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Disney Legacy: A Tale of Two Animators

10 Jan, 2004 By: Holly J. Wagner

Ted Thomas spent a lot of time around Disney's original animators when he was a child. It's lucky for fans that the same reasons he almost took for granted Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson, two men who pioneered expressive cartoon animation, were ultimately an inspiration for his documentary Frank and Ollie.

“I've made films before and I've made films since, but this is the film I was born to make,” he said. And he means it literally, because Frank Thomas, 91, is his father.

As the film explains, Frank met Ollie Johnson at Stanford University, and they became fast friends. They went to work together at Disney and were an inseparable team at work and in their off time.

“I grew up in that household and around Disney and next door to Ollie,” Ted Thomas said. “Finally it was one of those bolt-from-the-blue moments: Why haven't I made a film about Frank and Ollie?’

With a rare ringside seat at the creation of many of the Disney classics that have become must-have titles in home libraries -- Alice in Wonderland, Bambi, Peter Pan, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Jungle Book, Pinocchio -- it took a while for Thomas to realize that it was not the way most boys grew up.

“Growing up I took it almost for granted that they were these two guys who were so engaged with life and they draw pictures for a living. It was only after I became an adult that I realized that what they were doing was very special,” Thomas said.

It wasn't just what they were doing at work that was special. In Frank and Ollie, Thomas paints a loving portrait of two lifetime friends whose own enthusiasm for life is at the heart of the warmth and depth of Disney's earliest animated heroes.

It is that warmth that Thomas brings to viewers, using his familiarity and inside knowledge to show others what he has known all along. But he didn't do it alone.

“More than being an homage to the great classic Disney animated films, I felt we wanted to make a picture about part of why they came out the way they did,” he said. “It was a lot of fun to shoot. There are some films that are awfully hard to shoot. Rather than approaching it in a journalistic way, we made Frank and Ollie our collaborators. In a lot of ways, it was the closest thing to making a film with Walt Disney.”

If the younger Thomas had special access to the Disney studios' creative process as a child, he also provided material.

“When I was in college, they were working on Robin Hood,” Thomas said. “I can distinctly remember being home over the holidays. ... They were working on this scene about Prince John, and he was having bad dreams and he was rubbing his feet together. I said, ‘That's a nice touch,' and [my dad] said, ‘I'm glad you like it. That was you.” Apparently rubbing my feet together in my sleep was something I did as a child.”

With the success of CG films like Finding Nemo and Toy Story, is the end near for 2-D and hand-drawn animation? Not necessarily.

“Every time there is a new technical innovation, there is a rush to explore it and what can be done with it. Some of the other ways of doing things get overlooked temporarily,” Thomas said. “I think we will come back to hand-drawn animation, because there are certain things that happen between the tip of the pen that cannot be done in the CGI world. There is more inherent warmth in hand-drawn animation than there is in CGI at the present time.”

But fledgling animators need not struggle alone. They can visit frankandollie.com and get advice directly from the men who brought so many of us so many happy moments.

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