Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Disney Principles 1: Of Animation

I remember a lot of excitement building up in anticipation of the release of "The Illusion Of Life" - a book that was going to reveal all the secrets of how to animate, written by 2 of Disney's "9 Old Men" -Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston.

When it finally came out, I snapped one up and read it in a couple of nights. It turned out not exactly to be what it was promoted as. Most of the book was just propaganda for the Disney studio. It was a written history of the studio that claimed everything that was ever done with any quality or worth came from Disney, and no one else ever did anything good, or invented anything important. I don't know whether the writers actually believed that, but it came off as pretty ignorant, especially since it spent so much time talking about the things Disney never did well - like story and personality.

But there was one chapter that I thought was great: "The Principles Of Animation". This spelled out technically, the basic tools of how to make smooth animation. I wish the whole book would have been about this and had expanded each principle into actual methods and details.

It does however in a very general sense explain fairly clearly what each of the animators' basic tools are.

The funny part is that while I agree totally in theory with what the importance of each principle is, I am also surprised that the Disney animators didn't actually practice all of them.

I would like to add a point about principles or basic tools of animation - or any other trade. Your principles are merely the tools you use to create things with. They aren't an end in themselves. This is where I really part ways with Disney and today's Disney imitators. I have seen many movies and old time shorts that just seem to be soulless collections of principles, rather than works of entertainment or expressions of humanity. Like watching an expensive tool kit hammer gold nails, screw platinum screws, drill perfect holes but never actually build anything of any interest, fun or originality.

I think Warner Bros. put these principles to much better use than Disney. The principles - or skills are just a starting point. You use them to express something of human interest. You have to add your own personal observations of things. Great entertainment isn't merely a matter of skill - but skill is necessary! The best art and entertainment glorifies the heights of human imagination and invention. It wows us. It leaves us breathless, makes us feel new things, leaves us in wonder of the the possible heights of human achievement. That's when it becomes art - or maybe even entertainment.
Disney cartoons (and many will disagree) seem to aim at having elaborate displays of all of these principles acting upon each other smoothly without any jerks and jitters. This quest for smooth perfection leaves out the real essentials of art or entertainment - a view of the world that is honest, engaging, exciting, original, bold and surprising.
soulless characters built up from animation principles and Disney stylistic cliches and formula

Today's features interpret the Disney philosophy as: it's enough to just be smooth and have more expensive elaborate details than the competition, but they use less of the principles that Disney strove for and just as little humanity or sincerity. You can subtract "solid drawing", "appeal" and exaggeration" from modern Disney-wannabe animation. Full animation today doesn't strive for anything but to vaguely remind us of a few of the old tricks and apply them to cliched insincere traditional formulas and cheesy modern trends.


I also might disagree on the order of importance of the principles in "The Illusion Of Life".

I think "solid drawing" should be the first principle. "Appeal" second. Without those 2 essential ingredients, you are left with just flying blobs of amorphous but smoothly animated college exercises.

I am going to try to illustrate each of these principles in a post, but by using some animation from other studios to show that you can apply them to other styles.

A big problem for those who love Disney's smoothness and execution, is that it is hard to separate the obvious strong principles from the Disney stylistic cliches, so that with each generation of "quality animation" we get more simplistic copies of Disney that focus more on a handful of cliched movements, expressions and designs - and even story structures. People copy what Disney wasn't good at, instead of what they really were good at.


Christine Gerardi said...

I'm curious about something. I know that you don't like Disney very much,and you're very cartoon-oriented, but are there any feature-length animated films that you do like?


JohnK said...

I like parts of some old Disney movies.

The dramatic stuff in Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio, Bambi and Snow White.

I like a lot of technical things.
I like the moods they used to be able to convey with color staging, painting, camera and effects.

I like them in the abstract, but I don't believe in any of them. I just see the ingredients, but never any character or story. A bunch of highly skilled technicians afraid to ever upset Walt and constantly second-guessing him.

Caleb said...

The title "The Illusion of Life" suggests it was written by some sort of god. I've read a few books that portray Walt Disney like he was Edison, toiling away at his "invention". Lies right out of the mouths of religious folk. Even the best Disney stuff is from a short time period (and the story was probably already a well written book). The bulk of Disney stuff is like you mentioned, a bunch of pretty tools that never get dirty. Now, I guess they are stopping the 2d that made Disney what it is in favor of the CG. I'm sure they will regret that eventually.

