One of Disney’s all-time classics in terms of pure character animation at its finest, Walt Disney’s Sword In The Stone (1963) is a film I would come back to again and again for inspiration and learning in my entire career as an animator.
Today we’ll look at a favorite shot of mine from the marvelous Frank Thomas*. At first glance, this appears to be a simple scene but it’s actually one loaded with ingenuity, strong staging and elegantly-timed action.
Since film passes by so quickly in real time, it’s easy to miss out on the wonderful thought process and all the juicy details that go into a shot such as this. Notice, for instance, that (if we listen carefully to the dialogue track) there is no basis for the creative and convoluted business that is Merlin’s battle with his wand and beard. Since the sound effects — like in all animated films — are added afterwards, that contrasting element is created entirely by the artist alone to add fun and personality to the scene that might not have been present in the storyboards or script. From Disney’s Sword In The Stone.
In this analysis, I’ll be focusing mostly on the fundamental importance of the key posing, placement of action and directional elements that I believe Frank Thomas had intended. Please enjoy!
In this starting position, Thomas composes Merlin in the midst of thought and action. He’s looking at the younger Arthur (off screen) and is about to turn his attention to the objects lying about the room. The shape (as recomposed in lite blue on the left) is stable yet interesting. The wand, hands and head clearly display his direction of focus.
Here the artist draws your attention with his rhythmical tapping of his wand against the stool and, like a conductor, he begins his work with his orchestra. A nice touch is displayed here when Merlin moves the beard towards his waistline, clearing space for the action to read.
As Merlin shifts upwards, you can see the arms and body curve inward, creating a nice inside-outside maneuver of his hands before ending up in the commanding position which follows. A lessor animator would’ve taken a less interesting path.
Here Merlin stands in command like the wizard he is, holding this position of strength with order and dignity in a perfectly timed pause before the main action. The line of action (in red) is clear and strongly arced as his energy is projected upwards and outwards.
Merlin “pops” into the next action jumping right into the air — a surprising yet colorful move for an old wizard. The dramatic anticipatory movement gives the action and the character a sense of fun and vitality. Note the strong underlying anatomy as the head overlaps the chest cavity giving the pose depth and volume.
Here the pose is curled up small, as Thomas directs your attention towards the open bag. The head and face along with the curvature of the hands and arms, triangulate the action.
As Merlin performs his spell, he unknowingly curls his beard into his wand in a beautiful display of the artist’s control of movement and drawing capability.
The swirling spell action ends in an abrupt and sharp halt, pulling Merlin’s chin and head forward while sending reverberations throughout his entire body and clothing. The sharpness of the action and clear directional forces give the movement power and thrust.
A series of actions and poses play out, as the character zigzags in chaotic fashion and frustration to free himself of the entanglement.
In a final anticipatory pose, Thomas creates a complex yet decidedly clear arrangement, displaying multiple forces at play, each taking turns in different directions of push and pull. He even uses his feet!
The battle with his beard and wand end in a explosive release — one that splays out in a beautiful star-like formation.
After that great expenditure of energy, Merlin is decidedly fatigued — the ordeal proving too much for a wizard his age — as he deflates slowly sagging down towards the stool, the weight of everything bearing downwards along with the force of gravity. All of this is completely consistent with the acting choices that define the character.
After the brief reprieve, the wizard re-composes himself, as he calmly erects his posture back upwards, displaying the fortitude fitting of a commander in charge of his subjects.
A final rotational move back towards screen left — where the action started — completes the scene perfectly. All in all, a great performance created by well-planned acting, strong staging and perfectly executed timing.
In summary, shots like this are great to study and learn from. It should, at the very least, keep us inspired. The appreciation of the works of other artists, especially great ones like Frank Thomas is critical to the understanding of the craft and retaining the humility necessary to stay grounded. We must be always looking, seeing and learning.
“Observe Everything. Communicate Well. Draw, Draw, Draw.” — Frank Thomas
Check out my analyses of other shots, including work by Frank Thomas colleague, Milt Kahl, from 101 Dalmations, and modern animations by my own colleagues, Mike Thurmeier from Robots, and Aaron Hartline from Horton Hears A Who.
(* Note: This shot was incorrectly credited to Milt Kahl in the original posting.)