A Dreamer Walking

Milt Kahl – Character Designer – Pinocchio

Posted in Animation, Film and Filmaker Studies by Jacob on June 15, 2014

Milt Kahl 9Walt Disney’s 1940 masterpiece Pinocchio was the film where The Nine Old Men, who would be responsible for forty years Disney Animation success, first began to show their true colors. During the 1930’s and the beginning of the 40’s the main animators leading Disney animation were Bill Tytla, Fred Moore, Hamilton Luske and Norman Ferguson. These were the men who were responsible for literally defining the foundations of hand drawn animation. Disney’s now legendary Nine Old Men were but young stewards trying to gleam as much as they possibly could from these veterans. In the movie Snow White Ward Kimball was the only one of the Nine Old Men put in charge of a sequence and it ended up being dropped from the final film.

During the production of Pinocchio many of Walt’s young artists saw it as an opportunity to shine. Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas did a tremendous amount of animation on the main character Pinocchio, including much of the sequence where Geppetto is controlling the lifeless Pinocchio on strings and the sequence where Pinocchio finds himself in Stromboli’s cage lying to the Blue Fairy. Since Walt understood Kimball’s devastation after having his sequence cut from Snow White he put him in charge of the character who would become the most memorable character in the movie, Jiminy Cricket.  Another man who really shined during during the production of Pinocchio was Milt Kahl. Now considered maybe the greatest animator of all time, Kahl did many brilliant sequences of animation for the movie; including the little scene where Jiminy Cricket finds he is late on his first day of the job and ends up putting his cloths on while he runs past camera (I know this doesn’t sound like anything special but ask any animator about the shot and they will begin to look faint just thinking about it). However, Kahl’s greatest contribution to the movie was the final design of the title character Pinocchio.

The movie Pinocchio was actually in the works before Snow White was released in 1937. However, Walt and his artists were constantly running into a roadblock. The lead character Pinocchio was just not that likable. In fact, if you go back to the original Carlo Collodi short stories the character of Pinocchio is a cruel trouble maker who ends up killing the Cricket that Walt would appoint as Pinocchio’s conscious in his version of the story. Walt was also very put off by the original design of Pinocchio. The problem you ask? He looked too much like a puppet. The Disney artists more then anybody else at the time understood the power of having appealing designs for their main characters. The Seven Dwarfs in Snow White were filled with appealing designs. Even the never happy Grumpy was filled with curved features and a smooth movement highlighted by the great Bill Tytla. Walt understood his characters’ appeal was a huge part of the movie’s success and he was so frustrated about the lack of appeal in Pinocchio’s design he halted the project altogether.

The then nobody Milt Kahl thought he would have a go at the design of Pinocchio. He chose to treat Pinocchio not like a puppet but rather an average eight year old boy, someone would see at the local playground. Kahl came to Walt with the design you see above. The only real sign Pinocchio is a puppet comes with his nob of a nose. The round cheeks and playful looking hat gave the character a relatable innocent look. This broke through the roadblock Walt and his artists were facing and made them see the character in a completely different light. Walt realized instead of having Pinocchio get in so much trouble because he was a cruel puppet who was drawn away from humanity, he would have Pinocchio’s great flaw be a childlike naivety. Pinocchio has just come to life and thus does not know the difference between right and wrong. He is actually very human in his curiosity and is extremely impressionable. Instead of the audience being repelled by his naughtiness we are attracted by his innocence.

As I said in a prior post on Milt Kahl, 80% of the final designs of Disney characters from Pinocchio (1941) to The Rescuers (1977) were done by Kahl. Kahl wasn’t just good at designing characters because of his superior knowledge of autonomy, what makes for an appealing design, and fine draftsmanship. He was great because Walt and the rest of Kahl’s mentors installed the philosophy of creating designs where the true essence of the character could be expressed. Disney Animation has always been defined by character based animation. Through out their golden age (1937-42) and rough periods of animation (1966-82) the thing that always shined through were the memorable characters who occupied the great and not-so-great stories in the Disney films. And this is why the movies are almost all worth going back to. Little did we know at the time but with the movie Pinocchio we were watching some of the greatest actors to ever put pencil to paper come to center stage.

