|Jack Kinney (seated) with Cliff Edwards, in a publicity photo for Dumbo (1941). Kinney directed the sequence with the crows, and Edwards provided the voice of the crows' leader.|
An interview by Michael Barrier and Milton Gray
From MB: John Ryan Kinney (1909-1992) started work at the Walt Disney studio in 1931 and remained a Disney employee for more than twenty-six years, until 1957, when he was fired in the midst of the dismantling of Disney's short-cartoon units. Kinney started in animation, then moved to story, but for most of his time at the studio he was a director—of shorts and feature sequences throughout the 1940s, and then of shorts and TV shows until his termination. He is most celebrated, probably, for the series of cartoons in which Goofy demonstrates how not to play a variety of sports.
After leaving Disney, Kinney directed the first UPA feature cartoon, 1001 Arabian Nights (1959), and a string of undistinguished TV cartoons, educational films, pilots, and feature inserts, hitting bottom with very cheaply produced TV cartoons starring Popeye.
I recorded several interviews with Kinney, of which this was the first. Milt Gray and I interviewed Jack on November 28, 1973, as part of the research for my book Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age. I'll post a second interview, from 1976, in which his wife, Jane, also took part, sometime in the next few months.
Kinney was a broad-brush director, the antithesis of a meticulous director like Wilfred Jackson. The animators who worked under him variously appreciated his hands-off approach (Ward Kimball) or were skeptical of it (Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston). He was also a very enjoyable interview subject, full of gossip and good stories, fittingly for someone whose father was, according to census records, a native of Ireland. But were those stories true? Not always, or at least not quite.
For one thing, what Kinney says here about the demise of the Leica reel—how it fell out of use because of overspending on a reel for Peter Pan—is open to question, not only because Wilfred Jackson and Dick Huemer told me otherwise, but also because the studio's straitened circumstances in the early 1940s ruled out making films for which Leica reels would have been plausible tools. Before the financial noose tightened, Leica reels were completed for not just Peter Pan but also Alice in Wonderland (using David Hall's drawings) and The Wind in the Willows (which advanced past the Leica stage to a rough running reel before it was shut down), to mention only the features.
The strangest error in the interview was Kinney's misdescription of a gag in The Art of Skiing (whose title he also got wrong). I've written about that mistake in my review of the "Walt Disney Treasures" DVD sets. Jack remembered a better cartoon than the one that actually wound up on the screen, and I've often wondered why that was. It may be that the gag he described was the one he wanted to include in the cartoon, but Walt Disney or maybe Dave Hand overruled him. Regardless, our loss.
Kinney's memoir, Walt Disney and Assorted Other Characters, illustrated with dozens of his own drawings, was published by Harmony Books in 1988, after a long gestation; I'd published an excerpt from the manuscript in Funnyworld No. 21, in 1979. Inevitably, there's overlap between the book and this interview; see, for example, Kinney's account on pages 64-65 of his book of a session in which Carl "Mike" Meyer told a Donald Duck storyboard with a heavy garnish of obscenities. The interview version benefits, I think,from not being so worked up as the book's version, and that's probably true generally, although I haven't made an exhaustive comparison.
That's not to say the book isn't enjoyable reading. As I say in my blurb on the book's jacket, it gives some idea of what it was like "to sit by the fire, glass in hand, while Jack summon[ed] up the Disney studio's golden past in one wickedly funny story after another." Walt Disney and Assorted Other Characters is long out of print, but used copies are easy to find on the internet at reasonable prices.
As was my usual practice, I sent the transcript of the interview to Kinney for his corrections; he made very few changes, and I've made only a few minor changes for publication here, mainly stylistic. I wish Kinney had made more changes, actually, since in re-reading the interview I noticed some loose ends that he probably could have tied up. That's one of the hazards in conducting and transcribing interviews as research for a larger project, rather than stand-alone publication.
As the interview began, we were talking about Bone Trouble (1940), a Pluto cartoon that was the first Disney short that Kinney directed.
Jack Kinney: [Frank] Churchill did the music on the thing. He was great.
Michael Barrier: What struck me was, only in a Disney cartoon would you have most of the action in a house of mirrors, where you have to worry about the reflections.
Kinney: That was wild. We tried everything we could to fake that, so we could get distortion on things. Ray Patterson and Grant Simmons, on their first animation, did that, and John Lounsbery did a lot of that, too. We took a piece of tin, and bent it, and tried to get different [reflections], with that little model of Pluto, little clay model, and tried to see what different shapes that thing would take. [Of course, we] cheated a little bit.
Milton Gray: That's just taking advantage of the medium.
Kinney: Yeah; because you could do almost anything you wanted to with a darned mirror, once you'd established it. But Churchill did such a nice piece of music on the darned thing. That guy used to tell me, "I write foot-pattin' and whistlin' music," and that's what his tunes were. All of his tunes, you could whistle them or keep time to them. He had a real nice touch to all of his music.Gray: I can hear it in my head now, just thinking about it.
Kinney: He used a bass on the sneak, when Pluto is going up to the bowl, and he caught every action. It was a nothing tune, but it had character; it fit the mood. He just had that feeling... When Paul Smith would work with him—Paul was great; Paul did all the nature stuff, and he made those things come off beautifully; without the music, those things are just another travelogue.
Barrier: At that time, when you were working with a composer like Churchill, how much planning would there be with the composer before the animation began? Would you set the tempo for each scene, or was music actually composed before the animation began?
Kinney: In most cases, [the music was composed]afterwards. The shorts got kind of a short shrift, let's face it, they didn't write any special material for them. I didn’t fool around too much with breaking up tempos too much—a lot of people would go to an eleven-beat, or a ten-beat, or a nine-beat, or what not. I stuck to eight and sixteen. I think it's easier for everybody down the line, and you can break an eight- or sixteen-beat into so many things, and all your in-betweens lay in. You don't have to fool around. Iit just gets the animator uptight, and it gets everybody uptight, because it's an off-beat. So I stuck to a simple beat, and it seems to work.
