Thursday, November 18, 2010

Unsung Heroes: Vladimir Tytla for Dumbo

Michael C here from Serious Film. It's going to be tough not to get carried away this week since the subject of this episode is one I feel very strongly about. If I had only been given the opportunity to write one episode of Unsung Heroes it probably would have been about this man.

Even the most casual moviegoer can pinpoint a favorite animated moment, but I'd be surprised to find that one in a thousand could name the main animator responsible. If this wasn't the case - if people knew animators the way they knew actors and directors - then the name of Vladimir Tytla would be as well known as Hitchcock or Brando. He is to animation what Michael Jordan is to basketball. You didn't know his skill could be performed on that level until you saw him do it.

It is commonly said in the profession that animation is acting with a pencil. Good animating is as deeply felt as anyone performance on the Broadway stage. On that level no animator ever performed with more depth of feeling than Tytla. A physically imposing man, his drawings were just as powerful and muscular as he was. There were no half-hearted emotions in one of his characters. Scenes bearing his signature reached heights to which few live action filmmakers came close.

I could devote a book chapter to each of Tytla's achievements during the golden age of Disney animation. Along with Fred Moore he supervised the animation of Snow White's seven dwarves, work which proved to the public that animated characters could have all the humanity of their live action counterparts. Stromboli, his villainous puppeteer in Pinocchio, is frighteningly realistic as no other animated character I can think of.

His work on Fantasia's Night on Bald Mountain sequence is often called his best, understandably so, since many declare it the high water mark in the history of animation. The intensity of Tytla's Chernabog, the demon of the mountain, is truly awe-inspiring. Nevertheless, I would point to his work on the title character of Walt Disney's Dumbo as his crowning achievement.

As head animator for Dumbo he largely ignored the behavior of real elephants, instead basing his animation on his own infant son. It shows. While totally believable as an animal, the character reaches the audience on an elemental level. A silent character save for the occasional squeal, Dumbo is childhood innocence personified. The scene where he visits his mother in prison set the bar for tear-jerkers for the next seventy years. From the perfectly held moment of stillness before Dumbo breaks down sobbing through to the moment mother and son hold on their last moment of contact, Tytla's character choices are so strong I believe students would benefit from studying his work in an acting class.

Animation technology has come a long way since Dumbo, but no computer can ever duplicate the overwhelming emotion Tytla was able to wring from his material. It's a testament to his skill that few outside animation aficionados like myself know his name. To most of the world Dumbo is as real as any character they encounter in a film. Even to a devoted fan like myself it is tough to conceive that a man could create such moments out of blank paper.

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