Animator Will Finn posted a great letter he got from Ward Kimball back in the early '70s in response to a probing fan letter. Kimball had already created some of the most memorable characters in Disney films - he created the crows in Dumbo, and had a field day with Alice in Wonderland, animating Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Mad Hatter, and the Cheshire Cat - and Finn was a 15-year-old high school student at the time and he got some great advice.
Kimball's style of animating was truly transformative. In Alice, for example, he took characters that had already been illustrated in book form and made them very much his own.
I have transcribed the letter below for those of us fond of ASCII text, which can be copied, pasted, printed, and discovered better than a letter-sized JPEG. I have corrected a couple of misspellings but otherwise this is the letter as it was written. You can read from a scan of the actual typed letter on Finn's blog.
Dear Will Finn:
Good Christ! When you write a letter, you really write a letter! When I was in my second year high school I could hardly get through a sentence. From the gist of your essay I take it that you are shot in the ass to become an animator. Well, that's just fine. It helps to know just what you would like to do this early in the game. However, take caution. Don't try to rush it or force it. First off, you gotta finish high school. Then you have to take the first important step: ART TRAINING! This means at least three years in a reputable art school or art college. And be ready for that jungle out there you gotta be a jack-of-all-trades. By this I mean, you gotta know all the insides and outs of film making. And with animation in mind this means: BASIC DRAWING, LIFE DRAWING, DESIGN, LETTERING, ARCHITECTURE, COLOR THEORY, MATERIALS AND THEIR USE, PAINTING, MODELING, ART HISTORY, WORLD HISTORY, ANATOMY, HUMANITIES, FILM EDITING, SOUND CUTTING, RECORDING, STORY SKETCH,---You name it, you gotta be with it. What I am trying to say is that becoming an animator is a growth process that involves basic curiosities for all things, because man, animation is just not making things move, it is THINKING, THINKING, THINKING! You can't know enough about everything. Curiosity is the key word. See everything! Do everything! Find out what makes everything tick. How does it work? What motivated this---What motivated that. Learn from others, BUT DON'T COPY THEM! Try to retain your individualism while learning the basic rules. Don't be docmatic because you're going to change your mind about what you like and what you dislike hundreds of times before you're thirty! This will happen if you develop your imagination along with your curiosity. You gotta be able to draw a grand piano from any angle as well as a pretty girl looking over her shoulder. Learn a musical instrument. Any goddamned instrument. Play it to have FUN. This will help you if you become an animation freak. Remember this: You really can't animate a person dancing a boogie, a Charleston, a frug, a twist, a ballet, unless you can do 'em yourself, or at least analyze clearly the basis for each step. You can read all the animation books in the world but learning the art has to be done while doing. You notice that I have ignored some of your topics of discussion, but this is done to stress the point that you should be thinking of first things first and this means finishing your education as required and then going on to specialize in additional training, all the facets required of a truly, well-rounded animation. Go see the "Yellow Submarine" if you have not already done so. Go see "Fritz the Cat" and if it requires parental guidance, then bring your old man! See everything, as I said above. Go to film festivals. Be a Laurel and Hardy fan. Study Buster Keaton. Study their timing and how they stage a gag or a comedy situation.
Of course, Hanna Barbera are pretty crude compared to Disney's. But this is a problem of economics. H&B are filling a need and it is a business just like selling washing machines. We all can't be part of an organization such as Disney's with almost untold capital to underwrite full animation. Lots of Cartoon Co.'s would like to indulge in full animation, but the economic realities of the jungle prevent it. It's o.k. to have an idol and a goal but a realistic assessment of what's going on in the world of animation and the reasons behind it all are very important. Blah! Blah! Blah! If you find that you don't at first like this reply to your seemingly knowledgeable letter, put it aside and read it again at a later date, and you will see that hidden between the lines is a lot of good advice, even though the writing is crude, to say the least!Ward Kimball