January 30, 2012:
January 21, 2012:
"I don't think we can continue"
January 13, 2012:
January 1, 2012:
January 30, 2012:
From the justly esteemed Danish animator, memories of an important but rarely mentioned figure in Disney animation. What Børge writes about the Milt Kahl worship by Dick Williams and the young Americans working on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? certainly coincides with my own belief, as stated in my post just below, that Kahl was easily the most influential of the great Disney animators, and that this was not an especially good thing.
Stan Green (1921-97) was a good and experienced Disney animator. He was Milt Kahl's assistant all through the animation of The Rescuers and he animated some of the many, many scenes with Madame Medusa. Stan's cockpit was placed strategically outside Milt's door and visitors to Milton Kahl had to pass scrutiny by Stanley Green. Half the world wanted to see Milt and try to get into his favour. Most were tense but Stan was hospitable. "Go right in," he said, knowing the guy would be back in twelve seconds because Milt told visitors, "Go and see Stan. He does the handouts." Stan recalled: ''I once had the strange experience of admitting two animators whose work I looked up to when I was young."
In the 1980s Disney's sent an expeditionary force to England to aid the building of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Stan Green went to London to assist Dick Williams, who directed the animation on the project. Dick was a devout Milt Kahl fan and had asked Disney's specifically for Stan.The two men shared a spacious office with a comfortable sofa for visitors. On a table near the windows lay a sunken pyramid of animation drawings and small preliminary colour scetches from The Sword in the Stone and The Jungle Book. There were Merlins, Owls, and Shere Kahns, all of them done by Milt Kahl. These beautiful, impressive pencil drawings had been selected and shipped by Ollie Johnston at Dick Williams's request because Dick and Kahl devotee Andreas Deja intended to write a book about Milt with an avalanche of illustrations.
All the young Americans in Roger Rabbit's London studio were true Milt Kahl addicts who paid Milt the well-known sincerest form of flattery. One of them explained:"When the new Disney team presided over by Don Bluth took over in Burbank we held a conference and voted about whose design style to follow in the future: Fred Moore's roundness or Milt Kahl's concave mode." Milt won by a landslide, and he landed in the same position as the 1930s' beloved jazz pianist Teddy Wilson, about whom a critic quipped: "His only fault is that there are too many of him."
An unfortunate change on the stock market and the dollar exchange forced the Disney brigade to withdraw to their home base in Burbank across the sea. But Stan Green had acquired a taste for Old Europe and he popped up a few years later as a feature director in Munich, Germany, in the company of the renowned color stylist Walt Peregoy, plus a calm, capable elderly man from Warner Bros. named George, who according to Stan was "very good at getting things done."
The production was such as what David Niven would call "a three-star, fur-lined, ocean-going disaster." Its mad producer had already worn out six directors. Stan Green was the seventh, and he sat on his throne quietly animating seagulls with a blue ballpoint. During my periodic visits to the production I lunched every day in the company of Walt Peregoy and his girlfriend. We became friends and Walt gave me one of his large gorgeous color drawings, which is now a cherished item in my treasure chest.
In 1997, I got a letter from Stan, who had started out as a Fleischer animator of Betty's Boops and Popeye's jaws. He wrote with pride: "Børge, I am back at Disneys—the Main Studio. [tadaaah♫♫♫♫] I own an excellent feature story, I have financial backing, and I want you to head a unit for me on the continent. Please find a good German color lab in your vicinity.The Germans are known for thoroughness."
That letter was the last I heard from Stan, who had been at the Disney Studio since 1956. He died shortly after writing the note.
January 21, 2012:
I recently bought a print of this photo online—it was published on page 178 of the original 1958 edition of Walt Disney: The Art of Animation by Bob Thomas—and it stirred up memories of what the great animator Eric Larson told Milt Gray and me when we interviewed him in his office at the Disney studio on October 27, 1976. Near the end of the interview, Eric gestured toward the wall where that framed photo was hanging. "That's Walt and me out here in the hall," Eric said. "This was toward the end of Sleeping Beauty. Walt's saying, 'I don't think we can continue, it's too expensive.' This was the general conception."
Sleeping Beauty was not only expensive but a box-office disappointment when it was released in 1959, and Disney feature animation was hanging by a thread until it was rescued by the success of One Hundred and One Dalmatians. The much greater success of Mary Poppins, with its long "Jolly Holiday" combination sequence, revived Walt's own enthusiasm for animation in the last years of his life. There were other brushes with extinction in later years, most notably thanks to the box-office failure of The Black Cauldron. Now, modest efforts like last year's Winnie the Pooh aside, the hand-drawn Disney feature seems unlikely to survive the indifferent box-office performance of The Princess and the Frog, fifty years after the release of Sleeping Beauty.
Looking back over the Disney features made in those five decades, I have to wonder if hand-drawn animation, as an art form, and we as its audience, might not have been better off if Walt had followed through on his implicit threat to pull the plug. The industry certainly would have survived, thanks to Hanna-Barbera and the other TV-cartoon factories that were thriving in the late 1950s and the 1960s; and because their staffs were full of theatrical-cartoon veterans (and would be, for the next few decades) there would have been the continuing potential for new animated features that didn't have to compete with Disney's. New non-Disney features were of course made in the 1960s and 1970s, but always in the hulking shadow of the latest Disney features. Those Disney features defined for most people what animated features were or should be like, and since most of the Disney features were fatally deficient when measured against the best of Walt's own films, the effect was to drag down animation in general.
