Working with Milt

I’ve been the lucky recipient of many marvelous opportunities during my long career in the animation business. One such, happened in the summer of 1961 when my boss, Andy Engman called me into his office on the first floor of Walt Disney’s Animation Building to inform me of my next assignment. “The Sword in the Stone” will be moving into production in the next few weeks,”replied the animation boss. “It looks like you’re going to be working with Milt.” I was momentarily speechless. There was no need for last names in this particular instance. I knew full well Andy was referring to the “Terror of D-Wing,” who just happened to be one of Disney’s most demanding directing animators. Milt Kahl was a stellar animator as well as the studios finest draftsman and few could match his level of drawing. Who would make such a choice, I wondered? Considering the number of talented artists at Disney’s disposal, why choose me? I wandered back to my office in A-wing still trying to make sense of the whole thing. Perhaps this wasn’t an execution after all, I considered. Maybe it was a golden opportunity to work with one of Disney’s finest.

In short order, Roy Geyser and his moving crew would be packing up my office and moving me down the hallway to D-wing. This was standard procedure at the Walt Disney Studios where animation artists were continually relocated (lock stock and barrel) when work assignments necessitated. Now, it was 1961 and the wing itself was going through a number of changes. Director, Eric Larson (after a five year stint on Sleeping Beauty) was moving back into his corner office at the West end of the wing. However, Directing animator, Marc Davis was packing up and preparing to leave for his new assignment in Glendale. Apparently, Walt Disney had other plans for Mr. Davis. Ward Kimball decided not to return to D-wing even though he had completed his assignment creating films on space exploration. Kimball had decided to make the move to live-action films and he gave up his D-wing office to animator, John Kennedy. I moved into 1D-1, a large office near the front of the wing. The large space could easily accommodate several artists, but for the next few weeks I would be the only occupant of the sizable office. I regularly kept my office door open so I could see the “Old Men” as they arrived for work each day. Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston arrived at the same time each day because the two had been “car pooling” long before the term was invented. On the other hand, Milt Kahl made an entrance characteristic of his expansive personality. The outer door would slam open with a loud bang as the tall Dutchman stomped down the corridor. When Milt Kahl arrived, everyone knew it.

Things were not totally unfamiliar in my new quarters. Stan Green had an office down the hallway and he remained Milt Kahl’s Key assistant on the new animated movie. I had briefly worked with Stan on Sleeping Beauty and we had an excellent relationship. Stan would be my buffer because he had already been working with Kahl a number of years. Before long, I received a call to pick up my first scene from The Sword in the Stone. For some reason I expected Stan to have given the scene a once over before handing it off to me. I was in for surprise, because Stan hadn’t even touched the scene. He simply handed me a stack of rough animation. I was given the rough animation of Milt Kahl, and my job was to finalize the scene. Before going further, let me explain the way we were working back in 1961 when animation had already made the move to Xerox. Since there was no longer any need for super tight clean-ups in a scene, the animation assistant could now work over the animator’s original drawings without the need to start with a clean sheet of paper. That meant I would be drawing (Oh, the horror) directly over Milt’s rough sketches. I probably sat at my desk for hours studying every Milt Kahl pose and attitude as well as his loose but confident sketches. Eventually, it was time to pick up my pencil and make a commitment. It was time to sink or swim. I’ve learned when you are afraid of something, you need to overcome the fear. You don’t run from it…you run toward it.
Milt Kahl usually scrutinized his scenes on the Moviola once they were returned from the Camera Department. He and Stan would run the clattering machine back and forth as they studied the animation. If Milt was satisfied he would turn the scene over to Music Room. That meant, director, Woolie Reitherman would cut the scene into the reel. In time, Walt Disney would gather with the animators in the Sweatbox to go over the scenes. Soon, several weeks had passed and I continued to clean-up (or should I say, touch-up) Milt Kahl’s inspired sketches. I heard not a word from the Master Animator and I considered this a good thing because Milt did not hide his disapproval. His welcomed silence meant I was doing my job to his satisfaction. When you work for Milt Kahl, it doesn’t get much better than that. 

So many memories of those marvelous days remain with me to this day. In time, I joined Milt Kahl in his office as we watched animation scenes on his Moviola. Milt took particular delight in the antics of the mad Madame Mim and he roared with laughter at his own animation. Clearly, Milt was good and he knew it. I remember our wonderful voice actors, Ricky Sorenson, Karl Swenson, Junius Matthews, Ginny Tyler and Norm Alden. I lived with their voices for two years and they felt like old friends. However, I remember the awesome opportunity to work with an Animation Master. I was taught how to create a solid drawing and how to imbue a character with life. All done without the benefit of technology, because we had none. Milt Kahl brought delightful characters to life using nothing but pencil, paper and a rich imagination. Say what you will about Disney animation, it doesn’t get much more magical than that.

I had the opportunity to work with Milt Kahl back in 1961. It doesn’t get much better than that.

I had the opportunity to work with Milt Kahl back in 1961. It doesn’t get much better than that.