March 22, 1909 – Animator, Member of Disney’s Nine Old Men, and Disney Legend Milt Kahl is Born
“I don’t think it’s possible to be a top notch animator without being a very excellent draftsman. You have to be able to draw these characters in order to move them around and articulate them. There’s no way of doing it unless you draw very well.”
On March 22, 1909, animator Milton Erwin Kahl was born in San Francisco, California. At the age of 16, Kahl dropped out of high school to help provide for his family, and was hired by the Oakland Post Enquirer in the art department. After three years there, Kahl then got a job at the San Francisco bulletin, but was laid off when the Great Depression hit. He was able to find some work as a commercial artist and began to take art classes to improve his work. In late 1933, as he was struggling once again to find work in commercial art, a friend from the Oakland Post Enquirer, future Disney Legend Ham Luske, recommended that he apply to work at the Disney studios. Kahl was hired on June 25, 1934. with his first important animation assignment being the 1936 Mickey Mouse short film Mickey’s Circus. He was then assigned to animate the animals in the full-length animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, along with Eric Larson among others.
Kahl’s talents shone in the next film, Pinocchio, when the staff of the studio were having problems trying to create the title character in terms of personality and overall design. “They were thinking in terms of a puppet all the time, naturally, because he was a puppet,” Kahl said. “And I was very critical of what they had. So I did a test scene where Pinocchio had donkey ears and a tail and was down on the sea bottom…and I handled it not thinking of so much as a puppet, as just a little boy. Walt liked it, so that became the model.” This way of thinking helped reshape the character and restart production, and Kahl was given the plumb role of directing animator on Pinocchio once he comes to life. This role also established Kahl as one of the top animators at the studio.
Kahl’s role grew, as he was considered one of the best draftsmen in the studio. Although his skills were being recognized before the outbreak of World War II, some of his best work was during the wartime period, including the film Saludos Amigos and the short films Education for Death and Tiger Trouble. After the war, Kahl was responsible for the final design of characters, and was given the task of animating non-comic characters, including Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and Wendy from Peter Pan, and the princes in Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, with John Canemaker, author and film historian, noting that Kahl was “always stuck with the princes.” Although Kahl would complain of being “saddled” with these characters, he was secretly proud of his ability to bring these characters to life. Other highlights of Kahl’s career were the animation of character interactions in The Sword in the Stone (which Kahl considered “one hell of a picture”) and the character of Sher Kahn in The Jungle Book. His last work for the studio was animating Medusa and Snoops for the film The Rescuers, and left on April 30, 1970, although he did do a few character designs for The Black Cauldron. On April 19, 1987, Kahl passed away of pancreatic cancer. He was inducted into the Disney Legends in 1989. In 2009, the Academy of Motion Pictures held a panel to celebrate the centennial of Kahl’s life where animators Brad Bird, Andreas Deja, Ron Clements, John Musker, and Floyd Norman, as well as voice actress Kathryn Beaumont, celebrated his style and influence in the shaping of many Disney classics.