Thursday, February 4, 2010

Variations on a villain

I drew this quick doodle a few nights ago and as I was coloring it, I was trying to figure out whether she was:

A. Disney villainess "Madame Medusa" (RESCUERS 1977), ten years after the movie? Maybe she's out of prison and married to someone high up in the Reagan administration...?


B. Paris Hilton in 25 to 40 years?

So scrapping the color in a fresh file, I decided to drop the other shoe and make it a sketch of "Medusa" which was the great Milt Kahl's 'swan song' character. Here (above) is the character as I could basically draw her myself. In other words: not "on model."

Pushing on, I decided to try drawing the character "on model", but without the aid of looking at any reference (i didn't have any at hand). I have tried to draw this character in the past but as with many of Milt's designs, it is virtually impossible to replicate as Milt drew it himself. This particular character was a very distinctly arch tour de force of drawing from him.
He is playing many contrasting forces against each other, and though the character never looks the same from one pose to the next, it is still completely consistent. Milt Kahl drew this character in an almost abstract expressionistic way, somehow pulling all these apparently competing ideas together perfectly: straight bony limbs, blobby sagging body, a face that is at once bony, smooth and pulpy at the same time and an unruly hair do, all moving in space fluidly, but in constant state of revision, as action and emotion demands.
The brilliant animator Sandro Cleuzo writes often on his blog about Kahl, and his observations and posts are always great to read. I have not studied Kahl anywhere near as closely as Sandro, and I don't think I was able to actually pull off a true "on model" sketch here, but the difficulty of the character was an interesting challenge to give myself. It is almost as if Milt may have been able to harmonize various drawing ideas which normally compete or cancel each other out. There's a very strange tension going on in the design between realism and caricature that is hard to describe, but as I was drawing I definitely felt the delicate mix of the two pulling each other back and forth. I never met the man but from all evidence whatever he was doing he was probably more conscious of the pure sweat and fun involved than in any theoretical analysis.

Really an amazingly sophisticated piece of work in an unfortunately mediocre movie.

One footnote i have to add is that while getting the drawing right is important, the color design (self inked lines especially crucial) is a major part of the character.

Oh yeah: This is 100% original fan art. No financial profit taken and the copyright for the character belongs to The Walt Disney Company.


RooniMan said...

Thats Kahl for ya. Only HE would dare to move this and other characters around in space and make them flow easily. Incredible skill he had.

Stephen Worth said...

Have you ever seen the movie, "Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice?" It's got to be where they got the idea to cast Geraldine Page. She chomps through the scenery exactly like Madame Medusa. Wonderful cartoony acting.

Will Finn said...

The only movie i recall seeing Geraldine Page in was the very un-medusalike TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL. I know on camera Milt mentioned referencing her performance in SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH for some of the acting. Medusa does have a lot of Ms. Page in her for sure, visually as well as aurally.

Very possible AUNT ALICE was the catalyst tho, sounds worth checking out...

ThomasHjorthaab said...

Awesome Will!:D

Eric Noble said...

Fantastic cartooning. Maybe not on model, but still very fun to look at and helps recapture some of that spirit. Great work Will.

Rick Roberts said...

An amazing variation on an already great character design.

You also probably know this Will but Milt Kahl wanted to go out with bang with Rescuers so he animated Madame Medusa almost entirely un-asisted.

Will Finn said...

Thanks Rick, and yes Milt always said he wanted a major character he could animate every frame of himself. He didn't quite get his wish with Medusa tho. A number of secondary scenes were animated by Cliff Nordberg (the "whacky" water skiing stuff in the end chase) and her driving scenes in New York were animated by Milt's assistant on the movie: Stan Green.I think he set himself a retirement deadline and when the day came he split, leaving those scenes to the other animators.

Eric Scales said...

Will- these are beautiful! They really do capture the flavor of Medusa. They're like parodies of Kahl's stuff, you have the essentials that made her a Kahl character, the details you're missing are unimportant.

