3. Frank Thomas

The summer of 1937 was a most intense time at 2719 Hyperion Avenue.  Walt Disney and his studio were desperately and vigorously working to complete Snow White and challenge the common belief that a cartoon feature would be a complete failure.  The fate of the whole studio was at stake and everyone on the crew was very well aware of this.  If the feature failed, it would make it all but impossible for someone to be willing to try an animated feature again and the Disney studio would likely go bankrupt. To prove that an animated film could be successful and connect with an audience what had to be done was to have characters that were believable, relatable, and most of all had emotions that were very real.  By this point most of the film had been completed and most of the major scenes had been animated.  However one of the few remaining was one that was quite possibly the most difficult and one that absolutely needed to work to prove that an animated feature could get an emotional response from the audience. It was the scene where the dwarfs mourn the supposed-loss of Snow White and cry over her body.  This was something that no one had ever dared to do before in animation and to work it had to be real.  This scene had to make an audience feel much more stronger and emotionally than any one done before as well as make an audience far sadder than a drawing could ever be. These emotions had to be felt inside them or all would be lost.  As crucial as this scene was Walt had virtually no options in terms of people who could possibly animate it. Fred Moore had designed all the dwarfs and done some great animation as the leads of the characters but he was burnt out, busy, and didn’t quite have the thinking or deep emotions needed for the scene to be affective.  The logical choice would have been Bill Tytla, who did have strong emotions in his characters and already had done work on the picture that had far exceeded anything done before, but he had been on the picture for well over a year and had to work on other scenes.  The situation seemed absolutely hopeless.  However one day Walt had a thought come to his head. He thought that maybe there was a slight chance that a 24 year-old animator who was really proving himself on the film could somehow and someway have the chops to do it.  Just when everything seemed like it was going to fall apart, it just worked.  The results for the scene were most impressive and in turn the picture worked incredibly well both artistically and emotionally.   This is the story of how Frank Thomas, number 3 in our countdown and the honoree of today’s post, became a star.

Frank Thomas was one of the greatest actors to ever come across Hollywood but instead of using his body he used his pencil.  What he lacked in draftsmanship he more than made for with his analytical thinking, high intellect, understanding of acting and emotions, determination, persistence, attention to detail, intensity, concentration, and drive.  Perhaps no one in the history of animation was ever as determined to succeed and put on the greatest performance possible than Frank.  He never repeated himself, loved trying new things, was excited by innovation, never let himself do substandard work, and always used motion and acting to communicate his deep and emotional thoughts. “Frank’s work is absolutely incredible because of the way it feels,” praises honoree Andreas Deja. “He wins the struggle with his drawings. He has something in his mind that he’s after. Just getting there is a little hard for him. Everything is solved through motion.  Frank had a way of moving through it in very subtle ways. It is the series of drawings that sell the thought.” “Frank took this as a serious business and his acting was amazing,” explains honoree James Baxter.  “He was a giant of an artist and a wonderful accomplished and gracious man,” remembers his son Theodore Thomas, who currently is making documentaries about animation.  “Frank was a task maker but wonderful,” reflected his longtime assistant Dale Oliver. “Very exacting, he knew precisely what he wanted.” “He’s the Lawrence Olivier of animation,” simply stated Warner Brothers cartoon director and animation legend Chuck Jones. Among Thomas’s best work is the dwarfs in Snow White, Bambi and Thumper ice-skating, the Stepmother in Cinderella, Captain Hook in Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp eating spaghetti, the fairies in Sleeping Beauty, and Baloo and Mowgli in the Jungle Book.  Not only is his work very thought out and brilliant but it is also very sincere and emotion. You can very well make the argument Frank is the most dynamic of all the honorees.

