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A version of this article was previously posted on D23.com.
While assembling the appendix about the short Figaro cartoons, I discovered that one of those cartoons, Pluto’s Sweater (1949), was unusually well-documented in the Walt Disney Archives and Animation Research Library. Technically, of course, Pluto’s Sweater is not a Figaro short. Figaro appears in it, but it’s officially part of the Pluto series, one of dozens of Pluto shorts released by the Disney studio during the 1940s.
Production of the Plutos was a standardized affair by the late ’40s. The Pluto production unit was headed by director Charles Nichols, who had been an animator on Pinocchio. Working with his regular staff of animators, Nichols turned out Pluto shorts on schedule as a consistent, reliable product line. The resulting cartoons are not among the celebrated Disney classics; in fact, Disney fans tend to look upon them with little regard (although one of them was nominated for an Academy Award).
But that very obscurity makes the late-1940s Plutos more interesting in another way. The postwar years are a pivotal period in Disney history, a breathless pause between the turbulence of the war years and a new surge of activity in the 1950s. Walt, restless to try something new, was experimenting with new formats in animated features, venturing into live-action production, undertaking a new and unfamiliar series of wildlife documentaries. Through it all, the Shorts units were continuing to crank out one-reel cartoons featuring the familiar Disney characters—perhaps with reduced personal involvement by Walt himself, but aware that they were providing the studio’s bread and butter. Thanks to the wealth of documentation of Pluto’s Sweater, we can gain an insight into the workings of this overlooked branch of the Disney studio during these years.
We might begin by noting that Pluto’s Sweater was not a rush job. Like the classic Disney shorts of the 1930s, it was carefully developed and produced over an extended period of time. From the earliest story outlines to the finished short’s appearance on theater screens was an interlude of roughly two years (about the same time the studio had taken to produce Pinocchio itself!). Of course, the artists were not laboring full-time over Pluto’s Sweater for the entire two years; its production overlapped with that of dozens of other shorts, all produced on similarly extended schedules—and coordinated with each other in an efficiently planned timetable that ensured a steady flow of Disney cartoons to theaters.
The story of Pluto’s Sweater was the work of Eric Gurney, a long-time story stalwart in Nichols’s unit, and Milt Schaffer, a former Disney veteran who had returned to the studio after a five-year sojourn in the Walter Lantz story department. Gurney and Schaffer developed their story during the spring of 1947: Minnie Mouse knits a sweater for Pluto, to keep him warm outside in cold weather. Pluto, mortified at the sight of the sweater, frantically tries to avoid wearing it, while Figaro enjoys his discomfiture. Forced to go outside in the new garment, Pluto tries to extricate himself from it and, in the process, falls in water. The sweater, now soaking wet, begins to shrink and becomes much too small for Pluto—but is now perfectly suited to Figaro.
By the end of April 1947, unit secretary Dorothy Link could report to production supervisor Ken Peterson that this story had been broken down into scenes and handed out to the animators. Allowing for some turnover, Nichols maintained a consistent crew of animators in the Pluto unit during these years, and the same familiar names—including several who had worked on Pinocchio nearly a decade earlier—turn up in the screen credits of one cartoon after another. (The screen credits for Pluto’s Sweater include three of the film’s four character animators, and one of its two effects animators.) One of those names, George Nicholas, can cause some confusion for latter-day researchers—since both director Charles Nichols and animator George Nicholas were known around the studio as “Nick”!
How did Nichols cast his animators in Pluto’s Sweater? A breakdown of their respective scenes reveals few distinguishing principles. In general, we may say that the more “character-driven” scenes—Pluto and Figaro ridiculing the sweater, Pluto’s horror when he realizes the sweater is intended for him, Minnie in tears—were assigned to Phil Duncan, while Nicholas, Hugh Fraser, and George Kreisl took the more action-oriented scenes. Most of Pluto’s outdoor scenes, attempting to extricate himself from the sweater, were divided between Fraser and Kreisl. Duncan and Nicholas, between them, animated all of Minnie’s and Figaro’s scenes; Nicholas also animated the brief appearance of the gang of dogs who spot Pluto wearing the sweater and laugh at him.
The artists set to work quickly, and within a week’s time, in early May 1947, Nichols was viewing some of their rough pencil animation in sweatbox. He issued sweatbox notes to them, asking for minor changes in their animation. Even at this early stage of production, Nichols focused on details: Duncan was asked to draw Figaro in one scene with his “eyes … about 3/4 closed with just a little of the pupil showing in the final pose”; Nicholas, in animating another scene, was asked to “take out the devilish expression and just have Figaro smiling at the end.” Nichols is sometimes criticized today for the blandness of the cartoons he directed, but in fact, in writing these sweatbox notes, he pushed for stronger action. Critiquing the scene in which Minnie pushes Pluto, in his new sweater, toward the door, director Nichols told animator Nicholas that “This scene should be much more definite.” He urged broader, more violent action for both characters, as Minnie strained to push Pluto outside and Pluto frantically resisted.
