Monday, May 26, 2014

The Palo Alto Connection

Oliver Martin Johnston Junior was born in Palo Alto, California, on October 31, 1912. His father was a professor of Romance Languages at Stanford.  Ollie attended the Mayfield grammar school just east of campus, went on to Palo Alto High School and probably knew of Edgar Morgan, as he and Ed were both there in 1932.

Portions of the 1931 and 1933 Palo Alto High School Yearbooks


After graduating from high school, Ollie went across the street to Stanford, to study Art. There he met Frank Thomas, with whom he formed both a lifelong working and personal relationship.


Johnston was a leading animator with Disney for over 40 years and the last surviving member of the "Nine Old Men," who shaped the style of the studio's films from Snow White onwards. He was especially proud of his work on "Bambi" and its classic scenes, including the one depicting the heartbreaking death of Bambi's mother at the hands of a hunter, which has brought tears to the eyes of generations of young and old.

Ollie relied on emotion to make the Disney magic come to life.  He drew his characters with soft, subtle touches, gestures, and body movements which expressed how they felt. Regarding his style he said;

“It’s surprising what an effect touching can have in an animated cartoon.  You expect it in a live-action picture, or in your daily life, but to have two pencil drawings touching each other, you wouldn’t think would have much impact, but it does.” 

Fellow artist Andreas Deja recalled that Johnston always told him that you’re supposed to animate feelings, not drawings. 

“At first I didn’t understand because I thought; Of course you’re drawing drawings.  But, as I went along further in my career, I realized that he was right and that the character’s feelings are always the most important part. It makes you a completely different artist when you understand it.” 

Throughout his 43-year career Ollie animated some of the most sensitive and emotional characters in Disney's stories. Among his other best known are Thumper, and Pinocchio,  but he also enlivened Peter in Peter and the Wolf, Baloo, Bagheera, Prince John, and Penny.  

“I seem to have kind of a reservoir of feelings about how people feel in different situations,” reflected Johnston. “And while somebody else might be more interested in the drawing of the character in that situation, I was particularly interested in how the character actually felt.” 

Johnston and Thomas also was very influential through the mentoring, writing, and promoting he did for Disney.  For decades the two were the elder spokesmen of Disney animation and constantly worked to spread their knowledge and passion for it to the next generation.

“Always ask yourself what is this character thinking and why is he thinking that way.” was Ollie’s creed.

Johnston insisted that the characters should seem naturally involved in the situations demanded by the plot. According to his friend and principal collaborator, Frank Thomas, "Ollie was the only one of the Studio animators who was sensitive to character relationships and how they affected story.'

In the early days of cartoon animation, characters seldom touched, unless they were hitting each other, so Johnston's empathic approach was radical. Ollie explained; "You know, the act of two people holding hands communicates in a powerful way.” His expressions of warmth made a difference in every character he did for Disney.

Johnston's first job for Disney was as an "in-betweener" - the artist responsible for the drawings that appear between the extremes of an action drawn by an animator - on Mickey's Garden, the second color Mickey Mouse short. The following year, he was promoted to apprentice animator, working under Fred Moore on such shorts as Pluto's Judgment Day and Mickey's Rival.

Under Moore, Johnston became assistant animator on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, sharing responsibility for drawing the dwarfs with Frank Thomas. By 1940, Ollie had progressed to animator, and supervised the Blue Fairy sequence in Pinocchio. The same year he was in charge of the Pastoral Symphony section of Fantasia. Johnston also drew the stepsisters in Cinderella; Alice and the King of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland and Mr. Smee in Peter Pan. He also worked on a number of shorts, from The Brave Little Tailor and war films such as Der F├╝hrer's Face and Victory Through Air Power.

After illustrating the good fairies in Sleeping Beauty and Lady and Pongo in 101 Dalmatians, Johnston and Thomas did some of their best work in The Sword in the Stone, for which Johnston was responsible for all the leading characters. Frank Thomas did the dancing penguins in Mary Poppins; Johnston drew the penguin waiters.

Some felt that this sentimental streak could be too much of a good thing, but Walt clearly disagreed, as over the course of his career Johnston was given more and more responsibility, greater latitude and control over his work. Walt said;

"The thing that makes us different is... Giving it "heart"...  We developed a psychological approach to everything we do here. We seem to know how to "tap the heart." Others have hit the intellect. We can hit them in an emotional way. Those who appeal to the intellect only appeal to a very limited group."

Of course, that goes hand in hand with the first principle of Design Thinking; Empathy.


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