I've been thinking lately about the latter-day Disney features, and more specifically about why I've never been able to work up much interest in them. Grayson Ponti, proprietor of a blog called The 50 Most Influential Disney Animators, triggered that thought when he wrote to me recently:
I know you're not a fan of new-age Disney films, but I was curious if you thought the animators of the new age hold a candle to the old ones and the problems are more management-related, or if you think the animators aren't as good and the animation is substandard. Do you feel if the animators of the new age had Walt at their side that they could have done animation as good as that done by the old guys?
If you're not acquainted with Grayson's blog, there are a lot of things about it that make me want to say "wait a minute..." For one thing, I bridle at the very idea of such numerical rankings of creative people. His pages devoted to individual animators tend to be very long (and to seem even longer, since they're white type on black background), and they would have benefited greatly from the sort of ruthless editing that writing for the Web almost never gets. But Grayson's enthusiasm is contagious, and the scale of his blog is remarkable, considering that he is still a high school student. When I was his age, I was struggling to draw a comic strip for my high school newspaper that couldn't be dismissed as pathetically amateurish. I can't imagine attempting anything as ambitious as Grayson's blog.
The most questionable, but also the most intriguing, aspect of Grayson's blog can be found in its title: The 50 Most Influential Disney Animators. At the top of his list (and the judgments are his, not the product of any sort of poll) is Bill Tytla, followed in the top fifteen by Ward Kimball, Frank Thomas, Fred Moore, Ollie Johnston, Glen Keane, Milt Kahl, Norm Ferguson, Eric Larson, Mark Henn, Andreas Deja, John Lounsbery, Ham Luske, Woolie Reitherman, and Duncan Marjoribanks.
I suppose "influential" sounds a little more objective than "best." If I were required to compile a list of the best Disney animators, it might look very much like Grayson's list, at least down through the first eight or nine names. But if the test is whether an animator's example shaped other people's work in important ways, Grayson's list is more than a little odd. Surely the most influential Disney animator over time, for better or (more often) worse, has been Milt Kahl, followed by Frank and Ollie and Eric Larson, all of whom have made their influence felt for generations now, as examples and mentors and teachers. For the same reason, Marc Davis and Art Babbitt should be high up, too, in any ranking of the influential (they're Nos. 16 and 17 on Grayson's list).
But to get back to Grayson's question about what I think of the Disney animators of the "new age": Obviously, some of them are very talented people. Glen Keane comes first to mind, and he's justifiably high on Grayson's list. But there are many others who resist my admiration. For instance, when I've watched Beauty and the Beast in the last few years, I've always enjoyed Keane's Beast, but most of the supporting cast, humans and inanimate objects alike, puts me in mind of the Gold Key comic books of the 1960s and '70s. Weak drawing, clichéd movement. There's lots of sheer ugliness in many of the latter-day features.
Walt made his share of duds, too, and his best animators were always, and inevitably, a thin front line behind whom marched much larger ranks of animators of lesser abilities. Even so, my misgivings about, say, Fun and Fancy Free never discouraged me from pumping the people who worked on it for whatever they could tell me about how it was made. I've never felt any comparable interest in the more recent features, or in the people who made them. The poor writing of almost every recent Disney feature has been a formidable obstacle to animating well, but that shouldn't stand in the way of appreciating the animation when it is in fact done well, or to celebrating the people who've done it. And yet: sit me down with a tape recorder in front of someone who worked on Atlantis or Home on the Range, and my tongue would no doubt cleave to the roof of my mouth.
My misgivings are rooted now, as they always have been, in "sincerity." I've written about "sincerity" on this site a number of times, starting with my review of Treasure Planet in 2003. What I wrote then about the debasement of "sincerity" still seems valid to me. The early Disney emphasis on sincere characters gave way long ago to an unfortunate emphasis on the sincerity of the animators, and ultimately to a toxic mixture of hero worship and self-congratulation. I think it's very difficult for good animation to surface in such an environment, and just as difficult for animators to approach their work in the self-critical spirit that Walt encouraged and that the early Disney animators turned so much to their advantage, and to ours.
On that subject, I can't do any better than repeat something I wrote here in October 2009:
I remember years ago working my way through all the Disney features then available at the Library of Congress, starting with Saludos Amigos (this was long before any Disney features were available on videotape), and growing steadily more annoyed by the time I got to The Jungle Book, because more and more of what I saw on the Steenbeck monitor's screen seemed false. Much of what I saw was delightful, of course—I think immediately of the mice and the cat in Cinderella, of the March of the Cards in Alice, the "Willie" sequence in Make Mine Music, dinner at Tony's in Lady and the Tramp, Hook's seduction of Tinker Bell, and so on—but what came in between the delightful moments was increasingly problematic, until finally what I felt as falseness swallowed up most of The Sword in the Stone and The Jungle Book.
I think the falseness I saw was rooted, paradoxically, in that Disney shibboleth "sincerity." As Walt used the term, during work on the first great features, it was the characters who were to be sincere, that is, to seem to move of their own volition. Over the years, sincerity came to be valued less in the characters than in their animators (and, at one step removed, their directors), until now we are supposed to admire animation because its practitioners—assuming a high level of technical skill—are conspicuously earnest, in a way that many of the great early Disney animators were not. It's hard to imagine someone as gifted and irreverent as Ward Kimball, in particular, surviving for very long in the current environment (Kimball had a hard enough time surviving in the Disney of the late '50s and early '60s).
What this earnestness means in practice is that Disney-style animators have a powerful incentive not to venture beyond the obvious, because of the risk that what is not obvious will make them seem insincere. Couple that with the self-consciousness that is [Don] Bluth's legacy, so that characters seem real only in their awareness that they're performing for the camera in a ridiculous story, and you have the dreariness that I see in [the] opening minutes of The Princess and the Frog, in which utterly empty and unbelievable characters have been animated by people whose work fairly aches with sincerity. (How can we not admire what they've done, when we can see how much work has gone into it?)
