long-term, seemingly distant rewards of self-improvement. In many cases, the aspiring artist whose curiosity kept him seeking more and more knowledge often found himself the subject of ridicule from his coworkers. Bill Tytla was asked. "What the hell do you want to go to art school for—you're animating, aren't you?"
They could not know it at the time, but actually there was little chance for these cartoonists to improve, given the type of material they were animating. The spot gags, stereotyped figures, absence of personality in the characters, and slipshod method of working gave the artists little opportunity to use any new-found knowledge. Even the greatest of animators would have withered under such limited demands. This is as true today as it was then: there must be story business that calls for good animation or there will be no well-animated scenes.
In 1923. the animated figure was moved as little as possible in a cartoon, and then only to reach the location for the next gag. If his feet went up and down, he was walking. If they went up and down fast, he was running. As often as possible, the animators cut to a scene with the characters in place to "pull the gag," and then cut away afterward to the next set-up. How the gag was staged was very important and given careful thought, but the movement was considered more a chore than an opportunity for entertainment. There was no attempt either to imitate real action or to caricature it. Better work had been done earlier, especially by Winsor McCay, but no one knew how it had been done. A few wished to improve, but where could they study? Who could teach?
It was even more difficult for beginners to learn what tricks already had been discovered. The lead s
Before the days of real• ism. Oswald*s arms merely grew until he could reach his objective.
animators guarded their secrets carefully, never revealing their private devices to anyone. What you learned you had to learn by yourself as best you could.
At Walt's studio it was different. He insisted on an open atmosphere where each artist shared his views and discoveries. If one man made a drawing Walt liked, he called everyone together to point it out. Or if an action seemed clumsy or poorly staged, he would direct the artist immediately to get help from a stronger man. AH the desks were in one large room at the time (which encouraged discussions of one type or another anyway), so the animators talked about their art and their problems and what the future of the studio might be. Even in those days, Walt was moving so fast into uncharted areas that his men were hard put to keep up with him. No one could deny that Walt was exceedingly stimulating and exciting to be around.
There was another factor besides talent and ability that was to play a major part in Walt's success. It was his background as a farmboy living close to the soil and working with animals, which had given him a philosophy and approach to entertainment with a universal appeal. He never put on airs, was always sincere and honest, and these basic values permeated his work. Although his tastes have been called mundane by some, he always sought quality and style. Walt said that he wanted his pictures to reflect the "feeling of happy excitement I had when I was a kid." And that spirit flowed througl^all the projects he touched.
There was one last custom that enabled the Disney animators to forge far ahead, and this seems to have been quite accidental. They used pegs at the bottom of their drawing boards to hold their work in place, while in the East top pegs always had been the rule. It had seemed logical to put the pegs at the top of the board, out of the way of the artist's hand, and no one recalls why Walt started to use bottom pegs back in Kansas City. No one knows why UbTwerks2 and the other early animators continued to put up with the little obstructions that continually nicked their wrists and hands, but without this chance procedure animation might never have developed into a vital, forceful, and varied art form.
The reason for this is more subjective than literal. Drawings can be made almost as easily with either top or bottom pegs, and, while relationships in the action
are more difficult to see when the paper is held at the top, much of the action can be portrayed almost as well. But there comes a time when the drawings are near completion that it is necessary to "feel" the life supposed to be in them. This can be done only by "rolling" the drawings back and forth, with one finger between each of any five drawings. The action is checked forward and backward in minute detail or in broad relationships. Drawings 12 frames apart can be checked against each other to see whether they really give the illusion of the action wanted, and then all the subtler secondary actions can be studied frame by frame.
A whole stack of drawings can be lifted off the pegs and flipped in sequence to give a good check on the overall scene, but the only way an animator can tell if his character is acting as the scene was conceived is to roll the drawings while feeling the action in his own body. Usually the animator tries to feel the action as he makes the initial drawings, and many a night he goes home with a stiff neck or a wrenched back after animating a dog in a quizzical look or a startled duck whirling about in astonishment. It is possible to do a very nice scene simply through careful planning and hard thinking, but without being able to roll through the drawings it is impossible to get that extra juice that produces the illusion of life.
This "rolling" action became so important during the mid-thirties that many an artist tried to enlarge his capabilities of handling more than a mere five drawings at a time. Many tried to involve both hands in the procedure, but that lost them the possibility of making pencil corrections or additions at the same time, unless they had been trained to draw with their teeth. Even that was attempted. Those were days of invention and enthusiasm—nothing was impossible.
Walt had grown up watching the great vaudeville acts of the time, acts that had taken years to perfect before an audience, among them "Willie, West and McGinty" and "Joe Jackson and his bicycle." and also the work of the great clowns like Emmett Kelly. Walt admired Chaplin and the other film comedians. Keaton, Lloyd, and Langdon. and he quickly understood a basic truth of comedy: the personality of the victim of a gag determines just how funny the whole incident will be. For instance, falling into an open manhole is not funny in itself. A little old lady trying to sell her last bunch of violets would get a very concerned response to such a tumble. An eager Boy Scout who fell while demonstrating courtesy to his troop by helping a little girl across the street might draw some chuckles, as long as he was not hurt by the fall. But an arrogant construction boss who had just ridiculed some worker for not watching what he was doing would be certain to get a laugh. Marcel Marceau used a simpler example: if a dignified man slips on a banana peel, it is funny. If it happens to a man who is down and out, it is not.
Walt also realized that it was better to build on a gag and let the situation develop than to move quickly to another gag. And most important of all, the thing that really got to an audience was their knowing how the character on stage felt about what was happening to him: the "looks" at the camera, the "burn," the rage, the helpless stare, the bleak expression. Laurel and Hardy used these reactions extensively, and Edgar Kennedy was well known for his burn of mounting anger. Years later. Jack Benny became famous for his ability to provoke sustained laughter by merely looking blankly out at the audience. Of course, the situation
had to be built very carefully and cleverly for this business to be effective, but the humor of the situation lay in the look on Benny's face and the knowledge of how he felt. j
Other comedians knew the value of this device. Walter Kerr in his book. The Silent Clowns,3 points out that Chaplin took care to establish himself as one of us, as belonging to the world of the audience rather than the characters on the screen. He shared everything with us—from delight to distress—and this is the ft**»
on hie ft
Mickey's acting shows Walt's great interest in personality and the challenges he gave to his animators. Ub Iwerks made the layout and Walt described the embarrassed attitude wanted in the scene.
In the twenties, emotions were shown in a very elemental way. Mickey expresses anger and disgust in Steamboat Willie.
quality that Walt intuitively reached for even before the days of Mickey Mouse.
In his first films, the characters look at the camera and shrug, or have an embarrassed, toothy smile, or register consternation with worried brows and sweat pouring off their faces in a stream of droplets. To those of us who knew Walt, it was obvious that he had acted out each situation and. crude as that early animation was. we could visualize him up there showing how it ought to be done.
Walt's gags were intrinsically no better than any-other studio's, but they were staged better, with more care taken to establish the situation. There was more concern for detail, for building comedy, for making the gag pay off. but. most important, for understanding the feelings of the characters involved in the gags. The desolation when things went wrong, the happy, bouncy walk when things went right, annoyance with indignities, determination, scheming, fear, panic, compassion —these were things that could be animated! This was acting, and it gave the animator a chance to use his medium effectively—in timing, in caricature, and in action. Animation began to come alive, and when the audiences recognized familiar situations they began to identify with the characters' predicaments. They laughed harder and remembered.
When Reader's Digest wanted a biographical sketch written on Walt, the magazine hired Richard Collier, who already had two successful credits in this field, one on Mussolini and the other on Captain Booth of the Salvation Army. While at the studio. Collier was asked if there was anything at all that these three men had in common. His answer was a quick and definite affirmative. "All of them had the ability to cet other
people to work for them, and not just a few friends but many people of diverse interests and backgrounds, very unlikely people, all working with each other for this one man!" Years later when Wall was asked what he considered his greatest achievement, he replied simply. "Building an organization and holding it." It was a real accomplishment.
Walt had started with the amazingly talented Ub Iwerks and a few friends from Kansas City, but none of them really knew anything about animation or how to make a film. He had picked up one or two young fellows working around Hollywood, but it was not until he was able to bring out men from the New York studios that he finally had some professionals to help improve the product. Typical of Walt, he told them what to do right from the start.