Now about Milt Kahl- this is going to be a total stream of consciousness ramble:

I find Milt Kahl a fascinating individual. It was great reading "the Nine Old Men" because the chapter on Kahl echoed much of what I had felt myself- mainly that his later stuff while perhaps technically amazing, was very very distracting. Even as a kid, it seemed to me that whenever a Kahl scene from the late 60s or 70's came up, the whole scene was suddenly dead, and you were just supposed to watch the character do some little bit of business- almost like an animation test in school- the scene doesn't link to one before or after it, the character starts moving at the beginning of the shot, performs some sort of flowery gesture (let's not forget scads of skin folds under the jaw) and then ends. I guess this sounds rediculous to some, but it's just a gut feeling I've always had. I hate to call his stuff beautiful though some of it undoubtably is- in my mind "accurate" is a better word. The characters he did were always solid, they were always well constructed- but frequently they were constructed the same. I don't know if it's because the same people were designing the characters each time (Milt and sometimes Ken Anderson?) or if Milt just had his way of drawing certain things and Damn the model sheets. But Edgar the Butler moved like Little John, moved like Medusa. It was something in his timing too I guess- if someone's belly was bouncing as they walked, he learned the timing and that was the timing for every characters belly bounce. I'm sure everyone does that to an extent, but Kahl's stuff reeks of repetition. Frank Thomas mentioned that Kahl's stuff became just showy
"impressionistic" stuff as the years went on (Will, you used that word too- I don't get what either you or Thomas meant- how does impressionistic apply to animation?), as opposed to more subtle character moments. I do agree that I didn't ever feel like Kahl's later characters were acting- I felt like his style and way of drawing overpowered the character and almost like a demonic possession, took over that character, sometimes only for a scene or two. One thing I've always noticed were his arcs- in animation we learned that living things move in arcs, every body part is hinged at a joint and thus nothing has jerky movements, everything moves in flowing arcing motions- BUT there are many variations on arcs, big, little, compound, etc... Not so much with Milt. When a Milt character gestures, he gestures with his whole arm in the broadest grandest gesture possible. Even when it didn't fit the character or scene.

Eric Scales said...


Having said all this, I know it's kinda silly that it bothers me. I mean his stuff is the kind of animation people work their whole lives to achieve, and most never do. I would love to know if asked, could Frank or Ollie, or Davis, have imitated not only his draftmanship, but also his style of animation. There were certainly enough recurring patterns and speciific design choices to imitate. Two distinct distracting Kahl motifs:
-The fingertips-to-your-chest-eyes-to-the-sky motif: Little John does this (and I think the Sherrif too) talking to Robin Hood, he's saying something like "his honorable Sheriff of Nottingham". Though I can't think of any at the moment, I'm sure I've seen other Kahl characters do this.
-The saggy chin: We all have skin that bunches in certain areas; Kahl gave everyone a dozen wrinkles under their chin whenever they opened their mouth.

I find it funny that in "The Nine Old Men" one of Kahl's biggest defenders is Don Bluth, an animator who's work constantly stood out to me- his scenes in Disney films always stuck out like sore thumbs to me with the wierd ways he did hair and all the wrinkle lines he'd put around a characters lips. It seemed like many actions he used were often inappropriate to the scene too- look at all of rabbit's nervous business in Winnie the Pooh and Tigger too when Pooh is telling Rabbit that they're going in circles. I wonder if Milt's disdain for live reference rubbed off on Don Bluth- yes, perhaps that is how someone could act in the scene, but it's not the way they would act.

Pete Emslie said...

Well, if that top one is Paris Hilton, then I believe the final one is really John Waters in a red fright wig! (Psst, Will, you forgot to draw his trademark pencil-thin mustache!)

Seriously, though, nice funny sketches of Medusa. I wish you were still animating for Disney, Will!

Will Finn said...

Wow Eric thanks for your observations, that's a lot to digest. I am a huge fan of Kahl but I would concur that his mechanics became gimmicky and repetitive toward the end, but not so completely that I find it boring. Most of the time he hits some odd little accent or spike in the timing that takes one by surprise in a good way.

In those late pictures its the fact that his drawing and posing continued to develop that interests me so much, even as the acting ideas didn't. And in those areas I think he was an unparalleled genius. I find Medusa to be the pinnacle of those categories because he made a point to come up with a design containing no established cliches for a villainess--she's kind of a "new" type of character for the time, but accurate and quite contemporary.

The fluid state of Medusa's construction is in my opinion "impressionistic" because as solid as he keeps it, it has to be drawn as a feeling first and foremost, instead of constructed as a series of fixed points on a standard figure. That's how it feels to me anyway. It certainly isn't rigid like Maleficent (and I call that character "rigid" in construction only, not in animation). Getting that kind of approach correct is an exercise in monumental concentration.

