Floyd Norman Remembers The Sword in the Stone: Part Twoby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Last week, Disney Legend Floyd Norman shared some of his memories of working on the Disney animated feature film, The Sword in the Stone (1963), and this week he continues to reminisce about this neglected film in an interview I did with him on September 30, 2017, at the Disneyana Fan Club Merlin Magical Breakfast event.
He reviewed the transcript before publication and included some additional comments.
"John Lounsbery animated a few of the first scenes on the film. Clearly, Milt Kahl did a fair share of the major scenes with Merlin in the film. However, you might be surprised to learn how much of Merlin was animated by John Lounsbery. His stuff was as dynamic as Milt's work and it was darn funny as well. John Lounsbery was no less a master animator.
"It appeared we were going to animate this motion picture in a start-to-finish continuity. That is, the film was being made following the narrative and sequences moved into animation as storyman, Bill Peet turned them over to music room. This was very much out of the ordinary. In the past, we had animated scenes out of sequence, often concentrating on the easiest ones first to get drawings into the rest of the production process.
"Following Lounsbery, Milt Kahl tackled the early scenes establishing Sir Kay; Wart; the wizard Merlin; and his owl colleague, Archimedes. Stan Green and I began to clean-up Milt's scenes and I expected to be fired almost any day. However, my fears were unfounded because I never heard one complaint from the master animator. Milt Kahl was often fond of tearing into fellow Disney artists and telling them, 'they couldn't draw their ass.'
"Kahl's assistants were no longer doing clean-up. Rather, a new animation term had been created for the film. It was called, 'touch-up.' Instead of putting a clean sheet of paper over the animator's rough sketches, we simply 'touched-up' the sketch itself. It was rather a daunting task should your animator be Milt Kahl and you ran the risk of screwing up one of his masterful drawings.
"I don't know if this was supposed to save time and money or simply keep the drawing truer to the animator's original. No longer would assistant animators use a clean sheet of paper over the animator's rough. Now, you would draw on the animator's drawing itself. That means I would actually be 'touching up' over Milt Kahl's originals. Just the thought of touching Milt Kahl's drawings struck fear in my heart.
"I counted my blessings each time a scene I cleaned up met the master animator's approval. Milt Kahl was not an easy man to please, and there were no excuses for poor draftsmanship or a casual attitude about working on the scene. Naturally, I worked very hard on Milt's scenes, because there was no way you'd ever get anything past him.
"More often than not, I picked up my work from Stan, not Milt. Naturally, I thought Stan would do a few of the key clean-ups in Milt's scenes, but he didn't. He would simply give me the scene folder along with the exposure sheet and say, 'clean it up - you know what to do.' Initially, I was awestruck that I would even be trusted with a Milt Kahl scene, but Stan seemed confident in me perhaps because we had worked together briefly on Sleeping Beauty.
"I actually own a cel of a scene where I did 'touch up'. Milt Kahl animated the rather large Mastiff dogs as they fought over scraps in the castle kitchen. Ken Shue, my boss at Disney Publishing, later had it matted and framed for me.
"I cleaned up another scene for Milt Kahl involving the same dogs. In this particular scene the Mastiffs pounce on Wart licking his face as the kid laughs. Not surprisingly, our director, Woolie Reitherman, found a way to reuse some of this footage in another Disney film we would make a few years later. Anybody remember the reuse of this scene in The Jungle Book?
"This time around, Wart has been swapped out for Mowgli, but the animation was pretty much the same. The reuse of animation drives some Disney fans nuts because they hate to see a prestigious studio like Disney resorting to such crass, cost cutting measures.
"To be fair, these reuse scenes never did save any money. They were often a pain to do. It would have been far easier to animate the scene from scratch than trying to 'adapt' some earlier bit of animation to fit the new scene. In any case, no one ever managed to change Woolie's mind and he continued to use older animation whenever he could get away with it.
"Because I was one of Milt's follow up guys, I did the touch-ups and the in-betweens on scenes like these. Once my work on the scene was completed it went straight to the camera department, and was not returned to the animator.
"The master animator would not see his scene until it was delivered to him by Johnny Bond the next day. Once Johnny delivered the film loop and scene to Milt Kahl the Disney legend immediately threaded the scene onto his Moviola. This was a ritual and we had all been through it many times throughout the production of the film. I preferred to let Stan Green as the key clean guy to be there and take the heat if there was any. I tried to keep a low profile.
