Frank and Ollie: The Best of Friends

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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Like many Disney fans, I only got a chance to meet Disney legends Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston after they had mutually retired from the Disney Company and began writing books about Disney animation. For the longest time, they seemed to be the public face of Disney animation and appeared everywhere from Disney special events to animation art stores around the country to film festivals.

They appeared to be the kindly grandfathers who were gracious and funny and eloquent—although occasionally with that tiny touch of grouchiness for something that struck them as wrong. It was also clear how much they cared and respected each other, even though they had dissimilar approaches to animation challenges and to their private hobbies. Johnston loved his backyard trains and was one of the inspirations for Walt Disney to build his own backyard railroad. Thomas loved to play the piano which he did for the longest time with the Firehouse Five Plus Two.

Yet, there were uncanny similarities, as well, including the fact that they discovered shortly before Thomas' passing that both of their mothers had been born in the same small rural town.

“The idea of Frank and Ollie. It’s a term that is thrown around so often that I think that there are those who are at Disney now who don’t know that Frank and Ollie aren’t one person. They are two separate individuals. Because it just flows: Frank and Ollie,” said Disney animator Glen Keane with a laugh.

Separately and together, during their more than four-decade career at the Disney Studios, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston produced some of the most memorable scenes in the classic animated features and were considered skilled pioneers in the art of character animation.

In a career filled with animation milestones, Thomas animated the dwarfs sobbing uncontrollably over Snow White’s supposedly "dead" body laying on her bier, Bambi and Thumper scrambling frantically on an ice covered pond in an ill-fated attempt to skate, Lady and the Tramp romantically eating spaghetti under the night sky with Tramp’s nose nudging a meatball on the plate toward his new ladylove, Merlin and Arthur scampering around as squirrels, and the "wizard's duel" between Merlin and Mad Madam Mim in The Sword in the Stone (1963) among many other similar accomplishments.

Johnston is usually best remembered for his work on the precocious little rabbit Thumper trying to recite diligently the importance of eating greens in Bambi (1942); the musical antics of Mowgli and Baloo the Bear as they danced to the song “The Bear Necessities” in The Jungle Book (1967); the three flittering colorful fairies Flora, Fauna and Merryweather fawning over Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty (1959); and Old Rufus the cat trying to comfort the distraught orphan Penny in The Rescuers (1977).

Thomas and Johnston were both born in California in the same year: 1912 (Thomas in Santa Monica and Johnston in Palo Alto). They both had educators as fathers and the young boys grew up liking the same kind of books, especially the thrilling adventures of the notorious bandit Robin Hood. Although they had quite different personalities and hobbies, they would discover that they worked together very well.

“Each of them had certain strengths and complemented the other,” said Disney historian John Canemaker.

Thomas was clearly the more analytical of the pair and was always thinking his way through the problems presented by the animation, keeping everything orderly, even in wildly impossible actions. Johnston was the more intuitive and subtle of the duo, often handling tender, delicate scenes with an instinctive feeling. Both of them were renowned for their ability to create sincere, believable characters whether they were stalwart heroes, nasty villains or comedic buffoons.

“Ollie had this way of kissing the paper with his pencil, barely touching it and finding the simplest forms," said Disney animator Glen Keane. "Frank’s way of drawing was a thousand lines trying to find the perfect way by searching out the form and expression.”

The unique and enduring friendship of these two talented animators began in 1931.

“We first met at Stanford in the art department. They didn’t have much of an art department as I recall. So we had to drive up to San Mateo two times a week to take a life drawing class,” Thomas recalled.

It was during those long drives up and back, along with a stop for drinks and dinner, that began a series of conversations that sparked a friendship. Driving together and sharing conversations about their work continued for the rest of their lives as they continued to carpool back and forth to work at the Disney Studios for decades.

“When other fellows at Disney would stop at 5 o’clock and just go home, we still had 20 or 30 minutes in the car to talk over ideas and then, the next morning, remind each other about what he had decided to do,” Thomas said.

“Over the years, we had a lot of time to talk to each other and we learned how each other thought and approached our problems and what we were weak in and strong in,” Johnston emphasized. “I’d take a drawing in to him and he’d point out what he thought was missing or maybe point out what he liked about my drawing that I didn’t see. I’d end up with a much better drawing. I couldn’t have done it by myself.”

After college, they moved down to Los Angeles to go to art school and moved into the same boardinghouse run by a retired undertaker. Later, they shared a small apartment and the same electric razor together and eventually built adjoining houses on a plot of land in Flintridge, Calif., where they remained for the rest of their lives with their wives and children.

Thomas applied and was accepted at the Disney Studios in 1934 and then set up a tryout for his friend, Johnston, who also passed with flying colors. The two men began a decades-long career at Disney as animators, directors and storymen and their skills at communicating the qualities of sincerity, humor and acting in their drawings earned them places as two of Walt Disney's fabled "Nine Old Men."

They both studied under the amazing animator Fred Moore carefully honing their craft. Thomas and Johnston worked together on several short animated films including The Brave Little Tailor (1938), The Pointer (1939), and The Practical Pig (1940), but are primarily known for their contributions to the classic Disney animated feature films.

Their own friendship helped tremendously to find that emotional dynamic they needed when they were assigned scenes together in animated films such as Peter Pan (1953) where Thomas' dignified and elegant handling of the villainous Captain Hook and Johnston’s more burlesque movements for the bumbling Mr. Smee blended effortlessly to show the two characters’ close friendship that had kept them together for years of battles with the boy who wouldn’t grow up. That same understanding was reflected in their animation work on the scenes of Baloo the Bear having to take Mowgli back to the man village in The Jungle Book and the strain that put on the relationship. Thomas and Johnston also captured the unique and amusing companionship of Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, the three matronly fairies in Sleeping Beauty who often disagreed with each other on a course of action but clearly loved and defended each other.

Thomas and Johnston continued to produce top-quality animation on more than 20 animated features until their joint retirement from the Disney Studios early in 1978.

After their retirement, they embarked on a second career as authors. They were able to put into words just how they and their colleagues made all those amazing discoveries that made character animation possible.

“Frank and I started writing together in art school and that continued on after we started working at Disney,” Johnston said.

Nearly five years were required to complete their first definitive book, Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life. 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, where each task from layout to color to sound enhanced and sustained the overall effect.

That book was followed by Too Funny For Words; Walt Disney's Bambi, The Story and The Film; and The Disney Villain. All of these books were translated into other languages and The Illusion of Life proved to be especially popular and remains in print today and has an honored place on the bookshelf of just about every professional animator.

Theodore Thomas, the youngest son of Frank and the documentary filmmaker who in 1995 made the film Frank and Ollie, about the friendship and careers of these two legends, said that one of the most surprising things he learned while making the film was he “always had this image of my father as being sort of organized and being the leader. They were always referred to as ‘Frank and Ollie.’ and I guess in that I had assumed that Frank took the lead in things. In the making of the film, I realized how really symbiotic their relationship is and the extent to which my father, as logical as he is, is inclined to explore ideas endlessly, to try every last variation that you could think of on staging or coming up with an action. Only then would he actually implement it. He's constantly searching for that. I think Ollie, in many ways, was extremely helpful to him in saying, "No Frank, that's not it. This is it; this is the core". I was not aware of the extent to which Ollie would take the lead in helping to focus Frank's efforts. Conversely, Frank was able to give a very logical context to the emotional approach that Ollie was having in terms of saying, "Well gee, if you do it this way, this is going to be the end result. Is that what you want to do?" So that was a discovery for me.”

Frank Thomas once said, “I think the reason Ollie and I have gotten along as well as we have over the years is because we speak the same language and for many years we spoke the same language as Walt [Disney]. There is a truth and an honesty there that you don’t always find even in fairly close friends. Somebody always wants to do a little one up-manship or something but there is never anything there like that with us.”

Ollie Johnston responded that “We had a way of working together that benefited the both of us. We each lifted the other up to something he couldn’t do by himself.”

After the climatic battle scene in Pixar’s The Incredibles (2004), two elderly gentlemen in glasses smile in agreement at the hard won victory. "That's old school,” says one fellow. "Yeah, no school like the old school,” says the other.

Those gentlemen are caricatures of two of director Brad Bird’s animation heroes, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. In fact, the flattered animators themselves supplied the original voices for the characters to emphasize that even with the advances in computer animation that the “old school” principles of animation were still the foundation for creating the illusion of life.

Their friendship changed the face of animation and resulted in memorable classic scenes that are still studied intently by animators today. Lifelong friends and collaborators who sometimes disagreed with one another respectfully but were always excited to bounce ideas back and forth, Frank and Ollie gave heart and pathos to mere lines on paper that continues to delight audiences today.

Frank Thomas died September 8, 2004. Ollie Johnston, the sole surviving member of the "Nine Old Men,” died on April 14, 2008.

Leonard Maltin, animation historian, film critic, and author, observed, “Frank and Ollie helped to invent animation as an art form and took it to incredible new heights through their work at Disney for over four and a half decades. Frank and his lifelong friend and colleague, Ollie Johnston, also had a remarkable gift for explaining and articulating how they did what they did. That's a rare quality in any artist and it has made us all a little richer.”