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INTERVIEWS

Rescuers meeting

The Rescuers (1977) was still in production when Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston sat for an interview. This photo was taken around that time, as part of the publicity for the film. Wolfgang Reitherman, the director, is at the right, pointing to story sketches. The others are, from left, Dave Michener, Ted Berman, Johnston (kneeling), Art Stevens, Don Bluth, and Thomas.

Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston (1976)

An Interview by Michael Barrier and Milton Gray

From MB: In October 1976, I flew to California and joined Milt Gray for a couple of intensive weeks of interviewing Hollywood animation people. We started north of San Francisco, with Ben Sharpsteen, and worked our way down the coast, seeing Dave Hilberman, Bob Carlson, Lee and Mary Blair, and Howard Swift before arriving in Los Angeles, where we recorded two and three interviews every day.

I'd recorded dozens of interviews on several previous trips, and Milt had recorded others for me. By 1976 I was deep into work on what was to become my book Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age. I was confident that the new interviews, combined with the other research I'd done, would permit me to finish my book by sometime in 1977.

I was off by only about twenty years. There was too much to learn, too many interesting people to talk to—and talk to again—and by the time I finally delivered the manuscript to my publisher, Oxford University Press, it was 1997.

Because I envisioned the 1976 trip as the grand finale of my research, I was particularly concerned with talking to those of Walt Disney's "nine old men" that I hadn't yet interviewed. I'd interviewed Ward Kimball and Les Clark on earlier trips, and John Lounsbery had died, but I wanted to talk with Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, Marc Davis, Eric Larson, Milt Kahl, and Woolie Reitherman. Milt and I interviewed all of them except Woolie, whose staff mistook my envelope for a script (it actually contained a copy of my magazine Funnyworld) and sent it back.

It was Frank and Ollie whom Milt and I interviewed first. We joined them for lunch on the patio at the old Disney commissary in Burbank on October 27, 1976. Unlike Milt Kahl, who had been forced out of the studio earlier that year and was very outspoken (I've posted that interview here), Frank and Ollie were still active Disney employees. The Rescuers had not yet been released—I would see Frank and Ollie again in June 1977, when they attended the film's premiere at the Kennedy Center in Washington—and The Fox and the Hound, their swan song, was little more than a gleam in Woolie's eye.

Frank and Ollie were at work in 1976 on their first book, Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life (1981), and when I sent them the transcript for their review Frank expressed mild concern that parts of it might "scoop" their book—a groundless fear, of course, as things turned out. Some of what is in the interview may have anticipated the book, but I think the interview is better. However meritorious the intentions of the writer, "official" Disney prose almost always bends toward the unctuous, like a sermon by a priest in an Established Church. What Milt and I heard that day was more direct and credible. We talked not about the personal histories of both men—such information was already on the record—but about what it was like to work under Walt Disney at his studio.

The transcript as presented here incorporates the relatively few changes that Frank and Ollie made, almost all of them for the sake of clarity or accuracy. A few excisions were obviously intended to avoid giving offense to present or former colleagues, Ward Kimball especially. Since everyone involved is now deceased, I've noted what Frank and Ollie said on the tape, as well as in the revised transcript.

As the interview began, we were talking about Song of the South (1946), and which animators were primarily responsible for which characters in that picture.

Thomas: Milt [Kahl], with his drawing ability, would nearly always make the drawing that Walt liked the best, outside of the Joe Grant influence. He would make a drawing, and Walt would say, "Yeah, yeah, there, you see?" Arriving at the character, the personality of him, what made him a memorable character, what made him fit in the picture, why he was different from any other character—Milt was not that strong in that area, because that was not the area he was interested in. In this case, I've always heard that Eric [Larson] contributed probably the most to the Bear, making him that certain kind of stupid guy; and Ollie's rabbit. And yet, the point you ought to make, really, is that no one person makes the character, [but] the animator who does him best, gives him the best life, is the one who really nails him down. It's always been a very difficult thing to say who fathered a character, whether it was the story-sketch man, whether it was the guy doing inspirational sketches, whether it was someone else working closely with the director, whether it was the lead-off animators, or someone down the line, or Walt himself, leading the way on it. I would be real careful in crediting, just because one person says, "He did this, and he did that."

Johnston: A lot depends on the scene the animator gets, too. I recall I did a section of scenes where the Fox had the Rabbit; he was going to build a fire, with the sticks around him. I remember when Walt and Perce Pearce were in there looking at it, and Perce was alert to the character of the Fox: "There's the character we ought to have in the Fox."

Barrier: Of course, Bill Peet's story sketches for Song of the South were very important. The animation feeling he got in some of those drawings was really amazing.

Johnston: From the animator's standpoint, I think they were Bill's finest drawings. Have you seen what Ken Anderson did in the follow-up, after that, planning the cutting and the layouts, the little books he did? He took it another step further; it was just great.

Barrier: What role did these drawings by Ken Anderson play?

Johnston: Actually, they were carrying the story stage a little further, pinning it down to actual cutting, which Bill didn't always do, and shouldn't have had to do. The actual staging, and what angle, and how close, and any little additions that Ken had on the story, in the business, were in there.

Thomas: There were a number of pictures on which we did refinement of the storyboard. The story man would take it to a point when Walt felt he had made his contribution, he was no longer adding things to it, he was getting kind of set in it. And yet Walt wanted a little more done. He would send it down to the music room, and have them—what did they call that? Refining the board? The story man always resented it.

Johnston: Especially on [One Hundred and One] Dalmatians (1961).

Thomas: Bill particularly resented it; other story men would be more amenable to it. But being a team effort, everybody had to do his best, and then pass it on to the next guy, and then they'd pass it on to the next guy. Each one had to make his contribution, and you couldn't say, "I've done it all, don't you mess with my stuff." That wasn't the way.

Johnston: Walt wanted to give a real springboard to the animator, which we don't have as much of now. Believe me, with Bill Peet's drawings, and Ken's drawings added to that, plus some good thought in the layouts that followed, you really had something to start with. Not that you didn't change it.

Barrier: I've heard that there would be something like another story conference on these refined story boards.

Thomas: Oh, yes, just like another story meeting.

Barrier: But the director would go over the continuity, this time, to show how it would be cut and staged, as opposed to simply telling the story.

