Art Babbitt: A Class of His Own
When I was a budding animation geek during the Disney renaissance of the early ‘90s, I marveled at how lead animators were cast for similar-type characters in different films. Some were adept at the villains; others portrayed the delicate female leads. I understood that animation truly is “acting with a pencil.”
Curiosity naturally led me to the classic Disney films of the Golden Age: that magical era of the ‘30s and early '40s that not only solidified Disney as a masterful purveyor of fantasy, but also sky-rocketed the art of animation to incredible new heights. There was Bill Tytla, whose characters were so intense they humbled you. There was Freddy Moore, whose childlike characters bounced with appeal. But there was one animator, Art Babbitt, who didn’t seem to fit in any category. I learned that he was responsible for the Queen in Snow White, Geppetto in Pinocchio, and the unforgettable dancing mushrooms in Fantasia.
To top it off, I read, Babbitt was single-handedly responsible for developing Goofy – not in a particular cartoon, but overall. He wrote an analytical essay on the inner workings of Goofy’s mind, and he invented the Goof’s unique walk: knees and ankles would pop backwards, a method Babbitt called “breaking the joints.” I acknowledged that this “father of Goofy” was an incredible talent who must have paved the way for the fabled “Nine Old Men” at Disney’s, and I filed the name “Art Babbitt” in my brain for future trivia contests.
One day I saw a unique animation picture: an old photo, angled downward at a blacktop lot where dozens of men and women carried picket signs. The signs displayed Disney cartoon characters, and one close enough to the camera had on it Pinocchio with the words “There are NO strings on me.” The caption below noted that this photo was taken during the “famous” 1941 Disney labor strike.
If it was famous, I had never heard of it. After gleaning bits from various non-Disney publications (this was pre-internet), I was able to piece the story together. The artists, led by top-animator Babbitt, wanted Disney to recognize an independent union. It was a long ordeal that eventually succeeded in making the Disney Studio a union shop, but Babbitt left, never again having the kind of opportunity he had under the Disney roof.
What a pity, I thought, that a brilliant artist – a groundbreaking lead animator and the father of Goofy – should be shunned by the Disney Studio. Then the impact of his efforts hit me: this man led what surely was one of the biggest Hollywood labor strikes in history, and led it to victory, no less. Art Babbitt indeed impacted animation in significant ways beyond the limits of the artist, or the innovator.
It wasn’t until years later that I became aware of another of Art Babbitt’s legacies.
Today, animators and artists at the Walt Disney Studios may attend in-house life-drawing classes after hours. Nickelodeon studios has unstructured figure drawing sessions throughout the year. Over at Pixar, classes are held twice a week in the Life Drawing Room. Blue Sky Studios offers life-drawing sessions every Thursday. When they return to work, the animators and CG artists point cameras at themselves. They record and study video footage of a scene for inspiration. All over the world, colleges teach animation classes to the future “actors with a pencil.”
Someone had to be the first to use live footage as animation reference. Someone had to be the first to bring art classes to animators. Someone had to be the very first master animator to teach a university-level animation curriculum.