5. Ollie Johnston

Posted in Uncategorized on November 4, 2011 by Grayson Ponti Animation: A Site Analyzing All Things Character Animation

There is something very magical, subtle, and intuitive about Disney animation.  It’s hard to imagine how much the audience can feel for the characters in the films and the immense impact they can have on people is hard to explain. How can a drawing make an audience feel such a strong way? The secret to this is that the animator has to have the emotions himself and put them in his work.  The emotions and feelings of the characters drive the Disney films so it’s absolutely essential this comes out.  If you’re a Disney animator, you can either express your emotions by being bold, passionate, and intense or you can do it a much softer, subtler way that ultimately can have even more meaning and power than if you went broader. The one who really proved the potential of the latter way is Ollie Johnston, number 5 on our countdown and the honoree of today’s post.

Ollie Johnston was an animator who relied on pure emotion to make Disney magic come to life.  Instead of going for extreme poses and acting like his contemporaries such as Frank Thomas, Bill Tytla, John Lounsbery, and Milt Kahl he went with a much lighter, intuitive way of animating.  Ollie oftentimes used soft subtle touches, gestures, and body movements to show how his characters felt. Although it is not as flashy or as bold, there is something very magical and powerful about his work that really makes the audience feel for the character.  “It’s surprising what an effect touching can have in an animated cartoon,” Johnston explained. “You expect it in a live-action picture or in your daily life but to have two pencil drawings touching each other, you wouldn’t think would have much impact but it does.” “Ollie always told me that you’re supposed to not animate drawings but animate feelings,” remembers honoree Andreas Deja. “At first I didn’t understand because I thought of course you’re drawing drawings.  But as I went along further in my career I realized that he was right and that the character’s feelings are always the most important part. It makes you a completely different artist when you understand it.” “There’s something very intuitive about Ollie’s work,” stated honoree Glen Keane, who was mentored by Ollie.  Throughout his 43-year career at Disney he animated some of the most sensitive and emotional scenes ever animated in Disney history. Among his best work is Pinocchio, Bambi, Thumper, Emotion in Reason and Emotion, Peter in Peter and the Wolf, Alice, Smee, Lady, Pongo, Baloo, Bagheera, Prince John, and Penny.  “I seem to have kind of a reservoir of feelings about how people feel in different situations,” reflected Johnston. “And while somebody else might be more interested in the drawing of the character in that situation, I was particularly interested in how the character actually felt.” He also was very influential through the mentoring, writing, and promoting he did for Disney alongside his lifelong best friend Frank Thomas.  The two of them for decades were the elder spokesmen of Disney animation and constantly worked to spread around their great knowledge and passion for Disney animation to the next generation.  “Always ask yourself what is this character thinking and why is he thinking that way,” the animator always advised.

 

Ollver Johnston, Jr. was born on October 13 1912 in Palo Alto, California. His father was a professor at Stanford University so he pretty much grew up on the campus of the university.  From the very beginning Ollie became fascinated with the way different people felt in different situations and why they felt that way. He began to analyze and study people and their feelings but actually found that he very intuitively could connect to those emotions and understand them.  Johnston’s sensitivity and understanding allowed him to really take a lot of these things in and understand them well.  He also began to draw, although he later stated he didn’t naturally draw very well and it took him endless amounts of hard work to get his draftsmanship and art good enough to be an animator. The young man particularly loved to draw girls.  However Ollie was a sickly child growing up and had to battle several illnesses up to the point he was in his teens. “It’s a wonder how I survived,” he reflected.  This was particularly hard for Johnston because he loved playing sports and was a very good athlete (he was very good at track and football as well as was the junior manager of the Stanford football team when he went there.) The most long-term and challenging health problem to overcome was palsy, which made his body (particularly his hand) shake. A hard impediment to have as an artist, he worked hard to make it so he could still draw well although the palsy grew worse over the years and even played a big part in his retirement.  In high school Johnston didn’t get much encouragement to go into art, especially from his art teachers at school.  In 1931 he started at Stanford with a journalism major but this was really when he started to really get into art, including working for the humor magazine Stanford Chaparral.  Around this time Ollie met someone who would change his life forever and be his best friend forever: Frank Thomas, a young man attending the university who also worked for the Stanford Chaparral.  In comparison to Johnston’s practical, thoughtful side Thomas was more of an experimenter who always tried new things.  “If I hadn’t met Frank my guess is I would have finished Stanford and gone to work for United Press as a reporter or gotten a crummy job as an artist somewhere,” confesses the best friend. The two quickly became the best of friends and began to work on their art together. In 1933 Frank graduated from Stanford and moved down to Los Angeles where he began at the Chouinard Art Institute.  When Ollie went down to visit them when Stanford played at the Rose Bowl on New Years Day 1934 he was so amazed and impressed by the work being done at Chouinard that soon he left Stanford and moved down to Los Angeles.  He quickly feel in love with going to art school and two teachers in particular made a difference for him: Don Graham and Pruett Carter.  Carter was an amazing artist who did tons of illustration work showing lots of emotion and liveliness. “He was great,” Johnston recalled. “He was critical but I happened to have something about my work, even though I was amateurish, that he liked. The emotional quality, I think.”  In 1935 Don Graham recommended that he tryout to work at Disney since they were looking for art school talent (Thomas started in September 1934.) Ollie did his tryout and was hired on January 21, 1935.

After being hired Ollie Johnston became a cleanup artist, the first short he worked on being Mickey’s Garden.  His first major work at the studio, however, was cleaning up Gerry Geronimi’s animation on Mickey’s Rival.  “Those were the best damned cleanups I ever saw!” remembered legendary Disney director Wilfred Jackson.  However Johnston quickly drew to strongly dislike Geronimi (as the majority of people who worked with him did) and his disgust for him would continue when Gerry became a director. Fortunately he soon did find a mentor who really made a difference for him, that he loved, and would have a drastic influence on his style forever. “March 23,1936, a most important day,” stated Ollie. “They day I became Fred Moore’s assistant.” No other person in Disney history had the influence over the Disney style Fred Moore did. He really defined it and took animation to the next level.  “It was the greatest learning experience I ever had,” reflected Johnston. “I owe so much to him. He changed me and Frank’s life forever. Fred taught primarily by example. He could make little drawings to show you. And he was a natural animator, the most natural animator that ever came to the studio.” During his time as Fred’s assistant the mentor was working hard as a lead animator on the dwarfs in Snow White although Bill Tytla, Frank Thomas, Dick Lundy, Les Clark, and Fred Spencer (a promising talent who tragically died a year after Snow White in a car accident) also did phenomenal animation on the characters. It was Moore gave the dwarfs the charm and appeal in design and animation needed to make them successful.  His scenes on the characters have excellent use of squash and stretch, definition of character, expression in drawing, and use of movements to show feeling and character. On the film Ollie not only worked as Fred’s assistant but also was the head assistant on all of the dwarfs.  One of the challenges this job brought was making him have to compromise the differences between his mentor’s drawings of the dwarfs to the bold, passionate, and strong drawings done by Bill Tytla, whose work had a vitality never seen again at Disney.  Fortunately Johnston was able to make the two animators scenes work well together and have the dwarfs look the same in both.  During the production he learned a ton from Fred and his approach to animation. “From Fred I learned that acting comes from the change of shapes in the character’s body and face while the thought process comes from the change in expression,” Ollie explained. “I also learned from him how important the expressions are. You can’t show it unless you stage it right and give the audience time to see it. Same with acting and attitudes.”

After Snow White Fred Moore told Walt Disney that he thought it was time for Ollie Johnston to become a full-fledged animator and this lead to him becoming an animator on the Mickey Mouse short the Brave Little Tailor, where he animated crowd scenes as well as some of Mickey in the scenes where he’s battling the giant.  His work on the short was well received and encouraged Walt to put him on the character of Pinocchio with Frank Thomas and at that time Fred Moore.  The first animation Johnston did on the character was one of him coming to life. “It was the first time I used live-action,” he told Michael Barrier. “I worked my tail off that thing.” However as soon as Walt saw Frank and Ollie’s test of the characters animation stopped on the film and the picture was taken back to story. During this story rework period Milt Kahl redesigned the character and everything came together (at this point Moore was dropped from the character.)  Johnston reanimated the opening sequence where he comes to life but this time did it to great success. I highly recommend studying this scene because it’s so subtle, believable, and the realization is perfect. It feels like someone who’s waking up from a long sleep.  Although he did a lot of animation on the character of Pinocchio perhaps Ollie’s best work on the film is the scene where he lies to the Blue Fairy.  This is the first time you can see his full potential as an animator: a scene driven purely and solely by emotion, heart, and intuition.  When Johnston was animating this scene he must have intuitively thought back to when he was a boy and remembered how it felt to have the pressure of telling the truth and the way little kids innocently lie.  Everyone has felt this way and you immediately recognize it when you see it on the screen. The details such as the way he puts his arms behind his back and the expression showing the way he’s thinking really make this scene juicy and special.  The timing and spacing on the scene is great too. There’s always an incredible evenness and natural feeling in his scenes that is really contagious. Throughout all of Johnston’s work on the film there is a strong intimate connection between animator and character as well as a simplicity, sincerity, and honesty that really is something special. “When I was doing Pinocchio I thought of the character being real, a living person, not a drawing,” the animator said.

