Disney Legend Ken O'Connor

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

I think sometimes we have all become much too casual with the term "Disney Legend." It was originally meant to honor someone who had a long history of contributing to the Disney magic, as well as a recognized talent by their peers in those accomplishments.

When it comes to animation, the general public is often confused about the different roles of artists on the picture. Usually, they think only of the character animators, who are only just a part of the massive collaborative effort of artists to make the final film.

In particular, especially in the days before computers, special-effects artists, who drew all the individual sparkles surrounding Cinderella when her ball gown appeared, or the movement of the waves and ripples in the watery domain of Monstro the whale, or even the realistic (and at the same time impressionistic) blazing forest fire that threatened the animals in Bambi (1942), received little recognition for their demanding work.

One of the most important roles is that of the layout artist, and Disney had many outstanding ones over the years who are, for the most part, completely unknown to audiences who enjoy those classic Disney cartoons.

Ken O'Connor was deservedly made a Disney Legend in 1992 for his work in that field, but I think many Disney fans are clueless about why he received that distinction, other than the fact that he worked in animation and was old.

Doing a quick search on the internet, I see there is very little, if any, information about this important artist, who had a wry sense of humor and amazingly avoided any conflict with Walt Disney during his decades-long association with the Disney company.

I got to thinking about O'Connor because I recently wrote a column about the playing cards in Alice in Wonderland (1951).

O'Connor is the person who laid out that sequence and had to work out all the perspective problems, like the cards becoming big in the foreground and receding into being smaller rectangles as they pulled back. He made grids with vanishing points on his layouts so that the animators, like Judge Whitaker, could understand how to do it correctly.

"It had to convey the third dimension by size and appearance and vanish," O'Connor told interviewer Ron Merk in 1993. "There was a vanishing to each card. I had to have a horizon line in mind all the time even if it didn't show and work to it. You've got to turn all these hearts and spades and diamonds and then back again. And they're in perspective. That's a devil of a thing to do."

O'Connor was born June 7, 1908 in Perth, Australia. His dad owned a newspaper, so the young O'Connor started his career as a reporter at the age of 16.

As he told an interviewer in 1991, "Someone died and they didn't have a good picture of him, so they asked me to do a picture and I drew a portrait…from then on I was both a reporter and an artist (for the paper)."

He studied commercial and fine art and continued doing cartoons, caricatures, and oil portraits to earn money. When his dad got a job with the Australian National Travel Association (to promote tourism), the whole family relocated to San Francisco, California, around 1930, where O'Connor attended the California School of Fine Arts and earned a living as an art director for a local poster company.

In 1935, the Disney Studios did a massive campaign to recruit new artists for its forthcoming animated feature and urged by his father to apply for the job, O'Connor took a trip to Los Angeles.

Ken O Connor might not be as well known as the character animators, but his work helped the stories of Dumbo, Fantasia and Alice in Wonderland come to life.

He was hired as an in-betweener, but quickly got moved into the Effects Animation Department. He was then assigned to do rotoscoping (tracing film of live-action performers into rough line drawings that would later be exaggerated by animators) on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

That tedious work helped him to better understand how drawings moved in animation rather than static illustrations that had been his previous experience.

After Snow White was released, he got moved to assisting layout artist Leo Thiele and gained attention for his layout work on the Mickey Mouse short, Clock Cleaners (1937) and, in particular, the sequences with the vertigo-inducing perspective that added to the drama of Goofy stumbling around impossible heights on the outside of a building. He violated a lot of rules of perspectives for dramatic effect that added to the suspense and humor.

"Having learned perspective and how to make depth in a picture, the next thing was to learn how to break the rules, so that you could enhance the scene," said O'Connor in 1977. "I had [Goofy] staggering along the edge of a ledge. He had been hit in the head and was dizzy. I wanted the audience to feel it was high up and a sense of vertigo and danger. So I took the ledge he had to come down and established the vanishing point.

"All horizontal planes vanish on the horizon but for the sake of this scene which was a vertical pan and the camera could only take in a certain amount, I deliberately dropped the landscape (of the other buildings) down to make it seem more dangerous and give him a feeling of being exposed to space and air."

O'Connor contributed to 13 full-length animated features, including Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), and Lady and the Tramp (1955).

For Pinocchio, he was responsible for laying out that overhead scene from the song "Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee" as Honest John the fox and Gideon the cat curve through the streets of the town with Pinocchio to convince him that he should pursue an actor's life. He filmed live-action reference in a sound stage before laying out the scene.

