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Børge Ring on David Hand (and Others)

Børge Ring is the famous Danish animator who directed the Academy Award-winning Anna & Bella (1985) and other wonderful shorts. And if you don't know who David Hand was...shame on you. You can read my interview with him by clicking on this link. Børge wrote initially in response to a What's New posting about Disney's old Hyperion Avenue studio, but his recollections of Dave Hand amd jos stories about that studio then grew in length to the point that they demanded a Feedback page of their own. Dave Hand left Disney in 1944 to go to England and start an animation studio for J. Arthur Rank. After that studio closed in 1949, Hand went to Denmark, where he worked for a short time at a Copenhagen studio Børge Ring had started in 1948. Hand returned to the United States on the Queen Mary in July 1950.

Dave Hand started at Hyperion Avenue in 1930. He told me they were eight men and two women parted by a curtain. One of Dave's first jobs for Walt Disney was to animate Clarabelle Cow. She wore a skirt carrying  a pattern of dots drawn as circles.  Dave animated the scene—inbetweens and all—then added the dots at random, not knowing that random would make them "explode" when projected. Walt probably had the circles deleted. At least I have never found them.

Dave animated a small film at my home in Denmark in 1949 for the heck of it. He had animated on only one occasion since 1934. He worked very, very fast, ruff and precise, Tempo was all important in Disney's early black and white days. Ward Kimball said the period demanded they deliver a film every two weeks to keep the Big Bad Sheriff from blowing. Dave sat down at the lightbox, fastened a couple of exposure sheets, and dismissed an HB pencil. "Haven't you got a pencil that gives off on the paper?" He accepted a 4B. "That's better."

Your quote of [E. H.] Gombrich in Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age  [page 79] is an excellent exposition of the transition to animating in ruffs. Dave pushed me over the brink from cleaned up "Jack King animation" into the adventure of flipping your way with spontaneous ruffs into what you are after. He knew the cure creates a lot of resistance and his first step was to instigate total contempt for the tyranny of  precision. "Sure your tracebacks of his shoes wiggle, but you can  assess the acting clearly."

I practiced like mad but learned to relax instead; and accomplishment smiled on me at long last. One night after midnight I was standing at the paper punch when Dave and his wife came back after an evening with friends in Copenhagen. "I can do it now" I rejoiced, with one hand on the punch handle and the other pointing  to  my red pencilled proof on the table.

His face grew very annoyed. "You musn't punch animation paper. That should be done by a person with a lower salary than yours."

At Dave's British studio there was a scene to be of a bear running  through the forest on a long pan matching the bear to the trees it passes behind. "How long will that take you?",  he asked the animator.

"Three days."

"No... You can do it in one day."

"No, you cannot," insisted the young Anglo Saxon.

Dave's famous anger rose up through his gullet. "I'll damn well show you it can." He had not animated since 1934, but sat down in blue shirt and suspenders and in a long day animated the scene in ruffs matching the bear to each and every tree and rock along the path.

All this is long since commonplace school stuff for 2D students. But...at the present time with its strong curiosity about the past  I suddenly realize that I have had the good fortune to observe from close by  how "the founding fathers" approached their animation during "the hungry years."

When Dave Hand started up in  Britain, he ran into the unforeseen, The particular combination of talents—small or great—that go into a cartoon animator was somehow a rarity in England. "In the States there is a flow of them," [Dave said]. Dave and John Reed accepted what was. "In the beginning we took in anyone who could draw a cartoon. Later we sifted them.'' John Reed taught character anmation to beginners and passed them on to Ray Patterson. Story people were trained by Ralph Wright.

Dave's cardinal misunderstanding was that the naturally reserved Englishmen were just over-inhibited Americans and if given shock therapy would throw off the chains, regress, and produce animation that had sock and exaggeration. The cure took the form of a number of "funny" games. The patient—blindfolded and  barefooted—was led through lukewarm spaghetti and told that he was treading the guts of a human corpse in decomposition. "That'll wake 'em up." Another game was—blindfolded—to shake the hand of a recently deceased (a glove filled with porridge.) Conversions were few and  the program was suspended.

One more miscalculation, harmless this time: Dave and John Reed had anticipated a dearth of background talent not knowing that England was the High Castle of a centuries-old watercolour tradition.

John Reed also taught effects animation. He had animated the forest fire in Bambi for Dave with the side edge of a 6-B pencil.

Dave had a five- year contract. Patterson was sent home early. Dave told me Ray was an animator of high calibre but he couldn't teach. Like most animators he worked on intuition,but couldn't  verbalise his knowledge." Patterson's  British work permit allowed him to  teach but not to animate and he kept practicing Tom and Jerry with a view to the hereafter.

Dave had persuaded Ollie Johnston to come with him and enjoy old historical England, but Walt  raised Ollie's salary. Ollie felt ambivalent towards Disney. There was much encapsuled  bitterness about past injustices.''How come you never rebelled?" ''Because when I got sick Walt footed my hospital bills and kept paying my salary during the illness''.

Dave said; "Wherever young men and women work together in the same house your salary costs are going to rise. At intervals a young animator will come to you needing a raise because he is going to marry one of the inkers. And you lose a well-trained girl into the bargain."

His very first question concerning Denmark: ''How big is the capacity of your sewer system?" His British castle of Moorhall became more heavily populated than its Norman conquerors had planned for, and you could smell it. The castle park had wooden barracks to accomodate young low salaried apprentices, and there was a ''beehive'' of cement for a young woman who ground the raw materials for the studio's ówn colour factory. J. Arthur Rank expected instant Bambi.

Dave tested me on synching of sound effects. He drew five small frames depicting the animation of an exploding sun. ''On which of these frames do you place the sound effect?"  My answer was correct. Further he said, ''When a thing hits a surface hard your sound does not occur on the flatted drawing but one frame later when the movement reverses direction,  producing a jerk."

