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“Milt Kahl : Animation’s Michelangelo” paid tribute to a true Disney Legend

“Milt Kahl : Animation’s Michelangelo” paid tribute to a true Disney Legend

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Known for both his temper and his stunning draftsmanship, Milt Kahl has been described as Disney’s “Jekyll and Hyde” figure, a man who defined animation and defied his fellow animators.

More than any other artists, Freddy Moore and Milt Kahl defined the Disney style. Freddy Moore designed the studio’s early “cute” characters: he transformed the rubbery Mickey Mouse of the 1920s into the more appealing and better-articulated character of the 1930s. Large eyes. Big forehead. A face configured for a wide range of expressions. A decade later, Milt Kahl guided the studio toward realism. He produced character designs for "Bambi" (1942), whose forest animals appeared far more realistic than similar creatures created for "Snow White" (1937). In the 1950s, he designed lead characters, such as Prince Phillip and Princess Aurora for "Sleeping Beauty," that presented the human form with the grace and acuity of fine art drawings.

For years I have been interested in Kahl as an animator, an individual whose prickly personality seemed an unlikely match for the Disney organization. Like many artists of his generation, Kahl got his start in newspapers: drawing spot cartoons and illustrations. During the Great Depression, he found work as a commercial artist, creating lobby cards for Fox West Coast Theaters and advertisements for magazines. But when these jobs began to dry up, Kahl turned to Hollywood, as studio animation was one of the few places where an artist could make a living in 1934.

In terms of his personality, Kahl was a series of contradictions: he never graduated from high school, yet he was one of the most widely read men at the studio. He professed to dislike drawing, yet possessed a natural ability as a draftsman. He could infuse his characters with sustained warmth, patience and compassion, yet in his own life he burned with a fiery disposition. His individual drawings are beautiful, the characters arranged in interesting poses, the action uniquely staged, his compositions filled with vitality and life. His scenes and sequences remain among the most accomplished in the Disney cannon. Last Monday, I arrived at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater for the Milt Kahl tribute, hoping the event would help me better understand the man behind some of America’s best animation.

Milt Kahl
Close-up of the poster that was created especially for this year's
Marc Davis Celebration of Animation event
Photo by Todd James Pierce

In the hour leading up to the presentation, I had the opportunity to talk with many individuals who had known and worked with Kahl. I focused each of my conversations on Kahl’s personality, specifically what had driven this man to impossibly high standards. I found animator Andreas Deja near the bar, talking with other animators. Deja has collected Kahl’s work for years and possesses a knack for discussing the intricacies of mid-century animation.

Over drinks, Deja explained the uniqueness of Kahl’s work. “It’s two things. The superb draftsmanship for starters. No one drew like him. He designed like eighty or ninety percent of all Disney characters. Secondly, his work was uniquely stylized and choreographed. His work has a different feel than that of the other animators." When I asked Deja about Kahl’s motivation, he replied that Kahl always claimed “that he had higher standards than everyone else.”

But for me, I wasn’t yet satisfied. I’ve known enough artists to understand that in many cases such individuals are formed by unique experiences and singular desires.

Alice Davis
Alice Davis chats with a friend at Monday night's pre-show reception
at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater at the Academy of Motion Picture
Arts & Sciences in Beverly Hills, CA.
Photo by Todd James Pierce

A few minutes later, I found the designer Alice Davis, who had known Kahl for four decades. Her husband, the animator Marc Davis, had been Kahl’s closest friend at the studio. Dressed in an elegant black dress with her hair twisted up into a bun, she explained that Kahl had come to animation simply to make money.“Back then,” she said, “a person was lucky to have a pair of pants to wear.”

I clarified my question, asking what drove Kahl to such high standards and to distinguish his work as superior when compared to that of other animators. Though the room was crowded, I saw that she now understood my question. She leaned closer, regarding me with dark, thoughtful eyes before speaking. “What makes you want to write?” she asked. She smiled as though all artistic passions were by their nature mysterious. She touched my arm then turned away to talk with another person.