Franklin Thomas was born on September 5, 1912 in Santa Monica, California but he soon moved away from Santa Monica to Fresno.  His father was an educator and would become the president of Fresno State College when he was young.  Frank was encouraged at a young age to really get a good education, appreciate the arts, be intellectual, and to pursue any honorable path he pleased.  Growing up he wasn’t very social so he would do more individualistic activities such as reading and art. Thomas’s first exposure to drawing was when his older brother Craig began doing it. “I started drawing because Craig was drawing,” he recalled. “It always seemed natural to draw. I never thought much about it.” The competitor that he was Frank got into it too and began to work very hard on his art. However drawing was by no means an easy thing for him and he wasn’t exceptionally naturally talented at it.  Even when he was working at Disney as one of the greatest animators of all time he still felt he was a flawed draftsman and it was a constant struggle to him.  In many ways this actually made Thomas a better animator later because he challenged his struggle so much and it really made him do everything he could to do the best possible work.  After high school he attend Fresno State College for two years, where his father was the president. Between the two years Frank went done to the University of Southern California to attend a few summer classes and it was there were he developed a passion for film.  Realizing his son’s real passion was the arts his father gave him a deal that after finishing his college degree he would pay for two years at any art school he wanted to go to.  So Thomas finished his degree by attending two years at Stanford University where he worked for the school newspaper the Stanford Chaparrel. Here he not only met future Disney colleagues and friends Jim Algar and Thor Putnam but more significantly his lifelong best friend Ollie Johnston.  Once he completed his degree at Stanford Frank moved down to Los Angeles where he attend the Chouinard Institute of Art. He intended on becoming an illustrator but found that he really struggled in this. To make his work better he attended some drawing classes with Don Graham but when he returned to illustration classes things weren’t a ton better.  “The interesting thing was that when he went to the Disney all the emotions that he didn’t get into the illustration seemed to come out in his work there.” In 1934 Thor Putnam and Jim Algar both moved down to Los Angeles and got hired by Disney Animation Studios.  Frank decided to follow their lead and he was hired on September 24, 1934.

At the beginning of his career Frank Thomas worked in the inbetween pool at the studio and would work on the scenes of various animators.  He worked in this pool for six months but not long after he found an enemy in supervisor George Drake. Drake had absolutely no talent or understanding of art or animation and the only reason he even had a job at the studio was he was married to Ben Sharpesteen’s sister.  He wasn’t a very kind man and constantly irritated the inbetweeners.  Apparently Drake intended on firing Thomas but he was saved when Fred Moore picked him up as his assistant.  At the time Moore was the frontrunner and gold standard for the animation department and even though he didn’t with Frank make quite the difference he made with his friend Ollie Johnston the young man did have great admiration and respect for his mentor.  He also sought out advice and help from top animators Ham Luske and Les Clark as well as director Wilfred Jackson.  Around this time Walt Disney began to put together extensive classes and studying sessions after work to get his animators to be able to analyze and draw better, the most notable being the Action Analysis Class taught by Don Graham. This was a tremendous and important learning experience for Thomas as well as so many of the other animators. “Almost immediately this easy life of sitting there and drawing little pictures and laughing disappeared,” he remembered. “Walt put us into art class, he put us into studying action analysis, looking at old films, studying characters, studying filmmaking. These are the things that appealed to me.” In Don Graham’s class Frank made a pencil test with a girl who had a dog in her suitcase that was incredibly well received. Ben Sharpesteen was so blown away by it that he promoted him to the position of animator.  Thomas’s first animation was on Mickey’s Circus but his first standout work was on Mickey’s elephant, where he animated a great scene where Pluto puts his tail under his butt. These scenes show great thinking and analysis behind them therefore showing great potential even at this early stage.   “That was fun to do,” the animator recalled. “Course I could run to Fred anytime and say ‘Hey, draw me an elephant here. What am I doing work?’ He’d laugh and draw me an elephant, a Mickey, a Pluto. All these drawings. He liked to work over someone’s else’s drawings. Milt like that it. It bolstered their ego cause they were the top authority on this. “ Another early achievement was some very impressive animation of Hiawatha in Hiawatha’s Hunt. While Thomas was rapidly becoming a star and showing so much promise there were some situations were tension developed out of resentment of the old timers.  They felt that they deserved to be stars because they had the most experience and were used to having their cartooning school tricks work but the things were changing and many couldn’t keep up with the direction Disney was going therefore making them angry and resentful towards younger animators like Frank. “Walt let it be known he wanted the guys who had been into cartoons in school and had art school training,” the animator reflected.