Charlie Chaplin – An Observation – The Key to Comedy

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series, Personal Philosophy by Jacob on November 6, 2011

Charlie Chaplin 2You know if you threw all Charlie Chaplin’s gags into a montage you probably would be rolling on the floor laughing before it finished. However, many great gag artists filled the screens in the silent era. Critics credited Harold Lloyd  with just as much creativity in his gags as Chaplin. And, Buster Keaton in my opinion might have been better. Keaton did things that stuntmen these days wouldn’t do. The gag in and of itself didn’t make Chaplin stick out. Charlie was the best comedian of the silent era and one of the greatest comedians of all time because he was able to generate a huge amount of sympathy and affection for the gags he pulled off. Most of this sympathy and affection was directed toward the legendary character that he often portrayed, the Tramp.  The Tramp was not the everyman character Harold Lloyd tried to portray and he definitely wasn’t known to be a stone face like Buster Keaton. Chaplin’s character almost always was living on the edge just trying to survive. The Tramp drew immediate sympathy because he represented the poorest of the poor in our society. The childlike heart and the ability to wear his emotions on his sleeve is what won over our affection for the Tramp. Even in this generation, almost a hundred years since the Tramp first appeared on screen, few children or adults can avoid being entranced by the amiable smile the Tramp gives when trying to get out of trouble or the poignant image he creates when going through tough times.

Chaplin’s makeup and costume perfectly expresses the sympathetic character he wants to be to his audience. His face is perfectly framed with the dark eye shadow, centered mustache, and tilted hat. His costume is abstract, he wears over sized pants and shoes, and a too small hat and shirt. Even though he represents the poorest of the poor in our society, the Tramp tries to make himself look like an established gentlemen with the cane he carries, the ripped up gentlemens gloves he wears, and his black felt bowler hat. The Tramp creates for himself along with the unwavering optimism for life he has, attracts us to his character. We invest in the Tramp because he is both visually and emotionally appealing. When we are invested in the Tramp as a character we become all the more interested in the scenarios he gets himself into and the gags he is able to pull off.

Chaplin’s gags stand out because they often give us a greater understanding of who his Tramp character is. Gags like, the Tramp trying not to starve through eating his own shoe in the The Gold Rush or the Tramp trying to save the depressed rich man from suicide in City Lights, separate Chaplin from his peers. Even at the point of starvation the Tramp is still optimistic he will survive. He treats the shoe like an upper class dinner, taking it apart piece by piece until the man next to him becomes envious of how much Tramp enjoys himself. The irony that comes with a completely broke man- the Tramp, trying to convince a extremely rich man not commit suicide is funny in and of itself.

Chaplin found humor in more then how he could pull off a fall or sell a punch. Chaplin figured out you don’t need to be in danger to pull off a gag. Sometimes Chaplin found humor through completely changing our emotions in the middle of a scene. One of the Tramp’s greatest gags is in City Lights when he meets the blind flower girl for the first time. Chaplin first wins over our heart through creating sentiment with the revelation that the flower girl is blind. Then Chaplin goes a step further when his Tramp character, even though dirt poor, is willing to let the girl keep the extra money for the flower he just purchased. Not knowing the Tramp is still there the girl washes out her flower bowl while the Tramp simply gazes at her beauty. At the most romantic point of the scene Chaplin completely changes the scenario as the blind girl unknowingly throws a bunch of water into the Tramp’s face. Plenty of gags involve people getting splashed with water. The reason why this gag rises above is because of the way Chaplin sets it up. He created a sympathy and affection for the scene in general. We were completely involved with what was happening on screen, completly in love with both characters, before Chaplin went to the punchline.

Chaplin’s humor succeeds because it goes beyond just a good laugh. His humor gives us joy that warms our hearts. He created in the Tramp a character that represented a part of us all. We can relate to the low parts in the Tramp’s life and are encouraged and find joy in the Tramp’s optimism. In real life Charlie Chaplin was a multimillionaire. He owned his own studio, a huge mansion, and was one of the most famous men in the world. Yet, the real Charlie Chaplin was always struggling with insecurities. He was always deathly afraid of not being adored and he went through many marriages and even more affairs. I think Chaplin would even admit he was never as happy as the Tramp. The Tramp’s gags encouraged us and allowed us to realize that happiness does not come from money or fame. Rather, happiness comes from finding the light in the darkest of times and most stressful of situations. Chaplin’s key to great comedy was through refusing to make the gag more important then the character or story he was telling. Gags can be repeated but there will never be a character like Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp again.