Ollie Johnston's life and career have been well documented. FLIP presents some anecdotes from the next generation of animators whom he so greatly inspired.
Ollie pointed and said, "See that? What do you think?"
I replied, hesitantly, "Well, that's....that's nice."
Then he replied proudly, "I drew those sparkles." It was the first time he had ever drawn the effects in his own scene.
On another day I had just seen a screening of the Mickey short, The Little Whirlwind. I told Ollie that I had enjoyed it but it had a strange quality that didn't appear in many other Disney shorts. It was directed by Riley Thomson, who, he said, "was the kind of guy that would look out the window, see someone walking by and say, 'That guy makes my ass do buttonholes.' That's the kind of guy Riley Thomson was".
When I was animating under Ollie on The Fox and the Hound, I had the rare experience of having Ollie go over my drawings, then sit back and reminisce about his years at Disney. He planned to retire soon, to write his book with Frank. I was surprised to hear him start out, "I guess it was a pretty good place to work. I don't know. It was... Oh, I guess it wasn't too bad."
He told me a story about an animator in the 1960's who got so frustrated with the situation at Disney that he planned to quit. He wouldn't tell me exactly why or who it was. I thought he was referring to Frank or Milt, who were two of the more outspoken animators. Years later, I heard that it was Ollie himself. He was always so friendly, mild, and easy-going...I couldn't imagine him getting that upset. I still don't know just what the situation was, but I suppose when you take such a personal, dedicated interest in your work, differences can seem more cataclysmic than they would appear from the outside.
I said, "Really, me?"
"Well, no," he said, "but somebody just like you who is trying to learn animation."
Then they asked for a volunteer to come up on stage. Not one person raised a hand, intimidated by the prospect of making a fool of themselves in front of Frank and Ollie in view of the entire animation department. With no volunteer, Ollie randomly pointed to me.
So there I was, just turned 19, doing improv for the gods. I was to act out a situation as they described it. It was something like this: You're happily walking down the street. You stop suddenly as you see something. You recognize someone you're afraid of. You hide as not to be seen.
I held my last pose, frozen against an imaginary wall. They picked classmate Kirk Wise to come up and act out the exact same thing, and freeze. They then opened up a discussion, comparing our performances. They pointed out the differences in our final freeze poses - one of us had his head turned, palms facing up, the other was on his toes, palms down. The whole exercise was meant to show how different actors approach the same material differently, and that we should find OUR way, instead of going with a generic approach.
Years later, while reading Stanislavski's Building a Character, I realized that Frank and Ollie were to character animators what Stanislavski was to actors.
One day there was a call for me. a double ringer, meaning an outside call - quite exciting! An old man's voice announced that he was Ollie Johnston, and that he wanted to thank me because blah, blah, blah...
"Uhuh, yeah, right..." I said, sounding quite disinterested.
The voice on the phone droned on. Then the guy mentioned a friend of mine by name, and the title of a book, and....
"You really are Ollie Johnston?!" I said, nearly dropping the phone.
"Yes, of course!"
Apologizing profusely for having sounded so rude, I explained that I thought it a prank. Ollie chuckled and said he understood. We chatted for a few more minutes, me hyperventilating, and then he hung up.
The previous year I had suggested Frank and Ollie's book to an author who needed reference material for a book he was writing on computer animation, then in it's infancy.
Ollie was very gracious to take the time to thank me for merely mentioning his book, which was like a bible to me.
I'd met them several times when I was at Cal Arts but first became friendly with them when they were touring New York City to publicize The Illusion of Life. There was only one animation gallery in Manhattan in 1981, and I got there long before the event started to be sure to get in. I arrived in time to see the media circus that had been prepared. Well, a one ring circus, anyway. No one took animation too seriously in 1981, so there were no screaming crowds. I was able to press up against the gallery window and get an eyeful.
Frank and Ollie were standing in front of the largest Mickey Mouse doll I'd ever seen. Camera crews were setting up the shot. A woman handed them small, pencil-like objects that had four animation drawings printed on four pieces of paper attached at even intervals near the top. The 'object' was for the animators to rotate the pencils in their hands and thereby convey the sense of animation in real time instead of 'flipping' drawings, which was apparently not as photogenic.
Ollie and Frank were two originals, and they were very wonderful people as well as wonderful animators. It was a pleasure knowing them and learning from them. They did something that we can't thank them enough for: they wrote down how they learned to do what they did. What a precious gift that was.
I re-read The Illusion of Life and it's like speaking with them again. They wrote the same way they spoke. People who never met them can still speak and learn from them.
I'd say that Ollie was one of the most underrated animators at the Disney studio. This was brought home to me when our class was watching Ichabod and Mr Toad at Cal Arts. One student was sure that the evil lawyer in Toad's trial scene was animated by Milt Kahl. "I can tell it's Milt! Look at that pointing finger!"