Thomas: It always depended upon the individuals. You just can't say that there was a procedure. It varied with each music room, and each picture, and each sequence, and who was available. But if you were taking a story that Bill Peet had done, and passing it to Ken Anderson, and from him to Woolie, they developed a way of working—of course they argued a lot and and disagreed much of the time [Frank had said on the tape, "well, they all hated each other"], but got a very good result. Now, if you were passing a story from someone else to Jack Kinney, or [Gerry] Geronimi, or through someone else, you'd have a completely different procedure. And if you switched around so that Ken Anderson was working for Geronimi, you'd have a different procedure. It occurs to me that Walt was dead-set against procedures; that was one of the troubles that Dave Hand had with him. Everyone was always trying to organize; and the things that Walt asked you to do called for organization. You wouldn't get it done otherwise. And yet Walt hated organization, just hated to be pinned down.

Johnston: He'd pull stuff off the boards; it used to drive the story men crazy. He'd walk all over [the drawings]—no respect for the poor guys' drawings. Before you leave that thing about Ken Anderson, I can see why Bill Peet used to maybe get a little miffed, because Ken would go through everything he did with such excitement and enthusiasm that you'd think it was the first time it had ever been thought of. He gets so carried away with what he does.

Thomas: Bill's feeling always was, "Don't you think I thought of all of that?  I discarded it, it wasn't as good as the way I had it.”I

Barrier: On The Sword in the Stone (1963), judging by your remarks at the 1973 retrospective at Lincoln Center, the storyboards went directly to you, rather than passing through the music room.

Thomas: Actually, on that, it went through Ken Anderson, and Ken did three different versions, but I didn't want to get involved in that back there, because I didn't think people would follow it. It's a temptation to be explicit, to say Bill carried it this far, then Ken Anderson carried it this far, but Walt didn't like it, so then Ken did it this way, but Walt didn't like it, so then Ken did it this way. And then out of that, I picked the things I felt I could do best, and started where I thought would be all right, and I working sort of—as you often do—"on spec." After I'd done 30 or 40 feet, I'd show it; and if Walt had said—as he often did—"No, no, gee, you're missing the point here, you're way off the track," I would have backed up—as I often did. It so happened that he liked what he saw, and I was encouraged to go on with it, and as most directing animators, depending upon the sequence, do, you talk it over with the people you think would be the most helpful, on the type of thing you're doing. So you're not working entirely on your own. You're not hiding it in a corner. You're talking to everyone as you go along, you're talking to the layout man.  I might say, "I like this sketch of Bill's better than any others I've seen, and I'm going to go back to it for this particular scene." And if the director says, "No, no, I wouldn't do that," you talk it over. For the purposes of the talk I gave at New York, I simplified it way down, so that someone sitting there in a hard chair could tolerate it.

Johnston: The thing was, too, by the time we got to Sword in the Stone, as directing animators, we were really directors. The director would have the final say, or Walt, but nine times out of ten, it would go through the way you wanted it. It had changed so from the days of Jackson, when everything was marked out.

BarrierI've seen some of the character layouts from the thirties, and I was astonished at how detailed they were. For a short scene, there would be several elaborately worked-out poses. Dick Huemer said that when he started at Disney's, he was astonished by all these preparations, and he said, geez, all you had to do was in-between these great poses.

Thomas: There were animators who did that. They'd take the first layout, and the last layout, and time it, and do a six-foot scene. And the stuff looked that way, too.

Johnston: However, what they did with those layouts, how they planned the general movement of the character through those layouts, was marvelous, a big help even if you didn't follow exactly the pattern. I  only wish we had some of those guys now. It was so stimulating. You could look at these things, and like Frank and I were saying the other day, you could believe everything that was happening.

Thomas: Hugh Hennesy and, I guess, Mac Stewart were quite weak in the drawing of cartoon character size and scale. They would make beautiful drawings—particularly Hugh Hennesy—just great drawings, with these funny little characters in there, tall, skinny characters. Through it all, the stimulation that he gave was fantastic, but you couldn't use his character suggestions just the way they were.

BarrierWas Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) the real turning point, as far as the animators taking on more responsibility for the staging?

Thomas: I think that was a very gradual thing, depending upon which animator was working with which director, which layout man, and how Walt felt about what he was getting. We were in a very frustrating spot, because, say you were working under Geronimi, and Geronimi was working under Ben Sharpsteen, and Ben was getting the word from Walt. You're way down at the end of the line, and you're not sure that even if Geronimi heard the correct comments from Walt, he would pass it on to you correctly. The same applied to Ben, and they felt the same way about us. And you couldn't get to Walt to find out what he had said. It might have been a casual little statement like, "Oh, I think we ought to wait and see what he's going to do here." But by the time you got it, it might be interpreted as, " I don't think Frank can handle this stuff very well." Walt maybe hadn't said that at all, and yet there were two different interpretations by the time it got to you.

Johnston: That was an attitude Geronimi would then take.

Thomas: Because he thought that was what Walt had said. And until you got in a sweatbox, and showed your stuff to Walt, and he would tell you what he thought—he would jolly well tell you what he thought—and he'd tell Geronimi what he thought. So that everybody then knew. But as long as you were passing the word from Walt on down...

JohnstonThat was a difficult period.

Thomas: And occasionally Walt would say to Ben, or Gerry, or whoever it happened to be, "Just let Ollie go for a few scenes, see what he comes up with, he might surprise us all." So then, hands off, let the animator lead on it. Other times, he'd say, "They don't seem to be getting hold of it, let's get in there and make sure what we're doing."  There was no set procedure.

Johnston: I remember a specific case, on Sleeping Beauty (1959), we had just done a few scenes, and we were going to start on another section. I remember Walt saying, "Why don't we let Frank get in there and work this out the way he does.” In other words, he was putting his confidence in him to work out the business, the cutting and everything, and develop it. We had a storyboard, and we had a running reel on it, but I remember specifically him saying that. So it worked both ways. If he felt he was going to get the best results that way, he'd do it. If he felt he was going to get the best results by having Geronimi badger us, he'd do it that way.

Thomas: And he was quick to change his mind, depending on what he saw. He might have put someone in charge; he hated titles, and he hated—

Johnston:  —setting anybody up with authority.

Thomas: One of the funniest incidents, from our standpoint, was when someone thought they had been set up with authority—and maybe they actually had, in words, they'd been told, "You're in charge here, you see that this gets done"—and then Walt would go out and undercut them, in the next half hour, tell everybody else, "Watch out for that guy, he thinks he's the boss, he's trying to tell you what to do, don't you pay any attention to him."

Johnston: He always set somebody up to counter somebody else. I remember on Bambi, Harry Tytle sent around that memo, about footage, and the same day, [Walt] told Dave Hand that what he really wanted on here was quality, and not to worry about the footage. He had one guy worrying about the footage, and sending memos to us, and Dave working from the other side.

