disney films are largely centered around real, powerful, and compelling emotions and feelings, making them have to be completely honest and sincere.  To have such a sincere film you have to find an animator who can give you that Disney touch, someone who can animate a character in a very subtle and believable way.  This is especially important when you’re dealing with characters that the audience needs to believe in for the picture to work at all.  Few have as rich and natural understanding of the Disney style, sincerity, and the subtleties of animation of the quality the Disney name has earned as Mark Henn, number 10 on our countdown and the subject of today’s post.

Mark Henn is one of the longest continuously employed artists at Disney animation today and for 31 years he has brought to life and made audiences fall in love with characters that are sincere and touching.  He’s most famous for animating leading ladies such as Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Mulan, and Tiana but has also animated male leading characters such as Mickey Mouse, Basil, Oliver, Young Simba, and Winnie the Pooh.  While most animators show strong, compelling emotions through broad action or bold work that communicates the feeling very effectively and strongly Henn communicates equally powerful emotions but does so through subtle expressions and light touches.  Even though it isn’t as showy as the other way and is more held back oftentimes the lack of things going on makes the light movements and gestures Mark adds much more powerful and moving than what would have been accomplished if he did the business broader.  “Sincerity is the quality strived for in all aspects of our animation,” he wrote.  Henn is a top footage man(he has the most footage of any animator of the second generation and I believe he’s close to breaking the all time record for footage) and is known for being  very fast and intuitive worker.  “Mark Henn is an extremely gifted and natural animator,” praised honoree Dave Pruiksma. “He just came to it with relative ease and seemed to understand the ways of Disney animation out of the gate. He took a liking to my work and animation tests at the time and asked for me to be assigned to him as an “Animating Assistant” on Basil of Baker Street. Mark then gave me many great scenes of Dawson and Basil to animate and, through our collaboration on those that film, Mark taught me much of what it was to be a Disney animator. I remember he would always pull me back and pull me back and hammer into me the lessons of subtlety in animation (something that not everyone understood then or now). It was frustrating at times, but ultimately very rewarding as I started to get it. Mark is still working at Disney and is still a top animator in my book. I will always be thankful for Mark’s generous time and tutelage.”

Mark Henn was born in 1958 in Dayton, Ohio, where he grew up.  In his boyhood he grew two very strong passions that have stayed throughout his life. One is Mark’s love and fascination with American history. “I grew up in the Midwest which is close to lot of American history,” he reflects. “I’ve just always had a strong interest in American history and the people and events that helped shape the country, good things and bad things.” The other was Disney animation. “It was pretty much a boyhood dream for me to become a Disney animator,” said Henn. “I’ve always been fascinated by Disney animation since I was a small boy.” Particularly inspirational for him was seeing Cinderella, because of the charm and warmth of the story, and the Reluctant Dragon, because it showed actual animators working and exposed him to the fact being a Disney animator is something you can do for a living.  Mark attended a community college in Ohio before moving out to California to enroll in the character animation program at the California Institute of Arts in 1978.  For teachers he had many excellent veteran Disney artists such as Jack Hannah, Elmer Plummer, Jack Kinney, T.Hee, Bob McCrea, and Ken O’Connor as teachers while he had classmates that would become greats at the studio such as Mark Dindall, Tony de Rosa, Brian McIntee, and the late Joe Ranft.  At Calarts Henn’s natural and intuitive understanding of the subtleties of Disney animation started to show but it would still be a while before he would come into his own.  “I had enough talent to make it easier for me than most but I still had to work hard to keep up,” he recalls.

In late 1980 Mark Henn was hired by Disney animation studios and started in the training program where he was mentored by Eric Larson. “Eric passed on the Disney philosophy about animation,” wrote the animator. “His thought about sincerity influences all we do in animation.  I remember he advised us to learn from the past but to bring our own sensibilities to our animation.” Among the other people who helped teach him at Disney were Walt Stanchfield, who taught him how to draw the Disney way through his classes held at the studio, and Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, who for his first year were still at the studio writing their book the Illusion of Life.  Henn’s rookie work at Disney was inbetweening a little bit of animation in Glen Keane’s unit on the bear fight in the Fox and the Hound at the very end of that production as well as inbetweening in visual effects on it.  However, it was his first assignment as an animator that would make his talent and understanding of Disney animation clear to the world: animating Mickey Mouse in Mickey’s Christmas Carol. “It was very natural for me,” explained Mark. “I actually felt very comfortable stepping in the Mickey shoes and the Christmas Carol project was so exciting. For me being my first big assignment it was a chance to shine so I was very eager to do the very best I could and I did everything I could on that film”  His animation of the iconic character is very heartwarming and sincere. Study his scenes of Mickey frame by frame and you’ll just by seeing the first work he did understand what make Mark Henn special: he animates a Mickey that is very humble, innocent, and unselfish using subtle movements, reserved but meaningful expressions, and true warmth to make the audience feel sympathetic for him.  It is all subtle and every movement and gestures communicates character and has meaning.   This was also the first collaboration between Mark and Burny Mattinson, who directed the featurette (he would later storyboard many of Henn’s best scenes such as the Whole New World scene in Aladdin and the scene with Simba and Mufasa in the stars in the Lion King.  Burny is a good match for an avid thumbnailer and scene planer like Mark because he approaches his boards like they were thumbnails making them easy for the animators to use and expand on.) After Christmas Carol he moved on to the Black Cauldron, where he was on for a brief time.  Although he did only a few hundred feet on the film Mark primarily focused on animating Gurgi in his first appearance in the film.  Gurgi is the broadest character he’s animated in his career and the broader, looser acting flared with the sincerity and charm of his other animation does work in the sequence, even though the film was by this time unsavable.  Next came Henn’s debut as a star animator and the first of many films where he did the most footage of any other animator, Basil of Baker Street later renamed Great Mouse Detective. On the film he primarily focused on Basil, Dawson, and Olivia while doing Ratigan in a few scenes where he’s confronting Basil.  Mark’s work on Basil is a more refined version of the sincere, character-driven animation he did with Mickey three years earlier.  For inspiration he extensively observed and sketched the actors of Basil and Dawson recording their lines and a lot of the poses and attitudes from the recording session make it back in the final film.  Great contrast: Basil is confident and courageous while Dawson is cautious and laid back in nature. I love how the character relationship and personalities of the characters is so extensively defined by Mark.  They’re completely believable and their gestures really give us a glimpse into what they are feeling but in a subtle, natural way.

On Oliver and Company Mark Henn wound up being a supervising animator again this time on Oliver and Jenny.  This is a significant film because it marks a gradual change in his style over the years where instead of having a lot of round, caricatured shapes (a lot like let’s say Fred Moore’s style), emphasis on lines, and distinct, spaced out poses as in much of his earlier work his style became more smooth and drawn in a way that is very light but is very powerful in many ways like the style of Ollie Johnston.  Oliver in particular has one of these new components used well that would later become vital to Mark’s work: an important on light, sensitive physical contact and touching between two characters. “Having two characters touch helps to create a more genuine sincere scene” he advises on making a scene juicy and high quality.  I really love the contact between Oliver and Jenny; it’s very warm and meaningful in a way his previous work wasn’t.  Up next came another huge film for Henn, the Little Mermaid, where he co-supervised Ariel with the great Glen Keane although Mark animated the character first.  “We all played around with different designs but when Glen came on he pulled all of them together,” he explains.  In terms of characterization there are some notable differences between his mermaid and Keane’s mermaid. While Glen Keane gave Ariel a burning, dynamic desire to become a human and strong, mature emotion of love towards Eric to Ariel Mark took a little more relaxed approach to the character and tried to put the problems and emotions of teenage girls in her to make her and her story believable.   Unlike some cases where two supervisors on a character doesn’t necessarily work out it actually has its advantages in Mermaid since both are needed for the story to work: Ariel has to be sweet enough and be believable as a teenager to make her connect with the audience but she has to have the emotional strength and maturity to not only make it believable she can truly fall in love but also make her passion and desire strong enough so when the transformation does happen it’s very powerful and compelling.  In terms of style Keane’s girl is more tied down and solid in terms of anatomy and construction while Henn’s is a bit more simplistic, has bigger eyes, and has more pointed hair.  “Just in terms of the fact I was dealing with a mermaid I tended to look a lot at footage of how seals move around and that,” explains the animator. “Facewise, I just tried to find something that was very appealing.  We wanted to do something different. We didn’t want to draw Daryl Hannah. She worked fine for splash but we had to make out mermaid a little different and younger. I think we just worked till we’d feel we had a face, a design, that we all felt was appealing and easy for everyone to animate. We had a live action actress named Sherry Stone who was very good. That was the first time I had really worked with live action but that worked out very well. We talked with her about different ideas that she acted out. So we had video reference to use as we started developing our animation for a scene.” In terms of working together Glen did a lot more supervising while Mark did more footage.  While Keane spent a lot of time dealing with the more powerful, intensely emotional scenes such as Part of Your World Henn animated a lot of the scenes where Ariel doesn’t have a voice such as the one where she’s having dinner with Eric and Grimsby as well as her first scene at the beginning of the film with Flounder (animated by the great Barry Temple),  the touching scene where she sees Eric for the first time,  the section where she is debating whether or not he loves her, and the final kiss at the end.

In 1989(the same year Mermaid was released) a huge change occurred in Mark Henn’s career: he moved out to Florida to become part of the nucleus of the staff being started at a small Disney animation studio starting in Orlando, Florida at MGM.  ‘When it was first announced that they were going to open a small animation studio down there I wasn’t crazy about the idea,” he remembered. “I thought it wasn’t a good idea, that it would dilute the specialness of the Burbank studio. So I wasn’t very excited about it but I spent a lot of time thinking about it. Then I thought if they feel they need this studio in Florida then it needs to be at the same quality and ideals of the Burbank studio. I realized after a year that instead of complaining about it I should do something about it. So I decided that I’d like to go down and make sure that this studio that had the Disney name on it is a quality Disney studio. So I went down.”  At the beginning there were only 78 employees at the Disney studio and originally it was primarily intended to do shorts and Mickey Mouse featurettes but the studio’s talent hit off so well and did such high quality work that they were given pieces of the features to do not long after.  Among the other veterans at the studio at that time were Barry Temple and David Stephen, although the later man only stayed one year.  Henn did a lot of mentoring to the great mix of young talent at the studio and was crucial to helping them grow into great animators and be able to do work of the same quality as the ones the guys in Burbank were doing. “Mark Henn was my mentor when I was first starting out and he would ask me questions about my animation such as ‘Why is he doing that?’ or ‘Is that a nervous or sly smile?’,” wrote Tom Bancroft. “If I didn’t know the answer to these questions it was obvious to him that I really hadn’t thought out what I was doing.” The first feature he did animation on in Florida was the Rescuers Down Under, where he supervised the animation of Bernard and Bianca done in the Florida Studio.  Then on Beauty and the Beast Mark was the supervising animator of Belle for the Florida Studio, even though he actually did more footage than California supervisor James Baxter.  At that time Baxter was only 23 years old and he was sick for a lot of the production, giving the other animator a lot of key scenes. Among Henn’s scenes are the one where Belle meets the Beast for the first time(recommended for your freeze frame list for subtle character acting scenes), the one where she bandages the Beast’s arm, her sneaking into the West Swing(another good one that shows the characters thoughts through light actions and slight expressions),  the Something There sequence(shows a very solid, intelligent character arc showing the changes in Belle’s feelings towards the Beast and what she wants in life), and all of her in the Beast death and resurrection scene. “When they decided to do the song Something There, Don Hahn and the directors told us that were going to give us that sequences,” he explains. “It’s a great sequence. I loved doing that. I love to animate to songs. I love musical theater; I have my entire life. To be able to not only act but also now kind of sing as an animator is for me a lot of fun. It’s something that brings rhythm to animation.” One thing that’s interesting is that even though James was supervising the character and was more important in the designing most of the major character arcs and emotional acting scenes are done by Mark.  This is another good contrast because he gives a warm, sincere side to Belle while James makes her sophisticated and more uptight, making her character believable and rich. We see the sophisticated version at the beginning of the film, showing us that this girl is older and more independent than heroines such as Ariel, but through these crucial character arc scenes we begin to see her sweet, sensitive side making us believe that she could possibly fall in love with the Beast. Also at Florida Henn was given an excellent assistant named Dan Gracey who worked as his right hand man for all his years at the Florida Studio.  Gracey is one of the greatest assistants in Disney history and was known for his specialization in female characters.

On Aladdin the studio decided to finally have Florida supervising animators have their own characters exclusively and on that film Mark supervised and animated almost all of Jasmine, the female lead in the movie.  Jasmine is a unique character in that for a princess she is not just sweet and beautiful but is also very proactive, determined, strong willed, and aggressive. She has strong emotions and doesn’t let others take control of her life so easily.  On top of that Aladdin, the male protagonist, was more outgoing and interesting than previous male leads, making the need for an equally strong heroine even more crucial. Jasmine is also interesting in that she is Arabic, making her the first Disney princess that wasn’t white and European. “Well it was a little challenging because I had done several princess in a row, so I really wanted to do something different,” explained Mark. “It helped that she’s not European. For the inspiration I ended up not having to go any further than my wallet where I had a picture of my sister. I used her photograph to kind of be the basis for developing the design of Jasmine. Emotionally she grew out of the story made by the storymen and directors.  But I needed something fresh to help with the physical look of her. I also had her voice Linda Larkin to get my inspiration. We talked and she was also inspirational in terms of finding Jasmine’s emotional side.” One brilliant acting choice that Henn made on the character is that he made her more contained in acting than the other characters and communicated her feelings and emotions through soft, subtle actions such as her eyes, facial expressions, her posture, and walks so these actions and gestures had stronger meaning. This also was a good contrast to most of the other characters that were more broad and cartoony in action or in the case of Jafar very reserved.  My two favorite Mark Henn scenes in the movie are the one where she is sitting by the fountain at the beginning because it really has great use of light, soft but powerful touches and subtle body posture and the one where she confronts Jafar because it shows how strong and passionate she can be. Also another great one to study is the Whole New World sequence(where he actually animated Aladdin too) as well as the ending sequence particularly the shoot that shows her realization that she can be with Aladdin. Up next came another good challenge for Mark: to animate the cocky and idealistic but innocent and outgoing young Simba in the Lion King. “Lion King was a great opportunity because I got a chance to do something other than a girl, which was a nice change,” he said in an interview. “Initially I campaigned hard and asked several times to possibly do Scar, to do a villain because that was something completely different. But Don Hahn said to me ‘I know you’re interested in doing Scar but the whole picture really kind of needs to hinge on Simba.’ So knowing that they need me to work on Simba like that, it was a challenge I happily took.” Many believe that Lion King is the best work Henn has done so far in his Disney career because it is the one where he really took his acting skills to the next level.  The scenes of young Simba are very crucial to making the film work because they have to set in place the emotions and situations that lead to the challenges and insecurities he has to deal with in the rest of the film as well as make us sympathize for the character. “We all knew what the story was and what Simba was going through but ultimately I just wanted to make him – as I strive for on all the characters I animate- believe as this young, maybe a little cocky, confident character at the beginning. I just wanted to make him believable so that people can identify with him.” As a young lion Simba has more awkward and less smooth walks and movements than he does as an adult, communicating with the audience his insecurities and desire to be bigger.  All of Mark’s scenes in the film are really intuitive: Simba’s struggles, emotions, and desire to become powerful are all feelings we can relate to.  After Lion King the animator began to do some preproduction work on Mulan (he was the first animator on the film) but since it wasn’t quite ready he went on and animated a ton of scenes of Pocahontas following the instructions and orders of Glen Keane.  “He did A LOT of footage on that film,” remembers Ted Ty, who was his rough inbetweener on the film. However this wasn’t Henn’s character and following the design and example of the particular and phenomenal Keane was a challenge. “Glen had very specific ways and things about the way he wanted her drawn so that took a lot of extra effort,” he remembers. “It also required a careful balance, knowing how to make a very appealing drawing without it becoming grotesque. To draw the exact expression of a live reference can be very ugly in a sense.  So it was just difficult to understand how she’s drawn and how the visual cures, her design can help create the expression Glen and the directors wanted to see.”

On Mulan Mark Henn did what is my opinion his best work and really has some of the best subtle acting and strength of character ever done at Disney.  “Mulan’s story was so unique and compelling that It just captivated me from the beginning,” he fondly reflects. “Certainly one of the greatest memories was the simple fact I got to go to China for research. I felt a great honor to bring her story and character to life because her story was so popular and well-known there.” Mulan is without question the strongest and most aggressive heroine lead ever to be in a Disney film: she even poses as a man and goes in the army so her older father won’t have to.  I highly recommend studying the scenes Henn did of Mulan because they show you how to put great inner emotional strength and soul in your character.  On that film he also animated Fa Zhou, Mulan’s father, and using the emotions he has towards being a father to his daughter animated one of the strongest and most compelling character relationships in a Disney film ever.  After Mulan Mark directed John Henry, a beautiful stylized short, which tells the story of the tall tale and exhibits the animator’s love and passion for American history.  Although he was originally intended to supervise Stitch in the Florida production Lilo and Stitch he moved back to California in 1999 making him not able to be part of the official crew although he did animate the Hula dance sequence in the film animating in Burbank.  For the next four years Henn animated four characters in the box-office flop and critically panned Home on the Range: Grace the cow, Weasley, Rusty, and Pearl (he finished the character after Bruce Smith left the production.)  Although he animated a ton on the film his work on it doesn’t have the richness of character and tremendous warmth of most of his work.

