Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Revolving Voices and Changing Heights

Dumbo was a relatively low budget production at Disney and there are some rough edges in it. Some of the strangest things, though, are in the song, "When I See an Elephant Fly."
And they tell me that a man made a vegetable truck.
I didn't see that. I only heard.
Just to be sociable, I'll take your word.
I heard a fireside chat.
I saw a baseball bat.
And I just laughed till I thought I'd die.
For this section of the song, there are 5 or 6 voices on the soundtrack that the characters lip synch to, but there are only 3 crows on the screen! The crow with the striped shirt synchs to 2 or 3 voices, the deacon-ish crow synchs to 2 and the tubby crow synchs to one, but it's not the voice that he speaks with earlier in the film. Furthermore, when the film cuts from a long shot of the two crows to a close-up (see the top two images), the crows have reversed positions!

It's hard to know what they were thinking when they did this. Did they just assume that the audience wouldn't notice? Was there a mistake identifying the voices on the sheets? Did they decide to restage this after the track was recorded?

Dumbo wasn't the only time that the studio did odd things. Take a close look at the Mushroom Dance in Fantasia. Start watching any one mushroom (except for the baby) and follow it through the whole sequence. The mushrooms morph from tall to short and vice versa. This was consciously done by animator Art Babbitt, but why? It's not instantly obvious to the audience. Did Babbitt ever go on record explaining his thinking on this?


Anonymous said...

This is a fun post you've written, and a nice catch x 2. I could hear the discrepancy in the track (though I wrote it off as OS voices from the larger group) but never really caught the mushroom changes. Very trippy.
There's something so beautiful about Dumbo, even in your frame grabs. It's one of my favorite films of Disney.

Anonymous said...

Great film. I talked about it often with the late Joe Grant.

I also talked with Ward Kimball about the crows which some people seemed to think was racist. I simply thought they were funny.

A classic Disney film that will live forever.

Jenny Lerew said...

Babbit did indeed talk about the morphing--a lot, to various interviewers(I'd have to believe that he's on record in some book or other about it); so did Jules Engel, who I would talk to at length at CalArts and who also claimed some idea/design credit for the mushroom dance(that's a point of a lot of contention between the two men, and likely some other names as well). It was, IIRC as to what Babbit said, merely an ingenious way of showing perspective through inventive tricks of animation, and to me it worked. It's charming--I think that was the intention--kind of a shape-dance-joke thingy. ; )

As for "Dumbo" and Kimball's animation? Knowing him, I'd swear that it was all intentional; remmeber how for "Caballeros" he spoke of the flack he took for having a character exit frame left and immediately reenter from the other, "illogical" side? I would think he was playing the same sorts of games here...granted, "Dumbo" is more naturalistic than "Caballeros", but this is a musical dance sequence, and I believe you can (and should) get away with murder in such sequences--given the mood and tempo of the music. It suits the goofy jive nonsense of the entire thing.
Great post, again!

Mark Mayerson said...

Jenny, if the shots are by Kimball, I'm tempted to agree with you. However, after staring at the drafts that are turning up, I'm not willing to bet that the work is Kimball's without corroboration. If anybody has the Dumbo draft, can they please check it and let us know who did the scenes?

As to Babbitt, I've got several interviews with him and if I recall correctly, I first became aware of the size change when Dick Williams mentioned it somewhere. Maybe Babbitt's words slipped past me. I'll have to dig up the interviews out and see.

Jenny Lerew said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jenny Lerew said...

Mark, I'll swear Babbit talked about it--if not, I'm really hallucinating!
I have an unfortunately lousy memory for details(like exactly where I've heard this), but I'm certain I read at least one or more interviews where he went into this specifically. I've got to give this some more thought. It may have been an on-camera interview for TV. Maltin and/or Barrier would certainly know--and if they say it ain't been said,, well...I'll be forced to eat my pencil sharpener!

I saw the drafts for "Dumbo" back in '81; I was looking them over to see which were Fred Moore's scenes, but my overall impression was that the song was practicaly all Ward's(as you know, the film was on a very tight schedule and budget)--with maybe some Kelly in there, in small scenes--or perhaps he was only assisting Ward on the song.
I can't say that I blame you wanting to see proof of any of this... I'd like sone corroboration myself.
I base my statements partly on never hearing anyone gainsay Ward's mentions about doing that whole Crows song business single-handedly. I'll be fascinated to find out!

Hans Perk said...

The draft shows that in Seq. 19.1, ""I've seen everything" song", all but one of the scenes in the song are Kimball (sc. 22, before "With the wind"by Kelly), and only a few scenes have added effects animators. Directed by Jack Kinney, layout by Don DaGradi, dated 6/25/1941.