Overall the late pictures tend toward "Old Fogey" characters, probably because the people making them were all aging people with aging perspectives. That's no surprise but it was a handicap.

Thanks Pete, good point. Maybe if I try to draw John Waters, I will accidentally get Medusa right!! ;0)

Eric Scales said...

Don't get me wrong there are a lot of things that I like about Kahl's work- his sense of construction and proportion especially. Actually Sandro's blog and his personal Kahl like style is what made me appreciate Kahl's own style. I didn't know until I read "Nine Old Men" that Kahl had been responsible for the Disney style since Pinocchio and that's pretty much everything I like about Disney's style is his own. I guess it's just in his later years that something about it went over the line for me. Then again the very rough drab look of the films from Dalmatians on was always unappealing to me.

Will Finn said...

BTW, i meant to use the word "expressionistic" above instead of "impressionistic". I also would correct the end of the first sentence of the second paragraph to read :"even if his acting mechanics didn't." I think his acting ideas kept stride with his drawing ability, but the mechanics (head shakes, nods, chewy dialog, etc.)did tend toward routine in the last seven or eight years.

Mark_S said...

I liked your blog. Very much appreciated your talent. Never understood artist's, music art or otherwise, I've always been of the opposite ilk. To active to stop and smell roses or anything else. I'll spend time here, and keep track, though, I DO appreciate art in all it's diverse forms, your's is one of them. If you ever have time, check my attempt on blogging @
Not promoting or selling or preaching...I like to think and write. Hey, I AM an artist. I write. Keeping an eye....late.
Oh, and I really got a kick out of " I don't Facebook or Twitter." You're probably annoyed by LOL also

Marcos Mateu said...

Great sketches as usual Will and very interesting thought process

Jorge Garrido said...

I love your analysis of Kahl's later work, Will, but have to disagree with you about Medusa. A lot of her acting and design reminds me of Cruella De Ville. I wouldn't mind if Disney didn't proceed to make almost every villain afterwards some variation on that, male or female. My favourite characters in modern Disney are your's, James Baxter's, and the guy who did Jane in Tarzan.

Will Finn said...

Thanks Jorge for the comments and observations. Lot of similarities, but 2 big distinct differences for me:

1. Status. Cruella is a legitimately upper-class person. As shrill, grotesque and even awkward as she is, she has an undercurrent of genuine elegance and sophistication, and Marc Davis carefully keeps this in mind. Medusa on the other hand is just a low class "broad"; her affectations are all gaudy and fake. Kahl knows this and plays her obliviousness for all it's worth. At worst Cruella is grisly and sinister, at best Medusa is vulgar and crass.

My personal guess is that Walt Disney would not have approved of Medusa; he seemed to have a low threshold for ugliness at that level. Maybe Kahl knew this and relished it after decades of restrained assignments he admitted to being bored by. He seemed to be going for bad taste in a jugular vein.

This apparent lack of Kahl's restraint while still at the height of his powers makes it unique and fascinating IMO.

2. Drawing. All other technical qualities aside, Cruella seems to be drawn in a methodically anatomical (albeit caricatured) way. All of her physical features seem to be consitently and appropriately fixed in space, though never rigid. Marc Davis was a very scrupulous student of anatomy and could be a subtle or as broad with it as he pleased.

Conversely, by the time Kahl drew Medusa he was beyond anatomical accuracy; he could play with complex elements of anatomy, expression and abstract design like a virtuoso. To me a very interesting thing is how he was able to get such apparent solidity out of a character who for all intents and purposes seems so amorphous that the only correct way to draw her is to be Milt Kahl!

Eric Scales said...

I'm reminded (once again) of an excerpt from "The Nine Old Men" where Andreas Deja recalled a letter he sent to Kahl erroniously praising his work on Cruella (as well as others that he did work on), and Kahl thanked him, but said (paraphrasing), "Cruella was actually the work of my good friend Marc Davis, and unlike Medusa, was based on live action". So it seems like much of Cruella's anatomical precision, was probably due to Davis' reliance on the live reference footage. Not to demean Davis or others who used this sort of reference, in fact this disdain for live reference is what I think contributed to Kahl's often wierd and overacted choices of motion.

Mike Caracappa said...

She looks like Yzma's evil sister. I think it's their vanity issues. :-)