"Get a good idea, and stay with it. Dog it, and work at it until it's done, and done right." - Walt Disney

Friday, June 2, 2017

Adventures in Music and Limited Animation

Anyone who is keen on animated art certainly connects the use of limited animation with the cartoons produced by United Productions of America, better known as UPA.  For those not familiar with the term “limited animation,” it's essentially a unique form of animation that uses less drawings per frame of film.  When one watches a classic film like Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), they're viewing a film that is meticulous in movement and form, and very realistic (each second of film in Snow White amounted to 24 drawings!).  Limited animation relies on the repetition of drawings to create movement and the style is often abstract.  It's not to say that limited animation is a lesser form of art, in fact, some animators would argue that it allows for creativity that cannot be achieved in traditional animation.  UPA's 1950 animated short, Gerald McBoing-Boing is a prime example and can be viewed here:

Being more of a Disney enthusiast, I associate the beginnings of limited animation with the “Baby Weems”segment of the 1941 film, The Reluctant Dragon. 

Legendary Disney story men Joe Grant and Dick Huemer were responsible for bringing this exceptional little piece to life, and in it, the baby’s tale is mostly told with storyboard drawings rather than animation.  In an interview by Joe Adamson in the late sixties, Huemer is asked if he and Grant were fans of limited animation at the time.  Huemer responded, “Actually, Joe Grant and I invented it for ‘Baby Weems’…That was the first time that limited animation had been done.” 

One can only imagine what audiences thought of this new approach to Disney animation.  The late 30's and early 40's marked the Golden Age of the Walt Disney Studios, with the releases of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942)Moviegoers were now accustomed to seeing beautiful and expressive animation, without single breaks in fluidity.  “Baby Weems” was just a drop in the bucket for limited animation at Disney’s, however, in 1953 the studio decided to produce two films that focused on the origins of music, while utilizing the limited animation approach.  As this posting will explain, this choice of style was more for economical reasons, however, the success of the second short initially caught everyone by surprise. 

Melody (1953) is the first of these two installments in the “Adventures in Music” series, and it brings together a solid cast of Disney artists and story men; especially under the direction of legendary animator, Ward Kimball.  In addition, Dick Huemer was invited back to the studio in 1951, after being bitterly cut three years prior, to work on the story for the first special short dealing with “Adventures in Music,” along with its follow-up, Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom (1953) (Canemaker, 1999).  Huemer shared in an interview with Don Peri, “I did the story on Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, and I turned it over to Ward Kimball, who amplified what I gave him.  It was Ward Kimball’s baby then.  He greatly admired all that modern approach (Peri, 2008).”  The same was more than likely true for the initial cartoon as well.  In terms of the direction of art in these shorts, Disney could not have made two better choices. Color styles were managed by legendary artist Eyvind Earle, who would go on to implement his gothic style of art in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, and art direction was controlled by Ken O’Connor, who served as art director or layout man on thirteen features and nearly a hundred shorts (Smith, 2006).  The animators on these two cartoons included: Ward Kimball himself, the legendary Marc Davis, Julius Svendsen, Harvey Toombs, Hal Ambro, Marvin Woodward, Harry Tanous, Art Stevens, and future Imagineer, Xavier Atencio.

Looking back, Melody was actually the less successful of the two, however, it had one element that Toot did not have.  On May 28, 1953, Melody made its theatrical debut in 3D; the first cartoon of its kind in the U.S. (Smith, 2006). As I conducted research for Melody alone, I found limited information and interviews pertaining to it specifically.  More interest is aimed at Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, especially since it earned the studio another Academy Award.  Despite this, Melody is a witty little film, full of slapstick and fun.  We are introduced to Professor Owl (voiced by Bill Thompson) and his flock of feathered pupils:  Bertie Birdbrain, The Canary Sisters, Suzy Sparrow, and Penelope Pinfeather (Grant, 1993).  The cartoon’s theme revolves around its title song, The Bird and the Cricket and the Willow Tree, which is presented in a variety of pleasant musical forms throughout the film.

Ward Kimball’s directorial touches are riddled with humor throughout this cartoon, especially where the areas of life, romance, and women are concerned.  At one point, Professor Owl presents the audience with the musical tones of a woman’s voice, and then other women chime in.  The musicality of their voices, however,  turns into a chorus of nagging and bickering that the Professor finally puts to an end after several attempts; the last being a poke with his pointer.  When it comes to Kimball’s view of romance in this short, it’s presented in class Kimball fashion.  As a man serenades his lover in one scene, beautiful hearts appear above, and a shotgun pans across the screen.  Quite the romantic!  Towards the middle, the meaning of life is addressed and takes a cynical and sarcastic turn as we follow the progression of a man’s life from birth to education, then marriage to raising children, and finally from hair loss to death; or to his “reward” as Professor Owl puts it.  Quite a dreary attitude if you think about it, yet Kimball and his team somehow successfully convey all of this through music and well-timed animation, and it’s hilarious! 

I couldn’t help but notice that the backgrounds at times in this picture remind me of Dali’s work; flat empty plains with single objects looming in the distance.  Between Earle’s color choices and O’Connor’s art direction, this film must have erupted from the screen once one put on their stylish 3D glasses.  Being the train enthusiast that Kimball was, there was of course a brief railroad scene (which looks as if a child drew and colored it) that Kimball could call his own.  The final piece of animation that continues to impress me is when Professor Owl cuts a piece of fabric from a graduate cap, and transforms the cloth into a conductor leading a symphony, majestically bringing the film to its grand conclusion in an abstract style.            