The formal presentation did not begin until 7:30. Though I did not know it at the time, outside the theater a small riot was forming. The event had been oversold, with 150 ticketholders standing on the sidewalk attempting to talk or push their way into the theater. For most such animation events, the theater could’ve easily accommodated 150 last-minute guests. This year’s Academy Awards Symposium on Animation, for example, only partially filled this same theater. But for a tribute to the great Milt Kahl, animators and enthusiasts turned out in droves.

Milt Kahl Event
(L to R) Andreas Deja, Charles Solomon, Alice Davis, Floyd Norman, John
Musker, John Pomeroy, Kathryn Beaumont, Ron Clements & Brad Bird at
Monday night's Marc Davis Celebration of Animation event
Photo by Todd James Pierce

When the lights dimmed, I was seated front and center, exactly four rows in front of Leonard Maltin. I felt pretty good about this. Moreover, I hoped this evening’s tribute would open Kahl’s personality more fully to me.

I found moments of the presentation uniquely honest.Kahl’s daughter, Sybil Byrnes related stories of her father taking her fly-fishing. For her birthday, her father would show Disney cartoons to her school class and then draw pictures of Mickey Mouse and other characters, old party favors that now would be worth hundreds of dollars apiece. She explained that her father possessed a loud boisterous laugh, that he would complete crossword puzzles in pen.“He was very much a perfectionist at home. And often impatient with himself.” She paused for a moment, looking out at the audience, before adding, “And with us.”

To illustrate her father’s dark moods, she told only one story: “Once I left the garage door halfway open,” she began. “And the next morning, he got up when it was dark and went out to get the car. He smacked his head on the garage door. Of course I’m getting ready for school when I hear this four-letter word. He came in the house and said, ‘Where is that little bastard?’ But my mother had hidden me under the kitchen sink. Because my father would’ve killed me.”

Floyd Norman
Disney Legend Floyd Norman recalls his time working as Milt Kahl's
assistant animator at Walt Disney Animation Studios
Photo by Todd James Pierce

One by one, animators explained Kahl’s practices at the studio. He kept a pellet gun in his office, one animator related, “and would just fire it into this James Joyce novel to relieve tension.” Kahl’s assistant animator, Floyd Norman, recalls that Kahl could stare for hours at the empty space above his desk, when preparing to draw a scene. “And I thought, is this guy ever going to draw? Eventually Milt would pick up his pencil and start drawing. But I think that the scene had already been animated in his head. He really thought things through.” According to director Brad Bird, “He would always be pushing for the next best thing,” adding that Kahl would draw obsessively, discarding image after image until he arrived at the right character pose to arrange into a scene. In terms of passing on his knowledge to younger animators, Bird added, “He wasn’t the most articulate teacher. He would just sputter and curse. But he would be drawing something that was fantastic.”

After watching the standards of Disney animation decline for years, Milt Kahl retired from the studio in 1976. “He got really mad toward the end,” Bird explained. “He felt like other people weren’t giving their best. And the studio was not giving its best when he was there. So he left a little pissed off.”

Brad Bird
(L to R) Ron Clements, John Musker, Brad Bird and John
Pomeroy compare notes after the event.
Photo by Todd James Pierce

He passed on a decade later, in 1987.

For me, the evening was filled with stunning images, individual drawings so graceful and precise that I often forgot they had been produced for animated films. But Kahl as a person remained unknowable. Each individual story cast a dime-sized beam of light on Kahl’s life. But together, these beams never transcended the surface, never exposed or explained the unique passions, never revealed the inner workings of America’s most gifted animator.

I left the theater near midnight, thinking of what Alice Davis had told me—“What makes you want to write?” By now I better understood what she had tried to explain, that Kahl’s talent could be observed but never fully understood, that his art was intuitive and that the great man himself most likely did not even know what made his soul different from that of other studio artists.

Did you enjoy today's story? If so, then head on over to ToddJamesPierce.com to check out some of this author's other articles. 

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