Animation World Network has compiled the loving thoughts of many in the animation community as a tribute to the life and work of animation legend Frank Thomas.
Upon the recent passing of animation legend Frank Thomas, Animation World Network began to collect thoughts on the man from animation professionals from around the world. We hope that this piece will serve as a lasting tribute to Mr. Thomas as an amazing artist and as an amazing human being. He has influence so many people in animation directly and indirectly that it would be impossible to quantify. From his work on some of Disneys classic films to his dedication to helping new animators along their way, Mr. Thomas will be remembered as a true inspiration and pioneer in the art of animation.
Wed like to include a special thanks to the Frank Thomas family for allowing us to republish the transcriptions of speeches given by John Lasseter and Andreas Deja as well as Leonard Maltins interview with Ollie Johnston from the memorial to Frank Thomas, which took place at the El Capitan Theatre. The Sept. 29 memorial was conceived by the family and produced by Ted and Kuniko Thomas. Wed also like to thank The Walt Disney Co. and especially Howard Green for their assistance.
Director of Toy Story
Frank Thomas influenced my life greater than I thought. Over the past couple weeks, I thought about the many ways that he influenced [me]. I grew up in Whittier, California. I always loved cartoons. My parents couldnt get me up on a school day. But on Saturday morning I was up at the crack of dawn. Two feet from the TV set with Frosted Flakes, watching every cartoon I could see. I even watched them when it wasnt cool in high school. I quietly ran home after school to watch cartoons. Bugs and his Buddies on KTTV Channel 11.
I was a freshman in high school and I had to do a book report. I was rummaging around in the Whittier High School library and I found this book called The Art of Animation by Bob Thomas. It dawned on me when I opened this book that people got paid to make cartoons. So I decided thats what I wanted to do.
This was before there were videocassettes. We all know that in each of our towns there is a last run theater. In Whittier, it was the Warman Theatre uptown for 49 cents. So at the time I found this book, The Sword and the Stone was playing, so I asked my mom to drop me off there alone because I didnt want any of my high school buddies knowing that I was going to see a cartoon. I watched this cartoon and Ill never forget the feeling I had when Merlin turned Arthur into the squirrel. The incredible shape of that squirrel sitting in that tree has been burned into my memory.
I walked out of that theater and got in the car when my mom picked me up and said, I want to work for Disney. She was a high school art teacher for 38 years and she said, Thats a great goal to have. She always thought that art was a noble profession. I started writing to the Disney studios and they invited me over.
Then in my senior year I received a letter that they were starting a character animation program at CalArts. I applied and I was the second person accepted to the program in 1975. I got to actually go over and work for the summer of 1975 at the Disney studios helping Jack Hann, who was the head of the program, to get ready for it. My job was to go down to the morgue and pick any scene that I liked and Xerox it for CalArts. That was my summer job. I kept meeting more and more animators. Glen Keane had just started there. Ron Clements. I was just in heaven. I realized that I wasnt the only one out there in the world who loved animation.
Then I went to CalArts. I went four years there and graduated. While we were at CalArts, it was just the most amazing group of young people we were with. Brad Bird was one of them. They had six 16mm prints of Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, Dumbo, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. We looked at those again and again and again, all night. For four years, we studied those films. Terrible prints, but they were great to us. And I was so excited about working at Disney and doing animation.
We got to meet Frank Thomas. Every year he would come up and give us lectures and inspire us. At the end of every year we would show the work to everybody and he was there and he was so excited about what we were doing. All The Nine Old Men were so excited about this program and all the young people and talent.
Frank Thomas retired the year before I got to work at Disney, but he was there with Ollie of course making, writing, preparing and researching their book, The Illusion of Life. When I got to the Disney studios it was a little different than my dreams had. All of us at CalArts were just so empowered with wanting to do great films. I mean Star Wars had just come out. We wanted to do that in animation. But we get there and it was not quite what we had dreamed of. At times, we were told just to keep our ideas to ourselves and do what we were told. It was like my heart was ripped out. This was not what I always dreamed Disney was.
But I found myself going into Frank and Ollies office and they always welcomed me. They loved the passion that we had. We were just on fire and they loved it. They loved this medium so much that they wanted to share what they had learned though the years with everybody. They sat and talked with me. I remember they would be Xeroxing things that summer I was and I would stand there at the Xerox machine and talk to them about animation. They were so filled with passion. The one thing I so loved about Frank Thomas was his incredible sense of curiosity. He just loved to try things. He told me to never just do it the way you think it should be the first time. Explore it. Challenge it. Look at it all different ways. I would take scenes to him and hed do thumbnails and look at it different ways and explore all possibilities.
So many of the comments I was getting from the directors at the time were to just do it this way because thats how Walt would have wanted it. But what I realized was what Frank was talking about was how Walt would have wanted it. To stretch the boundaries of this medium.
When I was at Disney, I started seeing the first bits of 3D animation being done my computers and I got so excited about it. I talked to Frank about it and he was so excited too about this notion, because Walt always was trying to get more dimension into his animation. Look at the multiplane camera. Look at the opening shot in Bambi. He was striving for this. I looked at the computer and said, This was what Walt was waiting for. And Frank goes, Yes.
So I got to work with Keane on this 30-second test where we combined 3D computer animation with this amazing animation that Glen did. It was called Wild Things Test. And when we finished it, at the time, people looked at it and said, This is too expensive. Computers cant make animation cheaper or faster. I was so disappointed. I followed my dream, though, and Frank was with me in spirit, and I went to Lucasfilm and worked with Ed Catmull and our group named Pixar. I always stayed in contact with Frank and showed him what we were doing and he was such a tremendous support.
We made Toy Story and they came to the first screening of it and they were so proud. Prior to that in 1987, we spoke on the same panel at SIGGRAPH in Anaheim. We had been making these computer animation shorts. One of my favorite stories was after I did the first computer animation with characters it was shown at SIGGRAPH in 1984. This guy came up who was working for another computer animation company came up and said, What you did is so amazing. What software did you use? And I said, Its just a keyframe animation system similar to what other people had developed. He said, No, no, its so funny. What software did you use?
And I thought to myself, Heres an entire art form growing out of this science and theyre starting to make animation and none of them understand what Ive learned from Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston and The Nine Old Men of the principles of animation. This is the foundation of moving things thatFrank always talked to me about its not just moving something. Its not just the follow through. Its not just the amazing lines. Its what the character is thinking. Its the heart. What is the character saying? What is it communicating to the audience? He always told me that every movement of an animated character needed to be motivated by its own thought process. The character should be thinking. I never forgot that. And I realized at that moment standing there at SIGGRAPH no one knows about this.
So I actually wrote a paper I mean I went to CalArts. I cant spell, this was before spell check on the computer. But I wrote a technical paper called The Principles of Animation Applied to 3D Computer Animation. And, of course, 90% of it was gigantic direct quotes straight out of The Illusion of Life, but you know what, no one could say it better than them.
They came down to that same SIGGRAPH to give their amazing lecture. Many of us remember the incredible lectures that Frank and Ollie gave during that time right after The Illusion of Life. And I was on the same panel and Ill never forget someone asked after their talk, they spoke before me, they said, When do you think computer animation will come up to the level of Disney? And Frank said, When computer animation can create pathos.