Wilfred Jackson.4 who had come to the studio in 1928, recalled their reaction. "Some of them felt he was a little rough with them at times. Walt could make you feel real bad when he wanted to. I don't remember them rebelling when he told them to do it different, or asked for better animation. . . . Walt was a very persuasive individual and a very inspiring person and he had the ability to make you want to do what he wanted you to do."
These early animators were not artists as much as they were entertainers. But the field of entertainment is wide, and any thought that it refers only to humor is very limiting. Walt's ideas of entertainment went far beyond gags: he sought the new. the novel, the unexpected, the beautiful, and the colorful situation with warmth. Instead of thinking of cartoon material as being "entertaining," one might find a better concept in the word "captivating." Audiences have to be impressed, absorbed, involved, taken out of themselves. made to forget their own worlds and lose themselves in ours for cartoons to succeed. Walt had to find actions that were funny in themselves yet easily recognized as something familiar, gags that were plausible even though very imaginative, situations that were based on everyone's experience, and characters that had interesting personalities. These were the things that could hold an audience, and to Walt they added up to one simple approach—a caricature of realism. He could be endlessly innovative, exploring all facets of the entertainment world, as long as he remembered always to captivate the audience by making it all believable—by making it real.
"As far back as I can remember." Wilfred Jackson said. "Walt wanted his drawings that were animated to seem to be real things that had feelings and emotions and thoughts, and the main thing was that the audience would believe them and that they would care what happened to them . . . and he used to stress that!" Ben Sharpsteen expressed it this way: "I think that Walt was initially inspired by animation that stressed personality. The strong impression that it made on him led to his desire to plus it in subsequent pictures. This was one of the biggest factors in the success of our early pictures; Walt recognized the value of personality animation and he stressed it in story development."
As animation, the work done in the twenties was undeniably crude, but the animators never failed to present the point of the scene clearly, and they chose the right symbols to show the attitudes of their figures. Nevertheless, there was no weight, no attempt at anatomy, no shoulders or spines or bones or muscles. The story points called for no analysis of anything beyond the staging of the business. It is small wonder that Walt started asking for realism. If an arm had to encircle a large object, it merely was stretched until long enough to do the job. If Mickey was supposed to beckon to Minnie, the shortness of his arm made the hand look as if it were scratching his nose, so the animator simply drew the arm long enough to get the hand clear of the head, out where the gesture could be seen.
One day. almost by accident, someone made a series of drawings that looked far better than anything done before. Each drawing had so close a relationship to the one preceding that "one line would follow through to the next." Les Clark,5 who had come to the studio in 1927, told of how amazed everyone was that just making the lines flow through each drawing in a series could make such a difference. Instead of the staccato action produced by a group of poorly related drawings. suddenly there was a pleasing smoothness that led the eye from drawing to drawing. "This was really an exciting thing that we discovered!"
Many problems could not then be solved. Everyone knew that it was necessary to get a feeling of weight in the characters and their props if ever they were to be convincing, but just drawing a figure large has nothing to do with how heavy he is. A weather balloon is quite large. The animators sensed that the key to the illusion of weight lay in the timing and how far a character moved and how fluid the action was. but it was not until they were able to study live action films that the solution finally was found. Once the secrets were discovered, the animators wondered why the problem had been so difficult, but in those days the answers had eluded them.
If an animator's drawings finally reflected a more natural way of moving, Walt would be likely to say, "Your guy just moves in and he's there. ... I don't see him do anything. Y'know, a guy can be funny the way he does things. Look at your comedians and clowns, they've all got funny ways they walk or funny timing—there's something there. We oughta be looking for entertaining ways of doing things. We don't want to get straight, y'know—we're not copying nature!"
"Caricature" and "exaggeration" were two favorite words to stimulate the animator's approach to his scene. These words could be misinterpreted as a request for wild, uncontrolled action, but that course always ended up with. "Look, you're not getting the idea of what we're after here!" The action had to be based on realism, had to fit the story situation, put over the point of the scene, and be in character with other things being done in different scenes. And when the animator felt he was getting close to handling that correctly, he encountered another admonition. "You're trying to do too much in the scene. Nothing comes off strong because the character is all over the place."
An animator had to choose the best action for the spot in the picture, refine it to the simplest statement, do it the best he could, make the drawing work for everything he was trying to say, keep the personality in the movement, use enough anatomy to be convincing, and do it all in an entertaining way. That really is not asking too much if one appreciates what any good actor or mime has to consider constantly. But those early animators were just beginners. As one recalled without malice, "It didn't matter how many times you did it over, Walt had to get what he wanted."6
Signs were made to help animators remember what they had learned:
"Don't confuse them. Keep it simple."