After Home on the Range Mark Henn encountered another hard production: Meet the Robinsons, his first film in CG animation.  Although he animated some good scenes of the protagonist Lewis he struggled with the transition to computer animation and found the assignment very difficult. “I love to draw more but there’s room for both,” Henn simply states.  After Robinsons he was farmed out to James Baxter Animation where he animated Giselle the princess in her first scene in the film.  However soon hand-drawn animation was revived for good on the film the Princess and the Frog and Mark’s assignment as supervising animator on Tiana, the first black Disney princess, turned out to be a huge comeback for him and since he has been an important leader of the hand-drawn staff. On Frog he did some of his best animation ever and animated Tiana in three different forms: as a little girl, a young woman, and a frog.  Tiana is a very strong heroine who is a very hard worker and has to learn through the film that she needs to have time to appreciate and be with the people she loves as well as give herself a break.  On the film the animator animated a textbook example of a great character relationship and character arc scene: the one where she teaches Naveen to mince the mushrooms.  This one shows the audience Tiana is beginning to become a little more easygoing and not just focused on hard work.  Throughout the film you’ll notice if you study Henn’s scenes a great transformation emotionally of the character throughout the film that is really inspirational to me in how to get inside the heart and soul of your characters.  On the next film, Winnie the Pooh, he supervised the animation of Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin. Today Mark Henn is still at the Disney studio and has recently animated 2d pencil tests for the CG animators to use on the Snow Queen as well as now is working on another upcoming Disney film.

Stylewise there is a very strong “less is more” tactic in Mark Henn’s animation.  As I described in detail above he rarely uses broad action and shows the character’s emotions through subtle, soft gestures and expressions.  Touching and physical contact are also very important assets Mark uses when he animates.  As for his character conception process he wrote: “It is always challenge to create a new character. It all begins with the story. Characters and who they are start with the story. I believe most of our current characters are richer and deeper because the stories we are telling are stronger.  I always try to put myself into my characters given the variety of situations they find themselves in but largely I give the stories the biggest credit for the richness of the characters. Next comes the physical appearance and finding out who this character is and how that will be portrayed with their unique movements especially if you animate several characters that are the same time and the same role.” Henn also credits his own life experience and acting classes as very inspirational in the development of his approach to animation and his feelings when animating a scene.  As I mentioned above he is a very fast and can get through scenes in a hurry. As for his secret Mark says it’s all about the thumbnailing process.  He sorts out all his ideas on one sheet of paper and loosely works out the general poses, expressions, and acting possibilities figuring out exactly what he’s going to do BEFORE he animates.  Henn’s animation is very classic and a lot of the warmth and sincerity of the old time Disney animators is found in his work. His understanding is pretty organic and his stuff also feels very natural. “I try to make my animation feel natural and not seem like it’s taken from a book or formula,” he said. Last in terms of design Mark’s characters oftentimes have big eyes to make his subtle expressions resonate well.

Mark Henn is a very influential figure in the history of Disney animation and is very important in helping revive quality, sincere animation to the studio.  He also was one of the first to really embrace the idea of having stronger, richer characters that are more proactive and aggressive in the films as well as really build upon the strong character relationships developed by the story department. “Most of the girls in our films I’ve done are much more aggressive and have a much more active part while the earlier heroines were a bit more passive,” explains Henn. “Things happened to them, more so whereas a lot of our stories tended to get a little more complicated plotwise.  As for the role the girls took, there was a much more involved process. They make things happen, they make decisions.” This type of approach to the leading roles, particularly with the heroines, started by Mark has really influenced the studio into making more dynamic and passionate main characters.  Also he is significant because of the great mentor he has been, especially at the Florida studio.  Henn basically turned Disney Florida from what would have been just a small satellite studio making shorts to a quality studio making feature films.  It is heartbreaking that studio is no longer in existence but some of the young talent found there now work at Disney in Burbank as some of the top artists in the studio. Last I think that the great subtleties, warm, sincerity and usage of classic Disney principles in Mark’s animation has really influenced the studio forever. Only Ollie Johnston and arguably Eric Larson have ever animated as subtle as he does.  Henn is a great company men and I’m sure he will continue to be a top talent at the Disney studio as a phenomenal animator and giving mentor.

Mark Henn has been a great influence and hero to me.  His less is more approach and use of warm, subtle animation is very inspirational to me and has inspired me to try to sometimes try to hold back in my work to give the gestures and light movements more meaning.  I love the way Henn lightly uses his pencil to give a magical “touch” to the paper having very soft lines but they’re really powerful and show great emotion.  I try to emulate his philosophies on sincerity, character, and thumbnailing to try to make my animation and artwork more sincere and stronger.  I have had the great fortune of getting to communicate and to a degree know Mark and have learned a lot from writing to him. I can tell from the little contact we have he cares very much about Disney and really wants to do the best, most sincere work possible. He also is very honest and genuine.  Thank you Mark Henn for  your contributions to the art of Disney animation and for being a great hero and inspiration to me as well as so many other people!

11. Andreas Deja

Posted in Uncategorized on September 23, 2011 by Grayson Ponti Animation: A Site Analyzing All Things Character Animation

Nothing is worse in animation than animating a character that is boring. The audience won’t care for it and be affected by it therefore depleting the weight that character has to play in the film.  What does work very well, however, is an animator that can make a character very interesting in design, acting, performance, expressions, movement, thought process, emotions, and all the other important aspects in bringing a great animated character to life.  This is what the old guys did best and oftentimes newer animators have had trouble following their footsteps in making this come together.  There are a few however that do continue to do this in an interesting way and one of if not the best at making interesting characters is Andreas Deja, number 11 on our countdown and the honoree of today’s post.

Andreas Deja is well respected all throughout the animation industry for his flashy stylized sense of design and his ability to animate unique interesting characters as well as his unique way of putting these together with his European sensibilities, superb acting with movement, and his knowledge of the way the old guys at Disney faced challenges and did their craft. While many other animators that want to be like the old guys find a particular idol or two and copy their work he takes inspiration from all of the guys and puts the knowledge he learned from his talks with them to help him make his own work better.  Deja will always be remembered for his villain trilogy (Gaston, Jafar, and Scar), which showed people a psychological process and interesting acting skills that had rarely been seen in animation for several years, but also has done lots of other great characters, including Roger Rabbit, Triton, Hercules, and Lilo.  He also has been a very important part of the animation industry by sharing his knowledge of Disney history with others and always talking to students and young people in the industry about what’s needed for great character animation. However, Andreas has also been known for refusing to try CG animation and he’s been adamant that hand-drawn is all that should ever be at Disney. “If you take the drawings out of Disney, it’s just not Disney,” he passionately said.  Deja is one of the most interesting and accomplished of the new Disney animators and has created work that will stay with people forever.


Andreas Deja was born on April 1, 1957 in Gdansk, Poland but moved to Dinslaken, Germany when he was a year old.  Living in a lower middle class family in a town in the middle of nowhere Germany he found himself growing up to be fascinated by the idea of drawing and was particularly fascinated by comic strips and brief clips of Mickey Mouse shorts on the Wonderful World of Disney.  Although his family didn’t go to the movies, at the age of 11 he and a friend took their money and went to see the Jungle Book. Seeing the movie changed Andreas’s life forever and he instantly knew that working on animated films was what he wanted to do. “It was just the most beautiful thing I ever saw,” remembered the animator decades later. “It left a very strong impression on me.”  Deja in particular was intrigued by the animation of Sher Khan the tiger, which he would later find out was done by his career idol Milt Kahl.  He saw the film over and over again and new immediately all he wanted to do was work at Disney, making him decide to send the studio a letter a few years later. He got a response from the studio much to his thrill and got some elusive answers to his questions. “The studio just encouraged you to become an artist in your own right first,’ explained Deja. “To got to art school, to study animals, to study the human figure, anatomy, and just a very solid academic art training was what they recommended.” Around the age of 14 he began to attend several life drawing classes and go to the zoo frequently to study the animals and their movement.  Although it was a lot of work Andreas fell in love with doing this and always pushed himself to the next level, knowing that it would be nearly impossible in his mind to achieve the high quality of Disney animation. “I wasn’t naïve like many people who write to Disney and send in little cartoons and say ‘look I can draw this and do you have a job for me?’” he stated. “I was always very critical and always thought the level of quality was so high I wouldn’t fit in anyway but wouldn’t it be nice. You dream along as you train yourself, so I think I was a bit more critical toward my own work and the possibilities of actually getting in.” In his mid to late teens Deja befriended Hans Bacher, another student who was interested in animation and later turned out to be one of Disney’s best visual development artists.  At this time he also got access to film prints that showed pencil tests from Disney animated films and began to study them religiously. After a brief stint in the army and around 3 years in art school Andreas began corresponding by mail to Eric Larson, a former great animator at Disney who then was the head of the Disney training program.  He and Bacher met Larson when he visited Germany and after seeing the young man’s artwork by mail the old master told him that he thought he had what it takes, basically hiring him. “I nearly fainted,” laughs Deja.

In August 1980 Andreas Deja moved to America and started at the training program at the Disney studio.  With the help of Eric he did a pencil test of a witch on her broom that went very well. In addition to Larson, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston were still at the studio writing their book so oftentimes Andreas would go visit them and soon they became mentors.  Outside of the studio he was able to get in touch with his idol Milt Kahl and got to see him on an annual basis until his death in 1987. Immediately Deja’s entrance portfolio was getting unanimous praise and all over the studio he was dubbed a future all-time great.  “Me and Andreas started the same day and I remember seeing his portfolio and saying to myself there is no way I could ever possibly be that good,” reflects great animator Barry Temple. “I thought everybody’s portfolio was that good but soon learned it was an exception.” Even uptight members from the old guard such as Ed Hansen and Joe Hale were intrigued by his drawings.  Impressed by Andreas’s drawings that were in the Disney style Hale assigned him to work on the Black Cauldron when it was in its preproduction stage although he would remain on the feature until the end.  For his first year on the feature he shared a room with future Hollywood live-action director Tim Burton, who he was supposed to help bring the other artist’s drawings into the Disney style.  However, Burton’s style and sensibilities didn’t match up with what the old guard wanted and refusing to go against his vision he quit.  On Cauldron Deja had to animate over 1,000 feet of footage, primarily animating Taran and Princess Eilonwy as well as the old man and some of the witches.  While I think his animation of the two leads shows great draftsmanship that reflects his unique European-flaired style and shows some seeds of the picture I think the fact that it’s a poor film as a whole (and a big flop as well) and that it seems like he’s trying to duplicate Milt Kahl’s work (many of the expressions and acting in the characters reminds me a lot of Kahl’s animation) makes the animator’s work on the film not come together as well as it could.  With that aside the problems that show in Andreas’s work on Cauldron would soon be fixed and the film was a great learning experience for him.

After finishing his duties on the Black Cauldron, Andreas Deja contributed a little to the Great Mouse Detective by animating the Queen in the film, which shows great sculptural, three-dimensional drawing and understanding of movement.  After that he worked with the late Pete Young (a very underrated storyman who tragically passed away from asthma and from what I’ve heard was destined to have done great work in the Disney Renaissance if he had lived) on developing and designing characters for Oliver and Company but after Young’s death and the tone of the story moved from sincere and touching to more hip the animator didn’t feel the same enthusiasm for the project.  At the same time a lot of studio politics was going on making Deja feel a little uneasy.  This made him decide to take the opportunity to work with his friend Dick Williams in London on the animation of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a Disney live-action animation combination film that was being produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Robert Zemeckis.  On the film Andreas worked as a supervising animator and got to animate on almost all the characters except Jessica Rabbit. “The type of animation that was needed was beyond what we would do at Disney normally,” he stated in an interview.  “This was to be much broader and Roger Rabbit was to be a much more physical character, expressing himself more physically. He’s put together in a very surreal way too- he could squash and stretch a lot more. That part was actually fun because I think it loosened me up- my animation got a lot looser after Roger Rabbit. Before that I was very into the drawing and making sure the arc’s just right and into the technicalities.” Andreas said it very well and in many ways this film was the one where he came into his own. The scene I’ve personally think he transcended to the next level was the one where Hoskins is hiding Roger in the sink and Smartass and the weasels come in looking for something suspicious. On Roger it is the first time people really saw Deja’s true achievement of solid, phenomenal cartoon acting and performance that was completely driven by the emotions and feelings of the character rather than by draftsmanship.  On Smartass we really see a glimpse of the great psychological process and thinking poses that he would later become famous for.  On the film he also did a lot of the Disney cameos, including the Fantasia ostrich and hippo, as well as the gorilla baller at the Ink and Paint Club. The later is a particularly great one to study frame by frame because it is very loosely animated but the drawing is very solid, giving an interesting combination. The expressions on the gorilla and his poses are also worth paying attention to.


After the production of Roger Rabbit was finished at the Richard Williams Studio (Baer animation finished the film back in California) Andreas Deja returned to the studio in Glendale to be able to come on to the production of Little Mermaid as a supervising animator. “I was very pleased with this new form of musical,” he praised in an interview. “It was the first one that looked like a cohesive story. The thing united the whole studio and the politics immediately went away.” Originally Deja was intended to supervise the animation of Eric the prince because of his skill at drawing the figure and draftsmanship but instead replaced Ruben Aquino as the supervising animator on Triton, Ariel’s father (Aquino transferred over to Ursula the villain.)  Triton is a lot looser and has more unique acting than any of Andreas’s pre-Roger Rabbit work and the character ultimately is a winner for the animator. For the design Andreas took inspiration from a lot of European artwork and gave the character a very sculpted feel but he’s Americanized and caricatured enough he’s appealing to look at. I love the squash and stretch that he used as well as the stern expressions and strong, bold design.  Study and analyze the scene where Triton is arguing with Ariel at the beginning as well as the one where he is trying to get Sebastian to speak up to see what makes Deja stand out as an animator and has all his virtues in full tact.  Triton is interesting because there’s great balance in him both in the way he’s animated and his characterization: he’s not comic but isn’t realistic to the point he’s stiff and he’s serious enough to make his role in the plot convincing but is lovable because of the fact that all of his actions are done because he wants what’s best for his daughter. I love the combination of the character relationship and contrast as well.  Instead of going on to the Rescuers Down Under like most of the Disney animators did after Mermaid the animator was farmed out to Baer Animation where he was a supervising animator and did some very believable, subtle animation of Mickey Mouse, particularly in the scene where he’s looking in the mirror (he’s stated in an interview before that this would be the one scene he did he’d select to show Frank and Ollie.)  The next film, Beauty and the Beast, was a significant one for Andreas because it was the beginning of what has been regarded as his signature body of work, the “Villain Trilogy.” The first one of the three proved to be a good challenge for him because he was the supervising animator of Gaston, a character whose a villain but unlike most other villains is very good looking and had to be animated and handled pretty “straight.” While in most Disney films the heroes are drawn in a way that’s very straight and the designs include no physical flaws for the most part (has changed a bit over the years) while the villains are usually handled pretty archetypically and more loosely, Beauty had the opposite design wise but had to still have the positions the same way:  the Beast had to seem ugly, mean, and violent but really turn out to have a heart of gold and had to be a loving, compassionate person with a lot of emotional turmoil while Gaston had to seem like a lady’s man and be charming in terms of appearance but in reality is very arrogant, selfish, mean, cold, and insincere. Deja solved this by while making Gaston very buff, manly, and good looking in appearance but gave him expressions that show someone who isn’t warm-hearted and is pretty cocky as well as insincere. I particularly love the way he shows character, personality, and motivation through walks, gestures, and poses. I’m sure most people reading this blog are reminded by Gaston of someone who in high school who was popular and everybody say as perfect but in reality wasn’t that good in school, was a jerk to everyone, and pretty self-centered.  He wants Belle because she’s pretty and will make him look good, not because he cares about her and likes her interests and qualities.  “It was a character who’s a villain but look like a hero and that’s an odd thing in itself,” explained Andreas in an interview. “ Of course that was the them of the movie, don’t judge a book by its cover.  But it made it very hard because he had to be portrayed realistically but yet there are things he did, whether in a thought process or physical action, that seems to be cartoony in the boards- but how could I go with something like this? How much can I distort him- well not very much. So I tried to find the fine line of keeping him handsome looking and not making a cartoon character out of him but also give him some expressions that were required for the material.”

It was, however, the second character in the villain trilogy where Andreas Deja brought out a side of his abilities as an animator that had never been seen before that proved to work in a very effective way. The film was Aladdin and the character was Jafar, the Grand Vizier of Agrabah who is determined to have full power.  With Jafar Andreas made one of the most brilliant and important decisions of character handling and conception done by a supervising animator ever. Originally in the storyboards Jafar was portrayed as more of an irritable, short-tempered villain, much like the typical Disney villain would be. However most of the characters in Aladdin were very cartoony, flamboyant, and outgoing. This made Deja feel that it would be better if he made Jafar more restrained and calm in characterization, giving a good sense of contrast between him and the other characters.  In terms of design not only does Jafar have very read clothing and a fiery look that represents evil in comparison to the blue clothing worn by most of the good characters but his design is very angular and stylized contrasted to the roundness of the other characters.   What makes him so scary in the film is that Deja animates him in a way that has him very restrained both in movement and in emotion shown and giving him a very psychological thought process as well as using subtle gestures and menacing expressions to communicate his true feelings and thoughts to the audience.  I recommend that you study as many Jafar scenes that Andreas actually animated frame by frame as possible because they are a textbook example in showing the character’s thought process in a very subtle way, acting in animation in a way that’s not over the top and is believable, using subtle actions and gestures, and making a character that is both interesting and effective to the story.  A classic is the one where Jafar is talking to Jasmine and he very menacingly but calmly explains that the boy from the market was executed (or so we think.) actually Mark Henn (who animated almost all of Jasmine in the film) actually animated the scene first even though in my cases she’s reacting to him making Deja have to make the acting work against what Mark had already done. This is a great one that shows the subtle movements: the way he touches his chin, the restrained posture he has, and the way he leans down on Jasmine in a threatening way putting his hands on her shoulders.  One of his biggest inspirations when animating Jafar was Marc Davis’s animation of Maleficent. “What I took from Maleficent for Jafar was the understatement of the acting,” explained Andreas.  He actually knew Davis very well for many years and the respect was mutual.  “There is a lot of learning process going on there,” said Marc Davis in a 1996 interview. “There are a few very, very good young animators and one I particularly enjoy is Andreas Deja.”

