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.