Ollie Johnston, The great, life long Disney animator and author, passed away yesterday at the ripe old age of 95. (not too shabby!)
Not only was he a great artist and a talented animator, He was a really nice guy who
will always hold a special place in my heart for his kindness, generosity, and unbridled enthusiasm for all things, but especially character animation. When I finally got to meet him and spend some time with him back in 1987, I realized that this was a man who wanted to keep this "handed down" Art Form going long past his time, and that he was committed to do "whatever it took" to make that happen. The result of this tenacity was the incredible series of books solely dedicated to fine art of character animation and it's secrets, starting with the grand-daddy of all animation books, Disney Animation, The Illusion of Life ,which debuted in 1981. Many folks don't know that before that book came out ,
there was really no other authoritative reference published on the Disney processes.
Only The Art of Walt Disney and a few others touched on the basic work flow, but left out all of the real secrets of the art. The only other references I can remember were the Preston Blair animation book, and The Animation Book by Kit Laybourne, which featured independent animators and their mediums, but gave little specialized technique. So that's what makes Ollie's (and Frank's) contributions so much more valuable today.
I was working in a gas station back in 1987 whilst I attended animation classes on the weekends. I would draw in-between customers and my wife called and said that Frank and Ollie were at the mall signing books. I got a guy to cover for me and I went over, in uniform, with my already tattered 1st edition of Illusion of life to get signed and some sketchbooks. Because it was a Tuesday afternoon at 2pm, There were not a lot of folks at the Barnes and Noble when I walked in. Then I saw Ollie sitting at a table signing copies of "Too Funny for Words", his new collaboration with Frank Thomas. I noticed Frank was not there, but Ollie's wife, Marie, and some other family were sitting behind. I introduced myself and inquired on Frank. " He's not feeling well today, so he stayed home". I then asked if he would sign my "Illusion" and "Too Funny" books, but was embarrassed because I had already really worn them out from studying and copying drawings and such. The cover was faded, torn, and falling off and the pages were all "post-it" covered from previous reference. He was so tickled by the fact that someone was actually using his book that much, that he asked me to sit down and visit for the remainder of his time there. So for almost 2 and half hours I got to sit down with Ollie and look through the two books with him and ask him all kinds of questions and listen to his philosophies on animation and such. I showed him some of my draw-rings and he was very encouraging.
We talked about trains and Walt Disney and I asked him to tell me a good Walt Disney story. He said that one afternoon after WWII, Ollie, Frank, and another animator were in the hallway near the bathroom in the animation building complaining "out loud" about the film they were working on. It was one of the package features that combined smaller stories into one long film.
Ollie said they were wanting to get back to better stories, and that the other guy said someone should kick Walt "in the ass" to set him straight. Just then the bathroom door flew open and there was Walt, who promptly turned around and bent over and said "Okay, fellas, take your best shot". He said you could have heard a pin drop. Everyone was speechless. Then Walt said to the guys " I'm gonna go to the bank now and beg for your payroll," any of you guys want to go for me instead of standing around doing nothing?" Doh....back to work I guess.
Anyhoo..It was one of the best experiences of my life and thanks to Frank and Ollie, we can all benefit from their inspired art and teachings forever and ever. I was very fortunate to have met 5 of the "Nine Old Men" including Eric Larson, Frank Thomas, Marc Davis, and Ward Kimball. They seemed like very different people who all spoke the same language. And what a joyous language it is. God Bless you, Ollie, you were one of the good ones. My most sincere condolences to the Johnston family and all those who really knew Ollie well.
Ollie loved trains...
never "too old" to be silly
Ollie Draw-rings from Dalmations..he said " It's the contact that proves they are real"
"Rufus" from the rescuers was inspired and animated by Johnston himself.
The books we looked through together..in '87
The tattered remains of an Animation Masterpiece signed by the author.