In addition, he was involved with innovative shorts, like The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met (1946) (which was a particular favorite of O'Connor's because of the contrasts in scale), Once Upon a Wintertime (1948), and Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom (1953).

He was also the layout designer for the three Ward Kimball Tomorrowland television episodes: "Man in Space," "Man in the Moon," and "Mars and Beyond" (as well as other episodes for the series like "Magic Highway U.S.A." and "Eyes in Outer Space").

In an April 1984 interview with Anita Weld, Kimball stated, "Ken is able to combine a good sense of draftsmanship with a mechanical knowledge, and figure out how things would look in fifty years. He arrived at some very interesting solutions when we worked on the space series with scientists like Wernher von Braun. I'd ask him for some quick sketches of how an underwater restaurant would look, and he would come up with some wild ideas."

He was also involved with Disney's educational films, like the infamous The Story of Menustration (1946).

O'Connor officially retired in 1974, although he found work as a consultant on such projects as the films for The World of Motion and The Universe of Energy pavilions at Epcot, and the short introductory film Back to Neverland, starring Robin Williams and Walter Cronkite, at the Animation pavilion at Disney MGM Studios.

After his Disney retirement, he worked as an instructor at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) and was the visual and color consultant on several non-Disney projects like Family Dog (1987) and Brave Little Toaster (1989). At CalArts, his students included Tim Burton, Jerry Rees, John Lasseter, Henry Selick, John Musker, Brad Bird, and many others who went on to have a huge impact on animation.

The Disney company also brought him back as it did other old timers as a part-time "visual development consultant" to animation but his suggestions were for the most part ignored, like his design of Ursula the sea witch for The Little Mermaid (1989) as a manta ray with the wings being a black cape.

He died of natural causes at the age of 90 in his Burbank, California, home in May 1998.

An animation layout artist is very much like a combination of a set designer and a cinematographer. He designs the backgrounds and working with the director creates the angles and patterns of action to help keep the audience properly oriented.

He quite literally creates the sets that the cartoon characters perform on and the angle from which they are seen and both of these are important to create before any character animation actually begins to be done.

In live action, the same job of framing the action can be done with editing or cutting after filming but, in animation, it all has to be planned in advance to save time and money.

For Cinderella, O'Connor built an actual model of the pumpkin coach out of balsa wood and wire wheels and photographed it from different angles to aid in the drawing of changing perspectives of the magical vehicle. It was O'Connor who decided that the transformed coach would still have echoes of a pumpkin like the coachman's seat would resemble a leaf on a vine as well as making the spokes of the wheels as spirals.

Amazingly, when O'Connor showed Walt the model, Walt approved it with no changes, just some questions about some of the techniques that O'Connor had used because Walt was deeply involved at the time in making miniatures himself.

For Lady and the Tramp, O'Connor stated, "I was more concerned with what is Lady's point-of-view. That's important. So I had shots under the furniture from a short dog's-eye point-of-view."

For the "Trees" segment in the compilation film Melody Time (1948), it was O'Connor who decided to use frosted cels with the pastel images rendered right onto the cel to help preserve the integrity of the original story sketches. Each cel was laminated in clear lacquer (to preserve the pastel from smudging off) before being photographed by the animation camera to give a distinctive look that had never before been done.

O'Connor's design of the "Pink Elephants" sequence in Dumbo (1941) was much cleverer than many animation fans suspect. In the era before computers, pretty much everything was done by hand.

It was roughly 24 cels per second of film, meaning that each cel was individually hand inked and painted. Intensive supervision was done so that the color was consistent from one cel to another, even to mixing the colors slightly differently if there was humidity in the air or excessive heat on a particular day so that the color still looked the same when it was applied to the cel and filmed.

One of the most iconic and memorable sequences in the feature film was the drunken hallucination that the young elephant had of pink elephants on parade after inadvertently drinking from a tub of water spiked by champagne from celebrating circus clowns.

Seeing pink elephants is a reference to the euphemistic cliché that a highly intoxicated drunken person might envision such odd things. In the 1913 Jack London novel John Barleycorn, there is a phrase that an alcoholic man hallucinated "blue mice and pink elephants" since the allusion to pink elephants was common usage by 1905, supplanting other animals like snakes or differently colored critters.