Why fool around with all those things, unless you've got a pre-scored piece of music, and then you've got a free beat, anyway, and then you just tap it out and get your beat off your pre-scored stuff. But for the most part, that's a very flexible [way] to work, because if you want something run on a four-frame cycle, you can do it, and you can still come out sixteen, or 24. I think it's the most flexible beat of all. It gives you leeway to do just about anything you want. Some of these guys got so tricky about breaking into a strict beat.
In the early days, everything was on the beat, and Burt Gillett, everything he had was [Kinney sang and pounded rhythmically]. Everything was going like that, and he had that damned metronome going [Kinney imitated the ticking of the metronome], always on the damned beat, and he'd be pounding on the desk, and acting everything out to the beat—and it all looked mechanical. Some of it is very cute because of that, but you were inflexible, because he had a strict beat all the way through everything. He'd lay it out on his damned bar sheets, which you don't need. A lot of guys will spend their time on the damned bar sheet, then if they cut out eight frames, they have to go back and change all their bars, which is ridiculous.
Barrier: You wouldn't use a bar sheet?
Kinney: No, not until it was all done. Then I'd have the assistant, or the secretaries there, I'd put it down on the [bar] sheets so the musician could be happy. We'd stay on a certain kind of a beat [an eight or a sixteen], but we'd never get stuck—because you cut out one frame sometimes, and it makes a lot of difference. I remember on "Bumble Boogie"... Marv Woodward was a damned fine animator—he never got much credit, you don't hear much of him because he was so quiet and just did his job—he had a thing where the bee went up there [imitating the sound of the piano], then he went down to attack the fly. We were looking at the [pencil] test on the Movieola, and I said, "Gee, Marv, can't you get that thing out of there faster?" Marv said, "Christ, Jack, I'm getting him out in one frame." [The bee still didn't] look like he was getting out of there fast enough. You know what was happening? [The bee] was about in the center of the screen, and he came up here—and a little pause here—and then, zip out. Well, we moved him up to here [indicating by a sketch that the bee's position was moved nearer the top of the screen], and he still went out in one frame. Then he looked like he was going.
Actually, one frame makes a hell of a difference sometimes. In Bone Trouble, we had scenes that were four frames long. We did a montage in The Brave Little Tailor (1938)—that was my first time I had a story to do by myself. Disney was trying to revitalize Mickey Mouse at the time. Mickey Mouse was a bastard to work with; he was a Boy Scout, and what the hell do you do with a Boy Scout? You can't do anything with him. Anyway, I got stuck with about three of those things until I went stir-crazy. We had four-frame scenes in [The Brave Little Tailor, when different characters are repeating the line "Seven at one blow," and variants thereon], and it builds, you know. Later on, some of the guys who worked with Sam Singer—you ever heard of Sam Singer? He was a real schlock operator. He made it a hard, fast rule that no scene could be under eight feet long. So the guys had to trick around it by not making the scene cuts, but cutting the thing every eight feet. You can't set any rules. If you do, you've shot yourself down in flames. You're static, nothing takes place.
Gray: I saw a ten-frame scene one time, and I thought, God, that's fast; in Kitty Kornered [a Warner Bros. cartoon directed by Bob Clampett], toward the end, when Porky goes running up the stairs. And I'm sitting here thinking, four frames?
Barrier: You wouldn't really see that, you'd just feel it.
Kinney: Just an impression, that's all. It's in this group of other scenes, it's not by itself. The whole group was going down to that speed. Just to throw in a four-frame scene wouldn't be right. There was a buildup; you start with a scene maybe four feet. More of a montage effect. It was different camera angles, all over the place. But I still say that one frame can be seen.
Barrier: So, just briefly, when you had your guys working to an eight- or sixteen-beat, you wouldn't worry about pulling out frames.
Kinney: No; make it work, make it work. It's the stuff that's up there on the screen that counts.
Barrier: You'd have the musicians work around the problem.
Kinney: Yeah; because those musicians at Disney's were spoiled, a lot of them, because they got used to working with a breakdown, and a sound effect had to be here, and here, and here. Well, we took sound effects and just threw them at the damned thing. If they worked, fine; if they didn't, we'd put something else in. The musicians were always crying to get their music heard; I wanted sound effects to be heard, not [for] the music to cover it up. Let the music get the hell out of the way for the moment, so we can get the point over. It was a constant battle, when you'd go to a recording session. And they would take a whole day, or for heaven's sake, or two days even, on a short subject, with that crazy iron pencil. They're still using that, I think.
Gray: Iron pencil?
Kinney: Well, they call it that. They had this big console, with four or five mixers, maybe eight tracks; and then the guy would sit in the middle, and they had this pencil come down; it had a crook in it. He would follow the score, reading like this on this balmy bar sheet, and then there would be a light over each of these mixers, shining down a circle about that big, about the size of a dollar, and he could follow all of the actions on the bar sheet. And if there was a sound effect it would go from here to there, and the voice would be over, and the music might be here [indicating this with a sketch]. If you got too much sound, they were very stingy on trying to get a strong effect, because they'd say, "It's gonna jump off the track. You won't hear it. Too many db's [decibels]."
So many of Disney's recordings lost the guts, because there wasn't any impact in a lot of places. Like How to Play Football (1944)—my God, that should have been the noisiest picture, but Sam [Slyfield] put a box on it someplace, and there wasn't nearly enough noise in that picture. It was made for noise. I didn't realize it, because what I heard in the theater was not what he had on the track. I didn’t hear that [the track on the film as released] until it was up for the Academy [Award], and I said, my God, what happened to the track? The bottom fell out of it. It just lost an awful lot of impact because of that.
Gray: Now, what do you mean, you get too much noise, too many db's, and you won't hear it? I don't know the technical end enough.
Kinney: This is an old wives' tale that held true at Disney's for a long time. You've got this little tiny strip of film over here with the sound in it, and it does this [sketching the wavy sound track], and they would say that if you get too hard an impact, it will jump off the track and you won't hear anything. That wasn't necessarily so; you would hear it. But technically, maybe he was right in certain instances. But it ruined more damned good sound effects.
Barrier: Now that you mention it, thinking about the sound in your pictures, and say, [Jack] Hannah's and [Charles "Nick"] Nichols's, back in the '40s, they always have these little musical underlinings after gags, whereas with yours, there are the sound effects.