Andreas Deja actually became an oddball in that he was one of only three top experienced animators(Ruben Aquino and Mark Henn being the others) that decided to go on the then-described B-movie Lion King over the then-consider A-movie Pocahontas. “We didn’t know if it was going to be a good movie,” he confessed. “To be honest what happened is right after Aladdin the studio decided to split the crew into two. And so the options were Lion King or Pocahontas and each production had an open house where you could look at the artwork and have a little wine and cheese talk to the directors and Pocahontas had beautiful stuff while Lion King just had some realistic renderings of lions. However I wanted to do something with animals and this was my chance to do a very cool animal. We had a few weak story screenings but things changed when Elton John became involved and then Han Zimmer, that beautiful score, and…it just picked up, and all of the sudden it was really about something, all these big things.” On this film Andreas animated the last character of his villain trilogy, Scar.  Scar proved to be a challenge in two distinct ways. One was the he was a lion which made it so Deja couldn’t use hands and had to act more using body posture and expressions.  Also in comparison to Jafar Scar had to have a lot of acting range. Unlike Jafar he is very reserved and speaks more through subtle actions Scar is a true liar and not only does he cover up his emotions but he pretends like he has ones that are the complete opposite of the ones he has.  At other times his true evil needed to come out to make it convincing to the audience that he would kill his own brother and convince his nephew that he was the one to blame.  “I designed Jafar and really enjoyed drawing him because he was a little bit stylized and bizarre looking, which was intriguing to draw- in comparison to Scar, who was not so interesting in terms of design,” explained Andreas.  “However Scar, as a piece of acting and personality, was much stronger than Jafar. There was more range to his personality, there was a lot of levels to Scar.” Indeed Scar very well could be said to be the most complex villain in Disney history psychologically. The animator deals with a lot of very real, powerful emotions he put into the character: resentment, jealousy, a desire for power and attention, a completely lack of sensitivity and honest, and most of all a full embrace for being evil.  Study frame by frame the walks and movements Deja used both in the Be Prepared sequence and in the opening sequence in the cave. They make it clear to the audience that this character is very menacing, stealthy, and creepy. However in the scenes where he’s talking to young Simba he is more restrained and constantly tells lies but appears very bored and insincere, making the story very believable.  I also love Andreas’s understanding and research of the way lions move and walk that he applied to the animation of Scar. Another particularly helpful component of Scar is Jeremy Irons’s vocal performance, which proved to be a great inspiration for the animator.  “I just recognized some of Jeremy’s facial features that I found interesting- even though it’s a lion, you can give him baggy eyes and that crisp, sharp lip he has,” explained Deja.  “Then combined with the British accent, it just made a certain graphic shape in the mouth shapes, so I tried to do that with scar. His hair was always combed backward as if there was some grease or mousse in it and I used that for Scar.”

Immediately after completing the animation on Scar Andreas Deja moved to Paris for a couple of months to supervise animation on the Mickey Mouse short, the Runaway Brain, and help mentor the young talent at the satellite studio.  When he returned to America he found that the demand for animators of his caliber was pretty high in the animation industry and he took interest in offers at other studios, including one from the new studio DreamWorks.  Remembering the great legacy and meaning behind the Disney name, he decided to stay at Disney. Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale offered him the character of Frollo but he decided it was time to end the villain string and requested Esmeralda, making him not work on the film since Tony Fucile had already been promised to do her.  Next came an offer to supervise Hades in Hercules but Andreas got his wish to have him switched to supervising Hercules, a hero. “I thought I would want to do a hero, sometime, a hero character- somebody who the movie is about,” he said. “Also I hadn’t been too happy with the male characters, the heroes whether it was the old classics or the new ones- they always look funky, they don’t look right.” The casting actually worked well and Hercules is one of the liveliest and most proactive male leads in Disney history. Instead of being stiff and boring like so many other heroes he’s charming, very likeable, sincere, warm, honest, and determined to do something he truly cares about.  After Hercules Deja was originally supposed to return to animating villains by supervising Yzma in the Emperor’s New Groove but the production halted after director Roger Allers left the studio making all the animation crew go to other projects. At first he went on to animate on Eric Goldberg’s Rhapsody in Blue for Fantasia 2000, where he animated a beautiful, stylized scene where the man imitates a monkey. I absolutely love the strong movement he used and the precise steps in the dance section.  Instead of going back to Emperor’s New Groove Andreas decided to move to Florida because he had totally fallen in love with Chris Sanders and Dean Debouis’s story for the upcoming Lilo and Stitch and feeling like he had to work on the movie moved to Florida for two years to be the supervising animator on Lilo on the film.  “I told them they could send me to Moscow to work on this movie because I just had to work on it,” laughs the animator. “I love the story of it.  Unlike the prince and princess stories where you know they’re going to fall in love the whole time you have no idea how this movie is going to end.” Deja’s animation of Lilo is an absolute highlight of his career and shows that he could animate with an intuitiveness and warmth not seen in most of his other work. “Lilo is the most subtle character I’ve ever done,” he explains. “She looks like a Freddy Moore-esque girl but she’s not. She also was the one who I could most easily climb into their shoes. I thought back to the way my sisters used to argue with each other and put that into Lilo.” Study frame by frame the scene where she’s arguing with Nani and you’ll see first hand how intuitive, sincere animation should be done.  I like Lilo a lot because she is a very alternative girl who stands up for herself, is very passionate about what she believes in, and isn’t as picture-perfect beautiful as most Disney heroines giving her more depth and inner beauty.


After Lilo and Stich Andreas Deja returned to Burbank to find things had significantly changed.  Studio politics and management had turned for the most and there were a lot of problems related to the quality of the Disney films. Many films were being pushed into production before their story problems were fixed and the narrative had become cohesive and management didn’t seem to care a ton about Disney animation. While doing he did some minor work on Home on the Range many animators (not including Deja) were laid off from the studio and eventually it became official that the decision at the time was to end hand-drawn animation, which he reflects back on as one of the darkest days in his life.  Unlike many other animators who switched over to CG animation Andreas refused to take any classes related to CG and was on the verge of leaving the animation industry entirely when his employment at Disney was saved by being asked to help out on Bambi 2 at the Disneytoons studio in Australia, where he spent 6 months at.  There he got to do a lot of animation of the characters as well as mentor the animators and supervise their work.  When he returned Deja was farmed out again this time to James Baxter animation for Enchanted, where he animated most of Queen Narissa, which was his first villain since the villain trilogy.  However soon management changed and they made the decision to revive hand-drawn animation with the film the Princess and the Frog. Andreas quickly jumped at the opportunity and supervised Mama Odie, a voodoo priestess who is a fairy godmother to the characters, and her snake Jub Jub.  A great Deja scene to study frame by frame is the one where Mama Odie is introduced and where she dances, because they demonstrate his expertise at character movement to the maximum extent.  After Frog he supervised Tigger in Winnie the Pooh.  At this present time Andreas is on a leave of absence from the Disney studio, although he is still technically an employee and plans to return to full-time when Ron and John’s hand-drawn feature is ready, and is working at home on two personal films (which so far look beautiful) as well as consulting with Disney to promote the classics and posting original Disney artwork from his extensive personal collection on his blog Deja View (highly recommended.)

Andreas Deja style wise is unique in that he has an interesting combination of two inspirational sources. One is his European background and sensibilities while the other is his knowledge and extended studies of Disney animation done by the old guys.  Even though he has lived in America for several years there are many aspects of his style that are very European compared to most American animators: he uses thicker lines, has more angular and less round, appealing shapes, a great knowledge of anatomy and fine art, etc.  As for the Disney influences Deja learned and studied a ton from the old guys and oftentimes he uses their work as inspiration in his own. For example some of Triton’s expressions echo Milt Kahl, the control and understatement of Jafar reflects some of Marc Davis’s work, and Lilo’s warmth has a bit of Ollie Johnston in it.   Although he does utilize things he’s learned from the great of the past it works in Andreas’s work because he is determined to be an artist in his own right instead of one who wants to be just like their idols. He’s made a lot of intelligent decisions in making his characters and roles unique, which has only helped his reputation as an animator.  When conceiving characters Deja thinks a lot about how the character is and what is interesting about them. When designing the character he takes what he sees as unique qualities that define the character and make him original and puts them in the design to make one that’s believable and true to the character.  When animating the character Andreas focuses a lot on finding a unique acting style and using gestures and movements that show what the character is thinking and feeling as well as bring gout what is important about that character.  I particularly love his use of movement because it makes his characters feel so alive, believable, and convincing.  In terms of drawing style Deja leans a bit towards the flashy, stylized draftsman, which makes his characters very intriguing to the audience. Last in my mind the biggest asset Andreas has, as an animator, is his ability to make a character very interesting.  All of his characters stand on their own very much and have personalities as well as designs that aren’t like any other he’s done or anyone else has done.  Even in his villain trilogy all of them are very unique in different ways.

Andreas Deja is one of the most influential figures in modern day Disney history.  His style, acting, unique draftsmanship, and interesting characters have inspired animators at the studio to try to do the same. Deja has influenced them into trying hard to make their characters interesting and unique as well as appreciate the importance of being an artist in their own right. His respect for himself artistically and concern about always doing something original but is still true to Disney animation and its principles as well as storytelling is something that has tickled the intellect of many animators as well as animation students.  Last I feel that Andreas’s respect and devotion to the Disney legacy and what he feels is important in following it has had a real impact.  If it weren’t for people like him hand-drawn animation could very well still have been dead at Disney today and it would be less likely for high quality Disney films with true heart and soul to still be made. Fortunately there are people like him and the future of Disney looks bright largely because of him.

Andreas Deja personally is a great inspiration to me artistically.  I’m fascinated by his flashy stylized drawing, excellent utilization of lessons learned in the films of the past, emphasis on making a character unique and interesting, and his great, intriguing designs.  He’s influenced me into trying to when I create a character and draw and/or animate them try to find the qualities and aspects that make them interesting and apply them to the character. Deja also has influenced me in that I try to honor and learn from the Disney greats of the past but I try not and don’t have a desire to repeat what they did and only want to emulate them.  Last I feel that his passion, knowledge, hard work, devotion, and drive to be a great artist have really had a long-lasting impact on me. I don’t know Andreas as well as I know many of the living honorees but I have spoke to him a few times via his website Deja View.  From the brief communication I can tell he really cares deeply about his work and feels very strongly about what he feels is what is needed for the quality that Disney animation should be at.  I love his website and constantly study the different pieces of artwork he puts up there. Thank you Andreas Deja for your contributions to the art of Disney animation and for being a big hero and inspiration for me and several other people!

12. John Lounsbery

Posted in Uncategorized on September 17, 2011 by Grayson Ponti Animation: A Site Analyzing All Things Character Animation

Quite frequently in animation if you think about it and analyze the situation doing a scene the straight, subtle way is ultimately not the best approach to take. Sometimes you’ve got to be bold, be expressive, draw loose, caricature action, and overemphasis the acting.  However you still got to make your scene and character believable to make this approach pull off.   To get the best of both worlds it’s important to utilize the broad, loose action in a way that brings out and makes clear the feelings and thoughts of the character. If you don’t put the emotions of the character first and do broad action for no reason it doesn’t work and it isn’t believable at all. If done the other way you can make your character feel more real than real people.  If you want to try this approach of animation and use cartoon acting to its greatest zinth study and analyze the work of John Lounsbery, the first member of our pantheon at number 12 and the subject of today’s post.

John Lounsbery was a phenomenal animator who was respected for his draftsmanship, versatility, and ability to animate broad, cartoony characters in a believable way put together with a very solid drawing style.  No one else could animate a Ward Kimball character and a Milt Kahl character equally well.   “As a draftsman, Lounsbery was ideal for animation,” write Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. “His drawings were simple and loose and full of energy. They had volume and that elusive quality of life.” Lounsbery was also a terrific “cartoon actor” who had a great flair for character contrast, expressions, broad but fluid movement, designs that communicate character, and drawings that show that the character is thinking.  In many films he animated his own characters that were outstandingly done as well as several scenes with other animator’s characters.  “John was a helluva draftsman who could imitate anybody’s style,” praised Ken Peterson, who managed the animation department at Disney for the longest time in the 40s, 50s, and 60s.  In real life John was a most unassuming star. He was quiet, modest, self-sacrificing, helpful, unselfish, and had no trace of either anger or a temper.  Outside of work Lounsbery lived all but a glamorous life and lived on a farm where he got to do what he loved: be in the outdoors.  “He was just a quiet, shy person with a circus inside him,” describes honoree John Pomeroy.  “Lounsbery’s quietude and reserve was fascinating because they belied his bold, powerful, passionate drawings,” adds Glen Keane.   Sadly John’s modest, unselfish manner and sensibilities oftentimes caused him to be underrated and he sometimes could become a victim to situations involving some of the more arrogant, sometimes treacherous animators. “John always underrated himself,” wrote an anonymous friend at the studio shortly after his passing in 1976.


John Lounsbery was born on March 9, 1911 in Cincinnati, Ohio but moved to Colorado at age five.  “My life growing up was typical, filled with winter sports, drawing, school activities and summer trips to the Colorado mountains,” the animator said years later. “My appreciation for natural beauty was reflected in my early artwork, since sketching and painting became my primary interest.” His passions growing up would remain the same throughout the rest of his life: not only did he love to animate but he continued to love to go skiing, explore the outdoors, and live a lifestyle that was very connected with the earth and its natural beauty.  Sadly John’s father passed away when he was only 13 and after that point things were very tight for the family financially.  To cope with these hardships of life Lounsbery turned to his artwork and particularly cartooning as avenues of escape and enjoyment.  In high school he was famous around the campus for his great caricatures and cartoon drawings.  In his senior high school yearbook on almost every page is one of John’s drawings.   He briefly went into working on the railroad but eventually enrolled in the Art Institute of Denver, where he graduated from in 1932. After that one of Lounsbery’s high school classmates convinced him to move out to Los Angeles, California to attend the Art Center. “Money was tight but John was so dedicated to becoming an artist that it didn’t matter,” reflected his widow Florence years later(she’s currently married to Disney old-timer Mel Shaw.) one of John’s teachers recommend that he should apply to work at the Disney Studio, who was vastly growing in success and reputation as well as was in pursuit for young artists in the Depression so the studio could have enough talent to produce animated features.  He was hired by Disney on July 2, 1935 and married Florence soon afterwards.

John Lounsbery was given the very fortunate opportunity in being assigned to serve as an assistant animator to the one and only Norman Ferguson, who would become his mentor and a huge inspiration in his career.  By this time Ferguson, much preferably called “Fergy”, had turned the animation industry upside down with he became the first animator in the world to animate characters that really were thinking and used great showmanship and cartoon acting to make these thoughts clear to the audience and really make the drawings communicate.  He wasn’t a very good draftsman and drew extremely rough but his drawings really were acting and had substance behind them. Most of Lounsbery’s first work under Fergy was on shorts containing the character Pluto, the same dog the mentor animated in his signature scene, the Flypaper sequence in Playful Pluto.  Both gentleman very much enjoyed the character and found his thought process and complex personality very stimulating and engaging.  John later would resent the fact that in later shorts the dog was given more anthropomorphic traits, human expressions, and eventually even a voice.  “Pluto was pure dog,” he clearly stated. “That’s the way Fergy conceived them.  Soon after the team was given a more challenging assignment: to animate the Witch in Snow White.  In contrast to Art Babbitt and Bob Stoke’s straight, reserved queen Fergy’s had to be extremely ugly in a caricatured way while still giving audiences the chill and threat they felt from the queen earlier in the movie.  Using an excellent design by Joe Grant Fergy with John’s help was able to do a phenomenal performance that really expresses the witch’s evil mind, is very unattractive, and most importantly is creepy to the point she has scared millions of children for over 70 years. “Animation has advanced technically but I don’t think they display or stage the gags much better than Snow White,” said John Lounsbery in a rare interview. “Milt’s done a lot to change to this new style of highly skilled draftsmanship, like live action. Fergy didn’t draw well but he could sure tell a story- in the staging, timing, and the personality he got in there. And there’s a difference between a fine artist and a damn fine animator.”  I personally agree full heartedly with this statement. I find it amazing that Snow White despite being so unsophisticated, over-the-top, and poorly drawn at times still is able to entertain and have an audience connect with it even more so than most of the other Disney films.  Walt really was making a film for everybody that everybody can relate and sympathize with; it wasn’t like today when age, audience, and narrow targets dominate the way films are made.  On Snow White Lounsbery did a splendid job on working as Fergy’s assistant and even animated one scene that has the Witch go down the trap door. Even in this early scenes John’s showmanship, broad acting, and excellent utilization of squash and stretch is apparent and present even if it’s only beginning to ripen. On the next film, Pinocchio, he became a full-fledged animator under Fergy’s supervision (he was promoted to sequence director on the film) where he animated a lot of Honest John and Gideon, the fox and cat who serve as villains in the film by convincing Pinocchio first to not go to school to become and actor and later convince him to go to Pleasure Island. “Other animators might have made the Fox more dramatic, more villainous, perhaps less believable, sillier, or more sincere,” wrote Thomas and Johnston. “Only Fergy saw the special kind of entertainment that both the Fox and Cat could offer this picture. It was the kind of character development he understood and loved.” I highly recommend freeze-framing any scene that shows the two characters talking because it really shows you John’s amazing gifts at character contrast, communicating thought process, and using broad action to show a character’s emotions.  My favorite thing about his animation on Honest John and Gideon is the great character contrast between the two personalities. Instead of focusing on the relationship between the two characters as many others would do Lounsbery spends time on showing the contrasts between them and how that’s important: Honest John is a clever, smooth fox who has the ability to manipulate people and get what he wants while Gideon is a complete moron who doesn’t think through or understand anything and just hits people with his club.  The animator did a splendid job at communicating and exaggerating these differences to make them believable and seem real to the audience. I’ve in general always loved the use of archetypes in Pinocchio: you’ll never meet Stromboli or Lampwick in real life but they represent feelings and personality traits we’ve all seen or experienced making them seem more real to us than real people.

