Friday, April 01, 2011
Interesting Milt Kahl Interview
An interview by Michael Barrier and Milton Gray
Kahl and Colleagues
Milt Kahl stands at the left, with, standing from the left, Marc Davis, Frank Thomas, Walt Disney, Wilfred Jackson, and (seated) Ollie Johnston, in a publicity photo from the 1950s.
From MB: Milt Gray and I interviewed Milt Kahl on November 4, 1976, as part of my research for Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age. I wrote about that interview a couple of years ago, as part of an item about the celebration of Kahl's centennial in the Hollywood animation community:
I met Milt Kahl only once, in the fall of 1976. Milt Gray and I interviewed Kahl at his home, a penthouse apartment on the Avenue of the Stars in Century City. It was, as I recall, a beautiful place, furnished in exquisite taste in a modern style. Kahl himself was friendly but forceful, very much as others have described him. He had only recently been pushed out of Disney, after run-ins with Woolie Reitherman during production of The Rescuers, and he was resentful and contemptuous of some of his former colleagues.
I remember feeling vaguely dissatisfied with the interview when Milt and I were driving away, but Milt was not, because, he told me, he had been so impressed by Kahl's integrity. I think Milt was right—Kahl did have a great deal of integrity, which took the form of an unyielding dedication to his conception of the art of animation, well-drawn animation above all. But it seemed to me that as an animator, Kahl lived inside a sort of cocoon in which nothing mattered except the high quality of his animation, with "quality" rather narrowly defined.
The complete item, titled "The Animation Michelangelo," is at this link.
Kahl is typically frank (and rather brutal) in many of his comments. What I've reproduced here is the complete transcript, which I sent to Kahl for his approval and which he returned with no changes of any kind.
If some of what Kahl says sounds familiar, that is most likely because you've read quotations from the interview in either Hollywood Cartoons or John Canemaker's Walt Disney's Nine Old Men and the Art of Animation; I let John have a copy of not just the Kahl transcript but also the transcripts of my interviews with two other "old men," Les Clark and Eric Larson.
On to the transcript, which begins, appropriately enough given Kahl's personality, in media res:
Kahl: It's all an individual thing. Way back when we weren't making anything but shorts, the attitude of a director like Ben Sharpsteen toward a Marvin Woodward, or a Fred Spencer, would differ completely from his attitude toward a Norm Ferguson. And Norm knew so much more about the business than Ben. Ben was a kind of no-talent. A nice guy, but he wasn't anyone who would set the world on fire with talent, while Ferguson was. It all depends on the relationship between people, and what they think of each other, and what their abilities are.
On Pinocchio, you mentioned something about pilot animation, and supervising animation. Finch's book [The Art of Walt Disney] is wrong on that—it depends on who the hell you interview. Everyone has his own little thing, and I think that the tendency among all these guys is to make themselves as important as they possibly can. I think Frank Thomas and Freddy Moore and I don't know who else were involved in experimenting around with Pinocchio. Maybe Ollie Johnston, but Johnston was kind of coming up then. So was I, really. I was quite critical of ... I have a knack for alienating people by being a little bit outspoken, and they were rather obsessed with the idea of this boy being a wooden puppet. My God, they even had this midget who did the voice for "call for Phillip Morris" as the voice for a while, and it was terrible. I was rather outspoken about it. Why didn't they forget that he was a puppet and get a cute little boy, you can always draw the wooden joints and make him a wooden puppet afterwards. And Ham Luske said, "Well, why don't you do something about it, do a scene," and I did one. What I don't remember is whether they had a new voice by then or not. Probably they did have; I don't know. I did a scene of Pinocchio underwater with the jackass ears, knocking on a shell of an oyster, saying, "Pardon me, can you tell me where I can find Monstro the whale?" The shell closed up and caused a swell in the current, which affected Pinocchio. I made kind of a cute little boy out of him, and Walt loved it; this was actually my big chance. It was my move into being one of the top animators. Before that, on Snow White, I was involved with the animals. We had a room, one big room, where all of we animal boys were. It was Louie Schmitt and Eric Larson and Jimmy Algar and myself. And we did all of the animals.
Barrier: At the time you did this animation of Pinocchio, were you already involved with Bambi?