Thomas: But you see, Walt's feeling on that—and there's a validity to it—was that if you called everyone together and said , "Look, fellows, we can't spend too much money here, we have to be careful," then everyone's going to be wishy-washy. He wanted positive, he wanted aggressive, he wanted fighters. And so he would put one guy against another, and that way, one guy's going to be working all the time to hold expenses down, the other guy's going to be working for quality, and they're going to get mad at each other, and they're both going to work harder than they would otherwise, and Walt's going to back them each up, and every day tell them, "Now watch that guy, you're not going to let him put anything over on you."  So they each worked harder, and as a result, you got the best quality you could for the best price you could.

Johnston: The animators really had enough pride, and of course, you didn't want Walt jumping all over you, so you were going to see that your stuff was good, one way or another, no matter how hard you had to work at it to turn out the footage.

Barrier: Did he in effect pit animators and directors against one another as well? Ward Kimball tells stories about his conflicts with directors...was this part of the same pattern?

JohnstonHe liked to stir things up.  He didn't like things to get too peaceful.

Thomas: If he felt three guys were working together, hand in glove, he was  quick to break it up.

Barrier: He thought friction was creative?

Johnston: He didn't want them fighting with each other.

Thomas: Stimulation would be a better word than friction. Occasionally, of course, it would work the other way, it would kill your creative drive [because there was] too much opposition. That was the chance he was taking. But I think he recognized that.

Johnston: I don't ever remember a place where he was setting up animators who had a conflict, though. We usually worked quite well together. It was more between the story and direction, or between the direction and animation.

ThomasI think the thing that Walt realized was that the drawings on the screen were where it's at; and only the animator could put those there. Walt knew how to direct, he knew how to do story, he knew how to do everything else except animation. If he didn't agree, or he questioned what somebody might do, he was more apt to turn an animator loose than he was a director.

Johnston: He could give you a rough time, too; still, we always felt we were, in a way, a chosen few.

BarrierWhen he would see your stuff in the sweatbox, what would he say? What kinds of things did he look for?  Did you begin to anticipate the things he would be particularly alert for, or was it impossible to predict that sort of thing?

Johnston: Mostly he was looking for personality, unless you go back to Snow White, when he was sweatboxing Freddie Moore's stuff. He was looking for personality there, but my God, he criticized every line, because it was the first stage in the development of the Dwarfs, and he wanted to make sure he had everything right.

Barrier: This was the pilot animation.

Johnston: I was in there, because I was Freddie's assistant. I remember [Walt] picking on the size of a finger, at that point. In later years, it was rare that he did that. He picked on me for making Trusty too thin once, said I was starving him.

Thomas: When we started on Dalmatians, Ollie and Milt Kahl and I started working on Pongo. We wanted to keep from doing a realistic dog, and Milt took the brunt of that one.   We thought, gee, if we have to do a realistic dog like Bill Peet's sketches, it's going to be restrictive to communicate any expression, so let's see if we can't possibly sell Walt [on a less realistic version of the character]. So Milt drew a funny-looking guy with a big nose who we thought would still be appealing enough to be the hero of the piece. I'm still not sure that he wouldn't have. But they sure didn't like Milt' s drawings on it, and jumped all over him, Bill Peet particularly. No one even tried to see what we were thinking of.

Gray: How explicit was Walt, or how able was he to tell you how he wanted something changed? Was he more inclined to say he didn't like something, and leave it up to you to figure out some alternative way?

Thomas: That varied entirely with the material. I've seen it both ways.

JohnstonIf he said the muzzle's too big, or the dog is too thin, that was as explicit as he would get.

Gray: That's more a drawing criticism than an animation criticism.

Johnston:  But when it came to personality, that was certainly more elusive.

Thomas:  The big one I think of was the Queen of Hearts, but Alice [in Wonderland] (1951) was a special picture anyway. All the way through, I felt he had trouble communicating to almost anybody what he really saw in the material. You could sense what it was, but every time you thought you had it, he would say, "No, no, you don't want stuff like that in there," or, "You're missing the boat, " or "That's not what we want to do." The only stuff he seemed to approve were the silly little things that Kimball would do. Kimball had a sneaky way of avoiding confrontations by plastering things over the top.

Johnston:  [He had] a unique way ["a gimmicky way," Ollie said on the tape] of doing it with the Cheshire Cat. He didn't get into a real personality [development]; it was the mouth that was handled rather than [the Cat].

Thomas: But it gave character—it gave it a kind of entertainment.

Johnston: But in a different way from motivation and the things we tried for.

Thomas: You take it scene by scene [when you approach a sequence as Kimball did]—what can I do to make this an entertaining scene? And it worked.  But it left quite a burden for everybody else, because it wasn't really solving the problem. It was ducking the problem.

Johnston: Like what Kimball did in The Three Caballeros [the screwy animation of the song "The Three Caballeros"] (1944). All the rest of the stuff with those characters in the picture was played and developed in a straighter way.  It used to drive me and Eric crazy, because Walt would say, "You're just not getting that stuff Kimball has in there." There wasn't any opportunity for it in those sections; he wouldn't have liked it if he had seen it. It was a specific sequence that Ward worked out himself, and it came off real funny. But through the rest of it, there was more continuity, and you were trying to tell something, and you couldn't get away [with the crazy things in Kimball's sequence].

Barrier: Kimball said that what killed Alice was that the directors began competing with one another to make their sequences wilder than the others, and it became a vaudeville show, which is an interesting comment in the light of what you've just said.

Thomas: He was right in the thick of it. He always had a talent for protecting himself. He'd smell which way the wind was blowing on each picture, and take advantage of it. We always said he would have made a real top political cartoonist, because he's so sensitive to which way the wind's blowing. And he has great insight into certain things, and showing you what's funny about them. He never seemed to be interested in developing what I thought were his best talents; he always wanted to do something else.

Johnston: He always kind of kidded his characters in his pictures; and yet he had a remarkable talent for picking our—when we were kidding around—what to mimick in some guy...some line of dialogue that guy said, that hit his personality just like that. And yet that wasn't what really interested him.[This portion of Ollie's remarks is largely obscured by crowd noise, but the gist of it is that Kimball was less interested in his characters' feelings than in doing something offbeat—"off the wall"—with Toot Whistle Plunk and Boom (1953) and the space programs for TV cited as examples.] The design of those characters [in Toot Whistle and the space shows] appealed to him. He felt restricted to a degree in what we had to do on the features. It was too straight for him. We didn't have strong motivations in Alice. It was hard to tell how anybody felt about anybody else, especially with Walt not being sure himself.

Thomas: There were lots of cases where he wasn't sure. On Ichabod [The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad] (1949), he was disappointed with the handling and appearance of the character. He liked the picture all right, and the business that we worked out...but he had always felt that Ichabod would be, oh, more loose-jointed, or funnier-looking, or funnier-moving, or something, and yet nearly all the top guys did a scene here and there, and none of them came up with what he was looking for. He wasn't able to communicate it to us before we started, in contrast to other times, when he knew exactly what he wanted, and guide you and inspire you. Those were the great moments, when you were on the same beam with him, and you knew what he was looking for, and you knew it was funny, and you were anxious to do it.

Barrier: What were some examples that fell in that category?

Thomas: Just about all the Dwarfs...almost all of Snow White...

Johnston: A lot of Pinocchio (1940), too.

Thomas: Bambi (1942). Bambi didn't have such broad action, although a lot of the young stuff and the love stuff was fairly broad.

Johnston: He was pretty definite on Cinderella (1950).  He stuck to a plan on that picture. He had a script for that, and you'd stick to it or else.

Thomas: Yes, we had to.

Barrier: A written script?  Wasn't that a rarity?

Thomas: That was the first feature he tried to make after the war; he had waited until he felt the market would justify [taking] the chance.  He'd done the package pictures and other things, which were cheaper to do. He just wasn't sure that we could afford to take the chance with a feature, because it cost so much money. He was determined that if he did do it, he didn't want to make any mistakes, he wanted to know exactly what he was doing before he spent the money. I don't know if there was anything in the money setup [presumably, the financing] where he had to do that, or whether this was just his own desire—never heard what was behind it—but I know that everything on the picture was carefully worked out.

Johnston: Most of it was shot in live action, for the animators.

Thomas: Live action is always very restrictive to an animator, because it nails you to the floor; but in this case, it sure helped Walt see what he was getting before he spent his money on it. The only place he had any flexibility was with the mice and Lucifer, so Kimball had a ball on the picture.

Johnston: Everyone else was fussing with stacks of photostats. I used to work with [Walt] in the shop back in those days, when we were both building our trains, and he used to say, "If I could just get this place to where we don't hang on one picture." Shortly after that, he came up with the nature stuff, and began to diversify. Ichabod was just about to be released at that time, and he was worried about it.

Barrier: When you were using Photostats, in a case like that, were you really required to use them?  Were you free to set them aside?

Johnston: The answer is you were free to set them aside as long as you animated a scene as good as the live action had been—and didn't take too long doing it. We could have just referred to the film, and lots of times we did.

Thomas: You didn't get Photostats on everything, but you did have film to guide you. The value of it was—words are very elusive and unsatisfactory things when it comes to communication. A director would say, "I've got the greatest scene here you ever saw," and the animator says, "Yeah, boy, is it a good one." They're both fired up, and enthused , and talk for 45 minutes. The animator comes back a week later with his scene, and the director says, "What's this?" The animator says, "That's the scene we talked about." Their ideas were completely different, and they thought they were talking about the same thing. So we used to talk in terms of known quantities. How would Chaplin do it? How would Keaton do it? Not that you're going to do it that way, but at least here's a starting point. Both of you [the director and the animator] have seen Stan Laurel, so you say, "Stan Laurel would do it like this.""No, he wouldn't, he'd do it like this." Until you finally have agreed this is the way he'd do it.All right, ours is going to be a little more this way than this way. When you shoot live action, you look at it, and you say, that's sure dull as dishwater, what are you going to do with it? Well, I think I'll make this character do this, and this character do this. The director knows what you're saying, and you can talk in terms of a known quantity.

So you didn't have to stick to it, but you did have to use it as a basis of communication. That's the way Walt used it, too; it was a starting point. And yet, if something looked real good, of course you were crazy not to use it.There are some animators with an ego, who say, "I'm not going to use live action, the way I draw, I don't have to use live action." So they would draw it themselves, and it might be beautiful to them, but as far as working in the picture, it didn't improve the sequence any.

Johnston: For certain purposes, [such as] a scene where a character is walking toward you, or walking away from you, or something like that, it really speeded you up. We were in on all the shooting, but it was a problem that an awful lot of the stuff that Geronimi would see, or that we would see, you could never make come off in live action.

Barrier:  I'm intrigued by what you said about the results being so different from what the director anticipated. I've heard that the different directors at Disney's differed sharply in how precise they would be in their instructions, and how freely that they would let you know what they wanted. Les Clark said, for example, that Geronimi's handout was the first pencil test, whereas Jackson was very precise from the start. How much difference did it make how precise the director was? Could you ever really tell what was wanted before the first pencil test?

Thomas: Once again, it depended on the individuals—how much you tried to understand what somebody else was saying, and how much you felt. I think probably in the back of each animator's mind was the feeling, well, Walt's the guy I have to please, not the director, and you were always thinking, now, what did Walt see in this business?  If you'd been in the story meetings, where he told you what he saw, then you'd say, "This isn't what I got from Walt. This layout doesn't give me a chance"—and you'd recount what you'd thought he said. Then it's up to the director. Does an animator have a better idea?   Do we call up the layout and change this?  Which way do we go? With Jackson, I remember his saying, "Okay, you feel this real strongly this way, let's agree, you'll do it your way, and then if it is not correct, you will do it my way.  Okay?"

Johnston: An animator, like an actor, has to have a certain freedom if you're going to get a real feeling for [the character being animated]. I don't think you can do it if you're tied down too much to somebody else's [conception]. It's almost impossible, unless it's coincidence that you both happen to see it the same way.

Thomas: Don't be misled: Jackson had a great talent for this business. Of all the people who were here when I came, I don't know any of them who would stimulate me as much as he would in the right direction.  If I was going to talk over a character, I felt however the character was, it ought to have a certain personality, Jackson would be the guy you'd talk it over with. He had a great sense of humor, he knew what was funny, and you'd tell him stories. [There was] a lot of enthusiasm. So you'd build a thing up until you were quite clear in your own mind what it was that was funny about the guy, what you wanted to do, and it was all because of Jackson. Now, when you were starting out to animate, he was also very helpful because of this thoroughness; he had thought it through so you couldn't make a mistake.   He was supporting you, and holding you in his hands, in effect, because everything had been thought out for you.  You still had the problem of making the drawings, getting the appeal, getting the expression, getting the timing—all of these things you still had to do.  So I always had a real warm spot in my heart for him.

Johnston: I do, too. I don't want to be misinterpreted on that. I was thinking more of specific timing, where he would want to do it eight frames, or something, and you felt that it was a little different type of gesture, or action, than that. I agree with Frank wholeheartedly; I think he was one of the finest we ever had here, if not the finest, in many ways. He certainly understood music well.

Thomas: He understood character. Think back, who else would you go to if you were going to add a new facet to a personality, if you thought that the guy you were working on was kind of bland and wouldn't it be funny if he had this other aspect to him? [Bill] Roberts  wouldn't help you much, [Gerry] Geronimi wouldn't help you at all, [Jack] Kinney wouldn't help you at all. Ham Luske might...

Johnston:  ...in the early days...

Thomas: ...but as he directed more and more, he drew away from that aspect of things. Jackson was about the only guy, outside of other animators.

Johnston:  We all wanted to work with him. I can remember I wanted to work with Jackson more than any other director when I started animating. I hoped for the day I'd get to work with him. There was a certain value to the way he planned everything, because it made [for] a consistency in feeling throughout the whole sequence; it wasn't a hodgepodge, when he worked it out. I can remember on Song of the South, when I'd do something a little different way than he had pictured it, or that we had talked—it'd be a better idea or something, so, "Well, hell I'll try it." He'd run it over and over and over—"Well, it's not exactly what I had in mind; let me look at it again." He'd run it another ten times, [and say] "You know, I think maybe it's better this way."  So he was very fair; it wasn't a personal thing at all.

Thomas: Nothing personal; I never felt that.

Barrier: Just talking to him, he seems to be one of most ego-less people I've encountered in the business. What did Walt look for when he made people directors? What characteristics appealed to him? Was it simply a matter of someone coming to the end of his string as an animator, [Frank inserted at this point: "No! He was always looking for a better use of his men, but this sounds like a negative suggestion!"] and having to find some place to put him, in some cases, or was there some particular quality—?

Thomas: I think that changed from year to year, and picture to picture. He would often put a person into direction for one sequence, or one picture, and decide it wasn't working out and put him back into animation, or wherever they'd been before.

Johnston: Like Ham. I think [Walt] put him in for different reasons than somebody else, because he felt that Ham had this real great power to analyze the animation, and he could be helpful to a lot of people, and help organize the business so that the younger guys could handle it better.

Barrier: I've heard repeatedly that some very fine animators, like Ham Luske and Norman Ferguson, were really done a disfavor when they were made directors, that their usefulness as animators was greater.

Thomas: That was always the point in question, particularly in the later years: is it worth it to lose this man's animation to the studio, or the picture, or do you pick up an added plus in having him cover more ground? The last people whom Walt moved into direction, [the move] was based, I would say, more on their ability to handle a large crew, to handle six or seven animators and get a successful result. Walt felt, "Now, that must be an unusual trait that we can use." Eric Larson was doing that, so they made a director out of him, and Woolie [Reitherman], the same way. In each case, he needed someone, and he never picked them as you would in an imaginary situation, saying, "I'm going to make a picture about the stars and the cosmos and the man who will direct this is the man who has the feeling for this"—he never went that way.

One of his talents, and I think Ben said this, was the ability to get a certain type of work out of the men that he had around him. He had this wonderful talent of stimulating a guy to do more than he would normally do, of getting him fired up, and then Walt would go with what the guy did, rather than say, "No, I want it this way." So many bosses are saying only, "I want the result like this, and I'm going to find the guy who can give it to me like this." That's a very restrictive thing, and you're going to have problems getting it. Walt would say, "This guy's going to give me something different, and I want it to be in this area," and he'd get him started. The guy wouldn't do it, and they'd switch it to someone else; he constantly did that. But on the things that succeeded, it was because the guy gave him something that Walt could use, and he would go that way. It may not have been what he was thinking of at all, but he'd go that way with it, and just keep threading his way through the talents of the people who were involved.

Barrier: But there were definite boundaries to Walt's taste.

Thomas: Oh, you bet.

Barrier: And in most cases, I guess, he never went against his own instincts as to what he liked and what he disliked. In later years, did this ever become restrictive to you and other people in the studio? Did there come a time when the boundaries of Walt's taste seemed inadequate for what the people at the studio wanted to do?

Thomas: Once again, it's a personal and individual matter.

Johnston:  It depended on what you were trying to do. As an animator, if you had a good scene, a good character, even if the picture was becoming kind of redundant, like some of them have, I think you could find some enthusiasm for doing it—or quite a bit of enthusiasm.

Thomas: There were fellows who were dissatisfied, who didn't feel their talents were being used; there were guys whose talents were not used, who were, for one reason or another, second in line or third in line behind someone who was fronting for them. Then, everyone was put in with someone else, to work with. If you were in animation, you were an in-betweener, or an assistant, or you're assistant layout man, or assistant story man. I'm sure that almost every one of those [people] spent many hours thinking, is this what I really want to do? I'm  bottled up, never going to get anywhere. It might be all right if I'm up where Ted Sears is, but golly, the way I am now…

Then there were others who were at the top, who had a lot of talent, who couldn't adapt to the team effort, to Walt' s thinking, and they were better off to get out. Walt never held that against anybody. He even encouraged them to the point where some guys said, "He's trying to get rid of me." Walt always felt that if a guy doesn't want to work on the thing, he shouldn't be here, because he's not going to do you any favors, he's not going to do himself any favors.

Barrier: The heart of Walt' s taste lay in character animation, but I've felt that, particularly in the last 20 years or so, there were possibilities in character animation that were not going explored—

Thomas: [Frank inserted before this answer: "We don't seem to answer this question. I agree that in the last 20 years Walt didn't develop the characters as richly as he did earlier. I'm not sure why that was—we continued trying to—he didn't seem as interested in that aspect."] There were parts of Snow White, parts of Pinocchio, parts of Bambi, that, individually, each of us felt was something we really wanted to see done. It was a great opportunity, and you could only do it in animation, and boy, what a great sequence I could do out of this—and you can't sell it to anyone. And you go to the people you think are going to be most sympathetic—as long as I've been here, that's happened—you go to Ken Anderson, and try to sell him. You go to someone else and try to sell him, and you can't sell your idea. Generally, that means that your idea isn't that good, or that it isn't that well thought out, or that you're not doing a good job of selling it. [Whatever the reason] it doesn't get into the picture. Well, then, do you get sore about it, and say, "Aw shucks, I'm going to go someplace else to work, they don't appreciate me," or do you say, "Oh well, there's one idea down the drain," and start in on the next one?