As impressive as his work as Fergy’s right hand man was, John Lounsbery really came into his own and proved himself a great animator on his next film, Fantasia.  On the film he animated on the Dance of the Hours sequence (directed by T. Hee and again Ferguson) primarily focusing on the personality sequences of Ben Ali, the crocodile (animators such as Howard Swift, Hicks Lokey, Hugh Fraser, and Preston Blair dealt with more of the action sequences.)  There is something that feels very threatening and real about Lounsbery’s animation of Ben Ali approaching the large female hippo: you can tell by the way he moves that he is confident, a leader, and has a strong sexual drive for some unknown reason towards this hippo.  While John kept Fergy’s great use of staging and communicating thought process in this scene there is a psychological precision and usage of poses that contain solid draftsmanship and fluid lines of action to show character that is more subtle and precise than what the older animator typically was able to do.  “It was the first time I worked with music to that extent where you are completely guided by the tempo and accents of a prescored soundtrack,” explained the animator.  “It was a lot of fun trying to be inventive enough to fit action to all these sounds.” John’s work in this picture is truly phenomenal and ultimately can be said to be the film that made him a star forever.

On Dumbo John Lounsbery’s accomplishments as an animator finally earned him a spot as one of 6 directing animators on the film. On that picture he mainly focused on animating the scenes showing the interaction between the confident, outspoken Timothy with the awkward, mute Dumbo.  Among the scenes he did are most of the scenes of the two characters in the Pyramid of Pachyderms sequence (Bill Tytla animated the shot of Dumbo’s scared, shocked reaction to the pyramid falling but that’s about it), Timothy deciding to take the depressed Dumbo over to visit his mother, and the infamous scene where we see Dumbo drunk.  While there is no denying the fact that Lounsbery never in his career did anything that had close to the power, skill, and emotional depth of Tytla’s touching and deeply emotional animation of Dumbo (I still think it hasn’t and never will be topped) he did have a pretty solid, consistent take on the character. While Tytla’s Dumbo is more sensitive and dependent John focused more on getting the audience to sympathize with the awkwardness and hard effort of the elephant that is portrayed as more independent than the other animator’s depiction.  I also love his Timothy too: I’m a nut for the contrast between the two characters both in acting and in the way they walk (Dumbo walks in a clumsy manner while Timothy walks very confidently.) During the war years Lounsbery stayed at the studio animating on features such as Victory Through Air Power and the Three Caballeros as well as war-themed shorts including Pluto.  After that though he did some great animation in Make Mine Music by animating all of the wolf in Peter and the Wolf.  An expert at drawing and animating animals John really shows his masterful skill at capturing the essence of an animal through movement and his understanding of animal anatomy in that film.  Next came Song of the South where he again would serve as a directing animator for the animation sequences. I particularly love his scenes in the film where Brer Rabbit is stuck in the trap and convinces the ignorant Brer Bear to take his place as well as his scenes showing the Fox and the Bear arguing.  Another great example of Lounsbery contrast: you have the crafty fox who thinks carefully and pays too much attention to details in comparison to the bear who is simple, stupid, and just wants to get it over with without working or thinking too hard.


John Lounsbery again had another winner on Fun and Fancy Free: he animated the lion’s share of Willie the Giant. I love how the giant’s expressions are so solidly done and really show you the thoughts that are going through his head. The acting too is pretty top notch. On Melody Time John mostly focused on the sequence Blame It On the Samba, which shows the animator’s extraordinary ability to animate great dances scenes, while contributing a little bit to Once Upon a Wintertime (mostly done by Eric Larson) and a scene to Pecos Bill(that short’s leads were Milt Kahl and especially Ward Kimball.)  Next came Ichabod and Mr. Toad where he animated on the Sleeping Hallow Sequence, particularly in the scene where Ichabod is laughing at the weeds (another splendid personality scene.) it was however Cinderella, Disney’s triumphant return to major animated films that had one continuous story, that showed the great range and versatility Lounsbery had as an animator and draftsman.  Not only did he animate a lot of horse and Bruno the dog (which are more traditional Disney-style animals) but also did quite a bit of the mice, including Jaq singing the working song (a great scene to study for secondary actions and key poses) and all of the animals in the transformation scene.  Sadly John’s contributions and animation in Cinderella had gone almost completely unnoticed and unrecognized by the animation community, as has his work in many other films.  Ward Kimball has been given credit for doing almost all of the mice and even though he did indeed do a lot of the characters he didn’t do as much as has been claimed (John even did a few scenes with Lucifer the cat, a character which many people have given Kimball credit as doing every scene of.) The next film, Alice in Wonderland, is another film that Lounsbery did great work on that has gone largely unnoticed.  He was the lead animator on the Rose in the scenes with the flowers as well as the one who actually did the majority of the scenes with the Cheshire Cat.  The Cheshire Cat is another character oftentimes exclusively credited to Ward but even though he designed the character and supervised him John did a lot of the best work on the character. The solidity of drawing he did on the character as well as his broad, clear facial expressions and mysterious personality are particularly excellent and have made his work on the character a personal Disney favorite for me.  On Peter Pan John Lounsbery did a phenomenal job animating all of George Darling, the strict and temperamental but ultimately loving father of the Darling children.  There are three brilliant scenes that are absolutely-must studies for any animator who wants to know a grain of rice about cartoon acting: one is where George is in a stern, strict way talking to Wendy about how she needs to grow up and move out of the nursery, another is the one where while walking down the street with his wife he goes into a huge freak-out sessions about Peter Pan (he seems to be himself scared to death about even the thought of the name Peter Pan), and last is the one where he is registered what Wendy is saying when she explains what happened(“Left…..?” “Kidnapped…..?”).  The second one is one of my favorite scenes ever animated because I love how John uses the broad acting and exaggerated poses and movements to show the strong emotions of fear George has towards anything related to Peter Pan. This is what makes Lounsbery’s animation works: he animates in a very broad, exaggerated way but it is completely in line and complementary of the feelings and emotions the characters have inside of them. This is the key to anything related to broad action and cartoony animation: you MUST use it only if it clearly shows the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of the character. The more strong and intense the emotion the broader and bolder you can be in the acting if it’s appropriate (sometimes if it’s a really strong emotions that’s subtle such as warmth and love and has emotional weight in the story you have no choice to go the sincere, straight way or else it won’t be believable. For example it would have seemed way to sugary, insincere, and over the top if Glen Keane animated Ariel singing Part of Your World in a broad, cartoony way.) To understand this maybe look a light outside of Disney sometimes and study Warner Brothers shorts, particularly anything directed by the great Bob Clampett, to see what I mean.  It would be the next film, though, where John would show he really could take his animation to the very highest level of excellence and give a performance that is still known as one of the greatest in Disney animation history and that film is Lady and the Tramp.

On Lady John Lounsbery got a very rare opportunity to use all of his strengths to the best level.  He got to animate the heated argument between the enforcing policeman and intellectual, minding-his-own business professor in front of the zoo, Bull the bulldog who is locked up in the pound, and most significantly Tony and Joe, the Italian owner and cook at Tony’s Italian Restaurant.  “Lounsbery’s on the animation is flawless,” simply states Andreas Deja. “Those were wonderful broad character,” stated John Pomeroy in awe. “So great and Italian looking, you could smell them on the screen. I used to pull out and look at his rough drawings. All I could say was, gad, that’s the way I want to draw!”  Not only does my jaw drop at the outstanding caricature and design of the Italians but also John’s performance on the two characters shows a brilliant understanding of personality, character contrast, and character relationship.  Tony is the passionate, bold, and romantic leader who makes his strong emotions very clear while Joe is the more contained cook who does what he is told without hesitation and is very happy-go-lucky.   Study the scene where Tony explains the importance of the night and that the canine couple is going to get the best in the house as well as the one where Tony says in response to Joe saying dogs don’t talk “Ah he’s a-talking to me!” frame by frame.  These two scenes both show the intense passion Lounsbery gave Tony as well as are great examples of strong, exaggerated and expressive poses that show what the character is feeling, who he is, and have the action support those two things.  Tony and Joe are personally two of my absolute favorite characters anywhere and one of the performances that most inspired me to decide to have the gumption to become a character animator.  I also love John’s other work on the film. The character contrast and intense debate between the professor and policemen is priceless and the bulldog shows the animator’s anatomy and understanding of animal movement to the fullest extent.

Sleeping Beauty proved to be another significant film in Lounsbery’s career because it shows a significant change in his style.  While before he drew and animated largely in a cartoony but solid style in line with animators such as Ward Kimball on this film he began to have a reputation as the best guy at the studio in following the artistic direction the Disney films were going, based off of the one planned by Milt Kahl.  With the exception of Marc Davis who even Kahl considered an incredible draftsman and always designed his own characters, all of the animators (Kimball, Tytla, Fred Moore, Fergy, Woolie, etc.) that were pretty independent from his style and didn’t ask him for drawings had left the studio or moved into a different department allowing Milt to design almost all of the Disney characters in the way he wanted to.  While his earlier work is more round and basically a refined version of Fred Moore’s style he gradually made a transition to a style that was more angular, complex, and abstract, which by the time of Sleeping Beauty had developed. While the other animators oftentimes had trouble animating these designs and following Kahl’s direction John was so versatile and skilled as a draftsman the transition came relatively easily to him. “Lounsbery was the one who could tackle the change in the styling of Disney films Milt planned,” explained the great Andreas Deja. “It was difficult for Frank and Ollie to take to certain abstract shapes. Lounsbery had an easier time with that because of the natural draftsman he was.” “John was a very good draftsman, the very best guy in following Milt’s drawings,” praised Ollie Johnston.  On SB Lounsbery animated a lot of Samson, a character designed by Milt Kahl, as well as a bit of Milt’s Prince Phillip (an assignment that Kahl himself didn’t have much fondness for.) He also animated Maleficent’s goons (another great Lounsbery design and performance), the owl in the Once Upon a Dream sequence, and the two kings.  On Dalmatians John was the directing animator on Horace and Jasper, Sgt. Tibbs the cat, and the old, well-spoken Colonel.  I love the way he made the contrast between the personalities of the Baduns: Jasper is more intelligent, sharp, and evil while Horace is the stupid, fat one who isn’t very engaged.  The scenes of the Colonel and Sgt. Tibbs in the Twilight Bark sequences are also great. I highly recommend studying those scenes with the Colonel if you want to learn more about squash-and-stretch, lip syncing, and anticipation.


On Sword in the Stone John Lounsbery had another career highlight when he animated the wolf that continually keeps popping into the picture. I love the psychological precision, thought process, and most of all depiction of the immense frustration of the wolf.  John Culhane once used Lounsbery’s wolf and Milt Kahl’s Sher Khan as examples for his argument that animation acting in the 60s was far superior to that in what he said was the so-called Golden Age of the 30s and 40s. I personally strongly agree with this statement: I believe that by the late 30s and early 40s cartoon acting and the art of animation reached the highest plateau it has ever reached and that throughout animation history, including in those two decades, that there were animated performances so emotional and advanced that they make the two examples Culhane used seem cold and ordinary in comparison. However I do think John’s scenes on the wolf are pretty good and I also like the work he did on the huge gar in the fish scene and his scenes that he did with Kahl’s Sir Kay and Sir Ector.  Up next came Jungle Book where he did some absolutely beautiful animation on Colonel Hathi and the elephants.  He and Eric Cleworth animated everything done on the pachyderms and I think it is a masterpiece for both men.  I still am in awe of how Lounsbery could put so much weight to these elephants and make them really feel like they weigh thousands of pounds. The animator also did a good job at conceiving Hathi’s character and making him entertaining.  When you see him go through his speeches you connect with his arrogance, leadership, grumpiness, and military personality because you’ve seen that in real life.  I’m a nut too for the squash and stretch he did on the character.  Also on the Jungle Book John animated the dance scene between King Louie and Baloo disguised as an orangutan and even animated all the scenes of Sher Khan Milt Kahl didn’t do (he did the scene the first time you see him where he is slowly walking through the grass and some of the tiger in the action climax at the end. Thanks Andreas Deja.)  On the Aristocats he was the directing animator on Scat cat and his band as well as animated some scenes of Edgar, the lawyer, and Lady Bonfamille.  On Robin Hood John animated the Crocodile at the Archery competition as well as quite a bit of Robin Hood and Little John.  By this point Lounsbery had become known at the studio as a reliable person to come to, an unselfish and humble “saint, and an excellent, giving mentor.  While most of the top animators worked in the D-Wing, which was basically the “Mt. Olympus” of animation and the one that had the glamour and glory, he was in the B-Wing, which was also full of talented artist but made up of those who were grossly underrated and looked down upon by the D-Wing animators.  There was a lot of animosity between the two wings.  The top guys in the D-Wing were for the most part very competitive, hyperaggressive, and egotistic so they saw it as beneath them to as much as even have coffee with the B-Wing guys and they viewed them as bread-and-butter animators who didn’t even hold a candle to them.  On the flipside many people in the B-Wing were paranoid and deeply angered by the treatment underrated-but-equally talented animators such as Lounsbery, Les Clark, Cliff Nordberg, and Hal King received.  However the B-Wing was different in that unlike most of the top guys in the D-Wing the top guys in the B-Wing were for the most part very humble, encouraging, always accessible and friendly, had no ego, and were always willing to help a younger animator and mentor them into full-fledged animators. ‘Even in the thick of production John would always put down the pencil to talk to you,” fondly remembered Ed Hansen, who managed the animation department in the 70s and early 80s. “We saw Lounsbery as a god who occupied a place in animation as high as you can get,” explained John Ewing, who assisted him for many years. “He had the reputation for being an animator who could turn his assistant into other animators. His assistants were better prepared and equipped for the ‘get on with it’ style of animation.” “John always told me there are a thousand ways you could animate a scene,” wrote Dale Baer, one of the young animators who learned from Lounsbery and like his mentor doesn’t have an ego by any means. “So he always looked at what I did and, keeping what was there, proceeded to strengthen what I had.” Sadly studio management in 1973 decided to take John away from what he loved by forcing him to become a director on Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too and eventually the Rescuers along with Wolfgang Reitherman. “All I want to do is be a good animator someday,” he sadly told Dale Baer the day he moved his office out of the B-Wing.  Lounsbery didn’t enjoy directing and found the pressures and demands of it not his cup of tea.  On February 13, 1976 he suddenly passed away from a failed hospital procedure and he was greatly missed at the Disney studio. I always wished he had lived longer so he could team up with Eric Larson as the head of the training program and continue to mentor several more young animators.









As far as style goes John Lounsbery as I said before was an expert as using broad action in a loose way and drawing in a style that is very cartoony but solid.  While I think he was totally capable of doing more subtle animation he strongly preferred the other.  “What I enjoy most is broader action,” simply stated Lounsbery. “I like heavies. I don’t like the subtler things- the princes and the queens.” What separates him, however, from virtually every other animator in Disney history known from broad action and more comic acting is that he dealt with emotions and thought processes that were anything but broad and show great depth.  What makes the broad action work is that it is used to make these strong subtle emotions very believable and really show the inner feelings of the character in the most affective way. Study John’s animation of George Darling, Tony, Ben Ali, and Jaques to understand what I mean.  His physiological precision, understanding of character contrast, and exaggeration of poses is phenomenal and very inspirational.  As for the way he drew his drawings were very loose and expressive but also passionate and bold. His style is very much cartoony and he definitely did a lot of caricaturing but it is drawn with a great use of construction and his roughs are very solid.  Lounsbery worked a lot in finding the key poses but unlike some other animators he made the movement and action very fluid-avoiding making it ever feel stiff.  In terms of character design I am an absolute nut for his designs and think they really show character and personality.  The noses and eyebrows, in particular, are very cartoony and expressive.

John Lounsbery is indeed a very influential figure in Disney history and his impact on the art form is important as well as how his work has inspired so many great animators including Glen Keane, Andreas Deja, Dale Baer, Alex Kupershmidt, Nik Ranieri, and Tony de Rosa to name a few.  His sensibilities as a performer, draftsman, and animator are very inspirational and are eye-opening to anyone who cares about acting in animation.   Lounsbery was one of the most versatile animators ever and it was a huge help on the films that he could animate in so many different styles. He could animate like Ward, Milt, Fergy, Tytla, Frank, and pretty much anyone else you could name.  His acting and the great thought process as well as emotion supported by broad action he gave to his characters really has an impact on anyone who bothers to study his work seriously.  I also think John’s personality and mentoring of artists has had a great impact. I find that many of the people who worked with him and knew him well are also very modest, unselfish, self-sacrificing, and are always willing to help a young student out on a scene, give them some advice, or even set down their pencil to mentor them.  It’s amazing how someone so talented and skilled as an animator would have that kind of attitude and personality.  I think a lot of people underestimate Lounsbery and the influence he has had on animation. Like I mentioned above many of his contributions and a lot of his work has gone unnoticed or he hasn’t been recognized for doing his accomplishments. I hope that as more people being to study animation seriously and spend time analyzing the work of ALL the great animators as well as study the body of their work instead of just the scenes that are studied over and over again (both of these were huge motivations and goals in making me decide to do this endeavor in the first place) that they’ll realize the true genius of John’s work and see how it has had a huge impact on the Disney features.  He truly is one of the greatest animators of all time and could quite possibly be the most underrated artist in animation history.

