Disney’s Life Drawing Classes Today

Many moons ago I did an interview with a writer for the Fast Company Magazine website about the origin of Disney’s life drawing classes within the studio, and Babbitt’s significance.  A lovely article was published about Disney’s classes in the present day, appropriately crediting Babbitt as the original mastermind.  CLICK HERE to read about the persistence of Babbitt’s educational legacy.

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Gunther Lessing and the Strike

A homemade presentation on the origins of the Disney Strike, and tumultuous relationship between Babbitt and Walt Disney’s V.P.

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Meeting Walt Disney

Babbitt retelling his first encounter with Walt – and Walt’s first hint that Babbitt meant trouble.

All footage and photos are original from the Babbitt Collection.

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Babbitt’s Disney Friends

Disney artists need time to unwind while making milestones like Snow White and Pinocchio.  Here are some brief clips of some of Babbitt’s friends from the Disney studio having fun during the late 1930s.

For those of you keeping track, that’s Hardie Gramatky, Jack Cutting, Ferdinand Horvath, Pinto Colvig, Les Clark, and Bill Tytla.

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Marge on Art Babbitt

A mini-doc on Art Babbitt, through the eyes and voice of his ex-wife, Marge, née Belcher, later Champion.

Disney man Hal Adelquist is one of the other beach-goers.  Adelquist would later testify against Babbitt at the National Labor Relations Board hearing after the strike.

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How Babbitt Changed Animation Methodology – Pt 4 of 4


We’ve discussed how Babbitt contributed to the development of animation and Disney’s golden age in many hugely significant ways.  The last method I’ll touch upon here is his use of Live Action reference.

I’ve talked about it before, but it’s worth repeating how Babbitt used his personal 16mm camera to capture life around him – and then watched that footage for cues on how to animate a scene.  He filmed the footage of Snow White model Marge Champion (then known as Marjorie Belcher) as shown in the clip below.  It was not long before Marge and he were married.

This wonderful little video pays tribute to the live action reference used in several Disney films throughout its history, from Snow White to Sleeping Beauty to Aladdin.  When you watch those clips and see those photos, think of Art Babbitt.

Posted in 1932-1941: Disney Glory Days, Alice in Wonderland, Animation, California, Pinocchio, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs | Tagged , | 1 Comment

How Babbitt Changed Animation Methodology – Pt 3 of 4

Cartoon Character Analysis

Hollywood cartoon characters up to 1934 lacked a certain luster.  In the early 1930s, live-action actors were happily pigeon-holed into roles: Douglas Fairbanks was the hero, Charley Chaplin was the tramp.  But these stars were exceptional. They weren’t just filling in an archetypal role – they brought something personal to the part that breathed life, emotion and depth into a character.

Walt wanted to emulate Chaplin but with the fantasy of animation.  “You can’t put Chaplin in a milk bottle,” Walt had said.  Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character is just one example of how character can be imbued into a comic performance to make it so rich it becomes a phenomenon.

Olden Days

Archetypal roles, bland characters in 1933’s “Ye Olden Days”

If you look at Hollywood cartoons before 1934, they may have the charm of a comic strip and the innate appeal of an archetype, but the character ends where the film stops rolling.  There’s nothing going on underneath the pencil-lines that adds longevity – or soul – to that character.

Babbitt was among the “intellectuals” of the young Disney Studio animators, and introduced the influence of Dostoevsky to his colleagues.  In the author’s classic Crime and Punishment, for instance, he explores the underlying psyche of his characters as their behavior shifts.  Classic schools of acting often discuss creating character analyses for whichever role was assigned, all to illicit a more convincing performance.

Babbitt had a fascination with the psyche; later in life he would admit a long-held interest in psychiatry.  In July, 1934 (at the age of 26) he sat at his typewriter and composed a three-page character analysis of a character he had actually animated before.  “Dippy Dawg” was a gangly, canine-like hick that was little more than an embodiment of a silly voice provided by actor/clown/storyman Pinto Colvig.  The character’s sound identified him as a goof, and that’s all he was to anyone … except to Babbitt.

To delve inside the “Goof,” Babbitt drew upon the people he knew throughout his life: He spent his childhood in the midwest, and knew a thing or two about country hicks; he came of age in New York City, attending not only Vaudeville shows but theater and opera as well.  Babbitt was inspired by his past experiences to create a pastiche of personality traits that drove this hand-drawn, pen-and-ink cartoon character.  He penned his missive “The Character Analysis of the Goof.”

Character Analysis of the Goof

"Mickey's Service Station," 1935

“Mickey’s Service Station,” 1935. The Goof earns a personality.

Almost instantly the technique caught on.  Babbitt’s innovation had changed the way cartoon stars were conceived, pushing them past the vacuous anything-for-a-gag realm and into characters who seemed to exist in their own right.

What’s interesting is to see a glimpse of Babbitt’s personal experience that played a part in this historic innovation.  He must have been incredibly receptive to the world around him, because he even invoked his barber into his description of the Goof.

Character Analysis 2

A “philosopher of the barber shop variety” certainly brings a certain mentality to mind, but Babbitt was actually specifically recalling his old New York City barber, whom he revisited in 1942.

Babbitt DiaryWent into my favorite old barber in the Strand Building and was socked at how much everyone had aged since 1924,” he writes.  “…My old Italian barber says, “Death – she’s anot sucha bad athing in life!

It even sounds like something Goofy would say.  Thus Goofy’s philosophical template, and an entire method for propelling cartoon stardom, was born.

