Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Ken O'Connor Interview

"Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom," on which Ken O'Connor served as art director.

Ken O'Connor was a Disney layout artist par excellence for three-plus decades, also a teacher at Cal Arts. When we talked the last day of April 1978, we focussed on Pinocchio, since I was working on an article about it...

Ken O'Connor: I came to the studio in 1935, pretty close to the time Claude Coats got there. At that time, the backgrounds were pretty meek and mild. Walt didn't want the backgrounds to overpower the characters, so everything was in thin, watercolor washes.

Backgrounds had been painted with poster paints. The studio made their own, and they were very good. But poster paints dry rapidly, and it's hard to blend them. What some of the background artists discovered with that by mixing glycerine with the paints, they could slow down the drying time. Then by badger brushing, they could blend the two colors. Art Riley became very adept at getting all sorts of effects with the studio poster paints. On Cinderella, he got a nice blue, misty foresty effect into the backgrounds where Cincerella is out getting ready to go to the ball in the pumpkin.

One of the troubles was the characters were flat and painted on cels, and they read flat against more rounded backgrounds. In "The Moose Hunters," we tried to pull the characters and backgrounds together by making the background flat to match the characters.

In the features, we went the other way. We tried to give a rounded feeling to the characters to pull them close to the backgrounds. Occasionally characters would be airbrushed, but that's time-consuming and expensive. You have to cut stencils so you don't airbursh too far onto a character's face, and you have to make the airbrushing match up exactly cel to cel. That involved turning the cels over and flipping them to see that the density was consistent. And of course, it was very expensive.

We did an immense amount of research for Pinocchio, researching houses and carving and everything else. I think that's necessary for good layout. An animator just doesn't have the time for research if he's to meet his animation deadlines. He's more concerned with the activing of a character. So it's really not a good idea to have the animators do the layout, or dictate the layouts.

(Hulett -- Ward Kimball disagreed on this point, saying to me: "I always hated it when you got a tied-down, finished layout from the layout department, before you'd worked out all your character's moves. Because sometimes you wanted the character to come into the scene a different way or from a different direction, and you wanted the door in a different spot. But the layout was all done, beautifully drawn, and you were kind of stuck with it.")

Ken O'Connor: I was involved laying out the sequence of the Red Lobster Inn (where Gideon and Foulfellow meet with the coachman) Gustaf Tengrren did some terrific sketches of the alleys and the exterior of the inn, and I worked hard to get the feeling of his drawing into the layouts. I had this complex camera move laid out where the camera would go down an alley and around a corner and down to the inn. But I was getting too expensive in my thinking, and I had to condense it. I never did feel I caught as much of the flavor of Tenggren's sketches as I wanted to.

I did the scenes with Gideon and Foulfellow in the village streets. Tenggren had sketched this down view of Foulfellow, Gideon and Pinocchio going through the streets, and I had to translate it into layouts. That involved doing rough layouts, moving to the stage and setting up angles and props and having the actors move through the boxes and things, like they were moving through the streets, and shooting it. All this was used as a guide for the animators. Layout would have poles and markers to help them with register, and then we'd go back and do a clean layout using the same live action.

A layout man would come in and look at storyboards, which were basically showing continuity and action, and he would do small thumbnails of camera position and camera moves underneath the story sketches and pin them up. Maybe two or three underneath each sketch. He could work out the big problems in the thumbnails before he drew layouts full size. And he'd work out lighting and mood.

I think it was Ken Anderson's idea to show Geppetto's shop from the cricket's point of view, having Jiminy hop up to the window and look inside. Very imaginative stuff.

We got great effects by gettiing down really low in the street. The curb would come up over the "camera" position, and the characters would walk right over. All you'd see would be their legs until they got fairly far away, and then you could see their heads. We went right down to the bottom of the frame. Today, you can't design out to the edge of the frame. You've got to think of how much television can pick up and put an imaginary margin around everything. You couldn't, for instance, have the pink elephants walking around the edge of the movie frame because of television requirements. You have to design for rectangles inside or rectangles instead of a square. Rembrandt wouldn't have put up with something like that.

I remember at the the premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the audience broke into applause two different times, just for the layouts and painting. No characters were even on the screen. The shot of the queen's castle above the mist and the marsh (when the witch polls across the marsh in a rowboat) received applause. I was sitting near John Barrymore and he was bouncing up and down in his seat he was so excited. He was an artist, of course, and he knew the kind of work that went into something like that, and appreciated it.

Steve Hulett: Did Pinocchio receive that kind of response?

Ken O'Connor: No. And I think it was because Snow White was the first animated feature. Walt had the place mortgaged to make that one, and if that picture had failed, there would be no Walt Disney Productions today. Who remembers the second of anything? The first is the one people get excited about.


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