If I were hired as a Disney consultant, I would first want to find out if the person who hired me was out of his or her mind...but then I'd lock the Animation Research Library and throw away the key. I'd tear down all those Xerox copies of great animation scenes that paper too many walls (no more cribbing from The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad!). I'd tell everyone to forget they ever saw The Jungle Book.
I don't think there's the slightest chance of anything like that ever happening. That's one more reason I can't pretend to any interest in the latter-day Disney features, or to any real admiration for more than a few of the people who make them.
From Michael Sporn: Your article today caught me in the right mood.
Grayson Ponti's site also had me begin thinking, a couple of weeks ago, of the newer animators at Disney's in comparison to some of the older ones. I've been thinking it for weeks, now. One of the interests I'd had in Ponti's blog was his focus on the newer animators. Quite frankly I don't know who many of them are and am unable to link names with scenes. I've probably memorized the scenes, but couldn't put a name to them. I'm also a bit embarrassed at admitting that. Ponti's site has helped rectify my difficulty, some.
You have a succinct way of getting to the heart of the matter with your "sincerity" theory. I don't doubt you're correct; in fact I know you are. However, I have two—make that three—qualms to voice.
I don't quite agree that later films like Sword In the Stone were wholly swallowed by this "sincerity" thing you speak of. Frank Thomas' squirrel sequence has as much honest life as the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp. They were just the characters the script had ordered. I do think The Jungle Book has almost nothing to offer me. I've sat through it at least a dozen times trying to convince myself to like it, but have not been able to find much to appreciate other than individual scenes (not sequences but scenes).
I don't think all of the current animators have allowed their egos to get in the way of the work. Some have been able to focus wholeheartedly on the scenes at hand and have produced some excellent bits. For bright splashes characters are alive on screen. I think, for example, of "Scar" in The Lion King. I'm certain that Jeremy Irons's impeccable reading for the character colors and shapes what the character does on screen, but I think Andreas Deja did some remarkable work with that character—a villain with several levels of depth. I can probably name some other bright spots, but don't want to start naming animators and leaving others out. (Can you imagine how those who were left off Grayson Ponti's list must feel?)
However, I certainly disagree with your statement, "Looking back over the Disney features made in those five decades, I have to wonder if hand-drawn animation, as an art form, and we as its audience, might not have been better off if Walt had followed through on his implicit threat to pull the plug." I am pleased that the younger generation of animators has had the chance to push out films like Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin or even Mulan. They not only pulled animation out of the American Tail gutter but gave it a form. This form may have encouraged egos to run amuck, but the mere fact that I've given thought to this argument for the past few weeks says a lot for the existence of those films.
Finally, I can't imagine having to jump from The Jungle Book to this cgi age of computer puppetry. Better to have a dozen Spirits or Treasure Planets than one TinTin or Puss In Boots. (The "sincerity" there has shifted to the "director.")
MB replies: I did say that falseness swallowed up most of The Sword in the Stone, certainly not all of it.. I went back to the notes I made on that film as I watched it at the Library of Congress, and I find that I wrote: "The girl squirrel really is cute, with just enough of a real squirrel in her movements and her chatter." I also liked the Madam Mim sequence, with reservations, writing that "if she were a little more menacing, and a little less clownish, the sequence would be outstanding." But most of the film is broad and crude in the Reitherman manner, and Merlin's central role as a wise teacher is constantly undermined by slapstick, and especially by absent-minded-professor foolishness.
Andrea Deja is one of the two latter-day animators (along with Glen Keane) for whom I've always expressed admiration, and I should have mentioned him favorably in my post. (Not that being omitted matters a whit to him, I'm sure, although I do have to wonder what he felt about being ranked after Mark Henn on Grayson Ponti's list.)
From Geoff Blum: The Sleeping Beauty reference on the photo heading your latest blog is close enough, and that’s certainly Earle’s art on the walls, but if you’ll take a careful look, some of it—especially in the foreground—is Paul Bunyan. As the two were released within six months of each other, not a big deal.
[Posted January 22, 2012]
From Dan Briney: That's always been one of my favorite photos of Walt, and it's interesting— and frankly not surprising—to learn what he was saying as it was being taken. There's a clear weariness in his expression, that of a man who's looking past pieces of one of his most ambitious features to see the writing on the wall behind them. Disney has always been an organization with a keen sense of its own history, and I think that sense may have weighed ever heavier on the animators, at some unconscious (or even conscious) level, as the years went on. The need to live up to the legacies of the past, generating animation that was overproduced and uncomfortably self-aware. I disagree with your take on Glen Keane's John Silver; while the animation showed signs of this kind of overproduction, Keane still made Silver a very real and engaging character who called up echoes of Robert Newton's Silver in Disney's 1950 live-action version of the story. The Disney features from the '60s through the '80s are largely unwatchable. The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin all promised a return to confidence and quality, but for the rest of the decade Disney was content to tread water with increasingly formulaic stories starring archetypal characters cavorting around in the same old pseudo-Broadway setpieces. This, far more than any self-consciousness of the animation (which does exist), dragged down the features of the '90s and early '00s. Every once in a while the studio would attempt something different, such as Treasure Planet or Atlantis, but the confidence of the early '90s seemed to have evaporated and the will to follow through with these departures wasn't there. To me, the only truly successful post-Aladdin film was Lilo & Stitch, a delightful movie that, sadly, will probably stand as the last great hand-drawn Disney feature.
MB replies: I agree that Lilo and Stitch—which I wrote about in one of my first reviews on this site—was a bright spot in an otherwise dismal landscape.