When I got to the Disney Studio trainee program, and was able to look at original artwork in the Animation Research Library, I made a point of checking out those very scenes. I just wanted to see for myself who animated them. Every last one of them was animated by Ollie Johnston. I had always thought Ollie specialized in cute, appealing characters and here he was, doing a wonderful job on a pompous, brutal character, and hitting some of the strongest poses in the film. Sometimes, it's the quiet ones that surprise you.
I remember looking around at Frank, Ollie, and Joe while they exchanged stories with Dick, and laughs about Milt and the old days, but what struck me most was that the lion’s share of the conversation was about the movies that had just opened last weekend. These guys didn’t let grass grow under their feet, even at 90 years old. It was a magical night that I’ll never forget.
Astonished, I eclaimed, "Hey, you're Ollie Johnston!"
Without missing a beat, he responded, "Well, I used to be." and continued on.
At the time I began learning the craft of character animation from Eric, Frank, Ollie and the other masters in the field, there WAS no video to study. We had 16mm film and the "morgue", as we called the Animation Research Library when it rested peacefully in the basement of the Ink and Paint building. Imagine holding the actual drawings from one of Ollie's scenes in your hand, flipping through the delicate pages and marveling at the subtlety and charm of the movements. Well, that's the way it was! And I can tell you that there is no better way to appreciate the work of the Masters of Character Animation than to flip through their drawings and watch them magically come to life, without color, without sound, without settings; just drawings, wonderful, living drawings!
Of course all the "Nine Old Men" were superb animators and artists in their own rights, but with the recent passing of Mr. Johnston, I found myself focusing on his gentle, subtle, personality-filled work:
The scene of Thumper in Bambi, when he recites the lesson learned, "Eating greens is a special treat...." and adding the sting on the end, "But it sure is awful stuff to eat". The posing, the phrasing and the execution just exuded the charm of a small child's mischievous recitation. Perfect in every detail.
Pausing again at Smee in Peter Pan, I found myself captivated by the marvelous contrast between the wild, broad motions of Frank Thomas' Captain Hook and the subtle, contained, understated movement of Mr. Smee. Ollie didn't miss a single opportunity to play up the little bits of business that so clearly defined that brilliant comic character, right down to pawing and pulling at undersized shirt, as if embarrassed to expose his oversized gut. Primness on the high seas!
I watched with fascination the warm relationships grow between a bear and a boy as they practiced pretend sparring at each other and then paused for some ingenious back scratching in The Jungle Book. These little bits of business that Ollie animated so expertly did so much to establish the feeling of friendship and camaraderie between the two characters that carried out through the rest of the film.
I ended my research on The Fox and The Hound, which was the last feature film Ollie contributed to. He did not complete the film, as he and Frank Thomas had another special project in the works. They each did a handful of scenes here and there, in the opening sequences in the film when the fox and hound meet for the first time as pups. And, not to denigrate any of the skillful work done by the other artists on the film and particularly in that sequence, but Frank and Ollie's animation was not done in sequential order and it is truly uncanny to watch the scenes run by in continuity, observing the characters move and then live, talk and then sparkle, interact and then bond. Frank and Ollie's scenes stand out, bringing the characters to higher levels of consciousness than the very competent scenes surrounding them, right before your eyes. These masters still had it, even on their last assignment, and they left at the top of their field.
Ollie and Frank exited the animation department leaving more than just a cloud of dust in their wake. They left behind a precious gift to all we young animators just coming into our own at that time. The special project that coaxed them away from their animation discs was their book, "Disney Animation-The Illusion of Life", a priceless treasure that influenced a new generation of animators and helped start the revival of a then plodding art form. I still read the book from cover to cover nearly every year and I am still astounded by the layers and layers of information embedded within the pages of that tome. It seems that each time I read it I gain a deeper understanding of the meaning of the words. It's as if, when I am ready for the lesson, the lesson comes to me, but not until I am really ready.
There is so much that Ollie gave to me and to the other up and coming artists at the studio in the late 1970s and into the early 1980s. He worked with his long time friend and next-door neighbor, Frank Thomas, to give us not just the one book on animation, but also several great books that brought us new insight into the making of the classic Disney features. He let down his guard and let us see his raw drawings in the famous Sketch Book series of publications. He and Frank came and did talks and lectures at Feature Animation, casting in stone the fundamentals of Disney Character Animation they patiently strove to pass down through constant reinforcement.
Of course there were many other wonderful accomplishments achieved by Ollie during a stellar career that spanned nearly 5 decades. But foremost in my mind is that, in his time, and with little more than a pencil and reams and reams of animation paper, he made us laugh and cry and care about the characters we saw on the screen. He helped create a body of work that, in my opinion, has yet to be surpassed by subsequent generations of animators, regardless of the developments in technology, education and subject matter.
Ollie was the last of them. And now they are all gone. Lost to the ages, leaving behind their books, their humor, their knowledge and the unparalleled results of their dedication to excellence. But, mostly, they leave behind the films, the characters and the timeless beauty of the classic Disney animated feature, through which I know that Ollie, Frank, Milt, John, Ward, Eric, Les, Marc and Woolie are destined to live on, "Happily Ever After."