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AnimatorsDisneyWard Kimball

The Character Design of Ward Kimball


It is well known that, for a variety of reasons, legendary Disney director and animator Ward Kimball was demoted by Walt Disney from director back to animator in the early-1960s. In 1966, Kimball made his comeback into the director’s chair. Responsible for the shift was not only Walt’s softening stance towards Kimball but also the retirement of director Ham Luske, which opened a slot for Kimball’s return.

The subject of today’s post is Kimball’s first project upon his return to direction: the rarely seen episode of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color called “A Salute to Alaska,” which debuted on April 2, 1967. (A sidenote: this was the last episode of Wonderful World of Color that Walt Disney filmed an opening for before his death.) Kimball shares a co-direction credit with Luske on the show. According to Ward’s son, John Kimball, who worked on the animated segments, the animation in it is extremely limited, and some of the scenes are simply held cels that are slid across the screen. I’ve never seen it and am unable to comment on the animated segments that Kimball directed. If anybody has the animated segments from the special, feel free to post it onto YouTube.

Thanks to some recent digging around (more about this later), Kimball’s rough character models for the “Alaska” special have been discovered. These drawings offer a rare glimpse into Kimball’s personal design sensibilities and show a great designer at work. While Kimball is well known for his design-oriented films—Toot Whistle Plunk and Boom and Mars and Beyond—those were designed, respectively, by Tom Oreb and John Dunn. Kimball collaborated closely with both artists, and his imprint can be felt throughout, but the primary visual styling belongs to other artists, as is indicated by the very different looks of each project. The drawings in this post, albeit more than a decade after those films, allow us a look at pure Kimball design.

A good starting point to compare these designs would be the project that Kimball had worked on immediately prior to this, the theatrical short Scrooge McDuck and Money (1967), which can be viewed on YouTube in two parts (Part 1 and Part 2). In that short, Kimball served only as animator and had no influence on the design. The incidental characters in that short were designed by animator Art Stevens. A while back, I posted Stevens’ designs from the short here.

Drawing by Ward KimballDrawing by Ward Kimball

The level of design in Stevens’ work and Kimball’s is night and day. While Stevens’ designs are cute, they lack the sophistication of shape and form that only a master draftsman like Kimball could bring to the table. Kimball’s designs feel solid and complete. Despite their high stylization, they have a quality of weight and power that make Stevens’ designs look flimsy and insubstantial by comparison.

Drawing by Ward KimballDrawing by Ward KimballDrawing by Ward Kimball

Furthermore, Kimball’s drawings are incredibly funny to look at even without the benefit of movement. Around the time he made these drawings, Kimball was teaching at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and one of the tips he imparted to students was, “A cartoon character who is funny to look at before he is animated is going to be made funnier by the movement.” He certainly practiced what he preached.

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This design of “Ivan the Fur Trapper” communicates textures in the fur cap and facial hair, while maintaining the integrity of the overall shapes and forms.

Drawing by Ward Kimball

Another notable aspect of these drawings is that many of them are based on real-life figures, which allows us to observe Kimball’s gift for caricature. Ward hits hard with his caricatures of the aristocratic Russian businessmen who were running Alaskan affairs in the 1800s. I’ve managed to find online the engravings and illustrations that Kimball based his drawings on and have included them alongside Kimball’s roughs. He caricatures not only their likeness, but also their pompous poses and power-hungry, borderline maniacal, desires. Like the best caricaturists, Kimball tells us more than simply what these people look like, he tells us who they are.

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(Click to enlarge.)
(Click to enlarge.)
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His caricatures of other historical figures are broader and cartoonier, based on the style of the cartoon, but even the cartoony rendition of US Secretary of State William H. Seward (in Uncle Sam garb) is spot-on when compared to one of his photos.

Drawing by Ward Kimball

After “A Salute to Alaska”, Kimball continued directing and producing full-time until his retirement in 1973. His final years at the studio are a mixed bag—they include his last great “edutainment” short It’s Tough To Be a Bird (1969), the occasionally brilliant Dad, Can I Borrow the Car? (1970), and other projects like the “The Mickey Mouse Anniversary Show” (1968) and the syndicated TV series The Mouse Factory (1971).

A few of the images above can be enlarged by clicking on them. The rest are as-is. Enjoy!

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  • IMO Ward Kimball was the greatest of the Nine Old Men.

  • Fantastic Post Amid! Very interesting.

  • Impressive! Ward Kimball was something else compared to the other Nine Old Men.

    What else influenced him to draw this way?

  • Who knew Ward Kimball created Hoot Kloot?

  • George R.

    That “T. Tex Texas” design seems influenced by the Dodge Sheriff character, who was also caricatured in a few low rent Warner theatrical shorts around the same time. Those commercials were very popular back in the day.

  • Butters

    “The level of design in Stevens’ work and Kimball’s is night and day. While Stevens’ designs are cute, they lack the sophistication of shape and form that only a master draftsman like Kimball could bring to the table. Kimball’s designs feel solid and complete. Despite their high stylization, they have a quality of weight and power that make Stevens’ designs look flimsy and insubstantial by comparison.”

    I think the opposite is true as far as the examples you’ve posted with exception to maybe a couple drawings. I think the cavemen Steven’s designed (on the link) are more “solid”, have a good sense of weight and balance and IMO are more aesthetically pleasing to look at. Kimball’s look more “flimsy” and it looks like they’re going to fall over.

  • Ken Coleman

    Digging around? PLEASE tell me there is work afoot for a book about Ward Kimball! For several years there were rumors of a coffee table book put together by his family. Is this “digging” for that book? Or another?

  • Wow, wow, wow and WOW.
    Thanks for posting all these. It’s made my day/week/month/etc. Fantastic!

  • I’d say the Stevens drawings are slicker, but the Kimball ones are much more gutsy and distinctive. They have the look of someone confident enough in their ideas not to feel the need to be slick.

  • You can never have too much Kimball. Post anything you find. Has anybody seen his book of “improved” classic paintings, Art Afterpieces. I see that Amazon has used copies for $0.01.

  • Nic Kramer

    Great designs there.

    I apologize if this is off-topic, but didn’t Donald’s uncle, Prof. Von Drake hosted part of “A Salute to Alaska”?

  • Butters

    I think that’s a cop out Kellie, and I’m not just trying to be argumentative. If by “slick” you mean they actually have a center of gravity and are constructed well then Stevens wins hands down as far as these samples go. I’m not trying to discount Kimball’s contributions to animation but you and I both know that if these drawings weren’t identified as Ward’s and instead were presented as students drawings they would get blasted on this website. I don’t see these drawings as “confident”, in fact the majority of them are nothing more than a drunken napkin doodle. Again, not trying to go against the love for Kimball on this website, just calling it how I see it. I mean really, with the exception of 2 or 3 of them they really aren’t that good. Look at Stoeckl and Vitus, what’s so appealing about those 2 designs?

  • Chuck R.

    I’m with Butters on this one. If these designs are the works of a master draftsman, it’s a master draughtsman way past his prime. Look at the hand of the Russian guy holding the moneybag.
    I’d call them funny and maybe a good start, but “sophistication of shape and form” ? Sorry. It’s just not Kimball’s best work.

  • Awesome stuff.

  • What a great lesson in interpretation of those old, but bland portraits.

  • Ceaser

    Man, are those ginchy. Love that uber stylized feel.

  • Paul N

    “Has anybody seen [Kimball’s] book of “improvedâ€? classic paintings, Art Afterpieces.”

    I found a copy a few years back at a library book sale in town. I think it set me back $0.25. Quite a deal, and some very funny stuff.

  • Yeah, I can imagine an art school teacher getting those from a student and saying “no, this will never work!” Not that that is a useful comment.

    If these are “roughs” then we can’t draw too many conclusions either way. I guess the thing to do now would be to find the animation these were designs for and see if they evolved beyond these quick thumbnails. Maybe they work great in animation. Or maybe there’s a reason that animation isn’t seen today.

  • Alfons Moline

    Thanks for sharing those wonderful designs, Amid! The Texan character, by the way, looks to me a bit like DePatie-Freleng´s “Hoot Kloot”.
    I have never seen the “A Salute to Alaska” show; in fact Disney should consider to release a future Disney Treasures DVD dedicated to “Wonderful World of Disney” T.V. shows which had extensive animation sequences especially created for them (albeit combined with animation recycled from Disney´s theatrical shorts and features). I am thinking not just of the shows hosted by Ludwig von Drake, but also others such as “The Great Cat Family” (1956, directed by Clyde Geromini) or “Pacifically Peeking” (1968, also directed by Kimball, which introduced the character of Moby Duck).

  • Hi Butters – what do I mean by slickness? Yes, well constructed, nicely finished, elegant, all of those good things. I’m absolutely not anti-craft, but that’s not a complete list of what an artist can try for in a drawing, and those things aren’t always the most important things to try for. Sometimes they can get in the way of a more boisterous immediacy, and sometimes smoothing off the corners can mean losing some of the flavor, to hopelessly muddle my metaphors.

    It’s a case of smooth versus arresting!

  • The caricatures in particular show there are some strong conscious choices being made. The drawings of Resanof and Selikof are my favorites out of the whole set, especially for the bold divergences from the source images.

  • mmtper

    I do have a vague memory of watching that show. As I recall, all the characters were voiced by Paul Frees.

  • Wonderful stuff, wonderful post. Observations on the distinction between good, solid character design and truly inspired, brilliant work is very astute.

  • Butters

    Hey Kellie,

    1)I agree the drawings you mentioned are well done. But some of the other full bodied ones are awful. They are definitely not “slick” and that’s fine, in fact I realize that the Stevens samples were cleaned up considerably more, but my problem is that some of them look like they’re going to fall over because they have no center of gravity. It’s more the construction I’m not impressed with.
    2)Look at the linework in the old Vitus sample, the line work doesn’t look like it was done with confidence. It’s not that it has to be smooth it just has to look like it was done with some sort of intent. Azuna and Peter the Great’s line work look like they were done with more confidence.

  • steve w.

    > It is well known that, for a variety of reasons, legendary Disney director and animator Ward Kimball was demoted by Walt Disney from director back to animator in the early-1960s…

    Can someone provide a link to this ‘well-known’ story? Or just clue me in to the ‘variety of reasons’?

  • amid

    steve w.: John Canemaker’s Nine Old Men book offers mention of it. Had to do with politics on the live-action Disney pic Babes in Toyland, political disagreements between Ward and Walt, and other issues.