Kinney: Hannah and Nichols, they kind of didn’t see eye to eye on things. There was a certain amount of jealousy between units; there had to be, that's the way Walt set it up, you're in the bowling alley. Hannah and I shared a unit at one time; he was on one side, I was on the other, and Nick had another one someplace else. Nick was concentrating on the Pluto things. And Hannah—you know Jack, he used to be a boxer, with a busted nose and whatnot. He's a pretty tough little guy; he was raised up in San Pedro, down on the waterfront. And he said, "Aw, that goddamn Nick, all he does is tink-tink music. " Tink-tink-tink-tink—Pluto going along on his tippytoes. And everything he did, he had the tink-tink music going.
He also had another gimmick I [discovered] when they started to put these things together for television. First off, we picked the best pictures we could to put together in these packages. Pretty soon, the best pictures were gone, and we had all this junk—oh, Christ, you wouldn't even want to look at the things. I got stuck on a Pluto [show], and I had to dig out some of these things, and go through them—cut them some way, just so they might work; anything to scrape the bottom of the barrel. I ran into a lot of Nick's pictures; I'm not throwing rocks at Nick, because he's a nice guy. But he also had an aversion to Scene 13; he never had a Scene 13 in his pictures. I said, "Nick, for Christ's sake, here are eight or ten of your pictures, and no Scene 13. What the hell's the matter?" He said, "I'm superstitious, that's all. Shut up."
Barrier: Now, you started as a story man, didn't you, and Hannah and Nichols were animators principally?
Kinney: Well, I was in animation, too.
Barrier: But you were in story much longer.
Kinney: Much longer, yeah.
Barrier: Hannah was in story, too. I was thinking that maybe a story man would have a freer feeling for sound.
Kinney: That's true, because Nick was strictly an animator. He thought as an animator, and his stuff looked like an animator's; his direction was from [an animator's standpoint], that's why you got the tink-tink business. He fell in love with that cute little walk. It was a good little walk, but Jesus, not to do it over and over.
Barrier:So you'd be concerned with getting the story across, and not holding any patterns, or things like that.
Kinney: No, I thought that if you did that you were defeating yourself, because you couldn't cut. I think tempo in your picture has to build. You do it by your cutting of your individual scenes, more than by keeping to a beat. I always try to get a chase someplace, in the last hundred, hundred and fifty feet, going like a bat out of hell. Take a little time to establish it, and then get moving. Let the thing go out, so that even if the gags were dry, they won't be on the scene that long.
|A publicity still for How to Play Golf (1944), one of Kinney's many Goofy cartoons on a sports theme.|
Gray: You made so many of those Goofy sports cartoons. I was wondering if that was because you were a big sports enthusiast, or if you were just stuck with a series assignment.
Kinney: I love sports; I really do, but I can't do them any more. I quit playing football when I was forty-five, because I broke my collarbone playing touch football at Disney's. And that just about was the end of my athletic career. At that time, when we moved over from Hyperion to Burbank, we didn’t care, a short could go on a reel—900 feet, roughly. No more than that. The pictures would run 800, 750, and we finally got them down to—they had an economy thing going there. They thought, the shorts are costing too much, let's cut them down in footage, and instead of having Mickey and Pluto and Goofy and the Duck in one picture, let's break them up, and let's see if we can't come up with some ideas. At that point, I thought, the character I'd like to work with would be the Goof. I'd worked with all the other characters at one time or another, but the Goof to me was a nice long, lean character that you could move; you could get poses out of him, crazy poses. I liked his voice, because I thought he was kind of an easygoing guy that you could associate with, as being dumber than yourself. They always make you feel good, you know.
The first one I did, when we started that series, was Goofy's Glider (1940). Then I got to thinking, I've got to dream up something—because they put in the bonus system, and the bonus system is a pretty handy thing, because if you did a picture under $35,000, you got a piece of change back. Everybody on the thing, not just the director, but the story guys, and the animators, and everybody else. We had a gung-ho group going for a while, till they stopped that, and when they stopped that, pictures went up from $35,000 to $45,000 to $55,000 to $65,000 to over $100,000, for 500 feet.
Barrier: Which one was that?
Kinney: Oh, God, there were a lot of them. So—I don't know when it happened—why not do a how-to-do-it series? We used to have to send in a piece of paper every week to Walt, if we had any ideas. So I wrote out a little synopsis of stuff, and I suggested titles—How to Ride a Horse was the first one, and How to Ski [actual title: The Art of Skiing], and how to do this, and I sent them, and I said, I think this could be made with one character, and maybe a few incidental characters, with narration over rather than mouth action. Because at that time, Pinto [Colvig] had a falling out with Walt, and quit, or whatever, anyway, he wasn' t around, so we had to use whatever was in the library; you know, his laugh and all those things. But he did have a hell of a library, of different lines of dialogue.
So John McLeish—have you ever heard of him? His name was John Ployardt, he changed it later. He was a great guy, really a very wonderful character—damn good artist. A nonconformist but he was a great admirer of John Barrymore, [and] he looked a bit like him. He had this deep voice, just a great voice, and he loved to recite Shakespeare. So I suggested, my God, we'll get McLeish for a narrator, and don't tell him that he's not doing it straight. Just let him play it.
I sent this thing in to Walt, and at 8:30 in the morning on Monday he called up and said, "Come on up, I want to talk to you. I think this is a hell of an idea. " I went up, and he got real excited about these how-to-do-it things. He said, "Go ahead"—boom. So we went ahead, and that's how we happened to do it. Then later, he got on this psychological kick for some reason or another, and I had to do pictures I didn’t really want to do, ike Fathers Are People (1951)and all that kind of crap. I said, "Jesus, Walt, if you're going to do that, make him a human character, take the dog head off of him." He said, "Yeah, let's try that." Then, about an hour later, he called back, "No, no, the Goof's established, they know him." But those pictures were disasters, because I didn't fight it hard enough.
Afterwards, I thought, this thing is getting to be an awful pain in the ass, to try to do this type of stuff with a character that isn't designed for it. Then I got back to the formula stuff, like For Whom the Bulls Toil (1953), back into the old routines again, but by that time the shorts were on their way out.
