An Interview with Grim Natwick

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DJ: I understand that Walter Lantz was called in as a consultant on Snow White in the very early stages.

GN: I never heard of that. But it’s possible because Walt’s experience in Hollywood exceed Walt(er Lantz’s) at that time. But I think he (Walt) spent..probably spent two and a half to three years on it - had it in his mind. I met Walt, gosh, when I was working on Krazy Kat....him and his brother Roy, when they’d come East they would visit the other studios. He may have wanted to persuade Bill Nolan to come out.

DJ: You said you drew Snow White as a little princess.

GN: Yes, with a three-pointed crown. I didn’t realize that...I may not have thought of the story where she was in rags. Later on, however, I designed the dress that she wore in rags..because I got that scene and they didn’t have a costume. (I show him a model sheet of Snow White in Natwick’s rag costume, drawn but his assistant Marc Davis.) Yes, I think one of the faults is a lot of artists who deserve credit didn’t receive any. Marc was a brilliant artist and he cleaned up my animation.

DJ: Do you remember some of the experimental work you did on Snow White?

GN: Well...All the animators that worked on her, I think Ham and I are the only premiere animators...

DJ: And Jack Campbell.

GN: Well, he was my assistant.

DJ: Was he? Because he was given many big scenes to do for the picture.

GN: Yes, well Jack wanted a chance to animate and so he came to me - he may have talked to Ham earlier - but up to this time we really had no girls to animate. But then he had cleaned-up several of my..maybe three or four of my scenes. Our first scene, the first scene Walt gave us he said: “Take a whole month on this one scene. Just (take your time). Everything you find that doesn’t work tell us and we’ll change it. Everything that does work...”

DJ: What scene was it?

GN: Oh, I’ve forgotten. I did eighty scenes in the picture. And he gave us a whole month and we didn’t ever have to submit one inch of animation to go into the picture. We could work them over or do anything we wanted to. So I’ve forgotten what that first scene was.

DJ: (I asked him about the conflict between his design of the girl and Ham Luske’s - one which, according to Marc Davis, caused more than a few tense moments during the summer of 1936. But he seemed vague about it.)

GN: When they decided on the costume she would have, they had twenty-five story meetings on it. There’s no telling they may have called in the President of the United States for an opinion that they would use something! They decided as long as she was to be in this costume most of the picture that (it should be one which) most of the inbetweeners could draw. Mine may have been a little too...

DJ: Sophisticated?

GN: Sophisticated.

DJ: Did you work with Luske in the same room?

GN: No.

DJ: And Jack Campbell was originally your assistant?

GN: Yes. He wanted to animate and I wouldn’t attempt to stop him. I could have complained to Walt but I wouldn’t. I really, I got a break - I think Marc was a better artist from my point of view, although Campbell was... had years of experience. Yeah, Jack worked for me until we got onto Snow White and I never, ever thought of trying to hold anyone back. Which...I don’t know what Walt would have said if (he knew how Jack felt about animating the girl) and I wouldn’t be curious to find out. Because Jack and I used to bowl together and do everything else together..we were pretty close friends.

DJ: And you don’t recall any conflict between you and Ham over the character of Snow White?

GN: Well, I don’t recall. I was never one to hold back my opinion but so far as I know there was never any conflict between Ham and myself because I admired him. I think, if I remember right, I went to a party at the Disney Studios and that was years later when I was working with UPA. And gosh, they had a long bar and I came up to order a drink and Ham was there and he reached over and gave me a terrific handshake. I guess he respected me as much as I did him because we both knew that most of the Mickey Mouse animators couldn’t even draw Snow White. Because it isn’t even drawing a girl. There’s something about the line itself. A feminine line is different than a masculine line, there’s different kinds of lines in drawings. Drawing a nude man and a nude woman, well it’s like switching to Mickey Mouse or something from a photograph.

DJ: So you felt the line should be feminine looking?

GN: The lines - well, all of the subtleties. You’ve got to know what the muscles are underneath the skin. You’ve got to retain a feeling of subtleness. A woman doesn’t walk like a man. Yes, I was glad that I had had eight years of art school. And that was over a period of, gosh, about twenty years.

