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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Iwao Takamoto and Sleeping Beauty

Iwao Takamoto and Sleeping Beauty

Iwao Takamoto was one of the most talented animators ever to pass through the Disney Studio in the 1940’s and 50’s. But he remains a more unsung hero, who never received the full opportunity to show what he could do on a Disney feature. As Takamoto himself would recall:
A new feature film would start to ramp up and it would look like I would get an opportunity to animate, and suddenly I would be approached by a small committee usually consisting of Milt Kahl, Marc Davis, and Frank Thomas, who would say something like, “For the good of the picture, would you take on the responsibility of quality control in the lead characters?” That would be the end of my animation chance.
Such was the case on Sleeping Beauty (1959), where Takamoto would serve as quality control supervisor on the title character.
         Quality control was by no means an easy job, particularly on a picture like Sleeping Beauty. With such an intense attention to detail on every level of animation, it was up to Takamoto to ensure the image was consistent both in appearance and level of draughtsman-ship. Takamoto had served in this position once before, similarly with the leading lady of Lady and the Tramp (1955). Before that picture, since his arrival at the Disney Studio in 1945 direct from the Japanese-American internment camp at Manzanar, he had risen in the ranks of assistant animators, becoming both friend and favorite to the likes of Milt Kahl and Marc Davis. 
         We see an example of Takamoto’s prowess in sequence 6 from Sleeping Beauty, where Briar Rose is pushed out the door by the Three Fairies. As veteran animator Andreas Deja explains, “Since Marc [Davis] initially drew her a bit younger looking, it was up to Iwao to redraw those scenes, so they would be consistent with her final design…I call these drawings super-designs…This is a man in search of graphic perfection. The way angular lines work against long flowing lines is astonishing. And look at the control he had over that face with all of those subtleties.” The notion of “graphic perfection” is decisive in defining both the style of Takamoto and Sleeping Beauty.

         Despite his brilliant work with quality control, Takamoto’s name remained absent from Sleeping Beauty’s credits, “…in those days, functions such as quality control did not get credited; today it would,” he’d write. Alas his name would never grace the title sequence of any Disney feature.

Image Source: Sleeping Beauty: http://www.amazon.com
         Takamoto did, however, receive one little moment to shine in Sequence 8 of the picture; “I was allowed to animate a couple hundred feet of a scene…by Eric Larson, who was one of the sequence directors…” Such was “the tail end of the initial meeting scene between Princess Aurora and Prince Philip, in which she turns away from him and runs over a little stream…” In the original production drafts (see below), Takamoto is listed as animator alongside Blaine Gibson for scenes 83 and 84, the former a medium long shot, the latter a standard long shot. Briar Rose runs from right to left across screen, eventually grabbing her things, as Philip calls to ask if he’ll ever see her again. In addition to Briar Rose and Philip, also featured are the horse, Samson, and a few of the woodland creatures. Takamoto probably focused on Briar Rose, whilst Gibson handled the others. The action is straightforward, and obviously well handled. Takamoto gets to demonstrate his understanding of refined human motion. The shot composition did not allow, however, for any detailed facial animation. 
Sequence 8 Production Draft

Image Source: Sleeping Beauty: http://www.amazon.com

           Even though this was not necessarily a defining piece of animation in Sleeping Beauty, it proved an important moment for Takamoto:
Eric [Larson]…managed to turn it into a valuable learning experience for me. He called me up to review the scene and we looked at it in rough pencil test form a couple of times. Then he sat and thought about it for a minute or two, and then he wound it back to the point where she stops and replies to the Prince and said, “It is possible before she delivers her lines that you could insert about eight frames of in-betweens? That will make the scene complete.” Of course it was possible, but I did not really know why until he told me. “He would be nice to have her think before she replies,” he said.
This act of Eric Larson’s reflected not only the dedication of the Disney touch, but also his respect and endearment for Takamoto. Sequence 8 of Sleeping Beauty was a gargantuan piece by its completion. Years in production, it had become almost infamous in connotation, and all but knocked Eric Larson out of future directing commissions. However, it remains one of the most beautifully executed sequences in animation history, and we can give credit for its conclusion to Iwao Takamoto among others.

Image Source: Sleeping Beauty: http://www.amazon.com
         Briar Rose’s line of dialogue in this very scene, “Maybe someday!” shouted to Prince Philip, ironically reflects the tone of the supervising animators in response to Takamoto’s hopes to become one himself. “Disney’s may have been more artistic,” he’d write, “but it was also more rigid…” This dismissal of Takamoto was not unique; other Disney animators of the time struggled to be noticed and to climb the production ladder beneath the imposing auras of the Nine Old Men. Takamoto’s being Japanese-American could also have played a role. Regardless however, he was highly respected and admired by many at Disney.
         By the early 1960’s, Disney was downsizing its animation department (partly as a result of Sleeping Beauty’s initial box office failure). Many laid off artists were soon finding work at the new Hanna-Barbera productions, where according to Takamoto, “animators were having a good time.” Takamoto would decide to leave Disney for the new studio. He received fond farewells from Milt Kahl and Marc Davis. Kahl told him, “No matter what you decide to do or where you go, you’re going to do fine. I know that, so it’s all up to you.” Davis would say, “Do you know how much exceptional talent that you have? Have you ever really given anybody a chance to see it?”
         Such chances would come at Hanna-Barbera, where Takamoto spent the rest of his career as an animator, designer, and producer. Dozens of television icons such as the likes of Scooby Doo would result. Disney’s loss was another studio’s gain. Iwao Takamoto would pass away in 2007, still working at Hanna-Barbera.

Be sure to read Iwao's book! http://www.amazon.com

-Deja, Andreas. "Iwao Takamoto." Deja View. Blogspot, 9 Jan. 2014. Web. <http://andreasdeja.blogspot.com/2014/01/iwao-takamoto.html>.
-Perk, Hans. "A. Film L.A.: Prod. 2082 (Sleeping Beauty) - Seq. 08.0 Boy Meets Girl." A. Film L.A. Blogspot, 4 July 2008. Web. July 2014. <http://afilmla.blogspot.com/2008/07/prod-2082-sleeping-beauty-seq-080-boy_04.html#links>.
-Takamoto, Iwao, and Michael Mallory. Iwao Takamoto: My Life with a Thousand Characters. Jackson: U of Mississippi, 2009. Print.


  1. Fascinating introduction to a little-known aspect of classic Disney animation. I've often wondered about how the studio kept things so consistent over the length of time and amount of collaborative effort it took to produce a classic-era feature.