Milt Kahl An interview by Michael Barrier and Milton Gray (p. 2)

Barrier: I want to explain something I touched on earlier. You mentioned how difficult it was to systematize Disney's. You said it depended on each unique individual, and you're exactly right. What we're really trying to get at here is, we're working from the point of view that animation is a collective enterprise. You have to have a certain group of people who are making these things and the kinds of pictures you get depends on how those people work together and the way they organize themselves to do the work. So our idea is not to pin down an organization chart for how things are made but to get a real picture of how people worked together back in the beginnings, and how that changed. Obviously there has been a tremendous change in the way the Disney studio goes about making its pictures …

Kahl: Yes, but it has been a change that I don't think the people themselves are really conscious of. I've never been conscious of any different approach to anything, any change in procedure. Like your letter that Jackson wrote; he wouldn't really know about it because the director is in more of an administrative capacity, really. Jackson was one of the most highly creative directors we had. He really was kind of an old lady, but he had a better appreciation of entertainment and richness of character than any other director we had.

Barrier: Did you work very often with him?

Kahl: Oh, yes, very much. But this multiple director thing … you'd think it would cause anything but unity in the picture to have four or five directors, but the fact is, these guys had various abilities, but Walt was the director. A lot of these guys who have since fallen on their faces are guys who were good enough directors under Walt because it is a matter of kind of keeping things straight and not butchering things up too badly because even when Walt was involved with the park and live-action and television and everything, he still ran the place. As Wilfred mentioned, he didn't participate as much, but he was still in there and he was still awfully damned quick.

Barrier: What difference did it make to you, as an animator, the kind of director you were working with?

Kahl: If you are working with somebody like Jackson, it makes it a hell of a lot easier, because there is a harmony there on what we can do. We'd talk things over and we'd find that we were in agreement; we'd agree on almost everything, we had very few disagreements. We had a few, but damned few. You mentioned the instructions from the music room, on the exposure sheets. They would look like instructions from the music room, but they weren't, because the animator and the director would talk things over. The notes on the exposure sheet were to remind [the animator of points covered in his discussions with the director]. In a dialogue scene, you wouldn't need anything like that; you'd do it through thumbnails. But there are scenes that don't involve dialogue, where your timing is completely loose. Then, I will put notes on the exposure sheet. I’ll go through it with a stopwatch—especially if it’s a long scene—and time it overall, and then I'll begin timing details. I’ll time it from one thing to another, all the way through. I’ll do it several times until I've got it pretty well down. Then I'll put it on the sheet, because there’s no sense in doing it all over again. That was what the directors were doing even back in the shorts days. You can bet your hat that the notes on the exposure sheets for Norm Ferguson's scenes, or Fred Moore's scenes, were contributed to by both parties [the director and the animator]; the director was not a dictator. Sometimes you get people that you have to hand work out to, as a director, who really shouldn't be doing it, but somebody has to do it. [The notations on an exposure sheet] would amount to instructions, because you've both talked them over, and you've decided that this is what you should do, and you'll probably stick to the plan. It's the way I do it myself; as I said at this seminar, I’ll do all my exploring in thumbnails, and kind of decide how I'm going to do it. By the time I get to actually animating a scene, I know how I’m going to do it. Any full-size drawing for that scene is a very specific thing that I've already decided on. I’ll stick to that plan, unless I get a big brainstorm.

Barrier: Other animators have talked to us in terms of emphasizing spontaneity. One guy said he would sit there for four days, and then on the fifth day he'd rough out his drawings, trying to make his pencil move with the speed of his thought. Your procedure sounds much more careful.

Kahl: Well, it's thoughtful. And analytical. I'll explore all the possibilities and try to do it the very best way.

Barrier: Has more control over the actual staging of your scenes come into your hands over the years? Were you more restricted originally, say at the time of Pinocchio or Bambi?