I had made my second film at Pixar called Reds Dream and it has a sad ending. Its a little unicycle in a unicycle shop who dreams of being in the circus. It doesnt have a happy ending even though everyone begged me to give it have a happy ending. There was a very first screening of that film we had just finished making it at Pixar and we showed it. And Ill never forget Frank and Ollie coming up to me afterwards, and Frank shook my hand and said, John, you did it.
After Toy Story, I invited them up numerous times to visit me, because I knew they were kindred spirits. Especially Frank because of his wonderful spirit of curiosity. They came up and I toured them around Pixar and they were so excited. Ollie said, I wish I were young again. And Frank looked around and said, This reminds me of the Hyperion [Street Disney] studio.
You know we had people in hallways. People jammed in. The animators took over this one open area and made it their own with Tiki huts. It was fantastic. All these young people and we were creating new stuff that no one had done before. And I realized what he was saying.
He said, It all changed when we moved to Burbank, though. He said, It was the most magnificent buildings that Walt built for us. It was the most beautiful studio. But everyone had their own offices down a wing, on different floors. We were on top of each other at Hyperion. We lost touch with each other. Didnt know what was going on anymore.
What was very interesting was we were actually designing a new studio and our first design was actually separate buildings. We thought wed do separate buildings for each production and old-fashioned bungalows for development. I heard what Frank said and I said, Hes right. So I talked to Steve Jobs and we actually scrapped the idea, mainly based on Franks comment. So we rethought and built one giant building that we could put everybody in. You know, were still on top of each other, but at least we know what is going on.
And like I said, Frank has influenced me my entire life and my entire career. I got to see him in August, which was fantastic. I visited him at his house. I walked in and I was sitting there, he was in bed and his eyes just glistened. I was talking all about what we doing at Pixar. And we were talking about story. And that computer animation is not just a novelty anymore. You have to make great stories to entertain audiences. Thats what they want. We were talking about story and character and thinking characters. Then he turned his head and he said, You should write a book. Then I realized I was sitting there quoting The Illusion of Life to Frank Thomas the entire time.
Animator Kuala Lumpur
I was fortunate enough to see Frank Thomas speak at a SIGGRAPH course about 15 years ago. He was an inspiration and mentor to a generation of `SIGGIs who without traditional animation backgrounds, struggled through the '80s and '90s to make polygons act. His inspiration put the squash-and-stretch into CGI.
Co-owner and Tech VP, A. Film A/S
Frank has been a part of my life since 1981 - just before the first edition of The Illusion of Life. A young animator then, and working for Borge Ring on the short Anna & Bella that would win an AA five years later, I boldly wrote to him posing questions that now make me shudder and he was very kind in answering them all.
In 1984 I organized that Frank and Ollie were invited to Holland, and stayed with Jeanette and Marie at my folks house. And we went and saw the sights. For instance, in the old fishermans town of Marken, where I took the attached picture. Frank and Ollie later used this picture in their lectures, while talking about imagination. They started it out of focus, announcing it as here are two strange birds in the wild in Holland.
I do have wonderful memories of Frank playing the family piano, and Marie and I singing and dancing to his playing.
In 1985 and 1986 I had the pleasure of inviting them to Denmark, where I was working on the feature film Valhalla and both came with great advise. They lectured two days in the Danish Film Institute. Many of the animators here still often watch the video recording of that, however poor the video and audio quality... In the end of 1986 and in 1987 four of us here in Denmark worked together with Frank, Ollie and Ken Anderson on a feature film project called Troll Story, which we still have on the boards. It was an amazing experience and Frank did his best to instill in us the values of Warmth, Charm and Humor.
Frank and Ollie both have influenced Danish animation and myself more than I can say with their lectures and their books with their wonderful animation, of course, and with their wonderful personalities. I will miss Frank a lot...
He showed us that great animation doesnt come from the hand, but from the heart...
Animation Producer, The Secret of NIMH
On FRANK THOMAS 1972 to 1979 Frank Thomas, during the years that I knew him, was a gracious legend in the art of animation. His loyalty to the Walt Disney Co. and to his close friend, Ollie Johnston, was admirable. He knew the art inside out. He was a tough taskmaster and teacher. He wouldnt just give information away. You had to discover it. When I think of Frank, I think, Here is a man that lived an incredible life. Very intelligent (rumored to be a member of Mensa a society of those with IQs over 140), he was a talented artist and animator, story-man, author, accomplished musician and member of the popular Dixieland jazz band Fire House Five Plus Two, and to top it offhe was married with four children. Even after a long career, he and Ollie, toured film schools, gave talks, advised young animators and wrote books, sharing their life experiences in animation at Walt Disney Prods.
Eric Larson, another of Disneys famous Nine Old Men, was the tutor for all of us in the animation-training program. It was mid-April, 1972, and the end of my evaluation period. Fresh out of art school, with degrees in Life Drawing and Art History, I had spent two grueling months animating screen tests. The tests were to determine if I had the potential to be an animator at Walt Disney Prods. The day had come for the review board to judge whether I would stay and go into production as a neophyte inbetweener, or be discharged as not-fit-for-animation at the legendary studio.
The review board was composed of the `best of the best of the remaining master-animators, story-men and layout artists. Included were Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, John Lounsbery, Eric Larson, Wolfgang Reitherman, Ken Anderson, Vance Gerry and Don Griffith, plus production administrators Don Duckwall and Ed Hansen. The truly frightening idea that my career was riding on an evaluated performance consisting of two short months as an intern-trainee at the most prestigious animation studio in the world was overwhelming, and severe self-doubt devolved into urges to vomit. Late in the day, Ed Hansen informed me that the review board accepted me and that following Monday I would start production under Eric Larson. Whew!
Monday arrived and Eric was gone. Apparently, his scheduled cruise to the northern European countries had been overlooked. Ed Hansen came to me early Monday morning and said that Eric would be gone for six weeks, but Frank Thomas would take me on as his ruff inbetweener.
I had become familiar with Eric and thought of him as a kind, older uncle who was always easy to approach. On the other hand, rumors abounded about Frank Thomas. He was strict. He was intolerant. He was known as the Velvet Needle for supposed dismissals of animation staffers in the past. Allegedly, artists were sent packing due to condemnations from Frank and none ever knew their removal was due to him. According to the stories, these dismissals were for the tiniest of infractions, something like talking in the quiet hallway of D Wing on the first floor in the old animation building, the notorious Wing of Gods. It was there the likes of Milt Kahl, Ollie Johnston, Marc Davis, Eric Larson and Frank made their magic. I never discovered whether the rumors were true or not, but I was definitely intimidated by the assignment.
There was a lot to be intimidated by, but I couldnt help but be very excited about working for one of the greatest master-animators of all time. Just being allowed to work on his scenes was thrilling.
Frank, it turned out, was the same age as my mother. Both were born in 1912. He turned 60 the year I started in the animation industry. This thread of information gave me the feeling that we had something in commonmaybe, but it nonetheless did help me relax a bit.
Just as luck would have it, Frank was also scheduled for a vacation. He and his wife were leaving for a two-week holiday in Japan with Ollie Johnston and his wife. As he was leaving the building he dropped by my desk to assign me my first official scene for the film, Robin Hood. In front of me, on a sheet of multi-pan layout paper he drew a long line describing the path of action for four children characters. Included in the scene were Franks animation of individual run cycles with drawings about four inches tall, all separate, of the characters running in place, on ones. The assignment was to redraw the characters about one inch high following Skippy, a young rabbit who had received a new bow and arrow from Robin Hood, along the line Frank had drawn, to a knoll on the other side of the paper. Next, animate the younger toddler character, Tagalong, trailing way behind the three and then catching up as they slowed down to go up the hill. My head was already spinning when he asked me to do the math for the scene plan. What?! I had only two weeks to get this scene finished and shot as a pencil test on film before he returned. I was totally overwhelmed.
The scene totaled 512 individual drawings (on ones) with all of the characters on the same sheets of paper. Needless to say, after he left for vacation, I arrived at work by 6:00 am every morning and worked well beyond 5:00 pm for the next two weeks. When Frank returned, I nervously (that self-doubt, vomit thing) ran the scene on Franks movieola. He approved it on the spot! What a relief! He approved the animation and the camera move, which consisted of a pan following the characters action across the screen then trucked in closer to the characters as they ascended the knoll. He told me, From now on, you plan all of my scenes. I was blown away. He asked to see the actual drawings and, after examining them, told me that no cleanup would be necessary. These drawings will go straight in for Xeroxing to cels. Wow. For the duration of the animation schedule on Robin Hood, I was attached to Frank Thomas.
I was totally in awe of this man. He had worked on almost every feature that Disney produced and was key to some of the most beautiful scenes in Pinocchio, Bambi and Lady and the Tramp, not to mention the incredibly emotional funeral scene of all the Dwarfs mourning Snow Whites death. That scene had earned Frank the number one credit on the list of animators for that film.
Every scene he did was so real. His understanding of drawing in the round or with depth and dimension was outstanding. He would come into my office and repeatedly remind me to turn off the backlight. Turn off the backlight. You need to get used to feeling the movement and really understand the timing charts. Its not just about putting drawings in-between my drawings; its about helping me bring it to life. Avoid being mechanical. Avoid tracing between drawings. Imitate the animators drawings. Whatever his rumored past, I found him very instructive and ready to help in any way. His drawing style wasnt heavy with design like, say, Milt Kahl, but it was extremely dimensional and he had a great sense of entertainment. Another great asset was his musical knowledge and experience, especially when it came to creating texture and contrast in timing. He was always patient and calm with all the young animators, even when we broke into one of our rubber-band fights. Always observant and aware, he would incorporate traits of those around him into the personalities of the characters he animated.
Once a highly focused and disciplined animator, with little tolerance for failure, he was now a calm and mature artistic leader. He told me a story about one of the instances that helped him to become a more patient person and animator. He said he almost suffered a nervous breakdown over the scene of another animator in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. It was the scene where the Dwarfs were returning to their cottage and singing Hi Ho, Hi Ho, its home from work we go They were marching over a fallen log. It was an upshot, and to Frank the Dwarfs appeared off-balance, leaning forward too much. He thought that it looked bad, was upset about it, and wasted no opportunity to share this opinion with others, including Walt Disney himself. He finally mused that some people probably thought he needed to be committed to an institution. The drawings were never corrected.
Years later, at one of our weekly screenings for the training program, they showed us Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Frank sat next to me for the entire screening. When it was over, he said, That wasnt so bad. In fact, its pretty good. Better than I remembered it. Pretty good? What these men had achieved some 35 years before was absolutely incredible! Were they really expecting us fledglings to be able to take on these responsibilities by the time they were ready to retire?! That would give us only five or six years to prepare. Scary.
My departure from the Disney organization in September of 1979 did not sit well with Frank. I was no longer working with him and did not consult him on our planned resignation. He and Ollie had retired a year earlier and were only coming into the studio a few days a week to work on their book, The Illusion of Life. When Don Bluth, John Pomeroy and I left Disney, it represented a sort of betrayal that he may have taken personally as we were abandoning the company to which he had given so much of his life.
The last time I saw Frank was at a dinner at the Los Angeles chapter of A.S.I.F.A. It was the summer of 1982 and we had just completed and released The Secret of NIMH. We had not yet been seated when Frank and Ollie entered the lobby. It excited me to see Frank and I went over and greeted him, proud of our first independent production and hoping he would be proud of our work, too, like a father or teacher. He was polite to me, but I could tell that he was still disappointed about our departure from the house that Walt built. Its not what he said. Its what he didnt say. We never met or spoke again. I have missed him over the years and now well all miss him. He has left a magnificent legacy.
Animator Kansas, USA
I was very lucky to have met Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson the two legendary animators and the two main artists out of The Nine Old Men, They are and were the pioneers for Walt Disney Animation. I got to meet both them in 1991 in Philly, Pennsylvania. Why I was going to school at the university of the Arts. They were having a Disney animation cels and drawings at the Philly art league for the arts. They had invited both Frank and Ollie and the remaining Nine Old Men to the show.
They had a dinner for all the people and the animators, I was lucky to get a chance to go to the dinner, I was invited by the curator of the art show. My mouth drop open kind of like a Tex Avery cartoon and I thought to myself I didnt have money to spend on this dinner, but the curator said it wouldnt cost me any thing I was so thrilled and that day and later that night I was on cloud nine for the whole day and then some. I was able to get autographs from all the artists that show up for the show and the great animators. This was the best thing in the world that had ever happen to me in my life and I was so thrilled and happy to been able to go and meet all these fine people and artists and eat dinner with these fine people. I so thankful for that dream to come too and the chance to meet all of those people I met at the show and dinner that night. There will never be anyone like him and his partner, and the nine old men and Im grateful for the chance in a lifetime.
Thank you for all the Nine Old Men.
Animation Director, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin
Frank was my mentor. I worked with him as an animation trainee, and later animator, for about two years during the making of The Rescuers. I was in my early 20s and he was in his early 60s. I was well aware of who he was and at least somewhat familiar with his amazing accomplishments. So it was an unbelievable thrill for me and I was totally in awe of him.
He was extremely intelligent and articulate, yet folksy and unpretentious, thoughtful and analytical, with a wry sense of humor. His technique was flawless but he never really emphasized technique. It was all about getting inside the character, finding the dynamics in relationships, sincerity, communicating thought processes and just plain good acting. He always stressed the importance of observing everyone and everything around you and exploring multiple approaches to any given scene in order to find the absolutely most entertaining way to do it.
I was surprised to find, after having been doing this for so many years, it didnt seem to come easy to him. Frank still struggled with his own animation, worked over his scenes intently and flipped his drawings so relentlessly the paper had the dog-eared, wrinkly texture of an old treasure map (which, in a way, it was). Frank once told me that in his entire animation career he had only done maybe three or four scenes he was entirely satisfied with. That was pretty intimidating to a newcomer like me but I soon came to realize that it was this ongoing struggle that made it fun for Frank. If it was easy, it wouldnt be worth it.
Chuck Jones once called Frank the Laurence Olivier of animation and I believe thats an apt description. It still surprises me that some people have difficulty understanding the concept that, beyond anything else, animators are basically actors. That is essentially what they do. Of course, theyre not all good actors. But Frank was a truly great actor, one of the very best of all time, and his amazing performances will be with us forever. He was a huge inspiration to me and one of the most brilliant men I have ever known.
AnimActing Creative Development for Film and Animation
As someone who teaches story and acting to animators and animation story artists, the times Ive spent referencing Frank Thomas are countless. Its hard to find better source material when talking about finding the emotional beats in a scene, or understanding the power and necessity of specificity.
When directing live theater at Playwrights Horizons in New York over 10 years ago, it was during rehearsal for a revival of Charles Ludlams Medea that I first realized how much I relied on Frank and Ollies approach to acting in my directing. The lead actor, playing Medea in this very broad comic turn on the classic, was having a devil of a time understanding how to play a moment of terrifyingly powerful madness while staying almost motionless and still. Go watch Lady Tremaine in Cinderella, I told him. Shes the very model of threatening and powerful while barely moving a muscle. And watch it with the sound off, I told him.
Confused that I would advise him to watch a cartoon, and without any sound to boot, the actor reluctantly shook his head and rather begrudgingly took the note. The next night, at the final dress rehearsal he came in bursting with enthusiasm WOW! That Wicked Step Mother is fantastic! I watched the whole thing twice, with the volume all the way down both times! Those cartoonists (sic) are awesome! And so every night for the run of the show, there was Franks Lady Tremain slowly, carefully, almost deliberately shifting quietly from panicked to powerful making a decision that was as chilling as it was wildly funny. That dress rehearsal was when I began to think about teaching acting and story analysis to animators.
But my favorite memory of Frank is from a night when Frank, along with Ollie, attended my friend John Canemakers lecture tour for his book on The Nine Old Men. Frank was seated on the aisle and I took a few minutes to go over and sit next to him to catch up and to listen and watch him light up with excitement while he talked about the Frank & Ollie Website and the success of unleashing their knowledge via the information highway. Suddenly, in almost cartoonish fashion, a young fellow came racing down the aisle and skidded to halt just behind Frank. I stood up and stepped aside to watch as he whispered, Mr. Thomas? wide eyed and reverent. Yes? Frank said, as he craned his head around to see chap of about 10 years of age in a smart looking blazer, Oh, Mr. Thomas, he said breathlessly, rapidly gaining speed with each word he spoke, I think you are the most amazing artist in the world and Ive been a fan of your work my entire life!!! Frank paused and stared at our young hero intently, Oh, you have, have you!? Well whats your name? It suddenly dawned on our dapper young friend that here was the opportunity he had waited for his entire life! With the precision of a soldier taking an audience with his most beloved general, he snapped to attention and thrust his hand forward announcing, Im John! Well, nice to meet you, John!! replied Frank, as he met the outstretched hand with an equally enthusiastic thrust and a firm grip, and let loose with an avuncular laugh that filled the auditorium.
I saw in that moment both a humbled and a pride-filled Frank Thomas. He was as eager to be idolized as he was willing to be accessible to mere mortals who came to bask in the warmth of his smile. I willingly confess to being such a pilgrim who, like so many others, owes him an everlasting debt of gratitude for inspiration, motivation and joy that only a great actor can give to his audience. Quite possibly the greatest actor the American cinema has ever produced.
I would just like to chime in a little bit about Frank Thomas, next to the last of The Nine Old Men. It was fortunate to learn animation technique from the creators of their form by studying The Illusion of Life from cover to cover and also all the classic animated films from Disney. Frank and his partner Ollie Johnston took the right approach to impart their magic and tremendous insight to generations of aspiring animators and fans through their books and mentoring to help pass on their legacy of creating life from drawings. Illusion had the most profound influence on me in learning this craft. Frank, in particular, had the right idea on how to make a character come alive. I only regret that the only opportunity I had to meet him personally at the Drawn Together presentation last year didnt pan out, much as I had tried to make it there. God bless Frank and The Nine Old Men.
REMEMBERING FRANK THOMAS Weeping dwarfs, a string-less marionette, an ice-skating fawn and rabbit, a neurotic pirate, love-sick squirrels, a haughty doorknob, romantic canines, a fatherly bear and Mickey Mouse. Those are among the varied characters brought to glorious life on the screen by one of the greatest animators of all time: Frank Thomas.
Thanks to Franks golden skills as an actor his subtle timing, innate good taste and relentless striving for quality and entertainment many of his sequences are now considered classics. For example, Lady and the Tramp s spaghetti dinner and first date is a Disney icon of young love and romance.
Frank was also a pioneer. His personality animation of the seven dwarfs grieving and mourning over Snow White stretched the mediums emotional potential further than many thought possible.
And his work always had enormous audience appeal. Frank was able to imbue his considerable personal charm, keen intelligence and self-effacing good humor into any cartoon lucky enough to receive his attention, be it villain or hero. His Captain Hooks personality is emotionally three-dimensional; and Mickey Mouses star turns in Brave Little Tailor and The Pointer are among his most subtle and sincere performances, thanks to Franks magic.
I was privileged to experience Frank Thomass charm and intelligence up close, for he was a close friend and mentor for over 30 years. His genius as a filmmaker was equaled by his genius for making friends and keeping them.
I recall with admiration his patience; his curiosity and respect for all aspects and areas of life; his constant striving for quality and perfection whether on the screen or in the influential books on animation he wrote with Ollie Johnston; his kindness and generosity; his never-failing sense of humor and appreciation of the absurd; his blazing honesty. He cared enough to always tell me the truth as he saw it about my films and writings and I am grateful for that.
Frank Thomas legacy is captured forever in the great Disney films he contributed so profoundly to, but also in the hearts of those who of us who miss him dearly.
Animation Director, Rhythm & Hues Studios
When I was accepted into the animators training program at Disney in 1977, Frank & Ollie were still in their office in the studio working on The Illusion of Life. Although they werent animating, they were always available to talk about animation. Two aspects of Frank were apparent: he was always open to new ideas, and he was dedicated to finding the best way to pass his animation experience on to us, the younger generation. He would give us chapters of the book to read, saying, This book is meant for you. One day I asked him to look at a scene I had animated, and to my surprise, he mentioned our meeting in a talk he gave that night at the Cartoonists Union. He said I had shown him a scene that was full of good animation too full! He said that I, as a young animator, had made a mistake an old animator like him was less likely to make. That is, trying to jam too much into a scene. Frank said that because old animators were too lazy to do more work than necessary, they always analyzed a scene to be sure that the performance they animated was the right one, without unnecessary, superfluous or distracting detail.
Only Frank Thomas, one of the most conscientious and prolific animators in history, could characterize laziness as a positive trait. In fact, the irony of the comment had its effect, and Ive never forgotten that lesson. As my animation experience evolved from hand-drawn animation to computer graphics, I saw the spirit and wisdom of Franks lesson evolve as well. Heaping the complexity of science and technology on a scene does not add to the entertainment, or the illusion of life.
Franks art was about illusion, but his legacy will always remain as real and enduring as the young artists who remember him.
