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King Kahl: A personal look at Disney's master animator, Milt Kahl

King Kahl: A personal look at Disney's master animator, Milt Kahl

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Much has been written about Milt Kahl, and his unique style and influence on Walt Disney's animated films over the years. He was an incredible draftsman, designer, and animator, and there are a number of books and articles discussing his life and work. This is not another perspective on the life and work of Milt Kahl. Just a personal view of one of the most talented and fascinating characters I've had the pleasure of working with at the Walt Disney studio.

When I began my animation career at the Disney studio as an apprentice inbetweener, my early assignments included working on Mickey Mouse Club segments, and doing inbetweens on Donald Duck shorts. My boss, animation coordinator, Andy Engman decided I was ready for a move up the ladder, so he decided to test this young artist's talent on what was considered a premiere assignment. The opportunity to work on a Disney feature animated film.

This was the Walt Disney studio in the nineteen fifties, and at that time, Disney animators were highly regarded. Those select few who contributed to the feature division were considered the elite of Walt's talented staff. You can imagine my trepidation as I made my way down the main hallway of the animation building one quiet Monday morning to my first feature film assignment.

D-wing, was located on the first floor of the animation building, and as I entered the wing off the main hallway, I saw the directory to my right. I quickly scanned the names in order to find the artist I was assigned to. The list was a who's who of Disney's best. Ollie Johnston, Frank Thomas, Marc Davis, Eric Larson, and even Ward Kimball, though Ward had long since departed D-wing to work on his "space films" upstairs. I opened the inner door leading into the wing, and saw a number of artists intently working away at their desks. At the far end of the wing, I found the artist who would have my first assignment on the movie, Sleeping Beauty. The soft spoken young artist was named Tom Ferriter, and he shared this office with Milt Kahl's key assistant, Stan Green who sat near the window. Behind me was a door that led to the adjoining office, though it remained closed. I didn't need reminding who occupied the next office, because suddenly we heard the crash of a fist slamming hard on a desk. "Dammit!" shouted the artist. "Doesn't any %#*$!?# here know how to draw!?" I stood trembling with drawings in hand, fearful that the "ogre" might suddenly come crashing through the door and devour us all. On a quiet Monday morning, this was my introduction to Disney's master animator, Milt Kahl.

Keep in mind this was not the Disney studio of today, and back then, animators were regarded as near royalty. Months went by before I even saw Milt Kahl. I would pick up my scenes from Tom, and sometimes take corrections from Stan. The man next door, however, was still a mystery. In time, I got my first glimpse of Kahl as he and other animators made their way upstairs for a "sweatbox" meeting with Walt. All of us kids were in such awe of Disney animators back then, we dared not even speak to them. On occasion, an animator would stroll into our offices looking for his assistant, and we would all snap to attention, as though a military officer had come into our presence.

Years rolled by, and after the completion of 101 Dalmatians, I was told that I would be moving to D-Wing as animation began on The Sword in the Stone. Once again, I was teamed with Key Assistant, Stan Green, only this time I would also be working as assistant animator for the great Milt Kahl. Though I now had years of experience under my belt as both assistant animator and on occasion, animator, this new job was not one I took lightly. Milt Kahl did not suffer fools, and expected only the highest level of work on his scenes. I couldn't help but wonder, would I be the first to screw up a Milt Kahl scene?

Milt Kahl was not simply a presence in D-wing, he was a force. His arrival every morning was evident by sound of the wing's hallway door slamming open, and you heard the heavy footsteps, as the tall Dutchman stomped down the hall to his office. Not much was heard from Kahl until coffee break, when Stan Green fetched coffee, and a select few joined the boss as he held court. Then, it was back to work until lunch when Milt enjoyed a game of chess with fellow animators, Amby Paliwoda or Freddy Hellmich. Milt was demanding in every area of his life, and loosing a chess game was no exception. A loud, "dammit!" and the sound of chess piecing flying across the room was a sure indication that the master animator had lost another game.