From Jim Korkis: In your recent posting, I think you missed a key point: the Xerox effect. We all know that every generation of a Xerox copy is not as sharp and clear.
Many of the early Disney animators had not only a huge background in real life but extensive art training in the Fine Arts. Walt continued to encourage their education with a variety of classes and lectures, not just art related. The inspiration for their storytelling was live action film not other animated films. They showed up to work showered, shaved and in a suit and put their coat on the back of their chair, loosened their tie and rolled up their sleeves. As you know from your interviews, most of them considered it a job not an art. They were encouraged to do their best, make mistakes, and push themselves while meeting deadlines and budgets. Walt himself was excited about experimenting and innovativing and all of this took place without Brand Management or Merchandising or any other department leaning over everyone's shoulders to influence the choices that were being made.
Every following generation, all of that got watered down until by the Seventies, it is starting to happen that animators are not studying real life but studying the animation of their heroes. Even Glen Keane pulled out Woolie's dog fight scene from Lady and the Tramp to study before approaching the bear fight in The Fox and the Hound.
By the time of Sleeping Beauty, I think Walt was tired of animation. Age, business concerns and restricted budgets had dampened his enthusiasm about the possibilities of pushing animation to another level. It had become an obligation to do a Disney feature and the process had become so formalized that Walt was really not as involved as he had been in earlier productions. There are no stories of him entrancing the animators by acting out the story of Sleeping Beauty like he did Snow White and Pinocchio. In addition, he became more enthused about other areas like live action films, WED, and Disneyland that offered him some of the opportunities that had originally excited him about animation. Woolietoons produced a product with an eye on holding to a budget, often by having action take place off camera or constantly cycling animation or tracing over scenes from previous animation features.
I was a little taken aback about a decade ago when I was asked to teach an eight part class on the history of animation for the new interns at Disney Feature Animation Florida. Primarily, they had learned how to do animation in college and had watched Disney animated features. They had no acquaintance with any silent animated cartoons that were the foundation nor any of Walt's competitors in the Thirties and Forties like Paul Terry, Warner Brothers, MGM and others. Even as the class approached the beginning of computer animation, they had no clue how and why computer animation developed.
They were a nice enough bunch of young people but they dressed very floppy and casually, were coddled with all sorts of special perks, have very little real life experience and seemed as far removed from the legendary Disney animators I had interviewed in the past as if they had been from another planet. Still, if they had a visionary leader to inspire them like a Chris Sanders, they were capable of producing some amazing stuff.
Yes, many times over the decades, Disney Feature Animation was in danger of being mothballed. I am thankful it never happened and will gladly tolerate the misfires because I know the potential for greatness is still there. However, I think greatness will only happen by going back to the roots rather than just being a xXerox copy of a Xerox copy.
From Kevin Hogan: In response to Mr. Korkis: While Xerox had quite an influence on the Disney films of the Sixties and Seventies, I don’t believe that the process had a wholesale effect on the “sincerity” of the animators. Once Walt started losing interest in animation it appears that his more esteemed staff either: a) self indulged in character animation that was unmotivated by story or character development, or b) gave way to formula to bring in paying customers (insert Woolie Reitherman or Katzenberg here at your own will). Both are equally a bore to me. Even the vaunted Frank and Ollie became overly indulged in characters during the Seventies (they appear to be having fun with Prince John, etc. in Robin Hood, but I am not sharing in their joy).
I think Xerox is a convenient excuse for having less sophisticated animation/ story in the sixties and seventies, but ultimately it was just a tool for Reitherman to make money. In the late 80s and 90s computers were a convenient excuse for Katzenberg and the Disney staff to fill the screen with over-the-top computer imagery and little characterization (please see “Be Our Guest”, etc).
MB replies: I think Jim Korkis was using Xerox as a metaphor—successive copies will be inferior to the original, as latter-day Disney animation is inferior to the earlier animation of which it is a copy—rather than referring to the Xerox process as Disney used it to transfer animators' drawings to cels on any number of features, starting with One Hundred and One Dalmatians (or actually, on a small scale, with Sleeping Beauty).
From Dan Briney: I'd like to add that Jim Korkis, in his comment, astutely describes something else I've always seen radiating from Walt in that photo: disinterest and obligation. Though it could simply be that the photographer had caught him at the end of a long and tiring day, Walt's posture and the look in his eyes still seem to sum up the shifting priorities of the man whose passion for animation had largely dissipated by the late '50s, whose thoughts and energies were off in other places entirely even as he was supervising Sleeping Beauty.
From Don Benson: Speaking as a broad and unfocused film fan, I think much of your essay and the following comments can be applied to filmmaking as a whole (not to mention comics, television and other popular forms). Boiled down:
-- Pioneers experiment with a media with no history or even any real definition. Most of them wander into it without "appropriate" education or training, inventing what they needed.
-- When they find something that seems to work, they stick with it—elevating the form but eventually running it into the ground. Disney animation and filmmaking attained a commercial "perfection" Disney was content to lock into place, especially as his real focus was now theme parks and utopian cities.
-- New generations take it up, imitating idols and adhering to what are calcified into unquestioned rules. One thing I liked about the recent wave of Marvel hero movies is how they casually discarded the once-mandatory "secret identity."
-- Creators begin playing to each other rather than the broader audience. When superheroes first appeared, they made instant sense to little kids who'd never seen the like. Now, they tend to come weighted with endless backstory, insider references and a near hostility to the casual reader.
-- Technical advances and greater resources become a liability. Compare the slapdash and sloppy "Rocky and his Friends" with "Freakazoid", where slick production and elaborate music work weigh down every gag. Or the best of snappy old B pictures with their humongous "summer movie" descendants.