In terms of inspiration I think that John Lounsbery has had a huge impact on me for several reasons. First obviously is the fact that he was able to do broad action and exaggerated poses in a believable way that shows the emotions of the character really influenced me to try to do the same and since I’ve tried hard to be able to accomplish that nearly impossible dream.   Also John’s sensibilities towards character conception, character contrast, and cartoon acting are very inspirational to me and I find that all of his work really speaks to me.  I really want to someday be able to put on a performance that has at least a tidbit of the liveliness, caricature, expression, and passion of Lounsbery’s work.  Last is an important way he’s influenced me is that he was very unselfish, giving, modest, humble, passionate, dedicated, loyal, and honest as a man.  I take his two catchphrases to heart and find them very motivating: “All I want to do is be a good animator someday” and “For the good of the picture” I want to have my career centered around an endless pursuit for two things: to be a great animator who makes sincere, high quality work that really speaks to people, is true to the story, and has a real heart to it and be able to be part of a great team of artists, be a team player, and be able to make the films as well as the other people around me as best as I can.  I don’t want anything else or to live a glamorous life where I’m treated like a star, and don’t want to do anything in my career when it happens that’s selfish or is for my personal benefit; I just want to stay true to the way humble animators like John lived life and approached their career.  Thank you John Lounsbery for your contributions to Disney Animation and for the great inspiration you’ve been to me as well as so many other people.

13. Hamilton Luske

Posted in Uncategorized on September 10, 2011 by Grayson Ponti Animation: A Site Analyzing All Things Character Animation

When you’re an animator you’ll be a lot better if you have the skill of analyzing.  Analyze how your character thinks, moves, and feels. Also try to analyze real life people and situations, which will only help you give a more believable and sincere performance on paper (or on the computer.) When the Disney animators began to do this as well as using strong acting and technical skills the animation in the films became so good that they feel more believable and “real” than sometimes even real people and situations themselves.  As to who really was the eye-opener to this potential in the art form I’ll use this quote animation historian Michael Barrier said in his book Hollywood Cartoons: “As Disney and his animators had probably realized by the late 20s, anticipation and follow-through can clarify what a character is doing by pointing forward to it and back at it. In the early 30s, though, they began using these tools to serve a much larger purpose: by compressing a character’s actions and emphasizing anticipation and follow-through instead; a director and his animators couldn’t just clarify those actions, they could also enlarge their scope. Ham Luske was the first to demonstrate fully the potential of this kind of animation.” And it is Luske who is number 13 on our countdown and the subject of today’s post.

Ham Luske is one of the greatest analytical animators of all time and was one of a kind at creating effective procedures that everyone could follow.  “Ham always seemed to have a procedure with a step-by-step approach,” wrote Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston in their book the Illusion of Life. “However his animation was not mechanical in any way and was full of life as well as feeling of character. Ham couldn’t start a scene until he had the whole thing visualized.” He used caricature in his drawings but he stayed true to the lessons he learned from observing and analyzing real life as well as worked hard to do his scenes in the way that worked best for the picture. “There must be some way to exaggerate this pose” was a phrase Ham constantly said and one that’s intent is seen throughout his work.  On top of this Luske is very significant in that he was the very first supervising animator in Disney history and was the main animator on the first protagonist in a Disney film, Snow White (I know that’s kind of a controversial statement to some animation fans but it’s true.  I’ll address and compare the differences between the contributions Ham and that “other guy” later on in the post.)  After Snow White he would go on to become a big-time director of Disney animated films for over 2 decades.

Hamilton Luske was born on October 16, 1903 in Chicago, Illinois but he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in California sometime when he was in the younger years of his life although not much has been written about his life before he became a young adult.  He is unique in that not only was he one of the few animators at that time to have a college education but is the only honoree on this list that went to college that didn’t go to an art school.  Luske attended the University of California- Berkley where he majored in business.  However after graduating he began to make a living as a newspaper cartoonist in Oakland, where he worked throughout the 1920s.  Coincidentally one of the people who he crossed paths with at this time was Milt Kahl, who he would later bring to the Disney studio and also would become one of the greatest animators of all time.  Although Ham had little to no experience with life drawing at this time his newspaper drawings certainly showed a lot of personality and analytical thinking.  Soon however it was the Great Depression and work for a commercial cartoonist was few and far between no matter how good you were.  Fortunately at the same time the Disney Studio was looking for artists to work on their shorts, which were rapidly becoming better both in success and quality.  Not surprisingly Luske took the opportunity to apply for a job and was hired in April 1931.

Ham Luske had no prior experience or training in character animation so he quickly learned his craft at the studio and was mentored into going “the Disney way.”  He started out as an assistant but advanced rapidly to the point where he was a full-on animator by the fall of 1932. First Ham started animating on the black and white Mickey Mouse shorts being made at that time but soon moved up to animating on the wildly popular Silly Symphony series, which was made up of color cartoons structured around music.  Among his first assignments were animating the Sandman in Lullaby Land and animating a majority of the Piper in the Pied Piper.  Looking at his career in retrospective his early work isn’t very impressive and when you freeze-frame these scenes or look at them in motion there is sometimes a feeling of awkwardness in the motion and in the acting.  Perhaps Ham’s biggest “failure” in his animation career is that of the animation he did of Persephone in the realist short the Goddess of Spring. Along with Les Clark he tried very hard to animate the realistic-looking girl, modeled after Clark’s sister Marcel,  and were able to get the realism into the drawing but fell severely short at animating her in a way that would make audiences accept her as believable. “I apologized to Walt about it and he kind of sloughed it off and said, ‘I guess we could do better next time,’” said Les Clark many years later in an interview. “And I think the reason it didn’t come off, the character wasn’t designed to be animated. To me, the key to character animation is the design quality of the figure that you can use. I had a hard time with the figure, not that I didn’t know how to draw it but to animate it. I’m sure Walt was thinking of Snow White. Although he didn’t tell me that I assumed later because Snow White herself was designed so that she could be animated.” However Luske was at the same time showing seeds for his potential and his colleagues were soon noticing his excellent analyzing skills.  “Ham was studying animation all the time- it was his whole life,” remembered Eric Larson, who before becoming an all-time great animator in his own right was mentored by Luske and worked as his assistant. “One weekend we were on the deck of the Catalina steamer with out wives. All the sudden Ham pulled off his tie and held it out in the wind. ‘Look, Eric! Look at the overlap. See how the end keeps going down after the center part starts up.’ Every time we played golf it was the same thing. ‘Now watch close. See the follow-through on my putter.’” Others remembered him tirelessly observing and studying at the life drawing and action analysis classes taught at the studio by Don Graham and recalled him trying real hard to analyze the figure as well as how it feels and moves.

Soon, however, Ham Luske’s hard work and effort would pay off.  One of his first true successes was the animation of two penguins falling in love in Peculiar Penguins(1934.) The movements of the birds begin to show the great skill Ham had at caricaturing movement but doing so in a realistic, believable way. It also shows his strength in exaggerating poses and animating with an effective use of analytical thinking.  A year later Luske would animate on the short that proved to be his biggest breakthrough yet: the Tortoise in the Hare (1935), directed by the great Wilfred Jackson who was known for his attention to detail and ability to “plus” the quality in a sequence or short.  In the film he animated almost all of the egotistical and obnoxious Max Hare in everything except for the run at the beginning of the race and the sprint to the finish line.  This animation really shows masterful, believable movement that completely communicates the character, his personality, and intentions.  “The awkwardness of so much of his earlier animation, of the Pied Piper and the Grasshopper, is nowhere evident in his animation of the Hare,” wrote Michael Barrier.  “What Luske shows the Hare doing is clearly impossible but he makes it seem possibly by brining to his animation what he had observed of athletic action and what he knew from his experience on the playing field. As the Hare prepares to run, or skids to a halt, or plays tennis with himself, he moves with the authority of realistic movement; but the exaggerated patter of anticipation and follow-through, and the Hare’s speed itself, are not realistic at all. Luske’s analytical bent- his concern with how things really moved- thus eased audience acceptance of what might otherwise have seemed as tiresomely farfetched as the old impossible things that Disney had banished.”  Another great aid to the animation turned out to be the storyboards and writing done by the great Bill Cottrell, who did a brilliant job at making the characterization of the Hare rich and clear.  “Ham played a lot of tennis, so when he was give the chance to animate Max Hare in the tennis sequence in the Tortoise and the Hare, he knew exactly what to do,” said Eric Larson of his work on the film. “Ham Luske was opening the door to a new refined approach in which everything one has is put into the first test,” praised Thomas and Johnston of the animator.  “This required an uninterrupted continuity of thought. It may take days to do the scene but you must not lose the thread, change your mind, or lose your confidence- you have to be sure. Ham had to struggle with his drawing but he had a natural feeling for animation, story, and for what was entertaining.”

Again in 1935 Ham Luske animated almost all of a character that helped influence Disney animation forever. This time the film was Who Killed Cock Robin and the character was Jenny Wren. Based off of the storyboards and designs done by now-writing partners Bill Cottrell and Joe Grant (Grant was an absolutely excellent caricaturist in a Los Angeles newspaper before going to work at Disney) Jenny Wren was a bird that was heavily caricatured after movie star and sex symbol Mae West.  In the film Ham absolutely nailed making the bird not only have the essence of Mae West but also move, act, and behave in a way that really felt like her.  West herself even wrote the studio a letter praising Disney for the outstanding job they did at caricaturing her.  What makes Jenny Wren unique is that alongside being an outstanding caricature she really feels sexy and has brilliant characterization as well as acting that support it.  Personally Who Killed Cock Robin is probably my favorite of the Silly Symphony Cartoons and the one that I feel has the best combination of story, design, production quality, and most of all cartoon acting, a lot of the blame going towards the amazing performance Luske put on paper.  One of his last major assignments animating in shorts was to animate the vast majority of two characters, Elmer and Tilly the Tiger, in the short Elmer Elephant (1936).  Again Ham demonstrated his excellent technique and analyzation skills in this film.  Freeze frame the scene where the shy Elmer is constantly pulling up his trunk. The movement wouldn’t necessarily happen in real life but it feels very real and believable. Tilly also is a success for Luske and his performance on that character shows a great amount of sincerity and heart.

In December 1935 Ham Luske made history by being chosen by Walt Disney to be the first animator put on the production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first animated feature in American history.  He was to supervise the animation of Snow White herself, making him the first supervising animator in Disney history.  “Ham’s expertise was evident, especially to Walt, where it mattered most, and it was thus into his lap Snow White, the most plum of all assignments fell,” wrote David Johnson. “Ham was the only other animator who could draw let alone animate a believable girl,” praised Grim Natwick. Even when working in shorts Luske was great at supervising people and many of his assistants went on to become great animators including Larson and Kahl as well as Ward Kimball.  “Ham Luske moved up quite fast,” recalled director Wilfred Jackson. “He was one of the first guys I remember who had more than just an assistant- promising young guys he would hand out little scenes to. One of the first guys who had a crew to supervise. Then on Snow White he took complete charge- the girls, the animals. If you were directing the sequence with the girl you didn’t have to direct the girl because ham did it. He knew the way it was supposed to be done. He shot most of the live-action on it too. He came up very fast and he showed his ability to organize and put things together.” However Snow White was a most difficult assignment and when he began to start animating the character he really struggled and his pencil tests didn’t turn out so well.  Things got even more intense when another animator animating on Snow white began to really clash with Luske on not only the design of her but on her personality, characterization, and how she should be approached. The animator was Grim Natwick. Natwick was significantly older than most people at the Disney studio (he was in his mid 40s in a studio dominated by people in their 20s and early 30s) who had extensive art training and had worked in animation for decades before being hired by the Disney studio in late 1934.  He was a “technique-draftsman” animator and one who was very sophisticated both artistically and personally.  While Ham saw the heroine as a gentle, sweet and innocent 12-year old girl with cartoony proportions Grim saw her as a much more mature, sexually aware young woman drawn with realistic anatomy and movement. For example in some of the rough drawings remaining done by the later animator we see a woman who is aware of the fact that she’s beautiful and that her looks get her more as well as an awareness that she is being sexually-desired in a way that is discouraging.  However two main things kept Natwick down despite having the better draftsman abilities: he was, whether he acknowledged it or not, working for Ham Luske and the characterization he had for the girl was completely contradictory to the one Walt wanted.  Walt didn’t want sex, egotism, and other superficial values and matters to have even the slightest imprint in his film: he wanted an innocent girl and a story that put a lot of weight to the love that the animals and especially the dwarfs felt for her.  However Grim refused to cooperate and that, along with the suspicion Luske felt for old animators from the east like Natwick, lead to a huge tension between the two men.  “By the summer of 1936 tensions between the two men were running about as high as the infamous September weather in Los Angeles,” Marc Davis told David Johnson.  Many people today even still believe in the myth that Natwick was deprived credit for his work on the film and that it was he, not Ham, who deserves credit as the main animator on Snow White.  However, even though he did a lot of the actual animation on the girl, it was unmistakingably Luske’s Snow White that dominates the film and is the one generations of audiences fell in love with.  “These characters are the way Walt sees them,” he said in a Snow White meeting in 1936. “There is no need to find a way to change them; this is the way he wants them. This is a pattern.”

There were two very important solutions to the problems that occurred because of the Luske-Natwick tension.  One was that Marc Davis, Grim’s primary assistant on the film, cleaned up and fixed his drawings so that they remained consistent with what was being done by Ham Luske. Also Ham himself shot all the live-action of Snow White to be used as reference material, which Davis said “gave a unity of acting.”  Keep in mind that the live-action used in Snow White wasn’t what you think of as normal live action and it wasn’t trace over, it was just used as a way for the animators to understand the movement and acting in the sequence as well as get a sense for how it should look like on screen while the animator would still make creative decisions and changes to make it done in what he thought was the best way. The model in the live action was Marge Champion, who later would do it again for the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio.  “The method we used all the way through was that they would show me the storyboards and they would play the voice, if there was a vocal track of any kind,” Champion recalled in an interview. “I would rehearse a few times, most improvisationally. I would do it over and over again for the camera until they felt they had all the pieces they needed for her to be drawn.” Even when he was a director Ham was notorious for being incredibly particular when directing the live-action that was used as reference material for the films.  In addition to animating and designing Snow White (he animated the Huntsman as well) he had to supervise a very large crew on the production.  On the girl herself there wasn’t just Natwick and his assistants (which included Davis and Les Novros) but also had in it Jack Campbell, a great animator who dealt with many of the realistic scenes in the film such as the one at the well in the beginning, and Bob Stokes, who was known for being a great draftsman particularly at the figure (before coming to Disney he worked as the life drawing teacher at Chouinard Art School) and animated a lot of the Queen in Snow White as well as Snow White in scenes such as the one where she’s taunted into eating the poison apple.  Also in his crew were the animators who animated the animators, which included Milt Kahl, Eric Larson, and James Algar (who came on to direct the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Fantasia as well as sequences in Bambi and live-action documentaries in the True-Life Adventures series.) Kahl and Natwick would animate the Prince in his few appearances but that turned out to be a huge failure and the animation of him is very poor in the film (the reason why he appears in the film as minimally and briefly as possible.) While some of the animation of Snow White herself is indeed over the top and could have been drawn better Ham’s version of the character ultimately is a success and her warmth and charm really reaches across in every scene in the film. If it weren’t for the great job he had done on the character who knows if Disney feature animation would have worked.

About briefly returning to animating on shorts (Ferdinand and the Bull) Ham Luske was assigned by Walt to spend most of his time supervising other people and mentoring the younger animators into animating and drawing the Disney way.  He took this assignment very seriously and it brought him into being a supervising director on Disney’s second feature, Pinocchio.  “On Pinocchio Ham Luske handed out most of the scenes,” explained animator Lynn Knapp. “After I worked on them, Eric would check them out. It was the supervising animator’s job to try to keep good track of what we were doing. We’d animate it, and he’d look at it and see if it was pretty good. But in terms of assigning animation it came through Ham.” He definitely directed many juicy sequences in the film: the opening sequence where Pinocchio comes to life and we meet all the major characters, the one where the Blue Fairy gets Pinocchio and the Cricket out of the cage, and the one on Pleasure Island where Lampwick turns into a donkey.  Next came Fantasia where Luske directed the Pastoral Role segment, which put together Beethoven and characters from Greek mythology matched with beautiful layouts by Ken Anderson.  For a time frame of over 2 decades Ham directed many of the most memorable sequences in Disney history: The Reluctant Dragon (in the Reluctant Dragon), The Whale Who Wanted to Sing At The Met (in Make Mine Music), Once Upon a Wintertime (Melody Time), the mean Stepsisters tearing off Cinderella’s dress, Cinderella and the Prince falling in love at the Ball, the exchange between Alice and the Doorknob, the crafty Captain Hook talking about his resentment towards the invincible Peter Pan(actually he animated the seagull in the sequence, thanks Randy Cartwright),  and the dogs watching TV in Dalmatians.  While Ham was very well respected by his colleagues, he probably played a more passive role in the production of the films. He never gained the admiration people had towards Wilfred Jackson or the hostility they felt towards Gerry Geromini. “Ham was a good director but a delegator,” said Milt Kahl of his directing career. “I thought he retired the last 15 years he was a director. Ham is sort of an enigma to me, still, when I think about him. He was awfully sweet; that was the word for him. An awfully nice person.” From what I have heard about his time as director he was very good at working with the animators and helping them put together their scenes in a way that made the films high quality.  He tended to work best in scenes that were sincere and stressed character relationships; he avoided broad comedy, action sequences, and theatrical musical numbers.  Luske’s last time working in feature animation was supervising the animation sequences in Mary Poppins. After that he worked primarily in television at Disney up until his death on February 19, 1968.

As I said before the most important things to realize in understanding Ham Luske’s style are his skill at analyzing, his ability to apply what he learned from analyzing into his animation by caricaturing it, and his excellent knowledge of character relationships.  To see what I mean I recommend studying by freeze frame his animation of both Max Hare and Jenny Wren. These two performances really show Ham’s virtues as an animator and help you understand his style.  In the case of Snow White and other realistic characters he worked best with caricaturing the proportions and making the design cartoony in texture but moving the character in a way that is believable and feels real.  By studying Luske’s best animation you’ll learn that he was great at exaggerating poses to make them clear and give you insight into the character as well as using gestures, anticipation, and follow-through actions that give an authenticy to the scene. “He acted out the characters, finding the elements in a pose that really pinpointed the position of the feet and body, the right place for the hands, the arch of the back, the title of the head, right down to his famous ‘oooh” mouth,” said Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. “Our first job is to tell a story that isn’t known to the audience,” said Ham Luske in a studio lecture. “then we have to tell a story that may cover several days, or several years, in a little over an hour; so consequently we have to tell things faster than they happen in life. Also we want things more interesting than ordinary life. Our actors are more rehearsed than everyday people; if somebody gets on a horse or opens a door or sits in a chair, we want to do it as simply and professionally as possible. Our actors must be more interesting and more unusual than you and i. their though process must be quicker than outs, their uninteresting progressions from one situation to another must be skipped. Our actors are drawings. We cannot work on the inspiration of the moment as an actor does but must present our characterizations through a combination of art, technique, and mechanics that takes months from the conception to the finished product. And we have to make the audience forget that these are drawings. We can’t risk ruining a sequence or good characterization with some mechanical imperfection or jitter that reminds the audience that we are dealing with drawings instead of real beings.”

