“Johnny Art,” An Animator We Should All Remember
While the Nine Old Men shine as the kings of Disney animation, it is integral to remember the work of other animators who worked alongside them, and who have received far less credit. John Sibley was one such artist.
|Sibley (right) with friend and fellow animator Fred Moore (left), unidentified artist clowning around in the center|
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Nicknamed “Johnny Art,” the man behind the fabled drunken “lackey” or jester from Sleeping Beauty (1959) was perhaps best known around the studio as one of the masters of Goofy. Hired originally in the later days of production on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), he would go on to animate in over 40 Goofy shorts including How to Play Baseball (1942) and Hockey Homicide (1945). “Sibley had such an understanding of comedy,” says animator Andreas Deja. His style championed a “caricature of movement” as director Pete Docter describes it. “His ability to capture the feeling of a motion, rather than just the motion itself, is something to which we all aspire in our work.”
|How To Be a Sailor (1944)|
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Watch How To Be a Sailor here:
Sibley is probably not as well known because he did not join the features department until later years. After contributing to Make Mine Music (1946) and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949), he would stay in the shorts department until the production of Lady and the Tramp (1955). On that film he would play a large role in the animation of the infamous Siamese cats. His bulk of work on the shorts, matched with a dislike for studio politics, kept him out of the limelight.
Through his work on Goofy shorts, Sibley proved his mastery of humor. Many of those shorts, particularly the “How To” series, featured Goofy as a mute character, acting in pantomime with the narrator. He partnered with Woolie Reitherman on many of those shorts. Animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston recalled, “John, like Woolie, was especially good at funny, imaginative action and timing.” In feature production, this adeptness for visual comedy was perhaps best realized in the animation of the jester in Sleeping Beauty.
|Sibley is credited in the center column|
Sequence 13, known as the “Skumps Sequence,” was primarily the work of Milt Kahl and John Lounsbery. Milt handled the kings in the first half of the sequence, as well as the initial introduction of the jester. John Lounsbery handled the kings for the latter half. And John Sibley handled the jester, as he grew more and more inebriated, eventually passing out under the table in a musical stupor.
Historian and critic Leonard Maltin reflects on the sequence: “This is all about acting…there’s not a lot happening in this scene, it’s an acting scene…this is animation at its subtlest.” Like Goofy in many shorts, or Gideon in Pinocchio (1940), the jester is a mute character, so the acting comes 100% from the animator’s pencil. Sibley flexes his muscles, giving the jester an intricate fluidity to his motion, perfect for comedy.
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“Sibley had a way of drawing that was as sophisticated as a “New Yorker” cartoon, and yet he loved slapstick,” says animator Will Finn. Sibley did in fact make extra money as a gag artist for magazines. This style of sophistication was perfect for Sleeping Beauty, which broke design barriers under the tutelage of stylist Eyvind Earle. The jester’s design is very much in the 1950’s “cartoon modern” aesthetic, with defined and angular limbs. Yet he still fits the gothic world of Sleeping Beauty without flaw. A similar aesthetic of character design would be implanted into Sibley’s last work at Disney with Horace and Jasper in 101 Dalmatians (1961), and the wolf in Sword in the Stone (1963).
“Natural is a word Sibley’s work often brings to mind,” says Pete Docter. “He makes the animation look effortless…” His natural ability was proven in his working process. Sibley animated sequences “straight ahead,” from start to finish. Docter again: “Sibley discovered the scene as he went, which allowed for some truly distinctive results.” The jester’s swaying back and forth as he shows King Stefan the castle plans, the precise placement of a hiccup, cradling the wine-filled lute like a baby, all are prime examples of such beautiful detail. These intricacies also make for the biggest laughs. Like Goofy, he is “awkward, clumsy, yet surprisingly elegant.”
The “Skumps Sequeunce” serves as one of the key relief points in Sleeping Beauty. The scene takes a slight departure from the heart of the story, and provides comic relief. “It has a nice touch of comedy that’s really needed,” says Deja. Sequence 9, where the three fairies bake the cake and make the dress for Briar Rose also serves this purpose. The film’s central story is rather intense and unrelenting within the rest of the Disney canon. But these scenes of comic relief add the touches that make it a Disney film. And as the Kings ramble on singing and discussing their children, the audience’s attention is invested in the antics of the jester.
“At a time (today) when animated features feel overstuffed with verbal gags and plot points,” says Docter, “it’s inspiring to find animation that stands solidly and unabashedly on its own.” That was John Sibley’s “old fashioned” genius, a naturalistic impression that created some of the most humorous and believable examples of character animation. And although his true mastery is found best with the Goof, we can still treasure the subtleties and beauty in the jester from Sleeping Beauty.
-The best tribute to John Sibley is found in Pete Docter’s magnificent essay, “John Sibley- The Tenth Old Man.” Originally published in “Animation Blast” number 9 in 2006, it has most recently been republished in “Walt’s People: Volume 13” (http://www.amazon.com). Docter himself would find great success in more visually driven storytelling in Up (2009).
-Docter, Pete. "John Sibley- The Tenth Old Man." Walt's People. Talking Disney with the Artists Who Knew Him. Vol. 13. N.p.: Theme Park, 2013. 277-87. Print.
-Lambert, Pierre. La Belle Au Bois Dormant. N.p.: Editions De L'ecole Georges Melies, 2013. Print.
- Picture Perfect: The Making of Sleeping Beauty. Walt Disney Studios, 2009. DVD.
-Ponti, Grayson. "John Sibley." 50mostinfluentialdisneyanimators. N.p., 7 July 2011. Web. 9 Sept. 2013. <http://50mostinfluentialdisneyanimators.wordpress.com/2011/07/07/22-john-sibley/>.
- Sleeping Beauty. Dir. Clyde Geronimi, Les Clark, Eric Larson, and Wolfgang Reitherman. Walt Disney Productions, 1959. DVD.
-Thomas, Frank, and Ollie Johnston. The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation. New York: Hyperion, 1995. Print.