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Sheila Hagen, editor

Remembering Frank Thomas

Master of Illusion

Tuesday, September 14, 2004
by Sheila Hagen, staff writer

For decades, Disney films dominated the animation industry. Known for quality and innovation, the Disney animation unit was revered and much copied. And Frank Thomas was one of the key individuals who spearheaded this quest for excellence.


Frank Thomas at work on Robin Hood. Photo courtesy Walt Disney Company.

Frank Thomas died on September 8, 2004 at the age of 92, leaving behind not only his wife of 48 years, Jeannette, and his four children, Theodore, Doug, Gregg and Ann, but also longtime friend and colleague, Ollie Johnston, who is now the last of the famed Nine Old Men of Disney animation still alive.

The story of Frank Thomas and why he is considered a giant in animation cannot be told without the telling of the story of Disney animation, for these two stories are inextricably intertwined.

Born in Santa Monica, California in 1912, his family soon moved to Fresno. After high school, Thomas enrolled in Fresno State College, where he wrote and directed a short film spoofing college life. It received some success and spurred Thomas to consider a career in the arts.

Transferring to Stanford, he majored in art and while there, met Ollie Johnston, who was also enrolled in the Art Department. They were lifelong friends thereafter.

After graduating from Stanford, Thomas moved back to Los Angeles and enrolled in a local art college. A fellow student suggested Thomas apply at the Disney studios for a position as an “in-betweener,” creating the transitional drawings that show a character changing from one position to another. Thomas got the job, and in 1934 started his 43-year career with Disney.

The studio was an exciting place to be in the 1920s and '30s. The techniques of animation were just being developed and Walt Disney was struggling to raise the quality of his films. Disney was never satisfied with just being good enough; he expected his artists to do animation scenes over and over until it met his level of expectations.

At that point in the animation industry, most artists just didn't have the time to try to create realistic portrayals of humans or animals. Animated characters were not drawn accurately; there was no feeling of underlying muscle movement or weight to them. Characters would float up and down as they moved across the screen, and arms would magically grow long or legs bow unnaturally. The animators were constantly under pressure to come up with funny gags that would please an audience, which didn't leave much time to perfect their craft. And, many of the more experienced animators guarded their secrets, leaving beginners to figure out the tricks and shortcuts on their own.

However at the Disney studios, things were different. Walt encouraged his artists to share their work with each other, leading to an open atmosphere of learning from each other, which in turn led to innovation after innovation.

By the early 1930s, a series of 12 animation rules were developed that would give animated films that special Disney touch. These principles of animation transformed how characters looked and moved on screen. Ideas such as “anticipation”—depicting a specific action that cues an audience that a major event is about to occur—and “squash and stretch”—showing change in the shape of a living object as the character moves—revolutionized animation.

When Thomas joined the Disney studios in 1934, he began learning these principles and worked under the guidance of by-then veteran animator Fred Moore. During the 1930s and early '40s, Thomas first worked on animated shorts like “Mickey's Elephant,” but gained prominence as one of eight artists working on animation of the dwarfs in Snow White, most notably the scene in which the dwarfs mourn the loss of Snow White while she lays upon her bier.


Frank Thomas sketching a live deer as model for the film Bambi. The studio often brought in animals for the artists to sketch and study. Photo courtesy Walt Disney Company.

Thomas animated the “I've Got No Strings” sequence in Pinocchio, plus worked on Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi, Melody Time and The Three Caballeros. In the late '40s, Thomas was promoted to the key position of directing animator and supervised the films The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and Sleeping Beauty.

Thomas was famed for his characterizations of Lady Tremaine in Cinderella, Captain Hook in Peter Pan, the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, and the beloved scene in Lady and the Tramp where the two dogs share a romantic dinner at Tony's. His most notable trademark was the ability to create believable characters, whether heroic or villainous.

During the 1930s and early '40s, there were many attempts to try to organize and improve the operations of the studio, but it usually resulted in the creation of factions and a feeling of divisiveness and isolation amongst the artists. Walt Disney tried to counteract this by creating an animation board in 1940 to oversee the division of work at the studio, and by 1950, the board was permanently set to consist of nine veteran animators.

These nine men—Les Clark, Marc Davis, Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery, Woolie Reitherman and Frank Thomas—were facetiously dubbed the Nine Old Men after the nine judges sitting on the Supreme Court.

Thomas and Johnson joked about this title in their book, The Illusion of Life – Disney Animation:

“We never thought of ourselves as some elite group, and the only time it even crossed our minds was when Walt made a kidding remark about his Nine Old Men being over the hill, or getting too decrepit to work, or losing all their old zip.”

