A Dreamer Walking

Ollie Johnston – Animator – Penny

Posted in Animation, Film and Filmaker Studies by Jacob on December 17, 2014

Johnston #1

Ollie Johnston happens to be my favorite animator of all time. His drawings seem to flow like water and they all come from the heart. He started working for Walt Disney in the mid 1930’s and quickly became one of Walt’s greatest animators. Johnston saved one of his greatest performances for his last.  The last character Johnston was lead animator on from start to finish was Penny from the The Rescuers (1977).  What is truly amazing is how Johnston was able to climb into the skin of  a character of the opposite sex who was about sixty years his junior.

The true beauty of animation is you can animate anything. I have consistently maintained the animators at Disney were some of the greatest actors to ever live. Even Marlon Brando had his limits yet the actors at Disney could portray anything from little wooden puppets to fire breathing dragons with just the use of a few pieces of paper and a pencil. In reality human characters were some of the hardest characters to animate. The reason being everyone knows how humans move and act, thus one wrong line with the pencil might ruin a performance and stop making the character believable to the audience.

These drawings are an example of Ollie Johnston exploring the character of Penny and her cat Rufus. Johnston wasn’t the best draftsman at the studio, but each drawing expresses an emotion which shows the essence of who Penny is. In most of the poses Johnston seems to be intentionally turning Penny away from the audience. He expresses an extremely shy young girl which makes the audience want to love her all the more. When Walt was alive he communicated to all his artists the most important thing in animating a character were the eyes. By this time in his career Johnston has become a master at expressing emotion through his character’s eyes. With the drawings where we see her eyes they become the center piece of the pose, our eyes are drawn toward her’s and it’s clear Johnston builds the rest of the pose around them.

One of the coolest things about my studies of the animators at Disney is the discovery of the different styles they brought to their animation. One of the true beauties of hand drawn animation is the ability for the artist to use the pencil in different ways in order to bring to life a unified performance. Ollie Johnston was not the only animator of Penny. Animation is long and tedious medium. In today’s studios there are literally hundreds of animators working on a film and it takes them weeks in order to get just a few seconds of animation finished. In the 1970’s there were far less animators working on a project. However, it still took a whole team of animators to bring to life most of the key characters. As the lead animator Johnston needed to figure out a way to get his crew on the same page with the character Penny. Drawing sheets like this were priceless samples for other animators to study so they could keep in mind who the character was both in terms of design and emotion.

Johnston had a very soft style of animating compared to his peers. He was known to barely “kiss” the page with his pencil. First you didn’t even know what it was he was drawing and then a beautiful creature would start to come to life. You can see the soft lines in the drawings of Penny. The only thick areas are places where Johnston is trying to find the right shape or communicate weight. There is a flow to his drawings; no harsh angles and extremely pleasing curves. Glen Kean, one of Johnston’s pupils and a great animator in his own right, said Ollie treated the pencil like it was a living thing and let it guide his hand in order to find the pose.

The reason I consider Ollie the greatest animators wasn’t because of his draftsmanship or even his mastery of the principle of animation. I consider him the best because he made me feel for his characters. His animation made me completely buy into the illusion of a life. His drawings disappeared and beautiful characters emerged. I saw characters I could laugh with, be frustrated at, and cry for. One of the most potent scenes Ollie did was with Penny. Johnston animated the performance of Penny and Rufus in the clip below. In it you see Ollie’s mastery of the medium. The performance is full of restraint. He holds poses and communicates mountains of emotion through small subtle movements. I consider it one of the best pieces of animation I have ever seen. And the magic of it all is it’s done through a few pieces of paper and a pencil.

