Hamilton Luske was opening the door to a new. more refined approach in which everything one has is put into the first test. This requires an uninterrupted continuity of thought. It may take days to do the scene, but you must not lose the thread, change your mind, or lose your confidence—you must be sure!
Ham had an absolute fascination with how things moved. Eric Larson, who was Ham's assistant in the early thirties, says, "Ham was studying animation all the time—it was his whole life." One weekend Eric and Ham were on the deck of the Catalina steamer with their wives, enjoying the sea breeze and apparently trying to forget the cares of the day. But not Ham! All of a sudden he pulled off his tic and held it out in the wind. "Look. Eric! Look at the overlap. See how the end keeps going down after the center part starts up." Every time they would play golf it was the same thing. "Now watch close. See the follow-through on my putter." But this was actually Ham's way of relaxing; and if a friend was going to relax with him, he had better be ready to do some analyzing and observing, too.
Of the four animators in this group. Ham was the only one with a college education. He was graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, where he majored in business. His wife Frankie laughs about this, because she says that Ham would not even look at the bills or the bank book. Like Fergy and Fred Moore, his only formal art training came primarily from the classes that Walt initiated at the studio.
Ham had to struggle with his drawing, but he had a natural feeling for animation, story, and for what was entertaining. So despite his lack of an artistic background, he had many things going for him. Perhaps it was his college training, or maybe it was just inherent in him to have a well-organized analytical mind.
Eric Larson said, "Ham played a lot of tennis, so when he was given the chance to animate Max Hare in the tennis sequence of The Tortoise and the Hare, he knew precisely what he wanted to do." The important thing was his knowledge and feeling for the game, and Ham had the imagination and the vision to dream beyond what he himself could do on the court. He knew the exact poses he wanted to use in his held
lax Hare 'if tennis '/ players play. He i the spe-ue streak ilso drew nages of 't. imitât-ur on live a figure the shut-•se effects m Luske "Ooooh atured bx s Clark, a se anima-at Disney 50 xears.
positions and just how much overlap he needed to keep the poses alive. This was a picture in which timing was more important to the personalities than anything done so far. The cocky Hare zipped from pose to pose, with emphasis on the moving holds, and to follow the speedy action between these holds. Ham and Wilfred Jackson, the director, devised the blue streak technique. Jaxon says, "That's the first time I remember shooting a color test for a picture to find out if the blue streak was going to work out all right, and it's a good thing we did. The first two or three times we did it didn't suit Walt at all."
Everybody credited Ham with analyzing the essence of the cute pose. Fred Moore had found the same type of thing intuitively. While Ham did not have the same flair or natural feeling in his drawings, they may have been easier for most others to understand. Everything was placed exactly where he wanted it. more crudely than in Fred's drawings, but with great clarity, definition. and caricature.
He acted out the characters, finding the elements in a pose that really pinpointed the position of the feet and body, the right place for the hands, the arch of the back, the tilt of the head, right down to his famous "oooh" mouth. We came to think of Ham in these terms, a grown man acting out this cute stuff-—little animals, dwarfs, or Pinocchio—and everyone caricatured him that way. and always with the "o<x>h" mouth at the bottom of the long upper lip like Sneezy's. No one ever caricatured Fcrgy acting like Pluto, but Ham
had become a symbol for this type of acting.
When Walt asked Ham and Les Clark to draw a believable, pretty girl for The Goddess of Spring, both animators were stumped. Eric Larson acted out the scenes to help Ham capture the movements, but Walt was not pleased with the animation, feeling it was too rubbery and flexible. Les fared no better, even with a real girl for a model. "I used my sister, Marceil, for certain poses," he said. "I had to get some sort of human anatomy, you know, but it came off miserable, I thought. And I apologized to Walt, and he kind of sloughed it off and said, 'I guess we could do better next time. . . And I think the reason it didn't come off. the character wasn't designed to be animated. To me, the key to character animation is the design quality of the figure that you can use. I had a hard time with the figure, not that I didn't know how to draw it, but to animate it."
