Working with Disney
Walt Disney complimented Les on the lettering he made for the menus on the mirrors at the candy store. Two years later in 1927, about to graduate from Venice High School, Clark got up the nerve to ask Walt for a job. "Bring some of your drawings in and let's see what they look like," he recalled Walt saying. At the Hyperion studio in the Silver Lake area east of Hollywood, Clark showed his samples, which he admitted were freehand copies of cartoons in College Humor. Walt admired his "swift, deft" graphic line and hired him. Clark graduated from high school on a Thursday and jubilantly reported to work the following Monday, February 23, 1927 though Walt warned him "it might just be a temporary job." The "temporary" job lasted nearly half a century.
By the time he retired in 1975, Les Clark was a senior animator and director, and the "longest continuously employed member of Walt Disney Productions." Disney's job offer changed Clark's life. Throughout his lengthy career he repaid Walt with loyalty and a dogged striving to improve his work. In return, he gained a knowledge of the animation business from the ground up. During Clark's first year at the studio, he happily toiled in the industry's lowest entry-level positions: for his first six months he operated the animation camera, then spent a subsequent six months as an inker-painter. That is, he traced hundreds of animation drawings onto sheets of clear celluloid acetate ("cels") in ink with a crow-quill pen and painted them on the reverse side with opaque colors (black, white, and gray only, in those pre-Technicolor days). Clark entered animation at a pivotal time and participated in events that shaped not only Disney's future but the history of the art form itself. When he arrived, the Alice Comedies were winding down and a series starring a new character named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was beginning. Ub Iwerks, who became Clark's mentor, was the studio's top animator, capable of turning out large numbers of cleverly animated drawings each day.
Ub Iwerks animated Steamboat Willie at his usual breakneck speed (it was completed in two months), Clark assisted by in-betweening drawings, and Wilfred Jackson animated a brief scene of Minnie Mouse running along a riverbank. To handle the increased production load, Walt began recruiting experienced New York animators; Ben Sharpsteen, Burt Gillett, Jack King, and Norman Ferguson ("Fergy") who arrived at the studio between March and August 1929. Les Clark's debut as an animator came in the first Silly Symphony, The Skeleton Dance (delivered on May 10, 1929): a scene of a skeleton playing the ribs of a bony buddy like a xylophone.
Clark's draftsmanship and versatility as a personality animator developed way beyond what Ub Iwerks was capable of but echoes of the magical, cartoony Iwerks always remained in Clark's work. A charming example is the little train to Baia in The Three Caballeros (1945), chugging and puffing on crayon rails to a bouncy samba beat through stylized jungle landscapes.
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