Off-screen stars of celluloid: the men who drew Disney

Ollie Johnston, who died yesterday, was the last of nine animators who sprinkled stardust over some of the world's best-loved cartoon characters. Andrew Gumbel reports
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For some sense of the size of the footprint that Ollie Johnston, one of Walt Disney's oldest and longest-serving collaborators, has left on the world of film animation, one could do worse than turn to Brad Bird, the writer-director of some of this decade's most acclaimed animated films, including The Incredibles and this year's Oscar-winner, Ratatouille.

Back in 1978, Bird was a young animator at Disney who looked up with an appropriate sense of wonder at both Johnston and his best friend, Frank Thomas. Both had been with the company since 1934 and formed part of a core group known affectionately as the "Nine Old Men", a group who developed the look, feel, and emotions of every one of Disney's fairy-tale titles and – whatever one thinks of the cuter-than-cute Disney aesthetic with its chirping little birds and garlands of flowers – essentially pioneered the art of putting moving drawings on to celluloid.

In 1978, Johnston and Thomas retired. They left the building on a Friday; Bird inherited Johnston's desk the following Monday. As he later recounted: "I was properly awed as I sat down in Ollie's chair, at his desk. As I was checking it out and getting the feel of it I noticed the pencil sharpener was full of shavings.

"Instead of throwing them out I poured them into a glass jar, labelled it and set it atop the desk. Good luck shavings ... a simple reminder of the hard work required to create magic. My own jar of real Disney dust. The last jar."

This was indeed an elegiac moment. Johnston and Thomas were the last of the nine to walk out the door of Disney's animation studios, which had started up in Hollywood in the 1920s and then moved, as the company grew in size and stature, to a nondescript facility in the unlovely suburb of Burbank.

A similar sense of an era passing fell over the animation world yesterday as news spread that Ollie Johnston had died at the age of 95. Just as he was the last one of the original nine to retire, he was the last one to die, too.

Brad Bird revered him enough to offer him small speaking parts by way of homage in two of his films, The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. Two years ago, wheelchair-bound but still exuberant in spirit, Johnston travelled to Washington to accept a National Medal for the Arts from President George Bush. Thomas might easily have been there with him, had he not died the year before.

Johnston was feted for his specific contributions to the Disney canon – the character of Mr Smee, Captain Hook's feckless sidekick, in Peter Pan; the evil stepsisters in Cinderella; Bad King John (eventually voiced by Peter Ustinov) in Robin Hood; and, perhaps most memorably of all, the taboo-breaking early scene in Bambi when Bambi's mother is shot dead by hunters. The Bambi aesthetic tends to be ridiculed as much as it is cherished these days – all those big, blinking, tear-moistened doe eyes designed to tug at our emotions seem more than a touch mawkish and manipulative.

At the time, though – the film came out in 1942 – the very achievement of bringing animal drawings to life and triggering an emotional response in a mass audience was little short of groundbreaking. Blame the cheesy aesthetics on Disney himself; the technical accomplishment was all Johnston's, along with the rest of the nine.

That achievement later laid the groundwork for the other big legacy that Johnston and Thomas have left to their successor animators – a book now generally regarded as the animation bible.

Called The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation, and first published in the early 1980s, it is a 600-page examination of the theory and practice of animated film, together with hundreds of stills from the Disney canon and other illustrations. Johnston and Thomas consider the long history of drawing and the attempt by artists, going back all the way to the cave painters of the Cro-Magnon era, to create the illusion of movement and life. They draw on every sort of theory of emotional expression, including Jane Goodall's work with chimpanzees (useful for animal films such as The Jungle Book).

In their view, the advent of film was an unparalleled breakthrough in the history of drawing, in the never-ending search for what they term "that elusive spark of life".

"By making sequential drawings of a continuous action," they write, "and projecting their photographs on to a screen at a constant rate, an artist now could create all of the movement and inner life he was capable of. An artist could represent the actual figure, if he chose, methodically capturing its movements and actions. Or he could caricature it, satirise it, ridicule it ... what an amazing art form!"

The trick, the indefinable magic, was not to make the audience feel it ought to be responding to a cleverly crafted drawing, but rather to make the audience forget it was watching moving drawings at all and make the emotional connection easily, spontaneously, like a puppet-master making his audience forget his puppet has strings.

This is what Walt Disney had dreamt of from the very beginning. "I want characters to be somebody. I don't want them just to be a drawing," he had said as early as 1927.

The "Nine Old Men" were hired more haphazardly than methodically – these were the very early days of film animation, with no certainty about the future. Johnston was a native Californian and a graduate of Stanford University and a prestigious art institute in Los Angeles when he joined in 1935. He was given just one week of training before starting on the job as an "in-betweener", a low-level artist who fills in the blanks between the most important action moments.

Others had even more happy-go-lucky entries into the business. Les Clark was an ice-cream shop owner across the street from Disney's original premises in Hollywood who caught Disney's attention because of the elegant lettering around the mirrors of his shop. Clark asked Disney if he could show him some drawings, and the tentative offer of a short-term job turned into a lifetime's work.

The nine solidified as a group in the 1930s and 1940s, the period when Disney produced such pioneering titles as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia and Bambi. None of them were really old men – they were in their twenties and thirties. The nickname derived, rather, from President Franklin Roosevelt's dismissive term for the nine mostly conservative justices on the Supreme Court who had a habit of blocking his New Deal reforms.

As a group they worked out 12 basic principles for bringing characters and scenes to life, which centred around timing, how much action to put into any frame sequence, and the degree to which they should exaggerate physical features or movements.

Everything, from Johnston's point of view, started with an understanding of the character's state of mind. It's a lesson his successors have taken to heart. "He taught me to always be aware of what a character is thinking," said John Lasseter, the head of the Pixar Animation Studio who directed Toy Story and a whole production line of wildly successful computer-animated successor titles, in a statement to mark Johnston's death. "We continue to make sure that every character we create at Pixar and Disney has a thought process and emotion that makes them come alive."

For Johnston, animation wasn't just about replicating the emotions and thrills of live-action film. It was also an opportunity to create characters more wholly than any actor ever could with his or her physical limitations. Naturally, that challenge had its daunting side. "The worst thing about starting a new scene," he once said, "is have to start with blank piece of paper. It's not like live action where a director knows he has Robert Redford or Meryl Streep – a known quantity. We start with nothing."