Search form

Walt’s Jalopy: Animator Training through the Decades

Tom Sito traces the history of animation education and shows how a new discipline came about.

Tom Sito as a student at the drawing boards in 1972. Courtesy of Tom Sito.

Tom Sito as a student at the drawing boards in 1972. Courtesy of Tom Sito.

Take some basic drawing talent; add an intuitive sense of acting and timing. Then drop in a pinch of understanding of cinema, a smidge of theater; an ounce of physics, shake and pour over a mastery of the newest software and you might just make an animator.

In the century that animated films have been around, the ability to animate believable characters has evolved from a simple bit of visual slight-of-hand to a highly skilled technique requiring college level training.

The earliest animation pioneers could not go to school to learn how to animate because they were inventing the techniques of the medium as they went along. They did share information with one another. When James Stewart Blackton became intrigued by animation, he communicated with Edweard Muybridge about his and Joseph Plateau?s experiments in motion. Winsor McCay, Emile Cohl, J.R. Bray and Blackton shared their discoveries and passed them on to Max Fleischer and Walter Lantz, and so on.

Many early animators began as frustrated newspaper cartoonists or illustrators who fell into the profession because they needed the work. Some felt so embarrassed that their artistic training was being wasted to make such lowbrow entertainment that they would refuse to be photographed in front of their own studio!

Although the Silent Era animators would marvel at the technical brilliance of Winsor McCay, few thought to grow their skills through formal art training just to animate better. They knew enough to get a check and that was it. It wasnt until the mid-1930s that young artists like Milt Kahl and Frank Thomas first began showing Walt Disney a portfolio to get a job.

Animator Grim Natwick traveled to Paris after the Great War where he studied drawing at the famed Ecole des Beaux-Arts. When he returned to animate in the U.S. the results were apparent. He was the first animator to turn characters in three dimensions and animate the subtleties of the female form. This made him a hot commodity sought after by the studios.

Animator Bill Tytla had also studied in Europe and lived among the Bohemian artists of New Yorks Greenwich Village. Like many in the New York area he went to polish his drawing skills at the famed Art Students League under instructors like George Bridgeman and Kimon Nicolaides. Walt Disney took a cartooning course at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and read Eugene Lutzs early how-to book, Animated Cartoons and How They are Made. But most artists preferred to rely on their raw talent alone.

In 1931, Disney animator Art Babbitt began to have informal drawing classes in his house. Artists there passed a hat to pay the model. By the second session he had standing room only. Walt Disney heard about it and decided to move the sessions into the studio annex and make them official. In part he was worried about any bad press getting into the papers about his animators hanging out all night with nude models. Remember, in these days, an artist was ordered by law to post a sign on his door that read A.I.R.: artist in residence. That warned decent neighbors that there was a fellow inside with undressed people and bongo playing and such goings on. And, by reputation, young Art was a bit of a stud-muffin with the ladies. Walt wanted no gossip about his place.

Walt was soon driving artists in his jalopy to classes at the Chouinard Institute started by Mrs. Nelbert Chouinard in 1932. It was in downtown Los Angeles by Westlake Park, later named MacArthur Park for the famous general. Then he started bringing one of their drawing teachers, Stanfords Don Graham, up to the studio for art instruction. Marc Davis recalled how on one Thursday a month Walt treated his artists to an art cinema on Fairfax to see the latest European avant-garde art film, like Un chien andalou, and discussed it afterwards.

For many of the veteran animators like Babbitt and Jimmy Culhane, this was the first formal art training they ever tasted. For the rest of their lives, they spoke highly of Don Graham's inspirational teaching skills. Besides the top artists, there was an entry level drawing program under an imperious taskmaster named George Drake to create new inbetweeners for the cleanup department.

Disney offered drawing classes that greatly increased the quality of the studios work. Luminaries visited, like Frank Lloyd Wright who loved Fantasias visuals, but criticized the music. © Disney Enterprises Inc. All rights res

Disney offered drawing classes that greatly increased the quality of the studios work. Luminaries visited, like Frank Lloyd Wright who loved Fantasias visuals, but criticized the music. © Disney Enterprises Inc. All rights res

By 1941, Walt Disney was paying $100,000 a year for the classes alone, which the other animation producers thought absurd. These programs made the overall quality of the studios work grow by leaps and bounds. It was the key ingredient to Disneys studio outdoing every other studio in the world in terms of quality. Walt Disney arranged for more famous artists like Rico LeBrun and Jean Charlot to come and address his crew. When the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright saw Fantasia he commented, I love the visuals, but why did you use all that stale, old music? But the programs were interrupted by the strike, the Second World War and the tough post war times afterwards.