Most modern directors in movies and cartoons have no sense of story-telling. They plop all the facts in front of you, use a few editing and lighting tricks and then scratch their heads when everyone falls asleep in the middle of it.

Let's not forget that Hitler, another advocate of constant beauty, was a fan.

Oliver_A said...

What do you think about the Disney shorts from 1935-1955? Do you think that the same criticism of being "soulless" is applicable to them?

I mean, while not as funny as the WB shorts, some of the Disney shorts, like the later Donald Duck ones for example, seem quite funny to me. What do you think of them? I notice you hardly ever mention them, perhaps as a sort of "anti-bias" against Frank & Ollie's book or Disney in general?

Christine Gerardi said...

Thanks John.

I agree, Walt was kind of a creative Nazi. But I really like movies like Lady and the Tramp and the Jungle Book. I don't know, they just enthrall me.

Jerome C Duffy III said...

I like Don Bluth films better than Disney.

Jerome C Duffy III said...

I think Don Bluth did a bette job than Disney with films.

jhbmw007 said...

Hey John K, off topic here- just wondered if you could check out a cartoon I made featuring a Timmy the talking TV set:

It's not great I know- but I tried to give it some Ren and Stimpy flare... and I animated it all in 1 day so it was a bit rushed. Anyways its for a contest- wish me luck people so I can win a plasma tv!

JohnK said...

Hi Oliver

>>What do you think about the Disney shorts from 1935-1955? Do you think that the same criticism of being "soulless" is applicable to them?<<

Sometimes there is some fun animation in them or beautiful backgrounds, but they are all pretty soulless and ignorant to me.

But I do many posts about the things I like about them.

They just don't work as entertainment to me.

Iaoai said...

Great post, John. I was wondering where a rogue scholar who loves cartoons can get the scoop on Disney without all of the the shameless self-promotion and Walt worship? Anyone out there have any suggestions?

Alonso said...

The Illusion of Life was just a summary of Frank and Ollie's experiences. Can we get a quick list of the John K. principles of animation? (I know this whole blog is, but I'm just curious what the top 5-15 are)

What did you think about The Animator's Survival Kit by Richard Williams? And Animation Crash Course by Eric Goldberg?

What kind of live action movies do you like to watch?

Mr. Semaj said...

Sadly, when I read "The Illusion of Life" several years ago, Frank and Ollie even admit at the beginning of the book that the material is mostly based on their memory of what they learned during Walt Disney's lifetime. That right there indicated that those who wanted to become animators were only getting a fraction of what made Classic Disney so enthralling. There were also a couple other studio mysteries they brought up, but never found a satisfactory answer for.

Regardless, I consider folk like Glen Keane, Brad Bird, and Andres Deja lucky, because compared to us younger artists, they had the benefit of actually protegeing under the Nine Old Men (the ones who were still alive anyway).

Ted said...

"I have seen many movies and old time shorts that just seem to be soulless collections of principles, rather than works of entertainment or expressions of humanity."

Could you choose a Disney short that demonstrates the principles but falls flat, preferably one from the Treasures Collections and from the zenith of the studio (no fair picking on Oswald), and do a post on it after you do the other posts on the principles, and let us discuss what went wrong (or right if people disagree)? Alternately, just pick a short and we could do it here...

Christine Gerardi said...

John, I think you should write a book.

Chris_Garrison said...

This promises to be really cool.

Hey JohnK, I want to send a youngster to your construction posts. You've got your posts labeled, but I can't figure out how to USE the labels. I can put "construction" in the "search blog" box, but that brings up every post that mentions construction; not just the ones that have "construction" as a label. If I can find one post that has construction in the label, I can click that. But if there doesn't happen to be one in the recent posts, I have to click "older posts," searching back through time, until I eventually find one. I think if you want people to be able to use your labels better, you can turn on a thing that lists them in a side panel or something.

I also want to be able to access all the posts labeled "tude," because it's always hilarious when you talk about that.

Tony DiStefano said...

