Tuesday 15 April 2008


The name of Oliver Martin Johnston Jr may not instantly ring a bell, but for cartoon buffs it is one of the revered names in the annals of animation. Oliver 'Ollie' Johnston, who died yesterday at the age of 95, was one of the great Disney animators whose artistry-in-motion contributed to what is often - and rightly - referred to as 'The Golden Age of Animation'.

Ollie was the last survivor of a group known as 'The Nine Old Men': a phrase coined by Walt Disney to describe some of his most trusted and long-serving artists. It was a jesting reference to Franklin D Roosevelt's description of the nine judges of the US Supreme Court - although, at the time Disney gave the group that moniker, they were still only in their thirties and forties.

Yet they grew into their title, becoming the masters of the craft of bringing inanimate drawings to life and, in process, raising a once-crude, knock-about entertainment into a true 20th century art form.

Ollie and the others - each a legendary talent in his own right - contributed to all of Disney's classic animated features beginning with the first, groundbreaking venture that, in 1937, took the world by storm, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Forty years later, several of them were still making Disney magic long after magician himself was gone in films such as The Aristocats, Robin Hood and The Rescuers.

Among the films on which Ollie worked were Pinocchio (he animated the scene where Pinocchio's nose grows and grows as tells the Blue Fairy bigger and bigger fibs) and Bambi to which he contributed a couple of memorable sequences: one was that moment of brilliantly-observed child observation when, prompted by his mother, Thumper the rabbit recites his lesson about the importance of eating clover greens - "Eating greens is a special treat, It makes long ears and great big feet. But it sure is awful stuff to eat." I made that last part up myself!; the other is the scene in which when the young deer watches his father, the Great Prince of the Forest, pass by him on the Meadow and acknowledge their kinship...

Ollie's animation helped give life to Alice on her perpetually puzzling wanderings through Wonderland, the fumbling-bumbling Mr Smee in Peter Pan, the three good fairies - Flora, Fauna and Merriweather - in Sleeping Beauty, Pongo and Perdita in 101 Dalmatians and Mowgli and Baloo in The Jungle Book; not to mention the troupe of penguin-waiters who serve Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke on their 'Jolly Holiday' romp in Mary Poppins.

One of Ollie's last creations was Rufus, the orphanage cat (right), in The Rescuers who with his moustache and glasses bore an uncanny resemblance to his creator!

Ollie was a humble, modest man - respected by his peers and loved and animators and admirers of animation - and if I were to single out a specific characteristic to describe his talents, it would be that he gave his creations humanity. He was able to capture - in that most elusive medium, the moving drawing - joy and sadness, loneliness and grief and, above all, vulnerability. He had an actor's understanding of character and made us care about people and animals that existed only as pencil lines on paper and evoked emotions that moved us to laughter and tears with nothing more than ink and paint on celluloid.

Many of Ollie's finest assignments were made in collaboration with his close friend and fellow animator (and another of the 'Nine'), Frank Thomas. 'Frank and Ollie', as they were always known, shared their passion for the art of animation as well as much of their lives - living in adjacent houses with their respective wives, Marie and Jeanette: a lovable quartet, whose company - for those of us privileged to know them - was always a delight.

We met in the UK whenever they visited this side of the pond and at one or other of their Flintridge homes whenever I was in LA. They talked Disney and animation for my colleague, Richard Hollis, and myself when we were researching our books about the Disney studio, Mickey Mouse and Snow White and they enthused endlessly about the same subjects when I got the opportunity to interview them at London's National Film Theatre and (on several occasions) for various BBC radio programmes.

Then, of course, there were other times when we just talked!

Their annual Christmas cards always arrived within a day or two of one another's (they could sensible have shared an envelope and saved the postage!) and their seasonal greetings - often embellished with personal caricatures - always sat side by side on the same bookshelf or mantelpiece...

Today, I'm wearing a Mickey Mouse paisley tie they once gave me - just because it seems like a nice way to remember them...

After their retirement from the Disney studio in 1978, Ollie and Frank co-authored four books: Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life - the veritable 'Bible' on Disney animation techniques - Too Funny for Words, Walt Disney's Bambi: The Story and the Film and The Disney Villain.