-- Related to that, greater stakes. A lot of the best popular culture happens when it's thought to be disposable and nobody in the head office is paying attention. Carl Barks slipping epic tales into 12¢ comics; the Termite Terrace crew cranking out program filler below the corporate radar; the best stuff on the newspaper comic page. Now, it seems like marketing and "creative" executives have to be involved from day one, fretting over anything genuinely new.
-- Final result: Homeopathic entertainment, based on increasingly weak distillations of itself rather that anything out in the real world.
[Posted January 24, 2012]
From Garry Apgar: I loved the latest, lengthy and superbly argued post on the later animated features.
The first Disney features I can remember seeing were Ichabod and Mr. Toad and Snow White, in a re-release (was born in in 1945). I was enthralled by the magic of both, and to this day consider the Toad half of that combo picture, "pound for pound" ("second of celluloid per second of celluloid"?), the greatest Disney cartoon ever. I still have the Giant Golden Book edition of that story. And I've long wondered if Toad wasn't also inspired in part by Winston Churchill, as they had a similar adventurous temperament and a comparable physique. One of the treats of my adult life was discovering that the voice of Toad, Eric Blore, had had juicy supporting roles in some of the Astaire pictures. That and the discovery that Cliff Edwards played a reporter in His Girl Friday.
I don't know that Disney has ever been properly credited with utilizing such brillant non-staff talent as effectively as he did. (More examples include Basil Rathbone as Toad's narrator, and the voice work of J. Pat O'Malley, Ed Wynn, Louis Prima, George Sanders, among others.)
Somehow, despite the off-putting technical quality of the animation, One Hundred and One Dalmatians still worked for me, though it was far more bland than even Bambi, my least favorite early Disney. And I must say that I love The Jungle Book, because of the great songs, and characters like Kaa, Shere Khan, Baloo, Colonel Hathi, and King Louie. Obviously, it's too bad they couldn't have been drawn with the complete quality of the Golden Age animation. That's always been a source of sadness for me Even Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp, were technically superb, as mere animation, with some brilliant moments here and there, as you pointed out.
Again, I was delighted to read the post and comforted to see that my take on the later films conformed with yours, especially since you've researched and pondered that material much more than I.
[Posted January 25, 2012]
From Floyd Norman: I might as well jump in on the “I don’t think we can continue” conversation. I was lucky enough to be around during the time this photograph was taken. I believe the photographer was Bob Willoughby who was brought in to shoot additional photos for the book, The Art of Animation. Willoughby grabbed this shot of Eric and Walt after a long hard day. It had been a long hard slog for all of us through the film, Sleeping Beauty. Both these old guys realized we had reached the end of an era. Should things continue, they would never be the same. I was sadden by the fact things were coming to an end. However, I was thankful I had been able to experience the last few years of Disney at its finest. Somehow, I feel Walt and Eric are saying, “Oh well. It was fun while it lasted.”
[Posted January 26, 2012]
From Hans Perk: Again, thanks for an insightful article that opens the wounds of the latter-day saints of animation. I do have a few thoughts on things, some of which have been on my mind for years, that I'd like to share.
First, about Grayson Ponti's site, I think there is an important misconception in the premise of the site, trying to classify the most influential Disney animator. In my opinion this can only have validity if broken up into periods of time, as the studio clearly went through different phases. Obviously, in the beginning, the most influential was Ub Iwerks—but only if we completely disregard the fact that Walt also animated. Then, when Ub left in 1930, Norm Ferguson took the studio to the next level, producing animation in a way that pleased Walt—for that was what it always has been about. Fred Moore entered during that phase, and within a few years was stylistically most influential, while Ham Luske influenced with his devotion to analysis. The "new guys" including Milt Kahl and Frank Thomas entered the sphere of influence in the late '30s simply because they were able to draw what Walt needed drawing.
Milt setting the style for so many years, from the redesign of Pinocchio onwards, obviously was extremely influential, and as we have read elsewhere, even was the main influence after he was no longer at the studio. When first I saw The Black Cauldron, I noted that they designed the characters in Milt's style, but while Milt could turn his characters around, the new animators could not.
That brings me to the next point, the "Xerox" issue. First as animator, then as studio owner, I have seen fresh new animators come into the studio, and most of them revered Milt. Copies of Merlin's hands abounded. And ever so often during the late '80s or '90s, some animator would show his new scene, proudly exclaiming: "Look what I did: I animated it just as Milt's Madam Mim, but notice Shere Kahn's head tilt—isn't it great?" I spent more time telling them to get their OWN experiences, to find their OWN characters in real life, "just like Milt would have done," instead of using third parties, filtered through Milt's brain. Very few would take this to heart.
Interestingly enough, with CG animation, this emulation happened also, but now it was the animation by the mostly nameless Pixar animators, e.g., nice scenes in the first Toy Story, that found their way into the younger animators' work, those who "only" learned the art of controlled-puppeteering-behind-glass of CG.
Again, this is not just borrowing or stealing, it is simply wrong. When we try to make each character a different entity, they would behave differently, because they would THINK differently. If more animators not only read, but UNDERSTOOD the writings of Frank and Ollie in The Illusion of Life, they would understand this, too: Frank and Ollie show principles that have been learned through several lifetimes, but they also show that these principles are to be used as guidelines only, and that true character development comes not from study of others' animation, but through study of human nature in the world around us.