I think your off your nut!And this is coming from a guy who is a fan of yours and agrees with about 95 percent of what you believe.I understand what your talking about in most of what went on at Disney over the last 15 years.I also realize that SOME of the original stories failed, like Sleeping Beauty. But to say they didn't do well with story or especially personality,Your wrong.P.S. Love your Ed Benedict blogs.

JohnK said...


>>Could you choose a Disney short that demonstrates the principles but falls flat, preferably one from the Treasures Collections and from the zenith of the studio<<

I can't think of one that doesn't. See if you can get through a Pluto short and it'll stand out clearly.

I think the animation in "Lonesome Ghosts" is great, but it's still a really boring cartoon. The gags aren't funny and the characters are too simple. But I would recommend it highly to little kids and other animators.

I collect Golden Books because I like the artwork in them. But they are pretty boring to read.

Same thing with Disney cartoons, the ideas are not anywhere near as interesting as the art itself. It's hard to sit through whole Disney cartoons.

And seeing every character make the same expressions and use the same gestures gets monotonous for me. So does recycling the same (well constructed) character designs.

Oliver_A said...

Hi John,

thanks for your answer!

>>Sometimes there is some fun animation in them or beautiful backgrounds, but they are all pretty soulless and ignorant to me.<<

I agree with you that most Disney characters are mostly devoid of humanity and soul. However, what about Donald Duck?

For example:


I think Donald shows humanity, because he can be quite an impulsive ass, makes lots of mistakes and foolish decisions and therefore has probably the biggest emotional range of Disney's classic characters. I think, contrary to Mickey Mouse, a human being can relate much more easily to Donald.

That's why I don't agree that all Disney shorts are soulless and ignorant. Of course, no match to WB shorts, but I think your assumption is a bit biased, though I perfectly understand why you do it, because Disney has been a very bad influence for the industry.

Or perhaps I am getting you wrong.

Your fan,


Adam T said...

'I have seen many movies and old time shorts that just seem to be soulless collections of principles, rather than works of entertainment or expressions of humanity.'

I agree completely. Some people are so focused on technique that they lose sight of the bigger picture. It's sometimes easy to do.

The Pluto shorts are a great example too. Watching them is like listening to my older sister practice scales on the piano.

Tony said...

There are a bunch of boring Disney shorts but I enjoyed No Hunting and Motor Mania for their story and jokes as well as technical abilities.

Jeremy said...

I agree that many of problems in Disney animation comes from copying straight from live action without any distillation or interesting interpretation. Or the other issue with young animators, like myself, is copying from the past without thinking about the character, doing a poor or sloppy copy, covering that up with a lot of detail and calling it a style. Milt would probably call us lazy bastards for attempting to ape his style without going through work he did.
What do you think of Medusa's acting in The Rescuers?

trevor thompson said...

Any student of Chomsky would love this post.

The whole principle of 'manufacturing consent' could totally be applied to the idea that, with every new animated show or feature, the quality gets slightly worse, thus, manufacturing the consent of people to passively accept things of a lower quality until such time that anything other than that level of quality is considered alien.

- trevor.

Oliver_A said...

>>>I agree completely. Some people are so focused on technique that they lose sight of the bigger picture. It's sometimes easy to do.<<<

I think most works of modern entertainment lack BOTH principles and humanity.

Only the blandness of Disney got copied, while the strong principles and skills behind this blandness were more and more abandoned. Result: insincerity AND deterioration of skill.

That's the double edged sword when critizising Disney. Because it indicated that the focus on skill was the problem. No. The lack of focus on humanity was the problem.

Oliver_A said...

>>>Let's not forget that Hitler, another advocate of constant beauty, was a fan.<<<

So the fact that Hitler liked Disney proves what point? Hitler was also a vegetarian, so is vegetarism automatically evil?

Most people don't really get what I think is John's message here. John does not critizise the beauty and skill in the works of Disney. I think the point of this post is to stress the fact you need both skill and an observatory mind on humanity for being able to explore the full potential of what animation can do. But it starts with skill, because without it, you are limited and less functional.

And that is the problem when talking bad about classic Disney, because most people will now jump on the bandwagon that Disney was evil because of their emphasize on skill, not realizing the real problem was Walt's lack of honesty, which is a totally different matter.