Artists returning from World War II had the ability to attend college on the Rankin G.I. Bill to improve their skills. Some of them now saw teaching as an opportunity to pass what they learned to a new generation. Animation began to be taught in schools.

In 1946, Bill Tytlas assistant at Disney, William Schull, started an animation course at the University of California, Los Angeles that became the UCLA Animation Workshop. Like many animation artists of that time, Schull was inspired by what we now call the UPA Revolution. Many wanted to explore new ways of storytelling and new abstract styles beyond realism, what they called the same old cat-chases-the-rat stuff.

The first film school in the U.S. had been set up in 1929 at the University of Southern California. Silent movie stars like Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks added funding and early lecturers and presenters included Walt Disney and Alfred Hitchcock. As early as 1942, IMAX pioneer and Disney animator Les Novros taught, The Principles and Mechanics of Animaton. Herb Kosower taught film graphics at USC in the 60s, and, in the 70s, a few graphic animation courses were taught by Gene Coe. Today, Tommy Trojan offers a major program in the department they call The John Hench Department of Animation and Digital Arts DADA. After the war, Disney instruction still continued on at the Chouinard Art Institute. Disney legends Don Graham and animator Marc Davis taught classes, but teamed with radical, iconoclastic young teachers like Bob Kurtz. Bob once said, If there is a Heaven, I want there to be a Chouinard there.

In the 50s and 60s with the decline of the major Hollywood studios, the creative trends were set by new studios like UPA, Playhouse Pictures and John Hubleys Storyboard Productions. This change was reflected in animation education. The emphasis in these courses began to shift away from mere vocational training to service the mass entertainment industry, to more personal non-traditional forms of art film.

In New York City, the Cartoonists and Illustrators School started in 1949 by newspaper editorial cartoonist Bill Gallo became School of Visual Arts in 1960. Shamus Culhane started its animation program and was followed by industry professionals like Paramounts Gil Miret, Howard Beckerman, Marty Abrahams and UPAs Don Duga. The School of Industrial Arts, where Ralph Bakshi graduated, became the N.Y. High School of Art & Design in 1949, teaching cartooning and animation to high school students.

Although not possessing an official animation program itself, the Pratt Institute produced notable animation figures like Eric Goldberg and David Silverman. Sheridan College in Ontario, Canada, was started in 1969 by Jack Porter and dean William Firth. Bill Martsegis, Bill Matthews, Kaij Pindal and old Disney-UPA artist Zack Schwartz developed the four-year animation major. Grads included Duncan Marjoribanks and John K.

In 1962, the Disney Co. planned for a new school to be created by blending the old Chouinard Institute with the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and called it the California Institute of the Arts or simply CalArts. The transplanted Chouinard students were kept temporarily in the Villa Cabrini School while the Valencia campus was completed. At the groundbreaking ceremony in 1969, as Lillian Disney turned over the first shovel full of soil, director Bob Clampett stood behind her mugging for the flashing cameras.

Beyond the Disney animation training, CalArts quickly earned a national reputation for advanced musical composition. Old UPA designer Jules Engel branched off a separate program, first called Film Graphics, then Experimental Animation. This program enabled students to explore the aesthetic non-traditional aspects of animation. Jules program produced many great non-traditional abstract artists like Sara Petty, Christine Panushka and Vibeke Sorenson. The Experimental Animation program did a lot to temper the impression of CalArts as being no more than the front door for the Disney Animation Studio.

By the 1970s, the veterans of the Disney Studio noticed something new for them. They were getting grey! Many retired. Others like John Hench and Marc Davis wanted to explored other challenges at the theme parks. The days of Walt driving artists to drawing class in his jalopy and the inbetweening school of George Drake were long gone. Who would carry on the decades of innovations, the Disney Legacy? Would it all disappear in one generation? Shamus Culhane, back in New York, rhetorically asked, Twenty years from now, whom will you hire?

So, in 1972, the studio put Nine Old Man Eric Larson at the head of an internal training program. The 21 trainees hired by 1975 read like a whos-who of contemporary animation greatness: John Musker, Andy Gaskill, Dan Haskett, Mike McKinney, Ron Clements, Brad Bird, Ron Husband, Glen Keane, Mark Henn, Randy Cartwright, Michael Cedeno, Heidi Guedel, Phil Young, Randy Cook, Hendel Butoy, Phil Nibbelink, Chuck Harvey, John Lasseter, Dave Spafford, Linda Miller, Lorna Pomeroy-Cook, Diann Landau, etc.

Many mainstream colleges have expanded their film programs to include animation, including non-Hollywood schools like NYU, whose animation program is headed by Oscar-winner John Canemaker. Photo credit Sarah Baisley.

Many mainstream colleges have expanded their film programs to include animation, including non-Hollywood schools like NYU, whose animation program is headed by Oscar-winner John Canemaker. Photo credit Sarah Baisley.

At Warner Bros., art director Maurice Noble took many young people under his wing. They were nicknamed the Noble Boys and included future directors Rob Minkoff, Don Hall and Kelly Asbury. Bill Hanna & Joe Barbera had a training program under animator Harry Love. When I worked at H&B, in 1978, an open secret people knew about was Bennys Class. Every Tuesday night after work, top Bugs Bunny animator Ben Washam would teach in his garage to any budding animators who bothered to show up.

I asked him why he didnt charge for such sophisticated training? He replied in his modest way that animation had been very good to him and this was his way of paying animation back. With a toothpick in his mouth and a calm smile, he taught classic Warner Bros. timing to us wide-eyed ingenues. Washam had been planning a book on his animation technique when he died in 1985.

Some gifted artists have difficulty putting into words what they are doing. Milt Kahl had trouble explaining to others what it was that made his work so special. He was once asked to stand in front of a Disney class and do a chalk-talk. He stammered and grunted awhile. Finally he growled, Aw, just f%#ing DRAW!

Art Babbitt had a talent for explaining directly and succinctly how he created high quality personality animation. He lectured frequently at the USC, UCLA and the animation union local offices, ensuring the skills defined in the Golden Age of Hollywood would pass into new hands. In 1973, he was invited to London by Richard Williams. Williams had created one of the premiere commercial studios in Europe, but, like Disney in the 30s, he saw the internal development of his staff as the key to future expansion.

Williams actually shut his Soho Square studio down for two months at his own expense, while master animators like Chuck Jones, Grim Natwick, Ken Harris and Art Babbitt lectured the crew. Dicks copious notes of the Babbitt lectures were xeroxed over and over and became the most widely read if unpublished animation manual. In the mid-1970s, my friends and I jokingly called it the, Secrets of Life and Death, after the fictional lab journal of Dr. Frankenstein.

Into the 1980s, many mainstream colleges began to expand their film programs to include animation. Animation courses were no longer the exclusive property of Hollywood, NYC and Ontario. UPA veteran Lee Mishkin helped set up the Vancouver Film School; The Ringling School in Florida originally started in 1931 in an old hotel by the circus impresario Charles Ringling; John Culhane and John Canemakers crafted courses at NYU; classes began at University of Washington; Brigham Young; Savannah and many more.

The great 2D renaissance of the 1990s and digital revolution generated another growth spurt in animation courses. The Animation Guild Local 839s night courses were expanded into a regular program called the American Animation Institute, anchored by Disney veterans Glen Vilpu, Alex Topete and Bud Hester. To meet the demand of the new digital skills, first came Hollywood Hands On and, later, the Gnomon School, started by Pam Hogarth, the daughter of the legendary artist Burne Hogarth. Also the Studio Arts school, Glendale College, Brooks College, Woodbury, Loyola Marymount, the Art Institutes of San Francisco, the Beijing Film Academy and more.

In 1998, European schools like The Ecole Grand Gobelins in Paris got a euro boost through a program called Euro/Cartoon, championed by Belgian Pierre Aymar. The global market continues to add new schools and opportunities for training worldwide. In 2001, former Rowland Heights animation instructor Dave Masters created the first virtual classroom, ACME/Online, where professionals and students interact worldwide.

Weve come a long way from Walts jalopy. Winston Churchill once said, Art without tradition is like sheep without a shepherd, but art without innovation is a lifeless corpse.

The animation schools will continue to grow and evolve. At times, they will mirror the fortunes of the animation industry, and frequently they will lead the way in new ideas, but in all cases they will continue their mission of providing animation with the artists and filmmakers of tomorrow.

Tom Sito is an animator and author who has taught at USC, CalArts and UCLA. His new book, Drawing The Line: The Untold Story of the Animation Unions From Bosko to Bart Simpson, will be out from University of Kentucky Press in October. Visit, for details.