Stay tuned for part IV: Live Action Reference

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How Babbitt Changed Animation Methodology – Pt 2 of 4

The Animation Technique of Breaking the Joints

rubber pencilYou must have noticed that if you wag a pencil in just the right way, it appears to be made of rubber.  It’s an optical illusion that makes a rigid object appear to move fluidly.  When we see people walking down the street or waving their arms, they may appear loose and rubbery to our actual eye in real life, though we know that their limbs are composed of rigid bone.

rubber hose mickeyEarly animators throughout the ’20s and ’30s simply “rubberized” character limbs.  This is known today as “rubber-hose” animation, because there appears to be no joints in moving limbs, just gangly tubing.  It’s a style that’s even lampooned today because it’s so antiquated.  It would be impossible for cartoon animation to make the leap into serious art it had stayed at this prepubescent level.

simpsons rubber hose futurama rubber hose

Art Babbitt realized that if you bend a joint backwards, it would keep its rigidity and its believability.  For both animals and humans, we can appear to move our joints every which way, keeping the motion fluid, but also grounded in realism.  No more rubber hoses! For a gangly character like Goofy, Babbitt employed this ground-breaking technique. He called it “breaking the joints.”

From the 1970s throughout the 1980s, master animator Richard Williams hired Babbitt to teach classes in his studio, and he considered Babbitt a legend.  In his book The Animator’s Survival Kit (a quintessential bible for animators), Williams discusses in detail how the method of “breaking the joints” actually works, and how to use it.

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Stay tuned for part III: Character Analysis

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How Babbitt Changed Animation Methodology – Pt 1 of 4

BabbittHeadshotFilm history has many great pioneers who were the first to try a new technique and elevate the entire medium.  In live action film, some of the most noted artists to do so are directors and actors.  In animation, it might be producers like Walt Disney.  But Walt hired a myriad of incredibly talented artists as his “actors”: the animators.  Many of them raised the bar in their artistry, but not a single one made such a diverse impact on the art and method of animation as Art Babbitt.

While still at at the Disney Studio, Babbitt developed FOUR methods that have since become standard in the industry: in-studio art classes, the technique called “Breaking the Joints,” character analysis, and live-action reference.

*       *       *

The In-Studio Art Class

Late in 1932, after only being at the Disney Studio a few months, Babbitt decided to employ his life-drawing discipline that he had acquired in New York (in places like the Art Students League).  He gathered a few of his fellow trainees over at his place with a nude model for a drawing session, and little by little Walt caught on.  Thus the legendary art instructor Don Graham was hired to teach art classes inside the Disney studio.

When the annex was build opposite the original studio on Hyperion Avenue, one of its uses was to house the drawing classes. The animators cheekily christened it “The Don Graham Memorial Institute” displaying its credo, “Semper Gluteus Maximus.”  Babbitt captured the event with his 16mm camera.


Graham, left, at his own Memorial Institute

Later in his life, Graham inscribed a copy of his book to Babbitt, “To Art – who started me out in the animation business/ My great appreciation / Graham – 1971”

Graham Autograph

Frank ThomasEven Frank Thomas credits Babbitt with originating the in-studio art class, saying at Babbitt’s memorial service in 1992, “Like the art class thing, Walt picked up on it and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to that going here at the studio and have everybody do it!’ So everybody did do it.”

Today, in every major animation film studio in the world, artists are offered private art classes within the studio walls.  They consider it an essential part of the process, but it was Babbitt who thought so first.

(More info on the first Disney art class can be found in the article, “A Class of His Own.”)

Update:  Here’s Walt talking about the importance of his in-studio art classes

Stay tuned for part II: Breaking the Joints

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Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr Banks I just saw Saving Mr. Banks, a dramatic re-enactment of author P. L. Travers and Walt Disney’s head-to-head on the making of 1964’s Mary Poppins.

I loved it. Probably due to the Sherman brothers.

As a Disney historian, there were some things that stood out, for good or for ill.  So I’ll just label what left the greatest impact on me.

Positive: The attention to detail.  From the awards to the magazines on the wall, to the studio lot, to the 1961 version of Disneyland, to Walt’s mid-west homespun dialogue (in the first half of the film), this felt completely true to life.  His hacking cough from his smoking habit was there, too – and we even catch a glimpse of him snuffing a tobacco product of sorts, although we never actually see him with a cigarette in his hand.  The mythos of Walt’s charm and charisma comes through, and his dialogue is expertly written. Until …

Negative: When Walt shows up at Travers’s door at the climax, he delivers a monologue that feels like a script from his television show.  As Art Babbitt said, “When Walt used a three-syllable word, you know it was written for him.”  Indeed, candid recordings show Walt using the vocabulary of someone who never finished high school.  His final speech to Travers has him in a suit, with his hair slick back, sitting on a chair like he was the self-titled persona he portrayed on television.  It did not feel authentic.  I doubt the real Walt was as much an armchair psychotherapist as his character is portrayed in the second half of the film.


B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman as Robert and Richard Sherman

However, I nitpick.  Glorifying Walt is something the Disney company is wont to do, and we should be grateful we even have him saying “Damn” at one point.

The shining moments for me were the scenes in which the Sherman brothers play their original songs to a grumbling Travers.  The real Richard Sherman, a living legend and still a dynamo in his later years, was a consultant for the movie, and I have no doubt that these scenes ring truer because of his cooperation.

Not many films make me misty.  But when the Shermans warm Travers’s heart with “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” in the writing room, and when their music causes Travers to weep in the Hollywood premiere, there were tears in my eyes.  On both occasions.

So I, like Mrs. Travers, was sold the project by way of the Shermans.


Richard Sherman and yours truly, ca. 2008

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