Did I got it right?

The Butcher said...

I'm looking forward to future posts on this subject. It's nice to see someone isn't in the business of blindly praising Disney cartoons.

Caleb said...

Oliver, I thought it would be a fun fact that Hitler owned a reel of Snow White. Of course that doesn't mean that Disney is evil. My favorite Disney film is Pinocchio. Skill and an observational mind are important, but they don't mean much if the movie is too boring to watch.

pappy d said...

Disney celebrates conformity.

Mr. Semaj said...

It's hard to sit through whole Disney cartoons.


I think Donald shows humanity, because he can be quite an impulsive ass, makes lots of mistakes and foolish decisions and therefore has probably the biggest emotional range of Disney's classic characters. I think, contrary to Mickey Mouse, a human being can relate much more easily to Donald.

Donald was always my most favorite character for that very reason.



Dan Jackson said...

Hey John,

You are gonna eventually compile these cartooning blog posts into an actual book, right? You'd be insane not to.

Have you, or anyone else here, read Richard Williams "Animation Survival Guide" book? If so, what are your thoughts on that?

After watching a fan-restored version of his unfinished film "Thief and the Cobbler", and watching a few documentaries about Williams (from various points in his career), I've come to the conclusion the guy was a bit nuts. He was so obsessed with "fluid" and complex animation (usually insisting on animating everything on ones), that he seemed to forget how to make entertainment. His movie, or what's left of it, comes across as a series of show reels, rather than as a film (not surprising, since his studio produce mostly tv ads).

Richard deeply believed in the Disney principals of animation, even hiring some of the 9 old men, then in their retirement years, to train his staff. Sadly, everything but the fluid animation in Williams films suffered... story, characters, humor, ect.

Ted said...

Pulled out Pluto V2, disc one. The first cartoon is pretty boring, but the second, Pluto's Blue Note, is pretty good (tho it ends with Pluto impressing some bitches instead of being humiliated in front of them, which would have been funnier). It's not the greatest cartoon around (there's a bit too much plodding around) but it shows Pluto gets a bit more of a bad rap than he deserves. So, what is the missing principle? Funny? Funny is missing to a greater or lesser degree in lots of Disney cartoons. Not all animation needs to be funny; the thing is, many Disney cartoons would benefit from being funnier. But then, Disney supposedly valued funny at $1 a gag, or, as that's code for, not at all. The thinking apparently being "why have a thought when you have a bunch of people who can draw?".

Mattieshoe said...


some Disney cartoons I find humanity in are the cartoons of Jack Hannah from the fifties.


I find humanity in his cartoons in the same way I find humanity in Tex Avery's cartoons.

The humanity doesn't come directly from the characters, as it did in Bob Mikimpson or Clampett cartoons, but from the Gags, story points, and the ACTIONS of the characters.

Donald Duck represents every father in America in this cartoon, and what makes the gags funny is their satire on Life in America at that point.

you can tell that this cartoon is all pretty much straight from the mind and point of view of Jack Hannah, and not filtered through Disney's bland outlooks on the world.

Gerard D. de Souza said...

I agree with you on this one.
Let me say that I think it is a good book and the authors to be revered but that has to be tempered that Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston were exception not the rule in only working one place all their lives straight out of art school. Their view IMO can be very homogenous and sheltered.
It is not their fault that the principles that they distilled so well are treated as absolute rules not tools (since the book was published).
When I was a student an instructor whom I admire said if Disney was a religion it would be Catholic. I guess the comparison he was making was the dogmatic approach to Disney animation of that era. I would go a step further and say in some ways it seems like an isolationist fundamentalist sect, viewed by some members as the only true way.
The big comparison I make between Golden age Disney cartoons and their contemporaries Is that the Disney cartoons usually seem socially inept. In WBs and MGM, etc. the characters interact; they stick it to each other, the dig at one another, there are foils galore. The Disney cartoon would establish the gang somewhere; haunted house, Beach, cleaning clocks, at a garage, and then there are little vignettes of each character individually; not so much gags but incidences. The characters don't interact as much or have a back and forth going, like a bunch of little animation exercises.
My favorites are a handful whereas virtually almost every WB is a favorite. DOn't get me wrong, I love the animation. But for entertainment bang per buck WB wins.
My favorite DIsneys are Plane Crazy, Little Whirlwind, Nifty 90s, Symphony Hour and many Goofys. The other studios? I couldn't begin to name my favorites and I can watch a couple hours non stop.