"Five minutes seemed like forever and we all waited patiently for the verdict. 'Would Milt like the scene?' we wondered. We would find out shortly and God help you if you heard the master animator cussing and yelling from his office. However, should you hear Milt Kahl chuckle, or maybe even laugh out loud, you had been blessed by the gods.
"After moving to 1D-1, I chose a comfortable space by the window. The large office space had been used as a bullpen during Sleeping Beauty and was home to several artists. Now, it appeared the considerable space was all mine.
"It was more than pleasant working at the Walt Disney Studios in those days. Imagine the marvelous view just outside the office window. Birds nested in the brush and tiny squirrels scampered about while I worked. Hey! I could have been in a Disney movie.
"My very first job for Kahl was the opening forest scene with Wart and Kay. Kahl selected the sequence because it would help establish the relationship between Merlin, Wart, and the owl, Archimedes.
"John Lounsbery had already picked up an earlier section and our sequence would follow his. I still remember that first scene as though it was yesterday. A lone deer stood grazing in the meadow. Sizing up his prey, the hulk-like Sir Kay turns toward the kid and says, 'Quiet, Wart!' Character actor, Norman Alden provided the voice.
"I completed the scene and walked a few steps down the hallway to deliver the scene to Milt Kahl. An hour or so passed and I hadn't heard a word from the boss. Not one peep from the irascible directing animator. In time, I was assured by Stan Green that I must have satisfied Milt Kahl because if I hadn't, I would have heard about it immediately. Kahl had a way of making it clear you had disappointed him.
"Eventually, I found myself inside Merlin's digs as the old wizard invites the young Wart to join him in a cup of tea. It was a fun sequence and the animated crockery was pretty cute as well. Remember the little sugar dish spooning sugar into Wart's teacup? It was very reminiscent of the stuff with the items that would later be in Beauty and the Beast. Milt pretty much set things up for the picture with this conversation between Merlin and Wart.
"The animation department, now under the new austerity program, was trying to reduce production costs. An edict was handed down from animation boss, Andy Engman. We would now have to crank out 25 feet a week. I guess that doesn't seem like much by today's standards, but back in the early 1960s that was a considerable amount of footage, especially since we had to meet the rather high standards of Disney's Nine Old Men.
"One of my most delightful assignments was cleaning up the wonderful character, Madam Mim. Actually, Mim was so much fun that I honestly wish there had been more of her in the movie. I think audiences agree with that feeling.
"We had been working on the film for a number of months before we finally got around to this remarkable character that would be a scene stealer. Mim turned out to be a very engaging character that audiences loved.
"While we had our fair share of fun sketching Merlin the Magician, Archimedes, Sir Ector, and Kay, this new character was a delightful change of pace. Working from Bill Peet's inspired story sketches, Milt Kahl embellished this zany female wizard in his own special way. The animated scenes were filled with zany fun and delightful bits of business.
"In a final bit of animated fun, the less than attractive Madame Mim transforms herself into a sexy babe. It was no accident that the 'sexy Mim' bore a remarkable resemblance to a tall, leggy redhead who worked upstairs in the layout department on the second floor.
"I seldom spent time with Milt going over his scenes on the Moviola, but the Mim scenes were an exception. Kahl actually seemed to get a kick out of viewing his own animation. He would run his animation of her over and over laughing his head off. Perhaps Milt was amused by his own special jokes and the personal stuff he added to his animation.
"You had to admit, it was very funny stuff. During a song sequence in Mim's cottage, the female wizard turns herself into a tall, shapely young woman. Since I was cleaning up the scenes I couldn't help but be aware the sexy character reminded me of a co-worker.
"Milt never said he based his drawing on the young woman on the second floor, however after drawing her remarkable attributes day after day it became pretty obvious. At least to me, anyway.
"It was obvious it was inspired by layout artist Sylvia Roemer. Sylvia had started in Ink and Paint and worked her way up into layout. Others recognized the resemblance immediately as well but Sylvia either didn't notice or just never said anything.
"Of course, grumpy Merlin was clearly based on Walt Disney himself and he never noticed or commented on the obvious similarities.
"Woolie Reitherman would be the first Walt Disney director to helm a feature film on his own. The Sword in the Stone, unlike its predecessors, would not have several directors. In a bold move, Walt Disney gave Reitherman the complete helm.
