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.

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.

Walt Disney – An Observation – Worthy of Admiration

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on August 8, 2011

I was reading an interview on this man who spent more then thirty years working for Walt Disney. In a interview he said, “When you were having a conflict with Walt, you were having a conflict with someone who probably had more on the ball than you had, and whose judgment was probably better”. This might not be seen as a very huge compliment. It is nothing new, you have probably heard those types of compliments before. This however is not the only thing this guy has said about Walt. In other interviews this man has talked about how Walt was able to push artist to do things they didn’t feel like they were capable of doing. He talked about the phenomenal intuition and story instinct Walt had and how he was willing to put everything, even his life insurance, on the line to keep the studio and his dream alive. He called Walt a “genius” and a “brilliant storyteller”. This man said Walt was the kind of guy “who only comes along once in several generations”. Now we are getting to some generous compliments no matter who might be making them. However, I think the authenticity of these compliments is cemented by knowing who they came from.  The man who said all these things about Walt was none other then legendary animator Milt Kahl.

Milt was one of Walt’s Nine Old Men. Many consider him to be the greatest of the Nine Old Men. Milt was known for his dedication to perfection. It was a daunting and nerve racking task to clean up his drawings or to work on his inbetweens, out of fear that you might mess up his animation. He produced the final character design sheets for almost all the Disney full length features from the 1940’s-70’s. Most of the other big animators at the studio, including majority of the Nine Old Men, went to Milt for advice and help on working out complicated movements or designs. Milt was given the most complicated animation scenes. He needed to bring warmth to the puppet Pinocchio, he needed to give flight to Peter Pan, and give Madusa, from The Rescuers, her evil charm. If Milt thought an artist was being lazy he would let him or her know. He was known for his temper and not holding back a insult. He made it clear he thought most of his fellow Disney employees, especially after Walt died, were a bunch of  “lazy bastards”. I have heard stories of things getting so heated sketchbooks went flying. Milt was even willing to get into arguments with the big boss of the studio, Walt Disney.

See, Milt Kahl is not the kind of guy to compliment someone, let alone say someone is a “genius” or confess someone else might have better judgment then him. I have heard Milt Kahl complain about more then one of the Nine Old Men, and all those artists are considered some of the greatest to ever work in animation. Because I knew this about Milt, what he said about Walt truly impacted me. I heard a man who struggled with complimenting more then anyone I have researched (including Walt) give some of the greatest compliments a man could give. And I finally began to realize why. You see, even though Milt was a perfectionist I think Milt realized Walt was something more. Walt was a dreamer. Walt helped create the medium Milt strived most of his life to perfect.

After Walt died Milt kept on working at the studio. However, the films he worked on were not nearly as good as the films of old, such as Pinocchio, Bambi, and Landy and the Tramp. Milt had a limit. He only could perfect the material he was given. Walt however was the one with the limitless imagination, he was the one who created the material. After Walt died the material became much less precious. For Milt it was like trying to create a sculpture out of a block of mud rather then a fine piece of diamond. Milt had all the tools to create something that was visually stunning, however much of the visuals were lost because of the poor material.

Milt said in 1976, the year he left the studio, “Here I am, a person at the height of my powers, and I feel there’s not a place for me anymore.”.  Walt created stories that entertained and inspired. His philosophy was about creating better material for his artists to work with. After his death Walt’s philosophy was lost. Milt did not admire Walt because he gave out compliments, was a flawless leader, or because of his money and fame. Walt was admired by Milt Kahl because he gave him a place to perfect his art form.

I have been studying Walt Disney for years now. I want to understand what went into the creation of such fine material that resulted in great films like Pinocchio and Mary Poppins. I want to know what drove Walt to create even better material. Before his death Walt was moving from theme parks to cities. He wanted to create an art form that would be completely intertwined with everyday life. His creativity had no limits and that is worthy of anyone’s admiration.

(Here are the links to the material I quoted. First off is Michael Barrier and Milton Gray interview of Milt Kahl. Second is Side 1 and Side 2 of a lecture Milt Kahl gave at Cal Arts in 1976. Also, Pixar animator Carlos Baena has some great resources on Milt Kahl on his website.)

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)