After Pinocchio Ollie Johnston went on to animate on the Pastoral Symphony segment in Fantasia. There he primarily animated the cupids and the centaurettes where he did some great scenes of the cupids helping prepare the girls to be seen by the guys and putting on makeup.  This is a good example of the way Ollie always used roundness and s-shapes in his characters. This makes his drawings look very appealing and really work well with the Disney magic.  The Centaurettes were basically a centaur version of the famous Fred Moore girls, females he drew that were known for looking very sexy.  Although many feel that the designs of these characters didn’t work well personally I feel the animation Moore and Johnston did on the characters is absolutely beautiful and really has a good essence to it (unfortunately I can’t say the same things about the male centaurs. Read the Eric Larson post to learn about that story.) One unique challenge the animators faced on the Pastoral Symphony was that there was no dialogue so all the characters had to communicate exclusively through pantomime. With the cupids Ollie excelled at giving them clear, expressive pantomime to the point where you can always tell exactly what they’re thinking. Fortunately for him Fantasia proved to be the first big date between him and Marie Worthy, an ink and paint girl he was quickly falling in love with. The two of them married in 1943, had two sons, and stayed married until her death in 2005. When the animation of Fantasia was completed in April 1940 the animator went on to a very ambitious project: Bambi.  Johnston would serve alongside Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas, and Eric Larson as the four supervising animators responsible for brining the animal personalities across the screen and mastering the challenge of having realistic but personified animals look believable on the screen.  Unlike the previous films which had done casting by character Bambi was done almost entirely by casting by sequence with only a few exceptions (Marc Davis did pretty much all of Flower and Eric Larson did pretty much all of the Great Owl.) among Ollie’s best sequences on the film include Bambi learning how to walk (a must-study scene because it’s so believable how he feels in the situation and the awkwardness is so simple but honest), the scene in the meadow where Thumper reluctantly recites how greens are good for your heart(a great example of the intuitiveness he used in animation and how he spent immense time thinking about what the character is thinking and why they think that way), Bambi meeting Faline(a good scene for character relationship and change in emotions),  Bambi’s overwhelming first encounter with the Great Stag(the emotion in the drawings is breathtaking), and older Bambi reconciling with his old friends.  All of Johnston’s scenes in the film have great usage of subtle, believable gestures that clearly communicate the feeling and thinking of the character. The animator’s work on the film is truly inspirational and shows great sincerity, which is vital to great animation.  In comparison to the other supervising animators Johnston drew the Bambi characters very round and more simplistic in terms of design.  While there isn’t the draftsmanship of Kahl or deep thinking of Thomas in his Bambi work what is there is complete honesty, pure emotion, and sensitivity making his scenes although not flashy really make the audience connect with the characters and sympathize with them.

 

As Bambi was being completed World War 2 started and Ollie Johnston intended on enlisting alongside Frank Thomas (who worked for the animation unit for the war) but palsy prevented this from happening making him stay behind at the Disney studio where he worked on war projects. Among the shorts and films he worked on during this period included Victory Through Airpower, Chicken Little, the Pelican and the Snipe, and the Three Caballeros.  In the latter one he did a great scene where Donald Duck kisses the dancing girl that works very well despite a hiccup in its making.  “I had a scene with the Duck reacting to Aurora Miranda’s kiss, where his heart and bowtie start beating to this South American Drum,” explained Ollie. “I staggered the animation of the bowtie so that it went out and then back a little, then out and back in a little again, so that it would work to this beat. However, my inbetweener didn’t understand this and erased all of the extreme poses so that the bowtie just floated out to meet her. The error was discovered at a screening that Walt had arranged for the Latin American executives. They were also surprised to see some of my scene of singing Panchito accidentally cut upside down.  I was sitting in the back and that stuff goes by on the screen and Walt turns around with this black look on his face. It’s funny now to look back on it, but oh geez!” For the most part Johnston didn’t particularly like or feel challenged by his war assignments at the studio but there was one huge exception to this: Reason and Emotion.  Reason and Emotion is arguably the best thing done at the studio during this time period and is truly a great cartoon. While Ward Kimball animated the boy Reason and boy Emotion the other animator animated all of the Reason and Emotion girls. Emotion is without question the broadest character Ollie ever animated and the result is phenomenal. You feel the energy and strong emotion that girl is thinking through the timing, acting, expression, poses, and every other aspect of great animation. “The little girl was so flamboyant and impulsive, and wanted to do everything that popped into her head,” reflected Johnston. “She couldn’t control herself.”

After the war Disney went into a stage where it produced a string of package features giving animators opportunities to explore with different styles and ideas.  Although they are weak at many parts, there is quite a bit of great animation in these features and one of the absolute highlights of this era is Ollie Johnston’s intuitive and sincere animation of Peter in Peter and the Wolf. There is an intimacy between animator and character that works so well in this scene. You don’t see drawings up on the screen but rather an innocent, naïve boy with this gun who really wants to prove himself and is excited but doesn’t always know what to do in risky situations.  There is so much warmth in every scene he did of the character and it is so honest about how young boys feel.  I particularly love the scenes where he’s sitting in the corner and deciding to go out hunting and the one where he nervously walks through the woods scarred to death because they are unbelievably sincere.  “For Roger Rabbit I had to animate a scene with Peter so I studied the original drawings and I told my assistant ‘I can’t do that’,” explained Andreas Deja. “’I just can’t do something like that. The simplicity, the honesty, the emotion. The essence of a little kid with his toy gun going into the woods. All of that was there.’ It made me rethink my philosophy on animation, what’s possible, and what’s important.” Up next came the assignment of being a directing animator on the animation sequences of Song of the South, one that Ollie enjoyed greatly.  I’ve always absolutely loved his scenes of Brer Fox because of the way he used little details such as the eyes, shape of mouth, and secondary actions to make all the difference in communicating the character. You see things like this in real life if you observe so you recognize and connect with them in Johnston’s animation.  Another brilliant scene he did on the film is the one where Brer Rabbit ends up shaking Brer Bear’s hand. The fright when he makes the realization is terrific because it so clearly communicates the change in thought process and feeling.  On Melody Time Ollie animated a lot of Johnny in Johnny Appleseed and Little Tut in Little Tut.  He had more fun in Ichabod and Mr. Toad where he animated scenes of Ichabod Crane (Ichabod giving a singing lesson, getting a flower from Katrina, and nervously choking on the peppered egg in the Headless Horseman song) in the Sleeping Hallow segment and animating all of the prosecutor in the Wind and the Willows segment. “The prosecutor was the first character I really had all by myself of any importance,” Johnson explained.  “I loved doing him even though there weren’t too many scenes but he was a real egotistical guy who had nothing but contempt for everybody that got on the witness stand. He’d laugh at them, make fun of them, and I got this great way of having him walk and whirl.”

During the first half of the 1950s Ollie Johnston did a wide variety of characters and was able to apply his sensitivity and emotions for them to all of them successfully. On Cinderella he was the directing animator on Anastasia and Drizella, the two mean stepsisters of Cinderella. While it was a great challenge for the animator to feel emotional for such unlikeable character Ollie ultimately was able to put his magic in tact by putting his feelings towards them in the animation even if they’re not positive feelings. When you see them up on the screen you feel for Cinderella when they’re mean to her and you identify this emotion because everybody has experience with snaughty, spoiled girls some point in their life.  If you study Johnston’s scenes of the characters frame by frame you’ll see he did a brilliant job in using body posture and realistic gestures to communicate the characters. Although his animation of the characters was a success he didn’t necessarily enjoy working with the tight crotch the live action footage brought.  In addition to animating the stepsisters Ollie also animated the Lackey at the end. Although only a minor character it’s amazing to see how back then even the most peripheral of parts had great character designs and top-notch animation.  After Cinderella came Alice in Wonderland, where Johnston animated some of Alice as well as the lion’s share of the King of Hearts. The King of Hearts is rather passive giving the animator little room to do much with the performance but he did the part just right by putting in the nervous quality and communicating clearly he wasn’t the dominant one in the relationship.  One great scene Ollie did on the film is the one where Alice is conversing with the doorknob. In this scene through his animation he clearly realize from the start the most important point of the story: this is a typical, completely normal teenage girl in a world full of nonsense, whimsicalness, and insanity.  Johnston really felt Alice’s situation and emotional state in a way that the other lead animators on her didn’t, making his scenes oftentimes work much stronger emotionally than the others did.  However the animator didn’t share Milt Kahl and Marc Davis’s natural ability at animating straight characters with superb draftsmanship making it a lot harder for him to have to do a character so realistic and straight. “With a more cartoony character you can go so much broader but you had to handle Alice in a much straight way,” Johnston stated.  It was on the next film however that Johnston animated one of the greatest animated performances ever anywhere. The film was Peter Pan and the character was Smee.