Motor Mania (1950)—that thing went over very well. It's still running in the schools; that damn thing made a lot of money. That was a simple little picture; it wasn't designed to be a teaching thing. But I got hold of the National Safety Council, had them come out and talk to [Kinney's unit], and some cops from downtown, and we found out what their problems were, and then we just put gags in that were based on—when you walk down a street, or try to cross a street, you run into these guys. So it makes sense, but we exaggerated a little bit. But it was a fairly strict picture; the gags were basic gags. Another thing, too, with the sports pictures—they were always basic gags. I wouldn't throw in a gag because it was a gag, it had to be based on that damn sport.
Gray: I'm so amazed that you made all those different sports cartoons, and each one was so different; you weren't repeating gags from an earlier cartoon.
Kinney: I tried not to.
Gray: You did such a good job of always having fresh material, even though it was the same format.
Kinney: Well, each sport had a different format, too, and then you'd exaggerate on the business. I know one gag I had I was real proud of, that was in How to Ski [The Art of Skiing, 1941]. It took a long time, when [Goofy] was up on top of his thing, and [the narrator] was talking about the landslides, and there was a big mountain here [indicating with a sketch]. The Goof is standing right here, with his skis out like this, and the narrator went on and on, talking about this thing, and telling about how you'd flex your arms, and how you'd do that—it was a dull piece of narration. On purpose. It was right from the book, a technical bit of stuff, and the Goof was yawning, and making faces, and scratching his head, and scratching his ass, and now, [the narrator]says, "We're off!" and [Goofy] shoves his poles down in the ground, and leaps up with a joyous [noise]—and went over the back of the hill. The audience died at that thing, because it was a long buildup to it. You didn’t see the back of the hill, you didn't know where he was. As soon as he jumped up in the air, you knew he was going to go [forward], but he didn't, he went down [backwards ], and the timing on that just caught them, just right, for some reason or other.
Barrier: Something I like is that you don't just have different gags appropriate to the different sports, but you have different kinds of gags. Literal puns in one cartoons, as in How to Play Football, or you'll have, as in The Art of Skiing, a string of gags, not just a separate sequence for each single gag, or...
|A publicity still for How to Ride a Horse, released originally as part of The Reluctant Dragon (1941) and in 1950 as a separate short subject.|
Kinney: Slow motion was helpful, too. We used it so much, for the first time, in How to Ride a Horse. They put that in The Reluctant Dragon; that wasn't meant to go in there.
Barrier: It was made as a separate short?
Kinney: Yeah. RKO insisted that picture go in The Reluctant Dragon (1941), so it had to get stuck in there, but it wasn't designed for that. That was the first how-to-do-it picture.
Barrier: How about the shorts in Saludos Amigos (1942)? Did you do two or only one of those?
Kinney: I just did one, Gaucho Goofy.
Barrier: Was Gaucho Goofy done as a short, and then put into Saludos Amigos?
Kinney: No. What happened there was, Walt took a lot of his people to South America—his favorites, you know. And they had a ball. That's when we made Dumbo, when he was out of town. [Actually not; Dumbo was essentially completed before Disney left on the South American trip in August 1941.] So when they were out down there having a ball, we were having a strike. We were left with the strike, and Walt was down there being feted by the government, and going to all these places. They were gone two or three months, I think. They came back, and all these guys that went with him, not one of them worked on the pictures. And these were the guys that went down there to absorb all this culture. They would tell us certain things—"You do a Goof thing.“ “Well, what are we going to do a Goof on?" "Do it on the Argentine pampas."
So we got this guy, a South American artist who came up, and he drew everything with a low background; he did calendar art for the shoe manufacturers down there. F. Molina Campos, his name was. He was a primitive type of artist. So we used his backgrounds; they were styled, we used his low-horizon style. It made real good reading, because you could see your stuff playing. I always hated when these background guys would get so damned flamboyant with their backgrounds, and fall in love with the background, and the character would turn, and he'd lose a head or a nose or something. I like to see the damned things out there so you can read them. And I don't like anything playing here [holding his arms close to his body], I want their arms out here. They’re ham actors, that’s what they are, you know; let them be hams. Especially with the Goof; there was nothing subtle about him.
Barrier: Goofy changed so much when he was in your cartoons from the way he was, say, in Moving Day(1936).
Kinney: I worked on that story. Yeah, once we started getting him, we changed his character, made him a little more solid. Art Babbitt did a lot of the early Goofys; but Art would see—Art's stuff was very stiff, because he would have Dick Lundy, and he would take his 16mm camera out, and have Dick Lundy act it out, and he'd rotoscope it. Not really rotoscope it, but he'd have it on a viewer in front of his desk. So what Babbitt did was use Lundy's body—he had thin shoulders, and he was a pretty skinny guy, and he could exaggerate, and hit poses—and all he did was take a human body and put a Goof head on it. He had wide shoulders, and Babbitt insisted on five fingers on his hands.
Babbitt's a good animator; but he was set in his ways. He still thinks in terms of perfection; whereas a guy like John Sibley had no inhibitions whatsoever. God, he would just do anything; he didn't care. In Tiger Trouble (1945), I had a little time to kill in one spot, so they had the elephant go through, and they stopped for lunch, and the elephant blew the nose, and said "Lunch!" through his long nose. So he sat down in the middle of the forest, and he had lunch set up; a little picnic. I said, "John, just have him eat a sandwich or something, while the narration's carrying over." We wanted a little soft spot there, because all hell was going to break loose right after lunch. So John said, "Oh, swell, Jack." And this killed me, because it was just a stall, let's face it—so John built a sandwich [indicating an enormous sandwich, built very quickly], and it was this big, see. Then, instead of taking a bite, he threw it up in the air—like [making] a basket, shot the thing up in the air—opened his mouth about that wide, the sandwich went down, and he chewed it. It was funny!
