Having had the good fortune of working at the Walt Disney Studio during the last of a golden era, all of us kids had the opportunity to connect with many of the Disney Masters. If you were really lucky, you may have even assisted one of the Famous Nine Old Men. In the fifties, I worked on the animated feature, “Sleeping Beauty,” and even qualified to do in-betweens for Milt Kahl. Years later, I assisted Milt when working on “The Sword in the Stone” for nearly two years. However, my most memorable assignment at the Walt Disney Studio was assisting my favorite animator, Ward Kimball. That’s correct. Ward Kimball was my favorite of Disney’s Nine Old Men, and he never failed to impress me with his considerable talent in bringing a cartoon character to life. Kimball’s animation exploded onscreen with an energy and vitality few animators could match. His work contained a cheeky irreverent quality that continually fascinated me. If I was ever going to become a Disney animator - I wanted to be Ward Kimball.
Back in the sixties, there was a falling out between Ward Kimball and the old maestro, Walt Disney. Because of this misunderstanding, Kimball was removed as director of the live-action film, “Babes in Toyland” and as a cruel punishment, Ward Kimball was sent back the animation department to resume his role as a Disney animator. Some other artists considered this, “punishment” as something they would eagerly welcome. In any case, Ward returned to his second floor office to begin animating the character, Professor Ludvig Von Drake. Hardly a daunting assignment for the master animator, Ward Kimball knocked out his duck footage with (as Carl Barks would say) ridiculus ease. Kimball’s team had all been reassigned so the second floor office was practically vacated. It would appear the only people in the wing were Ward and his secretary who held down the fort. Each morning, Kimball would arrive at work in his sporty Porsche and head to his upstairs office where he would begin animating at a furious pace. By noon, Ward had already completed a days work, so after lunch he would head for his sofa where he slept the rest of the afternoon.
During this time, Kimball was assisted by another veteran of the Walt Disney Studio. Because of a lull in animation assignments, the work was handed to an animator who needed work. The talented gentleman was named, Fred Kopietz, and he began doing the assistant work for Ward. Suddenly, work became available and Fred Kopietz called away on another assignment. I now had the opportunity of a lifetime. The job of following Ward Kimball was suddenly mine and I couldn’t wait to begin assisting the Disney Master. Boy, was I in for a surprise when picking up my first scene. As I flipped through the completed scene it became clear why Kimball was burning through these scenes so quickly. There was practically nothing on the pages. Of course, there were ovals that would suggest a head and a rough squiggles suggesting a body. Naturally, the timing charts were on the right hand side of the paper defining the speed and tempo of the scene. However, for the most part, the pages were empty with only a few suggestions to guide the assistant animator. For those of you thinking Ward Kimball was lazy, I’ll have to ask you to think again. You see, Kimball had done his job as animator. Everything that needed to be done was on the pages and on the exposure sheets. It was my job as assistant animator to sketch in Professor Ludvig Von Drake and complete the drawings following Ward’s rough indications. After all, that’s what the assistant animator is supposed to do.
Looking back on the nineteen sixties, I was one lucky kid getting to assist my favorite animator. Ward Kimball never offered any words of wisdom with the notable exception of handing me the rough scene and saying in his own sardonic way, “Put the funny stuff in here.” In any case, it was a marvelous opportunity to work and learn from a Disney Master, and it’s not something I’ll soon forget.