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Like a signature, each animator has their own little quirks or trademarks that distinguish their animation from others. Some draw character’s features in a unique way (eyes, hands, etc.), some lean heavily on certain principles or include abstract imagery or gimmicks into their scenes, and some fall back on specific poses or gestures. The “Milt Kahl Head Swaggle” is an example of the latter, and it both intrigues and aggravates me at the same time.
To clarify, the “Milt Kahl Head Swaggle” is when a character (animated by Disney legend Milt Kahl) sort of rattles his/her head from side to side, usually at times when they’re feeling cocky or self-assured. Sort of an “Am I great or what?” type of gesture.
Again, I can’t deny how remarkable an animator Milt Kahl was, but for a long time I considered him to be a really hammy animator in the worst possible sense, and this gesture cemented that idea in me for a good long while.
In a Frank Thomas or Ollie Johnston scene, I could see the wheels turn in the character’s heads and felt that the characters were sincere, emotionally-driven personalities. I never felt that in the majority of Kahl’s characters. A lot of his characters are like actors on a stage, projecting themselves a bit too far in their performances.
But at the same time, he uses this gesture for a reason, and it works well in every scene he implements it. He only used it on broader, more caricatured characters like Tigger, Sir Ector or Brer Rabbit, characters with strong egos and a cocky sensibility, and the gesture defines the character’s personality in the most simple and direct way possible.
Much like finding an often-reused piece of animation or sound effect in a Disney film, my dislike for it came only from repeated viewings. Because we live in the age of DVDs, Netflix and Quicktime files, we now can have a studio’s entire library literally at our fingertips, able to survey and dissect the content any way we choose, including surveying an animator’s entire forty-year output front to back and taking shots completely out of context like I have here.
Another thing I realized over time is that Kahl seemed to prefer being a broader animator. For years he was stuck with the most difficult and seemingly less interesting assignments, which the rest of the animators couldn’t pull off because they weren’t as good of a draftsman as him. For example, he clamored to work on characters like Captain Hook but was stuck doing Peter Pan and the Darling children, or with Alice instead of the more zany, off-the wall characters that populate the rest of Alice and Wonderland. He would end up designing a lot of these other characters, but never get to animate most of them.
Luckily for him, by the 1960s, Kahl’s creative shackles were loosened and he was back to doing broader animation, and like a free spirit, he went all out on each character, from TheSword in the Stone through The Rescuers. Each character he animated during that period overflowed with energy, all of which was probably pent up inside him for so many years. His days of princes and realistic little children were over, and for the rest of his career he was able to let loose, have fun and do the things he wanted to do.
Milt Kahl knew he was a good animator, and he wasn’t afraid to show it through brash flourishes of animation. The head swaggle, corny and over-the-top though it may be, not only defines those Disney characters, but also defines the self-assured Kahl himself.
Cartoon women are inherently difficult subjects for the animator for the reason that animation demands caricature and comedy, which are concepts inconsistent with femininity, grace and sensuality. The result is that when animators create female leads, they tend to de-emphasize cartoon qualities and accentuate realistic mannerisms and behaviors.
There was a brief moment in animation history when funny and sexy female characters were encouraged though, and that era coincided roughly with World War II. Some historians, like John Costello, have argued that the war represented the true beginnings of the sexual revolution in the United States. During the early-1940s, sexual imagery gained new visibility and cultural acceptance. Young soldiers lusted after Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth pin-ups, while reading Milton Caniff’s comic Male Call and decorating their bombers with provocative nose art. Within this liberal environment, Hollywood directors and animators took advantage of the opportunity to explore creative new ways of portraying the female character in animation.
A handful of animators, notably Pat Matthews, Preston Blair, Rod Scribner, Fred Moore, and Milt Kahl, became known for their ability to handle women characters that were true cartoon creations. Still, there were limited opportunities to animate such characters, and it wasn’t uncommon for animators to use male characters in drag as a substitute for the female, such as Daffy Duck’s striptease in The Wise Quacking Duck (1943), animated by Art Babbitt.