Kahl: No, Bambi didn't come along for a couple of years after that. Pinocchio was why I didn't have anything to do with Fantasia. I worked on Pinocchio and then moved over onto Bambi from there. Fantasia overlapped from halfway through Pinocchio to halfway through Bambi. We had a great many people working for us and we had several units going.
Barrier: I’ve been surprised to hear how many directors, animators, and other people worked closely together as units. Were you ever closely identified back in those days with a particular director?
Kahl: No. That's what I was talking about, that tendency to systematize. It was never anything like that. On Song of the South, you must have misunderstood Wilfred Jackson saying I was involved mostly with the fox and Eric Larson with the rabbit and Marc Davis with the bear. Nothing could be further from the truth. I was probably more involved with all three of those characters than any other one person.
Barrier: Marc and Eric said the same thing, that all of you were involved with ... I think that what Jackson might have meant was that he was most pleased with the work you did on the—
Kahl: Perhaps, but the best animation in the picture was mine on the rabbit, when the fox has him by the ears and he's trying to talk him into throwing him into the briar patch. Of all my animation on Song of the South, I would say that was probably the best stuff I did. And I think it is probably the most difficult, to get the result of, of any animation I can think of. I probably had more to do with the development of all three of those characters than any one person. At the risk of sounding immodest, I probably did have more to do with it than any other person.
Barrier: I think both Eric and Marc said that. I think Marc said you had done the most in setting the characters.
Kahl: Well, probably. That's been my function a great deal of the time. There are a lot of characters that I haven't had anything to do with. For instance, on Sleeping Beauty, I had nothing to do with the results on the girl or Maleficent; Marc handled those things completely. But I had a lot to do with almost all the characters in [One Hundred and One] Dalmatians except Cruella, which Marc did single-handed. We had adjoining rooms during that time, Marc Davis and I, for about fifteen years, so we influenced each other quite a bit. Cruella is Marc's, but I had to deal with Roger and Anita and the dogs and the puppies and a lot of the other incidental characters. See, that's always been a frustration for me, all the way through—it's the history of my life. I don't get a chance to—and this is the first time [on The Rescuers] I've been able to do it, except on Shere Khan, in Jungle Book. I did almost everything of him. But for the most part I get things started, and sometimes I'm lucky enough to do a sequence of a character and then somebody else takes over the rest of it and I'm embarrassed by the result. It's kind of frustrating, it really is. In that picture, it started off the same way and I found that—I think that the trouble with a group effort is that if you work hard enough, you find yourself all alone. And that is what has happened to me and I found that—the reason I am not there anymore is that I feel that my work in these pictures is absolutely down the drain. I feel that it is wasted. I think that anyone who sees this picture as a whole, I think my Medusa stuff will stand out so damn far—and it's not because it's Geraldine Page. Of course, she's wonderful, but it's just that I've worked hard, that's all. And I suddenly found that my efforts to—I got to bucking egos, and I found that my efforts to keep the picture at a higher level, artistically, and in every way that I can think of … I mean, keep it in good taste, keep it at a level of entertainment that is a step above the moron. I found that my efforts were both resented and resisted. And I just got fed up with it. And that is why I did this on this picture. I just divorced myself from the whole place and did the damnedest best performance I could do on these two characters, and forgot the rest of it. Of course, if there is anything good about the mice, well, goddammit, I did it. I did a hell of a lot of stuff on those mice and I contributed a lot. The only thing is, it's gone down the drain. They're not terrible, but they're not as good as they should be. That's the trouble. People would rather be left to wallow in their mediocrity. They'd rather not be bothered.
Barrier: I have a tape of a talk that Woolie Reitherman gave in New York in 1973, and several people in the audience asked him, in effect, why aren't the films better, why are the stories so loose-jointed and unsatisfying, and his only answer, repeatedly, was, “They make money.”
Kahl: I can't cope with this man, I absolutely can't cope with him. I detest the use of—it just breaks my heart to see animation from Snow White used in The Rescuers. It kills me, and it just embarrasses me to tears. I went back to Florida with Woolie for a party for the wire services and the press for Robin Hood. And I met a guy who about twenty years ago I met at a friend's house; he was with Paramount at the time, a publicity man. His name was Emory Wister; he worked for the Charlotte Register [probably the Observer]. He is a Disney buff, an animation buff. And these guys always scare me, because they know more about the pictures than I do. And he recognized this goddamned animation, where Maid Marian is dancing around with little creatures; he recognized it from Snow White. This is our Woolie, and it drives me crazy.
