Another Cartoonist by the same last name, except this guy is actually important
You’ve already thought it, I’m sure – my last name is a bit unusual. The more people I meet, the more I become aware of this, as I often find my surname misspelled or mispronounced. At least it’s unique.
Anyway, when you have a slightly strange or uncommon name, you notice it when you see it elsewhere, and from a young age I saw my weird Germanic surname in a prominent place – Disney cartoons.
I grew up on all the big Disney cartoons, from Snow White to The Rescuers via Winnie the Pooh and The Jungle Book, and a name kept popping up in the credits: Milt Kahl.
So Who was Milt Kahl? It’s only in recent years that I’ve actually done some digging on the man, and I was surprised to learn just how influential his work as an animator was, and how highly regarded he was (and still is) in the animation industry.
(By the way, as far as I know, I’m not related to Milt Kahl, neither do I claim to be. I just thought you might find this interesting and educational, just as I have while researching this article.)
Milt’s big break
Milt Kahl was born in San Francisco in 1909, and had a somewhat tragic childhood. His family were always poor, and to top it all off his father abandoned them when Milt was still relatively young. After dropping out of High School early, Milt had several jobs with various newspapers and magazines, before being hired by Walt Disney Studios in 1934.
At this time Milt was already very talented, but it took time before this was recognised. For a while, he worked at humbler jobs before his first role as a full-fledged animator on the short film Mickey’s Circus in 1936.
Milt went on to design and animate some of the animals in Disney’s first animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but his true big break was while he was working on the next big film – Pinocchio.
The animators were struggling with the design of the character Pinocchio. Initially, the animators were approaching his appearance and movements as a puppet, and it didn’t make him a very appealing character (a bit wooden – boom boom). Milt Kahl, known for being very outspoken and opinionated, was discussing this problem with Ham Luske, the director. Luske suggested that instead of just complaining, Kahl should do something to solve the problem.
Kahl’s approach to Pinocchio was to flip things around. Instead of drawing Pinocchio as a puppet, he draw him as a cute little boy, animated him as such, and then drew his wooden joints afterwards. Simple in principle, but very effective – making the character of Pinocchio much more believable and appealing, but still a wooden puppet.
The Nine Old Men
It was after this that Milt Kahl took on a more prominent role at Disney, becoming one of a supervisory team of animators known as “Disney’s Nine Old Men” (even though, ironically, they were all fairly young at the time). The other eight “old men” were Les Clark, Marc Davis, Ollie Johnston, Ward Kimball, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery, Wolfgang Reitherman and Frank Thomas (remember that for the next pub quiz you go to). These nine animators worked on Disney’s most well-known feature films, and have greatly influenced the animation industry. Many of them mentored the celebrated animators of today.
For example, Milt Kahl mentored Brad Bird, who would go on to direct The Iron Giant, Ratatouille and The Incredibles. Bird spoke of his time being mentored by Kahl, and he said that he was “tough”, but in a gentle way. Kahl would point out shortcomings in Bird’s animation and gently deliver thoughts on where he could improve.
“Tough” was certainly a good way of putting it. Apparently Milt Kahl had a bit of a reputation at Disney for his temper. He was known for being cold, competitive, opinionated and a perfectionist. However, he also gave a lot of his time to helping other animators, and had a sweet and generous side once people got to know him.
That perfectionism, though, was what made Kahl such a great animator. He was a very skilled draftsman with a great knowledge of anatomy. Unfortunately, for him, that meant he often got stuck with the jobs nobody else wanted to do, and that was often animating boring, average people with personalities that weren’t particularly wacky or interesting. Examples of these characters that Milt worked on are Peter Pan, Wendy and Alice. Why were these a challenge? In Milt’s own words:
“You can do anything you want with animals because we’re doing animals doing things that animals don’t do. People aren’t used to watching animals do this stuff and so they’re not critical, but they’re used to watching people move around, talk and do everything and so they become very critical of them.”
In short, realism is very hard to animate.
However, Milt’s skill as a draftsman and animator were equal to these challenges. He did get to work on some animal characters, though, and he is often praised for his work on the design and animation of Bambi, Thumper, Sher Khan, Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Tramp. In each of these examples, he shows an excellent knowledge of animal anatomy and movement, giving the characters realism despite them being cartoony, talking animals.
Milt resigned from Disney in 1976, after becoming somewhat cheesed off with the way things were going at the studio. The last Disney feature film he worked on before retirement was The Rescuers, one of my favourites growing up, but one that Kahl was probably the most critical of. He moved back to the Bay Area, where he spent a lot of time making wire frame sculptures as a hobby. He died of Pancreatic Cancer in 1987.
In the course of his career, Milt Kahl had built a reputation as one of Disney’s best animators. In fact, he is remembered today as perhaps one of the greatest and most influential animators of all time.
The Milt Kahl Head Swaggle
Just one final note on Milt Kahl. If you watch the films he worked on closely, you’ll notice that certain characters wiggle their head from side-to-side when they are feeling proud or self-assured. This is a trademark quirk of Milt Kahl’s animation, and it has become fairly well-known. Personally, I like it when I see this detail, as it’s a bit like a signature – it immediately tells me that Milt Kahl animated that character. For a few examples of characters doing the “Milt Kahl head swaggle” and a more detailed analysis of this signature detail, there is a link to an article on it below: