The Pencil Test

What’s a pencil test? Do they still practice that ancient ritual? The pencil test was a rite of passage for young artists back in animations old days. If you were a young man or woman aspiring to become an animator at the Walt Disney Studios, the dreaded pencil test was something you knew you’d face one day. After you labored on your animation test, you packed up your drawings and exposure sheet and sent the test to Camera. The humble, lackluster drawings would be photographed by a Disney professional cameraman and the resulting footage would be sent to the lab for overnight processing. When you arrived at work the next day, Johnny Bond (Disney animation’s all around guy) would deliver your animation scene along with a processed loop of 35mm motion picture film. You’ll probably have to wander the hallways for a Moviola not in use. (you are not important enough to have your own) Once the film is threaded in the Moviola, you push the foot peddle. The ancient, mechanical “Steam Punk” device begins to whirr and clatter to a start. First, a slate appears onscreen with your name prominently displayed. This is quickly followed by your animation scene, which in all likelihood, sucks.

Listen to this very important rule of animated life. Before you are great, you probably suck. Before your work is good, it is usually very, very bad. That’s the process, and that’s what the pencil test is for. It’s so you can see with your own eyes just how very bad you are. However, be of good cheer because it’s going to get better. Yes, you are going to become an animator, and the pencil test is one of the ways this will be accomplished. Before I go further, let me share my first animation pencil test at the Walt Disney Studios. After receiving my first strip of 35mm film from Camera, I was shown upstairs to a directors unit where a Moviola was available. As my test was being threaded up, I noticed that the director in the next room was one of Disney’s legendary animators. This was a guy whose work I had long admired, and here he was standing nearby. Suddenly, the Moviola clattered to a start and my animation appeared onscreen. I looked at the scene in abject horror. Everything about the animation was terrible. The staging was poor and the drawing was worse. Finally, what truly hurt the most was my animation timing. Nothing moved as it should, and the scene was an unmitigated disaster. However, it gets worse. Looking over my shoulder was the veteran Walt Disney animator whose work I had long admired. The animator said not a word, but turned and walked away. Needless to say, I was humiliated.

As the years began to move swiftly past like a scene on ones, my many sketches and pencil tests began to bear fruit. Slowly but surely, I was beginning to feel more confident as a tyro animator, and I had overcome my fear of facing a blank sheet of paper. My breakthrough moment came while watching a dialogue scene I had animated. Onscreen, a handsome prince turns to his princess, smiles and reassures her. Suddenly, magic happened. The prince was alive as he turned and spoke confidently to his love. For the first time I could finally say to myself, “I animated that scene. I’m an animator!” In spite of my elation, animation jobs were still tough to come by in the early sixties. Aspiring animators like myself could hardly be encouraged when we saw veteran animators such as Don Lusk and George Nicholas being shown the door at Disney. While there was little chance of making animator at the Mouse House, young animation hopefuls like myself found work in the small commercial houses and the cartoon factories providing lackluster animation for the growing television market. Yet, there were still gems among the dreck. Getting to animate educational spots for shows like, “Sesame Street” was a true joy.

Suddenly, a technological breakthrough impacted the cartoon business when a modified television camera and recorder changed the Pencil Test forever. No longer dependent on motion picture film, the animator could videotape sketches and see his or her animation played back immediately. No longer would the animator have to wait 24 hours to see the result of their hard work. The scene they had just animated could be played back for an instant review on a cool device called, Lyon-Lamb. It appeared the humble pencil test had made a quantum leap forward and things would never be the same. By the early nineties, analog tech was replaced by digital, and the Moviola, along with the more advanced “Flatbeds,” were soon retired. Today’s animators, whether working hand drawn or digital, continue to pencil test their work. Animated scenes, created with pencil and paper, stop motion or digital still require testing. An animated scene often has many iterations, and it’s how we beta test our work. More important, it’s how we learn and grow.

Whether you’re an aspiring art student or a veteran Disney Master, I’m sure the pencil test continues to be an important part of your creative process. Much like live-action’s dailies, the pencil test allows us to monitor our work and see where we’re falling short. On occasion, there’s pure elation as a bit of animation looks truly marvelous onscreen. I’m reminded of my old boss, Milt Kahl laughing his ass off while watching the Mad Madam Mim back when we were making, The Sword in the Stone.” I’d never seen an animator enjoy his work so much. However, the Pencil Test is not the end of the journey, it’s merely the beginning. Perhaps one day you’ll enjoy your own pencil tests as much as Milt Kahl.

The Animator. He’ll soon see his animation come alive on the pencil test.

The Animator. He’ll soon see his animation come alive on the pencil test.