Barrier: I can't see how the re-use of animation saves money.
Kahl: It doesn't. The funny thing is that most of the time they spend more money trying to figure out how to re-use it than they would [animating the scene from scratch]. I'd rather see it animated from scratch; even if it's a little bit amateurish, at least it's fresh and new.
Barrier: What baffles me about the new features is that you have these beautiful scenes that you do, or Frank Thomas does, set in the middle of this re-use of old animation, and lots of cycles ....
Kahl: Not only that, but in the middle of a lot of bad design and bad taste. 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. Other people have tried to interest me—three other people in the business.
Gray:Have you ever considered making a short film as a showcase for yourself?
Kahl: Why? Why do it? I have done enough things in this medium, in our better pictures at the studio, which is enough of a showcase if I want to be egotistical. Just for my own creative outlet, I'm going to get into something that's completely different. Just for the fun of it. Therapeutic, if that's what you want to call it.
Barrier: Into painting?
Kahl: No, I'm going into three-dimensional drawings, using wire as a medium. It looks like fun and it hasn't been explored very much.
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.
Barrier: I've often wondered what animators thought about what ink and paint did their work, because I've seen some cartoons where it looks like very crude and insensitive inking work has taken a lot of guts out of the animator's line.
Kahl: It's awfully hard to trace a drawing and get any vitality into it, especially when the tracing is being done by people who really don’t have an appreciation for the mechanics of drawing.
Barrier: I want to get a clear picture in my mind of how Xerox has affected the actual work of the animators.
Kahl: I think it's had very little effect. It's a matter of whether the animation is good or not, really. I think that Xerox is just another method of handling the medium, which is relatively unimportant. Those things are given more importance than they should have. It's amused me over the years that people think they are creating new horizons, or something, when they get into soft-edge animation, or something like that, or they get into a new technique of handling something with brush strokes, or anything like this. It's all right for shorts, and for things where you don't need the control; there’s no way you can control something that's soft-edged. We have enough control to keep it believable: the believability of our characters is what's important. I don’t mean realism, I mean believability.
Barrier: Xerox didn't require you and other animators to draw more cleanly, do more finished drawings?
Kahl: No; it might have for some people. They’ll go through the cels and wipe out most of the objectionable construction lines.
Gray:A lot of people have mentioned to me that they preferred the Disney cartoons when they had the colored ink lines. To them, the characters with colored ink lines were more believable as real characters, whereas with the Xerox line they were more conscious of the graphic quality.
Kahl: Yes, I think that could be. If it's inked in the same color that it's painted, so you're not conscious of an ink line at all, that's fine. That gives you the same control (as a visible ink line]. When I say I like the Xerox very much, I'm being practical, because as soon as you get into inking at all you're adding to the expense of the picture. Even a character like Medusa has to be inked around the edge of the eye shadow, and the lips have to be inked in color.
Barrier: I never liked those colored ink lines much myself.
Kahl: Well, it gets fussy. If the effect is of not having an outline, where your inking is in the color that it's painted, that's great—I think it helps the three-dimensional effect. You can do that and still keep it simple. But when you get into areas that are outlined in a color that is different from both the background and the area it outlines, I think it begins to get fussy and complicated. Sleeping Beauty was full of that. Even the background were fussy; Eyvind Earle is a good artist, but his backgrounds were overpowering. And not only that, but badly designed, I thought, and kind of ugly. Ugly shapes, lots of times; nice color, but ...
Barrier: I've heard many times about an animator's right to refuse a scene that he thought was not right. I was wondering if that was something that really came into play, given that director and the animator would be conferring ahead of time.
Kahl: Usually, a condition like that wouldn't come up, because most of the time an animator is involved, in a feature, a long time before it's handed to him as animation.
Barrier: Involved in the story ...
Kahl: Yes. So you have all sorts of chances to prevent anything like that from happening.
Barrier: You were involved in story more and more as the years went by, weren't you?