It got over a dull spot. It was still a dull spot, it was supposed to be a soft spot; but the way he did that—some other animator would have been very meticulous about picking up the thing, and taking a bite, and it wouldn’t have had anything. But he had this thing—it went up thirty-five feet in the air before he swallowed it. And when John made a take with the eyes, boy, those eyes would come right down; they would come out of the sockets. This would be only for two frames. And then they would come back, react on the back of his head, and then settle back into the position. When he made a take, it was a take. Most animators would just make a take, and then grab it, [but in Sibley's takes] his eyes would go out to that thing—a triple eye take—and then he'd reach up and grab it. Well, damn it, you didn't see it on the screen, but that was a strong take.
Barrier: That's something you don't think about in connection with Disney cartoons, that much distortion.
Kinney: Oh, we distorted to beat hell.
Gray: What did Walt have to say about that? Did he let it go?
Kinney: Yeah, he let it go. He never thought too much about the Goofys; he always liked the sweetness-and-light stuff. He liked the tink-tink stuff, I think.
Gray: There seemed to be generally three units making shorts at Disney's, and the other two units [Hannah and Nichols], their stuff looked so similar, in many ways, and yours were so outstanding, and crisp and sharp. In the other two units' cartoons, the backgrounds were overripe, but in yours, they're crisp.
Kinney: Get the hell out of the props; they don't need it.I still believe that; I don't like to see anything crudded up with a lot of unnecessary—because your eye will wander. You want to see what's up there on that screen. It's like going to that wide screen. I remember seeing Julius Caesar on the wide screen, and the scene that you were supposed to be looking at was him standing up here in the middle, surrounded by all these spear holders. But one guy didn't hold still, on the right-hand side of the screen, and he shook that spear a little bit and boom, your eye went over here and you didn't see what was happening [where the principal action was supposed to be taking place]. It's the same thing. Wide screen is fine, if you've got wide-screen material, but for close-up stuff, you sure don't need no big wide screen.
Gray: I was just wondering if that was something you did because it was you, and the other guys did because it was them, or if they were following Walt's orders.
Kinney: No. See, that was a fun time at Disney's, when Walt didn't pay too much attention to the shorts. Really, we let ourselves go pretty well at that point. Your pictures were being rated, A, B, C or D was the amount of the bonus you got, so if you did a bad picture, you weren't going to get as much money as if you did a picture that he considered A or B. So you'd try to keep the quality going and still watch the budget.
Gray: How did he rate them?
Kinney: He'd do them personally, or we'd take it off an ARI—not an ARI, because we used to take the pictures out and run them at the Alex Theater, and run them for the audience at noon, and take a record, and see where the reactions were, and cut it before—if there were any dry spots, or it needed a gag here or there, or if you wanted to build something, and you could still build it. [But] he kind of kept out of the way of the shorts. Like I say, it was a fun time for everybody on the shorts. Then, when he got interested, that's when the pictures [increased in cost], until they priced themselves right out of the field.
Barrier: You mean he started checking on you more closely?
Kinney: He probably had a little more time on his hands, and would drop around a little more often than he did before. He'd just drop in, or he'd say, “When are you going to have a story meeting?" We'd give him a quick look at the boards, and that was about it. He wouldn't spend any time. Then when he started getting interested in the things, he'd say, change this, change that, change this and change that. Then pretty soon the pictures started to get more costly—naturally. And they also started to lose a lot of the freshness. He was no angel on that, either, because he—well, he was a perfectionist, there's no doubt about that, because he wanted the best he could get, and he'd kick your ass if you didn't give it to him. But mostly he liked the Silly Symphony type of stuff; and Mickey. If you could get Mickey in, that was fine, because that was his baby. Ub Iwerks really designed Mickey, you know. He was an awfully nice man, Iwerks; hell of a talented guy.
Barrier: Were the shorts, back in the '40s and '50s, regarded as sort of the bottom rung of the ladder?
Kinney: Sure, yeah.
Barrier: How was this reflected in the way you were treated?
Kinney: I always got a piece of whatever feature was going through, plus the shorts.
Barrier: But you didn't have a feature credit past The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949).
Kinney: That was the last one. Then it went into that television thing, and that wasn't much fun. Then they brought in other people from the outside, and it was a different world, no fun any more. The spirit had gone out, because everyone now was turning out stuff, and they were scrambling over each other, and reaching out and trying different things. I was one of the first guys to be assigned on television, and Walt said, "I want you to try and design some things where I'll be master of ceremonies, but one thing, goddammit, I don't want, I don't want to be behind a desk. You got that, Jack?" I said, "Yeah, I got it." So I tried to come up with all different ways that Walt could be walking around in different departments in the studio, or could be at Disneyland, or on the sound stage, looking over somebody's back, and then going on to a gimmick like that. He ends up behind the desk. He never got out of that library; that was it.
Barrier: When you were working on both features and shorts in the '40s, would you work on a feature for a while and then go back to shorts, or would you work on both simultaneously?
Kinney: Both of them. It would depend, because you'd overlap. The overlap [was why] you could make [the shorts] for a reasonable price. The minute you stop on a picture, and try to pick it up later, your costs just go up like hell. It still works that way. You get up a head of steam, and you drop it, it's hard to pick up that steam again. Like I remember one picture we did—the sequence in Pinocchio, inside the whale. First I did all the story section from the time Jiminy Cricket jumped into the water, from there to the end; I did all that in story. And the first direction I did was on Pinocchio (1940). We had an awfully cute little sequence in there, [with] Cleo the fish and the cat, Figaro. The cat was hungry, inside this whale, and he was always trying to get that damned fish, and Geppetto was trying to save [Cleo] from [Figaro]. For some reason or another, they cut it out of the picture, and it burned my ass, because it was beautifully done, damn good animation—Eric Larson did the cat and the fish, and he did a hell of a job on it.
It hurt me that that thing was cut out of the picture; it was about 400 feet of animation, real good stuff, and it was all cleaned up.It was all ready to go into ink and paint, and the whole bit. Much later, it still rankled that that thing was just going to waste. So I took Geppetto out of it, and put in just the bottom part of a colored maid's legs, chasing him, and made the picture called Figaro and Cleo (1943). The thing is, I could have made that picture—if Walt had kept out of it, it would have been the cheapest picture he ever made, because it was all done. But he started fooling around with it, and he shelved it, and I got on the other side, and he opened it up again, and shelved it again. I could have brought that picture in for about $18,000. It ended up costing about $50,000, because of stop-and-go. So you can't do that.