Kahl: It's hard for me to remember. I think any director would be a fool if he didn't let a good man do what he thought he ought to do. I think a director has to trust an animator's judgment sometimes. Remember in Aristocats when the old lawyer got out the fountain pen and unscrewed it? All that business through there was my business, actually. They had boards on it, but they weren't good. They had things that didn't get over, and I changed it all around. When the old guy went over to the desk, I had him start over, lose his balance and sprawl on the desk, and then he worked his way around while he was still sprawled. There was no way you could have a pen and an inkwell on this desk, because he'd wipe it off. And I don't like to cheat on something like that if you don't have to. So I looked in some of the mail-order catalogues to find out if they had fountain pens in 1910; and they did have. [The business with the pen] always gets a laugh, but you'd never be able to sell a director or a story man on putting that thing on the screen; you'd have to do it, and they see it, and they like it, and so it stays in the picture. I think an animator has to have that freedom if you're going to have a good picture. I've often said that if there's anything good about our pictures, it's the richness of character.

Barrier: When an animator has this much control over characters and sequences that are assigned to him, doesn't this create a certain problem for a director in maintaining unity in a picture?

Kahl: No, I don't see why it would. If you take a sequence as a whole, it serves a certain function in the story, and I'm not going to lose that. If I take a sequence over, I'm not going to do anything to jeopardize the overall story; I'm not going to change it one iota. I'm talking about detailed business, and getting the most out of the situation, that's all.

Barrier: But in the early days, you didn't have this much freedom, did you?

Kahl: Oh, no. It's not the "early days," or "late days," because there are people at the studio now, animating, who, if you gave them the freedom, you'd have one hell of a picture, believe me. They aren't to be trusted with freedom; they don't have the judgment, or the experience, and maybe they never will have. There have always been people like that around. You're never going to have a studio made up completely of geniuses. I don't think that's changed very much. I remember a meeting in one of the sweatboxes at the old studio, and I thought Ben Sharpsteen was so terribly hard on us. It was a picture called On Ice, with the Duck. Ben was talking about a scene of Marvin Woodward's—some poor bastard, I guess it was Marvin—and then he went on to Fergy’s stuff , and he said, "That's the difference between working with a man like Ferguson and a second-rater." Heartless; but this is true. There always will be those people.

Barrier: To what extent did Walt come into the animation? The picture I get is of him spending most of his time on story work, and not really ...

Kahl: He came into it plenty.

Barrier: In sweatboxes?

Kahl: Oh, yes. Even when he was busy with the park. What happened was, a picture like Sleeping Beauty didn't move because he was involved in the park. We were on one sequence forever. It ran the costs way up, because if you have something around like that, any time somebody wonders what to charge something to, you charge it to Sleeping Beauty. But even then, he was either involved or the darned thing didn't move, one or the other.

Barrier: When he was in the sweatbox with you, what kind of criticisms or evaluations would he make? Was it technical criticism, or was it more a matter of characterization?

Kahl: It was whether something got over or not. You had to be careful, really. If you had something that was a little bit out of the ordinary … I'll give you an example. In Jungle Book, I had a damned funny character, King Louie. He really looked like an orangutan—kind of bad and thin-haired and moth-eaten looking. He was a hell of a lot better character than what we ended up with in the picture. What happened was that Walt looked at someone else's animation, and he got critical of it, and I’ll be damned if we didn't have to change the character because of this. I really didn't get a chance [at the character]. If I had done all of that stuff, he would have liked it. And so you get a director who doesn't—to give him the benefit of the doubt, he doesn't have good judgment ... I don't mean that the character was that bad, it just could have been a hell of a lot better. I like to try to get the most out of things.

Barrier: Your mentioning The Aristocats reminded me of the construction lines that are visible in the old lady and the lawyer in the opening scenes.

Kahl: When I've shown rough tests to people, they seem to have enjoyed them. I think that if the animation is good and the character's believable, I don't think there's anything wrong with the thing being frankly a drawing. I don't think [the construction lines] really bother anyone. It's like the flicker of Xerox: at least the flicker of Xerox is a three-dimensional flicker, a flicker in depth rather than a flicker from side to side. And that's what we used to get in inking, especially in the very slow-moving scenes. When you have something that's held, re­gardless of how slowly it moves into the hold, it'll freeze [in Xerox]; and what I've done, very much in the past, is to have two drawings, one a tracing of the other, and alternate them. It's not that there's anything wrong with the freeze, but the audience will become conscious of it.

Barrier: Overall, did you find Xerox better in preserving ...

Kahl: Yes, I think so. At least the drawings had more vitality.

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