"Though one of Disney's famed Nine Old Men, Reitherman had long since put down his animation pencil by the time I arrived at the studio. Walt had decided that Woolie could better serve him as a director, and his specialty seemed to be fight scenes and chases. Woolie seemed a natural choice for action related sequences. Eventually, this sequence director would be given a rare Disney honor of directing a feature by himself.
"For a big guy, it was amazing how Reitherman could sometimes be so understated. I never had a bad day working for Wolfgang Reitherman, and to this day I continue to respect and admire the man. He was always friendly to me even years later when I would run into him in the street.
"Walt Peregoy did practically every background himself. The master color stylist painted most of the backgrounds in the motion picture. Veteran Disney background artists, such as Bill Layne, Al Dempster, and Ralph Hulett jumped in toward the film's end to help Peregoy complete the many backgrounds needed to finish the movie.
"He was a highly opinionated person but not unpleasant. He had worked with Eyvind Earle on Sleeping Beauty and you can see Earle's influence on some of the work Peregoy did for The Sword in the Stone.
"Bold and outspoken, Walt Peregoy's art is the perfect reflection of himself and he had a profound influence on Disney's art during his time at the studio. It was Walt Peregoy who helped drag Disney Animation kicking and screaming into a bold new era. While others stood timidly on the sidelines, Peregoy's innovative color palette revealed that animation could be a good deal more than just popular entertainment.
"I'm serious when I say he damn near painted all of them himself. I'm not joking because I watched him do it. He'd do the first scene and as soon as it was approved, he was finishing the second scene and so on. I made regular visits to Walt's second floor office near the rear of 2-F back in the 1960s. I made regular visits and got to talk with him about painting.
"I gained a good deal of respect for the artist who was unwilling to compromise. In an industry where selling out has become a way of life, Walt Peregoy stood on his principles. You couldn't help but believe that even Walt Disney respected the passionate artist for his unwillingness to 'play the game'.
"When people often remark that Walt Peregoy is a cranky, opinionated angry old man, I remind them that the artist is no different than when I knew him when he was young. Peregoy started work on backgrounds for The Jungle Book but for some reason Walt didn't care for them and brought in Al Dempster instead and Peregoy left the studio but found work at other studios like Hanna-Barbera.
"Sadly, The Sword in the Stone never enjoyed the box office success of other Disney films. It was one of those rare Disney films that went off without a hitch. The animated film moved smoothly through production without a hiccup and perhaps that's the problem. Oh well. Sometimes, things simply don't work as well as we'd hoped.
"Most successful films seem to move in and out of disaster throughout production. Perhaps our kiss of death was because we never experience any trauma during production and that's why the finished movie appears to be so bland.
"The Sword in the Stone can hardly be called a poor motion picture because it's filled with some pretty entertaining sequences. Yet somehow, it seems lacking that special 'Disney touch' and I think it's because Walt pretty much left Bill Peet alone to do whatever he wanted especially after the success of 101 Dalmatians.
"Considering all the fuss made about the radical contemporary styling of 101 Dalmatians we seldom heard much from the Old Maestro, Walt Disney, concerning the styling of this particular animated motion picture. We continued to use the Xerox process to transfer our animation drawings to acetate cels much the same way we had in the doggie film and it seemed to work just fine.
"Ub Iwerks and his team had made improvements to the photocopy process by this time and we continued to use the Xerox line much the same way we had in the previous film. After all the turmoil it would appear the Old Maestro had finally accepted the Xerox process of 'inking' cels as a 'necessary evil' to save costs. The animators seemed to like the process because it was closer to their initial artwork.
"One thing continues to bother me about this Disney adaptation. At the end of the story Merlin returns from the future wearing a Hawaiian shirt, Bermuda shorts, sunglasses and sandals. Apparently, he had been vacationing in Bermuda. Though it was a totally wacky idea, that goofy notion totally took me out of the movie. It felt wrong back then—and it still feels odd when I watch the film today.
"Kahl turned out to be a good pal and even included my name on his private mailing list. I still remember Milt Kahl waving at me from his jazzy sports car as he tooled past me in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles where the animator had his first home.
"Looking back on The Sword in the Stone, it remains a pretty darn good Disney film, even if it was not one of Walt's best, and has actually improved with age, warts and all.
"The film had a certain charm, even though it never connected with audiences. I certainly have nothing but fond memories working on it and still love the characters of Merlin and Mim. Walt Disney still walked the hallways at that time, and animation was the best job in the world."