Barrier: Talking about stuff that wasn't used reminds me that in one of the sports cartoons, there's a little bit of animation of Goofy taken from Clock Cleaners (1937), and I guess there was more and more of that sort of thing as the '40s and '50s went on.
Kinney: They did an awful lot of stealing from the morgue. I didn't; once in a while I might get a walk or something, but I didn't use that morgue much. But when they got into television, they did get into it pretty well. Woolie Reitherman thinks he's saving money by doing that.
Barrier: I don't understand that, because with all the trouble it takes to find the stuff.
Kinney: Of course, if you get a good walk, why throw it away, because a walk's a walk. That I wouldn't mind using, with a different background or something, but I didn't do it very often. If I did, it was a mistake on my part. It wasn't necessary, really, because [the characters] had a different way of walking [in each picture].
Barrier: I was struck by what you said about working on the story for Pinocchio and then working as a director, because the picture you get of the Disney studio is of a self-contained story department, with the directors called in at the last minute; then they work with the layout men and the animators, in a kind of neat little chain of command. You don't think about Disney directors having much to do with the story.
Kinney: That was a big mistake, I always thought. There were directors who took whatever the story department gave them. Poor old Jack King was always taken by Roy Williams. Roy Williams would tell a story, and he'd tell it so goddamn funny that everybody would laugh because of his antics. He'd get up there and say, "This is a goddamn funny gag," and he'd tell it, and it's a funny gag, and everybody'd say, "Yeah, it's a funny gag," and they'd laugh. Jack King would be looking around, because these guys would go up on a Saturday meeting for the storyboard. We always did our stories in our own damned unit, didn't go out shopping around with other units, buying stories—but King did, and Hannah did, and [Wilfred[ Jackson, and whoever. They could take a look and say, "Well, I'd like to do that one." And then they'd get assigned to do it.
Jack King always got taken by Roy. He had a very high, funny voice, Jack did, kind of nasal. I was in the same unit with him at one time, and he said, "Goddamn that Roy, he tells a story so goddamn funny up there, and then I put ‘em in the pictures and they're not funny any more. Why did we even laugh?'' That's the truth, that's what happened to him. He thought, gee, this is a funny story, because everybody's laughing—at Roy, they weren't laughing at the story.
Gray: That raises a point that I've been wanting to ask somebody for a long time. I would guess that the best way to judge a storyboard is to have the thing sitting there, and not have anybody tell it or act it out, just go up and look, and either the idea is there or it's not.
Kinney: Absolutely. Then if you've got any questions, ask them.
Gray: Then it can be embellished later with acting, for the animators or something.
Kinney: Sure. It's got to tell on that board, or else it's not there. There's one guy by the name of Mike Meyer, who came out from New York, and he was so funny; Dave Hand might have mentioned this to you, because Dave was put in charge of shorts during Pinocchio and Bambi. He was trying to get in on the antics across the street. He had a little bit of everybody out there—Harry Reeves, and Homer Brightman, and this Mike Meyer, and Frank Tashlin was working there, and Leo Salkin. They had a whole bunch of guys, they were trying to develop guys.He had this Mike Meyer come out, and this guy couldn't talk without cussing. You should have heard him try to tell a Duck story. It was the funniest damn thing I ever heard in my life. He was a typical New Yorker—he was a New Yawker, and that was all there was to it. And he gets up in front of this thing, and Dave's there—Dave was in charge, Walt was not having anything to do with it, he was busy on Bambi and Pinocchio.
So [Meyer] gets up and he tells this story, and you've got all these guys from the story department there, and they're all sitting there, and he starts going through this thing, and says, "For the opening here, here comes the fucking Duck walking down the street, and he trips over and falls on his goddamn ass, and he picks himself up, and he goes cha-cha-cha, and then the fucking Duck turns and he bumps into this cocksucker over here..." Dave Hand said, "Mike, for God's sake, cut it out! Listen, you're going to have to tell this to Walt. Tone it down; you don't have to say all those things." Mike says, “What the fuck did I do wrong? What's the matter with you, for Christ's sake? I just told the story, for God's sake, that's the way it is up on the goddamn board. The fucking Duck walking along, he trips and falls on his ass." We were dying, but Dave was trying to be so straight about this thing. So Mike didn't last too long; he didn't understand Dave, and Dave didn't understand him. Back to New York.
Barrier: Of your own story men, I've heard mention a number of times of Ralph Wright. He was working with you, I guess, from the very beginning.
Kinney: Yeah, Ralph and I started pretty close together, and later on Bill Peet came in and worked on 'em, and Don Da Gradi, and Lance Nolley, and my brother, Dick. Roy would come in for gags, because Roy is a terrific gagman. He'd give you a stack of gags that high, and you might get three or four gags out of it; but fast! But it was loose, a very loose kind of a thing. Milt Schaffer and Brice Mack also worked on the things. We had a pattern, what the hell; it was just a pattern, we’d just lay the stuff in.
We had one thing that was kind of interesting. Walt had made a pact with Sam Goldwyn, to do a picture called How to Play Baseball (1942), to be released with The Pride of the Yankees. The Gehrig story, with Gary Cooper. The picture was done, practically, so Walt says, "Jack, I want you to take everybody you can, and get it on a picture called How to Play Baseball." I said, "Fine, great." "Can't give you any longer than one week on the story." I said, "Okay, okay." So he says, "We've got to have the damn thing out in a month.” I said, "All right, sure." He said, "You can have anybody in the studio you want. " So, Christ, we knocked that damn story out in less than a week.