Johnston: You’ve got to be resourceful, really, in a place like this, where so much is a team effort. You lose one, and try to find another way that will satisfy you and whoever you have to please.

Thomas:  But isn't it the same if you're a commercial artist? Or an illustrator? I've never really thought through this, but it has something to do with you're doing so much of what you want to do, you're so fired up, or the opportunities are so great—there’ s something there that makes you think of even more that you could do. I seem to notice more people around here who have expanded their thinking of "Gee, I could do this" [inaudible] in other areas of the art business. I've talked to people who have illustrated books successfully, and I've talked to people in commercial work, and I've talked to different types of people, and they don’t seem to have this sort of open-ended dream of what they would like to be doing as much as the guys in animation. That's why so many guys felt restricted—because it is a restricting business. It's a slow, tedious business.

Johnston: If you have stories, and they're not the type that really stimulate you—both of us would have loved to do another fantasy, so we could use our imaginations more, and we had hoped that we could work on The Black Cauldron if it had gone into production after Rescuers, but that's not the case. So you don't. Well, then you look for some character that you can get hold of, or character relationship that excites you, and really, that's an awful lot, because if you can get a good role, like Hiss and Prince John [in Robin Hood (1973)]—I wasn't happy about the picture, but I've never had any more fun than I've had with those characters.

Cinderella

For Cinderella (1950), Thomas and Johnston had the ungrateful tasks of animating the stepsisters (Johnston) and the stepmother (Thomas). The Disney draft (which breaks down animators' credits by scene) credits Thomas for this scene.

Barrier: That’s interesting, because I gather from what you said about Cinderella that you didn't particularly enjoy working on it, and yet the picture is certainly a satisfying whole.

Johnston: Of course, as Frank said, Kimball had the thing that was really fun. I worked mostly on the stepsisters;  Frank had the stepmother.

Thomas: That was no fun. And yet, you realized that for the picture to have any strength, to have any meaning, it had to have a stepmother who was a certain character, and did a certain job. You wished you could draw her better, and make her more interesting, or a pleasing-looking drawing. Not that she would be pleasing, because she had that character, but you could do a sloppy drawing or you could do a good drawing. That was about the only latitude you had, but you knew it was important to the picture, so you think, if I don't do it, who will do it, and old ego cuts in:  there's no one else who can do it like I would do it. So you find yourself doing it, but not enjoying it, day by day. Then, the final thing was that the band [the Firehouse Five Plus Two, of which Kimball and Thomas were both members] was playing at the time, and when Ward would introduce the guys and [tell] what they did at the studio, he would introduce me as the one who'd done the stepmother, and everybody would go boooo! Then he'd say, "I did the mice "[imitating sound of audience cheering and applauding]. He came off looking like a million bucks! [Frank inserted in the margin here: "This is supposed to be a joke—don't let me look like I really resented this."]

BarrierHow much did a knowledge of music help you in your animation?  Of course, in the early years, things were very closely synchronized, but later on, you got into freer timing.

Thomas: I don't think it helped any; I think anyone with a sense of rhythm [has gone] about as far as you need to go. Oh, maybe it helped with phrasing, a little bit. It can't hurt, but I'm trying to think the other way.  [Suppose] I was going to handle a sequence, and I had an animator who didn't know anything about music structure, but assume he's fairly intelligent, and has normal talent, and is interested in people and observing action, and observing timing, and observing comedy, and has a sense of entertainment, I wouldn't hesitate to put him on the sequence just because he didn't know music.  Particularly popular music, [because] that's the simplest kind of arithmetic. That's all you need to know about the structure of it. You can hear the beat, you can hear the rhythm, you can hear anything else you need, and the rest of it just breaks down. I'd say, watch a week of TV shows, watch whatever the current song-and-dance shows are, and tell me what you like. If he comes back and he says, "I didn't think much of the show, but they've got a little dancer who's shorter than the others and has got a funny way of moving"—I'd say, "You're on my sequence." If he says, "Oh, I don't know, they all seem to be doing about the same thing," I'd say, "I'll look around a little bit longer."

Johnston: Woolie sort of relies on us now to help in deciding where and what type of music will go into a picture. I have a good feeling for music, [although] I'm not a musician.

Thomas: You have to have one type of feeling, to make your choices as a producer and director. Who are you going to have on your picture? What type of music is going to be appropriate to the picture you're going to make? Who do we get?  Do we call in a song writer, do we use the staff musician? These are all real tough decisions, and very important decisions, and each of us has our own feeling about what we hear. You sit around and discuss it, and as soon as you make up your mind, then everybody jumps on you: "Who picked that stupid song?"

Gray: I'm wondering if we might be talking about two different kinds of pictures. I think possibly that you guys are talking about the pictures that are more involved with acting and caricature, and Mike and I have been talking to each other, off and on, about another kind of picture. We just saw a Mickey Mouse earlier today, The Little Whirlwind, where there wasn't so much acting as there was just beautiful animation, for the sake of animation.    I'm wondering if an animator's knowledge of music wouldn't be more helpful to him in that Mickey Mouse kind of picture than in a more straight acting kind of thing, like you guys have done more recently. The Mickey animation in The Little Whirlwind didn't strike me as believable acting as much as it was just very beautiful animation; it was almost lyrical animation.

Johnston: Which we had a lot of in Fantasia, where you weren't trying to put over any character, or any strong attitudes, or anything. The section I was on—Beethoven—it was all just work with the music, picking the right actions and the right type of movements.

Gray: What about in a picture where you're not working to music, but you want a lyrical kind of animation, rather than an acting kind of animation? Would a knowledge of music be helpful to an animator working on that kind of a picture? I can't think of a feature where that would have happened, but I can think of several shorts where that would have happened.

Thomas: I can think of lots of shorts I'd like to do—no specific stories, but types of action. I don't know whether it's a knowledge of music [that's important]; it's an overall feeling, and it's really your observation and sense of entertainment, sense of communication, that comes into play there. Things like a knowledge of color, knowledge of line drawing, anything else—how much does it help you? Well, sure, they all help. But I'm trying to judge it from the other standpoint: could you do it without the specific knowledge you're talking about? And I think you could.

Barrier: As character animators, I'm sure you were involved in the life classes in the thirties, and both of you had academic training before you came to work here. Do you have to watch out for the pitfall of, well, action analysis for its own sake?

Gray: Getting too straight.

Barrier:  Losing sight of the character. There's always a line drawn between the cartoonists and the illustrators among animators.

[Frank inserted here: "This is a valid and interesting point. I'm not sure we're the best qualified to comment on it snce our interest is obviously so one sided—but I think the range of animation is also far greater than the question implies."]