 

Smee was actually a big challenge to Ollie Johnston and a big departure from his typical work.  The biggest problem that he found was that he had trouble getting inside the character because he was so shallow and didn’t think deep about anything in contrast to the animator’s very thoughtful personality. “The thing about Smee was he wasn’t smart at all and he was used as a foil for Captain Hook,” reflected Johnston. “I don’t drink much but I watch my friends drink. I get some ideas watching how late in the evening they sit down and smirk or cough a little bit.” Despite the challenge of Smee the animator really went into the character, conceived him thoroughly, and put a great nervous, nonchalant quality into the performance that makes the character so believable.  I personally love the character because your really do feel his character and see his lack of thought process. To communicate this Ollie gave him a very nonchalant, uncoordinated walk as well as expressions and gestures that showed his lack of thought and intellect.   Around this time the animator also did some quality animation on shorts such as Susie in Susie the Little Blue Coupe and Benjamin Franklin in Ben and Me.  In terms of features the next film up was Lady and the Tramp where Johnston was the directing animator on Lady, Jock, and Trusty.  In many ways this is the film that served as a turning point in his career: instead of being the versatile team player who did several different type of characters and drew in a very round style here his work began to focus a bit more on character relationships, soft subtleties, and had a lot of subtle touches between two characters.  Ollie’s animation on Lady shows great study, analysis, and subtle beauty making a very believable and sincere performance.  You can always tell what she’s thinking and her feelings are communicated in a very subtle way (Hal King also did some great stuff on the character but he went a little broader in some scenes.) Most of all there is a low key charm and sentimental quality that really makes Lady a character the audience falls in love with., all coming from the magic of Johnston’s pencil.  His stuff on Jock and Trusty is topnotch too, and he did a great job of making them have distinct expressions, lip syncs, and walks to show the contrast between the two characters.

After Lady Ollie Johnston went on to spend years doing character development and animation on Sleeping Beauty, where with Frank Thomas he supervised the animation of the fairies Flora, Fauna, and Meriwether.  The thing that makes these characters work so well is that their character relationship is so clearly defined (go through the Illusion of Life and you can find the story of how the characters came to be.) For the inspiration they worked very close together and looked at woman in their own life to try to find their characters.  “On vacation in Colorado, one of us met a lady who was to have a profound influence on the character of Fauna,” wrote Thomas and Johnston. “She could be described as wispy, constantly smiling, twinkling-eyed, and almost unaware of what might be going on about her. She loved everybody, thought beautiful thoughts, could scarcely conceive of wrongdoing, and delighted in spreading what she considered to be sunshine. Here was a positive character who saw only good in everything and still lacked nothing in personality. She was supposed to read an inspirational poem at each meeting of her women’s club but when she arrived and couldn’t find her prepared selection- instead of being flustered, upset, embarrassed, or confused- she blithely pulled out a letter from her cousin in Indianapolis and read it to the assembled ladies. She was always sweet and sparkling, and also a little infuriating, but as a model for a unique good character who could move through any problem unscratched as well as unaware of what she was inspiring. This opened up a whole new relationship and made us think a little of the great comedienne Billie Burke. At last we felt we had an understanding of the elusive Fauna. She still could be vague but she did have ideas of her own. She liked the idea of baking a cake but had trouble keeping her concentration while doing it. Of the three fairies she would worry the most and would be the one who would try to smooth over any conflict between the other two. This new slant had given Fauna an almost aggressive view of life.” A great scene to study for understanding character relationships is the one Ollie did where the Fairies are planning about what they’re going to do to protect Briar Rose.  You can see clearly the different personalities and their feelings towards the situation. However as always Johnston was critical of the work done on the picture. “The thing that wasn’t as strong as it should have been was their relationship to the girl,” he resented. “You never had the type of relationship that the Dwarfs and Snow White had where she had a different feeling toward each dwarf. Briar Rose looked at the three as pretty much the same personality.” After Sleeping Beauty Johnston went on to be a directing animator on One Hundred and One Dalmatians where he focused on Pongo, Perdita, and the Nanny.  There is a ton of heart in his animation on this film and it really helps make the picture work by communicating the soft sides of the characters.  One particularly warm, sincere scene is the one where after the puppies are born the Nanny grabs Pongo and embraces him. The contact is subtle and warm but it has so much meaning because of how little is going on.  The animator’s real masterpiece on the film, however, is the scene where Perdita is worried about what Cruella de Vill might do the puppies and Pongo comforts her.  So little movement happens but the little that does has so much power and emotional impact. It’s a great example of how it’s possible to get such elusive emotions as love and warmth up on the screen.  “Depicting love between two cartoon characters is even more difficult than warmth; it is possible the most elusive emotion to portray,” wrote Thomas and Johnston. “Love is built almost solely through the animator’s personal feelings about the drawings he is making. No one can say exactly which drawing, scene, or action has sold the idea because they are so subtly related. It is only the sum total of the ingredients that creates the illusion.” “I thought gee this layout is really restrictive,” said the animator about the scene. “I though I’d rather have Perdita out in the center of the room. But the more I worked at it, the more I realized that was the best place to have her because she is secluded. You couldn’t move her head or anything but in the end what moves I did put on them paid off. Particularly the little one at the end where he gives her a little kiss.” On Sword in the Stone Ollie animated scenes with Merlin and Wart as well as most of Archimedes the owl. One particularly brilliant scene is the one where Archimedes laughs for a record 28 seconds. You feel the air just coming out of him and how he just can’t stop laughing.  Although it is only briefly on the screen one pose I’ve always loved that Johnston did on the film is the one where when talking to Wart Merlin very subtly gives a crossed look on his face making him have a pose that communicates how scholarly and intellectual but cynical and stuffy he is. I know it’s brief but it’s really stuck with me for some reason.  I just feel it really shows the character and who he is so clearly.

After the critically and commercially disappointing Sword in the Stone Walt was intent that for the next feature strong character relationships would drive the story and that the film would be one that audiences would fall in love with. The choice for the story was the Jungle Book (which turned out to be Disney’s last before his death) and Ollie Johnston proved to be vital in making the feature work.  Along with Frank Ollie was responsible for brining to life the important character relationship of Baloo the bear and Mowgli the man cub.  The relationship between the two proved to be a very emotional, deep one and arguably the strongest ever done at the studio. “I kept thinking how can I make this bear and kid feel closer to each other,” the animator reflected. “Without these coming off properly all this character work we had done wouldn’t pay off.” “Character relationships must be built slowly and carefully through actions, expressions, and emotions,” wrote Thomas and Johnston. “Once Baloo had become a definite individual he was so entertaining it was impossible to keep him out of the rest of the picture.  Instead of the little cameo part that had been planned, he was built into the story more and more until he was the main force that made it work. Phil Harris’s performance added sincerity in a colorful character that gave new interest to everything he did but most important this bear suddenly had great warmth, something the picture had needed. None of the other voices were tested or the personalities we considered would have done this.  Baloo might have remained a cameo because he wouldn’t have been strong enough or important enough to use in more than one place and the story would have been quite different. The relationship between these two began to have enormous possibilities for warmth, comedy, pathos, and suspense. They really needed each other.  The bear never had a cub of his own and saw in Mowgli someone he could teach the things he thought were important. The story had been grim with everyone against the boy, and now he had a friend. But what a friend- irresponsible, impulsive, thoughtless. The audience knew the panther was right in his concern for Mowgli’s survival, but they also could see the appeal of the bear to the boy. All the characters had clear drives; they were in conflict and they were enjoyable and provocative.” Together the two animators animated almost all of Baloo and Mowgli therefore keeping great consistency between their relationships.  Ollie himself did tons of phenomenal, sincere animation on the film.  Some of his best scenes included Baloo meeting Mowgli, the two during the Bear Necessities, Bagheera convincing Baloo that Mowgli needed to go back to the man village, and Baloo waking up from pretending to be dead.  The use of touching, in particular, between the boy and bear really showed how emotional and strong their relationship was. Johnston also was the directing animator on Bagheera, the stuffy panther.  He and Frank always told the story about how part of their inspiration for Bagheera and Baloo was that at the studio there was a guy who had a very clean, orderly office while there was another one who had a very messy office.  Ollie’s final scene on the film was the bittersweet ending where Mowgli is wooed by an attractive girl into the man village. This is an important character arc because ultimately this is a coming of age story and the boy has to decide to go back to the man village himself. “At first I hated the idea,” Johnston confessed. “I wrested with it and the more I wrestled with it the more I liked it. So finally I managed to help this little girl innocently seduce Mowgli into going back.” The girl has just enough sex appeal balanced with innocence to make the ending work.