Already a rising star on the shorts on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Frank Thomas would take things to the next level and get a place as one of the top caliber animators at the studio. He was one of 8 animators on the dwarfs and besides leads Fred Moore and Bill Tytla did more animation than anyone else on the characters.  What is so great bout the bulk of Frank’s work on the feature is the specific emotions he gave to each dwarf, the effort he utilized in putting every possible juice of entertainment into each scene, and the effort he did in giving them walks and movements that expressed their personality.  Among his scenes on the film are Doc calling out Heigh Ho for the first time, the dwarfs slowly walking into Snow White’s room, and the dwarfs showing their hands to Snow White.  Thomas really gave it his all on everything he did on the film and it really impressed everyone at the studio very strongly.  His devotion to the picture was so strong that oftentimes he would come back in at night and redo the animation in scenes of the dwarves he thought were substandard.  Thomas’s real achievement on the film though is the scene where the dwarfs are mourning the loss of Snow White and crying over her believed-dead body.  “It just felt like they should all move as little as possible,” he explained. “These guys were consumed with grief and wouldn’t be moving around. They’d have strong body attitudes that could be held for the most part, and maybe a sagging move on the head here and there, just enough to keep it alive. Even a sniff seemed to be too much action for the mood. Frank Churchill had written a great melody that really carried the sequence and my problem was more of not breaking the spell than establishing how badly anyone felt. Sad eyes, slow blinks, and a few tears were all we needed.” This less-is-more approach to the sequence was a complete success and it couldn’t have been done more effectively. It also has a great touch when Grumpy realizes how much he loves Snow White and is the one to cry openly, therefore building on Tytla’s establishment of Grumpy’s feelings for her. “It was exactly the way I wanted to see it,” said Walt Disney. However the intensity that Frank had on the film took it’s toll and after the production was over he went to the hospital because of intensity.

After Snow White Frank Thomas had achieved stardom and continued to receive juicy assignments. First came some exceptional animation in Mickey Mouse shorts the Brave Little Tailor (where he did some great acting scenes of Mickey telling the story of his encounters with giants and going into pantomime) and the Pointer(where he did some amazing dialogue and personality scenes with the help of filming Walt’s gestures and expressions while reading the script.) As for features the next film was Pinocchio and Frank was given the assignment of alongside Mile Kahl being the directing animator on the title character.  While Milt did a ton of scenes of Pinocchio being alive the other man focused more on the scenes where his being a puppet is most prevalent. He animated Pinocchio as a puppet in the Wooden Head Song(where he did some great fluid movements and showed great technical skills) and him performing in the I’ve Got No Strings scenes(which is a textbook example of a great dance scene in an animated film.) “I felt pretty strongly that it ought to be very amateurish,” explained Thomas. “He’s never rehearsed this. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do. He’s making it up as he goes along. I even had him be late on his sync on some of the words.” After Pinocchio the animator skipped Fantasia when he and Kahl became the first animators on the ambitious project Bambi. “We knew Walt was determined to do something very unusual with this story and he was counting on us to bring it to life,” said Frank. “On Bambi all of the research, inspirational sketches, and story construction we had done held onto our ability to breathe life into drawings. Animated characters must be created to communicate story ideas in the most entertaining way. Just being alive was not enough.”  He was completely devoted to the feature and early on Walt called him and Milt’s tests pure gold and told them that they were this picture.  Throughout the film Frank did a ton of exceptional animation including Bambi meeting the butterfly, many scenes with Bambi and Thumper, scenes of Faline, Bambi’s mother, and a little bit of Flower.  His best and most memorable scene on the film however was the brilliant scene of Bambi and Thumper iceskating.  “I was like Bambi,” Frank admitted. “I couldn’t stay on my feet.” To get the feeling of the scene he practiced iceskating and used his experiences from doing it to make the scene believable. In all the timing, action analysis, understanding of character relationship, and precision of the scene is absolutely incredible. In all of Thomas’s work in Bambi shows incredible personality, understanding of acting and emotions, and extreme passion.

