Friday, June 16, 2006

Got Milt?

So every time I post drawings by Milt Kahl people always ask for more. People respond to Milt's drawings in a similar way to the way they react to Freddy Moore drawings. Why is this? Why don't people feel the same way about Ollie Johnston drawings, or Frank Thomas drawings?

Of course everyone always says Milt was a great draftsman. This is undeniably true. He could draw anything solidly and convincingly. But I think that's only part of the answer. A big part of what we think of as being a "great draftsman" is being a great designer.

Anytime people are "struck" by something - be it the work of a particular artist, or a corporate logo, or a Japanese cartoon character - it's a safe bet that good design is at work. It's hard to define what "good design" is, exactly, but we know it when we see it and it has a deep visceral impact. As you look at these Milt drawings, analyze them with these concpets in mind and see how these are reflected in his work:

Small, Medium and Large shapes

variety of shape - square, circular, triangular

Straights against curves

One side of the figure "squashes" while one side "stretches"



Line of Action

Tilts and Twists within the figure

Weight and Balance

Definite changes of direction - well defined "planes" on the surface of the figure

Surface lines wrap around the form

And so on...obviously there's a lot going on here. What I'm trying to get you to do is not just admire it. Get something out of it.

Click to make these bigger.

But Milt's drawings were never meant to be seen and admired as individual drawings, were they? They aren't drawings for their own sake. They are animation drawings which means that they are part of a scene. They are intended to be seen in sequence with other drawings to put over an idea - a piece of acting or action to help tell a larger story.

Most of what we know of Milt's work and think of as his signature stuff is from his later years. I can only assume that this is because there were no xerox machines before then. Now we know his later stuff because people would xerox his drawings and then they spread far and wide. But it's really too bad that we don't have more access to his early work - particularly I think of scenes that I know he did on "Pinocchio" and "Lady and the Tramp".

I would contend that Milt's animation was actually better back at that time.

Personally, I prefer actors who "disappear" into their roles. I don't like being aware that I'm watching a specific actor - it takes me out of the movie. And to me, Milt, in his later years, didn't "disappear" into his roles. His technique began to stick out. Any first year animation student can watch "Robin Hood" and crow "Hey, that's a Milt scene!". But is that a good thing? Isn't that distracting from the overall story? And the believeability of "the illusion of life"? Animators like Frank, Ollie, Eric Larson and others were always good at animating in a way that put over the performance without you feeling the animator's hand at work so much. Personally I find that kind of animation more compelling and I think it serves the story and characters better.

There's no doubt that Milt was the greatest technical animator that ever lived. Without question, an amazing draftsman. But I suspect that, as Milt grew less and less interested in the Disney films (after "Jungle Book") he grew less interested in the characters and story and became more interested in the idea of doing each scene in a way that he found personally satisfying. Shere Kahn is the first character Milt did that begins to have so much "Miltness" to it that it stands out (or, arguably, his characters on "Sword in the Stone"). And he went on record several times saying that he wasn't that interested in the films made after Walt's death. So it's a safe assumption that he became more interested in the perfection of his own scenes than in working with other animators to create a seamless performance and a unified film.

Just my opinion, of course. To me a great drawing is a nice thing, of course, but an animation drawing or story sketch is only as "good" as the idea it's meant to communicate, and the extent to which it actually communicates. Good stories and performances are made up of good ideas. Good drawings are secondary to the idea.

Many of you may disagree. That's what the comments section is for, go to it.

Lots more Milt stuff to scan, all from the collection of Mike Gabriel, who let me copy his stack of Milt stuff. Thanks, Mike!!!


barry johnson said...

Great drawings and you make some excellent points.

However when I see the Rooster, I don't think of Milt, but Roger Miller. When I saw that drawing of him in the cell, this was playing in my mind:
"Every town
Has its ups and down
Sometime ups
Outnumber the downs
But not in Nottingham"

Damn, that'll be stuck in my head all day now.

floyd norman said...

As much as I admired Milt for his fantastic ability as a draftsman and animator, I never wanted to animate like him. I always preferred Fred Moore or Ward Kimball.

Just a matter of preference, I guess. No doubt Kahl was a genius, and I loved working on his scenes.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Your comment about prefering actors who "disappear" into their roles leads me to register a complaint about the trend of using so many big name celebrities for the character voices in animated films. I understand that there's probably a marketing reason for doing this, but these voices are so bloody distracting to the plot--it yanks me out of the story almost every time I recognize a well-known actor's voice.

With live action films I understand using popular actors to draw in the crowds. One of the first questions people seem to ask when hearing about a new film is "Who's in it?" Is this really the same for animation? It sure does stink of celebrity worship...

Ali said...

I'm not sure I agree that Milt's scenes stuck out like a sore thumb. For example, I thought the transition between his Madam Mim scene and Frank's Wizard Duel was seamless. I would agree that when he was almost solely responsible for a character, that character did stick out. Even before I had bothered to read film credits or had ever heard of Milt Kahl, something struck me in the same way about Shere Khan that it did about Edgar. The one time his character stuck out in a bad way was Snoops in The Rescuers. I always found that performance far too showy.

Hold it, did I just use the word 'bad' in reference to Milt Kahl? I apologize. I meant 'less good'.

SMacLeod said...

yeah, I concur. Milt's draftmenship sticks out for better or worse, and Frank and Ollie's performances were solid. I felt them more deeply and their gestures and mannerisms seemed fresh. I like that.

RoboTaeKwon-Z said...