After Walt Disney’s death in 1966 many animators at the studio felt lost and struggled to stay afoot. While Ollie Johnson still did quality work he found that the inspiration, drive to do better, and unity of the studio had been lost and didn’t feel the features made after his death were as good as the ones during his lifetime. On the Aristocats he shared the leading characters of Thomas O’Malley and Duchess with Milt Kahl but unlike before where the two men could work very well together there was a lot of friction between the two men.  Kahl wanted a skinny cat and did a lot of rude trashtalking towards Ollie (the feud between the top animators at the studio was a major story for the last decade of their careers.  ) Besides doing the cats the animator also animated the geese Amelia, Abigail, and Uncle Waldo alongside Frank Thomas.  For Robin Hood the story was at the very best no better than that of the Aristocats but Johnston had more fun and fulfillment on this picture because of the character relationship of Prince John and Sir Hiss. While the story isn’t very strong, there is quite a juicy relationship between these two characters. A great inspiration to the animator on the film was the voice actors Pete Ustinov and Terry Thomas.  “I’d watch the voice actors when I had lunch with them,” Ollie remembered. “I can’t take my eyes off of them because I keep thinking I’ll see something. I’ll do it to Ustinov and he’d be eating and he looks at me out of the top of his eyes.” A lot of the analyzing and observing he did came into the final performance. “There is something very Ustinov about Prince John,” Johnston explained.  “He doesn’t move around a real lot and my conception of Prince John was the important things on him are the little things. He isn’t the kind of guy who does a lot of big movements. He really is too lazy and he only gestures. I like to see his mouth and the expression in his eyes.” Up next came the Rescuers, which ultimately was a film that the animator had a higher opinion of. “It had more heart than the previous three pictures,” Ollie simply stated. On the film he a lot of animation and did stuff on Bernard and Bianca as well as was the key animator on Penny, Rufus, and Orville.  Without a doubt Johnston’s best work on the film is the emotional, heartfelt character relationship between Penny and Rufus. There is so much warmth and subtlety between the characters that in many ways it covers up for a lot of the story shortcomings in the film.  Orville also proved to be a character that he enjoyed.  While the old guard fastly disappearing from Disney and management starting to change, Johnson did some early work and animation on the Fox and the Hound, doing scenes with young Tod, young Copper, Chief, Vixey, and Tod.  Ollie decided, factoring in his worsen palsy as well as dissatisfaction with the quality of films and a desire to write a book with Thomas, decided to retire from animating along with Frank on January 31, 1978.  Randy Cartwright took over his responsibilities as a supervising animator on the film.  However, although they were no longer animating Frank and Ollie stayed at the studio in an office together writing their classic book the Illusion of Life until 1981. In this time many young talents and animation students would go upstairs to their room and learn about animation through them.  Illusion of Life is in my humble opinion the greatest book ever written on animation and is a must-read for anyone who wants to be serious about getting into the art form. It’s so deep and analytical as well as really communicates what is important about Disney animation. Until Frank’s death in 2004 the two men constantly did things to promote Disney, inspire animation students, wrote books, and traveled around the world spreading their passion.  Ollie Johnston passed away on April 14, 2008 in Sequim, Washington at the age of 95.

As I’ve described above the heart of Ollie Johnston’s style and approach to animation was always the feelings and emotions of the characters. It was what he cared about the most, valued the most, and what he always went by first and foremost. While other animators spend a lot of time on technique and acting Ollie primarily just animated from his heart and used his own emotions to drive his animation. “Ask yourself what is this character feeling and why is he feeling that way,” he religiously said repeatedly. “You have to make it sincere so that the audience will believe everything they do, their feelings.” In comparison to Milt Kahl’s laborious work in getting the drawings and technical skills correct and Frank Thomas’s intense thinking and analysis the animator was much more intuitive and didn’t use as much intensity but rather approached his work in a very subtle, soft way.  When you look at Johnston’s rough drawings there is a lot of life, feeling, and subtlety in them. He always drew very lightly so on the paper his lines oftentimes almost disappear and appear.  When studying the structure of his scenes you’ll see that Ollie’s work and movement is pretty fluid and organic. The timing isn’t particularly complex, the movements are very fluid, the key poses aren’t too dominant, and everything is pretty even.  This gives his scenes a very smooth, natural texture.  In terms of character design Johnston used a ton of round shapes (reflecting his mentor Fred Moore) and appeal but drew more simplistically than someone like Milt Kahl and Marc Davis. Of course it was the pure emotion that made his scenes work and he did that very well.  All of Ollie’s characters are usually very honest, have very subtle emotions, and have emotional depth to them.  “I would sit, sweat, and analyze what I was going to do,” said the animator of his process. “If you haven’t, what have you got? Especially in a Disney picture. Walt’s strongest thing was personality, humor, and entertainment. So you struggle with these drawings, work so hard to get the right expression, right acting, and right timing.” Last in terms of acting physical contact and touching was something that he used as a way to thrive. The Johnston touch is always very heartfelt and incredibly sincere. “You’re not supposed to animate drawings, you’re supposed to animate feelings,” was his signature statement.

 

Ollie Johnston has had a profound, strong influence over the Disney features and in the art behind them.  No other animator in the history of the studio has been able to achieve the warmth and subtlety in animation that he achieved during his career. Most of the time when an animator relies on pure emotion it either doesn’t come or is too sappy. However Ollie did this perfectly and has inspired so many other animators to look into their heart to put their emotions into their scenes.  His work more than anyone else’s (besides that of Bill Tytla) proves that the feelings and emotions of the character are the sole most important thing in great Disney animation.  Johnston always talked about this and his word inspired a whole generation of animators to do sincere, emotional work.  He also influenced his contemporaries by inspiring them to really feel the emotions of their characters and when necessary use subtleties and soft touches to make their animation much more powerful and meaningful than if they did the scene broad.  When Tangled was made it is obvious that they must have thought back to Ollie’s philosophy of feeling first. This film won many devout hand-drawn fans over because it had the emotions and feelings that were so vital to the great hand-drawn films. Johnston himself was also a believer in innovation of the art of Disney animation and of doing things that are completely original and new but at the same time true to what Disney animation means and stands for.  While many other animators didn’t care about the future and felt uncomfortable with changes Thomas and Johnston really believed in young people and their ability to break new boundaries in the art form. Their immense mentorship, writing, and advice helped inspire animators to do their best for countless years and still continues to serve as an inspiration today.

Of course there isn’t any way that I could say Ollie Johnston isn’t a major inspiration to me.  Personally I absolutely love his approach to animation and belief that the emotions and feelings of the characters are always the most important thing to focus on when you’re an animator. I’m not an animator myself but I know that someday when I am that his philosophy and approach will help me remember what is possible and important in the medium.  Johnston’s signature quote, “You’re not supposed to animate drawings, you’re supposed to animate feelings,” really speaks to me because it really is the most important thing to remember if you’re an animator. This has to happen for the audience to believe in your characters.  I remember that when I first heard that quote that I felt an obligation to always make sure I remembered it. I did and still do to this day constantly write it down in booklets such as planners (I’ve already written it out in my planner the entire school year.) I have so much I haven’t learned and even more I haven’t experienced about animation but I know that if I remember this quote and stay true to it I should be headed in the right direction. Also their book the Illusion of Life has been a huge inspiration to me and I always enjoy reading it. It was my present for my 8th grad graduation and reading it in my heart really confirmed my gumption to become an animator at Disney someday. Their approach and philosophy really captivated me and is always a good source of inspiration. Every time I read the book again I realize how much more I understand of it which is kind of exciting because it reminds me there’s so much more to learn and so much ahead to come. It’s like I’m all the way down here and the more I realize that the more I want to go to the top.  It’s encouraging too that this is only the beginning.  Last I feel like Frank and Ollie’s belief in young people and the future has had a big impact on me.  While I can’t possibly imagine I’ll ever be worthy of being compared to anyone on this 50 list it’s nice to remember that Johnston always said that the next generation would do greater work than the first generation.  It’s hard to believe but it’s nice to know that someone believed that greater work is yet to come.  In a nutshell Ollie Johnston, his approach, work, and philosophy is a great inspiration to me and always inspires me to look to do better. Thank you Ollie Johnston for your contributions to Disney animation and for being a great inspiration to me as well as so many other people!

6. Glen Keane

Posted in Uncategorized on October 28, 2011 by Grayson Ponti Animation: A Site Analyzing All Things Character Animation

Disney animation, whether it’s in hand-drawn or CG, has the potential to be incredibly powerful and personal. When an animator puts their personal voice, heart, and soul into their animation this result can be achieved. To do so however you’ve got to be willing to challenge yourself artistically and really animate the feelings and emotions inside your heart.  This type of emotional animation is the kind that Walt envisioned and the type that he used to make his films speak to people and really impact an audience.  The stronger and more powerful the emotion, the more likely it is that the impossible dream and mystical secret to animation can be accomplished.  Animators who have this ability are few and far between. Only an artist at the highest level who believes in real emotions and can connect with his characters in a very intimate way can even dream of achieving this. If anyone living in the world has beaten this challenge and made this dream a reality, there is only one answer possible: Glen Keane, number 6 on our countdown and the subject of today’s post.