In 1941 Frank Thomas went on Disney’s visit to South America to research for the Latin American films and was the only animator who went on the trip (although Norman Ferguson went as a director.) However soon after he came back World War 2 started and almost all of the content of the studio’s output became in some shape or form about the war.  Although he did some great animation in shorts from this era like Education for Death and Victory Vehicles he wasn’t interested in any of the material at all and soon felt very bored. Although Walt asserted that he’d make sure to keep him Frank decided to enlist in the air force in December 1942 and started working in cartoons for the war.  There was a lot of talent in this unit including animation legends John Hubley, Jules Engel, Bernie Wolf, Rudy Ising, and Bill Hurtz.  It was an interesting mix because here the Disneycentric and loyalist Thomas was getting along quite fine with people who were key picketers in the Strike of 1941.  Here he got a chance to direct and it was a positive experience for all involved.  After the war Frank married his wife Jeanette and returned to Disney in April 1946.  Since there weren’t many people to do the job and because options were low he actually went into directing when he first came back for a brief time but found out that his true passion was animating and soon went back(he didn’t receive a screen credit although he was at least for a time a director on the Johnny Appleseed segment in Melody Time and at one attempt to bring out the Wind and the Willows as a feature.)  Thomas’s first animation back was on Ichabod and Mr. Toad, where he animated in both the Wind and the Willows segment as well as animated the intense, suspenseful, and exciting ride of Ichabod Crane where he is sitting nervously on the horse. The scene has such great psychological precision, change of expression, and understatement of acting. Because the movement is held back it has so much more meaning and we really feel like we’re in Ichabod’s shoes and character.  A lot of help came from the storyboards of Ed Penner and Joe Rinaldi as well as from the soundtrack by Oliver Wallace. “I couldn’t really miss because the other guys had already pyramided the thing so well,” commented Frank.  In a nutshell the controlled-but-deep intensity of it really makes it work. “The burden of the development and the entertainment in the acting rested on my shoulders alone,” he wrote. “Such sequences are particularly tricky to do because of the need for the tempo to be maintained and the action to become more and more tense, so the scenes will build continuously to an ever-greater pitch of excitement. An action that is just too slow or a choice of business that is too ordinary can kill the overall effect. Story structure cannot do much to help in this case. The layouts and settings and the cutting play a more important part, along with the constant experimentation, correction, and revision of the animation. The sequence must be kept loose until it really works.”

After Ichabod and Mr. Toad Frank Thomas again got a hard assignment in being the directing animator on Lady Tremaine the Stepmother in Cinderella.  Few villains are as evil and dislikable as the Stepmother but she also was difficult because she was in no way comic and really had to be straight in order to get the right menace and coldness needed for the animation.  In order to get everything absolutely perfect live action was shot of all the human characters in the film and photostats were given out to the animators.  Although one of his biggest accomplishments Thomas didn’t necessarily enjoy it and didn’t have fun using the photostats although he tried to resist using the crotch of live action too much. “The stepmother was a terrifying chore but she was the thing that made the picture work,” he reflected.  Frank animated most of the footage of her with the exception of some great stuff by Harvey Toombs. My favorite thing about the Stepmother is the coldness and precision of her: you always know exactly what she’s thinking and the understatement of her acting makes the thoughts resonate so strongly. One major inspiration for Thomas was Eleanor Audley, who did an incredible vocal performance on her as well as some great acting in the live action reference.  After Cinderella the animator went on to Alice in Wonderland, where he animated the Queen of Hearts and the Doorknob.  The Queen of Hearts is probably the broadest character that Frank ever animated and his sensibilities for subtle, intense acting make her interesting. She’s comic and whimsical but in a very menacing and cruel way.  However Thomas had trouble knowing what direction to take her and oftentimes found Walt little help in her handling.  Ultimately the result is pretty satisfying. The timing, weight, and expression in the Queen is also very good making up a terrific performance.  The doorknob was more fun for him to do and the lip sync and three-dimensional quality to the character is astonishing.

