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.