King Kahl

Milt Kahl was not simply a presence in D-wing, he was a force. His arrival every morning was evident by sound of D-wing’s hallway door slamming open and you would hear the heavy footsteps as the tall Dutchman stomped down the hallway to his office. Little was heard from Mr. Kahl until coffee break when key assistant, Stan Green fetched coffee and a select few joined the boss in his office 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 apparently 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 a sheet of paper. He worked with incredible efficiency and wasted not a single line. At the end of the day young scavengers would raid the animator's waste baskets for discarded drawings. A late night visit to Milt Kahl's office would often prove fruitless. The animator’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 would be well advised to know the rules. Rule number one. Never disturb Milt Kahl while he was working. Kahl focused in on his drawings like a laser and the slightest noise would prove a distraction. The irascible animator was known to pay a visit those who spoke 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 that time on, music lovers in D-wing were advised to invest in headphones.

In the spring of 1966, I finally left the hallowed halls of D-wing and moved upstairs to the story department on the new animated feature, The Jungle Book. Though it was an incredible opportunity to have made the move to story I couldn’t help but miss 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 come to an end. Before the year was out, the Old Maestro, Walt Disney would be dead. Milt Kahl continued to animate throughout the seventies and do so brilliantly. However, it was clear he was growing disenchanted with the 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. Eager to reinvent itself, the Walt Disney studio was now moving in a new direction and it was a direction Milt Kahl was determined not to follow. A leadership vacuum allowed arrogant young animation upstarts to make their move, and it was a ruthlessness new to the Disney Studio. The politics of the seventies was the final straw and Milt Kahl was having no part of it. He quickly gave notice to then CEO, Ron Miller that he was leaving the Walt Disney Studio for good.

Milt Kahl's departure from animation ushered in a new era. An era where animation artists would no longer control animated 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 studied by young animators for decades to come. If indeed, Disney animators could ever be considered royalty, there's little doubt Milt Kahl would be crowned, king.

Milt Kahl seems right in character as he nudges over his fellow animators in this photograph. He doesn't exactly seem pleased with Marc's drawing either.

Milt Kahl seems right in character as he nudges over his fellow animators in this photograph. He doesn't exactly seem pleased with Marc's drawing either.