DJ: The classes given by Don Graham...did you go to any?

GN: Yes.

DJ: Do you remember (anything) about those?

GN: Well, I went because I enjoyed drawing from a live model - just as long as you have a model hired by somebody else (laughs). Walt wanted everybody to learn how to draw better and always hoped, I guess, that he could have been in there doing the drawing himself.

DJ: I know you’ve talked a lot in the past about how you didn’t like to use the rotoscope, but didn’t the rotoscope help with the timing, for instance?

GN: Well, we changed it often. We never went in and told Walt we were doing it.(Here he talks about the one hundred and one rotoscoped images of one particular scene from Snow White and how he used the first and last ones but everything in between was done free-hand, without the rotoscope [the scene, Snow White running down the stairs after hearing the pot boiling over, was partly cut in the final version.]. He never told this to Walt, who upon seeing it, is said to have stated: “That’s just what I want!”) And we took liberties. Walt never said, “Don’t do this,” but if it didn’t work, you got the scene back and re-animated it.

DJ: Do you recall any scenes from Snow White that you did that you had to re-animate?

GN: In the early, preliminary scenes I think we animated three of one - Marc Davis was with me at the time. I think actually what happened, I believe they never got into the picture and whether or not, they must have (eventually) satisfied Walt without us ever knowing it. He gave us a practice scene that wasn’t even in the story but they were written out or something.

DJ: You don’t remember what that was, do you?

GN: No. The first three or four scenes we got were pretty simple scenes - I mean like her running across the room, picking up something. The little scene may have been seven or eight feet. Of the last twenty scenes I cannot remember one that came back for changes

DJ: But the early scenes you were talking about, they were just for experimental...

GN: I think that Walt was satisfied with them and figured this is safe - we can go ahead.

DJ: Oh, I see. They were probably just scenes..short, little scenes...

GN: I remember the first scenes he gave us and he told us “Don’t worry about it, if it doesn’t work, why we’ll find out what’s wrong.”

DJ: And they were just of the girl going...

GN: Well, she may have picked up a cup or something...done something very simple.

DJ: Do you recall looking at the live action through the moviola?

GN: Oh yes. Ech, Marc and I, we each had one. We had (Lester) Novros work with us. We were kind of a three-step sort of thing. And late in the picture when we were trying to finish it up a couple of other kids...I remembered their names for thirty years, I’ve forgotten who they were now. But they were very good assistants. Oh, Tony Rivera, a very good artist, cleaned up some of my drawings later, towards the end to finish up the picture - to get it on the road.

DJ: Milt Kahl?

GN: Well, Milt was...He did the Prince in some of the scenes and he actually..Milt’s drawings - see, he had no experience (at animating the human figure) but he was a terrific artist. Later on, of course, Milt was doing all the animation - he became a marvelous animator. But Milt’s early animation was fastidiously and perfectly done but he traced it too close to the photographic tracings and what I did on one scene, I remember, when he (the Prince) was walking over to sing under the window, I suggested throwing a couple (foreground cells) of trees in the foreground so that you wouldn’t be conscience of the walk. I don’t think I ever took a scene back - I may have corrected a drawing or two or three or something. I wanted these fellows to do the thing as well as I could do it and the particularly tough part of the thing, of course, I would fill it in, leaving only simple inbetweens. But things like a walk, normally you’d take for granted. But take a(n inexperienced) guy like Milt and expect him to do ANYTHING, you know, in the picture, was extraordinary. But he very quickly became one of the real great animators at the Disney Studio. Remember these kids came in because primarily they drew exceptionally well, and I never corrected anything that I thought would work. I never tried to say, well, they should have a little more of an action or something during the thing. So I drew many key drawings so I knew they’d start out certainly.

DJ: What scenes did you particularly enjoy when you saw it last time?

GN: I think the whole series where she is picking flowers and the hunter comes in. I think in some ways that was the most successful scene.

DJ: (Showing him pictures of Snow White dancing with the dwarfs I asked him if this would have been particularly difficult — this was actually done by both Natwick and Campbell.)

