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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Ollie Johnston, 1912-2008

It's been a sad week for animators. First we lose Andy Knight, now news has come that Ollie Johnston (the last of the famous "Nine Old Men") died on April 14 after a long illness. Ollie was 95 years old.

I first met him when I was in my freshman year at Cal Arts. I'd gotten the idea of animating an albatross--a gooney bird. I was pretty sure that this amusing creature, which crashes on landing, had never been animated before.

"I hate to disillusion you," Brad Bird said one day as I was happily working away on a walk on the bird, "but they're animating an albatross in THE RESCUERS, the new Disney feature. Ollie Johnston is animating it, and he is one of the artists coming to our show this spring to see our pencil tests."

My reaction was something along the lines of "NUURGGGHHH" (sound of extremely fast inhalation and incipient panic attack.)

Ollie and Frank were genuinely interested in our work. I recall that Marc Davis was there too at the screening, but can only remember one thing Ollie said to me after it was over and he'd seen my albatross test. As he and Frank were exiting the room, Ollie turned, looked back at me, and said behind his hand in conspiratorial fashion:

"Stick with it. We need more women in this business!"

I did stick with it, and became friendly with Frank, Ollie, Marie and Jeanette after I landed my first job at Zander's Animation Parlour. Since I'd actually gone to work before my senior screening and graduation, I wrote to Frank Thomas after I found out from assistant Ellsworth Barthen how to reach him, and asked for a crit.

"Your test shows great ambition and some difficult angles...perhaps when you have improved the animation, staging, cutting and direction, your work will improve."

Blunt criticism, but absolutely true.

Ollie and Frank continued to go to the Cal Arts shows. They really loved this crazy artform and did not want the knowledge of a lifetime to die with them, so they wrote one of the most important books ever published on character animation, Disney style: THE ILLUSION OF LIFE.
I think they went on to write one other book that was at least as important as this one. I refer to their moving and wonderful book on the making of BAMBI. What an achievement!

I was proud to count both of these fine gentlemen as my friends. They also encouraged many other female students at Cal Arts to 'stick with it'. Thank you, Frank and Ollie, for being great artists and just great, period.

Thank you too, Captain Hook, Mr. Smee, Baloo, Thumper, Doorknob, Queen of Hearts, White Rabbit, Pinocchio, Seven Dwarfs, Bambi and Thumper...
I will think of Frank and Ollie whenever I run these films.
Donations to the World Wildlife Fund may be made in Ollie's memory.

Your scenes really are there forever.


Larry Levine said...

Nancy, Thank you for sharing your personal introduction to this incredible gentleman.

Ollie Johnston's legacy will forever continue to capture imaginations, inspire future generations of cartoonists & most importantly--make people smile.

Nancy said...

You are welcome, Larry. I can tell you that the movie FRANK AND OLLIE is an accurate portrayal of these two wonderful men.
It was a privilege to know them and learn from them.

Floyd Norman said...

Great story, Nancy.

I'm so glad I never had to show any of my animation to those two guys. However, I know Ollie and Frank would have been really encouraging - - even though my worked would have sucked.

I guess that's what made them so special. Even getting chewed out by these masters was a priviledge.

Nancy said...

Yep, and they did it in such a gentlemanly fashion taht I didn't mind..I actually laughed. It also started a friendship that lasted about 25 years. I still have that letter from Frank (my first) but it's packed right now.

jesus chambrot said...

Rest in Peace Ollie.

I was at Frank Thomas' house with some friends right after his passing in 2004.

We took a condolence card that was signed by the Animation faculty and Students at Cal Arts.

After we talked with Frank's widow Jeanette, His son Ted gave us a tour of Frank's work area. Over seeing his desk was the Bambi musculature that you see presented in the Illusion of Life and Ted let me hold it after I told him how surreal it was seeing the actual puppet in person. Ted told me his dad never used it.

As the house tour progressed , I noticed a little framed picture Frank wrote his wife that said " I love You, Frank Thomas." I thought nothing important of it.

A few days later, at the memorial services held at the El Capitan Theater , his son Ted showed a photograph of the framed message Frank wrote his wife. Ted mentioned that Frank was not able to write or draw for a long time and this little simple gesture of love was the only thing he was able to finish before his passing.

Of everything that moved me of Frank Thomas work from Pinnochio to
the heartbreak scene in Sword in The Stone, this is the one memory that will always come to my mind whenever I see a scene that Frank Thomas worked on.

Nancy said...

I sent Frank a birthday card with a private message in the illustration that only he and I would understand.
I know he got it. He also died a few days after his birthday.
Jesus, your story is very moving. I know that Frank and Ollie both had a fondness for Cal Arts, and for animation students in general. I told my students today that these fine men would be very pleased to see them working in this crazy art....