Hans Perk said...

For that matter, Seq. 5.2 in Prod. 2004 Fantasia (the Chinese Dance) exists of 3 scenes: first the intro shot (sc. 15) by Cornett Wood, then the actual dance by Babbitt. The first of his two scenes, sc. 16, is 31-04 ft, 6.5 Field 90 degrees turned (why?), with effects by Frank Follmer, Sandy Strother and Tom Barnes. Then sc. 17, 64-14 ft., effects by Follmer and Barnes.

Mark Mayerson said...

Hans, thank you. I'm always pleased to identify another Walt Kelly scene and it's good to know that Kimball was responsible for almost the entire song. I'm assuming that the cutaways to Timothy were by other hands. Moore has a lot of Timothy animation in this section of the film, though they might not have wasted Moore on reaction shots.

So, Jenny, I'm sure you're right that Kimball took liberties and figured he'd just blow them past the audience. It's a great song with some killer dance animation. The Three Caballeros song is wackier, but I think that this one is more nicely animated.

Ward Jenkins said...

Whenever I've watched the crows' dance sequence, I've always attributed Kimball to the entire thing, but this is only based on what I've read and heard via interviews, DVD special features, what have you. And being an animation director myself, I would have to say that even before Hans came in to set the record straight, I could just tell that Kimball had a hand in the entire sequence, even with the quirky things that were going on there. When I layout my scenes and try to figure out what and who goes where, I always try to keep a close watch on the entire thing, to make sure that noone strays too far away from my vision. Even if we found out that Kimball was not assigned to do all the shots in that fantastic sequence, I would like to think that he at least was in charge of the entire number.

As for the morphing mushrooms, I remember seeing that when I was just starting out in animation and I always wondered just why it was done. I'm almost willing to guess that it could be Babbitt's little inside joke here because those little guys do get a bit too phallic for me.

Jim Korkis said...

Mark, as one of the people responsible for me becoming a writer on animation history (since one of your columns revealed MINDROT existed and I started writing there), I thought I would add my two cents. The voices of the singing crows are the famous Hall Johnson Choir.

was a highly regarded African American choral director, composer, arranger, and violinist who dedicated his career to preserving the integrity of the Negro spiritual as it had been performed during the era of slavery. His Hall Johnson Choir, the first professional group of its kind, enjoyed a successful concert and recording career for more than three decades in the United States and abroad.

In 1935 Johnson took his choir to California to participate in the film version of Green Pastures (1936). Johnson's group remained in California, appearing in many films, including Hearts Divided (1936), Banjo on My Knee (1936), Lost Horizon (1937), Dumbo (1941), Tales of Manhattan (1942), and Cabin in the Sky (1943).

They also performed in Song of the South and since I am writing an extensive article on that film I was doing research on the Hall Johnson Choir.

I know that Ward told me how excited he was to have the Hall Johnson Choir perform the role of the crows (even though the lead crow named "Jim Crow" was voiced by the very white Cliff Edwards, the voice of Jiminy Cricket)and I am sure he had several members perform to capture the "sound" he wanted and figured audiences would just accept it.

I read your and Jenny's blogs every day and am always disappointed when there isn't a new post.

Mark Mayerson said...

Jim, I'm disappointed that I've never seen documentation as to who in the Hall Johnson choir actually sang on the Dumbo soundtrack. Hall Johnson was the man in charge, but I don't even know if the choir had a consistent personnel or if it was like the big bands, with a constantly changing roster.

Mark Mayerson said...

What's below is a comment I received via email from animator Borge Ring. I'm reprinting it here with his permission.


Babbitt actually DID answer a question once about his toadstool perspectives. I have read the conversation (or interview) somewhere but cannot remember where so I cannot quote verbatim from memory, but he said something like this:
''I came back from lunch and saw all that.... still lying around on my table and said to myself: I am tired of it Let's get it out"
Perhaps someone knows where the conversation was printed.

Maybe he was impatient or offended by the squabble with Elmer Plummer who designed the toadstols
Plummer complained to Walt Disney that Babbitt did not animate Plummer toadstools but made little men of them. Walt Disney allowed Plummer to go over Arts keys whereby they grew in size. This makes the "same" animation look slower and Babbitt and Hurtz had an enormous amount of "house-cleaning" to do with jumping toadstools higher etc to keep the spirit of the music

Art Babbitt was a born rebel and ( I think) perfectly capable of drawing ''interesting" perspective to annoy Plummer if he thought him pedantic. Babbitt once made a sarcastic farce out of giving an evening lecture to newcomers about The (holy)Exposuresheet.