Finally, I seem to remember that the issue with Eric Larson on Sleeping Beauty went deeper than just "I don't think we can continue." Eric was given the task of making the most beautiful film imaginable, starting on Seq. 08.0, Boy Meets Girl. Then, when it was found that his clean-up people were doing as little as one drawing a day, everything changed. That would be a proper context for "I don't think we can continue," for then (in late 1956) quotas were instituted and eventually Eric lost most of his directorial duties on the film to Geronimi and Reitherman.
As you know, I am much in favor of giving animators the recognition they are due. For the later period, with the exception of some of the work of great artists of the caliber of Glen Keane, Andreas Deja, Eric Goldberg, James Baxter, Mark Henn and very few others, a lot of information is missing. But thinking about it, what is really missing are good stories, entertaining stories that give the great animation purpose. If the stories were up to the standards that Walt set way back on Snow White, I bet we would see more interest in knowing who animated what in the later films.
From Garry Apgar: That fascinating photo from, presumably, 1958, of Walt conferring with Eric Larson recalls a second photo of Walt, likewise standing in a studio corridor, beside a silhouetted figure of Mickey, in the old animation building on Hyperion Avenue, constructed, according to Dave Smith, in the spring of 1931. Separated in time by more than a quarter-century, these pictures form visual bookends bracketing practically the entire arc of Disney’s career in animation. Indeed, they encapsulate, as fully as any two single images could, Walt’s work over a roughly twenty-eight-year period, from Mickey’s early days in black and white through the Golden Age of the Disney feature-length color cartoon, and beyond.
The vintage photo above almost certainly dates from around 1931, when Mickey was the franchise. Walt is only 30 years old, casually but stylishly attired in a dress shirt with long-point Windsor collar—open at the top—sleeveless sweater, neatly pressed, pleated pants, and two-tone “spectator” shoes. There is a dreamy aspect to his intense, brooding stance: staring past the camera lens, and the eye of the beholder, into space. His profile, however, cast in silhouette against the wall, guides us back into the picture, and, in a 90-degree turn, directs our gaze toward his shadowy alter ego. Starkly defined—as a flat, spectral mass—Mickey projects, nonetheless, about as much pictorial weight, and vitality, as Disney (whose hand-on-hip pose, incidentally, artfully rhymes with that of the Mouse). In one last clever gambit on the part of whoever made the photo, Mickey’s hand, raised—as originally designed, by Ub Iwerks—in a gesture of greeting, is used to refocus our attention on his maker, the principal subject, after all, in the composition.
Disney is anything but dashing in the later photo—attributed in comment here by Floyd Norman to professional photographer Bob Willoughby—which is more in the nature of a snapshot, albeit an expert and inspired one. There, in late middle age (heavier, of course, than in 1931), Disney is dressed like a typical corporate executive … though the suit coat is off, and the necktie loosened … after a hard day’s work on Sleeping Beauty. Rumpled and weary, Walt leans against a wall plastered with a dizzying array of almost undecipherable drawings. There is a whiff of melancholy in the air. Thrust, diagonally, deep within the pictorial space of the image, Walt seems hemmed in—trapped, one is tempted to say—in a world, ultimately, of his own making. Such a reading is reinforced by Larson’s recollection that Disney was commenting at the time, “I don’t think we can continue, it’s too expensive.” (Or, as Norman imagined both men saying, “Oh well. It was fun while it lasted.”) In the earlier shot, the future seemed boundless. There, Walt stands, shirtsleeve rolled up, against a plain wall (a tabula rasa, as it were), as if he and the Mouse are ready to take on the world (which, of course, they were).
These images underscore a few of the many things we don’t yet know about Walt. Can we not, for starters, establish with certainty that Willoughby was the author of the later photo? And what of the iconic shot of Walt and Mickey from circa 1931, which serves (in colorized form) most famously as the cover art for the current edition of the Bob Thomas biography, Walt Disney: An American Original?
I used to think it was by the legendary MGM stills photographer, Clarence Sinclair Bull, who had a number of sessions, as early, perhaps, as 1930, with Walt, one-on-one, at work, and Walt and Lillian together, at home. Last summer, during a research stint at the Walt Disney Archives, I was told there is no record of who took the Hyperion studio photo. However, when I showed WDA chief Becky Cline a head-and-shoulders portrait of Walt by an obscure fellow named Tom Collins (below, left), she immediately observed that Walt is wearing the same sleeveless sweater in both photos. The latter image is familiar because it appears (uncredited) on the cover of the 2007 biography of Disney by Neal Gabler. The print reproduced here, signed by Collins in the lower right-hand corner, was on sale on eBay in August 2011, from Profiles-in-History, Agoura Hills, Calif. (item no. 350479922410). It is inscribed “To Pearl & Collie, My best wishes, Walt.” (“Collie” might be short for “Collins.”)
Two more photos show Walt in identical garb, almost certainly by Tom Collins as well (fodder, Mike, for yet another installment of “Where Walt Was”!). The first of these, with Walt holding one of Charlotte Clark’s stuffed Mickey dolls (above, center), posed in the same carpeted hallway as the “iconic” photo discussed above, was used to illustrate the Gerald and Danny Peary anthology, The American Animated Cartoon (E. P. Dutton, 1980). It was credited there to the Museum of Modern Art/Film Stills Archive. Alas, MoMA’s photo archive is currently stored off-site, in Pennsylvania, virtually inaccessible for the foreseeable future, so it is not now possible to determine if any information is recorded on that particular print (I know of no other). Finally, Gunnar Andreassen has produced a fourth photo (above, bottom), of Walt, sleeves rolled up, seated in a chair before the same bare wall visible in the two pictures in which Walt and Mickey appear together.