The animators were all wrestling with their first attempt to draw the human figure in action, and they often went behind closed doors to practice their moves without the comments of their co-workers. "I'm sure Walt was thinking ahead to Snow White," Les Clark concludes. "Although he didn't tell me that, I assumed later because Snow White herself was designed so that she could be animated."
The animators occasionally got the grace, the rhythm, the relationship that distinguished the leading lady of The Goddess of Spring as a lady; they even got the weight and balance and perspective accurate enough so that in some scenes she moved convincingly. But, exhausted by the effort, they relied on a "pretty girl" formula for the face that not only looked as if she were wearing a mask, but defeated the total effect by giving her a zombie look. She certainly was not alive and was totally devoid of personality or feelings.
After Ham had the experience of animating Tillie Tiger in Elmer Elephant, he realized that a cartoon character only lived when the whole drawing, as well as all the parts, reflected the attitude, the personality, the acting, and the feeling of the character. His analytical mind and care for detail equipped him for the job of finding a way of creating an appealing heroine who could survive the growing pains of budding artists who were eager, but still not able, to draw an attractive girl in more than one position. When they started on the heroine in Snow White, Ham concentrated on her eyes and mouth and getting as much relative movement in her face as in her body. Crude as many scenes were, they began to live.
Like Fergy. Ham had a strong feeling for what was entertaining, but there the similarity ended. In contrast to Fergy's natural ability to improvise while animating. Ham always seemed to follow a procedure with a step-by-step approach. However, his animation was not mechanical in any way. On the contrary, it was full of life and the feeling of the character; his ability to move the audience w ith his pathos was second only to Bill Tytla's. Ham could not start a scene until he had the whole thing visualized. He would sit with his arms folded staring at a blank piece of paper—thinking and planning. He felt that if he could spend half his time planning, he would animate his scene better and faster. Eric said Ham would be hunched over his board, fussing with his drawings and saying. "There must be some way to exaggerate this pose." He would choose the precise thing to do and then push it further.
Ham could make that extra drawing in the action to give more than the director asked for. always going stronger. If the animator does just what is on the story sketch, the scene will not have enough zip. And that is what Ham was best at: that, and designing the character-action relationship for an appealing, interesting result on the screen. Not everyone has the mental discipline or ability to think these problems through.
As Ham began a scene, he made careful, neat drawings that showed all the actions, expressions, and details of timing. This done, he flipped the drawings, and when he found an action that seemed weak he reached in and crudely made a big. bold correction on four or five drawings, as he held the whole batch in his hands. It looked as if two people had animated the scene, one a Dr. Jekyll and the other a Mr. Hyde, but it kept the scene strong and alive with infallable staging, clear action, and strong accents.
Ham was always probing around; that was the key feeling in those days. The animators were always trying to conie up with a new way of handling an action. Ham kept experimenting, trying to find a different walk; so he kept varying the timing and relationships until he finally went so far that he no longer had a walk. He had shifted the relative timing of the arms to the legs to the body until it was now a peculiar twisting movement.
If he saw an unusual type of animation or visual effect that some other studio was using, he would get a kind of puzzled, annoyed look and say. "I wonder why we aren't doing that. We should be able to figure out how to do it. maybe even belter." And he would think about it till he had a better way. And the things Ham thought about—how he could do something new. go further and make it more entertaining, give it more personality—these were all things he was beginning to understand in a way that he could define them for somebody else. This was one of the great things about Ham. He realized that this type of knowledge must be
passed on to the young animators or the studio would not progress. And Ham's knowledge was not limited to animation; his philosophy of story concepts may have equalled any other contribution he made.
When we were talking over a scene or a story point, he used to say. "I'm thinking out loud." What he meant was. "Don't take what I'm going to say too seriously yet. I'm not even sure myself." And sometimes he would say. "I'm being wishy-washy on purpose," which was also to let you know that he wanted to keep the thought alive, and to consider everything before nailing it down.
