15 August 2011

Ward Kimball: A New Look at a Legend

If you’ve been following the Main Street Gazette for any period of time, you know that several years ago we made a conscious decision to turn away from animation and Disney Parks worldwide in order to focus solely upon Walt Disney World. Today, however, we have a guest article from Kevin Carpenter about the life and times of Ward Kimball, one of Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men. While Ward’s documented contributions to Walt Disney World may seem meager, his presence can be felt in all corners of the resort, and he most assuredly deserves a day in the Gazette spotlight.

Thanks to Kevin for his fabulous take on Ward Kimball and for bringing his story to the Main Street Gazette!

Ward Kimball: A New Look at a Legend
by Kevin Carpenter

In a bit of serendipity, I recently stumbled upon an issue of The Illustrator magazine from 1977. It had been given to my mother as a prize for winning an art contest sponsored by the magazine. Packed away for nearly 35 years, it was finally unearthed last weekend while cleaning. Much to my delight, the cover story of this issue was written by Disney Legend Ward Kimball about his career in the animation industry.

The eight page feature is a fascinating first-hand look at how Ward Kimball followed his love for drawing to a job at the Disney studio and a lifetime of creating magic. Although Kimball remains best known for his contributions to animation, his impact could also be felt at Walt Disney World ... or at least it used to be. Few realize that he worked with Imagineering to create Epcot’s World of Motion, which closed fifteen years ago. While Ward Kimball’s WDW legacy cannot compare to his animated creations, it does highlight how his work influenced all facets of The Walt Disney Company. Below is a short sketch of Ward Kimball’s life and career, sharing several of the stories and anecdotes from his piece in The Illustrator.

Ward initially took up drawing during his childhood in Minnesota, but this interest lapsed when his family moved to California. His artistic talent lay dormant up until the day he walked into his fifth-grade classroom at school. Each week, Ward’s teacher would award a chocolate candy bar to the student who drew the best picture. This was just the inspiration he needed: “Since I was a candy bar freak, I hopefully entered the contest every week and each time it was zilch until finally I came up with a winner.”

Ward’s eventual winner? An ocean liner drawn sailing in perspective, with birds and tufts of smoke billowing overhead.

From those early days of drawing for chocolate, Kimball continually worked at refining his creative ability. This dedication was ultimately rewarded with a scholarship offer to the prestigious Santa Barbara School of Art. Unfortunately, the entirety of his tuition would not be covered by this scholarship, so Ward had to work as the school janitor to make up the difference.

The one piece of animation specifically mentioned as a major inspiration to young Ward Kimball was Disney’s “Father Noah’s Ark” Silly Symphony. So impressed with Disney’s work, Ward decided then and there to drive out to the Disney Hyperion studio and submit his portfolio. The studio offered him a job on the spot and he officially began working at Walt Disney Productions the following week, on April Fool’s Day no less.

Interestingly, Ward reveals that his dream job during those early days at Disney was to be a background artist. Alas, he was assigned to the animation department ... and the Disney studio would never again be the same. Ward quickly worked his way up the ladder and, after the unprecedented success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, he received his first big break. He was named the supervising animator for Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio. In effect, he would be creating the design for the now-legendary character.

Well, this was not as easy as it might seem. With Walt Disney envisioning Jiminy as an endearing character, Ward battled mightily to find the right balance for the cricket’s design. His struggles could be summed up in one simple question: How do you turn an ugly insect into a cute Disney character? Ward’s answer was to get rid of the ugly parts. Afterwards he remarked, “Nobody seemed to mind that the cricket was no longer an insect.”

During his illustrious career at Disney, Kimball also animated the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella’s Lucifer (based on Ward’s old cat which had a “perpetual sneer on its face”), and the Crows from Dumbo among many others. Yet it was a series of Disneyland television episodes that he remembers as his personal creative pinnacle.

The three Tomorrowland space-themed episodes of Disneyland remain some of the most groundbreaking and innovative works to ever come out of the Disney studio. Knowing of Ward’s interest in space exploration (and UFOs!), Walt Disney personally tapped Kimball to produce and direct the project. With equal doses humor and analysis, Ward meant for the “Man in Space” series to both enlighten and entertain viewers.

Ward’s directing work has twice been recognized with Academy Awards. He first won in 1954 for “Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom”, a short depicting the development of music. 1969’s short, “It’s Tough to be a Bird”, earned Ward his second Oscar. In fact, this victory remains the last Academy Award won by the Disney studio in the “Best Animated Short” category. With two awards under his belt and many timeless characters animated, Ward Kimball has truly left an indelible legacy that may never be topped.

Ward ended his article with some heartfelt advice for the readership of The Illustrator (many of whom were aspiring artists). But his words, printed here, should really apply to all walks of life: “My final two cents of advice is to develop an all-consuming curiosity for things both exotic and ordinary. Read, observe, analyze, and become involved with a variety of interests. Study, practice, delve, probe, investigate, and above all, be flexible. Keep an open mind. The world is changing fast. Don’t be caught in the corner of the ring. Keep moving and have fun. Take it from me, it’s worth it!”

Kevin Carpenter works in professional soccer and has contributed to Celebrations Magazine. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kejcarpenter.


Greg said...

Nice article Kevin. What a great find and thank you Ryan for running the post.

Cory Gross said...

Very cool details on Ward's life. He is, without exception, my favorite of Disney's stable.