Seth said...

This same chapter you speak of is the only chapter I actually took notes while reading.

The Butcher said...

"Hitler was also a vegetarian, so is vegetarism automatically evil?"

No, the fact that vegetarians are protein deficient scare-mongers who want to use junk science to rid the world of delicious meat products makes vegetarianism evil. Evil people advocate evil practices, but don't necessarilly invent them.

Also, I hate Disney cartoons and their condescending outlook on life in general. I especially hate Mickey Mouse. If I ever met anyone like him, I'd punch him in the face.

Jeff Read said...

I've always liked Goofy. The old Goofy cartoons had some screamingly funny gags on them. I used to look forward to them when they came on the two days of free Disney Channel.

Daryl T said...

Not to be picky or anything, but I must disagree. Disney was king at stories and personalities that you could care about. I know you feel that Warner cartoons had more personality but they are just short cartoons. Warner's did what they did very well, and you enjoy watching a Warner's Character but you could never feel or belive a Warner's Character. A Warner's Character could never carry off any serious and emotional story points, look at Space Jam.

A Disney character made you actually belive and care in them, which is a rare thing indeed.

You can't compare Warner Bros Cartoons to Disney Feature films, they are two different kinds of animation made for different purposes.

By the way, everyone knows it's the straight mans reaction to the insanity is what's funny, not the insanity itself,(Mickey to Donald) which is why early Daffy Duck cartoons he just comes off as annoying.

One more thing, if Walt Disney didn't pave the way, animation wouldn't exist and nobody here posting to this could complain about him. Everyone, leave the man alone!

Oliver_A said...

>>>Richard deeply believed in the Disney principals of animation, even hiring some of the 9 old men, then in their retirement years, to train his staff. Sadly, everything but the fluid animation in Williams films suffered... story, characters, humor, ect.<<<

Yep, Richard Williams is a much better example to illustrate a technically obsessed animator not caring for story and the characters.

I also watched the fan restoration of "Thief and the Cobbler", and I was constantly thinking "what a waste!". To see super complex and fluid animation pasted on a cold, boring and uninspiring story.


The complexity of some scenes in Thief & Cobbler really goes insane, especially the warfare sequence.


Now THAT is an example for an narcissic, utterly soulless and inhumane piece of technocratic animation!

Super Wu-Man said...

i'm curious to know what is your favorite feature length cartoon, and what is your favorite cartoon show from tv?

(since from the past few blog posts we already have a pretty good idea on what is your least favorite catoon movie and shows are ....haha)

aalong64 said...

Hey John, what do you think of 101 Dalmations? The art style in that film has a bit more personality than some other Disney films, and I think the robber characters are pretty funny.

trevor thompson said...

Hey Dan:

You'd be nuts too if you cared as much about animation as Richard does. I don't care as much as he does, and his story gives me a lump in my throat.

I'd think someone who came to know John's work via something like Ren and Stimpy ( and the subsequent demise thereof ) could appreciate an artist's striving for creativity and being screwed by corporate know-nothings.

Actually, Richard has called himself crazy, so I guess your comment isn't without cause, it's just a bit unfair I feel to criticize, when he literally devoted his life to the craft with little recognition or thanks.

That being said, 'Animator's Survival Kit' is a big and cumbersome read.

- trevor.

pappy d said...

'Animator's Survival Kit' is now available in a boxed DVD set.

Ukulele Moon said...

WB is (was) that quirky, sexy and rebellious girl that makes you laugh hysterically.

Disney is that gorgeous, preppy girl you fantasize about ... but if you spend any amount of time with her you realize she's uptight and boring. The kind of girl that says you need to start attending church and that you have to stop swearing so much.

It's a no-brainer.

Bill White said...

Hey friends and neighbors,

Let's not forget, if Walt hadn't started up his studio, most of us would not be doing what we're doing.