Fred Moore – Animator – Snow White

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on April 17, 2014

Fred Moore 1You can’t get much more appealing then this. In fact, appeal was Fred Moore’s signature trait. Ollie Johnston, one of his pupils, claimed beautiful stuff flowed out of Moore’s pencil like water. Those working under him claimed, “He couldn’t do a drawing without appeal”. He was a young prodigy responsible for Mickey Mouse’s classic design. He went on to define nearly all the characters we think of as Disney classics from the 30’s and early 40’s. He was responsible for the final look of all seven of the dwarfs in Snow White (1937). Both Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas studied under him during the feature’s production.

As talented as Moore was his actual life story had a bit of a tragic ending. Some claim his decline was due to the fact Moore was untrained and bloomed so young. He was in his mid twenties when he was assigned to be the lead for the Seven Dwarfs in Snow White. Disney hired him at age 19 with no formal training. It is said he submitted drawings drawn on paper grocery bags. At the beginning animation just seemed to come naturally to Moore. Every one of his animations had a charm to them. As you can see in this drawing there is nothing unattractive about it. The arcs are perfect and the situation humorous.

Moore needed to be inspired in order to animate and at times he had difficulty finding inspiration. Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas talked about him sitting at his office unable to draw for hours. They needed to prompt him and trying to get him excited about a piece of animation before he would start to animate. However, when he began to animate he wouldn’t stop. He could produce several feet of animation in a single day and each drawing flowed together to create beautiful motion.

With every new film Walt Disney demanded his artists to push the medium of animation. Walt began to lean towards more realism and designs that required a greater deal of draftsmanship. Fred Moore wasn’t able to keep up with the new Disney look. Legendary animator Marc Davis said, “In the early days Fred Moore was Disney Drawing”. However, with movies such as Bambi (1942) and much later films such as Sleeping Beauty (1959) and The Jungle Book (1967) Fred did not have the ability to keep up with Disney style. Moore also had problems with alcoholism and it was one of the reasons he was laid off in 1946 with a group of other artists.

Fred Moore going over Ollie Johnston's drawing.

Fred Moore going over his then Pupil Ollie Johnston’s drawing.

Ollie Johnston and a few other animators were able to hire Fred Moore again in 1948 with Walt’s blessing. Moore brought appeal to some animation in the 1950’s, most notably the mermaids in Peter Pan (1953). However, he went from Walt’s top animator to working under his one time pupil, Ollie Johnston. In 1952 Moore was involved in a tragic freak accident when his wife, who was driving, ran into another car while trying to make a U turn. Moore died the next day in the very hospital Walt would pass away in a decade and a half later.

Ollie Johnston kept a pencil of Fred’s taped to his window. In his 1995 documentary Ollie said he kept it there to, “remind me of how great the guy was and how much he meant to me”. He found there was a little lead left in the pencil and Ollie said he was going to save it for something special.

Milt Kahl – Animator – The AristoCats

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on March 30, 2014

Milt Kahl 7I can’t help but wonder how such a wonderfully jolly drawing could have come such a bitter man. “Bitter” might not be the best way to describe Milt Kahl, but it comes pretty close. He is considered the Michelangelo of animation. Great animators such as Ollie Johnston, Frank Thomas, and John Lounsbery went to him for advice on their animation through out their careers. Milt might be more responsible then anyone else for the classical Disney character designs; creating the final design for about eighty percent of the animated characters from Pinocchio (1940) to The Rescuers (1977).

The problem is with such talent comes a tremendous amount of ego. Kahl might be the most egotistical man I have ever studied. He considered himself the best and he said as much. He was never reluctant to give a fellow artist crap if he didn’t think they were carrying their weight. Kahl once said, “I think that the trouble with a group effort is if you work hard enough you find yourself all alone.” He found himself alone quite a lot. He claimed Walt needed him to animate a good two minutes of each one of the Disney characters in order to be given the go ahead on the films he worked on.