"Too much action spoils the acting."
"Mushy action makes a mushy statement."
"Say something. Be brave."
One man had a sign, "Why would anyone want to look at that?" which was a constant reminder that he should be sure he was putting something up on the screen that was worth another person's time or money to watch. Whenever he thought he had a great idea, that sign seemed to ask, "Really now, would anyone other than your mother like it?"
Many authors have reported that animation was the one thing that Walt could not do. As he himself realized quite early, plenty of other artists could draw better than he, but none of them seemed to have his wealth of ideas or the knowledge of how a piece of business should be presented. This gradually caused him to give up his own drawing board to concentrate on the areas of his greatest talents. At one point, he set up a table in the middle of the animators' room and had them bring their scenes to him when they were done. Studying the action, Walt called for new drawings where necessary and timed the scenes so they would be most effective. He corrected staging and expressions and was quick to educate those working with him. Years later, he admitted, "The fellows who work near me catch a lot of hell!"
As a matter of fact, Walt could animate as well as any of the men he had working on the Alice scries, with the exception of Ub Iwerks who was in a class by himself. For five frustrating years, from the "Alices" to the more successful "Oswalds," Walt sharpened his own thinking while trying to educate his staff, but he got minimal results. Then in 1928, Charlie Mintz, the distributor of Walt's popular Oswald the Lucky
Rabbit cartoons, took over the rights to the main character and hired away all but four members of Walt's animation staff. It seemed like a disaster at the time, but actually it opened the way for a new group of animators who would soon help animation grow into a surprising art form. Les Clark commented about the men who had gone with Mintz: "These animators left the studio when Oswald left and they were not the group who later animated on Mickey. I think the development of animation started with the Mickey animators, inspired by Walt's interest and enthusiasm."
At this point, Walt's understanding of the mechanics ol animation began to fall behind. Some I'vll ihitf hi merely lacked the patience ever to master the art of relating drawings to each other. Probably he lacked the particular talent to see the movement in drawings as he flipped them. It is a special ability, and many of the artists simply did not have it. Whatever the reason, as the techniques of animation progressed, Walt understood less and less of how it all worked. He knew the ingredients a scene should have and what the acting should be and what could be done with a scene that was not quite working, but he could not sit down at a desk and make the drawings that would demonstrate his ideas. It was an increasing mystery to him and, in some ways, an area of annoyance, since it was something he could not control or shape into something new. He was forced to rely on others.
This led Ben Sharpsteen to claim that, "Animation was developed far more by the animators themselves than by Walt." This is true of the specific techniques that advanced the art, but this advancement would never have occurred without Walt. As Les Clark said, "Animation developed because of Walt's insistence and supervision." The animator had to wrestle with the problem of how to make the drawings work properly, but without Walt's drive it is doubtful that any of them would have tried so hard or learned what to do.
Walt introduced two procedures that enabled the animators to begin improving. First, they could freely shoot tests of their drawings and quickly see film of what they had drawn, and, second, they each had an assistant learning the business who was expected to finish off the detail in each drawing. Walt was quick to recognize that there was more vitality and imagination and strength in scenes animated in a rough fash ion, and he asked all animators to work more loosely. The assistant would "clean up" these drawings that looked so sloppy, refining them to a single line that could be traced by the inkers onto celluloid. The assistants became known as "clean-up men," and the animators developed one innovation after the other, achieving effects on the screen that no one had thought possible. In some cases, the drawings were so rough it was difficult to find any cartoon figure inside the tangled swirl of lines, and the men who made a duck or a dog out of smudges and scratches had to have a very special type of knowledge.
Shwtinp iffitti nf ¡trap while ihey wsre «ill in ibc rough enabled the animators to check what they had done before showing it to anyone. Any part that was way off could be corrected quickly and shot again. This encouraged experimentation, exploration, and imagination, quickly promoting a closer bond among the animators. This probably began when one man wanted to show off the surprising results of his test, but the animators soon learned that there was great value in sharing ideas. And the sharing of judgment did not end with just viewing the test. An animator could take his drawings to any of the other men and they would happily make suggestions, showing what had worked for them in a similar situation or excitedly considering something completely new.
