Animator who helped bring Pinocchio and Bambi to life then moved on to experimental works
WILLIS PYLE, who has died aged 101, was an animator who worked on the Disney classics Pinocchio, Fantasia and Bambi and later helped to pioneer a more Modernist approach to animation.
Pyle was born on September 3 1914 near Lebanon, Kansas, the son of a Dust Bowl farmer, and grew up in a sod house (made out of rectangular patches of sod and grass) in Colorado. After leaving school he studied Art at the University of Colorado, where he became art editor of the university’s monthly magazine, the Colorado Dodo. In his final year, however, he responded to a Disney Studio advert featuring Pluto pup with the words “Draw me and earn $25,000 a year”, and dropped out of university to earn a living.
Moving to Los Angeles, he worked as a “traffic boy” at the studio for six months, delivering art supplies to the animators for $16 a week. At night, he studied drawing at Disney’s art school on the studio lot. Soon his skills landed him in a unit under Milt Kahl, the designer of Pinocchio, the puppet-turned-boy whose nose grows when he tells lies, and he was soon busily employed filling in the details between Kahl’s main pose drawings, making the characters walk and talk, and giving them different facial expressions. Pinocchio, he recalled, “had to act – raise its eyebrows, turn and jump and react to other characters. And the way you could do it was by looking at yourself in a mirror to see what that expression looked like.”
Pinocchio (1940) was followed by Fantasia (1940), for which he drew the cupids and centaurs for the Pastoral
Symphony sequence, and Bambi (1942) for which he drew the title character, his girlfriend, Faline, Flower, the skunk, and Thumper, the rabbit.
In 1941, however, Willis joined an animators’ strike, provoked, among other things, by inequalities in pay, the non-payment of promised bonuses for unpaid overtime and simmering anger over Walt Disney’s failure to list any animators other than himself in the credits for Snow White (1937). Pyle had no problems with the studio, but felt he could not pass his friends on the picket line. Afterwards, he returned to finish Bambi before joining the US Army Air Corp, and while waiting to be mobilised worked at Walter Lantz’s studio on Woody Woodpecker shorts.
He spent the war years at the First Motion Picture Unit in Culver City, California, animating training and propaganda films. After the war he moved to United Productions of America (UPA), a new studio formed by Disney strikers and Picture Unit veterans.
UPA transformed the animation industry with designs very different from Disney naturalism, and Pyle was credited as an animator on several important films, including The Magic
Fluke (1949), which was nominated for an Oscar, Ragtime Bear (1949), the first film featuring the short-sighted and accident prone Mr Magoo, and the Dr Seuss adaptation Gerald McBoing
Boing (1950), the story of a little boy who speaks through sound effects instead of spoken words, which won an Oscar for Best Animated Short.
By the time the film came out, Pyle had moved to New York, where he established his own studio and found steady work as an animator, contributing to commercials, television series including Charlie
Brown specials, and feature films such as Raggedy Ann & Andy (1977).
At the age of 68 he took up the paint brush and for more than 20 years exhibited his oils and watercolours at the Montserrat Contemporary Art Gallery in Manhattan.
In 1946 Pyle married Virginia Morrison, who predeceased him. There were no children of the marriage.
Pyle working on Bambi and (above) the finished product