When working on a scene Kahl would explore everything. The old Disney veteran Floyd Norman told a story about walking by his office during the production of Sword in the Stone (1963). Kahl kept his office door open and Norman would walk by and see Milt just sitting there not drawing. He would go by a few more times in the next few hours and he would just be sitting there. Norman went on to say Milt would eventually pick up his pencil and start drawing, however the scene was already animated in Milt’s head by then. Kahl also worked out tones of different ways of going about a scene through thumb nails. He would not start actually animating until he figured out the perfect poses and the best way to tell the story. The other thing he prided himself on was not tracing over live action film. The Disney artists filmed live action for many of their scenes starting with the very first full length feature Snow White (1937). Kahl would maybe look at the reference material but never take it with him while he animated. He studied the anatomy of the human figure and animals to their essence. When it came to animating animals Disney artists needed to put personality into the characters. A rabbit like Thumper from Bambi (1942) couldn’t just act like a rabbit you would see in the woods, the rabbit needed to carry human emotions. Kahl animated Thumper the rabbit like a child you would see in your local grocery store.

Milt Kahl could simply do things nobody else could do. His hard edged personality didn’t stop him from creating some of the most loveable characters in Disney animation. The lawyer in Aristocats is one of those memorable characters. His dance with Madame Adelaide is one of the best scenes in the movie. He has the fragile look of a eighty year old yet the vigorous spirit of a man in his prime. Look at the superior draftsmanship. Every line seems to be perfectly placed. There is hardly any clean up needed. Above is a copy of a drawing Kahl did. His assistance made copies before they cleaned up the drawings because Kahl was extremely critical on how his artists “interfered” with his animation. If you erase the wrong line you could lose the essence of the drawing or the pose could become much weaker.

Later on in his career Kahl said, “I got accused over the years of being a fine draftsman. Actually I don’t really draw that well. It’s just I don’t stop trying as quickly. I keep at it. I happen to have high standards and try to meet them. I have to struggle like hell to make a drawing look good.” It is so easy to look at Milt Kahl’s work and not think about the blood, sweat, and tears that went into it. His poses just seem to always be in the right place and there really are few wasted lines. Yet, I can’t help but think Milt Kahl became the best at his art-form because he spent more time doing the research, working on the scene, and thinking about the perfect movement then anyone else. He really is a wonderful artists and his work will last much longer then any ego.

EXTRA:

Here is the animation to the little dance move the lawyer makes. Though it is just a few seconds of animation it takes several days and superb skill to bring this kind of stuff to life. The twist in perspective when the lawyer does his turn is just AMAZING. It is something few artists were capable or cared to do. However, Disney artists like Milt wanted to create depth in their animation so they went the extra mile to animate in tougher perspectives so their animation could pop. Add onto that Kahl’s ability to keep a form grasp on the Lawyer’s personality – even the small moment where it looks like he might not keep his balance – and you have something that just can’t be improved upon. This is an example of someone who has complete control over his art-form.

Ub Iwerks – Animator – Steamboat Willie

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on February 18, 2014

Ub IwerksThis is from one of the very first Mickey mouse cartoons and it comes from the original drawer of Mickey Mouse, Ub Iwerks. Contrary to common belief it was not Walt Disney who originally created the design of Mickey. In fact Walt wasn’t really ever good at drawing Mickey. Frankly he wasn’t a good draftsmen in general. Ub wasn’t the greatest artist either, but he was a magnificent animator for his time. During the making of this movie (1928) a sign of a great animator was not about draftsmanship, squash and stretch, timing, or character development, it was about speed and gags. In animation’s history there might not have been a faster animator then Ub Iwerks. He literally animated the first two Mickey Mouse shorts (Plane Crazy and Steamboat Willie) by himself, during his off time. This was unheard of for the time and is considered almost impossible to do today. However, because he created a simple enough design Iwerks was able to work with Walt and their wives on finishing the first Mickey mouse short “Plane Crazy” right after Walt was released from obligations from Universal Pictures for the cartoons of “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit”.

“Plane Crazy” was not a success but the next short “Steamboat Willie” completely revolutionized the animation industry. The key ingredient, you ask? SOUND! Walt Disney and his now small creative team dubbed the Mickey short with all kinds of fun sound effects which brought life to both Mickey and the many gags in the short.

