Today, February 7th marks the 73rd Anniversary of Walt Disney’s second animated feature film, “Pinocchio“. Pinocchio may be the most important Disney film of my childhood. It’s the first animated film I remember seeing with any clarity on how I really felt about it. It’s not only a terrific movie, but like most of us who remember watching it, it’s frightening as all hell! It wasn’t the kind of fear that drove me away from watching it though, but the kind that led me to obsess and watch the movie over and over again. There’s the obvious reasons I liked it of course a kid, because it is about a little boy. But I think I really wanted to understand why the movie fascinated me so much. The funny thing is, I feel that when all of us we’re kids and we watched a movie over and over again, the benifit of having that child perspective is that we always watch the film again as if we’re seeing it for the first time. We look at it as if something is going to change or we’re going to see something different, even though we kinda know the movie always goes to the same place. Every time I’d watch Pinocchio again, I’d always think…well maybe he’ll make the right choice this time! Maybe he’ll know to stay away from the Fox, or Stromboli, or the Coachman. But then of course the movie would play out as it is, and I would wind up getting scared all over again! As a film with scary imagery in it though, I always felt like it was a good kind of scary. Thinking of films like this reminded me of a time when filmmakers we’re not afraid to frighten children in movies. I always thought it was important to show this stuff in movies for kids because its a safe way for kids to see something bad happen to a character (like a little boy or a girl) and remind you to watch out, and be careful, because there’s always going to be someone out there trying to trick you, or possibly harm you for their own personal gain. With a movie like Pinocchio, you get to watch somebody else suffering the consequences of their actions without you yourself getting into the same trouble, which is an important teaching tool in storytelling.
It’s interesting watching this film now 25 years later from an adult perspective, and one of the things I always thought was amusing was that the villains that frightened me so much in the movie we’re actually very funny. The main one I speak of is Stromboli, which may hold the place for me as my favorite Disney villain. I say favorite, because as a kid he was the one character that frightened me the most and gave me nightmares. But in seeing the character again as an adult, I came to discover he’s not only very funny, he’s also beautifully animated, and the animation comes from a place of raw, pure emotion.
Stromboli was also animated by my favorite Disney Animator, the great Bill Tytla. Tytla was among the first batch of supervising animators before The Nine Old Men came along, with him, Freddy Moore, Norm Ferguson, and Hamilton Luske. These animators fell by the wayside when they couldn’t keep up with the increasing demands of Walt when he wanted to expand and evolve the actual drawing of animation and take it to new places. But Disney Animation would not be what it is today, and there would be no Nine Old Men without these four supervising animators, who broke ground and were the foundation of everything Disney was to become. Disney’s first5 feature films were made under these me, which are probably still their best, Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi. By the time Disney returned to features in the 50’s after the war years with Cinderella, you can see they began settling down with a kind of house style. That’s not to say those later films don’t have their own particular artistic achievements. But those first 5 films in my opinion are the most powerful, and the most emotional which set up everything to make Disney the studio it would become.
As far as Bill Tytla goes, his animation was the most powerful and emotional of all of them. Not surprising when I looked up his birthday, he’s a Scorpio like me! Scorpios are natrually inclined to striking to the heart of something, and holding up the mirror of truth to others. Tytla as an animator is a prime example of this. He was considered a very quiet soft spoken man in real life, but when it came to putting pencil to paper, everything he animated was channeled through emotional intuition. If anything, he‘s the one animator I aspire to be like, because in my own work while I know the mechanics of how animation works, what matters the most to me is finding the flow and letting the performance of the character guide me as I’m doing it. I have to investigate further as to how much of Tytla’s animation was planned (doing thumbnail drawings, acting poses, etc) and how much of it was improvised straight ahead. In animation there’s three methods of animating. The first is pose to pose, where you plan out all the character‘s acting poses and fill in the inbetween parts. The second is straight ahead, in which you just start from drawing one and improvise the performance. Then the third is a combination of straight ahead and pose to pose, where you animate the performance straight through in a first rough pass, find the key poses/ drawings you want, which become like guide posts. In this intuitive fashion, it’s more like letting the character tell me you what it wants to do, and finding ways to hit certain beats in the performance that accomodate the acting. For an animator like Tytla, I think was important for him to operate in this fashion, because while it’s true that the character is always coming from the artist, the most important aspect to animating is treating the character as if they’re their own person, telling you what it wants. I like to practice more doing straight ahead animation like Tytla, because there’s just an incredible energy you can’t match when doing everything pose to pose. It also takes a certain fearlessness to go there as well, when you are ready to trust your gut with how the performance is going to turn out.
