Ollie Johnston is one of the legendary Nine Old Men of the Disney studios. He has worked on all the Disney feature films from Snow White to Fox and the Hound. Father Robert Murphy conducted the following interview with him in January 1981 at the Disney studios.
If, as Cinderella once sung, “A dream is a wish your heart makes”, and if dreams are part reality and part imagination then we owe a great deal to that well-known dreamer Walt Disney. Walt, for all his brilliance and genius, was, first and foremost, a skilful dreamer; a man who could combine imagination and reality the way a painter mixes colours.
Now, in the years after Walt’s death, a good number of his fellow geniuses are finally starting to get the recognition they deserve. Two of these are veteran animators: Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas who, along with Les Clark, Marc Davis, Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery and Woolie Reitherman, comprise the legendary: “Nine Old Men”. These were men, most of whom had come to Disney in the 1930’s, who, by 1950, made up the permanent group of nine supervising animators.
After Frank and Ollie’s retirement, the two began work on a book to explain the mystery of Disney animation. The result is a colourful and wondrous work of love (much like its subject matter) entitled: Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life (Abbeville Press Publishers. New York.)
At first glance, one might pass the book off as another one of those “coffee table” editions: nice to look at but lacking in substance. It certainly fits the dimensions of a “coffee table” book, measuring as it does, a big and hefty l0 x 11 and over 2 inches thick! Looks, however, are deceiving. This is probably the finest book of its kind of animation combining beautiful examples of Disney’s art with text that is truly enlightening! It is a delight on many levels and really opens up for us his mysterious process.
Having enjoyed the book so thoroughly, it was a long awaited moment when my rental car pulled into the unobtrusive Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California surrounded by the hills so familiar to TV viewers of the hit show: “M*A*S*H”. Ollie Johnston had agreed to an interview and met us at the relatively new Roy 0. Disney Buildings (located across from the Animation Building but more precisely at the corner of Mickey Avenue and Dopey Drive!)
Ollie is as open and friendly a fellow as one is likely to meet. He was dressed in a loose fitting cardigan and sport shirt (as he is pictured in the book) and walked with quick step.
“I won’t have anything too monumental to say. I just drone on”, said Ollie in a slightly reedy voice. That statement was to be disproved in the next hour! His recollections are sharp and his insights are keen.
For me, the interview was a plus on two counts: One: to have new insight into a process of dreaming that is such a part of all of our lives and, Two, to meet the man behind the image of Mr. Since in “Peter Pan” or Baloo in “The Jungle Book” and to find there a warm sensitive dreamer who hitched his star to the Disney’ Wagon and to whom the world should be grateful!
Dateline: January 1981.
MURPHY: In your book, we see your name on any number of characters: Thumper in Bambi; Mr. Smee in Peter Pan; Old Rufus in the Rescuers; Dopey in Snow White; Mowgli in Jungle Book; Bagheera in Jungle Book; the dalmatians in 101 Dalmatians: etc. Are any of these a direct result of your own conceptualization or are they a collaborative model?
JOHNSTON: In the early days, on such as Thumper, there was an awful lot of preliminary work done by the model department and some really great artists, especially before the war, so by the time we got the character, there already had been a lot of work. We had to alter them some; the face or the expression. Plus when you have the voice, that always alters it some. Later on, Mr. Since turned out to look like me or vice versa: bald headed and with glasses. He already looked a little like me so it was half and half. The more I drew him the more a little more of me crept in. You never do a character all by yourself. If you’re a good animator, you go see the other animators because you don’t want to hide your work. You want to get their advice and to see if there is some way to improve it. The further down you get from the pre-war period, the more the character is apt to be a little more the conception of the animators. But that doesn’t mean the story sketch men didn’t do a lot of work. With Rufus the Cat, their drawings were good but not exactly what I wanted.