In time, I quickly got over my fear of screwing up Milt's scenes on The Sword in the Stone. "Cleaning up," or as it was soon to be called, "touching up," Milt's scenes turned out to be a breeze. His drawings were masterful, and no one was going to make them any better. The thinking had already been done, and all the assistant had to do was follow his lead. The Sword in the Stone was one of the few films I worked on from start to finish, but every sequence proved to be a learning experience and a sheer delight. I seldom joined Milt at the moviola when scenes were returned from camera, but the day the Madame Mim scenes came in was an exception. We laughed our heads off as Mim cavorted through the scene. It was clear Milt was at the top of his game, and his animation was truly inspirational for a young animator like myself. Milt said he got the idea for the "sexy vamp" Mim transforms into from one of the young women upstairs in the layout department. A tall leggy redhead named Sylvia, was easily recognized by most of the staff.

Milt Kahl's approach to work was just as unique as everything else in his life. I would often pass his office door and see him sitting at his desk staring into space. Hours would pass, and Kahl would not have made a single drawing. Then, as if by magic, he would pick up his pencil and fill several pages with inspired sketches. It was as though the scene was already completed in his head, and all he had to do was transfer it to paper. He worked with incredible efficiency, and wasted not a single drawing. At the end of the day, young scavengers would raid the animator's waste baskets for discarded drawings. A late night visit to Kahl's office would prove fruitless. Milt's waste basket, as always, remained empty. One might be tempted to conclude the master animator simply never made a bad drawing.

Should a young artist find him or herself working in D-wing, they needed to know the rules. Rule number one was, never disturb Milt Kahl while he was working. He focused in on his drawings like a laser. The slightest noise would prove a distraction, and the irascible animator would soon visit those who talked too loudly, or dared to crank up the radio. I still remember the sight of an annoyed Milt Kahl standing at our office door. His tall hulking frame filled the doorway, as he shouted, "Where's that blankety blank noise coming from?" From then on, music lovers in D-wing were advised to invest in headphones.

In the spring of 1966, I finally left D-wing, and moved upstairs to the story department on the new film, The Jungle Book. Though it was a real opportunity to have made the move to story, I still missed D-wing, the animators, and especially, Milt Kahl. I missed his hardy laugh at the gags I would post on my office door, and I missed the yelling back and fourth across the hallway, as the animators ragged on each other with friendly insults such as, "You can't draw your ass!" We didn't know it at the time, but the good days were about to end. Before the year was out, Walt Disney would be dead.

Milt Kahl continued to animate throughout the seventies, but it was clear he was growing disenchanted with the Disney studio. Stan Green continued to fetch coffee, and a new group of young artists like Andreas Deja and Glen Keane sought his council at break time. The Walt Disney studio was now moving in a new direction, and Milt Kahl had finally had enough of the "New Disney." In the seventies leadership vacuum, arrogant young animation upstarts began to make their move to control the studio's animated films. Kahl was having no part of this, and gave notice to then CEO, Ron Miller, that he was leaving Disney for good.

Milt Kahl's departure ushered in a new era when artists would no longer control animation film making at the Walt Disney studio. Worse, it seemed to foreshadow a time when artists at the Disney studio would no longer be respected, period. Walt Disney put a great deal of faith and trust in the hands of his top animators. He expected no less than the best, and guys like Milt Kahl never let him down. Milt Kahl's contribution to the art of Disney animation is immeasurable, and his work will continue to delight millions for years to come. If indeed, animators could be considered royalty, there's no doubt Milt Kahl would be king.

Did you enjoy Floyd's column today? well, if so, please be aware that there are already two great collections of Norman's writings & cartoons on the market: his original collection of cartoons and stories -- "Faster! Cheaper! The Flip Side of the Art of Animation" (which is available for sale over at John Cawley's excellent www.cataroo.com web site) as well as the follow-up to that book, "Son of Faster, Cheaper." Which you can purchase by clicking on that the image on to the right, which will take you straight over to Afrokids.com.

If you're an animation fan and don't already own either of these two great books, NOW would be a really good time to get them!

Go to the Afro-Kids Store

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  • Fantastic read, I love Milt Kahl, probably my favorite of the Old Men next to Johnston and Reitherman.

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