Tytla was the master of straight ahead animation. There is a sequence in particular in Snow White that he did which is considered a groundbreaking performance. It’s the scene where Snow White kisses Grumpy on the forehead. He resists at first and storms a way, but then his angry emotions suddenly melt into a soft, momentary feeling of happiness when he realizes he likes the kiss. It’s one of the few moments Grumpy drops his guard. It was groundbreaking for its time because nobody had attempted that kind of sophistication in an animation performance before.
Tytla was not only a master of emotion, but also of weight and timing. In the Mickey Mouse short, “The Brave Little Tailor”, he animated the giant. He was also responsible for the powerful performances of Chernabog (The Devil on Bald Mountain), Stromboli, Monstro the Whale, and was also supervising animator for non other than…..Dumbo. Yes, the guy who animated Satan also animated Dumbo. There are two sequences in particular that are pure wonderful Tytla moments…the scene where Dumbo is being bathed by his mother, and the other is the “Baby Mine” song sequence, the moment where Dumbo’s mother cradles him with her trunk while being trapped in her cage.
It’s really Tytla’s performace with Stromboli that is my favorite, and what I consider his most engaging and emotional. It’s because Stromboli’s emotions are like a time bomb, jumping from humor to instant rage in a split second. That and having no qualms about chopping little wooden boys into kindling!
Keep in mind this animation was done before the much more stringent draftsmanship skill was attached to Disney characters. That’s not to say at all that the character of Stromboli doesn’t have a tremendous draftsmanship skill attached to it. But look at how exaggerated the limbs are, how loose and giggly his belly is. Putting too much in the way of anatomy and accurate drawing skill would restrain a character like this too much. He has to be much more bombastic and wild. The accuracy of the drawing skill is nowhere near as important as communicating the manic side and unpredictable, crazy energy of this character. This is the kind of animation I prefer so much more! It’s so amazing to watch. As much as I like the later Disney films, it’s really this youthful energy that just became absent after awhile.
This next sequence is the part of the film that takes place in Stromboli’s Wagon. This entire sequence is not just a great piece of animation, but it’s a powerful demonstration of filmmaking. The entire sequence has to be storyboarded and laid out to play off of Stromboli’s manic personality, which is at the center. There are high points and low points interspersed as if conducting a symphony, and meanwhile the energy has to build to the point where Stromboli throws Pinocchio into the cage. What’s interesting too is that for the first half of the sequence there’s no music. It only builds up after Pinocchio is put in the cage. The actual performance of Stromboli plays on practically every note, from delight, to anger, to daintiness, to murderous rage, but the entire sequence is carefully planned out to bring order to the manic behavior, as if conducting a symphony. When you watch the story, the actual filmmaking never gets in the way of the performances, and how the characters are supposed to act and play off of one another. It supports both characters perfectly. It’s pure intuitive construction of the sequence, and it’s in my opinion one of the most brilliant animated sequences ever put on film. Take a look:
Finally, here’s a nice Pencil Test of Tytla’s animation for the line, “Goodnight…my little goldmine!”
This is just a prime example of all the great things animation could be if we allowed it to go there again. It doesn’t always have to be about polished drawing skill. Bill Tytla was one of those animators who was capable of getting inside and making something out of raw emotion. He was said to be very intense when he worked, but the results are there when you look at his incredible animation.
I will be writing more posts later on about Tytla, as well as the other great supervising animators, Fergy, Freddy, and Hammy (okay Ham, he probably didn’t like being called Hammy).