Glen Keane is known for being a key essential piece in making it possible for the second generation to thrive and for being the ultimate driving force at Disney animation for over 30 years.  His work has unbelievable artistry, strong emotions, soul, heart, passion, inspiration, transformation, communication, draftsmanship, and understanding.  Keane’s animation transcends the medium and takes things to a level that few have ever reached.  He does work that is completely original and has a different perspective than that of most animators (he sees himself first and foremost as an artist, instead of as a Disney animator), which allows it to have sensibilities and strength that would be almost impossible in anyone else’s work. “There is a need in me to do something personal,” explained Keane. “There has to be. This is what I constantly challenge young animators to do. I’ll say this is your moment on Earth to be an artist. This is your moment. So find something real personal and put yourself into it. Don’t put yourself in past Disney films. Make it personal and real. This is exactly how I’ve approached everything I’ve done hear and the only reason I’ve been able to stay at Disney all these years.” “There is nobody like him,” simply put animator Matt Williams. “Glen’s work has this great dynamic power,” Rusty Stoll admits in awe. “His approach is all about emotion and I love it,” says honorable mention Michael Cedeno. “I’ve learned a lot from him and loved every minute I’ve worked with him.” “Glen is a heartfelt, sincere guy who believes in things such as love and true emotion and he always wants to share that in an audience,” said Tangled director Nathan Greno. “He’s pretty high up there,” reflects honoree Mark Henn.  Among Glen’s best work includes Ratigan in the Great Mouse Detective, Ariel in the Little Mermaid, Marahute the eagle in Rescuers Down Under, the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Tarzan, and supervising the animation in the recent big hit Tangled. Also incredible is the influence he has had on his colleagues and the great mentoring he has done for so many artists.  Perhaps no other animator will be able to have the impact and influence over the films they’ve worked on and the artists around him that Keane has had for so many years and still does.

Glen Keane was born on April 13, 1954 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Bill Keane, the creator of the popular comic strip Family Circus, and the late Thelma Keane, being one of six children.  At a fairly young age he and his family moved out to Phoenix, Arizona.  Glen was greatly influence by his father being a cartoonist but found that his style of drawing would soon become very different than his father’s.  While Bill didn’t have much formal training and tended to draw more simplistic but sincere drawings, he urged his son to pay close attention to bold, passionate drawings as well as ones that have real life and solid anatomy to them. In the fourth grade he gave Keane a copy of Dynamic Figure Drawing by Burne Hogarth (highly recommended by the author and studying it will make animating worlds easier) and soon he was attending life drawing classes.  What Glen did take from his father though was an ability to communicate an expression and feeling through a pose and to make his work clear.  He would constantly draw in the desert and found that he had developed a very personal and intimate relationship with drawing and painting.  During high school, however, he was a great football player and wasn’t the typical cartoon geek that a lot of Disney animators come from. After high school Glen had to choose between taking a scholarship to Arizona State to play football and going to the California Institute of Arts to pursue a career in painting and drawing. Since he felt that drawing was like breathing to him and he just had to do it he picked the later option.  However an odd twist of fate happened when Keane’s portfolio that was intended to go to the School of Painting was accidentally sent to the School of Film Graphics, where he was accepted. “I never planned to be in animation,” he remembered. “It was something that just sort of happened by accident to me. I wanted to go into painting or illustrating. I just knew I wanted to draw. I didn’t know anything about animation. My portfolio went to Calarts to get sent to the school of painting but somehow or another it got sent to the school of animation, and I was accepted into that. I thought ‘Oh well, I’ll give that a try.’ And I found out about animation. It was a combination of all the arts together. And there was always this sort of ham side of me that wanted to act and I found out animation was really answering that desire. I love to draw figures and realized that animation requires a good understanding of anatomy and figure drawing, so I could use all that information in animation plus acting.” During his two years at Calarts Glen still didn’t realize that animation was his passion and looking back feels that the way animation was taught back then wasn’t at all what he knows it as today.  This was before the character animation program began and at the time they just taught the basics as well as what you need to get into low quality TV animation.  In the summer of 1973 Keane worked part time at the uninspiring, low quality studio Filmation on some of their poorly made TV series.  However everything changed when members of the Disney training program came to the school and presented their tests. “Suddenly I realized I could do that,” Keane fondly remembers. “I didn’t feel I was good enough to be an animator but that I felt I could do.” Around that time he applied for a job at Disney and showed his portfolio to the great Eric Larson.  Instead of marveling about what Glen was showing from what he had learned at Filmation, Eric just flipped through the portfolio really quickly, stopped on one drawing (a very simple, rough drawing of a figure), and said that if he could do some more like this one maybe he would have a chance. He also advised Keane to forget everything he learned about animation at Filmation because they wanted people who knew how to draw that they could teach how to animate.  The young man quickly started spending excessive time sketching and worked hard to improve his skills. In 1974 Glen Keane was hired at the Disney Studio. The next year he married Linda Hesselroth, who he loved from first sight and has been married to ever since.

During his time training with Larson Glen Keane found that his sensibilities were quite a bit different than those of the teacher. While Eric was very analytical and always saw what he drew in his head first, the young animator was more intuitive and relied on how he felt and what came out of his heart to have his animation and drawing come to place.  After finishing the training program Glen started inbetweening and assisting John Pomeroy, who at the time was working under Ollie Johnston. “While John always kissed the paper, I carved it like a caveman,” reflects the animator of the differences between the two men’s styles. However soon Keane got his work to be subtle enough to the point they couldn’t tell which drawings were whose.  Since Pomeroy was moving up, Glen then became Ollie’s assistant.  It would be Johnston that would turn out to be his true mentor and the one who would turn his life around forever.  He animated with pure emotions and was very intuitive, which matched up very well with Glen’s style although he was much more soft and subtle than the powerful dynamic style of the younger man.  Ollie inspired him to animate with his heart, use his own feelings to make his animation speak to people, and use subtleties to show the true emotions of the characters.  By the end of the Rescuers Keane was a full-fledged animator and he did some great scenes of Penny.  These scenes show great potential because the girl he animates them is truly a girl who feels traps and feels sad.  The boldness and passion shown in the eyes and drawings also gives us a bit of a glimpse of what is yet to come.  Glen also animated a scene or two with Bernard.  All throughout the production Johnston would constantly give him tips and look at his work to help him in every way realize his full potential and strive for better (they worked this way some on Fox and the Hound as well.) After the Rescuers Keane went on to Pete’s Dragon, where he animated Elliott the dragon, which turned out to be a character, he didn’t particularly enjoy.  “I never really got into him as a character,” he told John Cawley.

During the production of the Fox and the Hound the old guard began to depart (Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston left it in 1978 after doing some early animation on the film) leaving three groups in conflict: one was made up of second-rate talent from the first generation desperate for a chance, the Bluth Group, and a group of young trainees known as the Calarts Boys. The three groups came into conflict leading into much tension at the studio. “I was in my 20s and having people in their 50s and 60s inbetweening my stuff so there was just built in trouble,” Glen explains.  However he did get his big break on the film and it was his first time as a supervising animator.  There are two scenes he did in the picture that really show the great dynamic power he has as an animator. One is the scene Glen animated where Todd sees Vixie for the first time.  The expressions and attitudes of the love-stricken fox are so intuitive and you really identify with the way he is feeling.  I have always felt he must have used his feelings from the first time he met Linda for these scenes because the emotions of the characters are so real in the scene and you connect with the situation completely because it’s so clear. The power behind the drawings of both characters is also very phenomenal.  The second one is the bear fight, which is the only scene in the film that gives the audience a little bit of a tilt as well as an immense feeling of suspense and action.  When planning the scene Keane studied Wolfgang Reitherman’s animation of the fight scene in Lady and the Tramp for inspiration.  The suspense, dramatic staging, excellent draftsmanship, and use of weight in the scene is truly amazing. And blows the audience away.  It had been decades since such an exciting and well staged had been done at the studio.  While most of the Fox and the Hound is rather forgettable and dull the bear fight is a terrific scene and gives a quick glimpse into Disney’s more livelier, exciting films that would come in the near future. However as promising a talent as Glen was times were getting tough for him to flourish.  Although he animated scenes for the Black Cauldron none of his scene made it in the picture and the directors as well as producer had no desire for him to work on the film.  So after that Keane joined the crew on Mickey’s Christmas Carol where he was the lead on Willie the Giant.  For the inspiration he turned towards his then-18 month old son Max (he’s now working as a computer graphic artist.) From observing his expressions and antics he was inspired to animate this naïve innocent character but in this case inside a huge body.  Then Glen worked with John Lasseter on the pencil test for Where the Wild Things Are, which was made to show the potential of CG animation.  However the project was ended and Lasseter was fired for the studio. So after feeling there wasn’t a place for him in this environment Keane left the studio in 1983.

