MURPHY: And you do appreciate that! I can go back now and appreciate the finer qualities of a film I missed the first few times. John Tibbetts and I both agree that “Pinocchio” is probably the best of the Disney features.
JOHNSTON: That’s because of all the hand-crafting. The economic factors forced a change from the hand-crafted type of work to stressing the personality. You can do an entertainment sequence cheaper that has personality than all that hand crafting. So what we try to do is to do better and better sequences. Look at “Jungle Book”. We put in some real entertaining little sequences where the bear, Baloo, is singing or showing the little guy how to box or the parts with the snake or the tiger but, there is very little hand-crafting. There is very little air brush or shading or shadow to speak of. We dropped all that stuff because we don’t have the guys or the money to do that. We had like 100 guys working on odd effects when we were doing “Fantasia” and “Pinocchio”. All those flowers and ballet stuff and the milkweed fairies in the Nutcracker sequences or in Pinocchio with all that underwater business with the fish all done by the special effect people! The bubbles and the whales chasing Geppetto. That’s marvellous stuff! The volcano in the “Rite of Spring”, you can follow every rock coming down and the lava. You can’t believe the work that went into that. We’d try to minimize that kind of thing today. After the war, with the exception of “Sleeping Beauty, we really didn’t do too much handcrafted work anymore. Today you just paint the background around the feet a little darker! Look at “The Rescuers”; when the little girl is down the well. I added that scene because I thought you needed Medusa’s viewpoint as she looked down the well at the little girl. So we had to use a shadow there. But we’ve compensated for all those effects by putting all the extra entertainment into the sequences. Actually, Walt really sent things in that direction. He saw the trend that if the animators had good business and had enough to say, they could plan in their sequences and have a little more freedom.
MURPHY: Have you seen any footage on “The Black Cauldron”?
JOHNSTON: Not really. They have a 25 minute sequence that they’ve put together for publicity purposes and for the benefit of those working on it! Everybody says it’s very good. I’m interested because Frank and I are the ones that got them to buy the product. It’s more like Tolkien than old time stories. There is a magic bauble that a little girl has in the picture which we look on like magic in “Sword in the Stone” or the magic of the witch in “Sleeping Beauty”.
MURPHY: Speaking of fantasy and Tolkien, I understand that Disney had the rights to some Tolkien?
JOHNSTON: He had “The Hobbitt”.
MURPHY: Are there pictures that you worked on that never made it to the screen?
JOHNSTON: Oh yes! Not a lot that I worked on but a lot that were worked on here. There was a picture called the “Laughing Gauchoito” which was one of those South American pictures that never made it to the screen. It employed the little boy and his flying donkey, used in an earlier film. Every time the donkey laughed, he broke glass. A Hiawatha production is another. The Ride of the Valkyrie; The Little Mermaid; The Little Fir Tree; The Chinese Nightingale. There are story sketches for them but that’s about all. Literally dozens of them.
MURPHY: With some of Ralph Bakshi current productions, the characters conform so closely to the actions of human beings with the rotoscoping and all, that…
JOHNSTON: He takes a lot of credit for rotoscoping but you know we did that for “Snow White”. We even had an old burlesque comedian come out to the studio and photograph a dance he did for Gideon the Cat. Also, in Cinderella; the stepmother, the stepsisters, the Duke, were all rotoscoped. I did that little lackey that tries the shoe on. I didn’t use the live action for him, however. Roger and Anita in “101 Dalmations”. We shot a little live action for the girl in “The Rescuers” but nothing you could use per Se, just to get ideas for poses.
MURPHY: Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t that fly in the face of what the beauty of animation is if you stick so close on a character to the way the actual human acts or moves?
JOHNSTON: Well, we would have had a lot of trouble doing “Snow White” at that time without it. If you look back at the “Cookie Carnival” or some of those, they were having their troubles drawing girls who looked realistic but the big thing is the way you use it. We used some live action to study for the fairies in “Sleeping Beauty”.
MURPHY: I thought they all looked like Verna Felton!
JOHNSTON: (laugh) Yes, they do! She did do one of the voices. But if you use it the right way you don’t really feel its live action. We have these photostats of every frame and then draw over it, picking out those frames that tell us the most. Then, we flip those drawings and throw the photostats away. And, then we make drawings over those drawings, trying to draw their character. Then we flip those and then make another set over those. What we get then is a certain quality of acting that you might not have gotten without the live action but we have changed it into our medium. That takes time, knowledge, and skill to do that well and not like you’ve just drawn over a live action picture. Nothing looks worse than that, It looks stiff.
MURPHY: In “Lord of the Rings”, I felt that way about all the battle sequences.
JOHNSTON: I agree.
MURPHY: Well, time has run out! Thanks, Ollie, for your time and help.
Printed in Animator Issue 12 (Spring 1985)