Up next came Peter Pan, where this time Frank Thomas had the assignment of animating the villain Captain Hook.  At first there were a lot of problems surrounding the character in terms of who he was and how he was to be handled.  Storyman Ed Penner say him as a very comic, broad, eccentric, and whimsical character and boarded him that way while director Gerry Geronimi was convinced he should be a menacing, serious character. There was no unity in these two vision and the two weren’t coming together at all. This made Frank very confused as to which way to go and as a result his first tests of Captain Hook were in his opinion so bad it was one of the low points in his life.  It was weak to the point Milt Kahl even told him not to show it to Walt because “It’s absolutely nothing.” However Walt actually liked a quality he saw in the test and told Frank to keep going forward with him.  Fortunately when voice actor Hans Conried came on to voice the character and do the live action everything started to come together.  “He helped pull the character together because he could be supercilious and he would still have this underlying strength.” Although Wolfgang Reitherman went with the broad comedy direction with the character ultimately the two visions work and Thomas did some of the best animation ever done at the studio on the character. Some standout scenes of his on the film include Hook’s first appearance in the film and the scene where he is talking Tinker Bell into telling him Peter Pan’s hideout.  The precision and mental complexity of the acting of Hook is in my humble opinion astonishing: How can someone animate something so precise and juicy? I highly recommend studying Frank’s hook scenes frame by frame because you’ll see very strong changes in expression, incredibly accurate timing, and some very complex motion that really make you feel the acting.  After Peter Pan came Lady and the Tramp where he animated the famous and iconic spaghetti sequence as well as a lot of Jock and Trusty (his scenes of those two characters show great understanding of the character relationship and the usage of movement to show feeling and emotion). What is so great about the spaghetti sequence is how simple it is while still being incredibly warm and romantic. If you study it frame by frame you’ll notice the movements are very limited but subtle.  It’s incredibly well analyzed too: it does feel the way any first romantic date feels and the gestures of the characters are exactly what any human would do in this situation.  Thomas really observed, studied, and thought deeply through things making his scenes so much richer and more sincere. This really shows in a strong way in the spaghetti sequence.  It really makes the picture work and helps round out the emotional side of the story. “Two dogs eating spaghetti while being serenaded by a couple of romantic chefs with a mandolin and an accordin did not seem like the most appealing situation for a romance,” wrote Thomas and Johnston. “Besides the comedy implicit in the whole broad story concept, the very thought of dogs digging into a plate of pasta sounded unattractive and crude. Even Walt was not sure this would not defeat the main story point here- that the dogs were falling in love.  The rear of the restaurant where Tramp usually got a bone or two was not a romantic setting but it did fit the realism of the dogs looking for a handout. The surprise began when Tony saw that the second dog was a lady of class and deserved something better than a bone. He ordered his assistant to serve them the best in the house, complete with a tablecloth and dishes.  Next came the music, and with it the challenge to the animators. Could the human characters convince the audience that this was a real situation? Could the actual eating be entertaining? Could Lady be made appealing and attractive and dainty while consuming long strands of spaghetti? Tramp’s gift of the last meatball, animated the way it was, is a charming indication of his love for her. It is not a sure-fire message of affection but the gentle way he pushed it toward her and his expression as he looked at her left no doubt about his feelings. This demonstration of his love was set up by the unexpected contact as they chewed their way to each other on a single strain of spaghetti. The excitement of that moment demanded a reaction on his part. It relied on the buildup in the preceding scenes, and on the fact that the dogs believed it all themselves. This was actually a big evening to them and not a farce or a gag. Once that point was established, everything else in the rest of the picture followed naturally. If we had failed to make this relationship believable for the main characters, none of their later actions would have had the ring of sincerity needed for this type of story.”

