The Milt Kahl Head Swaggle

Like a signature, each animator has their own little quirks or trademarks that distinguish their animation from others. Some draw character’s features in a unique way (eyes, hands, etc.), some lean heavily on certain principles or include abstract imagery or gimmicks into their scenes, and some fall back on specific poses or gestures. The “Milt Kahl Head Swaggle” is an example of the latter, and it both intrigues and aggravates me at the same time.

To clarify, the “Milt Kahl Head Swaggle” is when a character (animated by Disney legend Milt Kahl) sort of rattles his/her head from side to side, usually at times when they’re feeling cocky or self-assured. Sort of an “Am I great or what?” type of gesture.

Again, I can’t deny how remarkable an animator Milt Kahl was, but for a long time I considered him to be a really hammy animator in the worst possible sense, and this gesture helped cement that idea for me.

In a Frank Thomas or Ollie Johnston scene, I could see the wheels turn in a character’s head and felt that the characters were sincere, emotionally-driven personalities. I never felt that in the majority of Kahl’s characters. A lot of his characters are like actors on a stage, projecting themselves a bit too far in their performances.

But at the same time, he uses this gesture for a reason, and it works well in every scene he implements it. He only used it on broader, more caricatured characters like Tigger, Sir Ector or Brer Rabbit, characters with strong egos and a cocky sensibility, and the gesture defines the character’s personality in the most simple and direct way possible.

Much like finding an often-reused piece of animation or sound effect in a Disney film, my dislike for it came only from repeated viewings. Because we live in the age of DVDs, Netflix and Quicktime files,  we now can have a studio’s entire library literally at our fingertips, able to survey and dissect the content any way we choose, including surveying an animator’s entire forty-year output front to back and taking shots completely out of context like I have here.

Another thing I realized over time is that Kahl seemed to prefer being a broader animator. For years he was stuck with the most difficult and seemingly less interesting assignments, which the rest of the animators couldn’t pull off because they weren’t as good of a draftsman as him. For example, he clamored to work on characters like Captain Hook but was stuck doing Peter Pan and the Darling children, or he was saddled with Alice instead of the more zany, off-the wall characters that populate the rest of Alice and Wonderland. He would end up designing a lot of these other characters, but never get to animate most of them.

Luckily for him, by the 1960s, Kahl’s creative shackles were loosened and he was back to doing broader animation. He went all out on each assignment from The Sword in the Stone through The Rescuers. Each character he animated during this period overflowed with energy, all of which was probably pent up inside of him for so many years. His days of princes and realistic little children were over, and for the rest of his career he was able to let loose, have fun and do the things he wanted to do.

Milt Kahl knew he was a good animator, and he wasn’t afraid to show it through brash flourishes of animation. The head swaggle, corny and over-the-top though it may be, not only defines those Disney characters, but also defines the self-assured Kahl himself.


  • Uli Meyer

    You quite rightly pointed out that when those films were made, an audience only saw them once at the theater. Video or DVD did not exist. Milt’s “head swaggle” is not corny nor over the top. It is the legions of less talented animators that have plagiarized it since (unsuccessfully) that have made it that.

    • Uli Meyer

      Oh, and I think the Sword In The Stone clip is by Lounsberry not Kahl.

    • http://twitter.com/ChriSobieniak Chris Sobieniak

      Home video ruins us Uli!

  • OtherDan

    So, that’s where Clooney got it! I heard somewhere recently that Spielberg told Clooney he could be a star if he’d stop that head swaggle.

  • e

    Man oh man I wish I was a ‘hammy animator’ like Kahl and could do ‘corny’ animation as wonderful as all those head swaggles… Oh well I’ll just have to keep on trying… :P

  • Tim Reckart

    I can’t stop looking at the shimmering texture of the green paint on Little John’s shirt! It’s like the cel animation version of boiling fur / clay in stop motion. So nice…

    • Funkybat

      Yeah, unless someone programs a filter, or does it by hand on purpose, Toon Boom and the like have pretty much eliminated that. Personally, I always found inconsistencies like that in large color fields annoying and distracting. I *do* love the odd irregularities in stop-mo animation, and if there is any “fault” I could find with the otherwise stellar Paranorman is that the 3D-printed method they used for the models eliminated a lot of those fun oddities.

  • Scott550

    I could not agree more. But I tend to blame his boredom: boredom with the weak characters, weak stories/drama, and weak direction on most of the examples you provide. The films Disney made during this period were just not very good. A talent as great as Milt’s (and the others) just don’t seem very challenged, and we, as audience members, should be grateful–as without what crumbs of fine animation they gave us, these films would have sucked more than they do. I exempt Tigger in the Winnie the Pooh shorts, because he was obviously having a blast, and the stories weren’t typical cookie cutter for Disney–even at the time they were made. Animators, even good and great ones, need strong direction, which comes from a strong director with a great grasp of storytelling.

