Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Milt Kahl Day 12

According to what I learned about Milt, if you asked him how he did something in a scene, the more likely answer would have been "you just do it".
Well, it is not the kind of answer a young student of animation would want to hear, right?
Milt was no good in explaining how he did his scenes and you had to learn by studying what he did.

What I am going to try to do here is to show how Milt  would have approached a scene and the steps he took to do it and I will use samples of his work to illustrate it.
Of course, I never met or worked with him because he retired in 1977 and died in 1987 and I was only 17 years old learning animation here in Brazil.   However, I read everything about him and talked with many people who knew or worked with him and I asked as many questions as I could.

His approach was actually not too different than today's animators.  The only thing, besides his talent, was that he really thought about what he was going to do and would explore all the venues before deciding and starting a scene.

The first thing he would do after talking with the directors and story people and having the character designed, was listening to the soundtrack and thumbnail his thoughts.  He would put down on paper, very rough, these beautiful thumbnails and planned the best way he could do the scene.

Here are samples of his thumbnails.  Note that he would even suggest layout compositions.



After the thumbnails, when he found exactly the best way to stage the scene,  he would start the big animation drawings.  He could be quite rough in his drawings but everything would be there, on model.  He did as many drawings as he could to control his scenes, not leaving much for his assistants and he was more pose to pose oriented but his animation always felt natural.  He always got great and clear poses in his scenes too and silhouette was very important for him.  All his pose read really well.

His assistants would just do what they called "touch up".  Instead of cleaning up on a new sheet of paper,  they worked over Milt's roughs, just erasing some construction lines and controlling shapes making them consistent and ready for ink and paint.

Here are samples of Milt's first passes.  He would start with simple shapes to find the form and animate that.  When he was happy with the action he would work over these and add more details , overlap,  etc, making the drawings ready for his assistants to clean them up or touch up.


Here are some cleaned up or touched up scenes done by his assistants over his roughs.


And that's it!  Simple, no?
Milt also claimed that he did not have to shoot pencil tests more than once to see if his scene worked.  He used to say "I did the scene, so I know it is going to work".

We have to keep in mind that, at the time when Milt and the rest of the 9 Old Men worked, they had much more time to do a scene.  The schedules they had (With the exception of a couple of pictures including Cinderella) were never the way it is today and they could spend more time exploring the best way to do a scene.  I interviewed the late Dale Oliver, who was Frank Thomas' s assistant for over 20 years and he told me that they had indeed much more time in the old days.  He said that Frank would very often put a scene aside for a week or two and worked on another  one and then he would go back to that scene put aside and look at it with fresh eyes and see what was wrong with it.

My experience nowadays is the opposite and on The Princess and the Frog I felt it big time.  There was no time to really explore and thumbnail the scenes and try to find a different way to do them.  We had to just jump right in and do it as fast as we could.

I wish we had more time and a better schedule so we could really think about our scenes and possibly, just possibly, do it as good as Milt would have done.


  1. Awesome post, as always. Very informative, I like that! Milt Kahl sounds like he was a fascinating person and an amazing person to learn from. If only he was still around to continue imparting his knowledge to the animators of today!
    Though, the last part about the time constraints is very sad to me. I think it's very important to take the time necessary to do things the best way possible, and the fact that animators aren't allowed that time is a shame.
    Do you know why that has changed? I hope to work at Disney animation some day and I love to learn about what it's like to work there. Have they just shortened their deadlines in general or what?

  2. Thank you very much, Sandro!
    One of the things I appreciate on Milt is that caring he had about his work.

    And thanks for sharing these amazing drawings! I guess it would be very instructive being one of those "touch up" assistants for Milt. I would be happy being one of them.

  3. Brillinat, thanks again for such a great post. Where are u getting these pictures from??

  4. Back in 1986 I was lucky to have had lunch with Milt in San Francisco together with my friend Andreas Deja. I was young and eager to learn and when I asked Milt what his secret was he said "Think before you do anything!" and stressed that you have to be able to draw extremely well. That was it, the rest of the time we spoke about fishing and classic cars...

    Thanks for posting these, Sandro.

  5. Thanks so much for posting, this was wonderful

  6. This is an excellent read and extremely helpful. Thanks for the insight into Milt Kahl's animation process!

  7. Time time time! Never enough time! Sigh....! I 'love' the way animation is now producer driven rather than artist driven, producers deciding how long it'll take you to animate smth they have no knowledge about at all... or at least that's my impression of it after 9 years working...
    Awesome post Sandro as always! Cheers. :)

  8. You're carrying the torch of tradition Sandro, keep it up.

    I'm not an animator, but I just love looking at work like Milt's and Sandro's.