Gray: Is there ever a danger of getting so involved in the academics of anatomy—things like that.

Johnston: If you had been overly conscious of anatomy in Hook, or Smee, or something like that, or this little girl I've been working on here [in The Rescuers], you restrict yourself much, because you still have to make them act, and you've got to get a certain amount of the fundamentals of animation into your movement—a certain amount of squash and stretch, and expression, and overall moment, and changes in the body, and if you were to follow the anatomy too closely, you could get awfully rigid and It happened lots of times when guys worked over live action.

Thomas: The problem is kind of that when you run into a drawing problem—you don't know where to put a shoulder, you don’t know how to tie an arm onto a body, you don’t know where the hips are, what direction they're facing, what's going on in the structure of the body, so you go back to your live action and you find the answer is there. I guess the more solutions you find in the real thing, the more you're inclined to follow it too closely, and forget own principles of animation, which are the tried and true means of communication, and the only means of communication, really, that we've ever discovered. I'd never thought of it before—I  guess there's a danger there. To me, you have a problem with every last scene you draw, and I'd never pinpointed that as a specific...

Johnston: In The Rescuers, in that opening section in the United Nations, where some live action was shot, the young guys who worked over that live action, it looks like it's traced. In a way, maybe it won't hurt, because you want a very realistic feeling, like there are real people in this building, and then go downstairs and here are these little mice. But if you wanted to use that in a picture where you were going to develop some character, you'd have a hell of a time developing character out of what they did. It's almost computers, it's so straight.

Gray: Is there a difference in the psychology of an illustration versus the psychology of a cartoon, as drawings? In most cases, guys who can do one well cannot do the other; is there a difference in the psychology, or mental approach, to Mickey versus [a realistically drawn character] ?

Thomas: In music, some guys write serious compositions and some write popular songs. Some can write ballads, some can write cheery songs. That's about the only difference I can see. There are some guys who are far better at layout, and they're usually the guys who do illustrations; they just have a feeling for a total picture. And there are guys who are more interested in personality, and character, and what the people are doing, and have less and less interest in the background that they're in; it [the background] only supports an idea. Daumier did some nice paintings, but his interest was certainly in characters—the type of people who were doing things—that's where his interest was, in the people. While someone else was much more interested in the overall picture, the landscape, the background, how the people fit in, how they worked with the building—the total picture. I think that made a difference there, more than in any other area. But the difference certainly exists.

Johnston: But it is possible for certain guys to do both types of animation.

Thomas: But most of us are better at certain things than we are at others.

Barrier I believe I said in my letter that I've heard that both you [Frank] and Milt Kahl had to really work to acquire drawing facility. Is it an advantage, in a way, to really have to work your way through it, rather than be like Fred Moore, who never seems to have had any trouble making a pencil do what he wanted it to do?

Thomas: He had his troubles. Fred had a terrible time. He would go through three days of sheer hell, where he couldn't draw, he couldn't pick up a pencil.  He was so dependent upon everything being right, his emotions all being in tune with his physical being. And when everything was right, he'd take off like a rocket, and in five hours, he'd do four or five days of work. Then he was happy. But getting started... Just like Milt—he threw away more drawings, and kicked the wall, and swore...nobody has it easy. I'd say the better you can draw, the easier you would think it would be, and yet I've never known anyone who was actually in animation—now, they had guys in the character model [department], under Joe Grant, who could sit and whistle and make a pretty little thing without much effort, and there have been guys in the styling and some of those hard-to-define jobs, who would do very keen inspirational things that were easy for them to do.

Johnston: It's rare that you'd find a scene that you'd say was easy. You may start out thinking, gee, I'll breeze through this, but before you know it, you've got a problem. There's some relationship between the head and body that you want, and you can't just quite seem to get.

Barrier Now, one of you assisted Fred Moore, didn't you?

Johnston: Both of us. [Frank] first, and I followed him. There were a couple of guys in between us, but they didn't stay long, for one reason or another.

Barrier Are there any lessons that have stuck with you, from watching Fred work, and following up on his drawings?

Thomas: He had a set of values that he had learned that [are] kind of surprising, considering his personality. Very objective points; and he used to say, every time he got back a test that was not right, it was because he had forgotten something he had learned earlier. They were real basic things in staging—only doing one thing at a time, only trying to sell one idea at a time, making your drawing appealing no matter what you're doing, selling the character, fitting it into the sequence, putting over the story point...

Johnston: Not moving it too much; he liked the poses. He used to criticize both of us for doing too much overlapping action in a hold, so that you never quite got to see the hold. We were always moving in and out.

Thomas: Made it mushy. Or, moving too fast to see it; seeing the change of expression take place, letting the audience in on the change of expression, instead of moving the character while you're doing it. Every time he got back a scene, he'd get so mad at himself that he'd forgotten; he'd say, "I knew that, I knew that. " Because he just hated to change things. So he'd say, "You know, I should make a sign and put up here on the wall, of all these things." When I was animating, years later, I would tell the guys this, and Hal Ambro made the sign; he wrote all of these down and put it up. Fred said, "It ought to be on a wheel, and each day you'd turn it one notch..."

Johnston: So you don't get too used to seeing it.

Thomas: If you had fifteen rules up there, every fifteen days they'd come around again.

Gray: I'd love to see that list sometime.

Thomas: It's about what I've been saying here. Does your drawing have two-dimensional clarity? Does it have three-dimensional depth? Does it fit into the background? Does it feel solid, feel round? Is he moving within the depth of the perspective of the scene? [Thomas and Johnston reproduced the list on page 182 of Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life.]

Johnston: And in the clear.

Barrier: But all these things are really just the starting points, the basics, aren't they? They don't have a thing to do with the character's personality.

Thomas: No, this is just the basic tools of communication, the pitfalls that [confront you] day after day after day. You can't imagine how often you're thinking about something else, and you're trying to put a drawing together, and suddenly here you are all tied up with something you've known for years. These [the rules] are all basic to an actor, a magician. Every magician, I'm sure, whether [or not] it's written down, does the same things we do. He has to call attention to what he wants people to see. If he's going to display somethin-if he's going to be fishing around with this hand for a coin here, he doesn't hold this down here so you see both hands at once. He doesn't hold it in front of his face, he doesn't hold it back here, he gets it out here, he looks at it—his whole body looks at it, you look at it. Then, when he's got you, [he takes the coin out, but no one notices]. It's the same thing with animation—you've got to make the people look at what's telling the story.