  • Goat

    Love this post. Just wanted to say so.

  • http://twitter.com/zoepiel Zoe Piel

    I’d take the head-swaggle a thousand times over that idiotic nose-crinkle-fall-in-love expression. I think that one was a Thomas/Johnston concoction.

    • Funkybat

      And I’ll take any of these old school animators’ “quirks” over the seemingly corporate-mandated expressions and poses that have proliferated in 21st century animation marketing.

      Everyone knows about and hates the “Dreamworks Smirk” but there are other trends that are just as annoying, such as the U.S.-based marketing for most recent Disney films seem to make all of the characters look either calculatingly sinister or angry. Rapunzel’s expression on the “surrounded by hair” poster for Tangled made no sense for her character (tho having Flynn smirk a lot makes sense.) All of the characters in the Wreck-It Ralph poster seemed to look either super-cocky or pissed off (even Clyde the ghost monster got a big glower going!) Having Calhoun or even Vanellope make that kind of face works, having Ralph or especially Fix-It Felix slyly smirking at you doesn’t, it’s just totally out of character. Many of the overseas posters I’ve seen allow for a wider range of expression from the characters, and feel more like traditional animation posters.

  • MRKid

    A fun little post and I had a good smile while reading it. That said, of course you can’t get annoyed by an animators “quirks” or “tricks” out of context of the whole scene – if they are effective. I’ve studied his work for years and I never read into that (consciously) until you mentioned it. It was a fun catch. All I marveled at was how damn pleasing it was to watch. Every great artist has a style and a tool box of tried and true things that work for their “work”.

    • jmahon

      if anything, the little quirks are what I really sort of appreciate! It’s like a friend you know who has a certain tendency to do something; you grow to love it.

  • Murray

    Your theory of Milt Kahl being restrained by years of staid characters to animate may provide the reason as to why every single pose in his broadest stuff of the 1964-1976 feature era is so packed with potential and/or kinetic energy. No other animator could or did that at Disney during that time. A musical parallel might be the way George Harrison described getting the chance to use all of his own compositions at last on his “All Things Must Pass” album after the Beatles break-up. George described it as taking a really good shit after years of constipation.

  • http://www.facebook.com/thadwell Thad Komorowski

    Quite frankly, it was this kind of calculated, unrealistic acting in the Reitherman-directed movies that what made me almost completely swear off Disney animation.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Robert-Holmen/562023961 Robert Holmén

    The paw on the chest seems to be a recurring part of it too.

    I recall an interview where Brad Bird said he once aspired to animate something like Milt Kahl’s head tossing so it seems to have been noticed way back when.

    Can anyone identify some live-action precedents for this device in movies Kahl might have seen in his formative years? In live-action it might be very hammy indeed.

    • jmahon

      not off the top of my head, but I can sure think of a dozen times in live action that have borrowed FROM animated films. The worst one you’ve all seen a trillion times: Baloo’s awkward/embarrassed neck rub. I feel ashamed that I’ve had to follow storyboards once or twice that use this trope STILL :(

      • Scott550

        That was not original to Jungle book. It was taken from Clark Gable movies of the early 1930′s .

        • jmahon

          oh no, really?? well, it’s still a little bit cliche.

        • mudsock

          I contend that this cliche originated with Wallace Beery (“aw shucks, Dink”) maybe Gable too, then Barney Bear and then it made its way to Disney features.

  • Natalie Belton

    Funny, whenever I saw the characters move around like this I always figured it was by a single animator. I pointed it out as kid, but my parents didn’t seem to care much.

    • Anon

      How typical! Parents will never understand!

  • Floyd Norman

    Having touched the Master’s pencils (I was one of his assistants) on “The Sword in the Stone” I found Milt’s animation to be calculated and precise, but the man was brilliant. Kahl simply made it look easy – but you try doing it as well.

  • Sean

    I hope more of these are coming on Cartoon Brew! I find posts like this fascinating.

  • Eman

    I’d hardly say it’s corny or over the top. Its a nice touch of character that helps bring out a deeper expression of playful arrogance through body movement. It may be beyond the actual expression in reality, but then again, so is at least 90% of all acting.

  • Dana Terrace

    Great article dude! I’d love to see more analyzation of different animator’s quirks and styles.

  • EHH

    “In a Frank Thomas or Ollie Johnston scene, I could see the wheels turn
    in a character’s head and felt that the characters were sincere,
    emotionally-driven personalities.” So they were the method actors of animation?

  • K

    Shere Khan is incredible.

    There’s also another one: Milt Kahl pencil test of Roger yawning in 101 Dalmatians: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mQnPQ6QBHLE

  • http://www.facebook.com/charlie.s.pullin Charlie Swan Pullin

    http://youtu.be/56STDM667ds Pops does it about 1 minute into the video!