The ultimate Disney Historian, Dave Smith, shares some interesting facts about Melody in his Disney A to Z encyclopediaHe notes that the film was shown in the Fantasyland Theater at Disneyland as a part of the 3D Jamboree for several yearsThe 3D process, however, never really caught on with the audience because of the need to wear the polarized glasses. The attraction was eventually retired (Smith, 2006).

What many Disney enthusiasts consider to be the better of the two shorts, Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom, which was released six months after Melody, is nothing short of colorful in style and humor.  Like its predecessor, it’s amazing how Ward Kimball and his fellow staff manage to squeeze so much into a ten minute feature.  I would have loved to been a part of the story development for this particular short.

Where Melody deals with the different styles of music, Toot focuses on the birth of the sounds and instruments that bring them to life.  Once again, we are reunited with Professor Owl and his melodious flock of students.  This time around, however, what better way is there to present the dawning of musical instruments than with the use of cavemen?  It’s interesting to note how Kimball pokes fun at evolution in a scene when Professor Owl winds back his slide presentation, and accidentally rewinds too far, revealing a monkey holding a banana.  Throughout the film, as each of the four sounds (toot, whistle, plunk, and boom) are introduced, the cavemen situated side by side chant, “Ewwww – wah – gah!  Wah!”  The “toot” represents horn instruments, “whistle” woodwinds, acoustic is “pluck”, and “boom” symbolizes percussion.

As I watched this short unfold, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the background styles used in One Hundred and One Dalmations (1961) nearly a decade later.  The lines that define background objects are sharp and angular, and almost seem to have a gritty appearance.  It works well for this particular cartoon, and the vibrant choice of colors compliment the backgrounds and characters well.  I particularly enjoy how the human characters appear to be transparent and the colors of their flesh and clothing seem to spill over the outline of their figure in an abstract approach.  As John Canemaker describes, “The pared-down flat design is rich in color and detailing, and works well with the animation (Canemaker, 2001).”   Animator Art Stevens, who worked on the film, explained in Ollie Johnston's and Frank Thomas' The Illusion of Life: “The characters in Toot, Whistle…aren’t flesh and blood.  They move in a more abstract way – but you aren’t saying that one [animation design] isn’t as entertaining as the other (Johnston, & Thomas, 1981).”  This film, like Melody, screams Ward Kimball’s style, and they must have been a great release for him considering his waning interest in animation at the time.  “I was so relieved to get away from animation,” said Kimball in John Canemaker's Walt Disney's Nine Old Men book. “I knew how to do it.  I wanted to have say about the content (Canemaker, 2001).”

As mentioned earlier in this post, the decision to use limited animation in these shorts was more for economical reasons.  Kimball explained in an interview with Thorkil B. Rasmussen, that Toot was originally supposed to be an educational film used in schools.  Kimball shared:
And since it wasn’t supposed to be for theatrical release, I wanted to cut corners, to make it cheap.  By limiting the animation, you cut your cost.  We cut it in half.  But after Walt saw it he thought it was a keen little picture…   
Melody was special because it was presented in 3D, but Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom is significant because it was the first animated film to be presented in Cinemascope.  Ward Kimball continued the story of Toot’s production:
Darryl F. Zanuck called him [Walt] up – Darryl was promoting Cinemascope – 'Have you got anything that would do in Cinemascope?'   And Walt said, 'Well, I’ll look around,' and then he called me up and said, 'What do you think?  Should we put that picture in Cinemascope?'  'We’re almost finished with it,' I said, 'but OK, I’ll go back and redesign some of the gags for the bigger screen.'  He [Walt] then said, 'Give it the 3D sound too,' and then it went up and got an Academy Award!  And it was just supposed to be a thing for the schools.
In John Canemaker’s book on Walt Disney’s “Nine Old Men”, he makes reference to the fact that critics were comparing Kimball’s two films to that of a UPA production.  Canemaker writes, “Kimball was sensitive about comparisons of his work to that of the studio that gave the world Mr. Magoo (Canemaker, 2001).”  Kimball in his interview with Rasmussen shared:
I understand what UPA was doing and the only comparison there is:  there is more full animation on Toot, Whistle…than UPA ever had.  You look at the owl:  that’s full animation.  It’s just when he starts talking about a subject, he goes to the blackboard, we used limited animation to give it different texture, to separate the subject matter he was lecturing about (Ghez, 2006)…
To add to the critical views of Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom, fellow Disney artists were rather upset, or even jealous of Kimball’s choice of animation style according to Canemaker (Canemaker, 2001).  Ward Kimball quoted, “You can’t imagine the contrast it had to what we were doing when it came out (Canemaker, 2001).”  In my opinion, it’s a shame that more cartoon shorts in this series were never produced, however, in his interview with Joe Adamson, story man Dick Huemer made reference to a third installment of this series that actually made it to the preliminary stages.  Huemer shared:
I was getting up another one about the nostalgia of music, with the same characters…I got the whole board up and presented it publicly in the Penthouse Club to Walt, Roy, and several others and it went over great.  Then they suddenly decided not to make it.  And I did a very bad thing:  I figured they didn’t want it, so I took it down and carelessly left it somewhere, and it was thrown out.  It’s one of the lost stories…
In conclusion, it’s amazing to think that two little cartoons could have raised such a stink, or more importantly, claimed success!  The “Adventures in Music” series marked a new beginning for Disney animation, and the experimentation of style continued into the 1960's.  Sometimes these changes displeased Disney veterans (Walt included), however, I feel they were necessary in order to expand Disney’s horizons and adapt to the times.  Walt Disney’s classic animation, presented in its lush and romantic form, will always be my favorite, however, it is incredible to see what else the studio was capable of thanks to unique and creative artists like Ward Kimball.  At one time, he looked back on these two cartoons and stated in Canemaker's Nine Old Men, “We broke all of the rules (Canemaker, 2001).”

We thank you Ward!

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