GN: No, this was really one of the easier scenes to do because it was moving so much we could use lots of rotoscope and for that reason it was on the close-up stuff that we had to be very careful of her eyes, nose and lips and what happened (to those things). Well, I was pretty well pleased with most of these scenes because the skirt was moving and it was at a fast tempo.

DJ: So the faster the scenes, the easier it was?

GN: Ordinarily, they could not pinpoint a defect.

DJ: It was a beautiful scene.

GN: I thought it was a very fortunate scene.

DJ: In some of the scenes you did, one can see the similarity in your drawing and the original model for Snow White, Marge Belcher (Champion). Was that intentional?

GN: No. But eight years in art school, I may have sensed certain things that the assistant would not. But I had a terrific pair of eyes at that time.

DJ: Were there any scenes that were particularly difficult that you had to work hard at more than the others?

GN: Well, the ones that I would say that about would be the ones where she was moving more slowly and I started to tell you once before and I think this has been printed before: I received one scene, there were, I think one hundred and one drawings. And I used (number) one and one hundred and one (of the rotoscoped images). Because she was singing “Some Day My Prince Will Come” I believe. (Author’s note: here Mr. Natwick is apparently confusing two different sections of the film. The scene using only the first and last of a set of rotoscoped images was actually, as mentioned earlier, of the one when Snow White was running down the stairs. However, he most likely did throw out the rotoscopes of the scene spoken of here since using them would, undoubtedly, create even more problems as he will explain.) You can imagine “Some Day (he starts singing) My Prince Will Come”..... So I just threw them all out (the rotos) and animated the whole thing (free-hand) because I was sure that it would jitter if I had used those drawings. Now it’s very possible that in photographing it they were unaware that she almost sat still at that time. So I think what I did with that - I know in one case, something like that, while she was staying pretty still in one mood, I deliberately (asked the director that the camera) panned over to one of the dwarfs, because the rotoscope would have been monotonous to see her in that almost one, still, position. We were given total liberty to do what we wanted to and every time I felt if it would do better to pan over to a dwarf clapping their hands or something and then come back to Snow White (we would do it). The animation (is pretty much set by) the animators, the director (directing animator), once he gets those rotoscope drawings and nobody ever jumped on us for any mistakes we made (laughs). So I guess most of it looked all right to Walt.

DJ: Do you remember going to a sweat box session with Walt and being nervous?

GN: On Snow White?

DJ: Yes.

GN: I can’t recall one. In fact, I never was nervous because when I was working for Walt I was offered jobs about every month or so...

DJ: I don’t mean nervous about getting fired, I mean...

GN: Oh, nervous about MY work? Oh, some of them were very tough. Some we had to take liberties with.

DJ: Can you recall which ones?

GN: Not off hand. I’d have to go through the picture. (Here I show him photos and re-prints from the movie, one with Snow White telling Grumpy to wash. “Yes, that’s my scene.” An when she’s kissing Grumpy: “Oh yes, and I think I animated the Grumpy there, where he gets his nose stuck in a tree. I feel very sensitive about that..I mean I recall it. But maybe I didn’t.”)

DJ: Bill Tytla did Grumpy.

GN: Oh yes, I remember talking to Bill about some of the scenes.

DJ: Oh you did?

GN: Well, yeah..That one, because for two years I had a room next to Bill and we became very close. Bill and Art Babbitt lived together at that time.

DJ: And all of this was easy for you to do?

GN: Well, the drawing was an awful lot of fun. But to get the spacing and the timing and the picture, for instance, how long - how many frames - would that be held so the audience would get it...the timing of it (was more challenging). The rotoscope, of course, gave you a great deal of help. But it didn’t give you the psychology of the thing. And we had to put in the accents.

DJ: Can you talk more about that - about what you just said?

GN: I guess it just comes down to a sense of directing. This was after twenty years or so (of drawing). I hadn’t been in animation all that time but gone to art school and drawing...But you want to be sure that the audience knows what’s happening. Much of the commercial stuff, for example, the timing is WAY off. You get a picture of a character and then they do something and you don’t exactly know what they did. I remember, I had an experience - I won’t mention the director’s name - but when I first worked at Walt’s, they didn’t have any animation for a week or two. I cleaned-up and made color drawings of the different models and characters that were used.

DJ: In Snow White?