Along with the finalization of the membership of the Animation Board, an important change occurred in how animation jobs were assigned. Previously, many animators would work on the same character, depending on who was available at the time. Although efficient scheduling-wise, it meant that there never would be true continuity for any character. By assigning one animator to work on one character, it guaranteed that that animator could fully explore the character's personality and emotions, resulting in a higher quality of realism.

As the 1950s, '60s and '70s rolled by, Thomas worked on 101 Dalmations, The Sword in the Stone, Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, the three Winnie the Pooh films, Robin Hood, and The Rescuers. Thomas' final work was on The Fox and the Hound before retiring in 1978.

It wasn't all work though. Thomas was a pianist too, and in 1950 during his lunch hours, he joined up with Ward Kimball and others to play jazz music. The ensemble was named The Firehouse Five Plus Two, and for 25 years, the Disney artists recorded albums and made appearances on radio and television.

Upon his retirement, Thomas and Ollie Johnston embarked on an ambitious project: detailing the creation of animation at the Disney studios in their definitive work, The Illusion of Life – Disney Animation.

In the book, Thomas and Johnston outlined the history of animation, and more importantly what the rules and principles were that helped shape the Disney style. The phrase “illusion of life” applied not just to what the principal animator created with his own pencil; it encompassed the entire process, wherein each task enhanced and sustained the overall effect. From the background artists, the in-betweeners, the layout artists and colorists to the musicians and sound effects specialists, it was a collaborative effort.

As Thomas and Johnston stated in the book:

“The animators at the Disney studio have created many great characters over some fifty years of picture-making, characters that have motivated stories, brought sequences to life, and endeared themselves to audiences around the world. There is something of magic in the whole process that comes from the very act of creativity, individually and collectively, that transcends the single steps of production. It is more than a drawing and more than an idea. Possibly it is the love we feel for characters so heroic, so tender and funny and exciting—all of them entertaining, yet each different, each thinking his own thoughts, and experiencing his own emotions. That is what makes them so real, and that is what makes them so memorable. It is also what gives them the astounding illusion of life.”

Thomas was well respected by his fellow colleagues, and revered by those who were mentored by him and followed in his footsteps. Thomas even received an animated cameo in the film, Iron Giant, and also received an on-screen animated nod in the upcoming Pixar film, The Incredibles.

In 1995, Thomas and Johnston were the subjects of a documentary, Frank and Ollie, written and directed by Thomas's son, Ted, and is an entertaining look at these two giants of animation. [Kevin Krock's review of the DVD will run tomorrow.]

Additionally, Thomas and Johnston also have an Internet presence at FrankandOllie.com, which includes a listing of all of the films they've worked on, biographies, animation tips, plus several downloadable Quicktime movies where they discuss Disney animation.

Out of the nine animators, only Marc Davis ever received any official recognition at any of the Disney theme parks because of his direct contributions to the design and creation of Disneyland and Walt Disney World. However, much of Thomas's efforts can be easily seen at any of the parks.

Pinocchio's Daring Journey at Disneyland, the delights of an Italian dinner at Tony's Town Square Restaurant at the Magic Kingdom in Florida, or many of the other attractions based on Disney animated films would not be possible without Frank Thomas.

With his passing, another chapter in the saga of Disney animation closes. Will there ever be another golden era of filmmaking as there was at the Disney studios in the mid-1900s? Only time will tell, but certainly Thomas's legacy will continue to inspire future generations of animators and artists.

No funeral is planned; details regarding a life celebration are pending. The Thomas family has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made in Frank's name to the Character Animation Program at CalArts (California Institute of the Arts) in Santa Clarita, California.

Source: Disney Press Release

Frank Thomas, Legendary Disney Animator and One of Walt Disney's 'Nine Old Men,' Dies at Age 92; Created Timeless Animation for Such Films as 'Pinocchio,' 'Bambi,' 'Peter Pan,' '101 Dalmatians,' and Authored Four Landmark Books.

Thursday September 9, 7:00 pm ET

BURBANK, Calif., Sept. 9 /PRNewswire/ -- Frank Thomas, one of the most talented, inventive and influential animators in the history of the art form, a member of Walt Disney's elite “Nine Old Men,” and a pioneering animator who worked on many classic shorts and features during his 43-year career at the Disney Studios, passed away on Wednesday (9/8) at his home in Flintridge, California. He was 92 years old. Thomas had been in declining health following a cerebral hemorrhage earlier this year. In addition to his achievements as an animator and directing animator, Thomas (in collaboration with his lifelong friend and colleague Ollie Johnston) authored four landmark books: Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, Too Funny for Words, Bambi: The Story and the Film, and The Disney Villain. Thomas and Johnston were also the title subjects of a heartfelt 1995 feature-length documentary entitled “Frank and Ollie,” written and directed by Frank's son, Theodore (Ted) Thomas.

In a career filled with milestones, Thomas' remarkable animation included such indelible moments as the first date and spaghetti dinner in “Lady and the Tramp,” Thumper teaching Bambi how to ice-skate, Baloo the bear telling the man-cub Mowgli that he can't stay in the jungle in “The Jungle Book,” Pinocchio trapped in the birdcage by the evil puppeteer Stromboli, the lovesick squirrel whose heart is broken in “Sword in the Stone,” Captain Hook playing the piano in “Peter Pan,” the dancing penguins in “Mary Poppins,” among others. He also animated several of Mickey Mouse's most impressive scenes in such films as “The Pointer,” and “Brave Little Tailor.”

Noted animation historian/author/filmmaker John Canemaker, described Thomas' special talents in his book, Walt Disney's Nine Old Men. “Thomas is particularly known and admired for his ability to animate emotionally sensitive material; the saddest scenes, the most romantic, most deeply felt sequences, the sincerest heart-tuggers usually found their way to his drawing board.”

Commenting on Thomas' passing, Michael Eisner, CEO of The Walt Disney Company, said, “Frank is an important part of the Disney legacy and one of the most amazing talents to ever work at the Studio. From 'Snow White' and 'Bambi,' up through 'The Rescuers,' he helped to shape the characters, performances and movies that Disney produced and that are loved all around the world. He was a wonderful person who brought a lot of joy to our lives and he will be truly missed.”

Dick Cook, chairman of The Walt Disney Studios, added, “It was a thrill and a great pleasure to have known and worked with Frank Thomas here at Disney. His youthful spirit, gentle humor, and enormous talent, left a big imprint on the Disney animated features. He was truly one of the greatest talents the industry has ever known.”

David Stainton, president of Walt Disney Feature Animation, commented, “All of us at Disney join the animation community and movie fans around the world in celebrating the life and legacy of Frank Thomas. His work set a standard that we all continue to strive for and our art form is where it is today because of the foundations he established.”

Academy Award¨-winning filmmaker John Lasseter (head of creative for Pixar Animation Studios and director of the “Toy Story” films and “A Bug's Life”) said, “Frank was a giant in our field and he meant everything to me and to all of us who love the art of animation. Besides being one of the key guys to help elevate animation from a novelty to an incredible art form, he was so generous in passing along his knowledge and experiences to the generations that followed. The books that he wrote with Ollie had a big impact on so many of us working in animation today. Frank was one of my main mentors and a tremendous influence on me. I feel very privileged to have known him.”

Leonard Maltin, animation historian, film critic, and author, observed, “Frank helped to invent animation as an art form and took it to incredible new heights through his work at Disney over four and a half decades. He and his lifelong friend and colleague, Ollie Johnston, had a remarkable gift for explaining and articulating how they did what they did. That's a rare quality in an artist. Even in his nineties, Frank retained a youthful spirit and indomitable sense of humor.”

Born in Santa Monica, California, Thomas moved to Fresno with his family at an early age. At Fresno State College, he became president of his sophomore class, and wrote and directed a film spoofing college life for a school project. The film won much acclaim and was run in the local theaters, where it earned a profit that was contributed to a school fund. That project sparked Thomas' ambition to go seriously into the arts in some form. His father promised to send him to an art school of his choice if he would finish his education at Stanford.

At Stanford, Thomas majored in art and won recognition for his cartoons for the school newspaper, Chaparral. During his Stanford years, he met and became friends with another art major, Ollie Johnston. The two formed an instant friendship that was to last for over 70 years.

After graduating from Stanford, Thomas moved to Los Angeles where he attended Chouinard Art Institute and studied under Pruett Carter. Another young artist and Stanford graduate, James Algar, lived in the same rooming house and was employed by the Walt Disney Studios. At Algar's suggestion, Thomas applied for an opening as an “in-betweener” in the animation department and started working there on September 24, 1934. After six months, he moved into Fred Moore's unit and became the star animator's assistant. His earliest assignments included the short “Mickey's Elephant.”