Ham Luske’s influence on the art of Disney animation is massive and forever lasting. He really was the first one who proved the strength of analytical thinking in animation and really inspired everyone at the studio to start to deeply analyze and think about their animation.  Also Ham’s ability to combine a caricatured character with believable movements and gestures that feel real to an audience.  You also have to remember that his lectures were really influential at the time and that he was a great mentor to many of the best animators at the studio (Eric Larson in particular learned a ton from Luske and really utilized the principles his mentor taught him in his career.)  It’s true that it’s important to not only have good observational skills when you’re an animator but also be able to think about what you are seeing, understand and analyze it, and use technique and caricature to put what you learned from your observations on paper so it can become a believable, sincere performance.  Last Ham Luske will always be remembered for being the very first supervising animator and the main animator on Snow White, the first protagonist and Disney history in a Disney film.

Obviously Ham Luske has been a great inspiration to me and I’ve learned a ton from studying and analyzing his work.  His example reminds me that you need to really think about your animation and to never do anything in a scene that doesn’t have purpose or meaning. You have to know these characters and to be able to put the knowledge you learn from your understanding of character and observing into the performance to put it together. Also Luske’s work taught me that you can make a caricatured character believable if you have studied real movement and gestures and can apply that to your scene.  His understanding of subtlety and character relationships has really impacted me as well. Last Ham’s work helped me realize that you really need to combine emotion, analysis, technique, determination, understanding, and knowledge together to make great animation.  Thank you Ham Luske for being a great inspiration to me as well as many others and for your contributions to the art of Disney Animation.

14. Wolfgang Reitherman

Posted in Uncategorized on September 2, 2011 by Grayson Ponti Animation: A Site Analyzing All Things Character Animation

Many people firmly believe that subtlety and strong key poses are essential to great animation. They look to find strong emotions in their characters and show these feelings through small, subtle gestures and expressions. However some other animators feel that animation is intended to be more creative and imaginative and that you need to utilize the emotions strongly through broad action, dramatic staging, hard work, and maybe even tipping the boat over again. They still believe the feelings of the characters are important but that it they can be utilized and expressed in a completely different way. This second approach is the perfect way to describe the art of Wolfgang “Woolie” Reitherman, number 14 on our countdown and the subject of today’s post.

Wolfgang Reitherman was the man of anything broad action, from comic, entertaining scenes such as Goofy’s hilarious dance in the El Gaucho Goofy sequence in Saludos Amigos to dramatic, intense actions sequences such as the unforgettable fight between a stegosaurus and a tyrannosaurus rex in the Rite of Spring segment of Fantasia. “My work has a vitality and an ‘I don’t give a damn- try it’ quality,” said Woolie of his animation.  Reitherman animated straight ahead unlike most of the other honorees but his knowledge of staging (his scenes show an understanding of film and cinematography that most other animators didn’t even today) suspense, and entertainment as well as constant reworking on his scenes made it reflect the assets rather than fatal flaws of that approach. He too was also a very hard worker and stopped at nothing to get every possible ounce of entertainment into a scene.  “You know how Woolie is, he’s going to lick this if it’s the last thing he ever does in his life,” said assistant animator and later head of the animation department Ken Peterson on Reitherman’s work ethic. “Woolie compare himself to others which made him work harder,” said the great Ward Kimball on his contemporary. “He was tenacious and didn’t have the quick, facile way of working of Fred Moore or the flamboyant, spontaneous timing of Norman Ferguson. He had to work harder, but he ended up with good stuff.” Woolie was a great leader making him be chosen to direct all the Disney films from Sword in the Stone to the Rescuers. “He had this persona like Twelve O’clock High Blood and guts,” remembers honoree John Pomeroy. “And that’s the way he did his movies. He was not always the most eloquent guy, the most sensitive guy, but damn it! He knew how to command!”

Wolfgang Reitherman was born on June 22, 1909 in Munich, Germany.   Around 2 years old he moved to the United States where he lived in Kansas City, Missouri (later he found out he lived right around the corner from Roy O. Disney coincidentally) before moving to California in his later teens.  Reitherman’s big passion growing up was flying and he dreamed of becoming a professional pilot. He became a very good one and flew all his life but he found out that in the Great Depression although he was briefly one after attending Pasadena College of art and Design.  Searching for a new vocation Woolie turned to ambitions in becoming a water color painter and attended the Chouinard Institute of Art.  “I didn’t really go to art school too well because I was spending most of the time sketching on my own and painting,” he remembered years later. “I was just fascinated with life and people, and once color grabs a hold of you, it becomes a thing!” While Reitherman’s watercolors show true talent and potential, he soon got recommended to apply to the Disney Studio, who was looking for artists, after graduating from Chouinard in 1933. He was reluctant because he thought drawing the same thing over and over again would get boring but after the first day he was hooked. “I just felt this was a twentieth century art form, probably the most unique of anything that had appeared on the art horizon for decades since perspective,” praised Woolie. “I was just fascinated because you could move those things. You can’t move a painting. And all of the sudden, on a white sheet of paper, you could make something move. The other thing that grabbed me was that it was about people and situations.” The last line is certainly true because his painting always showed people doing something and having intent as well as motion.  Unlike most new animators, Reitherman never went through much of an apprentice system and was animating pretty soon after coming to Disney, starting with a few good scenes on the Silly Symphony Funny Little Bunnies. He also found Donald Graham’s action analysis classes very inspirational and stimulating. “We used to watch pictures in slow motion at night after work- sports, horse races in slow motion,” Wolfgang recalled in an interview. “And all you could do was talk about it, you never could grab hold of any fixed formula but finally things came to pass. You knew the weight had to be supported all the time because from birth to death gravity is working on you.”

Woolie Reitherman quickly improved artistically as an animator and soon was one of the most exciting and promising of the young animators at the studio. On Disney’s first feature, Snow White, he was given a very difficult, unappealing assignment: to animate the slave in the Magic Mirror.  The Magic Mirror had to show virtually no emotion and didn’t have any more action, giving Reitherman not much to animate to and a very big challenge. “It was tough because it didn’t move,” said the animator. “It was just there all that time. I did that thing over and over again.” He even did the animation over again around five times and his solution to the problems of the character was that he drew one side of the face, folded the paper in half, and traced the first side onto the second side keeping the face symmetrical. So even at this early stage Woolie’s driven approach and brilliant problem solving was present in his art.  The results worked great: the Magic Mirror has the most restraint actions and shows no emotion to what he is saying, making him believable and true to the story.  Because of Reitherman’s accomplishments he was invited to give a few lectures to the younger animators such as this one: “I don’t want you to forget that creativeness, imagination, fantasy have to stay with you. You must stay pepped up on your work- you can’t get along a system alone. The first thing we come up against is sincerity and honesty by which I mean if a thing looks sincere on the screen, it looks as though it would really work, as though it would really work, as though it existed,…..as though gravity held it down. It looks plausible, feels logical….caricature or exaggeration in drawing is very important.   The public never pays for a good drawing. It pays for an exaggerated effect. By caricature I don’t always mean funny  drawing. If you are going to make a fellow loan over, make him lean over plenty. Go twice as far as you think you can in the drawing and you will always be about right. Make the character do everything he does in a decisive, definite way so that the audience will know what he’s doing. The drawing should be direct, definite, and simple. That means again you must have a clear idea of what you are after because it is hard to make a simple drawing. Harder than to make a jumpled-up drawing with all the details on it.” Around this time Woolie began to do a lot of animation on Goofy and after animating some brilliant personality animation with the character in Clock Cleaners (1937) he soon became the lead animator on the character for the studio. Among the best shorts he did on the character is Goofy and Wilbur(1939), which shows the animator’s great draftsmanship, knowledge of entertainment, and skill at doing expressive broad action that communicates an idea and feeling.

It was however the next film that made Wolfgang Reitherman become Woolie. It was Pinocchio and the scene was that of Monstro the Whale and his powerful chase of Pinocchio and Geppetto’s raft. “It was exciting because it was the largest thing we’d ever done on screen,” proudly proclaims Woolie on the scene. “And to get the weight and timing of al those things was a challenge.”  The assignment was originally given to the great Bill Tytla, who animated all of Stromboli in the film, but Walt was unsatisfied and knew Reitherman would take the challenge to heart.  This was perfect casting: he made Monstro have great power weight, and incredible force as he goes through the water.  Add to that the genius timing, incredible sculpted draftsmanship of the whale, the amazing camera angles, the highest-caliber use of cuts, and most of all the incredible drama, suspense, and tension the audience feels when watching the scene.  Woolie’s scene indeed revolutionized action scenes in the Disney films and most done since at least hold somewhat of a candle to it.   On the same feature he did lots of juicy scenes with Jiminy Cricket including the scene where he’s pointing to the words with the cane on the letter from the Blue fairy.  On the next film Reitherman would even take his art further and do an action scene that was equally if not more suspenseful, dramatic, and hair-raising. The film was Fantasia and he was given the difficult task of animating a battle between two dinosaurs: a T-rex and a stegosaurus.  Walt made it clear what he wanted from Woolie: “Don’t give them cute animal personalities. They have small brains y’know; make them real.”  Woolie went to many museums to study fossils of dinosaurs so he could get the anatomy and weight of the prehistoric creatures as accurate and powerful as possible. He then added to this his imagination of how a real dinosaur would move and the film techniques that would make the fight seem as dramatic and action-packed as possible. “I had to paste paper on it because I couldn’t draw it on a single piece of paper,” explains Reitherman. “And finally when the T. Rex grabbed stegosaurus by the neck…. I animated the whole big thing slowly going over and then the tail coming later. And then I just moved the camera along. It was very effective as I remember.” The scene certainly worked and the dinosaur fight is incredibly believable, cinematic, and true to the rules of action scenes in Hollywood.  “Woolie’s stuff in the Rite of Spring has a monumental weigh to it,  because Woolie in his own weight just kept after it,” praised Kimball on the scene. “it was a disarming request since there was little research possible on what a real dinosaur might have been like but Woolie was not bothered,” explained Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. “He dipped into his imagination, combined with  a few rare animal things he had seen and working closely with director Bill Roberts, came up with scenes of dinosaurs that seemed to be just the way these giants should be.”


In 1941 and 1942 Wolfgang Reitherman continued to show his great range and versatility as an animator. First on the Reluctant Dragon he animated the lion’s share of the How to Ride a Horse segment, which has come to be regarded as arguably his signature performance on Goofy. “How to Ride a Horse” (Goofy short) is a funny picture, one of the funniest shorts,” Ward Kimball told Steve Hulett. “As a shortism blockbuster, I know people who saw “How to Ride a Horse” in the theatre when it was released by itself ten or fifteen times. They would go just to see that and they would laugh and laugh ’til they cried.” This film was also a great collaboration between Woolie and a debut animator who would later become the Goofman of the studio: John Sibley.  In comparison to Reitherman’s laborious reworking and sculpting of his work, Sibley was a natural and organically had a feel for how motions and emotions combine.   Next the animator showed his warm side when serving as a directing animator on Timothy Mouse for Dumbo, focusing primarily on the early scenes with the character (Fred Moore, Milt Neil, and John Lounsbery did the character throughout the rest of the film.)  Woolie’s animation of Timothy shows subtlety, richness of character, and sincerity, qualities that he has oftentimes been criticized for not having in his work.  After that he animated Goofy again, this time in the El Gaucho sequence of Saludos Amigos.  Reitherman did an amazing job at timing and caricaturing Goofy’s walks and movements to show his personality and make him believable. Also he animated the amazing dance sequence at the end, which is one of the greatest dance sequences in Disney history.  In 1942 Woolie Reitherman left Disney to join the air force and fight in World War 2.  Unlike many other artists who participated in the war effort, he didn’t just animate films for the government but actually was a war hero and flew in battle across the world.  Immediately after the war ended Reitherman continued to be a pilot and did tons of long distance flights to Asia, where he met stewardess Jeannie who the bachelor married in 1946.  After Jeannie became pregnant with their first child they decided to settle down a little bit and intended on moving to San Francisco. While going to say hello and goodbye to his friends at the Disney Studio with Jeannie’s approval Walt convinced Woolie to return to Disney for good in late April 1947 making them stay in Los Angeles.

“When I came back there was quite a lot of down feeling at the studio,” remembered Woolie Reitherman.  His first assignment back was to resume animating Goofy in the package feature Fun and Fancy Free (he had begun to work on the Mickey and the Beanstalk segment when it was intended on being a feature.) Woolie’s triumphant comeback scene, however, was the Headless horsemen chase sequence in Ichabod and Mr. Toad, which played well with his broad action sensibilities.  Next came Cinderella, which Reitherman actually helped convince Walt to make. “I tipped Walt dead center into making him decide to make Cinderella,” he recalled. “I  just went into his office, which I rarely did, and I said ‘Gee that looks greats. We ought to do it.’ It might have been a little nudge to say ‘Hey let’s get going again and let’s do a feature.’” While Reitherman did some outstanding sequence with the King and the Duke which show great understanding of the character relationship and have great visual actions that clearly show the characters’ feelings his most famous scene in the final film is the intense climax where the mice Gus and Jaq have to carry the key up to Cinderella so she can get out of the room the Stepmother locked her in and prove that she was the girl the prince fell in love with at the ball. “There is no doubt that the key was too heavy for the two mice, that the pressure on them, mentally and physically, was tremendous, that at any minute Gus’s eyes could bulge out of their sockets or that Jaq’s face could turn purple,” wrote Thomas and Johnston. “The timing of these actions gave the frantic quality and the strength of the extreme drawings gave the impression of effort and exhaustion.  The most important element in making the sequence so outstanding, however, was the fact that these little mice were doing all of this because they cared very much about the girl’s happiness. Usually this feeling of warmth can’t be structured in the story department and must depend entirely on the animator for its portrayal. It cannot be analyzed, or acted out, or represented in the same way as an expression or a passing thought since it is more of a sentiment that grows within the viewer from the special way the business has been animated. Actually it grows from the sensitivity of the animator who makes the drawings.” The mice-key sequence has the perfect combination of story, character, and technique; you really feel for the mice and their strong feelings for Cinderella. Woolie in particular did an incredible job with the cinematography in the scene and making you feel the weight the key has on the mice to make the emotion you have when watching the scene very effective.

Up next for Reitherman came Alice in Wonderland where he primarily animated the White Rabbit as well as some of the Dodo. Among his best work in the picture is the excellent character contrast between the cautious, worried White Rabbit and the arrogant, dominant Dodo seen in the sequence when Alice has grown huge and is inside the rabbit’s house.  After Alice came Peter Pan, a film where Reitherman’s work has been well debated in terms of approach and character consistency.  While both Frank Thomas and Woolie animated Captain Hook the character isn’t really the same character in the scenes the two men did. This is largely to blame on the indecisiveness of the story department and contradictory views about how the character should be handled. For example Ed Penner, one of the best storymen of the 1950s, wanted the character to be a very broadly-handled, comic villain while director Gerry Geromni wanted a more restrained, menacing villain.  While Frank Thomas went with the more menacing approach Woolie went for the more comic approach, much to the other animator’s resentment.  “The broadest sort of comedy intrudes suddenly in Peter Pan even when the threat of dearth is supposed to be taken seriously,” wrote Michael Barrier in his book Hollywood Cartoons.  While I don’t necessarily agree with Reitherman’s decision in regards to character his animation of Hook is certainly very entertaining and cartoony. “It was so much fun because I got that sequence with very little to go on,” recalled Woolie on his animation in the scene where Hook is in the cave. There is however one scene that he animated that really shows his subtle, complex side: the scene of Hook climbing up the mask towards the end.  The anger, resentment, and animosity he feels towards Peter Pan is so prevalent in the character’s expressions in that scene as well as when he flings the sword.  “Woolie did fantastic Captain Hook scenes where he is climbing the mast, very distraught,” Andreas Deja told John Canemaker. ‘Camera looking down. Great acting scene. Woolie also did a lot of action but that scene showed me he was capable of great insight into the character.” On the next feature, however, Wolfgang got some of his most dramatic, intense action sequences in his career that even go up there with those in Pinocchio and Fantasia.  The film was Lady and the Tramp and he got two very juicy action sequences: the one where Tramp saves Lady from the stray dogs when she’s in a muzzle and the one where Tramp fights the rats in the baby’s room.  The former is particularly intense and the pacing of that scene is perfect. You feel the threat the other dogs have towards Lady and even are convinced they’re going to win but then heroic Tramp comes to the rescue. “What I wanted to do was simple have a chase, corner and then pow!” said the animator. “And then a moment of pause. And don’t fool around with it. And then drive in and then go like everything! Then it had the great thing in it which was biting the rear hack of a dog and they all fled.” “Generally you like to feel the bad guy is going to win, and the good guy is going to come back,” stated Reitherman. “And eventually the ebb and flow of that battle changes that the good guy wins. But I think it is very effective in action sequences if you can stop for a minute because again it is just too much to absorb. When it starts again, it gives the audience a little jolt.”

