"I definitely feel that we cannot do the fantastic things based on the real, unless we first know the real."
The mid thirties was easily the most thrilling period for the Disney animators. It was a time of explosive growth for the whole studio, but the exploring and experimenting and discovery created an excitement never quite matched again.
Just because we had named one of the new principles of animation did not mean that we understood it or grasped the extent of its possibilities. Constant study and searching had brought us that far. and more study was the only way to keep advancing. Walt secured movies from other companies for us to see at the studio after hours, and he told us of the great vaudeville acts to see whenever they were in town. Everywhere we went and everything we did became something to study: for timing, staging, humor, personality traits, movements, action. One animator bought a 16mm camera when they first came on the market, to photograph his own resource material and study it frame by frame. It put him ahead of the others immediately, since he was able to create new actions beyond our understanding.
Don Graham.1 top instructor at Chouinard's Art Institute. was brought out one evening a week to improve the drawing talents of the staff. At first it was just regular life drawing, but it was not long before Don came under Walt's intensive drive always to get something better. He wanted Don to become the outstanding authority on line drawing in the country. He wanted his men taught things you could not find in any existing art school. Life drawing was useful, but it did not go nearly far enough or fast enough. Don soon was spending more time studying than teaching, as he tried to keep up with Walt's enthusiasm.
Walt realized that the animators teaching the art were the ones who shared his desire to achieve higher standards, and in 1936 he put out this memo: "We plan on installing night classes on action analysis immediately. I intend to have some of the best aninia-
Art instructor D was hired to rai of the animators
tors talk to these men and discuss with them Timing, land] means of obtaining certain effects. ... in this way I hope to stir up in this group of men an enthusiasm and a knowledge of how to achieve results that will advance them rapidly.*' Now we were coming back two and three nights every week either to talk or to listen. There were also guest speakers from outside the studio, but, while they were stimulating and enriched our general background, we did not get as much from them in a practical way as we did from our own "experts." As Les Clark said, "I learned more from working with the fellas, and from Walt."
The memo continued: "I also intend to have Don Graham study our better animation, so that he will be able to analyze things for the younger animators." More work for Don, and this in addition to the classes he was conducting on action analysis from live-action film clips. He selected single actions on short pieces of film and ran these backward and forward endlessly while discussing every observation he had been able to make. Our eyes flickered in sync with the slow shutter speed on the projector, but we were fascinated.
One piece of film showed a horse in a slow canter turning a half circle to his left. Don went to elaborate lengths to prepare us for this film, explaining how the horse had to lead with his left foot to keep his balance. "If he led with his right, the support would come too late for his weight, and he would fall over." Then he ran the film, and to everyone's surprise—and Don's horror—the horse was running in a left turn with a right lead. Ken Anderson2 burst out impetuously. "Hey, Don! The horse is wrong!" Too many nights with too many classes were getting to Don. but he stoically kept on. Actually, he made a better point in our minds than he would have otherwise, for any horseman knows that a horse can lead with either foot on a turn. However, his rhythm and balance will be better using the one that matches the direction he is turning, and we had to know that also.
Our most startling observation from films of people in motion was that almost all actions start with the hips; and, ordinarily, there is a drop—as if gravity were being used to get things going. From this move, there is usually a turn or tilt or a wind up. followed by a whiplash type of action as the rest of the body starts to follow through. This was evident first in sports films showing baseball pitchers and golfers, but soon we could see it in more general activities. Any person starting to move from a still, standing position, whether to start walking or pick something up, always began the move with the hips.
Don Graham eventually did become the leading authority on line drawing, but only a man of his patience, intellect, and calm determination could have lasted through those classes. He would shake his head in disbelief at the comments from all sides as he tried to educate masses of imaginative, enthusiastic artists. Don always had a cigarette in his hand, but it was hard to recall his lighting one. In our memories, his cigarettes were never over three-quarters of an inch long (getting shorter by the minute), and the smoke clung to his hand and went up his sleeve. There were no ashtrays up on the model stand where he generally talked, so he never seemed to have a place to put out the smoldering tip, moving it adroitly from one set of pinched fingernails to another. We found ourselves engrossed in these amazing displays of agility instead of Don's carefully chosen words.
When some of the animators were pressuring Walt to let them change Mickey's eyes so that more delicate expressions could be handled, Walt asked Don to bring it up in his class to see what all of the fellows thought. It was a difficult night for Don, since he had never pretended to inject himself into the actual work of animation, and he found himself trying to control a spirited discussion between authorities of varied opinions and even more varied personalities. Some felt the audience would never accept the new design and would wonder what was wrong. Others claimed that people would never notice. Some felt it would be all right to try it for just one picture and see what happened. As the talk became more heated, one man quipped. "Why don't we just change one eye at a time?"3
Many of the animators resented the constant push toward more realism in every action. To them, putting over the gag, the business, the strong pose, was all that was needed to be entertaining. The rest was just frills. But the new types of pictures called for actions that had to be analyzed carefully if they were to come off. There was a famous scene in The China Shop that was talked about for years. 'The story was simple: an old man has a china shop, and when he leaves at night the figurines come to life. But the scene of the kindly old shopkeeper taking a last look around, then opening the door, walking through it. and closing it behind him was quite a change from the broad gags and actions in the earlier films. The action not only had to be convincing, it had to have character. The old man had little personality, but he had to be old and kindly and somewhat reminiscent of someone out of a Dickens novel.
The animator was determined to get a shuffling walk, a bent posture, and a feeling of age in the movements. He did not want this man to reach far. take big steps, or in any way appear to be athletic or strong. The layout man had drawn a door on a wall that had a true storybook feeling, but, unfortunately, the doorknob was on the far side of the door, a long distance from the elderly shopkeeper. Me had to walk over close enough to reach out easily and grasp it. But this left him standing directly in the path of the door, which for some reason opened inward!
Two years after this, the animator would have run back to the Music Room and screamed about the restricting layout. "Why does it have to be at this angle?" "Why does the door open in instead of out?" "How am I supposed to get him through this door?" But this option had not been considered at the time of The China Shop. That animator, with great determination. attacked the problem from an action standpoint, probably hoping secretly that he would show everyone how well he could analyze the situation. The door opened four inches and hit the gentleman's foot. He stepped back in a casual, shuffling manner. He opened the door another four inches only to find that it had bumped against his other foot. Again he stepped back— another four inches. Now the door was against the first fool once more. There was no way he could step back far enough into the scene to clear this door, and the farther he backed up the more problem there would be in walking around the obstruction to get outside, where he had to be by the end of the scene. So as the film rolled by, the poor old man shuffled about endlessly as the door gradually opened enough for him to reverse his steps and struggle into the night. It was a comedy of errors on everyone's part, but the animator bore the brunt of the kidding more than the director or the layout man. There was much to be learned.
Through those days, the pictures we made reflected the wide range of concepts Walt was exploring. One film concentrated on dances and the geometric patterns dancers made when seen from above. This had become a popular camera angle because of the musicals live-action studios were making; it was felt we might do it better, but the audiences did not agree with us. We dealt with fantasies, gags, musicals, dreams, adventures, personalities; the titles alone suggest the variety of subject matter: The Flying Mouse, Lullaby Land, Mickey's Pal Pluto, The Pied Piper, Thru The Mirror. The Klondike Kid. Many of these were not successful, but Walt analyzed the reactions and tried something else. There seemed no end to his ideas, but the best response from both his staff and the audience was to his talent for developing personalities. It permeated his thinking on almost every venture.
Walt had always loved trains, with their almost human engines, and as early as 1929 he had one of them featured in the film Mickey's Choo-Choo. Ben Sharpsteen had the assignment of animating the new character. "Walt was not content to have a small engine as a prop; he wanted to give it personality. In the story, the engine came to a grade where it was having great difficulty making headway, and with much puffing and steaming it squatted down to the ground in fatigue. Mickey Mouse, the engineer, tried to prod it into action, and the engine tried to put forth a final effort. The pistons were animated to represent arms
and hands; they reached out and grabbed the rails as a person might grab a rope to pull himself along." This was more than just a matter of personality, it was the whole idea built on character relationships that could be animated. Mickey had a clear attitude, there was something he was trying to do, and the engine offered all kinds of opportunity to the imaginative animator.
