31 January 2008

Tell our stories with pictures

When you meet at Stanford in 1931, work together for almost fifty years, live with, or next door to, each other almost your entire lives, your mothers were born in the same small town of Tuscola, Illinois, and you first sons are born less than a week apart, some people might call you a multitude of names (among these might be eccentric, strange, creepy, etc.). If this happens to you, and your name happens to be Ollie Johnston or Frank Thomas, they call you Legends. Another thing this pair has in common is that they both retired on this day, January 31st, in the year 1978, just the way it should have been.

Beginning in 1934 and 1935 Frank and Ollie worked on twenty-three animated features, starting with Snow White. From Robin Hood to Bambi, Sword and the Stone to Fox and the Hound, and thousands of drawings in between, this dynamic duo worked endlessly, with well deserved places amongst Walt’s Nine Old Men. As an aside, there is also a poster with the names of Snow White’s Seven Dwarves with the addition of Frank and Ollie, so apparently they were part of two sets of Nine Old Men. Some of the best pairings ever to reach the screen was a result of Ollie and Frank’s relationship. The give and take is evident in the exchanges between the Doorknob and Alice, in Alice in Wonderland, the details in the expansion of Pinocchio’s nose, and the complex relationship of Captain Hook and Mr. Smee, in Peter Pan. If one were to question how they were able to elevate the art form, or why they stayed with it for so many years, you only have to look to the words of Frank himself, “Once you see the film of your drawings, then you’re hooked on animation.”

Though the pair seemed inseparable, they did have their own private hobbies. Like Walt Disney himself, Ollie Johnston has always been a man of the steam rails, and the trains that glide upon them. As for Frank, his place in Disney history, not only for animation, but for his contribution to the band the Firehouse Five + 2, which regularly made appearances at Disneyland.

Still, their animation was their hallmark, and they pairing of Frank and Ollie were second-to-none. Scenes like Bambi and Thumper on the frozen pond, Prince John sucking his thumb and clutching his ear, or Bernard’s apprehension, in The Rescuers showcase what John Canemaker called Frank and Ollie’s exemplary skill at “sincere emotional animation.” This style is almost palpable in the Jungle Book. The Jungle Book was almost, in a way, the first true challenge of the Nine Old Men, as Walt Disney had passed away during its production and, had the feature failed, the doors to Disney Animation surely would have closed. Yet, behind the work of Ollie and Frank, who completed over fifty percent of the animation themselves, the picture was a rampant success and the future of Disney Animation became very bright indeed. Viewing the scenes between Bagheera and Baloo, follwed by Baloo and Mowgli, when his return to the Man Village in imminent, on is left with the thought that this level of emotional attachment, to and for the characters, has never been, and will never again be, seen in feature animation.

So on this, their day of retirement, raise you voices and cheer for two of the finest Nine Old Men to ever place pencil to paper. Thank you Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston!

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