As an animator. Ham probably never had his sights set on being a director or a supervising animator. In 1935. he was only beginning to reach his great potential in animation. He had just animated the character of Jenny Wren in Who Killed Cock Robin ? Ham's Jenny was a caricature of Mae West, and through careful study he had pinpointed what actually made her Mae West: the provocative swaying walk with the slow shifting of weight, the characteristic way she rolled her eyes and talked out of the side of her mouth. He succeeded in getting excellent dialogue sync, but in a more subtle way than ever done before. And that is one of the things that made her come off so well. Ham could tell if something was even one frame out of sync. Jenny had the slow-moving, cool, confident manner that Mae had—no quick moves or big anticipations. She. like the real Mae, seemed to have appraised the situation, sized up the opposition, and was in complete control. The material Ham had to work with was excellent, but still no animator had ever done anything like it before. Everyone said, "That's even more like Mae West than Mae herself!" In fact, Mae wrote a letter to Walt complimenting him on the outstanding caricature. And Walt responded warmly, thanking her for being the inspiration for Jenny Wren. Ham's ability to combine analysis, subtlety, and strength had made Jenny an outstanding character.
Ham had reminded the young animators. "Our first job is to tell a story that isn't known to the audience. Then we have to tell a story that may cover several days, or several years, in a little over an hour; so consequently we have to tell things faster than they happen in life. Also we want to make things more interesting than ordinary life. Our actors are more rehearsed than everyday people; if somebody gets on a horse or opens a door or sits in a chair, we want to do it as simply and professionally as possible. Our actors must be more interesting and more unusual than you
and I. Their thought process must be quicker than ours, their uninteresting progressions from one situation to another must be skipped." In these few sentences Ham had summed up much that is important about picture-making: the entertainment, the time element, the acting, and the elimination of unnecessary action. Similar principles have long been known in the field of literature, for as one distinguished professor has said, "Great fiction is art and invention, not duplicated reality. Most lifetimes do not possess the crises you find in novels."1 Is that not what drama is anyway, life with the dull spots cut out?
Walt probably wondered many times, is this the right time to start Snow White? Have we got the manpower and, most of all, are they capable of doing the job? Who should be the first animator to lead off on the picture? The answer to these questions came in a casting memo put out in late 1935: "From now on
Ham Luske is definitely assigned to Snow White]" Usually a casting memo is just a routine piece of information, but this one fairly tingled with excitement as Walt announced the first man to be cast on this daring new project. This shows the importance that Walt attached to casting and especially his great dependence on Ham at this time.
"Ham Luske moved up quite fast," recalls Wilfred Jackson. "He was one of the first guys I remember who had more than just an assistant—promising young guys he would hand out little scenes to. One of the first guys who had a crew to supervise. Then on Snow White he took complete charge—the girls ... the animals. If you were directing the sequence'1 with the girl, you didn't have to direct the girl because Ham did it. He knew the way it was supposed to be. He shot most of the live action on it too. He came up very fast and he showed his ability to organize and put things together."
m Luske felt that the rabbits we were drawing were thin and ny instead of soft and furry. The more artists tried to draw a bbit's anatomy, the less the drawings looked like soft fur. tm realized that an absence of lines and fullness of shape )uld make the drawings look soft.
ju4at0r: Ollie Johnston—Bambi.
? used the same principle when we drew Thumper, two pictures later.
We were told by Ham to think of "Dr. Dentons,V the sleep suits young kids wore that hid the anatomy under a thick, soft flannel covering. This is Michael from Peter Pan. animated by Hal King.
Out of this thinking came the rabbits in Snow White —this one drawn by Milt Kahl while working with Ham.
