Disney animator Andreas Deja (best known as the supervising animator of such characters as Gaston and Scar) once said that the Disney style that shaped the studio’s animated movies from the 1940s onward was most influenced by the art styles of three people: Ub Iwerks, Fred Moore and Milt Kahl. But only Milt Kahl has been called the world’s greatest animator.
Kahl was influenced by the styles of such modern artists as Ronald Searle and Pablo Picasso when he was growing into the master artist and storyteller he would eventually become under the guidance of Walt Disney. His handprint can be found on so many of Disney’s animated films that it is impossible to ignore his contributions to the legacy of the Disney empire as a whole.
He himself has influenced such modern-day animation titans as Andreas Deja and Brad Bird, both of whom were personally taught by Kahl in their early days as Disney animators. Other Disney animation legends like Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston and John Lounsbery often went to Kahl for advice. Richard Williams looked up to him as an extraordinary talent.
Kahl may be more responsible than anyone for the final designs of Disney’s animated films from the thirties until 1976 when he left the field after completing work on The Rescuers.
This all began with Pinocchio. Not only did Kahl come up with the design for the character. He saved the movie by doing so.
When Walt Disney and his animators were struggling to make the story of a mischievous puppet work, Milt Kahl criticized the character so much that someone finally told him to put his pencil where his mouth was. The cute and appealing look Kahl came up with for the character inspired Walt to change the story more drastically from its source material by making Pinocchio less of a troublemaker and more of a victim.
From there Kahl’s reputation as a reliable character designer and lead animator was cemented, and he helped bring many of the most popular Disney characters to life, including Bambi, Thumper, the Fairy Godmother, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Shere Khan, Robin Hood, Tigger and others.
Take a look at his extraordinary work:
Ask any animator and they will tell you how difficult it is to animate a character running while getting dressed at the same time. This scene by Milt Kahl belongs in the animation hall of fame.
Milt Kahl was the best at drawing realistic human characters so he often got the heroes and heroines of Disney. Disney princes are notoriously the most difficult to animate and often the least exciting characters in the movie, but Kahl’s ego was so huge that he didn’t mind being known as the best man for the job.
Kahl animated not one but TWO feline characters with stripes, Shere Khan from The Jungle Book and Tigger from the Winnie the Pooh featurettes. As impressive as Shere Khan was, Tigger was a tour de force of animation energy in Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day. The creativity involved in Tigger’s animation cannot be communicated fully in storyboards. Tigger’s mannerisms are straight out of the imagination of Kahl.
Mr. Snoops from The Rescuers was inspired by animation historian John Culhane after Milt Kahl made a caricature of Culhane alongside Robin Hood and a self-caricature of Kahl himself.
Kahl would often stare at a blank page for a really long time before actually drawing anything, as noted by animator Floyd Norman when he passed Kahl’s room in the Disney studio. It was amazing watching Kahl work because his need to picture the scene he’s creating before he starts on it makes his animating look like tracing from memory like a magician. And he not only did this to make sure it looked good. Walt taught his animators to tell stories with their drawings, and Kahl would always picture what poses helped the story in the clearest way. He was such a perfectionist that his fellow animators often saw him throw away and curse out exceptional artwork before he completed a piece of animation he was satisfied with. His perfectionism is such that his best work often looks completely effortless. Richard Williams was right when he called Milt Kahl the world’s greatest animator.
Speaking of Richard Williams, my favorite story about Milt Kahl involves his short temper, which was on full display after Williams asked him a seemingly innocent question about listening to music while he animates. I’ll let this set of drawings by Richard Williams tell the whole story.