The world according to Disney Studios. The imaging of celluloid
Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. New York: Abbeville Press. 575 pp. $75. Too Funny for Words: Disney's Greatest Sight Gags, by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. New York: Abbeville Press. 223 pp. $39.95.
MICKEY MOUSE, Minnie Mouse, Goofy, Donald Duck, the Three Little Pigs, Pinocchio, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Bambi - these are some of the most famous pets in the world, romping and playing on and in our imaginations. Rerun for decades, they are faithful little creatures and family friends.
Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, the authors of these two books, are veterans of the Disney Studio, where they were supervising animators. ``Survivors'' might be a better word, because whatever else animation is, it is not for sissies.
It's a tough medium, demanding talented teamwork - with artists strong enough to survive as alter egos for Walt Disney, and with devotion sufficient to see his ideas all the way to the screen.
Both of these scrumptious books are coffeetable size for the general reader, drawing-table size for the art student. This is not meant to be derogatory. They are the right size for their subject, big enough and beautifully printed enough in color to do justice to all those fine animators, those producers of our pets.
The first of these two books is called ``Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life.'' To demonstrate the ``illusion'' referred to in the title, it has little drawings at the top right-hand corner of each page, placed so that you can flip the pages and watch Mickey come to life.
A good demonstration of basic animation, it makes the book into a flip book. A great idea, because it was the flip book that got artists interested in animation in the first place.
It is one thing to make a drawing move - the trick is to make the motion interesting and entertaining. The early films look to us today a bit like a bunch of talented mosquitoes buzzing around, with everything moving like mad, a black-and-white comic strip that has gotten up and danced for us on the movie screen.
Pinocchio, one of the finest of the Disney films, illustrates just how far the studio grew, and how cleverly complex the films became. The simple clowns developed into subtle characters, the black and white turned into rich color, and the motion moved a charming story forward.
Both books are page turners, because the drawings are so much fun, and because they are eye-openers about animation.
The well-written text has some good stories about the artists - some of them as madcap as they were supposed to be - and with clear exposition for the technically minded.
A picture 80 minutes long required 2,519,200 drawings. With 24 frames of film projected every second, and with several drawings needed for each frame, you can see why they were busy. A drawing of Pluto's body might do for a frame or two. But there was the job of Pluto's tail, which wagged intermittently - and must have seemed, to the animator, to be wagging interminably. Not only figure drawings, but inspirational sketches, story sketches, and background work, made up the total. Plus 3 years of time.
In ``Too Funny for Words: Disney's Greatest Sight Gags,'' the authors go into more detail about basic Disney humor.
They analyze the animator as entertainer. Apparently, Mr. Disney was Mickey, or Mickey was Disney - anyway, Disney was a very funny man, with the genius to lead, inspire, chide, cajole, and any-other-way stimulate his artists with his vision.
Disney had been influenced by vaudeville, among other things. Not the down-at-the-heel vaudeville we think of - but the great acts that took years to develop, and were perfected by endless repetition. Will Rogers and W.C. Fields did work of that quality.
Disney learned that his creatures had to be believable, likable characters with gags that fitted their personalities. He knew that pathos was central to comedy, and he saw to it that his animators studied Charlie Chaplin. Pathos gives comedy heart and warmth, a deep dimension beyond ``just'' gags.
The animators believed in their comedy stars, and Donald Duck and other favorites became stars as their characters developed. The comedies became dramas of character, and the audience knew, anticipated, and loved their reactions to whatever dilemmas they were in.
This was what enriched the gags and jokes and ever mobile forms. The animators were actors with pencils.
These veteran animator-authors know their stuff, and they have chapters on the spot gag, the running gag, the gag-that-builds, the action gag, the tableau gag, the inanimate character gag, and even talk about specialized gags.
A gag, by the way, is a joke, and a joke is supposed to be anything said or done to arouse laughter.
For more, and better information, read these books and laugh your way into animation knowledge.
Gene Langley is a former Monitor artist.