Thomas made animation history as a key member of the animation team on “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” Hollywood's first full-length animated feature. He was one of eight animators who concentrated on the dwarfs in three sections of the film. This was followed by a top spot animating the title character in “Pinocchio.” Thomas helped to design the character and did some outstanding animation on such scenes as the “I've Got No Strings” musical section. For “Bambi,” Thomas experimented for over six months to get the proper look and characterization for Bambi and some of the other animals. He worked “hand in glove” with fellow animator Milt Kahl to solve some tough design and animation problems.

In 1941, Thomas joined Walt Disney and a contingent of 18 artists, and storymen from the Studio on a goodwill trip to South America. He was the only animator in the group that toured Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia and other countries. Two films, “The Three Caballeros,” and “Saludos Amigos,” resulted from the trip.

For the 1949 feature, “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad,” Thomas was promoted to directing animator and handled the scene with the superstitious Ichabod riding home on a dark and scary night. He made the switch to villains, starting with “Cinderella,” for which he animated the wicked Stepmother. This was followed by a star turn animating the Queen of Hearts in “Alice in Wonderland.” Next came the nefarious Captain Hook in “Peter Pan.” Thomas designed and supervised this colorful character with the fiery temper.

Thomas struck a romantic note with the classic scene of a cocker spaniel named Lady and a rover named Tramp sharing spaghetti and meatballs on a “Bella Notte” in the 1955 feature, “Lady and the Tramp.” He went on to animate (with Ollie Johnston) the three good fairy characters for “Sleeping Beauty” and the lead adult dogs in “101 Dalmatians.” Thomas had one of his personal favorite scenes in “The Sword in the Stone,” where a love-struck squirrel encounters the once and future king who is temporarily inhabiting the body of another squirrel.

He went on to serve as directing animator on “The Jungle Book,” “The Aristocats,” “Robin Hood,” and “The Rescuers.” After working on some early story development, character design, and animation for the 1981 feature, “The Fox and the Hound,” Thomas retired from animation in January, 1978.

Over the next five years, Thomas and Johnston devoted full time to researching and writing the definitive book on their craft, Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life. The book distilled forty years of knowledge and experience into what many consider the finest book ever written about animation. Too Funny for Words was published six years later and explored the gags, humor and story elements that went into the features and shorts. Walt Disney's Bambi: The Story and the Film (1990) told the behind the scenes story of the creation of one of the greatest animated films of all-time. Their final collaboration, The Disney Villain (1993), explored the richest and most colorful rogue's gallery in film history.

In addition to his career as a top animator, Thomas also expressed his musical talents as the piano player in the popular jazz group, The Firehouse Five Plus Two. Formed in 1940s, the group consisted of other Disney employees, and achieved success with their numerous Dixieland jazz recordings and personal appearances. They officially disbanded in 1971.

In 1995, Thomas was the subject of a feature length documentary, “Frank and Ollie,” released by Walt Disney Pictures. Written, produced, and directed by Frank's son, Theodore (Ted) Thomas, and produced by Ted's wife, Kuniko Okubo, the film played film festivals around the world and received acclaim for its insightful look at the lives, careers and extraordinary friendship of the two legendary animators.

Thomas is survived by his wife of 58 years, Jeanette; son Theodore and his wife, Kuniko Okubo; son Doug, and his life partner, Dan Poirer; son Gregg and his children, Ukiah and Micah; and daughter, Ann Ayers, her husband, Andy Ayers, and their son, Marshall.

No funeral is planned but details regarding a life celebration will be announced shortly. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests that donations be made in Frank's name to the Character Animation Program at CalArts (California Institute of the Arts) in Santa Clarita, California.


Thoughts, questions, or comments? Contact Sheila here.


AUTHOR'S NOTE

Source material on the development and history of Disney animation techniques for this article comes from Thomas and Johnston's authoritative book on animation: The Illusion of Life - Disney Animation. This book is not only a must-read for anyone aspiring to a career in animation, but those who love and admire Disney animated films.

Thomas and Johnston also wrote three other well-regarded books: Too Funny For Words, Walt Disney's Bambi: The Story and the Film, and The Disney Villain. Another wonderful resource for further reading on this subject is John Canemaker's book, Walt Disney's Nine Old Men and the Art of Animation. Both Illusion of Life and Nine Old Men are available for order at MouseShoppe (link).

ABOUT THE COLUMN

The Foundations of Magic (formerly Architects of Magic) column looks at the important building blocks that formed the basis of Walt Disney's dream, and includes a look at Disney history, Disney lore, and important Disney individuals—particularly Imagineers and artists—who made significant contributions to Walt Disney's dream.

Send your comments to Sheila here.

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