O'Connor developed a method for filming the elephant characters when they were composed of changing color gradations. It was virtually impossible to achieve this effect by airbrushing the cels, because a consistent density from cel to cel could simply not be achieved even with more time, people and money.

He came up with a clever and simple solution. The color gradations of the Pink Elephants were painted on a background sheet and the elephants were left transparent areas on the cels placed over the background. The rest of the image on each cel was painted black.

What appears to be the changing color of the Pink Elephants is actually the background, and what appears to be the black background is actually painted on the cels. The colors of the Pink Elephants appear to keep changing, without the need to delicately duplicate color on each individual cel.

O'Connor also came up with using black velvet on the floor for a multiplane camera shot because that way there were no specks on the black and no "graying out" so there was a "perfect" black for the first time.

The famous song was written by Oliver Wallace and Ned Washington with most of the animation done by Hicks Lokey, Frank Thomas and Howard Swift for this roughly five-minute surreal moment under the direction of Norman Ferguson, who regrettably had his own issues with alcohol that eventually resulted in his being demoted and leaving the Disney Studio.

Here's a special treat from when I was actively writing about animation for various magazines. Just as I do today when writing about Disney, I dug through original resources trying to better understand what was done and why.

Here is something that I was able to locate that even the many animators who were my friends had never known existed. I am sharing it with those MousePlanet readers who have the same curiosity about animation as I do.

It serves as a reminder that one of the things that made those films from the Walt era so impressive and memorable was the thought that went behind the choices that were made.

While O'Connor told this same information to his CalArts classes and in at least one interview, this selection is from a lecture titled "Designing Fantasia" he presented at the Chouinard Art School on December 4, 1959 about his work on Fantasia (1940). Here is an excerpt from that lecture:

"In 'Dance of the Hours' (with the alligators, ostriches and hippos dancing a ballet), the music seemed to break down into four sections and a recapitulation, much on the order of a symphony. Having the musical outline as a fairly clear pattern, we decided to go along with that in the design motif. Our design would match the music.

"The first movement was quiet, so we started out with a quiet motif. We used verticals and horizontals, which were as quiet as we could get. The scene opened with a camera cruising down in a long hall. It moved in on a wide stage and wide, flat stairs. Vertical columns stretched high on each side.

"Ballerinas were arranged down the stairs, but they turned out to be ostriches when they stood up. The long, thin necks of the birds made more verticals, and they added to the motif. We tried to design everything symmetrical in verticals and horizontals, and we kept the colors very quiet and subdued. Then the music picked up, so we went to the ellipse as a motif for the next sequence.

"In the first movement, we showed the colonnades as verticals, but we changed the camera angles in the second movement to stress the elliptical shape. Within the hall was an elliptical pool, and the characters moved as much as possible in ellipses—that is, around the pool.

"The main character now was a hippopotamus, a rotund creature made up of ellipses, especially when we put a ruffle around her middle. So she was round, the pool was round, and she danced a little waltz step in an ellipse near elliptical colonnades. All of this contrasted with the simple horizontals and verticals in the first movement.

"In the third movement, the music got even faster, so we designed a more active motif, the serpentine. We used elephants, especially their trunks. We preferred elephants not only for the shape but for the way they moved, both themselves and their trunks. We tried to get more action into this movement than in the previous sequence—the pachyderms threw balloons and did silly things in a serpentine form.

"Then came the fourth section. Certainly it was the most active, so we took the most active line we knew, the diagonal, and applied it to the architecture. The simple lines of the opening that became ellipses with a change of camera angles now became slashing diagonals. Down shots and unusual angles presented the columns and colonnades in entirely new forms.

"We stretched the angularity of the bends in the hall. We introduced an alligator as a new character. He was a series of diagonal lines himself, in his basic geometry, and when he moved it was on a diagonal line out of the ground. Throughout the sequence we wanted the effect of the daylight hours changing. In the morning, it got brighter and brighter, and now it got darker in the evening. So this angular character came from the angular architecture in an angular path, and he zig-zagged about the hippo."

O'Connor was responsible for many other significant layout contributions, like the fight between Tramp and the rat in the baby's bedroom and Pinocchio face down in the surf after escaping Monstro, and he worked with many other Disney Legends, like Mary Blair, Les Clark and Ken Anderson on making Disney animated magic. I felt he was long overdue for a little recognition and hope this information will encourage others to more closely examine and appreciate his work.