 

Up next for Frank Thomas came Sleeping Beauty, where he and Ollie Johnston animated the Three Fairies Flora, Fauna, and Meriwether.  The amount of research, studying, analyzing, thinking, and planning the two men did for the characters was phenomenal. They worked together to get to know the relationship of the characters so well and this really shows in how fleshed out they are in the feature.  However this production was a very long one and a very stressful one. “Frank was working so hard on those characters and supervising other animators working under him,” remembered Dale Oliver. “The stress on him was overwhelming. He was going to the doctor once a week. Stress just killing him.” Not very surprisingly for the second time in his character Frank ended up in the hospital because of the intensity he put in his work.  The next feature, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, proved to be a much easier and relaxing one.  In this Thomas mainly concentrated on animating Pongo but also did some of Perdita and the puppies.  He really made the Dalmatian incredibly believable in the way he moved and acted.  One of his masterpieces in my opinion is the one where Roger is rubbing the believed to be dead puppy that’s just been born and Pongo is intensely looking until it turns out the puppy makes it.  I love the strong emotion in the scene and the acting behind it- absolutely incredible.  Up next came the Sword in the Stone where Frank animated the squirrels sequence as well as Madame Mim, including the Wizards’ Duel.  The scene with the squirrels has become a much-studied one because of the intelligence and understanding shown behind the way the characters act.  I love the timing behind the scene because it clearly shows the differences in the characters. “I really wanted that girl squirrel to have an innocent emotional quality,” the animator explained. “At a Firehouse Five gig I’d seen a girl who I thought was the right type in the dancing couples. She just sort of radiated appeal. She was cute but not pretty-pretty. But it was mainly her timing, her movements, how quickly she moved. She was quite a girl!” I really love Thomas’s animation on Madame Mim because it’s so rich in performance. He really got that character and she’s so entertaining.