We had a meeting, and Sam Goldwyn came over with all his yes-people around, and Walt came in on the meeting. I told the storyboards to the group, and Sam had several calls coming on the phone while the story meeting was going on, and I'd have to stop. Finally, I went through the whole thing. It worked; it was a nice simple little story. We used dotted lines running around and falling down, cheap tricks and stuff, but they got laughs. So we got all through telling the story, and you could tell Walt was happy about the thing. Walt turned to Sam Goldwyn and he said, "Sam, you got any suggestions?" He said, "Yes, I do, Walt, I have a suggestion. You know that scene before the American flag"—you know, the American flag was thrown in as a gag [even] back then—"when you cut to the audience"—so everybody's waiting, here's this great producer, he's going to come up with an idea to help me make pictures, we were going to learn something now, this man's been in the business for a long time—"could you put the Three Little Pigs in one of the boxes?" I came unglued, and Walt came unglued, and everybody didn't want to say anything; Walt says, "Well, Sam, we got a thing here, we never repeat our characters Any other suggestions?" "No, that was the only thing I thought of. But that's all right, let it go.”
Barrier: What led to the making of Der Fuehrer’s Face ? Was there a special reason behind the making of that?
Kinney: It was during the war, so they were trying to do a lot of semi-propaganda type things, like Chicken Little and Reason and Emotion and Education for Death (all 1943). So out of this group came this thing that Ollie Wallace wrote the tune for, Der Fuehrer’s Face. Joe Grant and Dick Huemer and I worked together on the thing, and did the story together. The tune carried it; I never thought it was a good picture. It won the Academy, but it was just another picture. Except the tune; I think the tune was great. That sent up Spike Jones, you know. The Russians bought a lot of prints on that. It was put-down of Hitler, and he was pretty high at that time, you know. It served a damn good purpose, even though it was propaganda, it really did. They had great distribution on it. It went to all the Army camps, and everybody else got to see it. I think it had more [distribution] than things that got a little on the straight side, like Reason and Emotion, and things like that. It would probably pull well today.
Victory Through Air Power (1943) had an awful lot of nice things in it, but it was probably too late. But they did develop great techniques in moving nuts and bolts around. Things that you'd love to put into an educational-type picture. We had some great camera effects and stuff, a few cheats, which we had to. I think it still holds up, but not as a story, because that was long gone, it was too late.
Barrier: Dave Hand remarked that it was a chance to do a feature that didn't require the personality animation.
Kinney: Funny thing, all the personality animators had to do the nuts-and-bolts animation. Everybody got on the damn thing. Guys were drawing airplanes flying down, and bullets going through the air, and bombs bursting. They did their own effects, and everything was cranked out. It was like I mentioned on that How to Play Baseball, when we had that schedule. We had guys who had never done the Goof before in their lives, like Bill Tytla, Johnny Lounsbery, Milt Kahl—name them, every damn animator that wasn't doing something, I just threw out the scenes to them, so you got some strange-looking Goofs running around in a few of those [scenes].
Gray: I thought that one of the cartoons they turned out the fastest was Donald Duck in The New Spirit (1942), and they did that in six weeks; I thought that was the fastest.
Kinney: That was only a minute, a minute-and-a-half thing, wasn't it? I think it was very short. [Kinney may have been confusing The New Spirit with The Spirit of '43, another cartoon intended to encourage the payment of income taxes; it reused footage from the earlier film.]
Gray: I'm not even sure that I've ever seen the entire thing. But you did a full seven-minute cartoon in a month. That's phenomenal.
Kinney: That [The New Spirit] was not very long in footage; they may have had other things in it, stills and stuff. It was not a completely animated thing, as I remember. I think he probably had about two minutes of animation in the thing.
Gray: They made a big deal once, in a book or something, about knocking that thing out in six weeks. But you're talking about how you did a whole seven-minute cartoon in four weeks.
Kinney: That was the fastest picture they ever turned out over there. We had the whole damn studio working on it. They cranked it out, they really had to, because we'd give guys fifty or sixty feet to do. You'd get it back in a couple of weeks. We didn't hardly bother at all. I had it pose-tested, then [we would] go right from pose-testing to clean-up. We didn't have time to fool with it. You can do it: God, you can do it now.
Gray: The animation was terrific in it, though.
Kinney: No, it was full animation. But you had a lot of strange-looking Goofs in there, too. Hell, Bill Tytla, he never saw the Goof in his life. He liked to do these big muscley things. That was his cup of tea. Then, when he got through, he said, "Goddamn, that was fun." He didn't want to work on that kind of stuff; if it didn't have muscles, Bill didn't want any part of it. He loved to do those big Strombolis and Bald Mountain things. And he could do them, too.
Barrier: Talking about your unit, I gather that back in the '30s, they would just move animators around like chess men, casting them for certain cartoons.They wouldn't put a director with certain animators who worked for him consistently. But evidently, by the time you started directing shorts, this had changed, and they had groups of animators who worked with specific directors.
Kinney: Pretty much so, yeah.
Barrier: When did that come in?
Kinney: Just about during that period [the early '40s].
Gray: How many feet a week did the animators do when they were working on your how-to series?
Kinney: We turned out more, usually, than most of them, because guys like Sibley could turn out thirty feet. That was a lot better than a lot of them were doing.
Gray: That's awfully good for that kind of quality.
Kinney: You know, some of the guys—Jesus, four feet a week.
Gray: Do you mean some of the guys in your unit?
Kinney: No, hell, no.
Barrier: Did you have a set footage requirement?
Kinney: They wanted to get twenty feet a week from the guys on shorts.
Barrier: This was during the '40s?
Kinney: Yeah. They tried to get it, and they kept going lower and lower and lower. Milt Kahl, you know, you're lucky sometimes to get four feet a week out of him.
Barrier: Of course, he worked mostly on features.
Kinney: Yeah, mostly; very few shorts. He worked on—he did some real good Goof animation on Tiger Trouble. So did Eric Larson; [he] did some nice Goof animation on that. So they could do it, if they wanted to.
Barrier: These guys would just come in when they were between features?
Gray: Now, when you say they could do it, do you mean the higher footage?
Kinney: Oh, they could crack out more footage than that [the four feet a week]; they had to, because you couldn't stand waiting that long. But we would pose-test the stuff, and if the pose test was all right, we were ready to go into clean-up. We'd probably have a pose every foot, every two or three feet, enough to carry it. Hell, you could follow the story; you could shoot a storyboard and it'd tell you the story, if all your cuts are made, and all that. Why not? If you haven't got a story, why make it move?
