Monday, 27 December 2010

Cliff Nordberg - Animator

Over the past two days I've been celebrating Christmas Day and Boxing Day, and I had a lot of fun playing games with my family in the living room, and enjoyed laughing. But, now as it's 27th December, I do feel the need to get back to my posting curriculum.

In the meantime, Joe Campana has sent me some info not long ago, and I do feel the need to share the world on one of the unknown Disney animators - Cliff Nordberg.

Photo of Cliff Nordberg. (I can't make out what the object is with the white spots). Date unknown.

Now, some of you people right recognize the name Cliff Nordberg in Disney features from the 1950's, 1960's and well up to the 1970's. A lot of people don't really recognize his work on the screen. As far as I know from Cliff, he was known to do quite a lot of lively performances on the characters, and broad as well. His characters he got to animate we're always full of character, and so energetic--and they were very funny to watch. In early features, he appears to have worked closely with animator Ward Kimball at the time, on Alice in Wonderland, Pecos Bill, Peter Pan, etc.

However, you'll see his name in the credits like Make Mine Music, Song of the South, Melody Time, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Ben and Me, Lady and the Tramp, 101 Dalmatians, The Sword in the Stone, Robin Hood, The Rescuers, Pete's Dragon, The Small One and The Fox and the Hound.

Now let's start at the beginning.

Clifford Adolph Nordberg was born on the 19th April 1917 in Salt Lake City, in Utah, and was raised by his parents Adolph Emanuel Nordberg (11/24/1896 - 10/20/1973), and Ida Josephine Walker (2/11/1898 - 7/20/1979), the couple had been married since 26th July 1916 and married since Clifford's father's death in 1973. I believe he had a younger brother and sister, one named (Melvin?) born in 1920, and Dorothy born in 1922 - I don't know if they are still alive or not. Not much is known about his childhood, but he lived in Utah in the Salt Lake City area for most of his childhood and teen life, and moved to Glendale, California in 1938.

Cliff married her then girlfriend Olive Molley in 1940, and remained married until Cliff's death. The couple had two children, one named Gary Clifford (who was born a year earlier on 8/25/1939, but died in 1992), and another son named Eric David, who was born on 2/15/1954, and is still alive, I believe.

In around 1937/1938 - Cliff Nordberg was offered a job at the Walt Disney Studios as an animator (although IMDb only mentions his earliest work on Make Mine Music - and Alberto's page mention his earliest animation work was Californy 'er Bust the Goofy short directed by Jack Kinney - maybe Cliff did a few scenes to start of with). My guess is that Cliff started at Disney as an assistant animator or in-betweener.

It wasn't until in Make Mine Music when he was promoted to character animator and he worked on segments in the package feature, most of his stuff are in Casey at the Bat where he animated a lot of the crowd and supporters, and he did a few scenes in the jazzy song All the Cats Join In. He also worked on Song of the South, and two segments in Melody Time: Pecos Bill and Little Toot.

He did a lot of work in the 1950's and worked on the Mice in Cinderella, Dum and Dee, the Mad Hatter and March Hare in Alice in Wonderland, Indians in Peter Pan, the unlicensed dogs (inc. Nutsy in silhouette) in Lady and the Tramp, and Ben and Me. There is a little bit about Nordberg written in Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston's The Illusion of Life, and was one of the contributors on the book (even though he died while it was written):

Storyman Ed Penner unusual story problem in "[The] Lady and the Tramp", with the sequence of the dogs in the city pound. The inescapable fact that the unwanted animals are put away at these places was a key part of the story and the thought had to be planted in this sequence . The pathos of melancholy dogs behind bars is one thing, but taking an animal to the gas chamber bordered on the morbid and over-dramatic in out medium. How could it be presented so that it was unmistakable, yet done with a light touch?
Ed's solution: First, build a parallel with the live-action prison films that had been so popular just a few years earlier (The Big House, The Last Mile), making available cliches of dialogue and attitudes.
"Look guys, they're takin' Jo-Jo."

"Yeah, he's taking the long walk."
"Oh, well, a short life and a merry one."
These are familiar terms the audience understood. Second, show the dog only in silhouette, as a shadow, to minimize identification. Third, change the dog's name to "Nutsy", and, fourth, give the animation to Cliff Nordberg with instructions, "Make it funny!"
Only Cliff could handle such an assignment. He had become known for his ability to create the unexpected, screwy actions where ordinary movements would have sufficed. His talents gave a zany quality to mundane situations and were just right for this delicate spot in taking his last walk, but he was so comical about that no one could become overly concerned.