Kahl: No, I don't think so; I've always been involved with it. I think you have to be, to understand what you're doing. In The Rescuers, there's a scene where Snoops runs down a flight of stairs in the riverboat to the boiler room and sets off some rockets. He grabs a rocket out of a bin of rockets and puts it in the boiler and lights a match to it; the thing goes off and comes out the smokestack, sending up flares. (I had a scene earlier than that, where Medusa yelled at him to come here, and he came tearing down these stairs, and I'll be damned if they didn't make two scenes out of what should have been one scene, in order to use that animation reversed.) I had Snoops grab a rocket out of the bin and put it in the furnace, and then I cut to him striking the match on a box of matches, lighting it, and turning around and sticking his fingers in his ears. Then we cut outside. The director involved wanted to know—he said, "There's something wrong here," because I showed him putting the rocket in the furnace and then I cut to a different angle and showed him striking the match. He said, "You're not hooking up with the position in the scene we just left." I said, "What do you want me to do? Do you want me to have him take his hand out of the furnace and pick up a box of matches, or take it out of his pocket?" Storywise, the only thing that's important is that he strikes a match and lights the darned thing. And yet, here's a man who's been in the business for years who wanted me to hook up the position.
Barrier: To what extent would Walt or the directors come in an animator's room while he was working on a scene?
Kahl: Not very much. But Walt would call me on the telephone every once in a while. And it wouldn't be to compliment me; it would always be to raise hell about what's happening. He didn't like what was happening with a character, and I was the guy to raise hell with. I remember that on Peter Pan, he called me up one time and said he didn't like "that goddamned Peter Pan. Something's wrong down there. What the hell's the matter?" I gave him a rather classic reply. I said, "You really want to know what's wrong? You don't have any goddamned talent in the place, that's what wrong." He denied that.
Barrier: I’ve heard that talking back to Walt that way could be risky.
Kahl: I think it all depended on who was talking back to him, and how right you were. You know that the person who appreciates criticism the most is the one giving it, and he wasn't unlike anyone else. He’d come out swinging, and he figured that the best defense was a real good strong attack. I don't think anyone had to worry about talking back to Walt if he had a point, and if he—well, even if he didn’t have a point, if he was sincere in what he was trying to say. Walt was anything but difficult to work with. I’d say he was one of the least difficult people. When you were having a conflict with Walt, you were having a conflict with someone who probably had more on the ball than you had, and whose judgment was probably better. It was a hell of a lot easier than trying to get a point over to someone who couldn't understand what you were talking about. That's what you run into now.
Barrier: One thing we’ve heard from several people is that Walt would pair people who did rub each other the wrong way, in the belief that the friction was ultimately creative.
Kahl: Yes, I think that could be. He might have done that from time to time. I can't think of any specific instances, right off hand.
Barrier: Some of the director-animator relationships would seem to fit in that category; Kimball and Geronimi, for instance.
Kahl: Well, yes, but anyone with anything on the ball at all had trouble with Geronimi, because he was a drone, an absolute no-talent. I don't think there'd be anybody in the business who wouldn't tell you that.
Barrier: I believe it was Les Clark who said that the first pencil test was Geronimi's handout.
Kahl: We used to cover for him—not deliberately, because we didn't have the regard for him. He was an illiterate ignoramus. I remember Walt put him on a picture about Beethoven, and he said, “I don't know about this Beethoven. He ain't no Tchaikovsky." This was typical. What happened was, you weren't deliberately covering for him, but you were trying to get a good picture out, and you did it in spite of him. I don't care who you talk to—Frank Thomas, or Ollie, or Eric Larson—they'll tell you the same thing. Walt finally fired him, but it took a long time. And for somebody in Walt's position, with the stuff coming out all right .... Geronimi would always insist on getting the best people on his stuff, so it came out good, and what was Walt going to think?
Barrier: Kimball said that at one point all of the animators got together and said, "No, we won't work for Geronimi any more."
Kahl: I wasn't in on that. Kimball was a unique talent, because he was always completely out of sympathy with our features; he was a hell of a talent, but I think he was always shorts-oriented. He was a Chuck Jones with talent. In fact, he got Chuck Jones over to the studio, on Sleeping Beauty, and he bombed out. Kimball was always kind of a baggy-pants comic, and he was unable to do things where the character was believable. He was good at making fun of things, doing something that was satirical. He didn't have the feel for getting into a character's personality and making him believable that Frank or Ollie or I did.
Barrier: Now, you animated a little on shorts after you were working on features—the crazy tiger in Tiger Trouble, for example. What was it like, shifting from feature work to shorts? Were the shorts a lot easier to work on?
Kahl: Oh, yes. You'd do a great deal more footage per week. You don't have to have a reason for everything; things don't have to be so well thought out. If it gets a laugh, that's good enough. I'd have to think about that one before I could give you a good answer.
Barrier: Talking again about directors, Jackson and Geronimi seem to have been the two polar extremes …
Kahl: They would be, yes.
Barrier: What about Ham Luske? He was a guy who was a very highly regarded animator before he became a director.
Kahl: He was a good director. But Ham was a delegator. I always thought he retired the last fifteen years he was a director. Ham is sort of an enigma to me, still, when I think about him. He was awfully sweet; that was the word for him. An awfully nice person.
Barrier: And of course he liked to do the kinds of sequences that had lots of cute characters …
Kahl: Yes, that's what he was best at.
Barrier: In your own animation, you frequently were given difficult human characters, as opposed to the funnier characters ...
Kahl: Yes, I was. I got stuck with Pinocchio—well, I don't feel I got stuck with Pinocchio, because it was an opportunity for me. But on Alice in Wonderland, who did Alice; on Peter Pan, who did Peter Pan and Wendy and John and Michael. I don't think it was because I was better at doing that sort of thing, I think it was because I was outmaneuvered. I would have given my eye teeth to do the Cheshire Cat or the Queen of Hearts …
Barrier: … the mad tea party ...
Kahl: Well, yes. But some of these things were more fun, let's put it that way. I didn't mind Alice—I wouldn't have minded Alice so much if I could have done all of Alice. But I didn't, and there's so much terrible stuff in the picture, where live-action was used and it wasn't used well. Some of these people weren't even up to doing stuff from live action.
Barrier: I believe you said in your union talk that you didn't rely on live action to any extent at all, is that right?
Kahl: I'll give you an example. In Sleeping Beauty, there's a scene where the prince is really exuberant, he runs across the stage, he grabs his father the King, King Hubert, and waltzes around with him, carrying him. The guy we had doing the live-action for the Prince was Ed Kemmer, and King Hubert was Don Barclay, who was a fat little circus performer, a really baggy-pants comedian. Kemmer could never possibly lift him off the ground, so this was a case where I had to animate it. I did that damned thing, and it's believable. The King has weight, but the Prince is strong enough to lift him off the ground, and it looks convincing—as convincing as any of the stuff that was taken from live action. I can do that, and I think that other animators should be able to do it. I don't think the surface has been scratched, really, with our kind of picture. I think you should be able to animate princes, or princesses, or any kind of difficult character, and make them believable. I don't mean realism, I mean you should be able to do things with them that a human being wouldn't be able to do. But make them convincing, make people be able to believe in them.
Barrier: In a scene like the one you've described, you're right, it is believable that the Prince is carrying King Hubert, even though if it had been shot in live-action even a strong man would have had to struggle to carry this fat man around. But what makes that believable, in your basically realistic drawings, even though it can't be done in real life?
Kahl: Because the weight's in the right place … just because it works, actually. The weight, and the balance, is there.
Barrier: You're not applying any rules?
Kahl: Well, weight and balance, and of course the rhythm of the music, getting the flow of the waltz.
Gray:I assume you're not talking about just lifting up a dead weight. The fat king is moving—
Kahl: He's trying to get the Prince to put him down.
Gray:It's almost like acrobatics—he's using the momentum of the guy's own weight to help move him.
Kahl: That's right.
Barrier: I have one little question here ... I've heard that you were the voice of the baby Ferdinand the bull.
Kahl: Yes; that's the only time I ever did anything like that.
Barrier: And Walt was the mother's voice?
Barrier: I wanted to ask you about your own background, about how you came to be a member of the studio's staff. When you started, in 1934, did they put you in the bullpen with the other in-betweeners?
Barrier: I’ve often wondered how somebody in the bullpen could show the kind of talent they needed to get out of it; because after all, all you were doing was a basically mechanical kind of job.
Kahl: I don't know ... I guess that would take a lot of speculating on.
Gray:You had to kind of crawl up day by day, didn't you?
Kahl: Yes, kind of. They'd give you a chance to do something for one of the animators, and he’d like what you did, or not.