A character was never placed in a scene unless he had a definite reason for being there. He had funny business, gag material, dialogue, something to make him interesting, and, usually, something that showed who he was and how he felt. Otherwise, he was not shown. Walt never left a scene at the continuity level; he made something out of it or reworked the story at that point. As these ideas became stronger, the cutting and staging of the scenes became more important. Decisions as to where to have the camera, how far back to be, who to have the camera on, when to be on someone else—all the facets of filmmaking became important to the little cartoon. From a novelty, we were coming of age in the picture business.
The use of real personalities for the characters had come about slowly as the better type of comedy and gags developed. At first there were just general types with the traditional connotations from the comic strips: big and tough, small and quick, fat and jolly, thin and miserly. The gags called for attitudes, expressions, a certain amount of thought or consideration here and there, but no need was felt for personality as expressed in walks, reactions, motivations, or thinking. The audience was drawn into the picture through the types of gags and sprightly business; there was no necessity for anything more. People were delighted by cycles and other tricks to make the impossible look plausible.
Prior to 1930, none of the characters showed any real thought process. Although Mickey had replaced Oswald he was doing the same things, and the only thinking done was in reaction to something that had happened. Mickey would see it, react, realize that he had to get a counter idea in a hurry, look around and see his answer, quickly convert it into something that fit his predicament, then pull the gag by using it successfully.
Of course, the potential for having a character really appear to think had always been there in the routines that Walt had envisioned, but no one knew how to accomplish such an effect. It was not even realized how much such an addition would increase the audience's enjoyment and involvement in the pictures. That all changed in one day when a scene was animated of a dog who looked into the camera and snorted. Miraculously, he had come to life! Walt was quick to appreciate the difference and so was the audience. The year was 1930 and the animator Norm Ferguson.4
With the gradual advancements in our skills, the way was open for Walt to explore a whole new concept: that of telling a complete story. The earlier films were made up of gags and had followed a situation or predicament through to the end, but there was never an attempt to capture an audience's interest through the story itself. Now Walt wanted to sec if his staff's ability to present a simple but complete story could hold up, for that would open great new fields to us. It was a step forward for story, but a huge leap for animation. Could we sustain a character, keeping him consistent and believable for seven minutes?
Even more suprising to everyone at the time was Walt's desire to build pictures around the ideas of tenderness, the lullaby, someone in trouble, sympathy and sacrifice, the fairy story. These were concepts that none of his storymcn would ever have thought of doing, and most certainly none of his competitors, but once again Walt's intuition was right. Stories with heart and warmth brought the greatest audience involvement, a response far beyond that for pictures built only on gags.
The biggest difference—and the gamble—was that these films would have to be taken seriously. Cartoons heretofore always were intended to be funny. Would the theater patrons accept this new genre, or would they laugh at our crude, presumptive efforts? How far could we expect them to follow us?
Fortunately, the audience was more than ready for Walt's type of entertainment. Even in the grim days of the Depression, when anything like a fairy tale would seem completely out of place, he had one success after another—not every picture, nor really even half of them, but enough to show us the way to go and encourage Walt in his ideas on communication.
It was apparent that more than mere continuity was needed in presenting a full story. An old favorite like Babes in the Woods, using the Hansel and Gretel stories, needed quite a bit more to make it entertaining in this new form. We quickly learned that a drab retelling of any story or an emphasis on continuity and exposition was the wrong way to go. Nothing is more deadly in animation than explanations of who the characters are and what they are doing there, followed by more discussion of what they are going to do about it! We searched for the entertaining situations inherent in the story or in the personalities that could be developed.
One perfect example was the first Mickey cartoon in color. The Band Concert. It introduced the amateur barnyard musicians giving an open-air concert to an appreciative audience. The story was built around the music being played and the heckling of Donald Duck, an ice cream salesman who wanted to play the flute. There is no explanation of who anyone is or how Mickey acquired a band, so there is no need for lengthy continuity scenes. It is not the type of picture that needs a strong personality build-up, so it takes right off with entertaining business, and each and every scene is packed with entertainment.
The Pointer has very little actual story and few gags
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