3D Artist and Animator, Owner of Pixel Cartoon
I am an Italian 3D artist and animator, owner of Pixel Cartoon, an animation production company in the north of Italy. When I was in animation school in Milan, the first and best images I tried to emulate was the ones by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston and I must say that the first book I bought as a student was the incredible Illusion of Life. I had the pleasure and honor to meet Frank Thomas in an Italian comics and cartoons meeting in Lucca, in 1992. It was his 80th birthday and he came to Italy with Ollie Johnston to celebrate it with us, comics and cartoon fans of all ages (it was Ollie 80th birthday year, too, as you can see from the photo we are eating the birthday cake). You know, when I spoke to him, but just staying beside him, it was as staying beside a giant, even if both he and Ollie were not so healthy in that period. Many memories came to my mind but the time was short and so I could only ask him a couple of questions: he was always gentle and available to everyone, I think this was his best quality, together with his incredible knowledge of drawing and animation. I will miss you, Frank.
Animator, Treasure Planet and Fantasia/2000
I had the pleasure of having Frank Thomas as a friend and mentor for over 25 years.
He and Ollie Johnston went to great lengths to help young students learn the art form that they had helped create and continued to love.
They were particularly kind to female students (there werent many of us in those days.)
Disney Animation The Illusion of Life is the greatest gift Frank and Ollie could make to animators. There were other beautifully written and illustrated books by this fine team and later, a Website to continue the grand tradition of character animation.
Franks greatest monuments are his wonderful performancesso many of my favorite moments in the Disney features are his, such as Pinocchio singing I Got No Strings, Bambi skating on the ice, Baloo the bear trying to explain things to Mowgli, and Captain Hook fooling Tinker Bell. If there was any justice in the world, or at least in the Academy, Frank Thomas would have won many Best Actor Oscars. He was one of the greatest actors who never stepped in front of a camera.
I am proud to have known this remarkable man. But then, we all know him through his work. I shall remember Frank Thomas whenever I see any of his filmsor whenever I see a spaghetti dinner. Thank you, Frank, for everything.
AWN Educators Forum Moderator and President, Norm Drew Animation Consulting Services, The Academy of Classical Animation
HOMAGE TO A MASTER: FRANK THOMAS A very sad day as weve lost one of animations Great Masters and Statesmen; but we can take some comfort in knowing his magic lives on.
We can also be grateful he and Ollie took the time to set down so much about the Secret Ingredients of their Sorcerers Alchemy for all we starry-eyed Sorcerers Apprentices.
A life greatly fulfilled.
A life that greatly fulfilled the lives of us all, not just animation artists, but people everywhere, transcending culture, language and beliefs.
His marvelous skill with delightful character ACTING animation was a major early influence on my own decision to pursue animation as a career.
His legacy of masterpieces will continue to inspire us all, in whatever aspect of animation we are involved.
Well miss his presence among us beyond words, but at least can treasure his art and vision forever.
To paraphrase architect Sir Christopher Wrens epitaph: If you seek his monument, study his animation.
Animation Director, Ice Age
When I was experimenting in character animation in CG the mid `80s, Frank was around and I got to talk to him. The great thing about Frank was that he and Ollie together had enthusiasm for what was new in animation. And I think they as some of the original Nine Old Men had more of an awareness for what the future of animation was supposed to be than the studio at that point. There seemed to be a resistance for going into computers for character animation at Disney and Frank and Ollie seemed to embrace it and were just fascinated by it. They used to come by Ohio State University where I was for a few years making shorts and they couldnt get over what we were doing. It was limited by comparison to what they had been able to do over their careers, but they saw the potential and they were extremely supportive.
Frank helped all of us, I think, kind of quantify all of the knowledge and wisdom that had come out of Disney. Without question, it was Frank and Ollie that just made that stuff clear to everybody. They put their 12 principles down in The Illusion of Life and it was something we always checked against, something we all started teaching withsomething we started measuring our own work against. To me, its difficult to break down other peoples work it always has been. Its easier to think of the animation from the inside out, but I always get a kick out when Frank showed us some of his Captain Hook stuff one night. It just opened my eyes to all the life you can put in one animated character. And I think it was at that point that I realized animation is so much better than live action. Its just more expressive than the motion in our world.
Not surprisingly, the many articles that appeared after the death of Frank Thomas focused primarily on his work at the Walt Disney Studio. Few of his admirers that knew Frank spent most of World War II not at Disney, but at the 18th Air Force Base Unit (First Motion Picture Unit) in Culver City, making training films for the military.
In an interview conducted 20 years ago, Frank told me he joined the military because I was single, vulnerable and had no children. Although Walt had said, `Now dont you go enlisting, I can keep you. I volunteered in `42, just as the unit was being organized.
Frank obviously took great pride in what must have been one of the most effective films the animation unit produced, Position Firing.
A man came to us because he needed a film to explain the idea that when you fire from a bomber, you cant aim where you think the attacking plane is, you have to aim where it will be when your bullet gets there, Frank recalled. He said, `Its taking four or five days for the men to get this concept in the classroom. We believe that a film can get it across to them in a few minutes: Do you think you can make one? Being young and cocky, we said, `Sure. Fortunately, we were able to.
To explain the concept, the artists came up with a story about a waist gunner they named Trigger Joe. We tried to make him appealing, not too bright, but dedicated to what he was doing we didnt want to put in anything that would upset the real waist gunners, Frank said. Mel Blanc did the voice, and everyone who saw the film got the concept within its ten minute length. It speeded up their training time. Finding the key that would hold the audiences attention and help them understand something gave us a lot of satisfaction.
Position Firing also enjoyed a success outside the classroom. When it was put in the 10 cent viewing machines in the Fort Meyers commissary, the soldiers preferred it to the Dinah Shore music shorts that were also available.
The artists made Position Firing in about 10 weeks a tighter schedule than Frank and the other Disney artists were used to. But not every film went as smoothly or proved as popular. Franks mischievous sense of humor showed when he told me about another FMPU picture.
An officer in the engineers wanted a Disney-type film about camouflage. So I went out to March Field and looked at a lot of things and talked to them. But the picture had like a `C priority and all these higher priority pictures kept coming in, he said. When there was nothing else to work on, wed drag out the camouflage pictureit sat around for almost the whole war. The guys used to joke that I was going to teach the kid who came around selling `Colliers once a month to in-between so he could work on the camouflage picture. I said, `Ill take anyone I can get!
Animator Helsinki, Finland
Frank Thomas represented the Disney Studio at the Animation Festival in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, in 1974, where a Disney retrospective was shown. There I met him for the first time, when I was just beginning my own animation career at age 23.
I will always remember Frank as a dear friend and mentor, and cherish the correspondence (dozens and dozens of letters, all saved), and especially the memories of the several times I met him during our 30-year acquaintance. Especially dear in my memory is the time when Frank, with his wife Jeanette, and Marie and Ollie Johnston, visited Helsinki, Finland, back in the summer of 1985.
Without Franks invaluable help, I would not have been able to roam free around the Disney studio, or visit WED in Glendale and see the amazing work being done for Disneyland, or get an inside connection to the animation department (which later led to Disney acquiring my Animac pencil test program for their animators use during a few years in the early 1990s).