The presumed author of these four images, Tom Collins, is a real mystery man. A query to the Margaret Herrick Library, of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for instance, generated no information on Collins. So far just two published mentions of him have come to light, including this spicy item in the Los Angeles Times, from January 18, 1934:
Tom Collins, polo player and Hollywood photographer, tossed a telephone at his wife, Vera Collins, former motion-picture actress, and broke one of her ribs, according to her suit on file in Superior Court yesterday.
On one occasion she went to a picture with friends and he was supposed to join the party later. He did not show up, and by calling the home of an old girl friend of his she found him, much to her humiliation, the complaint, filed by Joseph Marchetti states.
Didier Ghez has pointed to a second, fleeting mention of Collins in the Bob Thomas biography of Roy O. Disney, Building a Company: “In 1934, Roy was emboldened to buy the Tom Collins stable of four ponies for $1,050.” (Did Collins need cash to pay off his ex?) Didier also reported that “Roy’s secretary was Marian Margaret Collins, who then became Margaret Tytle,” and wonders “if she was connected to Tom Collins, especially since Harry Tytle was such an avid polo player.” Surely, there must be more scoop out there, somewhere, on this roguish character who produced such memorable early effigies of Walt.
[Posted January 31, 2012]
From Joseph Titizian: I noticed that in the photo of Walt holding the Charlotte Clark doll, a large cutout of Mickey is leaning against the wall to the right of Walt's leg. I read somewhere that the shadow of Mickey in the famous photo was from the figure that was on top of the Disney Studio neon sign, but this photo shows that a cutout, possibly a promotional lobby advertisement, was used to create the shadow. Just an observation.
[Posted February 2, 2012]
From Garry Apgar: Joseph Titizian has a sharp eye! I'd not noticed the cut-out of what looks like Mickey ... the gray form in the lower right ... lurking in the shadows. Could it be the same figure that appears in what I call the "iconic" photograph of Walt and Mickey, also presumably shot by Tom Collins? Hard to tell. That particular figure was used very early on. First, in a photo of Walt, Ub and staff, grouped around Carl Stalling, taken in late 1929 or January 1930, along with a number of other staff photos gathered on this page:
Second, in at least three photos taken when Sergei Eisenstein and two Soviet colleagues visited the studio in September 1930:
Third, in a photograph credited to Clarence Sinclair Bull, used to illustrate "The Only Unpaid Star," by Harry Carr, in the American Magazine, March 1931:
It is the same Mouse depicted on the big sign at the Hyperion Avenue studio during the 1930s:
[Posted February 3, 2012]
From Garry Apgar:
Thanks to Gunnar Andreassen, here's a better detail (below) of the Hyperion studio sign, in which Mickey is clearly walking, not standing, as I previously indicated.
The pose is, however, a variant on the cut-out motif used in those early photographs. The same walking figure is seen on what looks like the cover of some sheet music (below) placed on the piano before Carl Stalling in the group photo from circa January 1930.
The page is inscribed, at the very top, "Minnie's Yoo Hoo," "Presumably released in late 1929," according to David Gerstein, who added: "I've only seen one example on sale. It seems to be very rare indeed" (Cartoon Brew, 4/6/09). A day later, also on Cartoon Brew, Daniel Goldmark noted that "'Minnie’s Yoo-Hoo' is, as far as I know, the earliest Disney-related sheet music to be published, appearing in 1929, and published by Villa-Moret ... The Mickey image on the piano that David refers to [photo above] in his comment (from a photo on Mike Barrier’s website) is not the cover to 'Minnie’s Yoo-Hoo,' however. That cover [photo below] was reproduced as the frontispiece to the Barrier/Gray/Spicer interview of Carl Stalling when it was originally published in Funnyworld #13 (Spring 1971)." See: http://www.cartoonbrew.com/disney/earliest-disney-records.html
[Posted February 7, 2012]
From Milton Gray: As important as "sincerity" is in cartoon animation, I've thought about this for years, and I've finally realized that what I most look for, and hope to find, in a cartoon can be summed up in the word "magical." By that I don't mean "literal magic," such as a character with a magic wand that makes impossible things happen. (That can be pretty banal.) What I do mean is, either characters or events that are dreamlike, fantasies that are not possible in our own literal everyday lives. Characters that are purely imaginary, or if they are humans they should be so greatly caricatured (like Disney's Pecos Bill, or Chuck Jones's The Dover Boys) that they do not resemble literal illustrations of real people. What I want least is straight human characters that so successfully copy the subtleties of movement of real people that it invites comparison to live action movies. As much as I admire the great artistry in Disney's One Hundred and One Dalmatians, I would have to say that for me there is no magic in that cartoon. At the opposite extreme, I've often asserted that Alice in Wonderland is my favorite Disney feature, with Dumbo as a close second. This, of course, explains my love for the classic 1940s Warner cartoons, especially those by Clampett.
Of course, even "magical" has to have some foundation in psychological truth. I can't get very interested in most of the post-Walt cartoon features from the so-called Disney studio because they keep violating their own premises. Typically, they start out with Walt Disney sincerity, then veer off into Warner zaniness—impossible gags—for a cheap laugh, then return to Disney sincerity, and expect the audience to still be emotionally involved in the believability of the characters and their predicaments.
If Snow White were to be made today by the Disney Company, I'm sure we could expect to see Snow White always accompanied by a "wacky animal sidekick" so that Snow White can tell him (and us) how she feels throughout the movie, even while she frequently goes out of character to make wisecrack references to current TV situation comedies; the seven dwarfs would probably be engaged in lots of bathroom humor, especially fart jokes, so that they seem hip; and the witch would have to sing at least two songs to make sure we understand that she is wicked. No matter how skillful the animation, it's just not going to make me love the movie.