"Each generation of animators benefited from what the previous had learned by trial and error," said Ben Sharpsteen, "and consequently were more flexible in what they could accomplish, and they could reach greater heights." But it seems that the generations he
was referring to lasted less than a year apiece. Wilfred Jackson adds, "... there was always something new going on. We were all learning so fast."
The standard by which the studio's efforts were judged was undeniably the way Walt initially portrayed characters for the animators. As Dick Huemer7 said. "Walt would take stories and act them out at a meeting; kill you laughing they were so funny. And not just because he was the boss either. And there it would be. You'd have the feeling of the whole thing. You'd know exactly what he wanted. We often wondered if Walt could have been a great actor or comedian."x
Walt always could show you exactly how the business should be done, but the animator was expected to go further with the idea, to come up with something of his own, some touch or bit of timing or an expression that would make it not only personal but special.
It did not take long to answer any questions or settle disagreements as to how a piece of business should be handled. Fortunately, there was a way of settling disputes while adding to our education. As soon as the answer print of a new cartoon was received, the whole staff rushed over to the Alex Theater in Glendale to see how it would go with an audience. The men never stayed for the feature film but immediately convened outside for an impromptu meeting on what went over and why. and what had missed the mark.
Each director remembers at least one dismal evening out there under the streetlights, because these meetings made them face implacable reality. It was no longer the excitement of what might be but the undeniable harshness of what was. Wilfred Jackson never forgot the sidewalk post mortem after his first picture. The Castaway. "Walt had his hat way down and his coat up around his cars," he recalled. "He looked like a wet bird. I walked by and on the way I heard Roy saying. 'Walt, I don't know if we should release this; it doesn't look like a Disney picture.'" They released it. of course, but Jackson had learned his lesson; he never made another film that could be called un-Disney.
It was a harsh way to learn a new profession, out there on the street at night, but it was positive and it was definite. The audience reaction was always clear and strong and undeniable. There was not so much talk about what should be done next time as there was a dissection of what had been done wrong on the current film, and Walt's comments on that were as valuable as his stimulation had been in those first story meetings.
By 1933, the animators had learned their basic lessons well, and they produced a film that would be loved around the world: Three Little Pigs. It started a new era at the Disney Studio.
Types of Action Widely Used in Early Days
The audience was fascinated with animation that repeated the same action over and over, and, since this was quite a savings for the studio, several devices were developed to give this result:
The Cycle. This was a series of drawings that animated back into itself by having the last drawing work into the first one, creating a continuous action that never stopped. It was ideal for walks, dances, and certain "scramble actions" as a character tried to get away from something.
Repeat Action. Sometimes an action could be repeated just as it was in a second scene, but more often a new beginning or a different ending were called for. In these cases, the animator could repeat part of the action by borrowing drawings from the earlier scene. In other cases, there would be an action that could be repeated intact in the same scenes—a character climbing a slippery pole, or sliding down an incline, or being knocked down by a mechanical device. Between times, the character would do something different in his attempts to avoid or to conquer, but when he came again to the same spot on the paper, the action of the climb, slide, or hit could be repeated.
The Cross-over. Even better than having the action repeated in a cycle was to have two or more characters doing the same action. A system called "cross-overs" took care of that problem by having the inkers trace one drawing in two different places on the same eel, matching it to sets of small crosses on the drawing. By animating a lone figure going to the left in a simple dance step, the animator could get these drawings traced over and over to make a whole line of dancers. At the appropriate time, the drawings could be flipped over and traced from the back, causing the line of dancers to sashay to the right. If everyone liked this, it was even simpler to shoot the eels a second time, making the line of dancers go through the whole procedure again. The audience was enthralled and could not
A cycle coming creates ing into drawing also sh( as seen airplant
understand how we could get all the figures to act exactly the same.
Another popular routine was to have the cartoon figure come up toward the camera, usually until his mouth filled the screen, and then retreat to his original position, using the same drawings shot in reverse. Also popular was the series of drawings run in a cycle that animated the road as a character ran or drove straight into the camera. This consisted of a row of telephone poles in perspective, a bush or two, and possibly some fence posts lining the road. By putting in a
A cycle coming creates ing into drawing also sh( as seen airplant w
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