In Franks many letters (as well as in the books he wrote together with Ollie) I received much needed and very valuable advice over the years. He always had a friendly word in his letters. His criticism of my work and my ideas was always acute, but never harsh Frank was always frank, helpful, encouraging and educational. Im grateful for his candor and integrity, it helped me immensely in my career.
Franks contribution to Jazz music, as a member of Ward Kimballs Firehouse Five Plus Two dixieland band, must not be forgotten. I vividly remember an impromptu lunch hour jazz/dixie session during one of the first of my visits to the Disney studio in Burbank these lunch hour improvisations gathered many of the studio personnel, either to perform themselves, or just enjoy the happy feeling.
The world has lost one of the most influential creators of the classical genre of hand drawn animation. Frank took the animation art to its pinnacle with the emotion-filled animation in Bambi, Pinocchio, Lady and the Tramp and many more performances, which have never been surpassed, and probably never will be. They are the best sources of inspiration an animator can ever have, even if one can never even dream of reaching that level oneself.
Frank, during the Golden Age of Disney animation, made his drawings really vibrantly alive, to live their own, independent life on the screen. Fortunately, his legacy lives on, on film and video, for generations still unborn to watch and be enchanted by.
Frank was an actor with a pencil, one of the very best, and his immortal work is being appreciated more and more as the years pass by.
Animation Director at The Gang of Seven, President Emeritus, The Animation Guild Local 839 Hollywood and Disney Animator 1987-1995
The first time I met Frank Thomas along with Ollie was when they appeared at the Disney Studio 50th Anniversary film festival at Lincoln Center, New York, in 1973. Woolie Reitherman and Ken Anderson were there was well and they ran rough pencil test reels from Robin Hood.
I was a pimply-faced skinny freshman at the School of Visual Arts, determined to be an animation artist. Now here were all these Disney guys visiting from Hollywood! They were showing real rough animation! Layouts by Ken OConnor, roughs by Milt Kahl! This was not just move it from A to B stuff, this was the real thing, real personality animation in its truest form!
I would have loved to have taken a photo of the seminar waiting line standing out onto Amsterdam Ave. It would show a number of familiar faces in animation: John Canemaker, Leonard Maltin, Jerry Beck, Eric Goldberg, Howard Beckerman, Yvette Kaplan, Tissa David, Nancy Beiman, Mike Sporn and many more. I got to shake hands with Frank backstage. I was terrified and barely spoke. He was warm and gracious.
During the seminar at one point he said something that stuck with me. He said: It takes five years to make an animator. At the time I thought I know a lot of guys who got animator jobs out of school already. What does he mean? Only later when I was a professional artist did I get what he was trying to teach us. Its not that from the time you start in five years you will make animator, its that from the TIME you are promoted to animator it will take five years to really BE an animator! That it will take time at your craft to master all and not be intimidated by the challenge of your assignments.
As the years go by I find this concept very profound. It goes with Chuck Jones assertion that the title of animator should not be assumed but rewarded you are not really an animator until an older respected animator says you are. Too many people today are running around calling themselves animator with very little to show for it. The title of animator is not a tedious step between modeling and rendering. The name animator a title to be aspired to, and once bestowed is a mark of your achievement. To Frank Thomas to make animator was not just a temporary stepping-stone to director or live action. To be an animator was the best title one could aspire to. Frank and his kind established a gold standard of quality that we may never equal, but he invites us all to try. Adieu, Frank. Thanks for all the memories and the advice. Your work and your example assure that you will never be forgotten.
Author of The Animators Workbook
I only met Frank once way back when I was directing and animating for Richard Williams in London. Things were unusually slack at the time so I was working on my personal film, Hokusai An Animated Sketchbook. We had been warned of Franks arrival so, not having any studio work to show him, I was at a loss as to what to say to him should he appear. He did with Richard Williams. Seeing Frank striding towards me I was at a loss to explain the weird oriental-style drawings on my desk whereupon he suddenly blurted out Hokusai! One of my favorite artists! We then spend an all-too-short time together, discussing Hokusais art, my film and the animation world in general. I found him to be delightful, fascinating and one of the most eloquent and likeable people I had ever met. Now, all these years later, when I am working on my second only personal film, Endangered Species (ironically a 10-minute homage to the work of Walt, Frank and their contemporaries), I am so sad that I will now never ever get the chance to show it to him in its final form or even thank him for all the magic he has brought into our world. Perhaps, in some strange and mysterious way, he will get to see it from his great animation desktop in the sky where just maybe he will have met Hokusai and shared together the wonderful work they have both brought into our world? Thank you for everything Frank. That pencil looks so desperately lonely without you!
Animation Art Conservator
While we lost Frank Thomas in September 2004, I think it can be said that Frank like many a great artist before him can be found within the body of work. Maybe the search for Franks real gift, his legacy, can be found within his choices, how went about tackling a scene in the broad strokes and within the details.
For starters, foremost, Frank Thomas was an animator who drew with the subtle understanding of an actor. A lot has been said that Frank was Walts favorite when it came to drafting scenes that required genuine feeling, like the scene where the seven dwarfs sob over Snow Whites lifeless body or the intricate (even if it feels so casual) interplay between Lady and Tramp during the Belle Notte sequence. Sincerity of emotion never felt so honest as it did when rendered by Frank.
The same attention as it relates to leading an audience through careful observation of how characters behave can be seen throughout Franks work. In the Ive Got No Strings sequence in Pinocchio, Thomas made decisions in advance of doing his drawings regarding the gamut of emotions that might wash over Pinocchios face. Naivety. Insecurity. Embarrassment. Surprise.
Thomas sifts through all of these emotions, layering them like an oil painter, letting certain feelings surface, then retreat and then resurface again. From insecurity of being newly onstage, to the joy that comes from gaining a little confidence while dancing, to having a small occurrence of self doubt, back to a full blown bout of joy that occurs as Pinocchio gains confidence while conquering his performance.
Balancing the nuisances of these emotions as they ebb and flow across Pinocchios face with such evolving accuracy is no small trick. It takes more than the ability to draft a puppet dancing on stage. It takes someone with the empathy to understand what it might be like for that character in that situation and to put those feelings and expressions properly into every aspect of his drawings.
And, if drafting his characters with emotion were not enough, there is another element to Thomas work that you can see during this same sequence from Pinocchio. That element is the juxtaposition of comedy in small places to add a subconscious layer of action to the scene. Often done during the middle of another larger action (in this case, Pinocchio gaining confidence as he learns to dance), Thomas plays with the idea that wooden marionettes are made of separate pieces of wood holding their own individual weight. Their parts often they move independently of the puppeteer.
Despite Pinocchio having no problem moving around the stage like a small boy, and despite the absence of any strings on him to create this action, his left leg and then both legs start to sway independently as he dances near the beginning of the Ive Got No Strings sequence. This addition to his dancing movement not only lends a more solid sense of his physically still being a wooden puppet, but also adds an unexpected element of comedy as it is clear that Pinocchio is not as in control of his movements as he might think.
This playful bit, which originally served to add some humor to Pinocchios early dance steps, becomes Thomas point of reference toward the end of the sequence as the weight of Pinocchios legs during his final dance step sends him hurling into a row of Russian Cossack puppets concluding the scene.
