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Animated Characters: The Art of Babbitt – Part 2

Animator, director, character designer, teacher, and writer Nancy Beiman shares Part 2 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.

The following is Part 2 of Nancy Beiman’s 1979 interview with famed animator Art Babbitt. You can find Part 1 here.

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 2 © 1979, 2009 Nancy Beiman

Art Babbitt: (Continues his answer to question about Disney stressing limited realism, the “plausible impossible,” where action could happen but really isn’t realistic, noting how far he would go)

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.

I think that live-action might be used, for example, if you were animating a violinist but were not a violinist yourself. You wouldn’t know how to hold the violin, how to use the bow, or anything like that. In those instances, it’s perfectly legitimate. [It’s also appropriate] when studying animals that you don’t see very often. There are very few Polar Bears in Southern California, but you would like to draw one. So, you study live-action film, study his movements.

On Pinocchio, live-action was shot for Geppetto. I never traced it. They supplied tracings of Geppetto - photostats, or whatever they were - but I never used them…I studied the photostats, and I would say, “Well, [the actor playing] Geppetto had this sort of strange little movement. It would be nice to put it in someplace.” And then I would do it. But my spacing, my timing, my drawing, my proportions, everything was completely different [from the live-action footage].

Q: There’s a scene where the cat goes up the back of Geppetto’s nightshirt and they both scramble. That had to be pure animation.

AB: That had to be pure invention. I didn’t work on that scene. But I did many, many scenes in Pinocchio.

Q: When you get a scene, do you feel the “rhythm” of it - an upbeat passage, for example - and does it affect your timing?

AB: You develop a sort of innate sense of timing. You begin to feel that you might be lingering too long in one place, or that in one particular instance the character should not be running so fast; he should be slower. [An actor] charts a scene mentally. You find out where you’re going to have your accents, where you’re going to be building, where you’re going to be soft, where you’re going to be loud; where the climax comes, and when it’s time to get the hell off the stage.

Q: You go with what “feels” right?

AB: Yes. There are so many similarities between acting and animating, it’s unbelievable. The main difference is the fact that the pencil and paper become your body. You are acting with the pencil and paper, but the mental processes are quite similar. You have great freedom with your animating, or you should have. You can indulge in fantasy and do things that are impossible in live-action. By the same token, you can do things in live action that we are not yet capable of doing in animation.

Q: Do you find that the characters start to move like you? And can you prevent this? I was wondering if this was prevalent among animators who act out their scenes, and if there is a way of getting around it.

AB:  Well, there used to be a time - in fact it still exists to some extent now - when you could look at a scene or two of animation on screen and say, “Oh, that’s Joe Zilch’s work.” Maybe if there was just one character you were involved with - it wouldn’t matter- but let’s say you had to animate three or four characters in the picture. If they all moved like you that would be too bad, no matter how beautifully you moved.

Q: I feel that one of the reasons there has been a lot of rotoscope for the female characters is that guys don’t move like women. They can animate a sexy girl walk, but the basic everyday way a woman moves is something that most guys can’t act out for themselves. There is a difference.

AB: Well, sure, there’s a difference. But if they’d study how a woman moves, instead of some of her other attributes, they would know how to animate a woman moving. Just one little thing which is a caricature of life, and I’ll have to show you what this is - it won’t record on tape, so you’ll have to demonstrate it for your class - is this. It’s a very simple thing. Generally, when we animate a man walking, his feet are parallel or almost parallel. Now you can take this simple walk of a man, and by simply making the feet go in a straight line, the walk becomes feminine. Now watch. (NB: he swings one foot in front of the other as he walks).

Q: Women do tend to swing their feet around in front like that?

AB: I don’t know that real women swing their feet around that way, but in animation you can make the walk appear feminine. (NB: This is called a “runway walk” and is used by fashion models.) You can also make a man walk that way. You can make a man walk with his feet overlapping all the way. There are all sorts of possibilities.  But the main thing I wanted to bring out was that just that one little change of taking the feet off the parallel, changes the walk from masculine to feminine.  Now there are feminine movements of the body in the hands, the head, the tilt of the head. I think the main reason male animators don’t do too well with female characters unless they use rotoscope as an aid is simply because they’ve never studied enough…When you watch the back of a woman, which I still do at my age, you watch the swing of the skirt and the movement of her backside. You notice several things, and it varies with different women. The swing of a big, full, heavy skirt will have its extreme just a few frames after the swing of the buttocks. You’ll also notice that in some cases the movement of the woman’s backside is sort of sharp. It’s not smooth, it sort of whips from side to side, and I determined a long time ago that that’s the kind of woman I don’t want to have anything to do with.

Q: I noticed there is no hard and fast rule with a man’s walk, though when they walk all the motion appears to be on the upper part of the body, while with a woman, the emphasis is on the lower part. I find all sorts of variations. Some guys walk like Frankenstein.

AB: Yes. But just this morning, I saw a woman walking. This was a refutation of the general concept of how a woman moves. For instance, you always think of a prizefighter as swinging from side to side. Well, here was a case where a woman was walking that way. In fact, I encounter her every morning when she walks her dogs up a hill. 

Q: Was she very heavy?

AB:  Fairly heavy, yeah. And she walks from side to side.

Q: I’ve seen how very fat women or pregnant women will walk like a man, because they haven’t got the movement in the hips.