GN: Not in Snow White. But one of them was Cookie Carnival. I drew or re-drew the head drawings of some of them - polished them up. Like the hair on the Cookie Queen was whipped cream or something. And later on I animated some of these so felt that I knew the character before I ever got them. I was thinking of another case. One of the early pictures I worked on, I believe it was Mickey’s Fire Brigade and Mickey Mouse was a fireman and he fell through the roof of a house and landed in a bathtub (with) Clarabell Cow who was in there. Now I always wanted to make sure that the audience knew what happened before he got a response.

DJ: It was Ben Sharpsteen (the director).

GN: Yeah. Anyway, I’d animated this thing, Mickey fell in in a splash. Now I wanted to be sure that the splash was out of the way - water dripped out of his eyes and THEN SUDDENLY he realized he’s in a bathtub with a naked cow and he’s very, very surprised. But Ben whittled it down so he’s surprised as soon as he landed and I never...It wasn’t very long before one day Walt’s secretary called me up and said: “Walt would like to talk to you after work.” And so, after work, I walked in and Walt was sitting behind a big, long table with all (different) scenes and drawings (on it) and telephones and everything else and he reached down and got a box of cigars and he said: “Do you smoke cigars, Grim?” And all of us, animators, quite a few of us smoked cigars. Cigarettes would go out too quickly - you’d be making a drawing and a cigar would still be lit afterwards. And so he lighted a cigar and I sat down on the divan about a third longer than that one (points to a six foot divan) and he went back and picked up a stack of cards and flipped through them and said: “Some nice things have been said about you Grim.” Then there were a few...I forgot how he wandered off in the end of a sentence (laughs) and he said: “Is there anything you’d like to say yourself?” Well I didn’t want to blackball Sharpsteen because we worked together in New York and his desk was next to mine (at the time) and..

DJ: Everybody hated him apparently.

GN: Oh? I never hated him because I was pretty much of senior member (authors’ note: Grim was nearly 45 went he went to Disney’s, easily the oldest animator by far of a group young enough to have been his children - perhaps another reason of his departure after Snow White was completed.). I had grown past that age where you hate people.

DJ: They were afraid of him, I mean.

GN: Yeah, I don’t think they were afraid of him - they didn’t dare punch him on the nose but I had known him way back in the early days and so I didn’t want to say anything against Sharpsteen. I Said: “ Walt, I don’t think”....I said “I’m kind of a slap-stick animator. I like the psychology of animation and I feel in some cases that Ben’s changed my drawings. In fact,” I said, “I don’t think you are getting MY animation.” And we had quite a long chat there, me trying to avoid knocking Sharpsteen. And Walt said: “Do you think you’d do better with another director?” And I said I didn’t think it would hurt any. I didn’t think it would do any worse. Well, the next director I got in with - it’s called Alpine Climbers. Who directed that?

DJ: Dave Hand.

GN: Yeah, Dave Hand. And there were some real tough scenes in there. As a matter of fact, one of them that I animated of Mickey trying to steal eagle eggs and the eagle - there was a little scrap between Mickey and the eagles - they used that as a test scene for animators who came out from the East. They had them re-animate that (to) see how good it was. So on that particular picture not one drawing was changed, not ONE TINY THING was changed. Nothing in the picture was changed and I got a $500 bonus on that one. So that was my answer to Sharpsteen. Not once in the next four years that I was there did Walt ever say a word to me about my animation.

DJ: You said there were tough scenes in the Alpine Climbers. Were there any tough scenes in Snow White?

GN: Well, the main toughness is to be sure the eyes are lined up, that the nose doesn’t get too big or that the lips get out of place a sixteenth or a sixtieth of an inch. You’ve got a blank face there where you have to be very, very careful, the inbetweens had to be watched very carefully unless it was fast action. But it is...yeah, Snow White, you had to know how to animate to really get the timing because sometimes there’s a stuttering in the movement or the tracing of lines are bad. You’ve got to be sure that the flow of the dress was always a natural flow. And we discarded many drawings because we felt that it slowed it up a little bit and we could get what we wanted in by putting in a couple of our own inbetweens somewhere else. We re-timed quite a lot of that as well - of the same thing as the splash in the bathtub. I think that Sharpsteen put it in too soon (Mickey’s surprise). He lost the psychology of the scene. The thing an animator can do PRE-EMINENTLY is to psyche an audience if they know how to time it. If they can’t feel it, they can’t do it.