In ways like this, Frank Thomas was like a master orchestra conductor selecting from the elements of emotion and comedy and accentuating from those elements, as he liked, to create a fully realized performance. In the forefront of his mind, Frank always thought before he drew, with the intent to use every trick at his disposal to capture, as he most eloquently put it, the illusion of that characters life.
President of The Answer Studio, Japan and Former VP and General Manager of Walt Disney Animation (Japan) Inc.
The passing of Frank Thomas is a big loss for us Japanese as well. Frank Thomas and The Nine Old Men of Disney were great teachers who taught us everything about animation.
The lively actions of villainous Captain Hook (Peter Pan) the romantic moment of two dogs sharing a string of spaghetti (Lady and the Tramp) those scenes will never fade, and will last in my memories forever.
Walt Disney Animation (Japan) was closed in June 2004 after producing many animations for theaters, videos and TV. Among them, 101 Dalmatians 2 is said to be the best piece we produced. All of the Japan staff put their blood into this work, and we were very proud of what we created. We received a lot of admiration from Americans, and even words saying that we could have reached the level of the original 101 Dalmatians if we had had more time. But I thought that is not true.
The masterpiece The Nine Old Men created is far beyond reach in all respects. As well as being the pioneer in this field, they had so much affections and ardor in what they created, and we can still see it, feel it in every scene they made.
Animation has become more business oriented these days, and everyone has to work under enormous time and budget constraints. Forming a new animation studio after the close of Walt Disney Animation (Japan), I am facing a dilemma everyday. Is it impossible to have the luxury to put all the affections and ardor in the works we are doing? The passing of Frank Thomas casts such a question to me.
Professor, Animation Department, Savannah College of Art and Design
Id be most honored to share my remembrances of Frank with you. In 1977, I applied at Disney and was hired by the Studio as an Animator Trainee. I was trained during the time Frank, Ollie Johnston, Eric Larson and Woolie Reitherman were still working in the department and were on the review board. They all became friends and mentors to the artists on what was then a small staff of 65.
It was with the help of those great artists that those of us who came in were given the instruction that set us up for a career as animators. When I started working as an animator on my first feature, The Fox and the Hound, I would run into Frank and Ollie on a daily basis while they were busily collecting graphic materials and doing research on their first book, Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life. Besides that, there were weekly jam sessions on one of the sound stages during the noon hour, with Frank belting out great Dixieland on the piano with a group of studio musicians.
In the early 80s, Frank called me at the studio and asked id I would like to appear with he and Ollie in a TV special they were doing on the then-new Disney Cable Network. He and Ollie had remembered one of the trainee tests Id submitted to the board for promotion. It had a pretty gruesome scene of a vain actor pulling out his false teeth, and those guys thought it was a good piece of entertainment. We spent a couple of pleasant days at the old Chaplin Studio shooting the show, and Ive always cherished the time I spent getting involved in conversations with the guys between takes.
I went on to a career at Disney that extended for 24 years, and can credit those years to the help and inspiration of those who mentored me in my beginnings there. Frank was a mentor in the best sense, passing along not only knowledge, but a true sense of the wonderful combination of great talent that was the Disney Studio of the Classic Era.
Former Vice-Chairman of the Walt Disney Co.
Frank was always there in my life I was a kid walking up and down the halls. From my own personal point of view, its like losing family. Although Frank was not your aggressive gatherer of friends, he had a million friends. And it just happened because thats the way he was, I think. People gathered around him because he was so smart and so clever and so willing to share his knowledge and his ability and his talent and his humor, which was kind of sly. He had a sort of a wicked little grin. You knew you had to be laughing but then realized that the joke was on me. And, of course, its really hard to talk about Frank without Ollie because of that tremendous partnership they had over the years.
I think the fondest memory we all had together was the year of The Black Cauldron in `85. Frank and Ollie were honored by the Venice Film Festival and somehow or another Patti and I took Frank and Ollie and their wives to Venice, and we had like five or six days there, and went to all these art shows and movies and ate in incredible places, and I think enjoyed the Italian wine on a regular basis. So that whole time is just a warm, hazy memory, and I dont think there ever was a time since then when either Frank or Ollie didnt say, God, didnt we have a wonderful time in Venice.
Academy Award-winning Animator and Author
Frank was already one of the kings of animation when I first met him in 1946, when I was a green apprentice at UPA Hollywood. I was already an amateur sound recording bug, and had a crude acetate disc recorder the first on the market after WW2. Frank was then a member of Ward Kimballs proto jazz band, then going by the name, The San Gabriel Valley Blue Blowers, I recorded them on those flimsy acetate discs in the echoey UPA projection room, and they remain among my great treasures.
Many, many years later, Frank and Ollie came to Prague, to do their thing for the benefit of the Czech animators. I had already been working here in Prague for a long time, and their appearance here led to an enduring friendship by correspondence. I was honored to be on the mailing lists of both titans, right up to the present.
I dont suppose that anyone will miss Frank more than Ollie the two having become almost one but certainly all of us who toil in the world of frame-by-frame filmmaking will remember with enduring gratefulness all that Frank has enriched us with.
Chair of Animation, Laguna College
As a student/professional (Square USA/ILM/independent) I have been inspired over and over by the incredible insight and passion Frank Thomas has generously brought to our industry.
As an educator I have been able to use Mr. Thomass words in hundreds of useful ways to teach the next generation of future stars! There are few lessons I teach were Frank Thomass name/quote or drawing are not used as an example of the highest reachable goals! His dedication to our art form is a standard I strive for when developing our animation program.
Thank you Frank,
We will miss you dearly,
Your lifes work will live on through the students we teach!
Im a Portuguese animator. I never knew Mr. Frank personally, and Im nobody special, I dont even have a special talent for animation, I just love to do it and to draw.
One more dream of mine is lost with the death of Mr. Frank. I just wanted to hold his hand and say thanks for all his drawings that magically came to life. I guess that now I can only look at sky, pick the most beautiful star that I can see, say thanks, and hope that wherever he is he listens to it.
Mr. Frank was always one of my favorite animators from The Nine Old Man. The legacy of work that he leaves as a master Disney artist and as a teacher is truly amazing. His work will never cease to inspire anyone that truly loves animation. He will never be forgotten by the animation community all over the world.
Thanks Mr. Frank thanks a lot for all these years of magic
Veteran Disney Animator
My name is Andreas Deja. Im an animator with Walt Disney Studios. And this isnt going to be easy because there is a lot of things that can be said about an artist like Frank Thomas. I remember very well when I met Frank and Ollie for the he first time. It was in the old animation building on the lot and they were working on their first book, The Illusion of Life. What an incredible thrill it was to have a conversation with them, because these were people whose names that had ran in the credits. There they were Frank and Ollie and I actual would talk with them.
The frustrating thing was I was about to start at Disney a few months after that in 1980. And I realized that with Frank and Ollie doing their books, I wouldnt get the chance to work with them. So I thought, Darn it, I really am starting here a few years too late. They had a training program in the `70s, but I was not part of that because I was in Germany studying art.
So I just missed them. So I thought that because they were still in town I could maybe still ask them questions. Act with them. Socialize with them. Ask them out to dinners. So thats what I did.