In animating their scenes, these artists didn’t hesitate to make use of all the resources of the Disney studio. During one of the exterior scenes in this short—scene 43, Pluto attempting to pull the sweater loose with his teeth—the alert Disney fan may spot a brief snippet of action that looks familiar. In the midst of this scene, animator Hugh Fraser cannily borrowed a short passage from the legendary “Flypaper Sequence”—animated by Norm Ferguson nearly fifteen years earlier for the classic short Playful Pluto.
Along with the animation, Nichols was paying close attention to other aspects of Pluto’s Sweater. In mid-May Dorothy Link, presumably at Nichols’s direction, sent a detailed two-page memo to editor Hal Burns. At this time Burns was assembling the short’s soundtrack, and most of these notes dealt with the quality and timing of sound effects. Pluto’s tail, emerging through the opening in the sweater, produced a sound effect that was four or five frames out of sync; the trap door through which Minnie pushed Pluto outside should produce a ratchet sound, rather than the doorbell Burns had provisionally inserted. Most of these sounds were drawn from the studio’s extensive library of prerecorded sound effects; but for Pluto’s scenes outdoors, Link noted, “We recorded some running, soft thumps and runs where Pluto is in sweater—accent when he hits ground.”
During the spring and early summer of 1947, in between his work on other shorts simultaneously in production, Nichols continued to review the animators’ work on Pluto’s Sweater and to tinker with small details of the action. At this time he was still looking at the animators’ “ruffs.” This phase culminated on 2 July, when Nichols reviewed the complete picture in “ruff” animation and okayed all the scenes for cleanup, moving from the rough generality of the animators’ original sketches to the polished precision of the “cleaned-up” drawings which would be traced onto cels. Still maintaining his eye for detail, Nichols cautioned the cleanup artists to maintain a consistent appearance for the sweater in the early scenes, making it “look like a ski suit on Pluto—baggy legs with tight cuffs, etc.”
(It’s interesting to note that two of these cleanup okays included notes on specific details, addressed to “Ambi.” The artist in question was Ambrosio Paliwoda, who had joined the Disney animation staff in 1935. During production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Paliwoda had worked in the Ham Luske unit, assisting with the difficult animation of Snow White herself. But he had never become one of the high-profile Disney animators, and he’s remembered today, if at all, for his later screen credit in 101 Dalmatians. This document tells us that in 1947 Paliwoda occupied a niche in the shorts department, working as a cleanup artist.)
The cleanup animators began to return their finished assignments to Nichols, and now he started the review process over again—this time viewing the cleaned-up pencil scenes and approving them, one by one, to be sent to the inkers. From October 1947 into early 1948 the review continued. As before, Nichols viewed the scenes with a critical eye, approving most of them without comment but occasionally calling for a correction: fixing an unwanted jump in the action here, a registration problem there. By the first week in February 1948, all the scenes had been approved.
After this extended, painstaking effort during production, one might expect that Pluto’s Sweater proceeded smoothly through post-production into release. In fact, however, one more hurdle remained. Early in March 1948 the decision was made to cut out a major quantity of Minnie Mouse’s dialogue. Minnie’s lines had been recorded nearly a year earlier and had been part of the soundtrack ever since. The records don’t tell us whether these cuts were called for by Walt himself or by someone else, but for whatever reason, Minnie became much less talkative in the spring of 1948.
Most of these cuts involved offscreen dialogue, and so were relatively simple matters of sound editing. In scene 15, for example, the camera saw Pluto and Figaro attempting to hide under the sofa while Minnie, in another room, called “Oh Pluto, here, boy!” Eliminating her followup line, “I have a wonderful surprise for you,” called for no changes in the animation. However, scene 56, a closeup of Minnie reading a book, had originally shown her reading out loud. When this idea was dropped, the scene was retrieved from Ink and Paint so that Phil Duncan could reanimate it, eliminating Minnie’s mouth movement.
With these changes in place, the short was finally completed. The finished scenes went to the camera department in mid-March 1948. After a short round of retakes, the final negative was assembled, and Pluto’s Sweater took its place in the Disney schedule of releases. The studio registered it with a copyright date of 18 May 1948, but in fact the official release date was nearly a year later, at the end of April 1949. Today Pluto’s Sweater is little remarked upon—but when we consider how many shorts the studio released during these years, and that each one of them received a similar level of care and attention, we can gain a fresh perspective on this little-remembered chapter of Disney animation history.