Often when Ham and Fred Moore would be disturbed about something on the picture they would run up to Walt's office, full of enthusiasm, hoping to sell him their idea of how to correct it. But somehow Walt could always sense if it was something he did not want to hear about at that time. And besides, he did not want anyone in the position of telling him, or selling him, or confronting him. Walt had a great curiosity, but he preferred to find things out in his own way, asking the questions he wanted answers to; and his opening remarks were usually designed to put you on the defensive. On one occasion, before Ham and Fred could get a word out, Walt said. "Gee, Ham, I didn't know you ever wore a tic to work," which got them off balance and off the subject. They had a nice chat, and he sent them on their way. When they got halfway down the hall, they stopped and looked at each other; Fred said. "Hey, wait a minute! Do you realize we didn't get a word in?"
Ham sighed and said, "Yeah, he did it again."
It was often difficult to know precisely what Walt saw in a piece of business, and after each meeting there would be some disagreement over what he had said, and even more confusion over what he had meant. During those Snow White days. Ham was usually the best at knowing just what Walt wanted. As one man put it. "Someone would say that Walt said he wants it like this. Ham would say, 'No, that's not what he means. This is what he means."' But no one hit it right all the time with Walt, and Ham's first try at the Snow White model missed as far as Walt and most of the fellows were concerned. Ham had an interesting idea, however. His drawing suggested an awkward, gangly teenager with a winsome charm, who could very well have been animated without live action. But the story had started to go a different way by this time, so Ham's girl was turned down. If a story sketch man had made the drawing it would not have attracted as much criticism, but when an animator suggests a way to draw the character, everyone figures that is the way it is going to be. Since he is the one to put the character on the screen, the animator finds himself in a very vulnerable position, and often he winds up with a wounded ego.
Some of Ham's best thoughts came out in a talk given in 1938: "Our actors are drawings. We cannot
i work on the inspiration of the moment as an actor does, but must present our characterizations through a combination of art, technique, and mechanics that takes months from the conception to the finished product. And we have to make the audience forget that these are drawings. We cannot risk ruining a sequence or a good characterization with some mechanical imperfection or jitter that reminds the audience that we are
from the film tors to study e Bell and er as Snow irince about heir castle.
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dealing with drawings instead of real beings. The success of Snow White was due to the public accepting our characters as living beings, and the lack of success of the Prince and the Huntsman (as characters) was due to their unprofessional result."
Margie Bell, who did the live action of the girl in Snow White, tells of a funny incident during the shooting. So that the girl's head size would have better cartoon proportions and relate more to the rather large-headed dwarfs, someone suggested, "Why don't we put a football helmet on Margie to make her head bigger? That oughta do it." That did it all right. Margie, who later achieved fame on TV as Marge Champion, said that within minutes, under those hot lights, she was perspiring more than a 260-pound tackle. She added. "We gave that up in a hurry!"
Ham made an enormous contribution to Snow White by the way he directed Margie for the live action. Ham's choices in handling the girl, keeping her innocent, feminine, appealing, and sincere, were the real
keys to her acceptance by the audience. This cannot be done arbitrarily. The live action must be studied and understood or, with a character like the girl, it could become comical. At the time, it was just thought of as a help to get the picture out, or a crutch for animators who could not draw too well, or a way of keeping the character consistent even though several animators were handling her. But looking back on it now, without Ham's control and imagination, taste and inventiveness. Snow White would not have had the conviction and appeal that really sold the character.
Walt felt that Ham had been successful in steering the fellows in the right direction on Snow White, and for the most part he had achieved the results wanted; so Walt rewarded him with the very difficult task of shooting live action for the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio. In a talk given by Ham to a group of animators and directors, it became obvious that he was especially valuable as a communications aid between these two groups:
Let's say the character of the Blue Fairy now is perfectly conceived and perfectly cast. Then I have to go over to the sound stage and shoot live action on her that will appear flawless and life-like as animation later on; and to do that. I have to invent movements again—enough movements to be able to be inbetweened. And the only movements we can find for her to do are to have her lean forward and back. So consequently, in every scene, we told Margie Bell to lean forward for one phrase and back for the next, until it got funny. We did conceive several walks and one scene of her bending confidentially into a closeup with the Cricket—and that will be our best scene of her. . . .