DJ: So for Snow White, you re-timed some of the director’s timings? Is that what you’re saying?

GN: Well, it was only photographed and it moved, and gave its position. But, yeah, well, like that one scene of one hundred drawings. We, I forget whether I re-timed that completely or whether I cut away from it a little quicker and cut to the dwarfs or something. But we had total privilege, which we used - that privilege or re-timing any of that.

DJ: So you would say the most difficult part was the details of the face and the drapery of the costume, rather than an actual movement, getting out of a chair, for instance, or....that was all pretty easy for you then?

GN: Yeah, I think so. The drawing was the thing you had to watch. That could get off very easy.

DJ: Because the animation is very beautiful and it looks like a lot of study has been made of the live action to get it that realistic and still have the exaggeration necessary for the cartoon.

GN: Yeah. I didn’t like any of my animation in the Fire Brigade because Sharpsteen had re-timed everything that he....he kept changing things and changing things. Now that might have been all right for these kids that were learning how but, boy, it was a pretty bad start and I’d been animation for six or eight years. Probably longer than Sharpsteen had.

DJ: Now did you notice that when you were doing Snow White from the live action rotoscope, that you had to exaggerate a lot of the motion?

GN: Oh, you exaggerate anytime you are photographing, or have it done over.

DJ: The rotoscope was re-photographed you mean?

GN: I think if they ran it and it didn’t look quite right they’d undoubtedly re-shoot it.

DJ: And as far as exaggerating the rotoscope, was that easy for you to do? For some animators it wasn’t easy.

GN: Oh, I can’t remember any problems and, of course, we had the moviolas - we could run it over and over again. And as I said, in that one scene, we threw out one hundred (rotoscoped) drawings. We didn’t use it.

DJ: Because there’s still a stretch and squash even in Snow White but it’s different than the dwarfs.

GN: Oh yes. We wouldn’t dare all of a sudden over-do it or something. Yeah, you had to be very cautious, but we tried to get it into the drawing. See, we took..we re-drew the rotoscope. Her chin was down to her bosom. She was about five heads high or something but the girl was probably seven heads high so we picked it up by making a trim, little (figure), we moved the waist-line up and moved the neck-line down and tried to overcome difficulties by making a brace less outer collar. So we changed her enough and we trimmed her down, of course. If her skirt was out too long, too far, (we’d) perform a little arc and twist it the other way. We did everything that we would like to see happen.

DJ: Who’s we?

GN: Well, Marc and even Les Novros. And I primarily made the changes. But after we did it, we re-shot some of it (our animation) and ran it and all looked at it at once and if there was something I wanted to point out, I’d say “Be sure to catch this.” And Marc was a brilliant, brilliant artist and Les was an excellent artist.

DJ: Can you remember anything specific that you pointed out - something while you were watching one of the test things.

GN: No, I guess not. Any problem that came up while they were drawing, either of them, they’d just bring it over to me and say, “Can we change this?” and if it seemed easy to do and there was no reason not to do it, we would do it. Oh, I’ve seen rotoscope that didn’t work at all.

DJ: For Snow White?

GN: No, not in Snow White, but in Fleischer they used some of it and you’d know it’s been traced. It’s just...you’ve got to overcome the fact that this is traced photography and still get this nice svelte drawing in there that made her feminine.

DJ: Did this come easy to you in the beginning or did you have to gradually get it to where you felt comfortable with it?

GN: I think we had to work it over and if we discovered something that worked, we’d tell each other.

DJ: When you worked on the key scenes for Snow White - how did you draw it - I mean, did you start with the head, did you start with the body?

GN: Yes, you usually start with the head - that proportions everything else. The girl - she probably was close to - about five heads high - I forget exactly now - and you were sure...We, very often if it was the first few heads we’d draw we’d be sure they were the right height. So that was where some of the artists who work with rotoscope get off. They get the head a little too big or too small and that throws everything else off. There’s no way you can overcome (it), so we watched that very carefully.

