When THE THIEF had been in production for a few years Richard Williams hired Art Babbit and Ken Harris, two amazing animators from Disney and Warner Bros. to not only work on the film but to also instruct Williams and his animators on how to do it right.
Below is part two of a recorded interview between Ken Harris and Richard, circa 1975. To read part one, click here.
DICK: Since we don’t have a real assistant system going here, the guys just don't get trained…
KEN: I don't know how you get animators without them being assistants first. The average animator is an assistant for 4 to 5 years - unless he's an unusually adaptable guy. I was an assistant from June 20th 1935 to September 1st 1936: I was an assistant in-betweener and then the Assistant Animator, but, I worked nights, and animated. I probably did about 400 or 500 feet of animation in that year and a half. I got filmed tests of it; Some of it they used and some they didn't. But I was no kid you know; I was married, and had to make a living. I couldn’t horse around like the young guys did. They’d just go into it and say "Well, I'm working here in this studio, and some day I’ll be an animator." They didn't care about how quick, and they didn't seem to worry much about it.
DICK: I'm the only one I know of in this country who did systematic tests like you did on the wolves' run. They would do a test of the entire scene and if the scene worked, they’d leave it. But no one ever took a run and shot it six different ways, with six different drawings. I did empirical tests, with slates on the front telling you which test was which - to see what would work. I always did that, because in the beginning hardly any of my stuff worked.
KEN: That's right. You've got to do that; I still do that; After 35 years of experience, making all kinds of swaggering walks and strolling walks, and fairy walks and sneak walks and everything else - if I have a guy that is just on a little walk cycle that is going to mean something in a scene - maybe the body is on a cycle while he's walking, and his head’s got to move around while he's talking - now that walk has got to be right or I’ve wasted all of my time. I may use 16, 18 or 20 drawings, or whatever number of drawings it takes to get that walk cycle; I'd get that walk cycle right before I go ahead and put heads and dialogue on top of it. Even now.
DICK: Few here do that…
KEN: You've got to do that. Now I have worked at studios where you never had pencil tests at all. At Ray Patten, we never did a pencil test - it just had to work or else! They didn't have a test camera, and he didn't like to spend.
DICK: But you can't learn, you can't see your mistakes…
KEN: No, you can't. But the men Patten hired were all pretty experienced. I'd been animating for 18 years before I went there for six months, and I knew pretty much how it was. We seldom did re-takes. You know what your director wants. For instance, working for Chuck Jones, I know what Chuck wants, and I do it the way he wants it, and usually it is all right. But it pays to get tests. I don't know how these young fellows can do it without getting tests.
DICK: I found that they have about four formula walks, and they keep to that for safety.
KEN: Yes. Now, like Pat with that bird flapping - I told him, "Why don't you just do a 4-drawing test? We had a camera just for shooting tests, and we could develop the test in 20 minutes. I would draw maybe 4 or 5 different wing flaps on just one sheet of paper, and I'd shoot them all together. When they came on t'he screen you'd see them all flapping together at once, and you'd be able to pick the one you wanted - or the one that worked best. The way Pat is doing it now should work, and if you do it 3 or 4 other ways it will all work, but if he's not sure it's going to work, he should get a test or show it to someone who would know.
DICK: And save 3 weeks’ effort which in the end doesn't work!
KEN: Yes, because if you go ahead and shoot it, flying the bird into the scene around the tree and back out again - maybe you're using 100 drawings there, and if the basic flap isn't right, you'd have to do them all over again.
DICK: How would you start to teach someone?
KEN: There is a system of teaching anything; The best way to teach is to have him do it.
DICK: I like tracing off other people's work; When I traced off your work, I learned an enormous amount.
KEN: I learned a lot of stuff from Disney and from live-action. Chuck used to get us live-action dance film and we would pick out the 'extreme' positions and just outline them. Disney traced a lot from live action; Snow White herself was all rotoscoped: They had the girl act it out, filmed it, and traced it off. I don't like to work that way, and most animators don't. The best of them put the live-action on the moviola and turn it over frame by frame and study it. I did a dance with Gene Kelly - matching him dancing with a little mouse; I did another one of Bugs Bunny matching Jack Carson, one time.
DICK: Since dancing is one of your specialties, do you dance it yourself?