Although he officially wasn’t an employee during this time away he did for Disney one of the first major highlights of his career.  It was animating Ratigan, the villain rat in the Great Mouse Detective.  Ron Clements and John Musker wanted Glen on the film so they let him do the animation by freelance and do his work at home.  He remembers that most of his animation was actually down from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. because that was the only time he got enough peace and quiet to work.  “Ratigan was originally a very skinny character,” explained Keane. “He was a rat and we had him kind of as a weasly-looking guy but his design was too similar to Basil. I was thinking maybe we should be really bigger with him. At the time we watched the Vincent Price film Champagne for Caesar and listening to his dialogue I realized that’s the voice for him. He just had this sharp, quick way of speaking and the timing was great. You could tell he enjoyed being a rotten guy. Like Ratigan he felt like he was justified in doing whatever he did, which is important for a villain. The villain isn’t bad just because he’s bad, but he’s justified. He feels like he’s right. I started doing drawings of a much larger, huge rat character and it fit. So then we actually brought Vincent Price in and headed in that direction.” Another great inspiration for Ratigan was the use of the marvelous sculpture of the character done by Ruben Procopio.  I’ve always felt that Procopio’s sculptures really helped Glen realize his vision for his characters and work with the sculpted approach to drawing he uses in his animation.  In every way the animator’s performance on Raitgan is excellently done.  You can tell that Keane was really into that character big time because the acting and gestures he uses are so consistent with the character.  I love the strength of anatomy and weight he used to make the character seem so real. At this time Glen had begun to seriously study the work of Vladimir Bill Tytla, an extraordinary animator who animated with strong emotions and an artistry that has never been reached by anyone else in the history of animation.  You can see in Keane’s work elements and aspects that remind you of Tytla’s but it’s done in a completely original way. In the case of Ratigan you can see the inspiration in the way the animator used the mass of the body to communicate a pose, the bold expressions and actions he does, the strong weight, and most of all animation that has no gap between the inner and outer emotions of the characters. In every scene everything that Ratigan is thinking and feeling inside is communicated clearly to the audience and is shown in a very powerful, effective way. Every action and gesture the character does supports what he’s thinking, which is part of why the acting on the character is so top notch.  A must freeze-frame scene is the one where he is explaining his plan and leads into the World’s Greatest Criminal Mind song as well as the stuff in the song itself. During the final year of Glen’s three years away from the studio he went over to work on the feature film Chipmunk Adventure, where he animated the Girls of Rock ‘n Roll sequence.  Of course after that he was lured back to the studio for good and the rest is history.  The first film Keane worked on back at the studio was Oliver and Company, where he primarily focused on Sykes, Fagan, and Georgette.  Like Ratigan, Sykes is again a heavy villain but this time he went a different direction by making him very reserved and restrained in his actions and movements. He is always very contained and avoids showing emotion too much, which makes him contrast well to the livelier Fagan.  Study the scenes of the two of them together because they are great examples of having two personalities contrast as well as for understanding the character relationship. On the flipside Fagan is more appealing and lively in character. However Keane didn’t necessarily love animating the character.  “I enjoyed him but I always had a basic disagreement with the approach on design,” he explained. “I wanted him to be a short, fat little guy and instead he was a tall, skinny guy. I enjoyed animating him but I don’t think I ever got into that character as much as I would’ve liked to, not that I didn’t try.”  Personally I’ve always loved Glen’s animation of Georgette the poodle in her song Perfect Isn’t Easy because I love the way he used walks and posture to communicate that this is one sexy, spoiled and shallow character. You make a strong connection to her because everyone knows girls that are like that.  I also like the statement because since Keane believes in anything but being shallow in the animation you get the sense that his feelings towards people who act that way aren’t that positive.  The poses used on the character are excellent too.  The really secret to the scene however is the way Keane used the eyes to show Georgette’s feelings and thoughts throughout the scene. This type of communication is always extremely effective.  It would however be the next film that truly opened up the animator’s heart as well as the one where he really showed how subtle he could go but still do something stronger emotionally than almost anything that has ever been done at the studio. The film was the Little Mermaid and the character was Ariel.

With his success with villains and heavy character in the past in mind Ron and John originally planned on having Glen Keane animate Ursula the sea witch (Ruben Aquino did an excellent performance on her in the final film.) However everything changed when he listened to Jody Benson sing Part of Your World. “I heard Part of Your World, Jodi Benson singing that, and it just captivated me,” Glen reflects. “I had to do that. And I went to those guys and said, ‘I really want to do Ariel.’ And they said ‘Well I don’t known. This is supposed to be a pretty girl. Can you do that?’  I said, ‘ Look, I have to do Ariel. I mean, I can feel it in my heart.’” There is something really powerful about his animation of Ariel that really speaks to me. She isn’t like most Disney heroines who just want to win over a guy but actually has this strong passion and desire that she is desperate to have come reality. This strong emotion makes the transformation of her character so powerful and her situation so believable. Everyone has that moment when they so strongly want something that seems almost impossible and they’ll do anything they get it. Then suddenly at times it can lead to that impossible dream coming true and the passion you feel for that makes it mean so much.  As I said in the Mark Henn post Keane’s Ariel is actually quite a bit different than Henn’s Ariel.  While Mark took his inspiration mainly from how teenage girls behave and act as well as animate a girl that’s relatively young and naïve but still sweet and sincere, Glen animated a girl that was much more mature, had more depth, and most importantly had much stronger and deeper emotions.  Also while the former man used a more simplistic design for her and drew her in an appealing, soft way the later man drew her with more boldness and power.  For the inspiration Keane used a picture of his wife Linda to model Ariel’s face after and to connect with her emotionally. This definitely works because the emotional connection established with Ariel is one that’s very strong and sincere.  You feel for her and her situation.  While Glen did a lot of supervising on Ariel to make sure everyone did her right and did her well he also did a lot of the most important animation on her himself. One particularly powerful scene is the one where they’ve come up to land and through her expression we realize that she’d miserable for the rest of her life if she stayed a mermaid. That shot has such clear communication and really puts you in that emotional situation.  The best and most important scene he did however was animating the Part of Your World sequence.  In fact Glen was actually the one who saved the scene from being dropped from the movie.  Due to the fact he thought based off of a test showing the scene was too much for kids to handle Jeffry Katzenberg said it was going to be cut from the film.  “It was the very last thing I though possible,” remembered Keane. Ron Clements, John Musker, and Howard Ashman, all horrified, begged him to change his mind and explained how important the scene was to the movie but still the plan remained the same. However when Keane came up to Jeffry and said how this was important as well as explained how he could change it to make it more effective it was brought back into the movie. Everything about the scene is exceptional and you could say that in many ways it’s the scene that brought back Disney animation.  That song makes the entire movie work and Glen’s animation really allows us to feel for this girl in a way that the audience didn’t about anything for decades in a Disney film.  The film was a huge success and a lot of that is due to the inspiring, powerful but subtle animation he did on the character. Keane also supervised and did a little bit of animation on Eric, although Mike Cedeno (who was mentored by Glen) did the lion’s share of animation on the character. However the animator doesn’t feel too fond of the way the character turned out and how he was in the story.  “I would’ve liked him to have more depth of character,” he stated. “Instead he was kind of a standard prince.”

After the huge success of Ariel Glen Keane moved on next to going over to London to work on the Purdum’s version of Beauty and the Beast “I had never been to Europe before,” he said in an interview. “So it was so inspiring to go around Europe and sketch all this bold, beautiful art.” However the Purdum’s version was not working so the studio decided to start from scratch with the story crew back in California.  Keane then returned to the Glendale studio and started working on the Rescuers Down Under, where he was the supervising animator on Marahute the eagle(he also storyboarded the flight scene as well.) For his inspiration he spent some time with people who worked with birds of prey and used the care and passion he saw the people have as a resource to make the emotion of his animation more powerful.  In the final film Glen animated Marahute with so much powerful and you really feel excited as well as awed during the amazing flight scene. “Marahute taught me that real life is as entertaining as anything I can think of in my imagination,” he reflected. “Capturing how an eagle flies is really rewarding if you can make it feel real.” I highly recommend studying this scene because the use of cinematography and passion in this scene is mind-blowing.  After Rescuers Down Under Keane would be assigned one of the toughest assignments in the history of Disney animation and took it to a level that no one else could have envisioned. It is also in my opinion his best work. The film was Beauty and the Beast and he was given the difficult assignment of giving a soul and heart to the ugly, unassuming Beast.

In terms of story Beauty and the Beast was a huge experiment and very groundbreaking. Before it every Disney film that involved humans and romance had a perfect, good-looking male protagonist who were drawn very straight and perfected.  This time, however, the audience had to have feelings and sympathize not just with a guy who wasn’t perfect and typical but in this case a Beast! Not only did they have to see the good in the character but they had to accept something even harder, that Belle would fall in love with him.   Glen Keane, however, saw a soul and heart in this character that nobody else saw. He gladly took the challenge of making the emotional transformation of this character powerful enough to be effective while still making it believable.  The first problem Keane had to solve was the design of the Beast. Most of the work done up to that point had a human people with an animal head, usually looking similar to a mandrill.  However he felt strongly that the Beast should feel like an animal because it would serve as a constant reminder to him of what has happened to him and the flaws of his character.  “I wanted Beast to be comfortable on all fours, which is a big statement,” Glen explained to Charles Solomon. “This guy is not just a man with a beast’s head on; he is actually, physically, bone structure-wise, an animal.” For the inspiration in how the beast would feel and look like he constantly did life drawings at zoos and studied the anatomy and body structure of the animals closely.  Then he had to put all these different parts together to create one cohesive design that worked best for the character. “One day animator Broose Johnson came in and said ‘So what’s the Beast going to look like?,” remembers Keane. “This is after 6 months of searching and researching but I said ‘I’m not sure Broose. I don’t know.’ However then I started to draw and said ‘I like the massiveness of this buffalo head,’ and sketched out the weight; then I said ‘But with the brow of a gorilla,’ and I drew the brow there.  ‘But with the muzzle of this wild boar, and then the main of a lion but the body of a bear and the legs of a wolf.’ As I did that it just all came together.  So then there’s this moment when you recognize the character. I looked at it and said ‘That’s him. That’s what he looks like Broose. That’s the Beast.” With the design down now the animator had to face the challenge of deciding on the Beast’s characterization. If he was too sweet the story wouldn’t work and the change in his personality that is essential for the film wouldn’t be strong enough. If he was completely mean from the start and didn’t show any emotion it wouldn’t work either.  It took Glen a long time to get the character done but it all came together on one scene. It clicked when he animated the scene where the Beast is asking Belle if she could join him for dinner, which was brilliantly storyboarded by Burny Mattisnon.  The Beast’s first response is to do it in a forceful way but he realizes that he needs to be more chivalrous so he tries to control his temper.  Desperately wanting this chance so she can fall in love, he tries to put his act together and does his best to try to ask her in a polite way.  As hard as he tries though Belle still says no. Then the Beast gets frustrated and can’t control it anymore. He starts yelling and screaming before stating that if she doesn’t eat with him she doesn’t eat at all, while doing gestures similar to those of a child throwing a fit.  If you study the scene the change in emotion and acting in the scene is truly excellent.  You begin to understand and learn that his problem is he doesn’t know how to love or control his temper.   You see that he really wants to do good and truly tries hard to do it right but at a certain point the frustration makes him lose it. This is the first time where you really connect with the Beast and you accept him because you have either done that or have observed somebody do it (to be candid a few times I’ve actually acted a bit like that back in my immature early teens- everybody does at some point.) The poses and gestures also clearly state this making the communication very clear.  One pose I particularly love and is really powerful is the one where the Beast points his finger at the door gesturing to them that this was what he meant when he said she’d say no.  “The Beast’s biggest problem is he never learned how to love,” Keane explained. “This is where all of this came from.” What I love about all the Beast animation is the sculptural approach Glen gave to the animation and the analysis he gave to the character throughout the film.  Knowing it was important that all the animation of the character was deep and high quality he did a unique approach to supervising the character. Instead of animating all the major scenes himself and handing out the secondary scenes to everyone else what Keane did was give major scenes to the animators as well as to himself so all the animators in the unit could really get themselves inside the character and learn to really understand him. All the animation of the Beast is great and in particular Tony de Rosa, Aaron Blaise, and Broose Johnson did a lot of great scenes with him.  As for the scenes he did himself Glen did among others the Beast’s introduction to Belle, where he is very stern and angry, and the Beast’s Resurrection, which has amazing artistry and is incredibly powerful.  The hardest scene for him to animate though was the one where he lets Belle go back home because he loves her.  I love the drawings Glen did that show him think and are really subtle- they make the character arc all that much stronger. “I wanted to animate the incredible turmoil that was going on inside the character, and there was no action. The only way you can express those intense emotions is by subtly tilting an eyebrow or changing the shapes of the corners of the mouth. It’s very delicate work- completely the opposite of what you’re feeling inside.”

The next film Aladdin proved to be a bit easier for Glen Keane. “After doing Beauty and the Beast with all these angular, sculptural shapes it was great as an artist to do something more cartoony and fun,” he stated. However, he didn’t take his work on the character Aladdin any less seriously and it turned out to be another hit for him.  The challenge with him was that unlike most other straight princes in Disney history he had to be the one the story was told through and he couldn’t just be perfect or dull. Aladdin had to transform emotionally throughout the film and learn that having feelings and caring about other people is much more fulfilling and important than having superficial things such as money although it’s important to stand up for yourself and have courage.  This was unlike the other romance movies a film that had a lot of comedy and cartoony shapes in it rather than a serious tone making it extra important that the male lead was lively and interesting.  To solve the problem Glen gave Aladdin great charisma, charm, liveliness, and depth to make him able to connect with the audience and integrate with the comedy while still having true heart and soul and being able to drive the story.  You connect with him because what he wants is so universal: he wants respect, to be treated fairly, and to win over the girl of his dreams.  Aladdin makes mistakes but he learns from them and turns into a very proactive, lovable character.  To communicate this Keane gave him a very mellow, laid back walk with a bit of awkwardness and movements that are relaxed and show charisma.  I’ve always loved the eyebrows he gave the character because they work so well with the expressions.  My favorite scenes Glen did on Aladdin are the one where he sees Jasmine for the first time and the one where he is unsure what to say when Jasmine finds out he was the boy at the market. Both really speak to an audience and you really feel for the character very intuitively.  After Aladdin Keane immediately moved onto Pocahontas where he was brought on as the first animator on the film. He started doing storyboards and character designs so he could discover how he envisioned her to look and what was needed for the character. Unlike Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast (films that had comedy and sincerity very well integrated) Pocahontas had to be treated in a very straight way and everything needed to be taken super seriously.  The lines even stated what the characters were thinking so everything needed to be really subtle.  For Pocahontas Glen did work very hard on the subtleties and was very particular in the way she was drawn. “That film was really not fun to work on but working with Glen on it was a once in a lifetime experience,” remembered honoree Tom Bancroft. “You even had to submit a life drawing portfolio to get into the unit even though you already worked at Disney.” “When I came back to Disney on Pocahontas Glen was really one of the ones who most embraced me being back,” states honoree John Pomeroy. “Working with him on the look of the characters and the animation on the film was a wonderful experience.” Although Pocahontas can be a little too serious and straight, Keane really did some phenomenal animation on the film.  The highlight without question is the powerful, breathtaking Colors of the Wind sequence. Glen did some amazingly subtle animation on that scene as well as did some absolutely beautiful charcoal drawings.  “When those charcoal drawings come up in the Colors of the Wind, that’s the only time my artwork has ever gone directly on the screen in my whole career,” the animator points out.

In 1995 Glen Keane decided to take a sabbatical from the Disney studio and moved out to Paris, France where he planned on developing a personal project on his own.  However Disney was soon to follow him and they convinced him to supervise the title character in Tarzan at the Paris studio.  Although most of the other units were in California Keane and a group of primarily young talented artists did the character overseas.  “Tarzan was presented and it felt like something I was born to do,” he simply stated.  Glen was fascinated by the story behind this ape-man who was a human but had been raised with gorillas. To show this to the audience he made Tarzan have movements and behaviors like an ape but also had him walk upright at certain moments to show that he was really a human.   This makes the confusion of identity so clear and believable to the audience. The thing that’s so strong about Keane’s animation of Tarzan is the strength of the realization he makes about who he is and the way his unconditional, deep love for Jane inspires him to change but his love for his ape family makes him have inner turmoil about what is right.  Ultimately he learns to take responsibility and ends up having both of his loves coexist in a fulfilling way.  I love Glen’s Tarzan animation because it’s so deep and really well thought out. You can tell he was so inspired by this character and really felt his situation and emotions in his own heart.  Another thing worth studying about Tarzan is the use of anatomy and European-esque sensibilities in design to help enhance the unique feel of the film artistically.  One scene that is a must to study frame by frame is the one where Tarzan meets Jane because it shows Keane’s ability at using subtleties that really have so much meaning behind them.  After Tarzan the animator returned to Burbank in 1998 although he was a little burnt out from the exhausting, difficult experience of supervising Tarzan and having to work hard to communicate with the people back home (it was a difficult enough experience with Disney Florida so indeed it was even worse at Paris.) Glen’s returning film was Treasure Planet, where he supervised long John Silver.  Although Silver is more complex in terms of design and has more behind him than most of the characters in Treasure Planet the story and character wasn’t strong enough to get him into doing what he normally does. Keane’s work on the film just isn’t as deep and inspired as his other work although he did try.  He even strongly considered leaving the studio after the film because he didn’t feel challenged.

After Treasure Planet Glen Keane finally decided to really move forward with his personal project and try to make it a film.  He had a desire to animate the character of Rapunzel so he decided to make a story around her. Although they wanted it in CG the studio gave him open arms to the opportunity to direct a feature film.  Early on however Glen firmly decided that he would really challenge the computer on this film and push the artist to make it have the feel of a hand drawn film.  Around this time he also brought his daughter Claire on the film who would help out with the visual development and color design.  Originally Rapunzel was supposed to be a rather dark, serious but personal film.  Keane’s sensibilities just didn’t spread to contemporary humor and cartoony animation; what he needed was passionate, bold stuff that really speaks to people.  In 2008 a couple of events put the future of Glen’s career at the studio in question.  One was the fact that the Rapunzel project wasn’t really picking up momentum and directing didn’t really work well with his skills. Another one was the fact that Keane had a heart attack and had to take six months off to recover.  During this time he stepped down as director of the film and let Nathan Greno and Byron Howard take his place. The film was also renamed Tangled and given a more contemporary, humorous feel. However when it was time for animating Glen came on as the supervisor of animation as well as the designer of the characters. Throughout the film he really pushed the CG animators to take their work to the next level and not accept what the rig was giving them. “It was very important that I never animated on a computer on this film,” Glen stated in an interview, although he did several pencil tests for the film and had great influence over the animation.  “I couldn’t sympathize with their struggles. I had to push them.” The results were truly phenomenal: Keane’s voice is in every shot of the film and the animation done on the film disproved many of the complaints about CG animation. While many people before had said that computer animation was incapable of having deeply personal and subtle animation as well as couldn’t look as good as a hand drawn film the animation done on the film has subtleties that are hard to obtain in hand-drawn and the work on the film is really powerful as well as high quality. It helped that many great hand-drawn animators such as Alex Kupershmidt (who did a ton of Maximus the horse), John Ripa (who did a lot of Flynn), Mike Surrey (who did a lot of the chameleon), and Nik Ranieri (who animated the guards as well as some of Mother Gothel and Flynn) on the film and their styles are pretty visible and prevalent in the final film.   Best of all there is real heart and sincerity in the film, which is very important in making a great animated film. Glen had finally done something no other animator had done before: make a film that was his artistic vision and done in his style throughout.  However in the aftermath of Tangled’s success there were some rumors that circled around that the master animation wasn’t too happy at the Disney studio. In March 2011 there were even rumors that Keane was on the verge of leaving Disney and accepting an offer by Jeffry Katzenberg to work for DreamWorks.  Around the same time fellow animators began to believe that the animator was going to retire to pursue his lifelong dream of working in fine art. However Glen chose to stay with Disney but his office was moved from the Hat Building to the main lot, where he got to return to his old office in the old animation building. Now he is working in his old office and is developing two ideas for very personal animated films.

One thing to remember about Glen’s style and approach is that he views himself first and foremost as an artist instead of a Disney animator.  He has no desire to just try to emulate the great animators of the past and instead has a desire to do something personal, high quality, and passionate.  Keane is an avid sketcher and analyzer so he takes a lot of inspiration from what he sees and experiences as well as from what he draws. “Everything I’ve ever animated is based off of something I observed and drawn,” he reflects. “I take drawing very seriously. To me I feel if you’re going to really push into where I think the acting needs to go, and if we’re going to really compete with live action, then our acting needs to go to levels where you’re really dealing with subtle, deep human emotions. The only way you can really capture that, besides being in touch with your own heart in the acting, is to be able to draw what you feel. It require a real understanding of anatomy and to be able to draw really well, to communicate.” Whenever Glen animates something he goes in touch with his heart and always makes sure to put his strong, real emotions into the animation to make it powerful and speak to an audience.  One thing that is particularly brilliant about him is that unlike many animators who are either more of an animator who does great acting or one that does great drawings with one skill being better than the other he is equally strong at both and both of them are excellent in his scenes. This makes him a very dynamic animator: he can use his technique and skills as a draftsman to communicate his emotional side in a way that’s very effective and can use his feelings and emotions to put strength and power in his drawings making the two complementary of each other.  In terms of design Keane uses hair as an important asset in communicating the character. He finds things about the hair that really show the character’s inner trauma (e.g.- Ariel’s hair floats as a reminder she is a mermaid but wants desperately to be a human, the Beast’s hair is like an animal constantly making him remember that he has been transformed into a beast, Tarzan has dreadlocks and wild hair to communicate the fact he’s an ape man and lives in the jungle).  Glen’s drawings are also very sculptural and have great depth to them.  “To me, animation, I think of it as sculptural drawing,” he explains. “I shade all of my drawings. Animators say to me, “Why are you shading your drawings? No one’s going to see the shading.” It’s like, you could get that done so much quicker if you didn’t do the shading, but I would never do the drawing like this, so I didn’t do the shading. It’s all about light and form and space.” Keane also oftentimes animates very rough to get the essence and feeling of the character first, then anatomy second.  He starts by studying the storyboard and listening to the track as well as filling out the exposure sheet. Then he uses thumbnails to figure out his scenes and put his inspiration on paper. Keane at this stage starts to think about the timing and phrasing in his scenes as well as elements of performance.  He spends a lot of time on finding the attitudes and actions that illustrate the acting in the scene.  Next comes working it out more thoroughly on the exposure sheet to get the action down pat. Then Glen works on finding the key poses and making sure they communicate what he feels is important about a scene emotionally.  He puts this together in a pose test to see if it works. After that he starts to pick up and does the rest of the drawings in a pretty fast rate.  In notes down for the studio Keane discussed his seven essentials for animation: “1. Make a positive statement. Don’t be ambiguous with your approach. Thumbnail until you have that clear approach and conviction. Be bold and decisive.  2. Animate from the heart.  Feel your drawings. Let your acting be an extension of how you believe the character feels. Put yourself in the place of the character you’re animating- associate. 3. Make expressions and attitudes real and living. 4. Draw as if you were sculpting. 5. Animate the forces.  6. Visualize and feel the dialogue. 7. Simplicity.”

Glen Keane is one of the most inspirational figures in Disney history and you could very well argue he is the most influential person in the second generation.  His personal, strong, powerful, dynamic, and deeply emotional work has influenced his coworkers and inspired all of them to do their best work. Seeing how he animates with so much emotion and how he approaches himself as a real artist, people have used Glen as a source of inspiration in deciding to do work that is strong and personal to them.  Perhaps no other animator in Disney history has had that much influence over the people around him. Artistically Keane’s animation is extremely influential because it had a level of thought, quality, and heart that hadn’t been seen at Disney for years. It really brought back and redefined great sincere Disney animation and the importance of it in making a film work. When Little Mermaid came out the phenomenal and powerful animation Glen did of Ariel really made the film work and made it possible for the film to bring Disney animation back to being a major player in the film industry.  Audiences hadn’t identified and connected with a character in that intimate of a way for decades.  Keane’s work also made it possible for their to be deeper, richer stories done in the right way because the power and strength he puts in his animation allows for that kind of heartfelt, sincere story to work.  His approach to characters is also very influential because he adds so much depth to them and really thinks about their emotional situation, inspiring other animators to do the same.  Glen today is very important to the Disney studio because he serves as a great mentor to the young guys there and has been challenging them to do work that is personal, strong, and emotional, something a lot of young people don’t do in the business. It’s worth noting that he has had more of his assistants and animators in his units by a mile become supervisors than any other animator in modern Disney history. Glen just is able to prepare them to have what it takes and bring their work to the next level. Among the successful people he mentored include Tony de Rosa, Tony Fucile, Mike Surrey, Aaron Blaise, Broose Johnson, Matt O’Callaghan, Randy Haycock, and Mike Cedeno as well as many more. Glen Keane has really made the greatness and accomplishments of modern Disney history in so many ways.

Glen Keane has been a huge influence and inspiration to me. In terms of animation and art he’s inspired me to try to put in my drawings emotions that comes from inside my heart and that I really feel deeply.  When you animate or draw from your heart you’re able to make your work stronger than you can any other way. Glen’s work has also influenced me to think about what is personal to me and to have a desire to be an artist and not just an animator. I’ve begun to really try to understand human emotions and to take inspiration from what I see as well as what I feel and experience, both things I feel Keane’s work and word has inspired me to do.  I also try to really take drawing seriously and challenge myself, all things he has taught and preached. His work is so powerful, bold, emotional, personal, and artistic that it’s mind blowing to me and I drop in awe of its strength. I would do anything to do something with just 1% of the passion and feeling of Glen’s work. However as much as I find his work inspiring and want to be like him I know that he believes that it’s essential to see yourself in your own right so I try hard to stay true to that.  Keane is also inspirational to m because he really believes in strong, real and true emotions such as true love, beauty, and soul.  His work always really speaks to me and a lot of what it speaks to me about is these types of qualities.  I want to be a great person, stay true to my heart and soul, and always am on a pursuit to find these true powerful feelings in life so looking up to someone like Glen is a great way to do that. I’ve heard he is a very moral and kind person as well as one who is always willing to help you out and give you some inspiration.  In conclusion I feel that Glen Keane’s work has inspired me to dig deeper into my heart, find inspiration in life, and always try to challenge myself to reach higher and do better. Thank you Glen Keane for your contributions to Disney animation as well as for being a great hero and inspiration to me as well as so many other people!

7. Milt Kahl

Posted in Uncategorized on October 21, 2011 by Grayson Ponti Animation: A Site Analyzing All Things Character Animation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!