Disney Pioneer Frank Thomas Dies at 92
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.