Mill Kahl confirmed that. Disney was always trying to do different things. He said he never chewed his cabbage twice, he never did a sequel. But those were the guys he had to work with and they tended to draw that way, so the pictures came out that way. They were developing the medium from the crude quality of Steamboat Willie (the first sound cartoon produced by Disney) in 1925 to Snow White coming out at the end of 1936. In eleven years they went from the start of sound to this elaborate medium which could deal with myths.
Those early films have the same guys working on them, but there wasn’t a Disney style. Those animators were pushing in different directions. Dumbo was apparently developed to exploit all the old vaudeville-type animators at Disney while the newer wave went on to Bambi, to the difficult realism, and tried to push it that way. They did Fantasia and Pinocchio, each one of those pictures has a completely different conception. It’s only lately that what’s called Disney is this giant remarketing operation which is tremendously successful, but creatively they’re not that innovative. It’s another singing mouse picture, another singing dog picture, with slight variations. But the Rabbit is a new direction for Disney: good, old fashioned 1947 animation with a twist — it’s Hip Rehash. It’s a cartoon of a cartoon, a joke on a joke, so it was almost bound to work. It was almost easy. You have this sincere Little Rabbit, but then he can do a Tex Avery take with his eyes flying out of his head. You accept it.
JC: I can’t recall anything like the Avery approach in a previous Disney film.
RW: Because it couldn’t sustain. If you had Roger Rabbit in a pure cartoon for an hour-and-a-half and there was a real story, it would be very hard to sustain having him do Avery takes. Avery apparently saw two hours of his stuff at a festival where everyone came out absolutely beaten and worn out. He said, “This is crazy. These things are supposed to be five minutes long. You can’t take two of them at once, let alone two hours’ worth. They’re too fast!”
The Disney solution to the problem of sustaining audience interest was that you make the story and the characters and the personalities so strong – I think the characters are stronger than the story – that they forget these things are drawings. That then turned into trying to get a kind of realism. But the best guys at Disney – Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson and Milt Kahl – they all said, “We’re not after realism.”
Milt did a lot of those realistic characters in the cartoons because he was very good with them. He said, “I don’t go for realism, I never look at any live action footage we’ve shot, I refuse to look at it. We go for believability.” So I think the answer is, if you have the challenge of a one-and-a-half-hour movie, how are you going to hold the audience in their seats to watch drawings. That tends to lock you into formulae and styles.
You can hold the attention with live action pictures of a man and woman talking. But the same isn’t true of drawings.
If Degas animated a movie, I would be going out to buy popcorn after twenty-five minutes unless he found a way to make it something other than drawings. The whole thing is illusion isn’t it? Whether it’s the realism Albert Whitlock creates with matte paintings, or Spielberg/Zemeckis realism as in the Rabbit, which not my kind of thing. Doing these 3D things, aesthetically it’s not my bag; but what was my bag was to see if we could do it, and make it work. That was the challenge. But the trick is how to make those flat animated characters believable. In The Thief we’ve done it in various ways. Although they look very strange initially, you believe them. After a little while I’m quite sure the audience will buy the whole device, the set of rules of the game, and they’ll be comfortable.
JC: When I saw the clips of The Thief some time ago, in a television documentary about your work I was impressed by the magician shuffling the cards and his arms gyrating about all over the place. This is obviously something to do with the character – as defined by its animation.
RW: That was my graduation scene. I worked on that particular scene for about four years, and Ken Harris said at one point, “You could be an animator, you know.” It was because I didn’t have my visual accents right, and I didn’t have a lot of the mechanical things about how the movement unfolded right. I worked like crazy until two years later I got it right. Then he said, “O.K., you’re an animator.”