I like that you take the point of view that is diametrically opposed to just about everyone I've ever worked with concerning Milt. I like Milt, but a cult has arisen surrounding the man that is a bit scary.
I also agree with your point concerning actors disappearing into the role. Animation should serve story, not itself. Story is king.
In a separate note, when Iron Giant came out I remember that every single story artist at Disney was awed and humbled by it. However, many animators of the Supervising rank were not so impressed. Why?
"It lacked virtuoso animation performances". Since the animation in I.G is flawless, I interperet this to
mean "There were no scenes in which an egomaniacal animator took us out of the story and hi-jacked the film to awe us with his considerable skill with the pencil."
To which I would have added "Thank God".

Jason C said...

Nice point RoboTaeKwon-Z.. I find that fits nicely with some of todays animators tendancies to move things around for the sake of moving them.. like a "look at me!! I did this character!!" where in I.G. the animation performances served the story and the sc's so well.. They didn't distract from the main focus or point of a shot. They supported it..

this is something i know i stuggle with all the time.. the feeling of.. "oh man.. i've been in this pose for awhile.. i better make a big move so people know I can animate" instead of feeling the calmness of letting the pose read and do it's job..

ee.. sorry for the mini rant.. back to milt.. One of my fav milt sc's is in lady and the tramp when tramp wakes up. Man.. I could watch that over.. and over..

Thanks for all the great posts! This is an amazing blog you have going here!

professeurcheveux said...

wow! thanks a lot for sharing that mark!
i think you have a golden mine of milt kahl drawings here!
so please.....more...more!!!
ok...i know i'm sort of a junky!

professeurcheveux said...

do you have some aristocats stuff?

UM said...

Edgar in Aristocats is a good example for what you are saying here. Lounsberry did a lot of Edgar shots and the difference in the animation between his and Milt's is drastic.
Every animator works hard on his/her scenes. I don't know of anyone who would hold back on their abilities in order to blend in seamlessly with the other shots. Milt was just too good and therefore his work stood out.
I wonder if Joe Public would spot the difference though.

mark kennedy said...

Thanks for comments everyone. Great to hear from you

Prof C - I don't have any Aristocats stuff in this batch. I have bad old xeroxes from that movie but these are all recent high quality 1st generation copies. No Aristocats stuff though, sorry!

UM - I hear you, and maybe john Public couldn't spot it. But I humbly disagree that Milt's stuff stuck out becasue it was "too good." He developed a more technical style of animation but (to me) his robin Hood-era work didn't have the acting - in paricular, the sincerity - of some of the other animators of that time. It stuck out because it had a style of performance that didn't match what others were doing, and to me that's not good acting. Like Jack Black in "King Kong" - Jack seemed like he was in a different movie than everyone else becasue his performance was different than everyone else's.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Let me first say that I love Iron Giant, and I think the animation's great. However, I believe saying that "virtuoso performances" = "egomaniacal movie-hi-jacking scenes" is just ignorant, and tells more about how you feel about the persons mentioning them, than about the actual statement itself. Does a movie need that type of performances? No. Do great Al Pacino scenes hi-jack a film and pull you out of the story? I rest my case.

That being said, I personally felt there was a real virtuoso performance in there: the Giant. Up to this day, the shot where the Giant almost starts to cry because he thinks Hogarth is dead is the *only* 3D scene where it's the performance moving me. Not just the context, the music or whatever, but just that performance. I can watch just that scene, with the sound off, and still be moved by it. It's the only 3D animated shot I've seen so far that's been able to do that.

AnimatorNickB said...

Man amazing drawings. Kahl was definitly the king of draftsmanship. But I do agree, that his later animation became a little to reconizable. Hence the famous Milt Kahl head shake. But still an amazing artist, and I respect him greatly.

Doron Meir said...

Couldn't agree more, though I never thought about it myself. Great post!

Anonymous said...

I don't agree at all. I like it when you can see a great animator shining forth. The scenes in Robin Hood and Aristocats that take me out of the picture are the bad scenes and the reused stuff.

I hate to see some of the modern stuff where everything looks the same. Like it was all from the same hand. A lot of TV stuff is like that. Who the hell gives a damn who animated what, nothing sticks out as particularly good anyway. The Iron Giant is a bit like that, but there are some stand-out bits.

A film like Quest for Camelot, on the other hand, you kind of wish some of the strong animators had helped out a bit more with some of the human characters, the contrast between styles and quality is a bit much. But that wouldn't have fixed the story.

I agree that some animators can move things around too much at the expense of the actual performance, but I don't think Milt was guilty of that. No matter how much he moved things, the acting was always spot on.

Wodenhart said...

If there was a problem with 'Robin Hood' it certainly wasn't anything to do with Milt. I wrote a fan letter to Milt around this time and he replied telling me all he did on this movie and what he was currently finishing off (on The Rescuers).
I find it odd that the level of performance which Milt supplied to all the films of this era is questioned...really I cannot see anyone elses work that surpassed it and rarely did any equal it; not just in draughtsmanship, which is a given; but what he really cared about, the meat and potatos, to which his great drawing was just a means to an end..that is the performance. Well, I never felt let down by this aspect of his work. It seems fashionable now to find weak spots in Milt's contribution to the Disney features, being human, I am sure he had did Rembrandt and all them other topping geniuses. can't say they are too evident in his work to me though.

Anonymous said...

Your weblog is the holy grail for aspiring artists who are not enrolled in visual arts school. The contents of your weblog effectively explain art principles.

Milt Kahl's drawings of a panther brought into memory a nagging question that I had for a long time:

How does a sequential artist achieve and maintain the likeness of a character when drawing it in different profiles, emotions and poses? What art principles or guidelines does he follow to achieve it?

I look forward to your reply in your weblog.