Thursday, June 22, 2017
A lot of animation fans don't know that Milt Kahl, one of Disney's greatest animators, was actually laid-off by the studio for a number of years. This is how it happened.....
Kahl was a well-known discontent and once every six months or so he'd throw his pencil down, storm into Walt's office and threaten to quit. "None of those idiots can animate! I help them with their scenes and then I have no time for my own. They're just a bunch of bums! I'm in there holding up the whole damn animation department by myself! I don't need this aggravation! I'm outta here! I quit!" Walt, who'd been through this many times, would just look at him sympathetically.
Finally, when Kahl was at the height of his rant, Walt would discretely hit the intercom button and whisper, "Bring me the envelope." His secretary would come in and quietly slip it to him. Meanwhile Milt would still be fulminating: "Those #$&@ lard asses couldn't do a thing without me! This whole stupid studio would crumble without me!" Walt would listen attentively while slowly nudging the envelope across the desk.
"Huh," says Milt,"What's that!? A bribe!??? Oooh no you don't! You can't buy me off! I mean it, I'm outta here!" More ranting then something green was added to the envelope and it was nudged across the desk again. This ranting and nudging would go on and on until finally Kahl stopped in mid-rant, stared at the envelope, looked inside, then grabbed it and went back to work for another six months. This went on for years and it was a marvelously effective system.
Eventually Walt died and his son-in-law Ron Miller took over the studio. One day Kahl pushed past the secretary and stormed into Miller's office threatening to quit. "I've had it," says Milt, "I'm the only one around here who knows what he's doing! I'm tired of this %@#& hell hole! I quit!!!" Miller was shocked. All he could think to say was something like, "Gee, Milt! I'm sorry you feel that way. We'll all miss you very much!" Do you see what happened? No one told him about the envelope!!!
Kahl was dumbfounded. "You think I'm kidding, don't you? I really mean it, Ron! I'll walk out that door and never come back!" "Yes," said Miller almost tearfully, "I know. It's very sad!" Amazed, Kahl turned his back and stormed out of the office. He was gone for years!
Well, that's the famous "envelope story."
This story was told to me over lunch by John Kimball. Pictures thanks to Creative Capers, Mike Pelensky and Andreas Deja.
Sunday, May 20, 2007
Here's an interesting question for Disney afficionados: when did Disney the businessman who flirted with the idea of bailing out and going into real estate, become Disney the visionary? According to Barrier's "The Animated Man" it came about as a result of a nervous breakdown sometime in 1931 at the new (well fairly new) Hyperion studio (above).
Up until 1931 Disney was a hands-on producer who did a lot of nuts and bolts jobs at the same time he was agonizing over the cost of the films. By this time he'd acquired heavy hitters like Freddie Moore, Art Babbit (actually Babbit came on in '32) (both shown below), Norm Ferguson, and the like. Thanks to guys like this and relentless pounding from Walt the whole tone of the studio had begun to change. The word got around that you had to be good to work at Disney's. This should have made made Walt deliriously happy but instead it made him miserable.
I think I can imagine how he felt. Think of the awesome pictures he must have seen on the walls, of the conversations he must have had! Everybody else seemed to have the interesting jobs. He's the guy who had to worry about quality and deadlines and the cost of paperclips. It got to the point where he'd cry on the telephone. Finally he walked out and took a trip with his wife across the continent.
Apparently the new Walt came out of what he saw and thought of on that trip. Nobody knows the details. What we do know is that he returned full of enthusiasm and energy and with a new conception of himself as a kind of coordinator and full-time visionary. He delegated everything that could be delegated and threw himself into "conducting" the artists. This meant intense sweatbox sessions which stimulated immense creativity among the artists. Rudy Zamora came up with overlapping action, Ferguson with moving holds, and Moore with big improvements on squash and stretch.
The culmination of this effort can be seen in "Three Little Pigs" (1933). To see how far Disney had come in a short time compare that film to "Steamboat Willie" which was done only four years earlier. While we're at it lets compare Steamboat Willie (1929) to Fantasia which was on the drawing boards in 1939. That's a difference of only ten years!!!!!
To be fair to Fleischer fans I have to add that Betty Boop's stunning "Snow White" was done in 1932 and was also the result of an amazing evolution of technique. Why the Fleischers caved into Disney's less funny and cartoony style is hard to understand. Was it the Hayes Office? Did the Hayes people make it difficult to use jazz soundtracks? I don't know.
Thanks to Jenny Lerew for the photo of the animators and to Fred Osmond for the caricature of Disney.