Lady actually proved to be Reitherman’s last animation in the Disney films and he soon moved into directing, starting out with the short What’s the Truth About Mother Goose (1957.) Even before then he would oftentimes supervise other animators in the B-Wing such as Eric Cleworth and John Lounsbery and have them animate shots in his scenes.  Up until the early sixties Woolie directed a lot of the occasional shorts still done by the studio including Goliath 2, the first ever use of the Xerox system.  However the scene that really proved to be his breakthrough as a director was when he directed the sequence in Sleeping Beauty where Prince Phillip fights Maleficent in the form of a dragon.  “We took the approach that we’re going to kill that prince,” Woolie once proudly said.  On One Hundred and One Dalmatians he directed the Twilight Bark sequence as well as the Cruella de Vill crash scene.  However the need for a major director in feature animation was becoming desperate.  The beloved and heavily admired Wilfred Jackson had suffered a heart attack in late 1953 while directing Sleeping Beauty and never was the same after that. When he returned in 1954 he begun to work in TV for 5 years but the stress of directing a TV show really got to him making him take a leave of absence in 1959 and fully retire in 1961.  The notorious, hostile Gerry Geromni had developed such a bad reputation with the animators that they began to refuse to work for him and he was let go in 1959.  The respected but more passive Ham Luske was moving more into television and becoming less focused on feature animation.   This left the sport open for someone knew and Woolie it was to take it. “They picked out a guy who wouldn’t give them much trouble,” once said Ward Kimball. Starting with Sword in the Stone and ending with the Rescuers Reitherman directed all the Disney films (Jungle Book, Aristocats and Robin Hood in between.)  Among his virtues as a director were that he was open to new ideas,  was able to make a movie on time and on budget(although with a very small staff the films took a long time to make and the budget does oftentimes show in the production quality), and that his films do entertain even though they don’t do much to affect you in the heart and are pretty uninspired.  On the flip side he was pretty uncreative, used the same voice talents over and over again, his storytelling is well below adequate and overly simple,  the characters are repetitive, he used a lot of recycled footage(even used the animation from the Silly Song sequence in Snow White for a dance sequence in Robin Hood), and most of all nothing innovative or original was done in his films.  “He’d never go back and say ‘Well let’s see what did you do here?’ Like Ham Luske would have done, try to understand the whole thing,” said Frank Thomas. “If Woolie didn’t understand it he’d tip the boat over.” Among Reitherman’s harshest critics were great animators Ward Kimball and Milt Kahl (he even was a factor in the later man’s decision to quit animation in 1976.) “I can’t cope with this man, absolutely can’t cope with him,” said an angry Milt Kahl. I detest the use of—it just breaks my heart to see animation from Snow White used in The Rescuers. It kills me, and it just embarrasses me to tears. I went back to Florida with Woolie for a party for the wire services and the press for Robin Hood. And I met a guy who about twenty years ago I met at a friend’s house; he was with Paramount at the time, a publicity man. His name was Emory Wister; he worked for the Charlotte Register [probably the Observer]. He is a Disney buff, an animation buff. And these guys always scare me, because they know more about the pictures than I do. And he recognized this goddamned animation, where Maid Marian is dancing around with little creatures; he recognized it from Snow White. This is our Woolie, and it drives me crazy.” In 1977 Woolie stepped down from the director’s set but continued to serve as the producer of Fox and the Hound until his retirement in 1981. Sadly he died from a car accident in 1985.

Like I said above Wolfgang Reitherman was a man for broad action whether it was intense, suspenseful action or broad comedy. He was very intense artistically and always pounded hard to get the most entertainment and effect out of a sequence. Woolie wasn’t very good at subtleties and warmth but he definitely understood the characters he was animating and the aspects of great filmmaking.  He thought more in terms of cinematography than the other animators and his scenes show great camera angles and cuts. As a draftsman Reitherman was very bold and strong, which helped give his work the great vitality it has.  As in how Woolie got this all in his animation it came from the hard work and constant reworking he did on his drawings. “Woolie started with scribbling the power of the drawing. You couldn’t see a character in there,” remembers Don Bluth. “Then he’d put a piece of paper over that and finally get a character to represent the powerful scribbles that were just pencil marks on a page. So it took him two or three generations to find that actual drawing.” In terms of how the animator worked listen to what he had to say in this quote: “I start by going over story points because the idea you are trying to put over must be very clear in you mind. I try to use my creative imagination to build what I am trying to put over, rather than go off on a tangent by myself and come back with a version that the director never dreamed of. Next I review the layouts and staging. I see my characters have plenty of room to work in. I plan my action as though the paper actually were a stage. I draw key poses and consider almost every verb in an action: the character walks or sits down or gets up. I try to make  a story of each one, visualizing how I would work in and out of those poses. In planning a scene using key poses I feel you must caricature each pose, go further with it each time and also try to put as much of the mood and the feeling of the character itself into that pose as you possibly can. I then act out the business with my assistant. If it’s not as clear and direct as possible I start over. The scene becomes more flavorful as it’s boiled down. Then I begin to get satisfied. When the work begins to get simpler, it’s good. When it’s complicated it’s not. Finally I animate straight ahead using key poses as goal posts to get a flow and feeling in the animation.

Wolfgang Reitherman is one of the most influential artists in Disney history. His action sequences were revolutionary and they literally changed how action sequences were done at Disney forever. Name any action sequence in a Disney movie and it gets to the point it’s pretty cliché to say it holds a gigantic candle to Reitherman’s work. Woolie also really influenced how broad action was done in Disney films particularly through his work with the character of Goofy.  As a director I would have to say he’s by no means the best director in Disney history but he owes a lot of credit for keeping the department and the studio afloat.  Reitherman will always be remembered as a brilliant animator whose unique sensibilities helped change Disney animation forever.

In terms of inspiration I feel that Woolie Reitherman has had a big impact on me not only artistically but also in terms of filmmaking. The staging and cinematography he put in his scenes really speak to me and I’m a nut for the composition seen in his shots. In art and animation his unique approach and sensibilities helped teach me there are 1,000 ways to animate a scene and that there isn’t a right or wrong approach to them. Some people do well with subtle sentimental stuff but others work well with broad, over the top action. The point is that all can be great character animation and can work well in a film.  Thank you Wolfgang Reitherman for your contributions to the art of Disney Animation and for the influence and hero you’ve been to me as well as so many other people!

15. Duncan Marjoribanks

Posted in Uncategorized on August 25, 2011 by Grayson Ponti Animation: A Site Analyzing All Things Character Animation

Animation comes from within and ultimately if you’re going to be great you have to get what is in you out of you.  Your emotions, thoughts, intelligence, passion, creativity, and understanding of human nature all come out in animation in a way that they can’t anywhere else.  With this in mind oftentimes the best animators are introverted, quiet people who are sensitive and constantly think.  Although they may be quiet in real life in there animation you really see what’s going through their head and what they’re feeling inside.  Perhaps the best example I can use for this is Duncan Marjoribanks, number 15 in our countdown and the subject of today’s post.

Duncan Marjoribanks is one of the most unique and original animators in the history of the art form.  His atypical approach to cartoon acting, unique style,  and off-the-charts intellect as well as understanding of archetypes and human emotions changed Disney animation forever when he animated Sebastian the Jamaican crab in the Little Mermaid.  Among his best animated performances for Disney are McLeach the poacher in Rescuers Down Under, Abu the monkey in Aladdin, and the evil Governor Ratcliffe in Pocahontas.  Duncan in his prime always made sure that he never did the same thing twice and there was nothing formulaic or conventional about his work. He was a key figure as far as animators go in bringing back top character animation to Disney (although Glen Keane, Andreas Deja, Mark Henn, Ruben Aquino, and Hendel Butoy among others also deserve credit in this) and his work was highly influential in the development of many other top talents in Disney history(Nik Ranieri, Will Finn, Mike Show, T. Dan Hofstedt, and Ellen Woodbury among them ).   However on the flip side Duncan is very quiet and shy in real life and his sedate personality as well as him being all-but-reclusive to the public eye over his career(he virtually never has done interviews and his public appearances have been few and far between) has caused him to be one of the most underrated and underestimated animators in Disney history.  Although it must be mentioned that his introverted nature and intense thinking enables him to be an excellent animator and to have had the great influence he has had on animation.

Duncan Marjoribanks was born on December 29, 1953 in Toronto, Canada, the oldest of three children.  He grew up in a shy, liberal family (he was a hippie when in high school) and quickly began to really thoroughly think about intellectual topics and critique things as well as become fascinated by archetypes, human nature, and especially cartoons.  Marjoribanks fell in love with the visual humor and rich characterization done in classic cartoons, particularly Warner Brothers cartoons directed by Bob Clampett.  He began to take drawing and art very seriously, focusing on it instead of spending lots of time socializing with friends.  Duncan’s talent soon brought him into the prestigious animation program at the Sheridan Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning.  Located in Oakville, Ontario Sheridan has been an elite school for animation since its formation in the late 1960s and has produced almost all of the great Canadian animators in the American animation industry.  Among his teachers at Sheridan was Zach Schwartz, a great animation great who worked as an art director on Fantasia and Bambi at Disney as well as many shorts at UPA.  Although in many ways the school felt very isolated from what was going on in animation in the U.S.(I speak about this in more detail in the Nik Ranieri post) there were still any connections to the industry, including a visit in 1976 by Majoribanks’s idol Bob Clampett.

At Sheridan Duncan Marjoribanks’s skill as an animator excelled and his pencil tests, particularly one with melting bones, were given unanimous praise. In 1978 he was one of quite a few Sheridan graduates (among that group was Roger Chaissin, who has had a great career in TV animation and an incredible draftsman) hired by Hanna-Barbera, making him move out to Los Angeles.  When Marjoribanks arrived in California his talent and unique style made him overwhelmingly popular at the studio and he quickly became one of the last group of top animators at Hanna-Barbera before the Strike of 1982 made most TV animation done overseas.  Among the TV shows he worked on were Scooby and Scrappy Doo, Godzilla, and the World’s Greatest Superfriends. At the time the studio was an interesting mixture of old talent (including honoree #39 Hicks Lokey) and young, promising talent (Tom Sito and Tim Walker being good examples.) Duncan’s last and most ambitious project done at Hanna-Barbera was his animation in the limited-animation feature film Heidi’s Song (1982).  Like most of the product done at the studio during that period the musical movie is severely low budget and incredibly forgettable.

After the strike ended most domestically produced animation Duncan Marjoribanks changed his career to that as a character designer and for the next 5 years worked on many various projects for different studios.  “I was known back in the day for having many one year stints,” reflects the animator on these days. However the vast majority of his work and employment came from Ruby- Spears, a studio ran by the talented but infamous John Dorman.  Dorman was notorious in the industry for his behavior as well as work habits and with his crew was oftentimes referred to simply as the “bastards”.  He and Duncan were personal friends for many years and John’s recent death was shocking and sad to the animator.  However in 1986 Marjoribanks was hired onto his first gig as an animator since Heidi’s Song and the project that changed the course of his career forever: Family Dog, directed by Brad Bird. Released in 1987 his animation on the film made his work at the other studios seem like nothing and two scenes really showed a glimpse into the future for him: a scene of the mother throwing a fit of having to constantly feed the dog and another were on the way home from Attack Dog School the father gives a bewildered face at the dog as he licks his chops.  Because of his great work on the film Brad Bird personally recommended Duncan to his Cal arts-classmate and Disney feature director John Musker. After this endorsement Musker and his directing partner Ron Clements brought him on as the first animator to join the production of their film the Little Mermaid.

By the time Duncan Marjoribanks came on to Mermaid what had originally been conceived as being an English, stuffy crab had after the suggestion from Howard Ashman evolved into a lively Jamaican crab to be named Sebastian. Taking the ideas of Ashman as well as the storyboards done by Ed Gombert, designs by Chris Buck and Will Finn, and the outstanding vocal performance by Samuel Wright Duncan took this new direction of the character to the hilt and came up with the design that audiences feel in love with. “Samuel Wright’s vocal performance, the way he held the microphone, and the way he performed was really inspirational to me on Sebastian,” the animator said.  The animation of Sebastian in the film is genius: the drawings done of him really think and show inside his thought process. Also he is significant in that there is no difference between his inner and outer emotions. Sebastian shows how he’s feeling and acts on his emotions.  Last the crab is noteworthy because he was the first Disney character in decades to be a comic sidekick but still have sincerity and have real feelings towards the protagonist. This is particularly prevalent in the scene when Sebastian realizes that Ariel will never be truly happy unless she’s with Eric and lives on land making him decide to help her find that dream.  “When I think of good animation I think of Mermaid and Duncan Marjoribanks’s animation on Sebastian,” praises the great Glen Keane. “Here’s a guy that his own expressions and his own personality came out in that character. You could ask Duncan to make an expression on his own face and you saw it was the exact same thing that the crab was doing. I mean, his whole way of thinking was translating from his head through his hand and into that character. The timing, his thought, everything, he transferred into that character. I thought that the character was completely Duncan. You get another animator and the character would’ve been completely different. There was no formula to it, and that’s a good sign.” Two Sebastian scenes that are must on your freeze-frame list are the one where he nervously and hesitatingly is talking with Triton about the changes in Ariel and all of the animation of him in the Under the Sea sequence. Both these scenes are rich in character, expression, and acting as well as too many other virtues to name.

After the huge success of Mermaid Duncan Marjoribanks next did a different kind of character: a villain! The assignment was McLeach, the crafty and evil poacher in the Rescuers Down Under.  My favorite scene Duncan did on the film is the one where McLeach is getting in Joanna’s case about her temptation to eat the eggs. The great subtlety, precision, and understated acting in that scene is incredible (also recommended for freeze-frame list.) I’m also a big nut for the caricatured but menacing design of the character (also done by Marjoribanks.) However the production of the film was a hard, exhausting one for him as well as many other crewmembers and that along with the pressures, demands, and management of Disney made him leave the studio in 1990 to live in England for a year. While in England Duncan did freelance character design work for shorted-live TV show Pirates of Dark Water (also with Ruby-Spears.) Soon enough though he was back at Disney as one of the supervising animators on Aladdin.  Old-timer Joe Grant (he returned to the studio in 1989 at the age of 81) had during preproduction drawn an inspirational design sketch of a monkey sidekick that was then dropped in favor of a human sidekick. However when Ron and John redid the script and story they decided to go for a more comical, cartoony approach and the mischievous monkey was back with the name Abu to be supervised by Marjoribanks.  This proved to be a perfect animator-character fit and the monkey turned out to be one of the most memorable and entertaining aspects of the film.  In comparison to Sebastian, who talks constantly and expresses his emotions directly, Abu is mute and is thinks very thoroughly before he acts. This psychological precision as well as believable movement (both for the character when he’s in monkey form and in elephant form), strong poses, and clear expressions make Abu one of the absolute highlights of Duncan’s career.  Among the scenes the animator himself did were Abu mimicking Jasmine while they’re in the jail cell, Abu sneaking around the market looking for food, and Abu as an elephant taking off his cap and giving a huge grin. “Something Duncan taught me when working on ALADDIN, and I can’t even remember what scene it was in, but he was talking about this one scene and trying to figure out what business he was going to use because he had already done a brow wipe or something,” remembers Ellen Woodbury, who was in animator in the Abu unit. “He’d already done that and wanted to find something new to do, and that stuck with me as something like ˜Oh, okay, don’t do the same thing twice.’ Always keep it fresh. Always look for another way to do something. Find another gesture that supports the same idea; still the same personality but a different gesture – still their gesture, but new.” After finishing his work on Abu, Marjoribanks animated the narrator of Aladdin in his sole appearance in the film.

After Aladdin, Duncan Marjoribanks was immediately brought onto Pocahontas (animators Glen Keane, Chris Buck, and John Pomeroy also joined the crew around the same time) to work on storyboards and character designs for the film. When animation came he was given another juicy assignment: Governor Ratcliffe, the villain of the film who only cares about the wealth he’ll get from finding gold in the New Land and who quickly develops fierce animosity with the Native Americans. “Ratcliffe was more of an archetype than the other characters,” explained Duncan. “He had to carry the greed and racism in the picture.” In contrast to the more reserved McLeach the governor is short-tempered, selfish, commanding, extremely racist, and most of all greedy.  Marjoribanks’s performance differs from those of most of the other human characters in that he is caricatured and has great acting that adds to the dialogue, making him more appealing and believable. Most of the others were animated more straightly and realistically, the blame mostly coming from the self-important, overly serious nature of the story and the fact the writers used dialogue to describe how the characters are feeling (suicide for great character animation.) I love the balance Duncan gave to Ratcliffe’s performance: he isn’t very reserved and openly displays his emotions but avoids becoming too flamboyant and being a comic villain all the time, which adds a great amount of emotional range for the character.  Following the completion of Pocahontas he moved onto the production Hercules in its development stages and due to personal request was originally supposed to be the supervising animator on Megera, the leading lady in the film( to this day I’ve wanted to see the designs he did to get a glimpse into the performance that never happened.) However Marjoribanks accepted a huge offer from Jeffry Katzenberg to become one of the first big Disney animators to come to DreamWorks and left the production.

Along with Disney veteran James Baxter Duncan Marjoribanks was one of the two top animators that DreamWorks used to lure animators to the studio and to build the staff around for the Prince of Egypt, the studio’s first film.  Originally intended to be the supervising animator on Moses and doing what Jasen Strong remembers as “clear, amazing thumbnails” of the character the animator eventually began to struggle on the film and found the character hard to do.  In the end Duncan only gets credited as an animator on the film.  After Prince of Egypt he did some scenes of Tzekel Kan in Road to El Dorado and additional story work for Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron before leaving the studio in 1998.  Marjoribanks next went to supervise Thrax in Osmosis Jones, which turned out to be the best animation he did post-Pocahontas.  His scenes of the character are a great reflection back to the brilliance and spark that was present in Sebastian and Ratcliffe but after becoming unhappy with story changes he left the film in April 2000 to return to Disney.  Back at Disney Duncan supervised the stuffy, uptight Mrs. Calloway in the critical and commercial flop Home on the Range.  While the design and expressions of the character show his greatness, the richness of character, original acting, thought process, and creativity that dominated the animator’s best work are just not there.  Also some of the facial expressions and gestures are very similar to the ones Marjoribanks had done in past projects such as Abu and Family Dog. After Home on the Range he was trained in CG animation and animated several scenes of the Bowler Hat Guy in Meet the Robinsons (my favorite being him talking to Gooper and saying, “Don’t let it go” while swishing his cape and raising his eyebrows. Thanks Steve Anderson for pointing out that scene.) Although Duncan didn’t love or feel comfortable with CG the way he did with 2d his work on the computer is actually pretty good and he was one of the more successful crossovers from hand-drawn on the film.  After Robinsons he moved on top Princess and the Frog, where he animated all of Big Daddy La Buff. Already a poorly conceived and one dimensional character Marjoribanks had a most difficult time on the character and never really connected with him in the way he so well did in most of his other films.  In Spring 2009 Duncan Marjoribanks and Disney went separate ways and since he has been virtually absent from the public eye and the animation industry, with the notable exception of freelancing with Duncan Studio on a Kun Fu Panda hand-drawn featurette.