MB replies: I'm reminded of what I wrote back in 2003, in my review of Lilo and Stitch, about what Dumbo would be like if it were made by today's Walt Disney Company (well, the Disney Company of eight years ago, but nothing has really changed since then):
Dumbo (his name changed to Zumbo to avoid offending the stupid) would talk, of course, and he and Timothy would have a conversation in which Zumbo says something like "G-g-gosh, Timothy, isn't it wonderful that the magic feather will let me fly? D-d-do you suppose that I might be able to fly some day without the feather?" Timothy replies, a little nervously: "Nahnahlet's stick with the feather, pal. No use gettin' fancy!"
And then, as Zumbo is plummeting to earth, his pink and cuddly little elephant girlfriend cries out, from where she has been imprisoned by the evil ringmaster, "Zumbo! I know you can do it! Fly, Zumbo, fly!" But Zumbo keeps plunging toward that tub, not knowing that when he hits it, that will be the signal for the evil ringmaster to grow to enormous size and unleash a horde of evil clowns on the world. And then ... well, enough of such morbid fantasizing.
I hope I haven't given anyone in Burbank any bright ideas.
[Posted February 15, 2012]
January 13, 2012:
I have a growing queue of things I plan or hope to post about soon, but book writing and other obligations have thrown me far behind. So, as a placeholder, let me write a little about the visit Phyllis and I made to the new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, earlier this month.
Crystal Bridges, as the serious museumgoers among you know by now, opened on November 11, after months of anticipation and lots of attention from mainstream media like The New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and CBS News. The museum is in Bentonville, in the Ozarks, because that's the home town of its founder, Alice Walton, the only daughter of Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart. Alice Walton is, thanks to her father, one of the nation's wealthiest people, and she has poured many millions of that wealth into building the museum and filling it with American paintings and sculpture.
You may recall that Alice Walton ruffled a lot of feathers a few years ago, when Crystal Bridges was still in its embryonic stage, by buying an Asher Durand painting called "Kindred Spirits" from the New York Public Library. In other cases, she attempted purchases that were thwarted by belated outbursts of civic pride, most notably in Philadelphia, where a splendid Thomas Eakins painting eluded her. Crystal Bridges has been dogged by snobbish resentment of its very presence in an out-of-the-way town like Bentonville, and by dark mutterings about Walmart's supposed mistreatment of its employees.
A lot of that carping seems to have died down now that Crystal Bridges is open. The museum is architecturally extraordinary if not entirely successful (most of the miscalculations can be corrected without major surgery, and probably will be), and the collection is very impressive, even if it weakens the closer you get to the present day (another shortcoming that will surely be corrected, since Crystal Bridges has hundreds of millions of dollars to work with). Admission is free, and the museum has attracted tens of thousands of visitors since it opened.
Contrary to what many people on the East Coast seem to think, the middle of the country is not a desert where museums and art are concerned Just a stone's throw from Bentonville, there's the justly famed Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City and the Gilcrease in Tulsa. Cast your net wider, and you come up with first-class institutions like the Kimbell and Amon Carter museums in Fort Worth. Within a few years, I'm sure, the presence of Crystal Bridges in northwestern Arkansas will seem no stranger than the presence of great museums in those other cities.
Animation and comics connections in the museum's holdings are scant, alas. I noticed a Theodore Robinson oil of the Columbian Exposition at Chicago (where Walt Disney's father, Elias, was a carpenter), and a Jim Dine sculpture of a boy that bears a suspicious resemblance to the Disney version of Pinocchio. The gift shop offers a surprisingly large number of books about graphic novels. But easily the most cartoon-friendly item in the collection is Nick Cave's 2010 sculpture (or assemblage, whatever you want to call it) "Soundsuit." A view of the whole thing is at the right, and a detail below.
From David Nethery: Thanks for the article noting the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art . I wonder if those who are uneasy that "tainted Walmart money" is funding this museum feel the same way about the collections at almost all major metropolitan museums which were donated or underwritten by various "robber barons" of the past? And thanks for pointing out that NorthEast Coast snobbishness ought not to be allowed to get away with their narrow assumptions that there is nothing of cultural value in the Midwest or the South. I'll add a recommendation for another Southern museum: The Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park, Florida The Morse Museum is a jewel. As their website describes: "Although internationally renowned for its unique, visually magnificent, and historically invaluable Louis Comfort Tiffany collection, the Morse is more than a Tiffany museum. It is also a treasure house of American decorative art from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, with especially rich holdings in the area known as Arts & Crafts." If you are ever in the area I'd recommend a visit.
MB replies: When I wrote my post and mentioned the criticism of Walmart, I was tempted to make a comparison with the Frick Collection in New York—one of my favorite museums, but one whose founder, Henry Clay Frick, was not exactly a saint. A lot of other great museums have similarly clouded origins. I've not visited the Morse Museum, unfortunately.
[Posted January 14, 2012]
January 1, 2012:
There are too many good websites now to do all of them justice in an item like this one, but I do want to call your attention to a new one that promises to be well worth multiple visits. This from Ginny Mahoney, Max Fleischer's granddaughter:
We've been working on building a Fleischer Studios Virtual Museum... and we finally have it online!!! Our first exhibit is OPEN. This first exhibit is about Christmas at Fleischer Studios, since Christmas was a special holiday for them...a good time to show off their drawing skills, get together, be crazy, and party! This was a nutty group and this exhibit shows it. To visit the exhibit, go to our website, Fleischerstudios.com, click on the word "Museum" near the top of the page (under Fleischer Studios), and this will take you to our museum site, where you can click to enter our Christmas exhibit. This is a preview; we plan to have an official museum opening sometime in January.