KEN: I can animate anything I can do or see somebody do. Mike Maltese used to do these dances; He could do any type of jig step, and he would do it slow, kick this toe here and move it out, and down and out, and then add them up, and you could do it. One of the girls in the studio was a dancer - she danced in the Salome picture. We could get her, and she would dance, do it, and show me the steps and everything. But the quickest way is to go over to a morgue and get a film; We'd get something that Warners had in stock, with real live people, and get the guy jumping up into the air, and see how fast he turns; They're looking at you like this - and they turn their heads right back again, zoop-zoop-zoop, and they do these spins, and all that stuff and the timing. You don't know how to do it unless you see somebody that does know how to do it, do it. Of course, you exaggerate it a lot in animation.
DICK: Did you ever get much out of that Muybridge book? You know, with the still life photos of people in stages of movement?
KEN: We used it quite a bit for runs, to get an accurate run on animals especially. I never used it for humans at all. I didn't even buy the human book. The animals I did in action were an elephant walk and run, and a giraffe run, and things that you don't see very often. It showed that a horse run is very different than lots of people imagine; They used to run horses like a dog, you know; Horses in the first old rubbery Mickey Mouse run like dogs, but it doesn't look right. Horses run just about the opposite to a dog; With horses, all four feet are right together here when they are off the ground, and the dog's is pretty much out like this. The horse almost always has one foot on the ground. There's just a little space in there where it isn't. Muybridge proved that. That was one reason he got his book out. He bet that the horses' foot did leave the ground and some people said they didn't; So, he took these photographs and they gave him the idea to do all these things for a book. He did that about 100 years ago, and it turned out it is a good book to use right up to today on animal action.
DICK: No one has ever done it since.
KEN: Nobody could do it any better. You couldn't do it any better.
DICK: Except using real movie film.
KEN: Yes, you could take film, but what I mean is a book with all the necessary stages of movement on one page to do something. It is actually clearer than the book that Preston Blair, the MGM man, did. You know, everybody's got it.
DICK: But a lot of it doesn't work. I mean, if you trace it, it doesn't work.
DICK: Yet, everybody uses it, even professional guys because people believe anything that is in black and white.
KEN: I only used one thing out of it and it didn't work - a little girl skipping. She just floated through the air and [missing]. But the general idea is there for kids to pick up.
DICK: This is the only book though.
KEN: Yes, somebody ought to make a book, and if he [missing] , it ought to work, you know. Maybe have lots of drawings on the side, so you could flip it; You could do it that way. Muybridge had something pretty good though - he had these little squares behind [missing], so that you know how much up and down it goes. I [missing] from a lot of Disney model sheets that the guys gave me off [missing] certain takes and speed runs and things.
DICK: Did they put them on the model sheets?
KEN: Yes. They put a guy in one - just one drawing on h [missing]; One drawing tells you a whole story. That's the reason [missing] pretty good animation; He does the drawing, but it’s got a [missing] n in it. It's got a feeling of just about what he wants. He's [missing] at that. You could take that one drawing and say, Gee, I can [missing],e wants here; He wants this guy to run with his knees up to [missing] ust churning away. You can feel what he wants just by [missing] that drawing. Sometimes, he'll have a guy rearing way ba [missing] g like this, and you'll know he wants that kind of feeling to [missing]
DICK: Is there any advice you can give to anybody?
KEN: The only advice I know is to think it all out in your mind and then visualize it the best you can; Then, draw it out the best you can, and then test it and see if it's right; Unless you have somebody here who can say, “Oh, throw this drawing out,” and “You need to speed it up here, and put in a couple of in-betweens to slow it down here.”
Timing is just something you can't tell a guy how to do. He's gotta feel that himself. It's obvious that when you hit something from here in anticipation and all you want is some kind of a path over to the hit. I don't know - the only thing I can tell a guy to do is just to animate. What's this author, he says, “If you're gonna learn to write, write.” That's the only way to write - he says, “I can't tell you how to write - you just gotta write.”
To animate, you take a sheet, and then you write down what you want to do and so forth and so on, which is a good way to do it. You just get a stop-watch and time the action and yourself. Act it out, and time it and put it down here and then draw it so it fits those marks, so it fits those things.
But that comes after experience. The first thing to do for anybody, to learn to animate, is to practice making walks. Do walks of all kinds, 'cause that's about the most important and hardest thing to do. All this hand action and personality and dialogue and expressions, that's from learning to act, watching guys like Barrymore, or any good actor.
It’s funny that nobody's done a good book, though.
BUY DICK'S BOOK 'THE ANIMATOR'S SURVIVAL KIT' ON AMAZON!
To learn more about Ken, visit this website, devoted entirely to him: Ken Harris, Master Animator.
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COMING NEXT: JANINE, TREVOR AND MATTHEW WATCH AND PROVIDE COMMENTARY FOR THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER.