Art Babbitt: A Class of His Own
Remember, animated film up to that time was little more than illustrated comic strips. Disney’s were better than most, but in mid-1932, Mickey Mouse’s enduring popularity wasn’t any more guaranteed than Felix the Cat’s. All these cartoons had characters moving across left to right. Their body movements were rubbery and banal, simply moving a joint from point A to point B. The gags were based on empty slapstick. The transition to personality-based humor, and the envisioning of three-dimensional space within the animation frame, happened with Don Graham. About this, Shamus Culhane said, “After Walt, Don Graham has probably made the greatest impact of the philosophy of the medium.”
Graham would arrive at the studio once a week at first. Young, balding and dapper, he would stand by the model’s stage, pinching the stub of a smoking cigarette between his fingertips, and lecture about drawing as specifically applicable to the studious animators. Graham presented films to the animators, much like Babbitt had done on his own, and dissected them frame-by-frame. They found, for instance, that weight shifted and form changed when things were in motion.
“An animation drawing showing a figure in a fast walk may fail to achieve a true sense of action,” said Graham, perhaps in a darkened room beside a small cloth movie screen, cigarette smoke wafting up his blazer sleeve, “because of the incorporation of minor details, exact delineation of local shapes, exact projection of the principal parts. In a more truthful action drawing, many of these details would be blurred, many of the shapes modified.” At this point, Graham may have pointed to the screen displaying a galloping horse at quarter-speed, his words spoken over the steady rattle of a projector. “A series of carefully related drawings projected correctly in time may not give a convincing sensation of action … Only if the drawings utilized are true action drawings, drawings that convey the idea of action, can convincing action be realized ….”
Walt Disney had the forethought of a genius ready to break new ground in the creative medium. By November 1933, Babbitt writes, “We’re definitely going ahead with a feature length cartoon in color – they’re planning the building for it now and the money has been appropriated.” As the years progressed, Walt sent brilliantly detailed memos to Graham suggesting ways to run the class to get even better, faster results. Classes were now held several times a week, and including trips to the zoo, and the artists were instructed to draw with no shading whatsoever; they had to limit their rendering with pure line. Graham had models walk around the room and then leave, and instructed the artists to sketch from memory; rather than rendering stilted realism, it was more important to caricature the impression of form and movement.
A further example of Walt’s support came out in cash. In 1937, Willis Pyle was a young employee working his way up from his go-fer position. “One time,” says Pyle, “Walt called me up to his office to tell me that I held the record for attending the most art classes of everyone at the studio, which helped me.” Pyle’s commitment to maintain his record earned him a $2-a-week raise.
Babbitt, of course, was a frequent student as well. In one class, Graham mentioned that Peter Paul Rubens used distortion in his art. When a student protested, Graham silently reached into his portfolio and pulled out a Rubens print of a figure. When asked to copy the pose, the student could not without dislocating his arm. Graham was a teacher able to show that fine art involves “breaking the joints,” without compromising believability. No doubt Babbitt connected with this idea, filing it away for his groundbreaking animation on the Goof.