MURPHY: What was the first picture you worked on?
JOHNSTON: “Pluto’s Judgement Day” or “Mickey’s Garden”. The first animation I did was on “Mickey’s Elephant”. I did a few sequences on “Snow White” but basically I worked as an assistant to Fred Moore.
MURPHY: Did you work on “Fox and the Hound”?
JOHNSTON: Yes, I worked on the cycles of walks and runs for about a year before I retired. I can’t claim any credit or make any excuses for it.
MURPHY: What was your background before you came to the studio?
JOHNSTON: I was born in Palo Alto, and my dad was a professor in Romantic Languages at Stanford. Unfortunately, I didn’t take the least bit of advantage of that. I always liked to draw. Outside of my family, there wasn’t to much conducive to drawing. I’m Sorry now that I didn’t take more advantage of my dad’s interests in romantic languages.
MURPHY: I never could draw and got into trouble in 5th grade when the teacher, a big Italian woman, asked us to draw a picture of Abraham Lincoln. She walked down the aisle, took a look at mine; gave me a smack and said I had to write out a thousand times:
I shall not make fun of an American president. I asked her why and she popped me again and said I made Lincoln look like Jimmy Durante!
JOHNSTON: Well, when I got into High School, they were a little more tolerant. But, it wasn’t until I got to Stanford that I took a real art class. Even there they didn’t have any real models because Mrs. Stanford had walked into an art class about 1900 and there was a nude model and so she decreed that there would be no more of that; of course they have them today but all we had was landscape classes and a course in perspective and a history of art. We studied slides of famous paintings which really opened my eyes because I’d never seen anything like that before. I loved that course.
MURPHY: So you had a little more training than some of the early animators.
JOHNSTON: Well, Frank Thomas graduated just a little bit before I did and in my Junior year I came down here with the football team, I was the Manager, who were playing U.S.C. for their annual shellacking. Only, they won that time! They tore down the goalpost! I saw what Frank was doing in Art School! He and I arranged through our art teacher to go to San Mateo two nights a week where they had a little tiny art school and draw from a model. So we did do that and got credit for that and that impressed me no end because I saw how much I had to learn and realized that was where I ought to be. So I arranged to get credit for going to Chanarde full time figuring I would go back to Stanford for one quarter. But, after one year at Chanarde, I was offered a try to go out to Disney and that seemed too good to pass. I figured I’d work a year or two there and go back to art school. But, I got so hooked on it that it never entered my mind until I retired; Gee, I wish I had finished art school! That’s my background. I did study with Don Graham in art school and he’s the one who said should try out at Disney and I also studied under Pruett Carter, a well-known illustrator. I regret I didn’t take more variety at art school and take more schooling. I learned an awful lot working under Fred Moore on “Snow White”, who was a wonderful influence.
MURPHY: You mention Fred Moore a number of times in your book as having a great deal of influence on you; any examples jump to mind?
JOHNSTON: Well, he was a wonderful teacher but he was quiet and not a good speaker; almost incoherent at times. But he could show you through drawings; through “squash and stretch.” Everything he did was pleasing. I don’t care where he put the arm or the leg, it was always in the right place. And the body-in-relationship had appeal. And that’s why Walt made him a supervising animator on “Snow White”; not because he could go around and lecture to people but because they could look at his drawings and he could show them through that. He was supposed to go around and tell all the animators how to draw their characters but he just couldn’t. He wasn’t that aggressive so Walt had them go to him. Most of them did but occasionally some wouldn’t do. My job was to “clean-up” some of the drawings made. You’re familiar with the term “clean-up”?
MURPHY: Yes, but could you elaborate?
JOHNSTON: The animator’s drawings have a lot of drawings on them showing the tilt of the head or the angle of the legs but the inkers wouldn’t know what to do. The assistant animator had to understand the action and what lines to use or what ones to erase. He would pin that down to one line so that the inkers knew which line to follow. In the Xerox process you might get a little fuzzy line but they do okay. In “clean-up” they do touch-up. They don’t make a new drawing. They erase the lines not needed and they darken in the ones to be used and in Xerox those lines come out. But the assistant animator in those days was important, extremely important. If he was good he worked up to being an animator. Now days, they want to be an animator right away. As a matter of fact, they want to be an animator supervisor right away so there isn’t anyone to do “clean¬up” any more. The studio is trying to find employees who used to work here to come in and do “clean-up” but it’s tough. “Fox and the Hound” suffered because of that. There are two guys: Walt Strangefield who worked with me who’s very good and there is Dale Oliver who was also very good who “cleaned-up” for me and Frank Thomas over the years. Tragically, he was in a terrible auto accident recently. So now there is just one fellow in that field.