Also, really, how anyone could say films like Pinocchio and 101 Dalmations are any less than flawless, entertaining films is beyond me.

If any of you can do better, go right ahead!

Elana Pritchard said...

Dumbo is my favorite Disney movie. Cool animation, likeable characters, adulty themes, good music.

In your face Mulan!

Mr. Semaj said...

WB is (was) that quirky, sexy and rebellious girl that makes you laugh hysterically.

Disney is that gorgeous, preppy girl you fantasize about ... but if you spend any amount of time with her you realize she's uptight and boring. The kind of girl that says you need to start attending church and that you have to stop swearing so much.

Hey, as much as we love junk food (burgers, pizza, chips), we still gotta eat healthy every so often (fruits, veggies). ;)

trevor thompson said...

'Animator's Survival Kit' is now available in a boxed DVD set.

Yes, and it only costs a third of your house.

- trevor.

Hans Flagon said...

Richard Williams likes animations technical minutiae. Making things move. He has no interest in Telling a Story. He can move things about effectively, and can act through movement, but he plot points, motivation, storyline, gags, are outside his focus. Does his book on animation mention storyboarding at all? I don't remember that it did, but it seemed that if it did, it was probably on the problem of staging a scene, rather than WHY a scene is staged that way.

He barely admits that animating on twos is sometimes more effective, and he had to pick that up from other masters he has worked with.

Contrast that with the way Pixar might put together a film, which they storyboard to death to try to get a solid Story, where as the animation is mere technique handed down to software and underlings.

When Pixar puts together a short however, sometimes the timing is completely off. Presto had no time to breathe.

Guy said...

A Warner's Character could never carry off any serious and emotional story points, look at Space Jam.

You've got to be trolling.

Gerard D. de Souza said...

To clarify, I was comparing shorts.
The features for the most part are undeniable masterpieces. Even the cheesiest of the 70s IMO can't be touched by other studios. I can watch their 70 to 90 minute features. String 70 minutes of random Disney shorts together and I'm out cold by the third cartoon.
As for the humanity of the characters they are pretty much stock characters who rarely react against each other but to outside forces; a piano coming to life; a crab on the beach. Mickey's a good little boy scout, Goofy the lovable bumpkin....(Babbit's original notes defined him as a Black caricature), Donald has a temper but we don't see it against another character generally but things.
I thought the Disney comics of that era had more depth to characters.

FleaCircusDirector said...

The thing about rules and princlples is that they work most of the time, but there's always going to be that special case where they need to be bent or cases where they contradict. The skill of the animator is surely combining these in the film rather than mechanically following them to the letter.

I'm looking forward to seeing those examples of the different principles, keep up the good work. The odd shorter article would be nice too.

Laws of physics

Rules of comedy

Golden rules of story telling

p.s. I'd be impressed by the hammering of gold nails as they would probably bend.

Steve Carras said...

Supposedly, Walt Disney was so concerned about the illusion of life and about appealing speficially to children as the legend went that he was afraid to break the illusion by crediting the people who participated in the shorts, and that extended to [in BOTH animated features and shorts] having NO voice credit whatsoever [a pinch of the beak to Clarence "Ducky" Nash, the voice of Donald Duck. He said as much right before he died, in 1984, on D.Duck's anniversary.]

Doesn't discredit Disney though it does show how made himself the magician, which he truly was, behind those [analagous to Mel Blanc credited for every voice staritng in 1944 at Warners in leiu of a raise.]

Interesting what the concept and the execution of the illusion of life can do for the employees, the old saying of what helps one entity [the Disney animaiton] hurts more [t[a fact provne on many carotons and in a few episodes of the old Gilligan's Island live show, which was carotonish in many ways in its own right.][The people that suffered form the illusion of life, in the terms of Walt's applicaiton of such resulting in virtualy no 1930s onscreen credits save for the few feature films, were the people who worked on them and in the shorts department, received no screen credit.] Doesn't detract at all form my admiraiton of Walt, but does cast a different shadow in his legacy here and behind the lack of credit sin shorts till the 1940s and in general of Disney voices [not that Walt was the only one, even the Blue Ribbon Warners reissues lacked any credits till 1956!]

