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Animated Characters: The Art of Babbitt – Part 1

Animator, director, character designer, teacher, and writer Nancy Beiman shares Part 1 of her extensive, 2-part, 1979 interview with famed animator Art Babbitt, whom she met as a 21-year-old Cal Arts student after visiting Richard Williams’ L.A. studio on a dare.

Master Class

I met Art Babbitt at the Richard Williams Studio in L.A. when I was 21 years old. I went there on a dare from a classmate. Dick saw my student work and said, "Very nice work. Come back with your reel when you have graduated. Mr. Babbitt likes it too." I realized the man in the neck brace sitting at an animation desk was THE Art Babbitt and immediately asked him if I could interview him at the studio. Richard Williams scheduled it for after I returned from my Christmas holiday in New York. This interview was the greatest animation lesson I ever had.

Excerpts appear in several chapters of my book “Animated Performance” (2nd edition, Bloomsbury Press/Fairchild Books, 2021). The complete transcription appears here for the first time.

Babbitt’s description of the acting process for his Snowdrift shortening commercial is on the soundtrack of an upcoming classic commercials compilation produced by Greg Ford.

ART BABBITT INTERVIEW February 2, 1979 - Part 1 © 1979, 2009 Nancy Beiman

Q: Is there any sort of a process, when you have a character that has just been designed, of developing its personality and deciding how you will make it move?

Art Babbitt: Well, in 1934, I think it was, I was obliged to establish a character - a personality - for Goofy. Goofy had been one of a crowd in the barnyard -- you know, sort of a nondescript character. But I had to find a “handle;” something to hang onto. So, I wrote a thesis (character study) on Goofy, not only describing his physical appearance, but giving some indication of his mental processes. (NB: One stereotype appears in the description.)

Q: You did this before you had actually animated the character?

AB: That’s right… I think that such a bit of research should be done on all important characters. For instance, when I worked at UPA, many years later -- despite the fact that the character of Mr. Magoo had already appeared on the screen, I wrote a character study of Magoo that probably doesn’t exist anymore. He had a richness that few people have taken advantage of. He knew that he was terribly nearsighted… he was practically blind. But he was trying to cover up his shortcomings with bluster, bravado. There were all sorts of opportunities there. There was one picture we worked on - I forget the name of it - but in this short, (NB: Fuddy Duddy Buddy) Magoo played tennis with a walrus. He had mistaken this walrus for a friend of his. There is one scene where Magoo is very, very sad - he realizes he’s made a terrible mistake. But then he pulls himself right out of that mood right after that and says, “Well, even if you’re a Walrus, Walrus -- you’re a friend of mine.”

Working on (The Thief and the Cobbler) for Dick Williams… you encounter a slightly different situation. You analyze the character beforehand. Yet, as you work with the character, you discover other facets that were not evident originally. The character becomes richer and richer as the time goes on, not only internally, but externally, too. There are certain things that grow with the passage of time. Of course, in a feature, you have umpteen million scenes and umpteen million opportunities. Eventually you get a pretty complete picture of the character you’re working with.

Q: Do you find that you are inspired by live actors in choosing physical idiosyncrasies? For example, making a character move like W. C. Fields?

AB: Yes, I can give you an example of that. In Fantasia, in the little mushroom dance that you’re probably acquainted with, the little mushroom does a bit of nonsense with its legs and knees just before he takes off to follow the big mushrooms around. Now, of all the sources of inspiration for that crazy bit of movement, it was (‘Curly’ of) the Three Stooges, who were then popular in the movies. And that’s the only thing I took from them, this crazy movement of the knees.

Q: Do you ever find the characters going in a totally different direction than the way you had originally planned? Do they sometimes take on their own personalities and take over from you?

AB:  Yes, that happens occasionally. I suppose that might fall under the category of “development,” too, as you go on. One other thing that is important is that you analyze a character not only for itself, physically and internally; you must analyze that character in relationship to the characters that surround him, the story as a whole, in relationship to his mood, and so on. As far as drawing is concerned, you of course always have to keep in mind the variance in movement among different characters. You also have to keep in mind the composition of the scene.

Q: Do you have much influence on layout?

AB: That varies. At Disney, no. Everything was tied down, and generally tied down quite well. It depended on who the layout man was, how sensitive he was and how much he knew about picture-making. In the years since I left Disney, both in the commercial world and especially now, working with Dick Williams… only occasionally am I thrown a suggestion for a layout, and I’m grateful for these crumbs. I don’t get them very often.

Q: Is there a distinct advantage to working with a strong layout before you do animation?

AB:  Oh, yeah, it gives you a kickoff, a point to start from. I think it’s a big advantage. Fortunately for myself, I was obliged to plan layouts when I did commercials and so on, so it’s not a new experience.

Q. It struck me that all the character development research you mentioned was originally intended for features and theatrical shorts. How would you go about establishing a character in a thirty-second or one-minute film?

