Norm Ferguson (or, as we always called him, Fergy) used to like to tell of the lonely night when he switched from cameraman to animator. He was staying late to finish shooting a scene when he discovered that some of the drawings were missing. There was no one else around to complete the animation and no one to call, so as Fergy put it, "I had to fill in." The scenes were so successful that he was offered a job drawing. And he reasoned, 4tIf this is all there is to animation. I guess I'll switch over—it beats being on camera."
Fergy, who came to the studio in 1929, had an
In this scene from Peculiar Penguins, the girl, annoyed with her inept boyfriend. flips her tail feathers in his face, then tosses her chin in the air. Ham Luske animated the scene (top row) with good anticipation and follow-through. but felt the action lacked accent and cuteness.
On his second test. he made the tail go farther and added a slide backward to accentuate the flip (vertical row). This gave unexpected emphasis and pertness to the whole action.
intelligent, creative mind, and he listened and observed more than he talked. What he did say came out with a slight Brooklyn accent, and it was usually punctuated by. "Yeah, yeah, you know, you know." He would laugh about events that were going wrong, so it was difficult to tell just how deeply he felt about things. Most of the time during a conversation he would be fooling with a little curl of hair on his forehead that always seemed to separate from the rest. Jack Cutting1 said that Fergy's wide-open pale-blue eyes and fixed smile looked guileless and friendly, but every so often you got the feeling that his smile was a mask and that behind it he was observing and noting everything you were doing.
Fergy's tastes did not run to the intellectual. He loved the old vaudeville comedians, and this was probably his chief form of entertainment while growing up. He saw everything as if it were on stage, rather than in terms of the involved movements some animators were able to do after studying live action. A big pan of a comedian's act was often the way he looked at his audience in response to some action or line of dialogue—sharing his reaction broadly with the spectators. Fergy adapted this very same routine for his cartoon dog who would become Pluto, having him look into the camera to show his inner feelings. No one doubted that this dog was thinking, too.
In one of his first pictures. Frolicking Fish, Fergy animated a girls' trio as fishes singing and doing an old-time soft-shoe dance. But Fergy's vaudeville touch was not the most memorable thing about this piece of animation. Wilfred Jackson pinpoints this as a big step forward: "In that scene there was a fluid type of action where they didn't hit a hold and move out of it. But when one part would hold something else would move. So there was never a complete stop. And this was a scene Walt made us all look at, because he said that is the worst thing about the kind of animation you guys are doing. Your character goes dead and it looks like a drawing."
Ben Sharpsteen, who had come from New York only a few months before Fergy, recalls that Walt then assigned Fergy to the bloodhound in Chain Gang: "Fergy was successful in getting a looseness into the bloodhound that exaggerated its ability to sniff (a wrinkling of the nose) and to think (facial expressions, such as a quizzical look or a sudden smile directed at the audience). Fergy succeeded in getting a feeling of flesh into his animation. No one realized what Fergy had done, however, until after the preview." No one realized, either, that this dog would develop into the famous Pluto. And Don Graham adds, " The dogs were alive, real. They seemed to breathe. They moved like dogs, not like drawings of dogs. The drawings explained not so much what a real dog looked like, but what a real dog did."
Walt did not tell Fergy to do a different dog or one that added a new dimension to cartoons. He did not say, "Let's see if we can make a dog think this time." He did not tell him, "I want you to do a dog that will act like this and do these things because I think the audience will go for it." That was not Walt's way—not when developing a new character. He would be apt to start talking about different dogs and the funny way they had of sniffing when they were on the trail of something. Before he knew it he would be acting it out, and the fellows in the meeting would start laughing because this was funny, the way Walt did it. And more than likely, Walt would remember a specific dog he had seen—maybe an old hunting dog that lived near the Disney farm: "Y'know this old guy would come snuffin' along like a vacuum cleaner, his muzzle spread all over the ground. You know this loose skin they have up here; well, it would be spread out flat he was try in' so hard to get his nose down next to the smell, and he had all these wrinkles bunched up over
animator: Norman "Fergy" Ferguson—Playful Pluto
The famous flypaper sequence from Playful Pluto, a milestone in personality animation. From the time he accidentally sits on a sheet of the sticky flypaper. Pluto's problems seem to become ever worse as he tries to extricate himself. Through it all. his reaction to his predicament and his thoughts of what to try next are shared with the audience. It was the first time a character seemed to be thinking on the screen, and, though it lasted only 65 seconds, it opened the way for animation of real characters with real problems.
his nose and down over his eyes. But he was serious ' about it, y'know; he wasn't a goof ball—this was serious business to him."
And then Walt would remember how the dog would suddenly stop and look up. as if he was thinking—you hardly knew what. Maybe he was sorting things out, maybe he was listening for something, or maybe he was trying to remember when he had last smelled that particular smell, or maybe it was just something that crazy dog did. And as Walt acted it out, it became funnier and funnier; encouraged by the response. Walt would know he was onto something that was good entertainment. He would imitate the expressions of the dog, and look from one side to the other, and raise first one brow and then the other as he tried to figure things out. Walt's eyebrows were particularly facile, and the piercing look with the one brow down and the other up was his most common expression when he was thinking. Fergy was watching all this as well as laughing at the thought of the old dog with all his wrinkles and the sniffing and trying to figure things out, and in his mind he was seeing the way it should look on the screen. He was visualizing drawings, attitudes, expressions, but they were not drawings of Walt himself; they were drawings of a dog with a personality who was thinking. Even though the animator would get his sole inspiration from the way Walt acted out a character, there was never a temptation to draw Walt.
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