The sexy cartoon female occasionally appeared in animation after the war, but by and large, the industry began to favor a blander and less cartoon-influenced style. By the early-1960s, the average cartoon female in Hollywood animation had become so unappealing that Rocky and Bullwinkle co-creator Bill Scott quipped, “The way women are drawn in our business today, one would assume all the artists are fags.”
The following selection of animated films illustrate some of the various approaches to the animated female character during the World War II period:
“Eatin’ on the Cuff” or The Moth who Came to Dinner (Warner Bros, Bob Clampett, 1942)
Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (Warner Bros, Bob Clampett 1943)
Red Hot Riding Hood (MGM, Tex Avery, 1943)
Abou Ben Boogie (Walter Lantz Prod, Shamus Culhane, 1944)
If you read just one thing today, make it this newly released 1976 interview with Disney animator Milt Kahl conducted by Michael Barrier and Milton Gray. Hearing Kahl speak his mind brings the past alive in a way that few history books can, and sheds light on the divisions and rivalries between the golden age Disney animators. When the interview took place, Kahl had recently left the Disney studio after forty-plus years and he doesn’t mince words:
“The way that I feel about it is that my performance in The Rescuers is good. The only thing is that you know that this picture is going to be mediocre. It has a few high spots, but it’s full of bad taste that is, as I like to put it, tempered by bad judgment. That’s kind of a lousy way to put it, but I feel that way. I’m really rather bitter about the set-up, about some of the people who I thought considered that we were working together, and I find that we really weren’t. Here I am, a person at the height of my powers, and I feel there’s not a place for me anymore. I don’t want to be involved; I can’t fight this thing. And there certainly isn’t a place for me anywhere else in this business.”
Let’s celebrate Halloween with the creepiest Disney short ever made: Jack Kinney’s Duck Pimples. It’s quite unlike any of Kinney’s Goofy shorts from the same period, not to mention unlike any short ever produced at Disney. The weirdness may be attributed to the writing team of Dick Shaw and weirdo-genius Virgil Partch, who were parodying radio crime/noir dramas, but veered off into some wildly surreal territory. It’s not exactly a great cartoon, but it’s entertaining, which I can’t say for most other Disney shorts. The animation is top-drawer work, and the human character designs are big fun. The effect of Donald’s hallucinatory dream is enhanced by the backgrounds that abruptly change each time a new character appears in the film.
The biggest mystery in this whodunnit is who’s responsible for the animation of Pauline, which is one of the finest pieces of cartoony female animation this side of Preston Blair. Milt Kahl is the most likely candidate if we look at the credits, but Marc Davis and Fred Moore have both been credited as working on the cartoon too (see Graham Webb’s Animated Film Encyclopedia). Disney didn’t use a strict unit system in the 1940s like other studios; usually whichever animators had downtime would work on a short, so it’s conceivable that Kahl, Moore and Davis all contributed to Pauline’s animation. Now that’s a scary amount of talent!
Imagine that you could interview Milt Kahl at the height of his powers and ask him anything you wanted. That’s the opportunity a little old lady in Dallas got in 1973. Andreas Deja recently posted the segment on his goodie-filled blog, and even by the low standards of local television, it’s a disaster.
Resembling a bad sketch-comedy routine, she asks Milt nonsensical things that only vaguely resemble questions like, “How far back do they go? Do they go back…what are some of the …Nutcracker?” and “Do you think it’s an inspired thing that they get these characters?” One gets the sense that Kahl would have decked the lady had the interview gone on a minute longer. Perhaps the reason she’s wearing dark sunglasses indoors is that the last person she interviewed gave her a black eye for her utter lack of journalistic ability.
The saving grace is Milt doing his famous eyeglass-dangle at 1:15, not to mention that fabulous patchwork sports jacket.
Sometimes when I’m animating, I recharge my creative batteries by watching some of my favorite scenes or pieces of animation. There’s a handful of animated pieces that I watch again and again, but only one that I always return to without fail. It blows me away every time I see it, and upon each viewing, I always seem to discover something new. After every viewing, it makes me strive harder and harder to become a better animator.
