A Mid Morning Conversation

The demanding directing animator who once instilled fear in the hearts of all who assisted him seemed surprisingly benign. We sat on the commissary patio at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank on a beautiful Southern California morning. Having been retired for a number of years, the aging animator seemed remarkably quiet and relaxed. He was older now, and his vision wasn’t as stellar as it once was. Worse, his hand would shake when he tried to draw. Aging is a bummer especially if you happen to be a skilled and talented Disney animator. I was older as well, and it appeared the years had flown past at remarkable speed. We refer to it as the Disney “Time Warp.” An odd compression of time experienced by all who spend a decade or more working on Walt Disney animated feature motion pictures.

Hardly as boisterous as his outspoken colleague across the hall in D-wing, Frank Thomas was hardly reticent when it came to expressing an opinion or correcting a less than acceptable animation drawing. Milt Kahl was bombastic, while Thomas was a good deal more subtle. Should you have the pleasure of working for Frank, the experience was no less terrifying. However, I was not feeling the wrath of Frank Thomas on this quiet morning. Thomas had become a kindly, older gentleman eager to share his knowledge with a young artist. While it’s true I had the opportunity to animate a few scenes in Disney movies, no way could I accept the lofty title of, “animator.” Thomas was a master. He was Yoda while I continued my struggle to become a Jedi. I confess I felt lucky to have Frank Thomas to myself that day. Now, I might be able to ask a few of the several hundred questions I had on my mind.

Frank Thomas’ animation style was unique and the Master Animator seemed to search for the essence of the scene in the scribbles on his paper. This is what made Frank so difficult to follow should you be his animation assistant. You had to know instinctively what to include and what to leave out. What to emphasize and what to dismiss. Your draftsmanship and your knowledge of animation was critical. Should you come up short on either, you would have made the mistakes I made back in the sixties and gotten your a** chewed out. After a decade in Disney’s animation department I thought I knew a thing or two. I found out the hard way that I didn’t know squat. It was this trial by fire that made our generation of Disney animation artists so unique. We were mentored by Walt Disney’s finest, and the bar was held high. As I said in the documentary, “If you could make it through Disney back then, every other job during your career would be a cake walk.”

Before our mid morning coffee came to a close, Frank Thomas volunteered some unexpected advice. “Don’t expect your retirement to be easy,” smiled the Directing Animator. “I work harder today than I ever did at the drawing board. Coming to work at Disney each day was easy. Now, I have to travel, lecture and author books. I’m working harder today than I ever have.” I wondered why Frank would mention that? At the time I was hardly anyone important, nor did I expect to be. Who would seek my advice or ask me to lecture on the subject of animation? Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston might be lecturing at universities or traveling the world, but they were famous Disney artists. A marginal animation artist like myself was hardly in their class. This mid morning conversation took place on the outdoor commissary patio of the Walt Disney Studio many years ago. I can’t help but reflect on it today as I prepare for a master class at a local midwestern university. The wise words of Frank Thomas keep coming back to me. “Get ready to teach, travel and work harder than ever,” said the Master Animator. “That’s retirement for guys like us.” It appears Frank Thomas had already seen my future. Who knew?

Yes, he did smile on occasion. Over time, the directing animator I feared the most became a good friend. He's truly a Master and I have nothing but admiration and respect for this stellar Disney talent.

Yes, he did smile on occasion. Over time, the directing animator I feared the most became a good friend. He's truly a Master and I have nothing but admiration and respect for this stellar Disney talent.