RobochaoXX said...


Bonifer said...

As the director of the Disney Family Album series, which could be said to 'glorify' the Nine Old Men, including Frank and Ollie, who wrote The Illusion of Life...as also a huge Ren & Stimpy fan (I own multiple Logs)...as a regular attendee at Pub Night, Dave Spafford's legendary 'Star Wars Cantina of Animation' than ran every Friday night for five years after Spaff came back from animating on Roger Rabbit in London... and the co-writer of a four-part mini-series on 'Walt' the life of Walt Disney...I can offer some additional perspective on John K.'s insightful post.

It seemed to me that Walt could be just as big a pain in the ass as John K. to work with. And I mean that as a kind of compliment. They both had a vision about a thing, and they were relentless, each in their own way, of pursuing it.

It doesn't matter whether you're an artist, or what you are, that, to me, is the definition of heroic. It does not, however, mean that everyone who accompanies the hero on some part of his or her journey is a hero too. Just because it is about Disney and it is a big thick book, does not mean the Illusion of Life was a heroic work, or that Frank and Ollie were somehow heroic for having written it. It was a gig for them. A way for them to stick around the studio like a zoo animals will not leave an unlocked cage.

So Walt...Walt was exacting. Demanding. Tempestuous. Temperamental. Arbitrary. A 'nazi' about certain things, just as John describes him. He could be an incredibly cruel and cross taskmaster, especially in the last five or six years of his life, when he had a lot going on, his lung cancer being about the least of it.

My reading of the man, whom I never met, though I tried to meet as many people as possible who knew him well, was that he had a great heart. His love of children and childhood, trains, animals, playfulness, miniatures, new technologies, cold chili eaten from a can, animal turds and various other barnyard obscenities, cigarettes, clothes etc.-- informed his studio's work. In this sense, I always thought the title 'The Illusion of Life' missed the point. Disney's 'magic' (god how i hated using that word when I was at Disney, that and 'wizard') was that it wasn't an Illuion...it was life itself up there on that screen. Those of us who had nightmares for months afterward about that damn witch with that damn red apple, or who can't help but smile at Thumper and Bambi on ice, or who thought the dragon in Sleeping Beauty was bitchin, will attest. That shit was REAL.

Walt had his office overlooking the entrance to the Ink & Paint Dept., so that he could watch which of his Animation Boys were seeing which of his Ink & Paint Girls. Walt himself had a hard time getting it up, but he liked it when other people got it up. Which is why his daughter Diane married a guy who gave them ten or twelve kids.

His favorite drink was a scotch mist.

Hazel George, his personal nurse, whom I interviewed on her death bed, told me many revealing things about Walt. One image I cannot shake is that at the end of a working day, Walt would be in great pain around the neck and face, with what they thought at the time was an old polo injury. He'd go into his private therapy room off to the side of his office, where Hazel would strap him into what she called a 'mobile traction unit' a large man-sized steel contraption designed to immobilize every part of the body except the part that hurt, and exercise this. So Hazel would immobilize him in the machine, wrap his face in hot towels and the machine would torque his neck and head around and around in circles, and various other programmed directions. She would make a scotch mist and poke a straw through those hot towels and mirror the movement of the mobile traction unit as she held the glass. And Walt would unburden himself about what was bothering him. Hazel was his confidante. It is a scene I'd like to see re-enacted someday with Meryl Streep playing Hazel and Kevin Kline as Walt.

The point is, Walt was an earthy, human ribald, struggling-like-everybody-else-with-his-shortcomings guy who did what he could with what he had. All things considered, I'd say he did pretty well. After two years of research about him, I came away with no more, but certainly no less, respect for Walt Disney than I would have for anyone who has lived a heroic life.

I came away understanding that his greatest gift was perhaps the ability to relate to people on meaningful levels. He could talk tech to the tech guys, voices t the voice guys, systems to the systems guys. He was no more or less anti-semitic or patriarchal than most WASP entrepreneurs of his generation who grew up in the midwest.

Walt chewed out, abused and publicly humiliated the proud Ken Anderson so badly for the black-line Xeroxing in '101 Dalmatians' that Walt's behavior gave the poor guy not one but two strokes.