You should tell the actor what to do, not how to do it. I think the trouble with most of our live action has been in not giving the actor enough business to do, and then meddling with the way he does it when the scene looks stilted. If the movement seems inadequate, invent some business, such as poking the fire or scratching the head.
An example of inventing business for a character occurred in the scene where Snow White folds her arms as Grumpy would, while she is watching him. It was a very good choice of action for her, because it showed her gentle way of teasing Grumpy. And if Ham had not used an action of this type, he would have been stuck with having to move her cither slightly back or slightly forward. Ham continues with his approach:
When we pick our live action takes, a person that hasn't animated is very apt to pick them for facial expressions, and not for action. And we can't afford to do that.
Ham's capacity to analyze and to work out a procedure that could be written in outline form as a guide for others made him "too valuable" to be confined to his board. Even though he did some animation on the girl in Snow White, Ham was really a director on the picture. Walt felt that Ham's value lay in the influence he could have on the younger animators. So, much of the animation handouts on the Prince, Snow White, the Huntsman, and the animals was turned over to Hani. Somehow Walt always seemed to load Ham up with more work than anyone else. Fred and Bill shared the supervision of the dwarfs, and Fergy took over on the witch. Any one of these jobs was a handful, but Ham's would have been insurmountable for most people. However, he had a way of spreading himself around while still being effective.
Ham's analysis of the best approach to designing a character that everyone could handle is still in use today. Certainly the execution is more sophisticated, but the principles are the same—as are the problems. It is amazing to see in Ham's 1938 outline (in the Appendix) on his approach to character handling how it all applies today. As the French say, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."
Ham had a knack for being creative in helping to develop areas of animation that needed strengthening. He was great with the younger men, and, along with Fred Moore, was probably the best teacher among the animators. The supervising position that Ham held on Snow White was ideally suited to his abilities. He was at his peak when he was working closely with the young animators and still had some time at the board himself. He was usually gentle and easy going with his criticism, but he could be quite blunt and forceful if the situation demanded it. For one thing, he could not tolerate anything that was not clear and definite. "If you are going to show something, be sure you don't do it halfway!" When he drew for you he would continually work his mouth and his brows, and he seemed to be urging his pencil on and willing it to do what he was visualizing.
Every time Ham would do or say something he thought was really funny, he would laugh so hard his face would turn red and tears would roll down his cheeks. His favorite jokes were puns—the visual kind, and the more farfetched, the better. Once in a meeting someone mentioned Bell & Howell projectors. In an instant Ham was on his feet ringing an imaginary bell and then just as quickly pantomiming a long, silent howl. After that he would start laughing, usually in little short bursts, and our disapproval only made him laugh harder until finally he would go into convulsions—particularly if he was really proud of his effort. When he would eventually regain control, he would look back and forth among us with this half-hurt expression and wonder why we could not see the humor in his joke. Actually he had such an infectious laugh that it was hard to resist getting into the spirit of his gags.
It is doubtful that Ham or anyone else could have realized the far-reaching impact his procedures would have on the future of Disney animation. Walt liked the refinements that these procedures brought, and it was obvious from the popularity of the pictures at the box office that the audience wholeheartedly accepted these advancements. The direction for the further development of animation had been set, and much credit could go to Ham, whose ability to analyze, organize, and plan had helped open the way.
Ham was a top director on both Pinocchio and Fantasia, a position that he enjoyed, feeling it gave him the type of control he needed to be most effective. But as time passed his interests drew him further away from animation, and as the new group of supervising animators added their contributions to the rapidly developing craft Ham had less and less influence on the art form he had done so much to advance. He continued to direct memorable sequences, notably the cartoon section of Mary Poppins, but, increasingly, more of his time was spent on live-action problems for the weekly TV shows, until his death in 1968.
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