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Toon Tuesday : A tribute to Ollie Johnston

Toon Tuesday : A tribute to Ollie Johnston

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Last Tuesday night, I traveled down to one of the cities I most dislike in all of Southern California: I went to Hollywood.

Good ol’ Tinsel Town, with its sidewalk hucksters wearing eBay costumes of Bugs Bunny and SpongeBob, with its endless food courts and faux-trendy boutiques. Hollywood, that theme park of seediness and broken dreams. There are very few events that could draw me into the chromium heart of such a city. A tribute to Ollie Johnston, the last of Walt’s Nine Old Men, was one such an event.

Photo by Todd James Pierce

The invitation-only affair was held at Disney’s El Capitan Theatre, a beautifully remodeled venue that gestures back to the golden age of animation, back when Hollywood was a cultural center for a new form of entertainment, rather than just another stop for busloads of tourists. For me, stepping into the El Capitan is similar to stepping back in history. The theater — with its modern soda fountain and parking validation booth — certainly belongs in 2008. But still, each time I’ve entered the theater, I’ve found a whiff of the late 1930s in the air: the thick theater curtains, the sloped balcony, the sound of organ music rising from the stage.

The event’s host, Leonard Maltin, took the stage promptly at 7 pm. From the start, it was clear that this evening would be different than virtually every other presentation on Disney animation I’ve ever attended. Most presentations on Disney animation are arranged in such a way that Disney animators explain the process to members of the general public so that they have a better appreciation for the process of hand-drawn animation. This event, however, was animators talking to animators. It was assumed that everyone in the audience knew the difference between a rough and clean-up drawing, between the era of ink-and-paint and the era of Xerox. Some presenters even assumed that the audience could tell the difference between a series of drawings chiseled out by Disney animator Milt Kahl and a similar series of drawings that Ollie Johnston whispered onto the page. What I mean to say is this: this evening was a wonderful opportunity for me, a writer, to understand the nuanced world of animation.

The four-hour presentation was thematically divided into the three areas of Ollie’s life: his home life, his life as an artist and animator, and his lifelong interest in steam trains.

Ollie’s two sons, Rick and Ken, told stories about their father at home and at the studio. Rick recalled that a childhood photograph of himself, holding his ear and sucking his thumb, became the inspiration for a sequence in "Robin Hood" in which Prince John adopts a similar pose. Ken related the story of accompanying Ollie to the White House in 2005, where he was the first animator to receive the National Medal of Arts. The most touching aspect of the experience, according to Ken, was not the medal, rather the moment in which his father told President Bush that he loved him.

Glen Keane recalls what it was like to work under this animation master.
Photo by Todd James Pierce

The discussion of Ollie as master animator was overseen by those artists who came to the studio in the 1970s, such as Glen Keane, John Musker, Ron Clements, John Lasseter and Brad Bird. Together these men defined not only Ollie’s philosophical understanding of craft, but also the airy and subtle grace of his rough drawings.

Lastly, Leonard Maltin introduced a half dozen men who shared Ollie’s lifelong enthusiasm for steam trains. Michael Broggie, whose father worked for Walt Disney, grew up at the studio. He explained how Ollie’s backyard locomotive helped inspire Walt to build a similar scale railroad in his own backyard. Without Ollie, Michael suggested, there might never have been a railroad in Walt’s backyard, and without that railroad, there might not have been Disneyland.

In an early version of this article, I transcribed highlights from the evening’s presentations onto the page. But I soon discovered that the article wasn’t the best way to convey the warmth, humor, and pathos of the evening. So I clicked open GarageBand and Dolby Studio and started to piece highlights together into a podcast. The result is a 25-minute highlight reel.

But you should know this: the source audio comes from a reference file. I didn’t initially plan to use the audio for a podcast. It was simply a reference file, so I wouldn’t misquote any of the presenters. I’ve done my best to enhance, smooth, and clarify the audio. But still it’s a little rough. You’ll enjoy it more if you listen to it with headphones or earbuds, rather than on speakers.

For me the Ollie Johnston tribute held a double sadness. Ollie Johnston was the last of the Walt’s Nine Old Men, those animators he most trusted at the studio. The other eight have already passed on. In fact, most all of the Disney animators from the 1930s have left us. Bill Justice (who joined Disney in 1937) might be the only one left. But the loss of Ollie was greater than that of a single man. It was the loss of a craft.

Photo by Todd James Pierce

Though the work and teachings of Ollie Johnston will continue to inspire young animators well into the future, the world of animation has changed since Ollie retired from the studio. Ollie’s brand of character-based animation was a highly personal art. Even casual observers of animation can recognize the difference in a scene drawn by Ollie Johnston and a scene in the same movie drawn by another animator, such as Marc Davis or Ken Anderson. Because a single animator oversaw an entire scene — or often a sequence of scenes — the artist’s idiosyncratic drawing style graced each pose, each movement.

In the best animated movies, such as "Pinocchio" and "Fantasia," the animated sequences are far more a series of unified sequential drawings. They are a synthesis of character and animator, art and artist. I believe that this is why the lead animators at Disney and Warner Brothers eventually became celebrities. They weren’t simply artists contributing to a unified project; they were artists whose collective individual drawing styles created an interesting visual tension on the screen.

In the past 10 or 12 years, I’ve noticed that the nature of American animation has changed. Computer animation offers visually stunning detail and camera movement. But the process of computer-based character animation — with its unified 3D character models, virtual skeletons, and computer-assisted motion — limits the ways an individual animator can the influence an image on the screen. The new animation celebrities are not animators; they are the directors, such as Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton, and John Lasseter.

John Lasseter shares his thoughts on the impact that Ollie Johnston had on animators everywhere.
Photo by Todd James Pierce

So the passing of Ollie Johnston represents not only the loss of a great artist, teacher and animator, but also the end of an era. The tribute itself was not only a tribute to Ollie as a person, but also a tribute to a passing style of art that he helped create.

Without doubt, the evening was well worth the trip to Hollywood.
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  • Thanks for sharing that with us!

  • Great article. I'd love to visit the Capitan someday. And yes, Ollie Johnson was the last of a rarified breed. While I'm all for Disney bringing back 2D, I wonder if the company has the patience to develop 2D artists, or rather, "actors" the way Walt had for talented people like Ollie. While there may be talented, even gifted animators working for the company now, none of them will have had Ollie's vast experience and training. We'll just have to hope "Princess and the Frog" does well, and that the next 2D film does well, so that a new crop of animators will someday do work to equal that of Ollie and his colleagues. We'll just have to wait and see.

  • I sure wish that I could have been there. Ollie was such a dear, sweet guy who had such a generous spirit to help out those just starting their careers at Disney. Though other animators had their great strengths as well, it was always Ollie's scenes that I have responded emotionally to the most over the years. I'm very happy to see this great man honoured by those who knew him and loved him well.

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