Frank Thomas

Master animator and one of Walt Disney's 'Nine Old Men'
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The Independent Online

One of the master animators from the golden era of hand-drawn cartoons, Frank Thomas worked with Walt Disney for 43 years, and was one of the band of craftsmen whom Disney used to call his "Nine Old Men".

Frank Thomas, animator: born Santa Monica, California 5 September 1912; married (three sons, one daughter); died Flintridge, California 8 September 2004.

One of the master animators from the golden era of hand-drawn cartoons, Frank Thomas worked with Walt Disney for 43 years, and was one of the band of craftsmen whom Disney used to call his "Nine Old Men".

When Disney embarked on a major expansion of his operations in 1934, at the height of the Depression, he was able to select the cream of the hundreds of applicants from art schools around the country. Those who formed the nucleus of his feature-film crew he dubbed the Nine Old Men, an expression Franklin D. Roosevelt had used to describe the Supreme Court.

It was Thomas who animated the Seven Dwarfs weeping at Snow White's bier in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). He was considered an expert in scenes of touching sentiment - his depiction of the grief-stricken Grumpy burying his face in his hands at Snow White's bier may have been the first time audiences wept at the plight of an animated character.

Thomas also created one of the most memorable romantic scenes in animation, the dinner scene between Lady and Rover in The Lady and the Tramp (1955), in which the two dogs romantically nibble on one long strand of spaghetti. The animation historian John Canemaker said, "Although one of the most intelligent of animators, Thomas' work never smacks of dry intellectualism. Rather, his ideas about what a character should think or feel are always in the service of high drama and sincere emotionalism."

The animator Andreas Dejar, creator of Lilo in Lilo and Stitch, commented,

To me, Frank's characters always had the most believable feeling of life on the screen - the point where it became hard to imagine someone actually creating them from drawings . . . You see characters who appear to be alive, which is the ultimate goal for any animator.

Thomas and his colleague Ollie Johnston always gave credit to Walt Disney himself, writing,

Walt was so immersed in these characters that at the time, as he talked and acted out the roles as he saw them, he forgot that we were there. We loved to watch him; his feeling about the characters was contagious . . . everything Walt was suggesting could be animated. It was not awkward continuity or realistic illustrations, but actions that were familiar to everyone.

Born in Santa Monica, California, in 1912, Frank Thomas attended Stanford University, where he majored in art and drew cartoons for the school newspaper. A fellow student was Ollie Johnston, and the two were to become lifelong friends and colleagues (Johnston is now the only one of the famous nine left alive). He studied at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles prior to joining Disney in 1934, alongside Johnston.

They were to become part of the animation crew who created the first full-length cartoon, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. After working as an assistant to the top Disney short animator Fred Moore, Thomas drew portions of the classic Mickey Mouse shorts Mickey's Elephant (1936) and The Brave Little Tailor (1938), but most of his work with Disney after Snow White was to be on feature films. Several years in preparation, Snow White almost drove Disney into bankruptcy and was considered a folly by many, but it became a huge artistic and box-office hit.

Thomas, Johnston and another of the "nine", Milt Khal, shared animation of the title characters in Pinnochio (1940) and Bambi (1942), and Thomas created the scene in which the puppet Pinnochio gets trapped inside a birdcage by the evil Stromboli, and drew the production number "I've Got No Strings". For Bambi, he and Johnston created the memorable sequence in which the rabbit Thumper teaches the fawn Bambi how to ice-skate.

After accompanying Disney to South America in 1941 to gather material for the films that were to become Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1944), Thomas joined the Army Air Force and spent most of the Second World War years making animated military training films. After the war he returned to Disney, where he became noted for his creation of such villains as the wicked stepmother in Cinderella (1950), the childish, wilful Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland (1951), forever changing her mind, and the sinister Captain Hook in Peter Pan (1953). He later described the difficulty he had getting started on Hook.

It was one of the low points in my life. It was because of the confusion in the minds of the director and story people. In the story department, Ed Penner had always seen Hook as a very foppish, dandy type of guy who loved all the finery. Gerry Geronimi, who was the director, saw him as mean, heavy sort of character who used his hook menacingly. Well, Walt could see something in both approaches, and I think he delighted in thinking, "I wonder what the hell Thomas is going to do when he gets this."

Thomas ultimately succeeded in producing a Hook who was both menacing and foppish.

He also worked on 101 Dalmations (1961) and The Jungle Book (1967), the last animated film on which Disney himself worked. Though a great hit, it relied on familiar voices to establish its characters rather than its animation. "Woolie" Reitherman, one of the original "nine", said "It is much simpler and more realistic than creating a character and then searching for the right voice." After Disney's death, Thomas created the dancing penguins for Mary Poppins (1964), and worked on the characters King John and Sir Hiss in Robin Hood (1973) and Bernard and Bianca in The Rescuers (1977).

The former Disney animator John Lasseter, now creative head of Pixar Animation Studios, called Thomas, "a giant in our field". He added,

Besides being one of the key guys to help elevate animation from a novelty to an incredible art form, he was so generous in passing along his knowledge and experience to the generations that followed.

Thomas and Johnston both retired in 1978, after which they wrote several influential books together, including Disney Animation: the illusion of life (1981), in which they put forth their philosophy of thinking as an actor in their approach to a film. In 1995, Theodore Thomas, Frank's son, wrote and directed a documentary film about the pair, titled Frank and Ollie.

Thomas was noted for the help and encouragement he gave to young artists, and one of that new generation, Brad Bird, recently paid homage to Thomas and Johnston by including caricatures of them (for which they supplied their own voices) in The Iron Giant (1999) and the forthcoming Pixar film The Incredibles. Bird said this week, "In terms of great animation, the bar remains where the Nine Old Men set it."

Tom Vallance