Saturday, 28 May 2016

The Duck Man Speaketh

Walt Disney’s priorities in the 1940s and ‘50s may have been feature-length cartoons and a theme park, but he still had a contract with RKO to put animated shorts on the big screen. And he had three units doing it, led by Charles Nichols, Jack Hannah and Jack Kinney. In the ‘60s, Nichols moved on to Hanna-Barbera, Kinney opened his own studio and ground out Popeye cartoons for TV and Hannah got a job directing for Walter Lantz.

Kinney seems to get all the accolades of today’s animation fans, mainly because his shorts are a little more rough-and-tumble. In other words, they’re not like Disney shorts. Nichols gets little respect. Hannah falls in between, though the nicest comments you may read about him are from fans parroting each other about his work for Lantz. If you hear about his Disney work, generally it involves directing Humphrey the Bear in In the Bag (1956). Hannah later went into teaching. It was then he was profiled by the Long Beach Press-Telegram on July 17, 1975. When I transcribed this story for the GAC website, a poor scan of Hannah from the paper accompanied the post. I don’t even have that now; what you see above is a cropped picture from the D23 site.
End of an era? He hopes not

Staff Writer
Once upon a time in what was then considered a brave new world of writers and artists and technicians, Jack Hannah was known jokingly around the Disney Studio as a Donald Duck man.
Today Hannah calls himself an endangered species. In 40 years, he explained, the world has changed and the newness has faded and Hannah — now close to 70 — finds himself part of a dying breed.
"We're all getting old now," said Hannah of the men and women who were responsible over the years for transforming Walt Disney's dreams into celluloid reality. "The studios aren't training young people the way they did when we were starting out. Pretty soon there won't be any of us left."
Hannah spoke not wistfully, but realistically of the days when both he and the Disney Studio were young and casts of hundreds worked together to produce one animated feature. But the time that went into those features, Hannah lamented, and the studio could possibly afford to do that sort of thing today. "It used to be that you could make your money back on a 10-minute Donald Duck cartoon. That doesn't happen any more and gradually the studios have stopped making them."
HANNAH, A ONE-TIME animator and "shorts" director, bemoaned both the end of an era in cartoon-making and the end of a system which encouraged and trained young people in the art of character animation. Once again, he said, cost is the culprit. Yet as appreciative as he is of financial realities he fears the worst for the future of animation.
"There used to be plenty of opportunity for a young person to learn. When I started out there were so many people involved that there were ways to train an apprentice.
"But now if you don't know how to do it you're not going to learn. The studios just don't have the money any more to provide training for newcomers and there are no schools of art in this country that offer programs in character animation."
So committed is Hannah to preserving at least part of that magical world he once help to create, he has come out of semi-retirement to head a program to train young people in the techniques of character animation.
The four-year bachelor's degree curriculum will be offered beginning this fall at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. The program is funded by the Disney Foundation and "old hands" from the Disney Studio will play an integral role in the training process.
"THE IDEA," Hannah explained, "is to teach the art of character animation. This means more than just drawing sketches — it means knowing every phase of the animation process.
"At the same time we want to make sure our students have a well-rounded background in the arts. This isn't just a prep school for the Disney Studio. When a student graduates from the program we want him to be able to go into any area, not just character animation."
As the program is now conceived, students will spend the first two years mastering the basics of animation, including design and life drawing. Mastery of life drawing is especially essential, Hannah explained, "because if you can't draw an actual sketch of a fawn, you aren't going to be able to do character animation of one."
At the same time, students are expected to spend at least one day a week pursuing other liberal arts studies, Hannah said. Curriculum during the final two years — which will be supervised personally by Hannah — will emphasize the film making process.
ENROLLMENT in the program will be limited to 15 students per class. Several young people already have been accepted on the program and numerous others have submitted applications and samples of their work.
"All portfolios submitted will be looked over by an evaluation committee made up of Disney people," Hannah said. "What we're looking for are people with some basic talent and sense of movement...and of course some indication of a sense of comedy and entertainment."
Hannah was born in Arizona on January 5, 1913. His family was in San Diego by 1930 where he and his brother Robert worked as overseers at a parking lot. He was hired at Disney in 1933. Hannah died in Los Angeles on June 11, 1994. Jim Korkis interviewed him a number of times and you can read a composite of their conversations here.


  1. Hannah passed in 1994, not 1974, Don. And I'll vouch for his directorial brilliance at Disney in the 40s and 50s. Just watched "Trick or treat" the other day, and it's a testament to his mastery of controling plot tension in the animated short subject.

    1. If he had spoken from the grave in 1975, that would have been something. Thanks for the note. I've fixed the typo.

  2. Storyboard in the photo is from Lucky Number (1951).