    When most people think of art, they think of some finely done oil painting, and I love a good painting as much as the next artist, but this type of animation/drawing is just so complete in context. The smiling fox, the curious look on a person's face, the countless body movements and expressions that go into the work.

    I absolutely love it.

  9. Great Post Sandro! A big AMEN on the crazy speed on Frog...I certainly wish I had had more time to explore. You still did brilliant work though!

  10. Thank you all, I really appreciate your comments.
    I do not want to give the impression that I only like Milt's work because I love the work of all the 9 Old Men and other great artists and I will post stuff about them too.
    The reason I post a lot about Milt is because he was very important for the development of animation and character design at Disney. He was responsible for at least 80% of the final character designs of the Feature films since Pinocchio and he was the animator who set how a character should be animated for the others to follow. He also keyed almost every animator's scenes by going over their drawings and putting them on model or making a pose better.
    I just want people today to know how important he was and not let him (and the rest of the great animators for that matter) be forgotten.

    Hey Uli (UM), great to have you dropping a line and share your experience with Milt, you are are so lucky to have met him. If you have a photo taken with Milt I would love to see it.

    Hey Matt, good to hear from you. Yes, if we had a little more time our work could have been much nicer and I know we did the best we could on Frog.

  11. Awesome work! Thanks for posting Milt Kahls work...I saw Princess and The Frog and you did some amazing work!

  12. What a Great Post!Thanks for sharing Sandro!

  13. Anyone who can DRAW, can follow Milt, if you know what i mean!

  14. Hey Sandro,
    I have a photo of that lunch somewhere, I'll dig it out and send it to you.
    On another note, I will be in Sao Paulo from Dec. 23rd to Jan 12th, I don't know if you're a Paulista and in the country but maybe we can hook up. Drop me a line at uli@ulimeyer.com if you want...

  15. "We have to keep in mind that, at the time when Milt and the rest of the 9 Old Men worked, they had much more time to do a scene. The schedules they had (With the exception of a couple of pictures including Cinderella) were never the way it is today and they could spend more time exploring the best way to do a scene."

    It's a travesty that such a great art form has been shackled to the ledger pad of bean counters. It's almost certain that animation will never reach the heights of artistic expression it has in the past, nor will we see the full talents of modern artists realized, until this situation is rectified. I'm glad I don't work in the field any longer.

    Thanks for the post.

  16. Wow! This is great stuff. Thanks so much!

  17. Hey Sandro--great post!

    I remember Eric Larson used to have a stack of xeroxed Milt thumbnails on his desk. One thing really hit me and took me a long time to learn and understand-- Scribbled on one margin were the words:

    "Monday: NO DRAWING!"

    Eric explained that Milt usually spent the first of the week just THINKING about what to draw and that contemplation allowed him to really understand what he wanted to do. We in the instant pencil test age have a hard time with-holding the urge to see it move, but a great deal of the process is really mental.

    Great blog--happy holidays!

  18. Grande Sandro
    Pow primeiramente Muitissimo Obrigado por compartilhar conosco essas maravilhas do Mister Kahl !!
    E queria dizer também que seu trabalho e Sensacional, descobri seu blog recentemente atraves do Character Design, sua historia de vida é espetacular, Don Bluth, Disney, Dreamworks, meus deus que curriculo ehheh.
    Também sou de SP e trabalho com Ilustraçoes
    http://juarezricci.deviantart.com/ (quando tiver um tempo passa lá).
    E Obrigado mais uma vez por compartilhar seus Trabalhos, é uma grande fonte de Inpiraçao !!
    Forte Abraço e Ótimas Festas !!!

  19. Extremely interesting post & examples.

  20. Great post Sandro! Milt Kahl lovers unite!

  21. oh man, I was just thinking about animation production schedules the other day, and how jealous I am of all that coveted time the "old timers" had to do a scene. working in commercial advertising animation, it's "work fast until fingers bleed and eyeballs dry out". I'm sorry to hear that you guys had to pump out stuff far too fast for a whole FEATURE...can't imagine the frustration.

  22. Thanks a lot to post this great lessons...Sandro...

  23. Thanks for the insight to one of greatest animator.