What they were trying to say is that Cliff Nordberg was good at these assignments and that was an example of his work. He would make something was would be a tragic but with a "light touch" in it. A lot of his animation is fun to watch because he's great at action scenes and making them funny.

He continued doing animation work on features and uncredited work on Sleeping Beauty, and then worked on a lot of the farm cat Sgt. Tibs in 101 Dalmatians and Creulla's henchmen Horace and Jasper Badun. However, in the 1960's, his animation may have declined because in The Sword in the Stone, he wasn't given a lot to do, and most of his scenes were minor stuff and lacked weight, and didn't have the style Nordberg used in his films, he was mainly given the scenes of the dishes washing itself up when Merlin put a spell on them; he did the action scenes of the Wart as a bird and chased by a hawk. However, after Sword, he seemed to have disappeared from features for a while and working on other Disney projects in the 1960's.

The 1970's saw him with highlights, he went back to work on Robin Hood, and was given a lot to do on The Rescuers, the crocodiles chasing the mice when they are in danger, Evinrude the dragonfly being chased by a swarn of bats (also animated by Art Stevens), and did Ellie Mae and the Swamp Critters rescuing Penny from  the evil Madame Medusa. Around 1978, his career was already in highlights, he was promoted to Directing Animator on Don Bluth's The Small One and was given great scenes like the three merchants, and a Stromboli take of the auctioneer. It was the last film he worked on which he personally saw before his unexpected death.

Here is the auctioneer from The Small One. Animated by Cliff Nordberg.

At the time, he was probably the oldest staff on the animating crew at Disney Studios who was still animating, while others on Snow White or Pinocchio, were either dead or retired, while Woolie Reitherman was still producing films until his retirement. Cliff Nordberg's last film he got to work on was The Fox and the Hound, and he was an Animation Director. IMDb, mentions that he did some uncredited work in Richard William's animated-film The Thief and the Cobbler which was years in production.

Although, sadly Cliff died on December 20, 1979 - during production, aged 62 in the Los Angeles County. I don't really know how Cliff died, neither did Joe Campana (who is still trying to find out why?), and my guess is that, well a lot of people at the time were heavy smokers and drinkers, and ended up in poor health (and some died of cancer). Would Cliff be one of those people?


Zartok-35 said...

A very nice summary of Nord's various accomplishments around Disney. In many ways, he was the deffinative Disney wild man.

I didn't know he had animated the 'Nutsy' shadows in Lady and the Tramp, but they put his talents to good use, to say the least.

Cliff Nordberg animated on Goofy cartoons in 1945, and perhaps even earlier, before his credited work on 'Make mine music', most notably on 'Hockey Homocide' and the afforementioned 'Californy'.

Steven Hartley said...

I forgot that Nordberg animated that character until I was writing the article and I was trying to find a bit about him in the index.

dean colby said...

My cousin, Cliff Nordberg -- we used to play music together and when I was young he took me into the studio and showed me all the tools in the animation department and the COLOR ROOM, which I loved. He died by ingesting a small piece of Pyrex in a casserole dish. He was found in the living room in the morning with the TV still on. He was my favorite cousin and I LOVED HIM.

dean colby said...

P.S. I forgot to say Cliff was a Christian Scientist and never drank liquor or smoked cigarettes...ever, ever, ever.

dean colby said...

thank you.

Steven Hartley said...

Dean, thanks ever so much so sharing memories about Nordberg, you are a hero!

Anonymous said...

Greetings --
Thank you for Posting my #l husband's
comments [Dean Colby]. I will encourage Dean to write more -- I'm the secretary/typist.

I believe I have Asbergers -- +++++
other diagnoses. Doo you want to talk about it?

May you be an example to others as a REDEEMED PORTION OF POLSITIVE SOULIC MATTER.

Love, light and blessings!
SUDi Colby

Steven Hartley said...

Hi Sudi,

Thanks for your comment - I would love to hear more stories about Nordberg.

e-mail me at:

zoograyson said...

Sudi an Dean,
I wanted to let you guys know that on my website the 50 Most Influential Disney Animators I've written a post about Cliff Nordberg and he's made it on the list at number 34. You can read it at the link I'm a high school student who plans on pursuing a career in animation and Cliff is one of my inspirations. I know many people who worked with him and all have had very positive things to say about him. I'd love to hear some stories about him so feel free to email me at I see you mentioned Asperger's syndrome. I myself am an Aspie just to let you know. Hope you like it,
Grayson Ponti

Brian Nordberg said...

Melvin indeed his brother. Melvin and Cliff hitchhiked to Ca to go to college.