AB: Well, you also notice other things that are affected by something that has happened to her. A pregnant woman will often walk (NB: he leans slightly backwards). She’s trying to balance the weight of the baby in her stomach. That’s also called “mother’s pride.” I got that out of a book on nursing before I determined on my career.

Q: Do you find that you will try to make people move like animals when animating? Would you try to keep animal-like characteristics in a human character?

AB: You might. Think of Volpone, the fox [a comedy by Ben Jonson where all the human characters are described as animals]. Without being literal, you can suggest certain things. Dick [Williams] is doing a character [in The Thief and the Cobbler], and I helped arrive at one of his many physical characteristics. ZigZag is a very untrustworthy character.  One of his characteristics is a walk unlike any walk you’ve ever seen in your life. I’ll just have to demonstrate it. (NB: ZigZag takes one step sideways for each step he takes forward.)

Q: Like he’s playing hopscotch.

AB: Almost. Now a “royal” walk would be straight ahead, like at a wedding or a funeral. But in this case, he slips from side to side. His walk is as devious as he is…I don’t know whether the audience will get the subtlety of this being related to his deviousness or not; that is unimportant. The fact is that a character is being created that is unlike those that we normally see. You can invent action in animation.

Q: I remember that in the Disney film Moving Day, you animated a walk where Goofy’s feet rotated backwards.

AB: That’s right. It’s absolutely insane. If you studied the individual drawings, you just wouldn’t believe it.

Q: Did you act the walk out before you drew it?

AB: I couldn’t! It was a physical impossibility. I do invented walks with characters now that just don’t happen in real life. But on the screen, they’re funny.

…We are taught, in walks, that the arms swing back and forth. Well, how many people have you seen walking who do NOT swing their arms? Or take a drum majorette. She struts. She doesn’t swing her arms back and forth; they go from side to side…Too often, almost invariably, unless an animator is extremely aware and sensitive (like a Milt Kahl, a Frank Thomas, or a Bill Tytla), everything is straight up-and-down- 90 degrees. And you can take a standing drawing that is just straight up-and-down and just tilt the head a little bit -- and make it one hell of a lot more interesting.  Let’s say if you tilt the head and take one of the feet off the perpendicular. Maybe you tilt the head in the opposite direction. It’s a thousand times more interesting than just straight up-and-down. Now this doesn’t apply to all characters in all situations, but very often it can give life, flow, and dynamics to a drawing which you wouldn’t get if you just made it straight up-and-down.

Q: You should avoid parallels?

AB: There’s a time for parallels, and there’s a time for taking the construction of a character and deliberately breaking the planes. For instance, if we are (NB: we are seated facing one another), my knees would be closer to you than my back. If you were drawing it in a realistic fashion, that’s the impression you would try to create on paper. But sometimes you might feel that the line is more important than the planes. So, you deliberately go about destroying the planes to get a flowing line.

Q: In other words, it’s just what looks like the best pose. It doesn’t have anything to do with realism.

AB: You’re dealing with an art form, and you have to be selective. You’re not trying to preach lessons in art to your audience; but if it’s just for your own self-satisfaction and edification, you can look for opportunities like this.

Another thing animators do almost invariably, and it gets sickening, is twinning. Even if you had to put both hands straight out at the same time, I’d have one precede the other by maybe four frames. Not only that, but I’d never have them be both on exactly the same symmetrical line. I’d have one higher than the other, or farther out than the other, or some other variant to give it some interest.

Q: Are there any films that you would recommend for study? I watch a lot of the old silent films and find them invaluable.

AB: That’s a tremendous source of information. But what people forget is that even television commercials - the worst of them, the car salesmen - give you information. There may come a day when you’ll want to animate a character that looks like a car salesman or behaves like one. We have clichés in animation of having all action synchronized with certain words or certain notes, and so on. Now, if you’re doing a dance, sure, I can see where it’s important to phrase the actions to the music and hit certain musical accents. But in dialogue especially, your action is so much more convincing if you do NOT hit things right on the nose.

Q: But there are no hard and fast rules; if you had a character that was sort of over the top, you could hit all the accents?

AB: Yes, but I’d say that almost invariably, with almost any character, you’ll get a freer feeling if you are not absolutely literal.

Q: Would you lay out dialogue according to phrases and the action that is going to accompany it rather than specific words you wanted accented?

AB: Of course. I’m more concerned with a mood than I am with a finger pointing at an exact space, at an exact time on your exposure sheet.

Q: Would you conclude that every type of book you read, every type of film, helps you study animation?

AB: Sure. In the early 30s, they kidded me a lot at Disney’s because I bought two books and gave them to the Disney library. One was a book on acting by Ryszard Boleslawsky, “Acting: The First Six Lessons.” The other one was “My Life in Art,” by Constantin Stanislavsky. I was ribbed [teased] endlessly. I was ribbed because I was taking piano lessons every day, including Saturday and Sunday. I knew something like Fantasia was inevitable. But your information, the input that you get from everything you read, or hear, or observe, all goes into the “bank.” It can all be used one day. But the trick is not to just see words or just watch actions. You have to analyze them, file them in your computer up here. And then, when the time comes, you withdraw some of your “savings,” but your saved memories have changed during that time, because “interest” has accumulated.

You interpret what you remember. You give something of yourself; you add to it. Otherwise, you haven’t accomplished very much.

Q: Thank you, Mr. Babbitt.

Nancy Beiman's picture

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