5. Ollie Johnston

There is something very magical, subtle, and intuitive about Disney animation.  It’s hard to imagine how much the audience can feel for the characters in the films and the immense impact they can have on people is hard to explain. How can a drawing make an audience feel such a strong way? The secret to this is that the animator has to have the emotions himself and put them in his work.  The emotions and feelings of the characters drive the Disney films so it’s absolutely essential this comes out.  If you’re a Disney animator, you can either express your emotions by being bold, passionate, and intense or you can do it a much softer, subtler way that ultimately can have even more meaning and power than if you went broader. The one who really proved the potential of the latter way is Ollie Johnston, number 5 on our countdown and the honoree of today’s post.

Ollie Johnston was an animator who relied on pure emotion to make Disney magic come to life.  Instead of going for extreme poses and acting like his contemporaries such as Frank Thomas, Bill Tytla, John Lounsbery, and Milt Kahl he went with a much lighter, intuitive way of animating.  Ollie oftentimes used soft subtle touches, gestures, and body movements to show how his characters felt. Although it is not as flashy or as bold, there is something very magical and powerful about his work that really makes the audience feel for the character.  “It’s surprising what an effect touching can have in an animated cartoon,” Johnston explained. “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.” “Ollie always told me that you’re supposed to not animate drawings but animate feelings,” remembers honoree Andreas Deja. “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.” “There’s something very intuitive about Ollie’s work,” stated honoree Glen Keane, who was mentored by Ollie.  Throughout his 43-year career at Disney he animated some of the most sensitive and emotional scenes ever animated in Disney history. Among his best work is Pinocchio, Bambi, Thumper, Emotion in Reason and Emotion, Peter in Peter and the Wolf, Alice, Smee, Lady, Pongo, 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.” He also was very influential through the mentoring, writing, and promoting he did for Disney alongside his lifelong best friend Frank Thomas.  The two of them for decades were the elder spokesmen of Disney animation and constantly worked to spread around their great knowledge and passion for Disney animation to the next generation.  “Always ask yourself what is this character thinking and why is he thinking that way,” the animator always advised.


Ollver Johnston, Jr. was born on October 13 1912 in Palo Alto, California. His father was a professor at Stanford University so he pretty much grew up on the campus of the university.  From the very beginning Ollie became fascinated with the way different people felt in different situations and why they felt that way. He began to analyze and study people and their feelings but actually found that he very intuitively could connect to those emotions and understand them.  Johnston’s sensitivity and understanding allowed him to really take a lot of these things in and understand them well.  He also began to draw, although he later stated he didn’t naturally draw very well and it took him endless amounts of hard work to get his draftsmanship and art good enough to be an animator. The young man particularly loved to draw girls.  However Ollie was a sickly child growing up and had to battle several illnesses up to the point he was in his teens. “It’s a wonder how I survived,” he reflected.  This was particularly hard for Johnston because he loved playing sports and was a very good athlete (he was very good at track and football as well as was the junior manager of the Stanford football team when he went there.) The most long-term and challenging health problem to overcome was palsy, which made his body (particularly his hand) shake. A hard impediment to have as an artist, he worked hard to make it so he could still draw well although the palsy grew worse over the years and even played a big part in his retirement.  In high school Johnston didn’t get much encouragement to go into art, especially from his art teachers at school.  In 1931 he started at Stanford with a journalism major but this was really when he started to really get into art, including working for the humor magazine Stanford Chaparral.  Around this time Ollie met someone who would change his life forever and be his best friend forever: Frank Thomas, a young man attending the university who also worked for the Stanford Chaparral.  In comparison to Johnston’s practical, thoughtful side Thomas was more of an experimenter who always tried new things.  “If I hadn’t met Frank my guess is I would have finished Stanford and gone to work for United Press as a reporter or gotten a crummy job as an artist somewhere,” confesses the best friend. The two quickly became the best of friends and began to work on their art together. In 1933 Frank graduated from Stanford and moved down to Los Angeles where he began at the Chouinard Art Institute.  When Ollie went down to visit them when Stanford played at the Rose Bowl on New Years Day 1934 he was so amazed and impressed by the work being done at Chouinard that soon he left Stanford and moved down to Los Angeles.  He quickly feel in love with going to art school and two teachers in particular made a difference for him: Don Graham and Pruett Carter.  Carter was an amazing artist who did tons of illustration work showing lots of emotion and liveliness. “He was great,” Johnston recalled. “He was critical but I happened to have something about my work, even though I was amateurish, that he liked. The emotional quality, I think.”  In 1935 Don Graham recommended that he tryout to work at Disney since they were looking for art school talent (Thomas started in September 1934.) Ollie did his tryout and was hired on January 21, 1935.

