The Arrival of Milt Kahl

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 would hear the heavy footsteps as the tall Dutchman stomped down the hallway to his office. Not much was heard from Kahl until coffee break when key assistant animator, 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 pieces flying across the room was a sure indication that the master animator had lost another game.

    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 his ideas 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 often 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 at Disney were coming to an 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 post Walt Disney studio. Stan Green continued to fetch coffee, and a new group of young artists including 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. In the seventies leadership vacuum, arrogant young animation upstarts began to make their move to control the studio's  animated product. This was the last straw and Milt Kahl was having no part of it. He quickly 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. Digital puppeteers "pull the strings today," and stellar draftsmen such as Milt Kahl are neither wanted or needed. 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 little doubt Milt Kahl would be king.

This was my view from 1D-1 as Milt Kahl stormed into work each morning. Did I say, "stormed?" Yes, I did indeed.

This was my view from 1D-1 as Milt Kahl stormed into work each morning. Did I say, "stormed?" Yes, I did indeed.