Gray: It seems only reasonable to me to shoot pose reels, and I don't know why more studios don't do it.
Kinney: For one thing, I don't think they know how to do it. They weren't raised that way. I don't know why they don't. They've got a formula going for them, I guess. But that worked for me, and it still works.
Gray: Now, did you tend to use those poses as layouts?
Kinney: Oh, no, they were extremes.
Gray: Animation extremes.
Kinney: Oh, yeah, they weren't just thrown in there to tell the story, because we knew the story, it was on the board. This was the next step, because the layouts would be completed.
Gray: Now, did you tend to have one guy, usually, who always did those poses? Did the animators do their own extremes?
Kinney: Did their own extremes, yeah. And they liked it, because by the time they got to the end of the picture, they weren't hung up on one scene. So everything stayed fresh. They'd shoot through their whole sequence. All right, it's up there, and if there were any small changes, they weren't throwing away a whole bundle of drawings. They were throwing away about 10 or 20 drawings instead of 300 or whatever, you know. Consequently, they got the feeling of the story much better, and they could tell how it was leading, and then they'd see it all thrown together. I wouldn't sweatbox anything until we got the whole picture together. Don't look at it; I could look at an occasional test, but that was all. Put it together, let's see it in continuity. Throw in some rough sound effects, we've got our narration already, our dialogue's up there. Then look at it. Okay, this is too slow, this is too fast. Make those little changes, then get it out.
Barrier: Was your pose reel distinct from the usual pencil tests?
Kinney: It is the pencil test. But you see, as the animation would come in, we'd till keep our original picture [the pose reel] intact, so as the animation would come in, we'd chunk in the animation in those spots. You were always working with a completed piece of machinery; you wouldn't have a little piece here and there, with blank inbetween.
Gray: So you would have regular pencil-test animation...
Kinney: Clean-up. As that would come in, then we'd go to ink and paint. We'd check the clean-ups. You were always seeing the picture complete; you knew exactly where it was going, and how one scene was cutting into another scene.If you needed a truck, or a cut, or wanted a dissolve, or a wipe-over, you can still put it in there, you know. It’s simple; it's just too damn simple.
Barrier: On the features, wasn't some similar procedure followed? Wouldn't they cut sequences into a reel in various stages of completion?
Kinney: They first tried it on Peter Pan, because they thought that would be one way to get Perce Pearce off his ass.
Gray: When you say Peter Pan, you mean when it was first worked on, in the '30s?
Kinney: Peter Pan was started first by Perce Pearce, after Bambi. It laid an egg, and they dropped it. You see, these guys didn't understand what the hell they should do with the storyboard technique, of shooting the storyboards and/or the pose tests. Oh, I know what happened; this goes way back. Walt would be a terrible person to tell a storyboard to, because he was always looking down here someplace.We used to have night meetings—I'm talking about way back [in the '30s]—and he wouldn't see the story until he came over in a whole group. The key animators and directors and story men would get together at night and go over this thing. So we tried all kinds of tricks. One guy, Earl Hurd, tried to cover up the next line with wrapping paper, and unravel it, so Walt wouldn't jump ahead. It made him nervous, see. I thought, what the hell am I going to do? I took The Brave Little Tailor and had them shoot the storyboard on the thing, and then flipped it, and told the story, put the dialogue on, one frame at a time. It was a sensation.
Barrier: This was the Leica reel.
Kinney: The Leica reel. This was the first time that anybody did that. Everybody then tried to make a Leica reel. They tried to make a Leica reel on Peter Pan. But then they put a piano track behind, they put narration behind it, they put sound effects behind it. It only costs you peanuts to shoot 150 sketches on a Leica reel, but when they got through with it [the Leica reel for Peter Pan], it cost them $350,000. For a Leica reel. Shelved it. It was lousy. The story wasn't right in the first place. So that's what blew the Leica reel out of the business.
Barrier: And so they didn't have any sort of reel after that until they got to the actual pencil test animation?
Kinney: No. It was precious; everything was precious. You had to approach it from that viewpoint. To be an animator—boy, you were knighted. You've got a lovely scene to do, now animate it the best way you can, and make it look beautiful. So they'd take every picture, and they'd sweatbox those things, and sweatbox—there was one case where an animator did thirty-eight tests on a Donald Duck thing. He wasn't a good animator to do it. Thirty-eight tests—my God, that's unthought of. On Popeye [the TV Popeyes that Kinney directed], we never tested anything. We just—boom, out, finished, it's gone. One animator turned out a Popeye in two weeks.
Gray: Do you think it would tend to take away the freshness to rework something that many times?
Kinney: It didn't help. That's the extreme. Because usually, two or three tests, with those guys—most of those guys were pretty damned good. But there have been a lot of guys who turned out a lot of tests to get what they wanted. But then, later on, they find out that the damn thing's thrown out of the picture, because it wasn't right in the first place.
Barrier: Someone was saying that you can't look at a pencil test in isolation; you've got to look at the scenes before and after before you can judge it.
Kinney: That's right.
Barrier: I had the impression that the Disney people would have a reel that would represent the complete cartoon, and would include everything from finished animation to pencil tests to story sketches, depending on the stage of completion of a particular scene. But they didn't actually use this kind of reel?
Kinney: No. Most of them didn't. I was the only guy who did that pose-testing bit. The other guys, I don't know, they just didn't get around to doing it. It worked for them; they turned out pictures.
Gray: When I was there, on Jungle Book (1967), and a couple of features after that I worked on, they had them then.
Kinney: Well, then, they probably changed. See, I left there in ’57.
[After a brief discussion of the high cost of the Disney features.] I think you can do a damn good picture for a million and a half bucks, if you've got a good story to start with. And you don't fuss around, making a lot of changes. Hell, you can do it for under a million dollars, if you have to. A lot of it's frosting on the cake. It's hard to spoil a good story, but it’s awfully hard to butter up a bad story. If you've got that, then you've got problems. It's best to just get it out, and finish it, and get it out of your hair, and try [again] on the next time around. Don't throw good money after bad.
|A publicity still for the El Gaucho Goofy segment of Saludos Amigos (1942), directed by Kinney.|
[Posted October 30, 2015]