After being hired Ollie Johnston became a cleanup artist, the first short he worked on being Mickey’s Garden.  His first major work at the studio, however, was cleaning up Gerry Geronimi’s animation on Mickey’s Rival.  “Those were the best damned cleanups I ever saw!” remembered legendary Disney director Wilfred Jackson.  However Johnston quickly drew to strongly dislike Geronimi (as the majority of people who worked with him did) and his disgust for him would continue when Gerry became a director. Fortunately he soon did find a mentor who really made a difference for him, that he loved, and would have a drastic influence on his style forever. “March 23,1936, a most important day,” stated Ollie. “They day I became Fred Moore’s assistant.” No other person in Disney history had the influence over the Disney style Fred Moore did. He really defined it and took animation to the next level.  “It was the greatest learning experience I ever had,” reflected Johnston. “I owe so much to him. He changed me and Frank’s life forever. Fred taught primarily by example. He could make little drawings to show you. And he was a natural animator, the most natural animator that ever came to the studio.” During his time as Fred’s assistant the mentor was working hard as a lead animator on the dwarfs in Snow White although Bill Tytla, Frank Thomas, Dick Lundy, Les Clark, and Fred Spencer (a promising talent who tragically died a year after Snow White in a car accident) also did phenomenal animation on the characters. It was Moore gave the dwarfs the charm and appeal in design and animation needed to make them successful.  His scenes on the characters have excellent use of squash and stretch, definition of character, expression in drawing, and use of movements to show feeling and character. On the film Ollie not only worked as Fred’s assistant but also was the head assistant on all of the dwarfs.  One of the challenges this job brought was making him have to compromise the differences between his mentor’s drawings of the dwarfs to the bold, passionate, and strong drawings done by Bill Tytla, whose work had a vitality never seen again at Disney.  Fortunately Johnston was able to make the two animators scenes work well together and have the dwarfs look the same in both.  During the production he learned a ton from Fred and his approach to animation. “From Fred I learned that acting comes from the change of shapes in the character’s body and face while the thought process comes from the change in expression,” Ollie explained. “I also learned from him how important the expressions are. You can’t show it unless you stage it right and give the audience time to see it. Same with acting and attitudes.”

After Snow White Fred Moore told Walt Disney that he thought it was time for Ollie Johnston to become a full-fledged animator and this lead to him becoming an animator on the Mickey Mouse short the Brave Little Tailor, where he animated crowd scenes as well as some of Mickey in the scenes where he’s battling the giant.  His work on the short was well received and encouraged Walt to put him on the character of Pinocchio with Frank Thomas and at that time Fred Moore.  The first animation Johnston did on the character was one of him coming to life. “It was the first time I used live-action,” he told Michael Barrier. “I worked my tail off that thing.” However as soon as Walt saw Frank and Ollie’s test of the characters animation stopped on the film and the picture was taken back to story. During this story rework period Milt Kahl redesigned the character and everything came together (at this point Moore was dropped from the character.)  Johnston reanimated the opening sequence where he comes to life but this time did it to great success. I highly recommend studying this scene because it’s so subtle, believable, and the realization is perfect. It feels like someone who’s waking up from a long sleep.  Although he did a lot of animation on the character of Pinocchio perhaps Ollie’s best work on the film is the scene where he lies to the Blue Fairy.  This is the first time you can see his full potential as an animator: a scene driven purely and solely by emotion, heart, and intuition.  When Johnston was animating this scene he must have intuitively thought back to when he was a boy and remembered how it felt to have the pressure of telling the truth and the way little kids innocently lie.  Everyone has felt this way and you immediately recognize it when you see it on the screen. The details such as the way he puts his arms behind his back and the expression showing the way he’s thinking really make this scene juicy and special.  The timing and spacing on the scene is great too. There’s always an incredible evenness and natural feeling in his scenes that is really contagious. Throughout all of Johnston’s work on the film there is a strong intimate connection between animator and character as well as a simplicity, sincerity, and honesty that really is something special. “When I was doing Pinocchio I thought of the character being real, a living person, not a drawing,” the animator said.

After Pinocchio Ollie Johnston went on to animate on the Pastoral Symphony segment in Fantasia. There he primarily animated the cupids and the centaurettes where he did some great scenes of the cupids helping prepare the girls to be seen by the guys and putting on makeup.  This is a good example of the way Ollie always used roundness and s-shapes in his characters. This makes his drawings look very appealing and really work well with the Disney magic.  The Centaurettes were basically a centaur version of the famous Fred Moore girls, females he drew that were known for looking very sexy.  Although many feel that the designs of these characters didn’t work well personally I feel the animation Moore and Johnston did on the characters is absolutely beautiful and really has a good essence to it (unfortunately I can’t say the same things about the male centaurs. Read the Eric Larson post to learn about that story.) One unique challenge the animators faced on the Pastoral Symphony was that there was no dialogue so all the characters had to communicate exclusively through pantomime. With the cupids Ollie excelled at giving them clear, expressive pantomime to the point where you can always tell exactly what they’re thinking. Fortunately for him Fantasia proved to be the first big date between him and Marie Worthy, an ink and paint girl he was quickly falling in love with. The two of them married in 1943, had two sons, and stayed married until her death in 2005. When the animation of Fantasia was completed in April 1940 the animator went on to a very ambitious project: Bambi.  Johnston would serve alongside Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas, and Eric Larson as the four supervising animators responsible for brining the animal personalities across the screen and mastering the challenge of having realistic but personified animals look believable on the screen.  Unlike the previous films which had done casting by character Bambi was done almost entirely by casting by sequence with only a few exceptions (Marc Davis did pretty much all of Flower and Eric Larson did pretty much all of the Great Owl.) among Ollie’s best sequences on the film include Bambi learning how to walk (a must-study scene because it’s so believable how he feels in the situation and the awkwardness is so simple but honest), the scene in the meadow where Thumper reluctantly recites how greens are good for your heart(a great example of the intuitiveness he used in animation and how he spent immense time thinking about what the character is thinking and why they think that way), Bambi meeting Faline(a good scene for character relationship and change in emotions),  Bambi’s overwhelming first encounter with the Great Stag(the emotion in the drawings is breathtaking), and older Bambi reconciling with his old friends.  All of Johnston’s scenes in the film have great usage of subtle, believable gestures that clearly communicate the feeling and thinking of the character. The animator’s work on the film is truly inspirational and shows great sincerity, which is vital to great animation.  In comparison to the other supervising animators Johnston drew the Bambi characters very round and more simplistic in terms of design.  While there isn’t the draftsmanship of Kahl or deep thinking of Thomas in his Bambi work what is there is complete honesty, pure emotion, and sensitivity making his scenes although not flashy really make the audience connect with the characters and sympathize with them.


