Friday, 15 July 2011

Bill Roberts - Disney Animator & Director

I suppose that it's been a while since I last wrote a detailed biography and article on mystery Disney animators on guys like Cy Young, Don Lusk, Cliff Nordberg, etc. It's been months since I've last done that - and since I still have a little bit of information left that Joe Campana sent me - the only one I have left that isn't posted is on Bill Roberts - and I feel the need that maybe I should share a bit about Bill Roberts - who was a Disney animator in the 1930's and directed on features and shorts up to the late 1940's.

This picture was taken during the production of Fantasia. From left to right: Walt Disney, [Igor Stravinsky], and Bill Roberts at the far right demonstrating the storyboard.
Photo courtsey of Hoagan's Alley.

First, a little trivia: Bill Roberts is a Disney animator from the 1930's and up to the 1940's. He first came to the Disney Studios in 1932 as an animator and he was known as a "Pluto" animator in the mid-1930's - he worked as an animator on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - mostly of dwarfs, and he earned his way of becoming a director, and he directed sequences on Pinocchio around mostly at the ending - including the Whale chase, directed the The Rite of Spring segment in Fantasia, and he directed several sequences in Dumbo, Bambi, the llama sequence in Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros, and Fun and Fancy Free. He also directed several shorts like Reason and Emotion, The Brave Little Tailor, Society Dog Show, as well as a few others.

First some history about Roberts: William Opal Roberts was born on August 2nd 1899 somewhere in Kentucky to parents W.A. Roberts (born 3/18/1873) and B.M. "Bertie" Roberts (born March 1878). He had an older brother named Bryan (born in August 1896), also from Kentucky. He is known to have lived around 1918 as a teenager, before moving to California in 1922 with family. He started off as an animator in 1919 at the Carlson Studio and left in 1922. He started off as a magazine illustrator for New York around 1929-1932, and he was married to Lillian in 1929 - and the couple are not known to have had any children.

He joined the Disney Studios in 1932 - working as an animator for Disney on cartoons like Giantland, Mickey Plays Papa, Mickey's Steamroller, etc. and some Silly Symphony shorts like Father Noah's Ark and Old King Cole in that era. [He also animated the parrot attorney in Who Killed Cock Robin - he was known for his speedlines in his animation]. His animation career mostly peaked around 1935 - when he was one of the top animators and also inspirations to the Nine Old Men - like Milt Kahl, who is believed to have been his assistant. Roberts was mostly known as a Pluto animator, working for Norm Ferguson - who was probably the top animator at the Disney Studios at the time working on Pluto - and he worked on Pluto in Pluto's Judgement Day working on Pluto and cats. Bill Roberts' most famous animation he did for Disney was on Alpine Climbers when he animated Pluto and the eaglet duelling, and also introductory shots of Mickey, Pluto and Donald climbing the mountain

Bill Roberts was one of the top animators at the Studio assigned onto Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and he has animation all over the film. Mostly animating the Dwarfs, and pretty much "hit and miss" scenes. He animated shots of Doc halting the group in their Heigh-Ho song noticing the house's lights are on. His scenes come mostly later on the picture, where he animates the dwarfs at the mine - and discover that the Witch has got Snow White. Roberts did the action scenes of the dwarfs chasing the Witch, as well as animating a couple of Witch scenes, along with Ferguson.

After the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the advantages that the Disney Studios were getting, Roberts was soon promoted to director in 1938 - directing many sequences in Pinocchio - particularly the scenes later on in the picture. He practically directed every shot and sequence featuring Monstro the Whale, and just about every Jiminy Cricket shot directed by Roberts had Woolie Reitherman or Paul Busch animating. It's a safe bet that Bill Robert's top animator was Woolie Reitherman at the time. True, Roberts was the director of the sequence where Pinocchio and Jiminy return home to find that Gepetto had gone - and the fact that it was described as poor storytelling - with Jiminy reading the message (to Pinocchio) delivered to the Blue Fairy - whilst Pinocchio couldn't have read it himself.

Roberts went on to direct several sequences on The Rite of Spring - but he mainly directed on all the dinosaur sequences and anything that has living creatures in that segment. While Paul Satterfield did the non-living sequences with the earthquakes and evolution.

On Dumbo, he directed several sequences that had the clowns in them - doing their fire performance, and the animation in it really reminds me of later MGM animation - pretty much because it had Ray Patterson and Grant Simmons animating the clowns, and it showed that Roberts had a unique way of animation apart from the Disney standard. He also directed the Lullaby sequence with Dumbo and his mother embracing each other - which is one of the emotional standpoints in the film. He did one of the last sequences, in which the story was at it's peak when Dumbo flew at the circus and everyone first saw an elephant fly.

He also directed several sequences in Bambi, Saludos Amigos, The Cold Blooded Penguin in The Three Caballeros and several sequences in Mickey and the Beanstalk in Fun and Fancy Free. Bill Roberts left sometime around the late 1940's, and I believe that he became a Real estate manager and made quite a bit of money from that. He appears to have banished after leaving Disney, and never returned to the animation business.

Bill Roberts died on March 18, 1974 in Tulare County, California at the age of 74. His wife Lillian died five years later in 1979.


Anonymous said...

Hi Steven
Just to let you know that the middle man in the photograph is not Leopold Stokowski, but "Rite of spring" composer Igor Stravinsky himself. He later heavily criticized the sequence but photos like this one prove that he was aware of the Disney treatment of his ballet.

Steven Hartley said...

Thanks Philippe,

I'll go and make an edit.

John V. said...

One thing you forgot to mention - Woolie Reitherman was the supervising animator on Roberts' sequences in "The Rite of Spring" as well (i.e., the ones with creature animation, not just effects). It's surprising that they didn't work together on "Dumbo".

I wonder what he directed in "Bambi", but I suspect it was some of the action sequences late on in the film, like Faline being chased by the hunting dogs.

Steven Hartley said...

True, but I did already mention that Bill Roberts' top animator he used was Woolie Reitherman - so I felt I didn't need to say it again.

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