You’re looking at Disney Legend, Frank Thomas at his drawing board in Animations’ D-wing. It’s a particular view I’ll always remember. You see, back in the sixties I entered Frank Thomas’ office after working on his scenes from Walt Disney’s “The Sword in the Stone.” I had worked at the Walt Disney Studios for nearly a decade and I confess like most smug kids I mistakenly thought I had pretty much learned it all. Confident in my ability as an animation clean-up artist, I knew I could handle any job that came my way. What the heck. I had been following master animator, Milt Kahl for over a year and never once raised the ire of the most difficult draftsman in D-wing. No doubt about it, I was convinced I could handle anything. So you can imagine my attitude when asked to help out on a few scenes that were also in “The Sword in the Stone.” With complete confidence, I said, “no problem. I’ll knock these scenes out in no time.” It was a piece of cake - or so I thought. You see, the scenes I would be cleaning up belonged to master animator, Frank Thomas. Frank and his Key Assistant, Dale Oliver worked down the hall from us in D-wing. I had never worked for Mr. Thomas before but, after all, how hard could it be?
I’ll assume you’re not an animator so you might not understand the rather esoteric animation stuff we’re going to discuss. You see, Milt Kahl and Frank Thomas had totally different approaches to the way animation was created. Kahl methodically preplanned everything in his head carefully maping out every minute detail before putting pencil to paper. Thomas, on the other hand sought to find the ideal pose in the inspired scribbles on his drawing paper. His drawings could seem crude and rough as he moved through this process, but the end result was pure animation magic. Naturally, as a smug young kid I gave this little thought as I went about my task cleaning up the scenes I had been given. Would my animation clean-up work be acceptable, one might ask? Because I was completely clueless, my answer would probably have been a confident, yes.
A few days later, I was back at my drawing board working for Milt Kahl when Frank’s Key Assistant, Dale Oliver knocked on my office door. “Frank would like to speak with you,” replied the mild mannered, Dale Oliver. “He’s in his office now.” I left my room and headed down the hallway to Frank’s office. Before I go further, let me provide a little character insight on the Disney Master Animator. Unlike his colleague, Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas usually appeared gentle and soft spoken. Think of Crispin Glover’s character, George McFly in “Back to the Future.” However, don’t let Frank’s soft spoken manner fool you. He could be tough and I mean really, really tough. You see, that afternoon Frank Thomas had gone over my scenes for “Sword in the Stone” and he was not happy. And, how unhappy was he, you ask? For the next hour or so I stood aside the Master Animator as he ripped my drawings to shreds. As you can probably imagine, I was ripped a new one as well. It was a dressing down I’ll never forget. However, it was also one I truly deserved. When you’re young and inexperienced it’s easy to become smug and overconfident. Painful as it may seem, it’s a blessing to have someone older and more knowledgeable set you straight. I may have gone home with tears in my eyes that afternoon back in the sixties. However, that painful experience did me a world of good.
Like all Disney animated movies my story has a happy ending. My final memories of an aging Frank Thomas were our talks at breaktime at the commissary patio and strolling down the hallway of our beloved Animation Building. Because of his failing eyesight and other physical problems Frank was no longer able to create his special magic with pencil and paper. However, he shared his considerable knowledge with a new generation of animation artists and continued to do so until his passing. Frank Thomas was an incredable animator and a stern taskmaster who, like our boss, Walt Disney wanted things done right. Frank Thomas was a Disney Legend but most important - he was my mentor and my friend.