Milt Kahl’s Inimitable Swaggle

Thanks to our very own Tom McDonald (from God and the Machine) for this latest bit of Internet awesomeness: a post from Cartoon Brew’s Michael Ruocco on the fascinating phenomenon known as “The Milt Kahl Head Swaggle.”

Like a signature, each animator has their own little quirks or trademarks that distinguish their animation from others. Some draw character’s features in a unique way (eyes, hands, etc.), some lean heavily on certain principles or include abstract imagery or gimmicks into their scenes, and some fall back on specific poses or gestures. The “Milt Kahl Head Swaggle” is an example of the latter, and it both intrigues and aggravates me at the same time.

To clarify, the “Milt Kahl Head Swaggle” is when a character (animated by Disney legend Milt Kahl) sort of rattles his/her head from side to side, usually at times when they’re feeling cocky or self-assured. Sort of an “Am I great or what?” type of gesture.

Here’s what he’s talking about:

And this:

Also, this:


And perhaps this, though there’s some debate in the comboxes over its provenance:

Here’s my personal favorite:

As one of the fabled “Nine Old Men” behind much of Walt Disney Productions’ early brilliance, Kahl’s fingerprints are smudged over vast swaths of my childhood. His animated creations include two of my all-time favorites: the aforementioned Shere Kahn, whose velvety voice is perfectly matched to his suave-yet-sinister appearance; and Merlin’s hands, which are just fantastic. (I know that seems strangely …detached. But I’ve always loved the way Merlin’s fingers flattened out at the end. Plus, look at Kahl protégé Brad Bird’s work on Hogarth’s hands in his The Iron Giant and tell me the similarity between the two sets of digits is anything but awesome. I dare you.)

Plus. lest I forget myself in all this excitement over Kahl’s “hand”iwork: Tigger is wonderful.

Tom made an excellent observation when he sent me the original link: the Kahl Swaggle falls into that category of “Things you never notice until you see them together. And then they’re obvious.” So here’s my challenge to you, gentle readers: help me to think of other examples of these sorts of animated signatures — other “little quirks or trademarks that distinguish [an artist’s] animation from others.” I’m terrible at this sort of thing, because I tend to watch things too quickly, and with much less retention than I would like. So I can recognize general character-design signatures — anything imagined by Don Bluth, for example; or the instantly-recognizable work of The Bizarre Bill Plympton — but these sorts of flourishes are lost on me. I sure love it when someone more thoughtful/patient than I finds them, though. So get on it, InterWebs!

A final note of caution from Ruocco: *Warning – do not attempt a “Milt Kahl head swaggle”© without proper protection or supervision. Do not perform near sharp objects or an open flame. And never swaggle your head while intoxicated or under the influence of prescription medication.”

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About Joseph Susanka

Joseph has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since graduating from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. A grateful resident of Wyoming, he spends his free time exploring the beautiful Wind River Mountains, keeping track of his (currently) seven sons, being amazed by his (currently) lone daughter, and thanking his lucky stars for Netflix.