So on Thursday there was a "Legacy Panel" at Disney. Many of the remaining people who worked with the Nine Old Men talked about what they had learned from them. If you aren't familiar with the Nine Old Men of Disney, they were the Directing Animators during the Golden Years of Disney Animation. See the "Illusion of Life" or John Canemaker's book about them for further reference.
Now a lot of this stuff was talked about as it applies to animation, but everything they said applies to story as well. Or effects, or layout, or lighting...every department only succeeds if it contributes towards putting this stuff over. So I took notes and I will give you the parts that struck me as particularly insightful, and I tried to focus on the stuff I hadn't heard a lot before. There was a lot of great stuff so I will do it in installments.
Unfortunately, there's a certain amount of interpretation I bring to it that means I can only explain it as well as I understood it. But I figure that's better than not putting this stuff out there. I know some other people who were there might read this - those people should feel free to post in the comments and clarify or contribute to my explanations. Okay, here goes...
Eric Larson used to say: make a positive statement.
To me, this means: When you animate a scene, or do a drawing, be clear about what you are trying to say. Say it forcefully. Know what you are trying to say. Say one thing clearly and not ten things unclearly.
Eric, when going over a drawing, would focus on the line of the knees, elbows and the eyeline. By this I mean the angle that the head is tilted at, the angle between the kneecaps (meaning if you drew a line between the two kneecaps, which way would it be tilted?) and the angle between the elbows (same as above).
I interpet this to mean that, first of all, when parts of the body are tilted in different ways, it adds interest to a drawing. But the deeper meaning (I think) is that many times the way these three parts are arranged tell you a lot about the pose - what the body is doing.
Also, Eric used to say "Move the joints". This is realated to the above. And he advised animators to use the nose of the character to point the audience's eye to where you want the audience to look.
When he would draw over your work, he would say "these aren't drawings, they are diagrams." And Ron Clements pointed out that Eric's drawings weren't necessarily beautiful, but his animation was. Ron said this was very illuminating that there was a lot more to animation than just beautiful drawings.
Someone told the story that Ward Kimball tended to be a bit cranky at times. He once told all these young guys "Walt's dead and you missed it."
Ron Clements said that Milt Kahl once revealed that he was still furious that he had been deprived of the oppourtunity to animate Captain Hook and that Frank Thomas had gotten to do it. This would be in the late 70s, I believe, a good 25 years after the film was released in theatres.
Milt Kahl thumbnailed everything extensively. He was famous for trying every option in the thumbnails stage. He would work and work so that by the time he animated the scene, he was convinced he knew the best (and only) way to do it. Burny Mattinson said that sometimes people would say to Milt, "Did you ever try doing it this way..." and Milt would quickly snap, "Of course I tried that!"
During this part, Mike Gabriel showed some copies he had of Milt's thumbnails for the scene where Robin is stirring the pot. Of particular interest was the way Milt tried several variations on Robin Hood's legs to find just the right pose for the scene. If you are familiar with the scene, Robin is stirring the pot while daydreaming about Maid Marian (Marion?). It is clear that in these thumbnails, Milt was trying to find the right pose that clearly says the action "stirring the pot" and also communicates "daydreaming". It really illustrates how much planning goes into making a scene great. If you don't try all the options, how do you know you have found the right one?
Mike Gabriel is a really great guy and has always been a great friend to me. He was generous enough to let me copy some of his Milt Kahl stuff to show you. I was so struck by the illustration of how many variations Milt did on Robin's legs I had to post it here, to impress upon you how much he searched and searched, even on what seems like the smallest of things. And this was near the end of Milt's long and illustrious career, when he was well known for being the best draftsman of the bunch.
I also got some other examples of Milt thumbnails I will post with the next installment.
Also (I think it was Eric Larson) someone used to say "don't cheat your audience. Don't go for the first idea". Always push yourself to come up with something special. This is the whole reason Milt would thumbnail - to find a good idea takes a lot of time and effort and searching. If it's the first thing you think of, anyone could have thought of it. Search for a better solution.