Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Ollie Johston Jr., Last of the Nine Old Men, Passes On

Celebrated animator Oliver Martin "Ollie" Johnston Jr. died yesterday afternoon from natural causes the age of 95. He was the very last of the Disney's Nine Old Men, the core group of animators created most of Disney's classic works. They were deemed the Nine Old Men by Walt Disney himself, using the term that Franklin D. Roosevelt had used of the U.S. Supreme Court (here it must be noted that in the Thirties the oldest of Disney's Nine Old Men were only in their forties).

Ollie Johnston was born on October 31, 1912 in Palo Alto, California. Johnston attended Palo Alto High School and later went to Stanford University, where his father was the head of the romance language department. It was there that he met Frank Thomas, who would become Johnston's friend for life and another one of Disney's Nine Old Men. Both Johnston and Thomas attended the Chouinard Art Institute after graduating from Stanford. After Thomas started working for Walt Disney's studio in September 1934. Johnston followed suit in January 1935.

Johnston began work as an apprentice animator, working as an inbetween artist on such shorts as "Two-Gun Mickey" and "Mickey's Garden."The Tortoise and the Hare," on which Johnston worked, won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short. Johnston would serve as an assistant animator to Fred Moore on Disney's first feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Ollie Johnston would go onto work on some of Disney's great feature films. Under his full name, Oliver M. Johnston, he was an animator on Pinocchio, regarded by some as the greatest animated film of all time. He was the animation supervisor on "The Pastoral Symphony" for Fantasia and supervising animator for the character Thumper on Bambi. He was a directing animator on The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, The Jungle Book, and The Rescuers. He was an animator on The Three Caballeros, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, and Mary Poppins. Among the shorts on which he worked were "Peter and the Wolf," "Johnny Appleseed," "Chicken Little," and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Johnston retired in 1978, having worked for Disney for 43 years. He would also be the voice of the train engineer in The Iron Giant and performed additional voices for The Incredibles.

With his best friend Frank Thomas, he co-wrote four books: Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, Too Funny For Words, Walt Disney's Bambi: The Story and the Film, and The Disney Villain. He and Frank Thomas and heir lifelong partnership were the subject of the 1995 documentary Frank and Ollie.

For nearly his entire life Ollie Johnston was a train enthusiast. In 1946 he built a constructed a one-inch scale steam-driven train and track. In 1968 he bought and restored a 1901 H.K. Porter steam locomotive. It was Ollie's interest in trains which would spur Walt Disney's own interest in them, even leading to the construction of the railroad in Disneyland.

There can be no doubt that Ollie Johnston was among the greatest animators of all time. His expertise was character animation, and he animated some of the best loved characters in the history of animation. It was Johnston who animated the Great Prince of the Forest and Thumper in Bambi, Mr. Smee in Peter Pan, and Baloo in The Jungle Book. An animator Johnston could be very subtle when it came to his characters, allowing their emotions to be expressed through little facial expressions and movements of the body. If animated characters today have a greater range of emotion than they once did, it is largely due to the work of men such as Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas. They were definitely among the best.

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