Barrier: Who did you assist, after you got out of the bullpen?
Kahl: Bill Roberts. I was his assistant for a year, something like that.
Barrier: From what I know of Bill Roberts, he was a very different kind of animator from the kind you became.
Kahl: That's right; he was one of the fast-action boys.
Barrier: So was there really much you could learn from him?
Kahl: Oh, yes. You learned something from everyone. Even if they didn't have something to teach you, it was stimulating. Don Graham was a very fine art instructor, and yet I would disagree with him on almost everything, as far as drawing was concerned. But he made me think. When you say someone's wrong, and he's given it some thought, you've got to defend your point of view, and it makes you think. Most of us are self-taught; you only get out of it what you put into it, in work. If you don't work at it, it's not going to seep through.
Barrier: Did you move into animation after being Bill Roberts's assistant for a year?
Kahl: They'd give you little bits of animation to try you out. The first really good chance I had was when Ben Sharpsteen gave me a sequence of two or three scenes in Mickey’s Circus, which wasn't one of our better shorts. Talk about control: Ben asked me to pose the whole scene out to show him what I was going to do with it. I brought these drawings in to him, and he looked at them, and then he sat looking out the window for quite a while, and I thought, "Oh, Jesus." Then he finally said, "All right, that looks pretty good.” I pretty near had a heart attack in the meantime.
Barrier: Do you recall any specific assignments you had after that? Of course, Pinocchio was your real breakthrough ...
Kahl: I think Farmyard Symphony was the next thing that I did. I did quite a bit of footage on that. I can't remember the sequence of events, when we started to work on Snow White and when The Ugly Duckling came in, and Ferdinand.
Barrier: I mentioned in my letter that I'd heard that a number of animators at the studio tried to persuade Walt to bring Bill Tytla back ...
Kahl: I don't remember that. He might have, but it wouldn't have been for the Prince, anyway, because he would have been miscast on that. I wouldn't be surprised if we had, but I just don't remember it. And also, Walt wouldn't have refused if we had needed him. There would have been some other reason. Bill Tytla wasn't too active in the strike. Somebody like Art Babbitt, he probably would have refused to have anything to do with. I know that when Cal Arts got into animation—Disney-type of animation classes, I actually suggested Art Babbitt. I don't think he's the greatest animator in the world, but he was more highly qualified to handle that than anybody else who was available. But the [Disney] family has just never forgiven him, and I don't blame them for their attitude.
Barrier: Do you have any recollections about the strike?
Kahl: That was an unpleasant situation, and it really had nothing to do with Walt or the studio. As far as I know, the majority of the people didn't want the union in the studio; we didn't need it. The other studios did, and they needed a unity, I guess. But we resisted, because we had no reason to have a union. In 1941, I guess the personnel at the Disney studio was greater than the personnel in the rest of the Hollywood animation industry combined. Now it isn't, of course.
Gray:I just want to say that I really appreciate the point of view that you've been expressing. I'm in total sympathy with it. I'm just a beginner, so I'm in no position to express my point of view, but over the years I've been so frustrated by things I've been hearing in the industry, from industry people, and you're one of the few people I've heard say the thing that I've always really believed.
Kahl: I certainly believe in what I say. I can't help it—I always say what's on my mind, and sometimes I'm not too tactful. I always think that people are going to accept what I say the way it's given, but they don't. I have a very good knack for alienating people, people I've been working with for a long time, too. I rub people the wrong way. On [The Rescuers], I got highly critical of things that—with all the things that are wrong with the picture that could be felt—like the design of the mice, they could have had so much more scale, to be really little mice. It got to the point that [the directors] had been beaten over the head so much that they didn't want to be beaten over the head any more, they just wanted to go ahead and make the picture. And they've got this goddamned gadfly who keeps pounding at them. I found I was getting people so nervous they couldn't work. I hated to hear that crybaby crap.
[At the end of the tape, the conversation turned to the Disney studio's new young animators.]
Kahl: I think Don Bluth is quite a good talent, and he also works very well with people. I think he might be the best director material. The only thing is, he's damned good on the drawing board, too. You don't know which way he's most valuable. I know that Walt was inclined to rationalize and say, "Well, this guy works well with people, he'd be a good director." Actually, it's because he isn't a very good animator and it's not much of a loss.
[Posted March 30, 2011]