These books - a mine of fascinating reading for the Disney-fan, an indispensable handbook for the artist - were as much a part of their legacy as the films to which they (and their seven celebrated colleagues, Les Clark, Marc Davis, Ward Kimball, Milt Kahl, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery and Wolfgang Reitherman) contributed: a way of passing on their hard-earned knowledge and skills to inspire new generations of animators.

The Johnston-Thomas partnership was also the subject of a lovingly-crafted documentary film, Frank and Ollie, made in 1995 that provided a brilliant insight into Disney's Golden Age, the art and craft of animation, and the personal lives of these two great men - including Ollie's long and passionate love-affair with steam locomotion that led him to build a 1" scale backyard railway with 1/12th scale engines.

It was a project that would, in turn, inspire his boss, Walt Disney, to embark on a similar venture and which, thus, led to the creation of the Disneyland Railroad which carried visitor around the perimeter of the famous theme-park.

Frank and Ollie remains a touching memorial to their individual and collective talents and their friendship, but they also became the subject of various film homages: immortalised as 'Dr Frankenollie' by animation director, Chris Bailey, in the 1995 Mickey Mouse short, Runaway Brain; and, later, by Pixar director Brad Bird, who included digital caricatures of the duo in the closing sequences of his film The Incredibles - for which, naturally, they provided their own voices!

Frank Thomas died in 2004, aged 92, and Ollie's wife, Marie, died the following year. Bereft of his two lifetime companions, Ollie soldiered on and, as the final survivor of Walt's core creative team, was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bush in November 2005.

It is impossible not to see Ollie's death as the final passing of a epoch in popular art and cinema the like of which we will probably never see again...

Speaking of the characters he had brought to life, Ollie once said: "They were all good friends, whom I remember fondly."

Perhaps that is why we also remember them so fondly...

31 October 1912 - 14 April 2008


Andy Latham said...

It's a very sad moment for animation and indeed the world as a whole, for Ollie was not just a great animator, but a great man. Ollie was my hero and I will be eternally envious of anyone who had the great fortune of meeting him during his 95 years.

I always dreamed of the day I would make it as a Disney animator and get to meet him. While the realisation of that dream was never going to be likely, I can't help but feel sad that it is now impossible.

I only hope that in the future others follow in his footsteps once more.

Good Dog said...

Everyone's time comes but... ah, bugger.

A marvelous tribute to an incredibly talented man - one of nine who brought characters to life rather than simply make drawings move.

Brad Bird also pays a wonderful tribute over on Cartoon Brew.

Brian Sibley said...

Thanks ANDY and GOOD DOG for those thoughts and for the link to Cartoon Brew, where Brad Bird has an inspiring little story about Ollie's legacy... You must read it for yourselves...

Matt Jones said...

Touching tribute Brian-I didn't realise you were acquainted with Frank & Ollie. You were lucky to know these giants of animation. God bless 'em.

I really hope the Walt Disney companies sanctions some kind of tribute to them in the form of a documentary on the 9 Old Men.

Brian Sibley said...

MATT - Yes, I was very fortunate in knowing Frank and Ollie as well as many encounters with Marc Davis and Ward Kimball and - just once - Wollie Reitherman... So that's Five out of Nine!

I was also lucky enough to count the legendary Disney story man, Joe Grant, as a friend.

These men's names were virtually unknown to the many millions who watched Disney animation, but - as I'm sure you'll agree - they were the cartoon equivalent of the Old Masters.

Brian Sibley said...

Don Peri writes...

I read your tribute to Ollie Johnston and I thought it was one of the best. I knew Ollie on and off for over 31 years -- not as intimately as you -- and I always found him to be such a kind and generous man.

And he was a character at times which contrasted with his conservative appearance. In the last interview I did with him, he was trying to stick his head between his legs to show me how Pinocchio looked back at the Blue Fairy! What a great guy!

Brian Sibley said...

My thanks to Don - especially for the story about Ollie demonstrating how Pinocchio looked back between his legs. I love it!

And readers should check out Don's new book Working with Walt: Interviews with Disney Artists which contains fascinating insights into life in the Mouse Factory.