He could still draw KoKo the Clown from his Fleischer days. "We didn't have exposure sheets at Fleischer's. We wrote camera instructions at the bottom of the drawings. Fleischer's cameraman was a former tinker who didn't value advice. ''NOW WHO IS THE CAMERAMAN? IS IT YOU OR IS IT ME?"

Hand was by  upbringing an old-fashioned traditional racist. "We got a letter from an art teacher in New Orleans, He sent us artwork done by one of his best students.The guy was good, came to California and surprised us by  being coal black. So we had to give him a test he couldn't pass.'' He had expected us to laugh here and our critical responses baffled him and made him angry. ''You crazy guys wouldn't let a German soldiers into your home even though they are much closer to you than any black person." We squirmed and protested. A question about Dave Fleischer's particular properties as a director was answered by a snide antisemitic remark.

Walter Lantz, Dave's friend from youth, visited the Hand family in England. ''Do they make line tests [pencil tests] at Walter Lantz?" I asked Dave. "They don't make line tests, They make money" was the curt answer. Walter Lantz—at the time—had countered union demands by laying his staff off for a year and reissuing his old films, earning 90 percent of the income of fresh productions.

Marc Davis was a particularly cherished visitor. ''We put Marc on the plane with a terrible hangover,'' [Dave said].

In a sassy mood Dave moved his chair into a corner with wall at both elbows. ''Disney directors always sit like this so they cannot get knifed in the back." My pen pal Jack Kinney confided that as a  director "you had to be a hardnosed guy or the animators would step on you." Friz Freleng—Marc Davis's closest friend in life—shared this opnion. Kinney offered to put me in at Disney's if I would send him a resumé. ''I don't see why you shouldn't have a go at it. But I warn you: It is no longer the Disney studio that I knew" At one time he proclaimed: " I don't drink any more. Only beer and wine." I answered: ''Joanika and I are no longer cannibals. Only hands and feet." The State Department wanted retired Kinney to go down into Indian reservations and get beersodden young braves interested in learning things that are useful in animation production. He asked me to join him, but the US of A refused him a foreigner.

When directing his Goofy animators Kinney demanded to see  all  the poses as first thing. ''An animator doesn't mind slipping  a ruff sketch into the wastebasket. And you dont have to keep a not-so-good scene just because you have paid for having it cleaned up and inbetweened." I asked him: ''What was it that made Burt Gillett such an exessively expensive Disney director?" "Burt phoned me at two o'clock in the afternoon to come to the soundstage inmmediately  and hear his recording of a giant (in The Brave Little Tailor) saying two words: FOOODEUH and SMMOOOKEUH. Recording this volume had taken  five hours and Gillett found it  a very good day's work. "You and I deserve a drink now. Let's go."

Dave Hand admired Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera endlessly for setting up a good Tom and Jerry with just the two of them. At Disney the job would take six people. ''The team is not intrinsically better than Disney's, but their shorts are better than what Walt puts out at the moment [1949].''

Dave shared Walt's contempt of "bookishness" but was in awe of Frank Thomas for being a "college boy." He sold me a lot on [Norm] Ferguson and when I meekly suggested that Art Babbitt wasn't bad either, he retorted: "Babbitt can draw rings around Ferguson, and Frank Thomas can draw rings around Babbitt."In a conversation with John Canemaker—and Jack Daniels— Babbitt recollected; "Bill  [Tytla] and I lived according to the bachelor adage: If it moves screw it." This joke was, I sometimes think, an unconscious allegory of his inner self. He took any kind of animation assignment seriously whether it was a falling leaf, subtle acting or an animated refrigerator commercial.

John called the interview "The Animator as a Firebrand," which Art  certainly was. Years before I met Babbitt I heard him on BBC radio recounting that Walt's other brother, the insurance man,  asked him: "How come you never go to Walt's place when he invites you?" "Because Walt is just like a sultan who takes a new wife every night. And when he takes a  new wife he cuts the head of the old wife, And I don't want to be loved and I don't want to be screwed and I don't want to have my head cut off. That's why I stay away."

Richard Williams learnt from  Babbitt, from Ken Harris and from Grim Natwick, and at the same time gave all three of them a worthwhile "afterlife" that they enjoyed. Art Babbitt was 67, Ken was 77, and Grim was a youth of 84 when I met them in Dick's studio on Soho Square. The place was at that time heaven for an animator. Nothing counted except quality. Their innovative designs, superb British voice acting, and good music made your animation look better than it actually was.

Some of Dick's own commercials and movie titles are among the best animation ever made. Ad agencies came to him when they wanted the exceptional and they themselves had gifted people. Dick bought designs all over town. Once he had a "Harman-Ising" to do and he phoned old Humberstone, a former Dave Hand animator who still lived in Cookham-on-Thames, where he had bought an automobile garage and fitted it out as studio and living quarters. At the studio they played a game where Dick animated on dictation by Grim. "Now move the arm...now delay the head."

Walt Disney believed in the power of insecurity, He would say to Ferguson, "Your assistant is coming on fine. You'd better be on your toes." He tried that one on Grim one night. Grim got up and gave Walt a friendly handshake. "Goodbye, Walt, it has been nice knowing you." They met again years later between trains in a railway restaurant. Walt wiped his mouth and went over over to Grim's table. "Do come and work for us, Grim." Grim answered,"Oh, Walt, I am booked years ahead."

I prodded Grim about footage requirements at Fleischer's. He straightened up like a Norwegian giant fir and assured me: "I have never in my life signed a contract, punched a time clock or had footage requirements. They knew that in an emergency I could churn out animation."

[Posted April 26, 2009]

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