No surprise that this scene from Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (1968) is a Milt Kahl scene. I may be one of the very few people who has had the gall to say something remotely negative about Kahl’s animation in the past, but I still think all the admiration for him and his work is completely justified. He could handle anything, and make it look and move beautifully. It’s a shame he wasn’t given more assignments like this one, because I feel that his more cartoon-oriented animation really stands out as some of his best.
While the entire four-minute sequence of Tigger in Pooh’s house is wonderful (great personality animation, dialogue, pacing, etc.), it’s the shot of Tigger bouncing around Pooh that stands out for me. The reason I love that scene so much is that it perfectly encapsulates all twelve principles of animation. In about 7 seconds, each principle is flawlessly showcased, some multiple times, and some intertwining and overlapping one another. As broad and over the top as it is, there’s layer upon layer of intricate elements that make the scene work. It’s a masterpiece of animation, but isn’t brought up too often compared to some of the other characters in Kahl’s career.
For starters, watch when Tigger first begins bouncing:
There’s little to no anticipation in his legs, but instead the anticipation is shown in the movement of his head going down before the take off. The tilt of his head, in relation to his arms, legs, ears and whiskers as he first jumps show a great use of arcs. Also notice the successive breaking of the joints on Tigger’s arms, from his shoulders to his elbows to his wrists, and the drag on his fingertips.
As he bounces in place, you can really feel the energy transferring through his body, from his head down to his tail and right back up to his head again, much like a wave action. The folds and wrinkles in his body as he squashes down not only tell us that Tigger is a well-worn toy with loose stuffing, but how much force and weight that Tigger is exerting with each bounce.
Now, Tigger begins to bounce in a circle around Pooh:
This is why Tigger’s stripes play such an integral role in his design. The stripes sell the idea that Tigger is not a flat drawing, but a three-dimensional living creature. His stripes wrap around the forms of his body and give the illusion of volume. So when Tigger is bouncing around Pooh, those stripes make it clear that Tigger’s body is turning away from us in perspective. Also notice the overlapping action on Tigger’s tail, and how it bends and swings at the kinked parts.
Tigger then jumps up and spins on his tail:
There’s so much going on in this one-second action. Tigger’s torso is twisting and contorting, his top half slightly delayed than his bottom half. Like before, his arms and legs following arcs, and his hands, ears and whiskers are dragging behind. And while all this is going on, he’s squashing and stretching on every bounce until finally easing into his final pose before making physical contact with Pooh and charging offscreen.
And throughout that entire scene, on every bounce, footstep and contact, Tigger is hitting every single beat in the song. Each of Kal’s key poses are appealing, with clear staging and strong silhouettes. Even the animation on Pooh, who takes a back seat in this sequence to contrast Tigger’s outlandish behavior is wonderfully done. It’s almost contradictory how Tigger moves. While he’s galumphing around the screen like a roughhouse, there’s a certain level of grace in his movements. And both Tigger and Pooh’s personalities are easily distinguishable, Tigger being confident and boisterous and Pooh being underplayed and submissive. Overall, a tour de force of animation.
Coincidently, Kahl was also animating Shere Kahn in TheJungle Book around the same time. They’re both tigers (Tigger loosely so), but look how drastically different in approach and execution they are from each other. Shere Kahn is restrained and more subtle—built and functioning like a real tiger, while Tigger is so full of energy and enthusiasm that he’s practically bursting at the seams, and is a completely graphic design. Compare them to Kahl’s caricatured tiger from the Goofy short Tiger Trouble twenty years earlier and you have some sense of how broad Kahl’s abilities were as an animator.
I would’ve loved to know Kahl’s opinion about his own work on Tigger. I know there’s plenty of information floating around about how he felt about Medusa, Shere Kahn, the Brers or any of the human characters he animated, but barely anything about his work on Tigger. If anyone has any insight about this, please share!
For those that want a closer look at this scene, here’s a video of it slowed down 500% with annotations: