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Disney Pioneer Frank Thomas Dies at 92

Frank Thomas, who helped pioneer the animated art form as a member of Walt Disneys elite Nine Old Men, passed away Wednesday night at his home in Flintridge, California. He celebrated his 92nd birthday on Sunday with family and friends, including director Brad Bird, who honored Thomas and lifelong friend and colleague Ollie Johnston the last of the Nine Old Men with cameo appearances in both THE IRON GIANT and Disney/Pixars THE INCREDIBLES.

Thomas, who had a legendary career at the Disney Studios spanning 43 years, 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 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 the 1995 feature-length documentary, FRANK AND OLLIE, written and directed by Franks son, Theodore (Ted) Thomas.

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 in BAMBI; Baloo the bear telling the man-cub Mowgli that he cant stay in the jungle in THE JUNGLE BOOK; Pinocchio trapped in the birdcage by the evil puppeteer Stromboli in PINOCCHIO; the lovesick squirrel whose heart is broken in SWORD IN THE STONE; Captain Hook playing the piano in PETER PAN; and the dancing penguins in MARY POPPINS. He also animated several of Mickey Mouses most impressive scenes in such films as THE POINTER and BRAVE LITTLE TAILOR.

Noted animation historian/filmmaker John Canemaker described Thomas special talents in his book, WALT DISNEYS 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 Co., 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, A BUGS LIFE and the upcoming CARS) 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 and film critic, 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. Thats a rare quality in an artist. Even in his 90s, 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, Johnston. The two formed an instant friendship that was to last for more than 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 Algars suggestion, Thomas applied for an opening as an in-betweener in the animation department and started working there on Sept. 24, 1934. After six months, he moved into Fred Moores unit and became the star animators assistant. His earliest assignments included the short MICKEYS ELEPHANT.

Thomas made animation history as a key member of the animation team on SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, Hollywoods 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 Ive Got No Strings musical section. For BAMBI, Thomas experimented for more than 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 story men 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 anthology films resulted from the trip, THE THREE CABALLEROS and SALUDOS AMIGOS.

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, Thomas designed and supervised Captain Hook in PETER PAN, the 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 LADY AND THE TRAMP. He went on to animate (with 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, distilling 40 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 DISNEYS 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 rogues 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 the 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.

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 Franks name to the Character Animation Program at CalArts (California Institute of the Arts) in Santa Clarita, California.

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