There are certain films I watch periodically for knowledge, growth and inspiration. In live action, they include films like The Godfather, Lawrence of Arabia, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Akira Kurasawa’s Ran. I never seem to get enough of those films because they are so epically crafted, rich in human emotion, and nearly flawless. I learn something new each time, and find myself in awe of the artistic mastery on display. It’s like experiencing a dream.
“I dream my painting and I paint my dream.” – Vincent Van Gogh
Animated films don’t carry nearly that kind of complexity, grandeur or critical acclaim. But I do have a special list of animated films that rank amongst the most magical. One of them is Walt Disney’s 1961 classic, 101 Dalmations. Both the story and animation are a charm. The designs are unique and timeless, and within its 103 minutes of run time lie some of the most original and appealing scenes in animation history. It’s a landmark film amongst Walt Disney’s bounty of animated productions.
But today, we’ll focus specifically on one scene from the movie animated by the magnificent Milt Kahl. It’s a clip that describes Roger and his dog Pongo anxiously awaiting the birth of puppies, like expectant fathers. The scene is short (more than half the shot is a series of small movements and holds) but loaded with personality, contrast and beauty.
Let’s break down some of the key areas of the animation choreography:
The initial setup is simple, clear and nicely balanced. A geometrically perfect triangle tells you exactly where to look. The line along Roger’s legs, back and arm, along with Pongo’s elongated neck, create a continuous line of travel for the viewer’s eyes. There is physical contact in the hands which pat Pongo’s head, as well as social-emotional contact created by the direct eye-to-eye connection.
In the first bit of significant action (anticipation), you see a strong coil-like build up of the bodies in nearly simultaneous action. The lines of action (depicted in blue) reverse. Compression occurs between the heads and shoulders, while areas like the hands, sweater, hair (red) and Pongo’s ears reveal shapes that contrast from their previous positions, either dragging, or expanding.
In the action/expression phase, you can see that Kahl has taken advantage of the elasticity of animal anatomy to demonstrate extreme force and expression. The lines of action of the bodies now spring almost straight and upwards towards the screen, while elements of the arms, hands and jaws reflect drag (yellow), giving them weight and interest.
The most visually impressive and kinetic action occurs in the hang time, where Pongo frantically pedals his paws and Roger’s arms open upwards and outwards. Again, there is beautiful line of action in the main body masses, excellent display of overlapping action and shapes that give the shot depth, and a wonderful, almost floral texture and sense of excitement in the movement.
As the characters collide into each other, Kahl achieves another marvelous contrast from the previous phase of action. Here, you can see and feel the force of the bodies compress into each other, as the follow thru of elements like the ears, hair, tail, sleeves and paws give the action real heft and believability. The arcs are beautifully conceived, as each body part flows naturally from one position to the other. It’s most intelligently displayed in the action of Roger’s arms as they envelop his dog in circular motion.
In the final part of the scene, you see that Roger and Pongo, who were originally united by muted concern and only the slightest of contact, are now in full embrace at the end. Their arms and legs intertwine and overlap, their bodies glue together as one, while their attention jointly focuses towards the sudden alarm off screen. The conclusion of the action culminates perfectly.
People often attribute Milt Kahl’s notoriety due to his marvelous skill as a draftsman but when you look at a shot like this, you witness more than just beautiful draftsmanship or even perfect execution of technical elements. You realize that it’s all elegantly preconceived with much deliberation, effort and sincerity that shows how true the animator is to the characters and their situation.
“… it’s not the draftsmanship. It’s the conception.” – Milt Kahl
This sensational clip of animation is less than five seconds long, yet its quality and appeal is timeless. It’s a stark wake up call to all those animators who complain of doing “short shots.” It’s not the size or complexity that matters, it’s what you do with it.