The next film proved to be one that was a true highlight in Frank Thomas’s career and really shows strongly his great acting ability as an animation. The film was the Jungle Book and along with Ollie Johnston he was responsible for bringing to life the incredibly emotional and meaningful character relationship of Baloo and Mowgli as well as animated a lot of King Louie, Kaa, and the dancing monkey at King Louie’s ruins.  All of Frank’s animation on the film is phenomenal and the amount of emotion as well as analysis and understanding utilized in his scenes is overwhelming. Most of all it’s incredibly sincere, which makes everything work. “You never knew where it came from but you had a feeling of a strong friendship here which we wanted and needed so badly for the picture,” Frank commented.  Among his best scenes in the film include the scenes where Baloo and Mowgli are boxing and the incredibly complex one where Baloo has to tell Mowgli he’s going to have to take him back to the man village. “There should be an aimless feeling to Baloo’s walk, in contrast to his normal expansive confident manner,” wrote Thomas.  ‘He has nervous vague gestures as he searches for an idea. If he is too nervous, or has too many expressions, he becomes excited, or evasive, or even overly desperate. Our bear is desperate but he is not excitable or evasive. He is a simple, direct character who meets everything head-on. He is used to settling his problems with physical force and this predicament is really beyond him. He is too honest to be evasive and too simple to have a complicated thought process. He should be desolate and lost, yet his love for the boy is so genuine that he cannot walk away from the problem.” Up next came the Aristocats where he animated the Geese and the dogs as well as some of O’Malley, Dutchess, and the Butler.  However this film wasn’t that strong story wise and as a result it doesn’t give any opportunities for the strongly emotional animation that Frank did best.  There also, like most of the films in the Reitherman era, is a very slow feeling to the movie.  There were many production problems on the film including one where Thomas had a somewhat-villainified role in.  It was where he supposedly stole all of Eric Cleworth’s scenes of the dogs Napoleon and Lafayette behind his back and thus he left the studio. How much Frank was behind this is unknown and personally I think it’s better to remember the good things. Then came Robin Hood where the animator did the scenes of Robin Hood dressed up as a stork, scenes of Maid Marian, the Bunnies, Toby, and some of the Sheriff.  After that came the Rescuers where Thomas finally felt more satisfied with the material and thought that more heart was pleasant resulting him naming it the best film they did without Walt. On the film he animated a lot of Bernard, Bianca, the Crocodiles, the Chariman, Ellie Mae, Luke, and Orville.  He did some very sincere animation on the film and there are some rather good flashes of great times past in the movie.  Finally came the Fox and the Hound which proved to be Frank and Ollie’s last feature with Disney.  He did get directing animator on the film but he mainly only animated the scenes showing the character relationship of young Todd and Copper.  On January 31, 1978 the two men decided to put down in the pencils and leave the production to focus on writing their book the Illusion of Life, which came out in 1981.  The book is an absolute gem and personally is where I’ve taken a lot of my understanding of animation from.  It’s by all means excellent and one of the deepest and most analytical pieces of literature you’ll find anywhere.  For the rest of their lives the duo of Frank and Ollie wrote tons of books, promoted Disney around the world, helped out countless animators and animation students, and were very encouraging towards innovation and progession in animation.  He was one of the biggest supporters of computer animation and really believed in it early on. “This is what Walt was waiting for,” reflected Thomas. “I wish I was young enough to really try it.” On September 48 2004 Frank Thomas died in Flintridge, California at the age of 92.

Like I said before to understand Frank Thomas’s style you’ve got to understand it’s all about the thinking and the analysis.  He could concentrate like nobody’s business and was incredibly particular as well as deep when he prepared his scenes.  Frank always knew exactly what he wanted in his scenes and was determined to win his draftsmanship struggles to make a performance that was sincere, believable, strong, original, and right for the picture.  To do this he would analyze human behavior and relationships constantly so he could really understand the nuts and bolts of everything that was going on. This really shows in his characters and they are all that much more believable because of it. You really feel these characters in a very intimate and fulfilling way that rarely happens in animation.  I agree with Chuck Jones’s comparison to him being the Lawrence Olivier of animation and think that makes a very good point.  Of course Olivier was from Britain where they used the approach of starting by thinking about the character, finding out who they are, and really having it work on the outside first before becoming the character emotionally. You are acting like the character and really understanding them rather than actually becoming them. On the contrast American acting usually teaches method acting where you really become the character emotionally and then the rest comes to place.  In my opinion you could very well say Frank’s approach to acting in animation is more of British sensibilities.  While other animators actually try to really use pure emotion in their animation and do it rather intuitively his work always started with endless planning and thinking about the acting as well as the character relationship and personality.   Thomas would usually then plan it out on thumbnails to get a visual idea for how the scene would look like. He would wrestle with it nonstop until he knew exactly what he was going to do and knew precisely what he wanted. Then he would start animating the scene and usually did his work on the very particular, complicated threes. I’ve always loved the precision in his scenes and think it makes the performances work very affectively.  It’s important to remember that although Frank had a very analytical approach that his scenes really did have warmth and strong emotions.  I like to think of him as a midpoint on a spectrum that has Milt Kahl and Ollie Johnston as two extremes. He has the planning, control, intellect, and particularness of the former man but he has the emotional quality of the later man.