In terms of style Duncan Marjoribanks’s   animated drawings are very expressive, have excellent construction, show great movement of mass, and most of all are really well thought out.  I always love, too, his bold eyebrows, emphasized lip sync, and  mask-like teeth that are prevalent in his characters.  Like I said before when Duncan animates a scene he first very intensely thinks it through and visualizes it in his head. Among the things he thinks about are what is the character’s archetype and personality, how do they feel in this scene, and how to show both of these elements through their movements and expressions.  Then he will go use the mirror and look at himself doing the expressions he has very carefully planned out in his head.  If you freeze-frame his scenes you’ll notice that instead of having key poses that move together like a comic strip he use very fluid movement that moves in a way that shows how the character feels. Even though the expressions and poses are very strong in Marjoribanks’s scenes it’s really the COMBINATION of how the movement and the expressions FEEL that really matters in his animation.  Look at any Sebastian, Abu, or Ratcliffe scene he animated frame by frame and you’ll see what I mean.  In terms of character conception Duncan Marjoribanks has always worked best and flourished most when working with more archetypical characters, meaning ones that aren’t very realistic but feel real because of the fact they represent emotions and feelings that are real. For example you’ll never meet someone as lively and flamboyant as Sebastian or someone as cruel and greedy as Ratcliffe but since the character traits and feelings they represent and caricature are so real we believe in them and they feel more real in a way that a more straight, realistic character might not.  Last I think that Duncan’s intelligence and constant effort to make something new are crucial in the development of his art and really make his animation go above and beyond as well as make his work very well done and believable.

In terms of influence Duncan Marjoribank’s unique style and original acting skills literally turned the studio upside down.  The guys there were so used to trying to emulate what the greats of the past has done and would constantly ask themselves how they would have done the scene. Also they mostly worked in the traditional, sincere but contained Disney style.  However suddenly here came this great animator who didn’t think that way at all and wasn’t trying to live in the past but do something completely new and different, inspiring the animators to be more creative and loosen up.  Duncan’s approach made other animators have the initiative to find their own style and animate in a way that was completely their own, which really led to some amazing results. Also Marjoribanks’s emphasis on archetypes and really thinking through the scenes was really influential.  They began to conceive characters thoroughly and try to visualize the scenes in their head. Last Duncan Marjoribanks is influential because he brought great, innovative animated performances to Disney and made contributions to the studio that have changed it forever.

Duncan Marjoribanks is an incredibly inspirational figure and hero to me personally.  My jaw drops when I study his scenes frame by frame and I’m blown away by his original, atypical approach to animating, cartoon acting, and character conception.  I oftentimes think about Duncan when I draw characters from my mind, typically when it’s ones that are archetypical and satirical. This inspires me to not only really think through the character in my mind but to try to do something personal and different instead of the conventional way. Also when I do flipbooks or animate I try really hard to get that combination of how both the movement and expressions feel. Through my experiences talking to Marjoribanks personally I’ve seen the really genius mind he has and how his intellect as well as passion made him able to get to the high place he went to. Thank you so much Duncan Marjoribanks for being a great inspiration to me and for your contributions to Disney animation that will live on forever!

(Last picture is from Rhett Wickham from Laughingplace.com)

16. Marc Davis

Posted in Uncategorized on August 20, 2011 by Grayson Ponti Animation: A Site Analyzing All Things Character Animation

Many people are great animators but that’s the only thing they can do. They’re experts at expressive poses, movement with meaning, and acting but they don’t have a problem when given tasks such as story, character development, designing, and applying those principles to animation.  However there are a handful of animators who can do all those things very well and can just deliver whatever you may ask of them. That would be a great way to describe Marc Davis, number 16 in the countdown and the honoree of today’s post.


“All I have to do is tell him what I want and he’ll do it he’s my Renaissance man,” said Walt Disney to Marc’s wife Alice about the animator. Davis was a natural draftsman who really understood character consistency, narrative, staging, and what makes a great, entertaining performance.  He was respected as both an artist and a man by all and even became best friends with the competitive, short-tempered Milt Kahl. “Marc is one hell of an artist, damned good,” praised Kahl.  Even though he had the capability to draw pretty much anything well Davis was stuck many doing realistic women throughout his career even though he did some phenomenal looser, caricatured performances such as a huge chunk of Flower in Bambi and all of Cruella de Vill in One Hundred and One Dalmatians.  He also was very dedicated to the Disney studio and was very generous as well as resourceful to anyone who wanted to pursue a career in animation there.



Marc Davis was born on March 30, 1913 in Bakersfield, California. His parents were big time travelers and he moved around constantly growing up, attending 22 schools by the time he graduated from high school. To cope with the hardships of moving around and in finding friends in such a small time frame Davis turned to drawing as a way to express himself. “In a new town where I wasn’t acquainted- I would amuse myself by drawing,” he recalled in an interview.  So even though he moved all around the country he had art to add a sense of stability and reliability. Marc didn’t have a ton of money growing up so he found it too difficult to afford to go to college but he did take some classes at an art school in northern California.  He found that there were two great places to work on his draftsmanship: the library and the zoo. “I got to know the assistant director of the zoo and they would let me in before they let the public in,” remembers Davis. “They’d bring creatures out for me to draw. It was very exciting and sometimes a little scary. Although I was drawing them in motion I wasn’t thinking in terms of animating them. I was interested in capturing their movements in art, in the tradition of Frederick Remington’s sculptures.” Indeed the life drawings done at the zoo are very impressive and really show masterful anatomy as well as posture.  Later Marc realized this experience would be a major benefit to him when he started working in animation. Soon after his father passed away leaving him as the main source of income for his mother and himself.  Around the same time he say Disney’s short Who Killed Cock Robin and was blown away. Disney had been looking for jobs and everyone told Marc he better go try to get in. “I had a few contacts in the Los Angeles area and a sort of a half-promise of a job at the Hollywood Citizen, which no longer exists,” he explains. “I hadn’t been there too long when somebody said ‘You know Walt Disney is hiring artists- whey don’t you come see him?’ So I did and was accepted immediately. Most of the applicants were unsuccessful newspaper cartoonists who didn’t know anatomy. I was a newspaper cartoonist with limited success but the experiences I had at the zoo and the library made a big difference.”


When Marc Davis came to Disney he was put in the bullpen of inbetweeners but his draftsmanship got unanimous praise and pretty soon he wound up working as Grim Natwick’s head assistant on Snow White.  Natwick is one of the oldest great animators in Disney history and by the time he came to Disney in 1934 he already was in his mid-40s and had accomplished great success at other studios. Like Davis he was very sophisticated and had a more wordly approach to the world making the two mesh.  However the young animator found out that there was a very intense situation that he would have to be a mediator in.  Although Grim did a lot of scenes of Snow White he still was under supervising animator Ham Luske, a Disney loyalist who was rather suspicious of newcomers from the east like Natwick.  The two didn’t agree on the characterization and design of Snow White: Ham wanted a more charming, innocent, and youthful girl while Grim wanted a significantly more sexually-aware, colder girl.  Even though Luske’s version was the one consistent with Walt’s vision the other animator wasn’t willing to adjust and there was great tension between the two men. “Grim felt very strongly about corrections he was taking on the drawing of Snow White and I kind of went along with it because I was working for Grim not Ham,” explained Marc to Michael Barrier. “I wasn’t going to make a bubblehead of her, as they were doing in the other unit. However I had to change his drawings to get a kind of feeling of the character. Grim wanted her to have a vitality and that had to be tamed.” Thanks to the hard work Davis did comprising the desires of the two men in the picture Snow White turns out consistent and true to Walt’s vision.

After Snow White and denying Joe Grant’s offer for him to join the newly-formed model department Marc Davis joined the story crew for Bambi and for three years he worked long and hard doing inspirational sketches, storyboards, and life drawing studies of different forest animals.  Marc’s boarded showed an unbelievable richness and understanding of character (among the scenes he animated are the ice-skating sequence and the Twitterpatted sequence) to the point Walt Disney told Milt Kahl and Frank Thomas to teach him to animate so the master could see those drawings up on screen.  “His deer looked like deer, for they had lost none of their essential animal appearance or character but they could be understood as having human thoughts and emotions,” wrote Thomas and Ollie Johnston.  Davis’s animation on the film was equally fantastic and he even animated my absolute favorite scene in the film, the one where Flower falls in love.  There’s just so much caricature, brilliant staging, and strong feelings of love and passion in that scene- it’s contagious! “When the thing came on the screen there the theater almost burst with laughter,” gladly remembers the animator. ”I connected with the audience for the first time. That the first feeling only happens once. “ After Bambi Marc returned to story and did great boards for Victory Through Airpower, including the eagle and octopus fight (the last scene Bill Tytla ever did for Disney.) He however was very disappointed to learn he didn’t receive screen credit on the film.


In 1944 Marc Davis returned to animation by being the first animator assigned to the ambitious but controversial Song of the South, where his animation showed brilliant characterization and personality that evens transcends his success on Bambi.  He did the first scenes with Briar Rabbit as well as the amazing scene where the fox and the bear build the tar baby.  “They were great characters to work with and it was interesting since it was the first feature we’d done in a while,” said Davis. After Song of the South he first did a little bit of animation on Fun and Fancy Free and then a big chunk of animation on the Wind and the Willows sequence in Ichabod and Mr. Toad including the scenes of the Toad and his horse Cyril going through the countryside and the intense scene where Mole removes a document from a sleeping villain.  After that Marc was assigned to work with Eric Larson on the protagonist of Cinderella. However the two didn’t see eye to eye about the character in many ways was a more controlled and less-intense reflection of the dispute between their mentors Ham Luske and Grim Natwick.  Eric (who came on the film first and did more footage) wanted a sweet sixteen-year-old girl with a pug nose while Marc wanted what Eric called a “more exotic” female. Ultimately the two meshed very well together and the two visions bring out an interesting, dynamic character: Cinderella is sweet, homely, and compassionate but also is very intelligent and knows the way she’s treated by her stepfamily is not right.  I particularly like the scene Marc did where she is mopping and then receives the invitation from the prince. The gestures and posture she shows show her feelings and character very effectively. He also animated the girl in the Bibbity- Boppity-Boo sequence and in the heart-breaking scene where her stepsisters tear apart her dress.

Much to his dismay Davis wound up animating realistic women many more times that decade. “Moving a girl with rotoscope is a pretty rotten way to make a living,” he once said. “One of the things Milt Kahl and I suffered from was that we both could draw so much better than some of the others. We both had a better understanding of the human figure and there simply weren’t that many guys who could handle them”(Milt was even more frustrated and vocal about being typecast to realistic princes.)  Marc did several scenes with Alice in Alice in Wonderland including her in the Mad Tea Party sequence. Then he moved on to Peter Pan where he received a more interesting, challenging assignment: to animate the majority of Tinker Bell in Peter Pan. She couldn’t speak but Davis did a great job at using body posture, walks, and expressions to make her a big presence in the feature. I also think that now is time to correct a big Disney urban legend: Tinker Bell is NOT modeled off of Marilyn Monroe but is off of actress Margaret Kelly.  Marc also did a little of Wendy as well. After Peter Pan he skipped Lady and the Tramp to move on to the long and exhausting production of Sleeping Beauty so he could animate two characters, the charming Aurora and the evil Maleficent.  “Sleeping Beauty is a milestone of a certain type of feature that we never did again,” Davis once explained when giving a lecture. “We did a lot more design with the characters than we had ever done before or would ever do again. Sleeping Beauty herself was more designed in two-dimensional shapes than any other character we’ve done. “ While the animator was pretty used to doing princesses such as Aurora Maleficent proved to be a challenge. “She basically stood very and talked directly to the audience,” reflected Marc. “She had very little interaction with the other characters. That’s extremely difficult to bring across. She had to be large and dominant because she frightened everybody half to death.” The problem worked out and the understated acting of Maleficent was very well done. Her reserved, creepy nature makes her a very effective villain and her devil-like design only adds to the fear she brings to audiences.  That performance was particularly influential to Andreas Deja when he animated Jafar in Aladdin.

After Sleeping Beauty, Marc Davis had the ultimate assignment: he designed and animated every scene of the flamboyant Cruella de Vill in One Hundred and One Dalmatians.  Cruella is only similar to Maleficent in that they’re both villains: she’s all but reserved, explosive, short-tempered, entertaining, and constantly interacts with the other characters. “Cruella was a rare opportunity,” Davis told Michael Barrier. “We had some live action but I found you had to use it very loosely.” “Cruella was comparatively simple,” he said on another occasion. “She was always working with somebody-slamming them around or whatever. Lou Gerson’s vocalization told me this character was bigger than life, high in energy, and like a shark, always moving. I really wanted to make her move like somebody you didn’t like.” She is very effective because she’s caricatured, over the top, and has a great balance of being threatening but not being terrifying to the point she’s not entertaining.  My personal favorite scene Marc did of her is the one where she forcefully grabs the beer bottle from Jasper’s hand, throws into the fireplace, and has a huge fit about how she’ll punish her if they haven’t killed the puppies by the next morning.  That scene shows so much anger and you really see her explode and dominate Horace and Jasper when her frustration has been ticked to the highest possible amount. After Cruella Davis worked for a year developing a scrapped-film before leaving animation to work in WED, where he designed many theme park rides for the Disney parks.  He retired in 1978 although he remained in active part of the Disney community until his death in 2000.


In terms of artistry and style what stands out about Marc Davis is his feel and understanding of character combined with his excellent, natural draftsmanship.  “If you can’t draw it you can’t animate it,” the animator proudly remarked. “The importance of knowing how to draw, how to think in terms of animating, was the key to my success.” His drawings have great appeal and roundness but still have accurate anatomy and realistic movement.  If you study any of his scenes you’ll notice Marc uses very believable and sincere gestures, walks, and expressions in his animation. Two great examples of this include the scene where Tinker Bell is going through the Darling house and the scene where Aurora is telling the fairies about how she’s in love. The second one is particularly brilliant in that it’s very graceful and you totally recognize that’s the way teenage girls act and talk about the feelings they have for guys they’re in love with.  “The one thing we have tried to do is to create a personality that has consistency,” the great artist explained. “You know how this particular character is going to react in any given situation. You’re not going to have a rabbit be inconsistent with being a rabbit. Their motivations are consistent as well- the rabbit hops, the fox slinks. We would put a character in different situations not knowing how he would behave, and his behavior would become as clear as we imagined ourselves to be him. In animation, you’re creating a consistency between the character and the environment. I don’t think anyone can do that as well as animation. It is anything your imagination will permit you to do.”  While Davis’s drawings have complicated drawing the movement in them is pretty smooth and fluid. Unlike Kahl his poses flow into each other without going crooked and his assistants had a very easy time following him up (he usually animated on the easy 4s instead of the particular 3s Frank and Milt were notorious with assistants for using.) Also staging was something that Marc Davis was an absolute master at doing. A prime example is of the scene where Bambi meets Flower.  Instead of doing it from the front, he animated Flower coming out of the flowers from the back making the fact the animal is a skunk clear and showing the interaction between him and Bambi. Last Marc Davis’s creativity and versatility were vital to his success. He literally could do pretty much anything when it came to what he could draw and animate.  For this to work Marc combined what he observed from life and put it together with what ideas he got from his imagination to stunning results. He sums it up perfectly, “The thing with creativity is that there’s always something new to do out there. So why not give it a try?”


Coming to influence Marc Davis has left a massive imprint on the legacy of Disney animation. His creativity, versatility, understanding of character and story, breathtaking draftsmanship, and skills as an animator and designer have inspired animators for generations including Andreas Deja, Mark Henn, Bruce Smith, and many others. In his time period Davis was significant not only because of his abilities but also because he put the picture, story, and character first. For example who knows if Snow White as a character would’ve worked if he hadn’t worked hard to comprise the differences Natwick and Luske had over the characters? Also would Bambi have turned out to be the wonderful picture it was if it weren’t for Marc’s story drawings that really showed everyone the picture and characters could work? Davis to this day is still one of the very best draftsman the Disney studio ever had and one of the best at making the human figure work. His work in story and character design also had a big impact on the pictures. Last Marc Davis brought great character consistency, brilliant performances, well-conceived and believable personalities, and beautiful animation to Disney animation that has changed the art form forever.

How do I even start in expressing how Marc Davis has influenced me. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from him it’s the importance of knowing how to draw the character and understanding their personality.  Davis’s work opened my eyes to how much having the character consistent and believable has on the feel of the picture and most importantly the way it impacts how the audiences feels about the character.  Also his acting and performance skills are so inspiring and studying them is a great way to learn about character animation at its best.  Last I feel that Marc Davis’s versatility, hard work effort, and perfection of his draftsmanship is a great example and something that anyone who wants to do something important in animation should look up to. Thank you Marc Davis for the influence you’ve had on me and your contributions to Disney Animation!

17. Art Babbitt

Posted in Uncategorized on August 12, 2011 by Grayson Ponti Animation: A Site Analyzing All Things Character Animation

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!