And let's remember that if it weren't for his brother, Roy, who could talk sense to the bankers and keep Walt from reeling off in too many experimental directions, Walt probably never would've gotten out of the garage where it all began

I had a lot of respect for the seven the Nine Old Men that I got to know...especially Woolie and Milt, who were sort of like Dutch uncles to me...as I know they were to Andreas and Glen and a lot of others.

I think a problem with the animation culture--and I say this as someone who reveres animators and animation folk generally-- is that it has become a kind of cult built around the 'Frank & Ollie' model. The animation art as depicted by those two. Art weenies. I loved F & O like I did the rest of them, but the truth is that they were ass-kissing fraidy cats compared to Woolie and Milt and Ward and most of the rest of those cats. Milt Kahl thought Frank and Ollie's stuff was weak sauce, and that's the truth. Spafford captured it one time when he made a drawing of Kahl pissing on a pile of Frank's drawings as an alarmed Frank looked on, and Kahl saying, 'Hey Frank, your drawings are gettng better all the time' Milt thought it was hilarious. So did I. I can assure you that Frank and Ollie did not.

Woolie talked a lot about sex. Frank and Ollie talked about pantomime in drawings.

The people with their own artistic vision plus the valor to stand up to Walt, like Milt Kahl, Bill Peet, Jack Hannah, Chuck Jones...had to get out, or move on to Disneyland designing or something else in the organization. Kimball started building his own brand, hosting his own TV show and making his own films. It was too stifling for them in Animation, or as Jones put it...'you had to wait around for Walt to come downstairs'

John K., your stuff is not the illusion, like the best of Disney's animation, it's the real thing. Life itself, reverberating through the cinematic experience. And it does not stop at the edges of the frames, the frames canot contain it, which is what flummoxes the dumbasses at Nick and Diz and other animation orgs when they have to deal with that.

I met you once in your Glendale studio in the late 1990s, and you described for me a world you wanted to 'knit together'. The idea was ahead of its time in terms of the technology...but it's not any more, and I hope that the knitting is happening. Because now is the time.

Thank you for the post.

PCUnfunny said...

You should post the page of the actress modeling for the evil step mother and the comparison drawing of her severly watered down expression.

PCUnfunny said...

It's hard to sit through whole Disney cartoons."

In theire defense, they are some that are funny like Der Fuhrer's Face.

Anonymous said...
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Lew said...

I feel you're being extremely unfair to Disney. As Dick Williams pointed out, they made all the research and other companies just took the principles and applied them. I will agree with you that Warner Bros. really pushed the medium's entertainment potential to a higher level. But if it hadn't been for Disney's will to continuously improve, we would still be doing rubber hose animation. He was the first one to push the medium to such high standards - right from the start with Oswlad.

Warner Brothers' "wackiness" was made possible by Disney. Maybe their sense of story and character does not appeal to you, but I believe they were truly making character their first preoccupation. I'm not saying they are perfect - I dislike many things about them. But I respect their thirst for knowledge and discovery - and their concern for character.

Personally, I can identify with early Mickey cartoons. At least I can identify with the vision. Maybe I am a boring person then, I don't know... Still, I can identify better with Pinocchio than, say, Screwy Squirrel.

I agree with you when you talk about Warner Bros. But I think you're being excessively partial when you talk about Disney.

Anyway, aside from that, your blogs are great. There's one thing I would like to say about Warner Bros. You said in one post something like "I can see Clampett and Avery looking at us and wondering what's happened to the art the pushed to such high standards". Well, they are to blame for that. Disney is always promoting the company's philosophy - they made the illusion of life, they publish archives, etc. What were the guys thinking in the meantime? Something like "well, we've had a lot of fun doing these cartoons, now let's retire". They didn't do lectures like Eric Larson or Walt Stanchfield did. They have no equivalent for CalArts. I wish they had, because if I had a choice, I would go to their school.
And I would like to thank you, because in a way, your blog is Warner's voice. I truly think you should publish a book. I know you think blogs are better, but people give more credits to books than blogs - mainly because everyone can have a blog nowadays. Please, write a book, if you have the time.

Thanks for all the inspiration, and sorry for the long comment.

a grateful reader