AB: Well, you’d be surprised how often that happens. For instance, in a one-minute commercial I did for Snowdrift Shortening in the middle 50s (for Playhouse Pictures). It won a New York Art Director’s prize in 1956. There was a wife and husband involved. The husband was a crotchety guy. I arrived at that after thinking it over. The woman was trying to please him, but when she wanted something, she wheedled it out of him, rather than coming right out and asking for it.  The husband was more forceful, and the woman was obliging him. You think not only of their internal character… but of their appearance. They were a middle-aged couple. How would the (internal feelings) affect their look? Especially if you didn’t want them to look like the typical cartoon models that you get. (Snowdrift “John and Marsha” has a soundtrack based on a famous comedy routine by Stan Freberg - the author thanks Hans Perk, who preserved the original uncensored commercial. The version with the redone ending can also be viewed on YouTube)

Q: There is a great tendency nowadays to use a 90-degree angle for an elbow and put in a lot of straight lines where they used to use more curves. What do you think of this type of character design?

AB: Well, it’s empty. Again, it’s surface. It’s an indulgence. It’s like painting a black square on black canvas. I can understand what some of these so-called ‘breakthrough’ artists are trying to do. They’re attempting to break down those fuddy-duddy rules (of design) that we’ve had to live with for centuries. But a lot of them are fakes. It’s much easier to paint a black square on a black canvas… I think I could do it. It’s easier to do that than to draw a hell of a fine family portrait without making it look like something you’d find on a butcher’s calendar.

Q: Character designs in the late 1940s and early 1950s (at Disney and Warner) are the ones I like the best. They were balanced; the artists didn’t design everything based on circles but put in some angles to make it interesting. They hadn’t gone as far as they have now.

AB: Well, of course, what you’re speaking of now has to do a lot with what you learn in art school when you’re an advanced student. First of all, you find that you’re not supposed to just copy what you’re looking at. In actual drawing, you find that a drawing can be much more dynamic if you’re playing straight lines against curves instead of making your drawings look like a bunch of sausages. I think the Disney characters, some of them, are beautifully designed. But I have the feeling that the designers haven’t really dug into the mental side of the characters. Not always, but sometimes. I just don’t think they’ve dug far enough. I also don’t think that (the characters) are caricatured enough.

When you mention the word “caricature,” the listener immediately jumps to the conclusion, “Oh yeah, that’s when somebody has a big nose and you make it much bigger.” That’s not a caricature, because a caricature is actually a satirical essay on the whole person, inside and out. It’s a much deeper, more involved reflection of a character…You look for depth and you realize that the medium of animation is not meant to simulate live-action.

Because if that is your purpose… then why bother to search? You’ve got everything there, and you trace it.  And to me, tracing live-action has all the dynamics of a traced photograph. It’s not terribly exciting.

See, animation, first of all, is not earth-bound. You can exaggerate in every conceivable way and you can indulge in fantasy. You can do things that are not possible in live-action… I can’t really say it in words… it’s an entirely different medium. It has strength of its own. And if you don’t use that strength that exists in animation, then why bother with it?

Q: You animated Geppetto in Pinocchio. He was a pretty normal character who moved very broadly. There is a growing tendency now toward “ultra-realism” in animated characters. When would it stop being caricature at all, and not using the potential of the medium? How broad can you go when animating a “normal” character?

AB: Well, it depends on how your picture is designed. If the overall design of the picture is very broadly caricatured, well, then all your characters should fit within that framework. If you are closer to the realistic Disney-style characters, then you should stay within that realm. You can’t just suddenly break out with one character that is completely different.  I feel that the steps that were taken in the models created at Disney’s in the late 30s and early 40s were great for that period. But very little progress has been made since then. I have a feeling how that many of the characters are simply repetitions, or regurgitations, of what has gone before.

Q: But Snow White wouldn’t move as broadly as the dwarves. Disney has for years stressed limited realism, the “plausible impossible,” where the action could happen, but really isn’t realistic action. That’s a very fine balance to try and get. How realistic do you go?

AB: …You can go as realistic as the Prince in Snow White, which in my estimation was horrible. That was an out-and-out rotoscope job. It had all the dynamics and strength of a traced photograph. It was a nothing character.

It’s all right if you use live-action as a source of information. For example, I’m not a ballet dancer. I don’t know all the steps. I don’t know an entrechat from a tour-en-l’air, or whatever. So I think that it would be legitimate (if I was animating a ballet) to study a film of ballet to learn the steps. But then, put away the live action -- and I mean, put it away.  And then start to create. You animate your impression of what you saw. You do not animate a copy of what you have been looking at.

Nancy Beiman's picture

Nancy Beiman has been animating, directing, storyboarding, designing characters and writing while female for nearly 50 years. She likes cartoons.