Barrier: Once you move past such basic rules of staging, there really aren't any rules, are there?  Or is it possible to formulate rules?

JohnstonThere are general rules...

Thomas: I think one of the biggest ones to me, because it’s the one you get trapped in the most, is, be sure you have a scene that shows the character you've decided upon. I see a lot of movies—this is true of live-action TV, as well as ours—where they decide that a character is going to be shifty, he's going to be conniving, it's going to be hard to ever pin him down. Then they give him a scenes where he's meeting people, he's being very gregarious, very outgoing; so he keeps saying, "When do I get my conniving scene?" "Don't worry, don't worry. " The picture's done, and he's never had a scene where he was conniving; yet that was your character.

We find that we say, oh, this character would great... We had a little muskrat in The Rescuers, who I thought would be strong as an ox, and capable, but she considers herself [as] having a little polka-dot personality. She's very feminine, and she holds her hands in little feminine ways, holds her head, and blinks her eyes a lot, and everything.   But when she wants something, she yells, and her voice would shatter glass. And when she grabs something, she's got it like this. This sounded pretty good , and we talked through it, and it seemed to fit good, but then we started looking [for] the scene where this happens. We go through the whole picture, and there isn't a scene of her where she really uses any of those characteristics. As a result, she comes out on the screen as the suggestion of a personality, but not the definite thing that a Dopey, or a Jiminy Cricket, or a Thumper was.

Barrier:  So you're really at the mercy of the story.

Thomas:  No, I think it's a matter of staging on a larger scale. First of all, if the story fights you, you've got the wrong character, so you'd better back up and change your ideas of the character. Once you've decided on it, you should tell the story through the character, which means you should find the scenes which give the character a chance to do that type of act It's awfully easy to look at the storyboard and say, "Well, we'll cut to a two-shot, we'll be in close here, and we'll do this," and just sort of let this slip by you.

Johnston: One basic thing to me is to know what the motivations are of the character—how he feels—and I think that really is a rule everybody should follow. You've got to decide that, or you won't know how he's going to act toward somebody else, or how they'll act toward him. You've got to know the emotional range of that character.

Gray: I observed something strange the last time I worked here, about six years ago, and that was that a young friend of mine, working here, was one of the first guys being put through the training school, and his training was in storyboarding under Ken Anderson. From what this friend of mine was telling me, he was constantly being instructed—and this went on for a period of months—by Ken Anderson, to develop the character and the character's personality, but he was never allowed to develop any piece of business for the character to do, in terms of plot structure. It had to be pure character, and then the story would evolve out of the character's personality. I got the impression, perhaps erroneously, that that was, in this past decade or so at Disney's how the stories were constructed.

[Frank inserted at this point: "The fellow obviously didn't grasp what Ken was trying to teach him—and that's why he isn't at the studio any more. Ken's point seems very valid to me."]

Johnston: On Jungle Book (1967), we didn't know what the story was until we developed the sequence on the bear and Mowgli. Walt wanted to—he told us, "I don't want to bother with that icky-sticky story stuff right now."  And when the time came when he saw how the characters were developing, it told him the ones he wanted to tell the story with. We had a rough idea what the story was—the little boy was supposed to go back to the man-village—but how you were going to tell it was another question.

Thomas: Very often, Walt didn't know where he was going with a story. We used to make gags about the fact—Walt liked to be surprised, just like anybody. Some of them, we were just completely baffled; we couldn't figure how he'd ever make a story out of the thing. My favorite was on Snow White; everything was working out pretty good until you get down to the end, and I said to him, "Gee, Walt, I don't see how you've ever going to get out of this hole you're in. You've built up to the big climax here, and the witch goes over the cliff, and the Dwarfs come back and find Snow White—how are you going to get out of it, what are you going to do?" He says, "Aw, hell, Frank, you don't have to worry about that, you can put in a printed card, or any damned thing." And I said , "Printed card?  Gone with the Wind [which was in fact released after Snow White] didn't have any printed cards. Any picture I can think of, they don't use printed cards." I thought, he's got to be kidding. And there it is, four printed cards. No one’s ever worried about it, works beautifully. Walt was always strong on getting your entertainment; that's what the people are in the theater for, entertainment.

Johnston: Communicate with them, and you've got it.

Thomas: And you're going to communicate with them best through your personalities. He was also a great talent for spotting an unusual, imaginative, fresh type of sequence, like the dogs watching TV in One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Now, who would ever have thought of that? Or the dogs singing "Home Sweet Home" in Lady and the Tramp. The speeded up voices of the mice in Cinderella, which was used over and over and over by everybody else; as far as I know, that was the first time it had been used in a cartoon. He wasn't satisfied when a sequence was ordinary, it just told the story. Everybody else would say, "Well, I don't know, it looks all right to me, it seems to be all right." Walt would say, "No, damn it"—he'd drum his fingers and rub his chin and scratch his head , and maybe he'd come up with something and maybe he couldn't get it that day, but he wouldn't okay the thing until it did something that was unusual. Now, if you have an unusual story situation that you've created, and rich characters, you've got something. I'd put my money on that. Without him, it's awfully hard to come up with these unique situations because we don't have the story talent to do that. So we have to rely on what he taught us about characterization and entertainment and communication in those areas. Because we do understand that and have been able to keep the studio going.

Barrier Frank, I wanted to ask you that question about Peter Pan (1953), when you were given the job of setting Captain Hook's personality. Was that in fact early in the game, when it was test animation, or had it gone beyond that point?

Thomas: It was early in the game; but it was one of my blackest moments here. As I recall, about four of us had all started experimental animation at the same time, on different characters, and we were all going to run what we had done at the same time. The story department at that time—I don't know who all the guys were, I never did know, but there must have been thirty of them, and each one was out to feather his nest with Walt. They were all waiting for Walt to say, "Well, gee, I don't know," and boy, were they in there quick with the suggestions of what might be wrong, whether it's the building, or the day, or the story, or the picture they saw last night, or the animation. I couldn't get hold of anything, and Milt was real upset. He didn't want to show it in that stage.

[Just after the tape ran out, Frank said that he animated five scenes of Hook. The first four were nothing, but Walt saw something in the fifth one, and said , "I think Frank's beginning to get hold of something here," and told him to keep at it. Frank inserted at this point in the transcript: "He saved me from the wolves!"]

Peter Pan

From the sequence the draft calls "Hook tricks Tinker Bell," probably the high point in Frank Thomas's superb animation of Captain Hook in Peter Pan (1953). Marc Davis animated Tinker Bell in that sequence.

[Posted October 27, 2014]

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