This drawing might not seem very special to you. However, I think you can find substance in the simplicity of the design. When you break down animation to simple designs like this, it feels like anyone is capable of doing it. The action is very well placed. We know exactly what is going on; the protagonist and antagonist are clearly understood and gag is clearly staged. This is one of the drawings that started it all and for that I can’t help but admire it.

(Copyright Disney)

Film Mediums: 2D Animation!

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on June 16, 2010
Glen Keane Drawing of the Beast!

Glen Keane Drawing of the Beast!

2D animation is a very magical medium of film. As I said in my last post, there is nothing more magical to me then seeing simple drawings come to life. Another thing that 2D animation can do is show the hand of the artist through the actual drawings on screen. This drawing to the side was done by a masterful animator called Glen Keane. He has a very interesting style to his animation, different from any other artist.

One of the beauties of 2D animation is that there are so many different drawing styles. Each animator has his or her own way of going about a scene. During the rough animation you can definitely see a huge difference in some animators styles. In this Glen Keane drawing you see very dark lines, Glen is known for physically digging into his paper with the pencil trying to feel the emotion of the character he is drawing. However if you look below you can see a drawing by another masterful animator Ollie Johnson. He had a much lighter touch. Johnston was said to have barley kissed the page with his pencil, slowly trying to figure out the right look and movement for his characters.

Ollie Johnson Example

Ollie Johnson Example

In 2D animation you are constantly trying to clean up drawings so you can create a film that looks singular, as though one artist had created it. This is where Clean Up Artists come in. A Clean Up Artist is someone who goes over the animators original drawings and creates a fluid drawings that can match the other animation done for the character. A character like the Beast in Beauty and the Beast would have many different animators working so they could have the Beast’s performance done in reasonable time . It can take weeks for an animator to do only a few seconds worth of motion, thus each character calls for multiple animators.

You can not be a good 2D animator without studying the principles of movement. A animator needs to know how to draw well and have a feel for acting. Some animators plan out every detail of their shot before they go about animating. If you look at an animator like Milt Kahl (some say he is the greatest animator ever to live) you will see a pain staking amount of time that goes into planning out each shot. Milt Kahl tried looking at a scene from every angle.  He would thumbnail different ideas until he found something that would squeeze out the most entertainment possible. Milt knew exactly what he was going to animate before he even put pencil to paper. However, if you look at a animator like Glen Keane, he will be the first to tell you that he does not know what exactly the result of his animation will be. This is not to say he doesn’t put in the preparation, there is a lot of study Glen does into his character and how his character should move. However, Glen likes to animate based on feeling, he tries to get into his character’s skin and feel the movement of the character flow from pencil to paper. All the way through Glen’s animation process he is digging into his character’s head wondering what the next move should be and whether or not he could express that move through his drawing.

With 2D animation you need to simplify everything. A character is simplified to its basic roots. This often makes the artists put a lot of thought into who the character is and what shapes express the character the best. The audience eye is allowed to pay attention to the action instead of getting distracted by unnecessary details.

This field of animation also lets us look at a movie like a painting. It literally takes hundreds of paintings to create all the background for a story of a film. When 2D animation is at its best everything is painted to highlight the characters. The artists have the ability to dramatically change the color scheme in order to push an emotion. There are times where we only are allowed an impression of a location, like the Forest in Bambi for example. If you go back and study the backgrounds in Bambi, you will find that the paintings for the foreground and background are only impressions of what a real forest looks like. However, the feeling the forest in Bambi creates can be more real then a actual forest.

Some of the feelings I have gotten from 2D animation films like Pinocchio, Lady and the Tramp, and Bambi have never been matched in any other film medium. In 2D animation I am allowed to see the hand of the artist, the only devices the artists need to make the medium work is a pencil and paper. It is a personal field of study and you are allowed to see the sweat and blood the artist put into making the drawings come to life. The actual power of 2D animation is that you start with a blank piece of paper and are able to create anything you can imagine.

