Disney Legend Ollie Johnston Passes Away

Animation legend Ollie Johnston, the last surviving member of Walt Disney’s famous “Nine Old Men”, passed away yesterday (April 14, 2008). He was 95.

Johnston was a phenomenal artist and widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest animators. In 1935 he was hired to work at the Disney studio alongside his pal Frank Thomas. They rose to become two of Disney’s top animators and remained lifelong best friends. They co-wrote several books on animation including Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life (Amazon.com link), which is still considered a classic textbook on animation. In 1995 they were the subject of a wonderful documentary film, Frank and Ollie (which you can buy on DVD). Their love for animation was contagious and their mastery was inspiring.

Johnston animated such classic characters as Pinocchio, Bambi, Thumper, Alice in Wonderland, and Winnie the Pooh. He and Frank also animated large portions of The Jungle Book. It’s been said that over half the film is Frank and Ollie’s work.

Animators are sometimes referred to as actors with pencils. Frank and Ollie didn’t just fit this definition, they defined it. They were superb draftsmen and their characters gave Oscar-worthy performances.

Franklin Roosevelt referred to the Supreme Court as his “Nine Old Men”. As a joke, Walt Disney borrowed the term to describe his nine top animators. Though they were young men at the time, the name stuck. All nine went on to become legends at the studio. Frank and Ollie were the last surviving members of the group. Frank passed away in 2004.

It’s hard to overstate the influence Frank and Ollie have had on the animation industry. Besides being animation pioneers and writing classic books on the subject, after Walt Disney’s death they helped train a new generation of Disney animators. Oscar-winning director Brad Bird is a huge fan of their work and gave the pair animated cameos in both The Iron Giant andThe Incredibles.

Here’s a few samples of Ollie’s work. His passing truly marks the end of an era for animation fans, and he will be dearly missed.

(Artwork copyright © Disney. All rights reserved.)

EDIT: Some of today’s top animators are sharing their thoughts on Ollie’s passing. Brad Bird, Floyd Norman, and John Canemaker have all written tributes. The official Disney press obituary includes comments from Glen Keane, Andreas Deja, and Roy E. Disney.