April 15th, 2008

Tom Lehrer is Smug

Farewell to the Nine Old Men

Word has come down the tubes that Ollie Johnston, venerable animator, artist and the last surviving member of Walt Disney's "Nine Old Men", has died at the age of 95. The Nine Old Men were Disney's hand-picked core animation team, charged with the task of producing most of the animation for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which in the mid-1930s was known as Disney's folly. (I mean, imagine, someone trying to gather the resources and manpower to produce, of all things, a feature-length animated film! It'll never fly! Don't sell the bike shop!) Of course, once the film was released and Hollywood fell in love with it and it made a million zillion trillion bucks, nobody thought it was much of a folly anymore.

The Nine (the "Old Men" nickname was a riff on Franklin D. Roosevelt's own pet name for the members of the Supreme Court) would go on to help create all the major Disney animated features, and then some, for over 40 years. Johnston animated characters such as Prince John, Mr. Smee and Sir Hiss; his passion for railroads (along with Ward Kimball's) got Walt all fired up about the hobby, in some ways leading to the evolution of Disneyland. Woolie Reitherman went on to direct the features after Walt's death. Ward Kimball was a true nut, never conforming to any one style, always bringing energy and a manic edge to his work. Marc Davis had an eye for design and showmanship, not only in animation but in Disney's real-world endeavors as well; as Imagineer, he designed both the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean for Disneyland. Eric Larson went on to train the new crop of Disney animators in the 1970s and 1980s. Milt Kahl animated many lead characters, from Peter Pan to Tigger. Les Clark, who'd been with Disney since the days of Ub Iwerks, was chiefly responsible for animating Mickey Mouse. John Lounsbery animated right up to his death in 1976; his last project was The Rescuers. Frank Thomas played in Disney's in-house Dixieland jazz band, The Firehouse Five (Plus Two), and was responsible for such characters as Captain Hook, the Queen of Hearts and Cinderella's wicked stepmother. He was also Ollie Johnston's best friend.

Thomas and Johnston worked closely with each other. They were featured in Frank and Ollie, a 1995 documentary. In 1981 they wrote The Illusion of Life, one of the defining books on the art of animation, if not the authoritative bible on the subject. They had two little friends named Nilknarf and Revilo who often hung out with them and showed them how it's done. They had fun with what they did, and that love of the art shows in their work, completely woven in to every motion, every reaction, and every take. Their legacy is one of great skill, great imagination, and great humor.

With Johnston's death the Nine Old Men are officially gone from this world. It's a much sadder place for the loss. But the little sparks they created, the sparks that fired up so many other folks, the sparks that ignited the love of the art in others and compelled them to pursue their dreams, well, those sparks don't go away all that easily. They'll be around for quite some time.

Thomas and Johnston show up in Brad Bird's The Incredibles. They're the two old men near the end who watch Mr. Incredible and family save the day, and give appreciative nods.

"That's the way to do it," Frank says to Ollie with a knowing grin. "That's old school."

"Yeah," Ollie smiles back. "There's no school like the old school."