Classic Disney Animation: Bringing Art to Life

A 1986 symposium on the animation of PINOCCHIO, featuring animation artists Eric Larson, Ollie Johnson and Ward Kimball


When Eric Larson, an artist and journalist, interviewed at the Walt Disney Studios years ago for a position as animator, he was initially put off by the seeming drudgery of this often-misunderstood art form. "I told him I didn't think I'd want to get involved in that kind of mechanical process," he said. "The answer kind of floored me; Walt just said, 'It'll challenge any kind of creative ability you think you have.' Boy, that put me on the spot!"

"A lot of people think you just sit down and draw. That's wrong," explains Larson. "Basically a character receives its initial analysis in the story. But he doesn't really come to the front until he begins to move around in animation. So the animator first of all should know how to draw, and the better the draughtsman the better the result. He has to have a thorough understanding of acting – he's a ham actor at heart. He should understand music to a degree. He has to understand caricature, because what we do is built on realism, and if you know what the reality is then you can caricature it; if you don't, then you can't."

Ollie Johnson, a fellow animator who helped develop the character of Pinocchio, says one must see into the character that's on the screen. "The big thing was to be able to feel what the characters felt and make these drawings appear to be thinking and feeling. And in order to do that, every single drawing in a scene had to express some part of that act, that emotion. Walt planned the stuff so that the animators could show off. He encouraged us to try to make the characters come to life through their actions and by showing their thought processes."

"We were challenged by getting more realism and more subtlety in the animation," says Ward Kimball, one of the animation directors for PINOCCHIO. "You were watched over by Walt every step of the way. He would see your animation tests and he might say, as he did with me, 'The cricket is too ugly.' And I said, 'Well, Walt, have you ever looked at a cricket? Every insect I ever saw was ugly.' That didn't matter. I had even worked on an early Silly Symphony – it was all about insects, and we just drew them like that, [with] bulging eyes and feelers and menacing legs and elbows. But I found out that's not what we could do on the features. [Jiminy] had to be a nice little guy that you loved, and who the hell loves an insect?

"So I kept through trial and error eliminating the so-called 'offensive appendages' my character had, till he got less and less looking like a cricket and more and more like a little man. The ultimate was reached when we arrived at the cricket you now see, which is a little man from the neck down. I must admit he doesn't have ears, and when he takes his hat off he has a couple of feelers, and he has a couple of slits for his nose, but what the heck, I've seen human beings who look sort of like that. He became a cricket because we called him a cricket."

"The interesting thing with Pinocchio," says Johnson, "was that you had a character who had just been born. It wasn't as though you had an 8-year-old 'cause you didn't. You had someone who didn't know anything. So in some ways it made him feel kind of dumb, but he was not dumb; he just didn't have any experience.

"Keeping the guy innocent without making him dull was one of the big problems. We had to animate it in a way where the guy could never feel too rubbery. We tried very hard to keep his body and legs with a certain amount of wooden feeling, but still, to get acting, you did have to change the shape of his body. If he was sad, you had to make him droopy and slumped over. We took those liberties, but always in the backs of our minds we thought, 'How far should we go on this?'"

"Animation is basically a pantomime medium," says Larson. "And the greatest fun in it are scenes with a minimum of dialogue, where you rely on the personality doing a pantomime show for you. If it's a little animal, like Figaro the cat, or Thumper in BAMBI, you keep in mind that you're working with an animal, so you have to use and understand the motion of animals and what moves that animal is capable of. Within that movement is where you start putting your personal, human character into the subject.

"For instance, with Figaro, you figure that he's a little guy about 4 years old. What would a 4-year-old kid do? You study that character as a child and inject that into your character animation. If a little boy didn't want to kiss his sister, like when Figaro has to kiss Cleo, he does it with a quick peck and that's it. When he has to open the window for Geppetto, he's mad and he kicks the covers off. These are the things that make the audience relate to the characters on the screen, make them feel that they know them."

The results of this attention to detail have been some of the most beautiful films ever made, movies that raise the standard of not just animation but filmmaking in general. Ward Kimball: "I don't think we quite realized that these would reach such a high plateau of esteem when we were working on them. We thought it was just a living, earning a salary, raising a family, going out at noon and having a martini."

copyright 1986, 1997, 2009 by David Morgan
All rights reserved.