Ollie in The Incredibles, voiced by themselves
There are far more knowledgeable Disney experts and animation historians who can talk about Johnston and his colleagues' artistic contributions. Jim Hill is one. What Ollie Johnston meant most to me was that he and Thomas wrote The Illusion of Life, an inside look at the art and process behind Disney's classic films. Though ostensibly about animation, I think it's also an excellent book for cartoonists and even writers, and one of the first I recommend when asked.
The Illusion of Life is a beautifully illustrated coffee-table "How To" book. I'm sure it's one of the first that a serious student buys when they get to animation school, but I think it's more than that. What I got out of the book was less about how to do the work than how to approach it, and those lessons apply far beyond animated cartoons. I was amazed by how much thought went into the apparently simplest of things. How much analysis lay behind structuring stories and building characters. It's hard, and it's supposed to be hard, but if you do it right it looks easy--even inevitable, as if it were impossible to imagine turning out any other way. I use insights from this book every time I draw.
When I pulled my copy of Illusion of Life off the shelf this morning, I found tucked into its pages a few sheets of paper I printed off the Web more than 10 years ago summarizing advice from Johnston as passed on by Pixar's John Lasseter. Luckily, the same list is still available online. The 30 tips include technical notes that only an animator would need, but also some good advice for anyone creating characters in any medium. For example:
- If possible, make definite changes from one attitude to another in timing and expression.
- It is the thought and circumstances behind the action that will make the action interesting. Example: A man walks up to a mailbox, drops in his letter, and walks away. OR: A man desperately in love with a girl far away carefully mails a letter in which he has poured his heart out.
- Concentrate on drawing clear, not clean.
- Everything has a function. Don't draw without knowing why.
- Does the added action in a scene contribute to the main idea in that scene? Will it help sell it or confuse it?
Solid gold principles to write and draw by. More information about Johnston is available from Disney and at the official (and not recently updated) Frank and Ollie website. The Associated Press has written a nice obit as well.