(Here are links to the rest of the posts for this series, Film Mediums, CG Animation, and Live Action)

The Princess and the Frog

Posted in Movie Reviews by Jacob on April 13, 2010

The Princess and the Frog is a wonderful movie for the return of Disney Hand Drawn animation. I have seen it several times now and it just seems to get better each time I watch it. The reason why this film is so wonderful to keep going back to is because of the depth you see in every aspect of the animation process.

In 2006 when John Lasseter (co-founder of Pixar) was put in charge of Disney animation, one of the first things he wanted to do was to bring back hand drawn animation. This was a tall order since hand drawn animation had been discontinued from the studio about four years before. In order to accomplish it’s rebirth the first thing John did was bring back two old Disney directors, John Musker and Ron Clemens. The two are know for codirecting The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. In all these films I saw a true effort on putting story first and a magnificent ability in getting the whole crew to come together in order to make the best film possible.

I think Ron and John put their best foot forward on this film, and were able to create something original and magical. Both Ron and John said the Princess and the Frog crew was the most talented crew they ever worked with.

In this movie you see a young woman, Tiana, work extremely hard in order to reach her dream of owning a restaurant one day. The film is located in New Orleans in the late 1910’s. Because Tiana is an African American, she is forced to jump through even more hoops then an average white citizen would in order to have her dream come true. Tiana, is unique for a Disney Princess movie. She is not yet a princess and has no inclination of finding a prince to live happily ever after with at the beginning of the movie.

This movie goes further with its unique qualities by having the Prince be a flat out jerk at the beginning of the film. Prince Naveen is a moneyless (Family cut his funding off) spoiled bachelor that comes to New Orleans in order to marry into a rich family.

The movie is about the character development of Tiana and Naveen. In the film you begin out with these characters hating each other and end up with a genuine love story, where two people work through their faults to find love.

The way Disney pulled this story off was simply wonderful. Every aspect of the movie seemed to be working together. You had a Music legend Randy Newman (composer of Toy Story 1 & 2, A Bugs Life, Monsters Inc., and Cars) come up with some magnificent songs for this movie. Randy grew up in New Orleans and really seemed to go back to his roots in creating and composing the music for this movie. He had Jazz, Gospel, and Blues, all highlight the story in wonderful ways and all are worth listening to away from the movie.

What was truly wonderful was the location the story took place. Ron and John said they studied Disney classics, such as Bambi and Lady and the Tramp, as inspiration for this movie. New Orleans was Character in and of itself, each location was made to highlight the animation and further the mood of the story. The City and the bayou were wonderful pieces of art in their own right, but never seemed to distract from the characters.

The character animation was some of the best I have ever seen. I am a big fan of Eric Goldberg and he did a marvelous job as lead animator for Lewis the Alligator. We simply see an entertaining character with a lot of life in the alligator who lives in the bayou, Lewis. Some of the expressions for Lewis are quite extreme, but we never lose track of who the character is. The extremes simply seemed to be expressing him in a better way.

One character I will always cherish is Raymond the Firefly. Mike Surrey was Ray’s lead animator and he and his team did a wonderful job bringing this character to life. Some of the movements that I saw from Ray was like candy to the eyes. In Ray you found a lot of good humor, but more importantly you found heart.

We saw wonderful gags in the animation and the action was pulled off extremely well, but what made this movie great for me, was the animators ability to take us into the character’s head. The drawings became real. I did not just see a bunch of lines moving, I saw real people trying to make hard realistic decisions and real friends having sincere emotions for each other.

John Musker said that he believes there is magic in the Disney Studios still. I saw evidence of that magic in The Princess and the Frog. They truly made this movie to be enjoyed for generations. It is a simple story told in a wonderful way.