Its very interesting that with someone like Frank Thomas you didnt just talk to him about animation. Frank has so many interests and so many points of views. It was fascinating. You could talk to Frank about food. You could to him about music. You could to him about space travel or whatever you wanted. He would always have an interesting observation.
When it came to animation though you better have a good question. Because I remember I heard a story that Frank had given a lecture back East in the `70s on animation. And here was a question asked, So Mr. Thomas, how many cels did you paint on Pinocchio? And Frank apparently just turned his head and said, Next question.
So what that basically means is you dont waste somebodys time if you dont know what youre talking about. But if you do and you were generally interested in animation, Frank gave you all his time.
And we had a lot of dinners over the years and I was able to ask him so many questions. And Frank really opened up. He wouldnt just talk about the good times, but also the bad times. And it was interesting to me because you look at the movies and you think they had all the time in the world. And it was easy, but it wasnt always easy.
Just think about World War II when they were working on things like Bambi and Fantasia and Dumbo and so forth. These are classics now, but some of them flopped the first time when they came out. They flopped at the box office. So how do you deal with that as an artist? So that whole time after World War II it was difficult for them, because they only did shorts. They didnt even do features. Frank was talking about difficult assignments that he didnt think he could tackle. Drawing problems.
So all that made this thing called Disney animation so human to me. It wasnt as abstract any more. It helped me with my own problems at the studio that I had just to see they had problems too. And they always fell back on their feet and maybe I can too.
So we all know that Frank was great at analyzing things. Even at the strangest times. I visited him in the hospital last year and Frank had been, the day before, sanitized and given some drugs and I saw him the day after. So he was up and talking. And he was fascinated with the surreal dreams that he had had when he was gone.
So he told everybody, Look at that picture [of those flowers in a vase] Those red flowers yesterday, they were a bunch of soldiers in red uniforms. And that blue stripe over there was a huge rainstorm that came over these soldiers. And he was creating this scenario and was really into analyzing this surreal dream. It was absolutely fascinating.
My continuous question over the years really was how do you achieve such greatness? What do you think were the elements? And Franks answer was usually kind of simple We worked very hard. We observed a lot. We analyzed. And, of course, we had Walt.
And its a burning question and I really wanted to know more and more about this. I talked to Ollie about this and to all the other animators. And last year, I was talking to a friend of mine Lisa Davis, who did voices for the original 101 Dalmatians. So I asked Lisa, What did you think? Why do you think these classics are so incredible? What is it? And she said, Andreas, its because the artists put their heart into it. And what comes from the heart goes to the art.
It sounds like a simplistic answer, but, if you really think about it, its basically what it is. If you think about Franks art and how it hits you and how much soul it has, it really comes from the heart.
Author of The Disney Films and Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons
THE YOUNGEST MAN I EVER MET The quality that always struck me most about Frank Thomas was his youthfulness. In recent years, he and Ollie Johnston looked like what they wereold menbut they never acted that way. Even after suffering a stroke, Frank refused to surrender his upbeat outlook on life, and installed an old-fashioned bicycle horn on his walker, which he honked with great glee.
I always wondered how he and his Disney colleagues who formed the Dixieland band The Firehouse Five Plus Two could work evening gigs and still be productive in the morning. When I asked Frank about this, he claimed that on those days when he showed up, dragging his tail, his fatigue actually loosened up his drawing style. I suppose this is one more instance of a man turning a potential negative into a positive.
When he and Ollie retired from animating, they (again) found a way to transform what could have been a hole in their lives into something quite different. By writing their book, The Illusion of Life, they not only gave themselves a mission; they embarked on another fruitful chapter in their careers by becoming teachers, mentors and spokesmen for the art of animation. In retrospect this transition might seem obvious, but it probably wasnt at the time. Their talks started out as promotional appearances for the book, but eventually rose to another level of influence and importance. Ask any young would-be animator who listened to them, and heard what they had to say.
(Consider, too, the way Frank and Ollie developed an ability to discuss their craft, clearly and without a reliance on insiders jargon. Few artists in any discipline are able to talk about their own work, let alone communicate its many facets with such clarityand charm.)
We spoke on many occasions, the first time on a lovely hillside in Yugoslavia during the Zagreb Animation Festival in 1974, the last in his living room in the summer of 2004, and I cannot recall ever seeing him without a smile on his face.
I cannot believe that this positive point of view didnt have a tremendous effect on his work, and the way he was able to imbue his characters with life.
Leonard Maltins interview with Ollie Johnston
LM: As your friend, the word you used to describe Frank Thomas most was that he was a true person.
OJ: It was hard to keep up with that. When we were doing our comedy it was easier to use the others guys stuff rather than my stuff, because he was so good at it. He had it so easy knowing what was needed in each situation where I had to struggle. I thought, Should I do this or should I go like that? and he always had the right feeling. I always envied him. He was such a good draftsman in addition to all of that.
LM: So tell me how you and Frank meet?
OJ: Well, my dad told me about this class where I could find out what I was good at. So I went down to the class and was standing there on the sidewalk by a pillar. And Frank and some other guys were there and I didnt know Frank from Adam. And then before you know this head comes around the pillar and says, Hi, Im Frank Thomas. And I thought, Gee whiz, whos Frank Thomas. And that was the beginning of a friendship that lasted still lasts as far as Im concerned up until he passed on. We worked together and studied together and it was hard to lose a friend.
LM: Do you remember what Frank was like when he was [young]?
OJ: The first thing I remember about Frank was that he had a [high] mop of hair which I had never seen hair like that. That was the beginning of our friendship and we stayed together at Stanford for two years then we went south to work in Los Angeles. It didnt take long to see that he was learning so much and that he was eager to work and eager to help me. So I changed my course and went with him. He was a wonderful guy to talk with. He had wonderful way of talking. It turned out whenever we were talking he would talk about something that was honest and what he believed in. It is unique to have thoughts continually like that. He was so brave about it and so honest. I cant tell you how much he helped me. He would analyze things.
LM: When you were spending all those years working as animators, did you ever think youd be spending your later years teaching and mentoring other people? Explaining animation to the rest of us in your books and lectures and appearances?
OJ: Its hard to do unless you have a regular class. But whenever I had a chance I would talk with people and I would always direct them to the type of thing that Frank did or use his way. When I would visit him in the morning at his house, we would talk about the flow of feelings and how to make the best out of this. And wed try to help students with this. Frank was also so clear with his thoughts, without making it obvious. He was always to the point and would open up new ways for these characters to think and advance themselves.
LM: Clear is the word. What you right in your book and what you say to people you really know how to explain animation to a layman like me or to students who want to pursue animation. Because its a mystery to many of us, and you guys did it and can example it to us.
OJ: Its a wonderful thing to do if you can make it work. Its a wonderful way to study and a wonderful way to make your life. I gave my whole life to it really, because I believed in it. And I believed I could help other people. I believed if I saw clearly, Id think about what my character was doing that would make this character come to life and feel what was going on in his life. And thats not easy to do. But that is what I was striving to do and Frank would come into my room and wed talk about that and then go back each and work some more. Then wed talk some more about how this character was brought to life by making it move a certain way. That was such a wonderful thing and Im so glad that I had that experience.
AWN greatly thanks all who participated in this wonderful remembrance.