Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Ollie Johnston

I'm lifting my head above the surface of work and deadlines to note the passing of animator Ollie Johnston, the last of Disney's "Nine Old Men." Walt Disney himself gave the group its name--though most were only in their thirties at the time--in deference to their pioneering work in the earliest days of the studio, when they refined a new art form beginning with Snow White and progressing through about the 1970s.

Johnston began working for Disney in 1935 and animated movies ranging from Snow White, Fantasia, Bambi and Pinocchio to The Rescuers. He retired in 1978. In 2005, President Bush presented Johnston the NEA National Medal of Arts in recognition of his career. Late in life, he and his partner Frank Thomas--the second-to-last "Old Man"--experienced something of a renaissance, as younger audiences remembered and honored their work. They became the subjects of a popular documentary film, Frank and Ollie, and won much well-deserved recognition. Among Johnston's new generation of fans were director Brad Bird, who used caricatures of Frank and Ollie in The Iron Giant, and the people at Pixar, who put them in The Incredibles (also directed by Bird). It was nice to see.

Johnston in Iron Giant (top), and Frank and
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.

Edited to Add: New links to nice tributes by animator Brad Bird and writer/animator John Canemaker.


Namowal said...

I didn't realize Ollie Johnston had passed away. I guess I can scratch meeting him off my wish list.
I'm glad he (and Frank Thomas) lived long enough to be appreciated by younger generations. Considering how he started animating in the early days, it must have been a kick for Ollie to see a 3d cgi animation of himself!

ronnie said...

After reading this post, I went to Yahoo, where I saw that "Ollie Johnston" was the #5 most-searched-term in their search engine today -right behind the Pope. It's nice to think that so many people who were unfamiliar with him prior to his death are learning about him and expanding his legacy.

Kid Sis said...

Saw this and thought of you :( Sorry.

Happy birthday!

gary said...

Great fantastic and fun.


Jan said...

End of an era. What a great life he had though. RIP Ollie.