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Animated Stars Illuminate Frank & Ollie

An overflow crowd stood outside the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills to catch a glimpse of Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston and the various animation luminaries attending the Marc Davis Lecture on Animation April 9, 2003. Hundreds were eager to pay tribute to the last of Walt Disney's "Nine Old Men." The overly-ambitious program treated attendees to many filmclips of their work, two panels, four special presentations, with the Frank and Ollie finally joining the evening's host Leonard Maltin on stage at 11:00 pm. Maltin called them the master builders of animation, crediting them for "laying the foundation of animation and then building upon it to incredible heights." To put them in filmmaking industry perspective, Maltin said Thomas and Johnston were pioneers and the equivalent to the people who did BIRTH OF A NATION. "They plied their trade when there were no teachers of animation." They applied art concepts they learned in art school to create animation. These concepts are the basis for animation courses and schools today. Maltin remarked often how wonderful it was to see their films projected on the big screen when people today watch so much video.

DreamWorks co-founder and former Disney movie chief Jeffrey Katzenberg confessed to his personal obsession for taking their book, DISNEY ANIMATION: THE ILLUSION OF LIFE, on his yearly family vacation to Hawaii to read, learning new things each time from what he called "The Bible." "No two people have taught me more about making animated movies," claimed the Oscar-winning animation producer.

Some of the voice actors from their productions on hand included Dick Jones (PINOCCHIO), Bruce Reitherman (Mowgli from THE JUNGLEBOOK), Lisa Davis (Anita in 101 DALMATIANS), Kathryn Beaumon-Levine (Alice, from ALICE IN WONDERLAND and Wendy in PETER PAN), Margaret Kerry-Wilcox (CINDERELLA), June Foray (Grandmother in MULAN and Mrs. Featherby from DUCKTALES: THE MOVIE), Bob Newhart (Bernard in THE RESCUERS and THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER) plus Viriginia Davis (live-action Alice in 1923-24 Disney silent films). Peter Behn the voice of Thumper in BAMBI came all the way from Vermont to be there as a surprise guest but was too overcome with emotion to say much when he approached the podium following scenes from BAMBI.

Animators Brad Bird, Ron Clements, Andy Gaskill and John Lasseter recounted what they'd learned as assistants working under Frank and Ollie. Bird showed the clip from THE IRON GIANT where he immortalized them as trainworkers during the trainwreck scene, done in deference to Ollie's passion for trains. He recorded their voices at their house. Lasseter said one of the most important things he learned from them is that "every movement should look like it was generated by its own thought process and motivation," which he proved could be applied to 3D computer animation. Explaining the concept of why something moves instead of how it moves has been difficult for techies to grasp, Lasseter said. "Software can't make an audience cry." Gaskill said Frank and Ollie became sort of his secondary role models after his parents and really taught him how to feel.

Glen Keane and Andreas Deja shared a stack of Frank and Ollie drawings on an overhead projector and explained what were the brilliant things they achieved with staging, perspective, art and emotion with their lines. They interpreted doodles on the pages to explain the mens' thought process and innovations. Keane said he learned from Ollie to feel things, rather than see them. Noted animation historians John Canemaker and Charles Solomon joined Maltin for a brief panel to discuss Frank and Ollie's place in animation history.

Lastly, Maltin interviewed Frank and Ollie live on stage about their influences and experiences. The two were drawn together at Stanford University in California where they drew cartoons for the university magazine. They wound up together at the Disney Studio in the 1930s under the tutelage of animator Fred Moore. Frank said he noticed that Moore always drew the nose a little bit to one side so he would correct it and then Moore would yell at him for ruining the drawing. Frank said Moore often redid his drawings overnight and then would just shrug it off in the morning when Frank would ask him what was wrong. Milt Kahn was a big influence as well and they admired the work of Bill Tytla for the strong feeling he displayed in his work.

Frank said Walt Disney was never one to give praise much, at least not directly, but Disney did actually compliment him. "He didn't mean to I'm sure, but it slipped out," said Frank. Frank will never forget the day that Disney yelled across the parking lot as they were leaving, "Hey, I heard you have the best scene in the picture." Frank gained a reputation for tackling some difficult pieces. When the SNOW WHITE crew was discussing her death scene where she's stretched out with the dwarfs surrounding her, Frank remembers the storyman said no one could animate that. Then Disney said, "give it to Frank, we can talk him into anything." Ollie recounted how they always tried to maintain a sense of realism. When the huntsman was supposed to take Snow White out into the woods and kill her but can't bring himself to do it, they were going to have her fall off a cliff. Ollie recounts a storyman injecting, "You can't have her fall off of there, it would kill her."

Maltin and others throughout the evening commended their incredible acting talents, and thanked them for showing them how important it is to create a true character. One clip showed one of their many training exercises at Cal Arts about how to establish a character. Frank said he was not happy with most current actors as movies seem to rely more on submitting their characters to physical stunts. "Nowadays,"" said Frank, "you're not a good actor unless you can duck a bunch of dynamite falling on you."

While retired for some time from animating, Frank and Ollie have been busy teaching, coaching and writing books. Ollie said he regrets they can't get around the way they used to both men were brought onto the stage in wheelchairs yet nowadays they find themselves reaching people in England and all over the world via the Internet. Maltin congratulated them for joining the new century with their very own Website,, which features two characters icons they created for it. "I can't get out much now," Ollie confessed, "so I imagine a lot of it and have found another way to get around," via the Web.