DJ: Did you ever look at any of Ham Luske’s scenes and think: “This could be better” or something?

GN: (laughs) I never looked at one of his scenes except when they appeared in the first test reel or something.

DJ: And what did you think then?

GN: I never thought of it as being Ham’s really. He was one of the fellows that I respected very highly and I don’t think we....I ever talked the character over with him at any time. I can’t recall it. I’m sure he looked at some of my scenes in the finished picture and realized that they worked and I did the same with his.

DJ: Did Jack Campbell ever discuss with you any of the problems he might be having with Snow White, that you can remember?

GN: Never, never once. But Jack, he’d been a professional artist before he ever got into animation so he was one of the good...well, Walt had a bunch of wonderful...Without great draughtsmen, he could not have made Snow White. You could get...there were artist good enough at other studios to draw the dwarfs. But, of course, in fellows like Bill Tytla and Freddie Moore and those guys, you had superb artists, superb animation artists.

DJ: Do you remember anything about Norman Ferguson? He drew the witch.

GN: Well, probably not a better (animation) artist in the world, Russia, Denmark, England, or anywhere else who could have done what he did (with) it. He grew up on Broadway and he had a natural sense of exaggeration. His problem, if he had any, was going too far. And possibly he did that because he was not the greatest draughtsman and so he did it...what he picked up (was) by going to vaudeville every week and (so) having a high sense of the theatrical.

DJ: Do you remember looking at his drawings of the witch when you were doing Snow White?

GN: Oh yeah. Not while he was working of Snow White, earlier on. At one time he was a couple of (desks from me).....When I was starting in the business and hadn’t been there too long I had the desk two desks away from him and I knew him personally because he was one of the New Yorkers. And I used to take my drawings over to him and ask him, “How does this look” or “what did you think,” or “have I stretched it too far?” He was a nice, quiet-spoken fellow. Later on he came over to UPA and then he began asking ME questions.

DJ: But do you remember looking at his Witch drawings?

GN: Oh yes, because, of course, sometimes the two characters appeared in the same scene. But I thought he did a superb job. I didn’t visit him while he was working on the witch but when I first started I knew him well enough that I went deliberately into his office and said: “How many feet of animation a week do they expect here?” And he gave me a brush-off answer, he said: “Why, I sometimes do fifteen feet a day.” (laughs) Of course, I remember one character we did at Walt’s - a fellow came up from the front office and said: “Walt will be satisfied if we get a foot and a half a week out of this.” They were caricature drawings but they were pretty slow to work on.

DJ: You had to draw Snow White from every angle, of course?

GN: Apparently yes, but apparently we were lucky, or else the camera move may have helped. But remember - gosh, in three art schools - in, well, three of the best art schools in the world for about eight years of going to life classes every night for that long, you learn something about drawing.

DJ: And the animation is something that you yourself had a feel for?

GN: Yeah, they always called me a natural animator. I never was aware of that but I was told it by many of the people I worked with. Particularly, at the first studio I worked at, the Hearst Studio, I began doing things that the animators had never tried but that was because I’d been drawing in life classes for...how many drawings would that be? Three quarters of a year...about two times eight - several thousands of nude bodies in all kinds of positions.

DJ: Can you recall what were your earliest scenes from Snow White after the easy experimental-type ones you described earlier?

GN: The first ones I think (were) where she’s walking in the woods.

DJ: The sequences were not drawn in the order they appear in the film were they?

GN: No, the first scenes were not complicated ones, I think they did that on purpose. For instance, her scene with the Huntsman I think is the best scene I had in there. I felt later, after she had gone through the forest, holding the bird on her finger was a very touching scene(this was actually just prior to the one with the confrontation with the Huntsman). There were some scenes I wasn’t satisfied with but I didn’t think they were enough to hurt the picture and I knew that a lot of higher-up guys than me had seen them and said OK (laughs).

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This article is Copyrighted © 2000 by David Johnson, and have beed printed here for the first time in Animation Artist Magazine with Johnson’s permission. David Johnson is a regular columnist for Animation Artist Magazine, and we thank him for his insight and willingness to contribute his knowledge and talent to the animation world.

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