There is no way to list all of the ways that Frank Thomas has influenced the art of Disney animation.  He took acting in Disney animation to the next level and had a very deep, analytical approach that has greatly influenced his contemporaries, the films he worked on, and the next generation of animators.  Frank animated many of the most emotional scenes in Disney history as well as several of the highest-quality ones.  The way his stuff feels is amazing and there is a strong quality to it that has helped shape the studio forever.  Personally I feel that in many ways Thomas’s personality really has changed Disney animation for the best. For one thing he was such a hard worker and his persistence is definitely one that is ideal to emulate.  Frank was very critical of himself and was always hard on himself to the point that he was never really satisfied. This really got him to get what was deep down inside him out of him and therefore having a lot of the greatest scenes in Disney history result.  Also Thomas really had a strong passion towards his work and was so devoted to getting the best result possible. He knew what he wanted and would push himself until he got it.  There was no slacking and he would never repeat himself.  His goal was to deliver the best performance possible and get all the juices in it.  Last is I feel that Frank’s love for innovation and openness to change has really influenced the studio.  He understood that it’s always best ot do something that’s completely new and that it was Walt’s plan for animation to complete progressing. At the same time the animator knew that for this innovation to work that it would still have to retain the heart and soul of Disney animation.  This has had such an impact on the art of Disney animation and this attitude has made it possible for computer animation to have the potential to break new ground as well as do everything that could have been done in 2d while expanding it.

I don’t even know how to list all the ways I’ve been impacted by Frank Thomas. I’m a huge admirer of his work and I find it as a huge inspiration.  He’s so relatable because he struggled so much to get what he wanted but he used his persistence and determination to get to the place he knew he precisely wanted to be. Obviously I feel he’s had a huge influence on my understanding of animation acting, performance, technique, character development, character emotions, character relationship, and understanding of this medium.  When I read the Illusion of Life I realized fully for the first time that animation was my passion and that it is something I really need to work towards. I view Disney animation in a way similar to the American Dream: it’s nearly impossible for you to reach and you don’t know if you can master it but you know you have to drive for it and work your hardest to try to achieve that dream.  It takes an open mind, a strong passion, persistence, determination, effort, an acceptance of change, a strong sense of understanding, and most of all a sincere love for it.  These are all things that Frank Thomas taught and ones that have really inspired me.  I have no clue what my journey in animation is going to be or where it’s going to go but I do know that I really do love this art form and that I’ve got to work my best at it.  There are going to be struggles and changes in it but you’ve really got to be able to try to win them and move along in the direction with the art form. Frank also really influenced me to really begin to analyze, think about things intellectually and emotionally, and to really think for myself.  Thinking and the mental process is so much a part of great animation and it’s really important to think. I really admire how Frank never did the same thing once and never settled for second best. So many animators repeat themselves and it really doesn’t make the scene the best it can be.  Last is Thomas has really influenced me to realize that progression and innovation in animation is very good and important.  In many ways his philosophy is what made me fall in love with computer animation. I realized that it’s really an expansion of hand-drawn animation and really can have the potential to have that same personal, heartfelt foundation as well as take it to the next level. Animation has to progress and keep moving or else it’ll die.  Thank you Frank Thomas for your contributions to the art of Disney animation and for being a great inspiration to me as well as so many other people!

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3 Responses to “3. Frank Thomas”

  1. For my money Frank Thomas was the greatest “animator” ever at Disney in terms of emotion and motion. People emphasize his acting so much you sort of lose site of how well his characters moved. In fact it almost seemed he was reluctant to hold on a drawing at times, maybe out of an insecurity about his draftsmanship. To me the teaming of Frank and Milt on Bambi was as good as it gets. Too bad their working relationship soured over the years.

  2. What a terrific blog you have, and what a great service you are performing! Thanks for all your hard work. I enjoy your passion for these heroes and I shall be a regular visitor.

  3. I really enjoy keeping up with these updates!
    It completely makes my afternoon.

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