As Bambi was being completed World War 2 started and Ollie Johnston intended on enlisting alongside Frank Thomas (who worked for the animation unit for the war) but palsy prevented this from happening making him stay behind at the Disney studio where he worked on war projects. Among the shorts and films he worked on during this period included Victory Through Airpower, Chicken Little, the Pelican and the Snipe, and the Three Caballeros.  In the latter one he did a great scene where Donald Duck kisses the dancing girl that works very well despite a hiccup in its making.  “I had a scene with the Duck reacting to Aurora Miranda’s kiss, where his heart and bowtie start beating to this South American Drum,” explained Ollie. “I staggered the animation of the bowtie so that it went out and then back a little, then out and back in a little again, so that it would work to this beat. However, my inbetweener didn’t understand this and erased all of the extreme poses so that the bowtie just floated out to meet her. The error was discovered at a screening that Walt had arranged for the Latin American executives. They were also surprised to see some of my scene of singing Panchito accidentally cut upside down.  I was sitting in the back and that stuff goes by on the screen and Walt turns around with this black look on his face. It’s funny now to look back on it, but oh geez!” For the most part Johnston didn’t particularly like or feel challenged by his war assignments at the studio but there was one huge exception to this: Reason and Emotion.  Reason and Emotion is arguably the best thing done at the studio during this time period and is truly a great cartoon. While Ward Kimball animated the boy Reason and boy Emotion the other animator animated all of the Reason and Emotion girls. Emotion is without question the broadest character Ollie ever animated and the result is phenomenal. You feel the energy and strong emotion that girl is thinking through the timing, acting, expression, poses, and every other aspect of great animation. “The little girl was so flamboyant and impulsive, and wanted to do everything that popped into her head,” reflected Johnston. “She couldn’t control herself.”

After the war Disney went into a stage where it produced a string of package features giving animators opportunities to explore with different styles and ideas.  Although they are weak at many parts, there is quite a bit of great animation in these features and one of the absolute highlights of this era is Ollie Johnston’s intuitive and sincere animation of Peter in Peter and the Wolf. There is an intimacy between animator and character that works so well in this scene. You don’t see drawings up on the screen but rather an innocent, naïve boy with this gun who really wants to prove himself and is excited but doesn’t always know what to do in risky situations.  There is so much warmth in every scene he did of the character and it is so honest about how young boys feel.  I particularly love the scenes where he’s sitting in the corner and deciding to go out hunting and the one where he nervously walks through the woods scarred to death because they are unbelievably sincere.  “For Roger Rabbit I had to animate a scene with Peter so I studied the original drawings and I told my assistant ‘I can’t do that’,” explained Andreas Deja. “’I just can’t do something like that. The simplicity, the honesty, the emotion. The essence of a little kid with his toy gun going into the woods. All of that was there.’ It made me rethink my philosophy on animation, what’s possible, and what’s important.” Up next came the assignment of being a directing animator on the animation sequences of Song of the South, one that Ollie enjoyed greatly.  I’ve always absolutely loved his scenes of Brer Fox because of the way he used little details such as the eyes, shape of mouth, and secondary actions to make all the difference in communicating the character. You see things like this in real life if you observe so you recognize and connect with them in Johnston’s animation.  Another brilliant scene he did on the film is the one where Brer Rabbit ends up shaking Brer Bear’s hand. The fright when he makes the realization is terrific because it so clearly communicates the change in thought process and feeling.  On Melody Time Ollie animated a lot of Johnny in Johnny Appleseed and Little Tut in Little Tut.  He had more fun in Ichabod and Mr. Toad where he animated scenes of Ichabod Crane (Ichabod giving a singing lesson, getting a flower from Katrina, and nervously choking on the peppered egg in the Headless Horseman song) in the Sleeping Hallow segment and animating all of the prosecutor in the Wind and the Willows segment. “The prosecutor was the first character I really had all by myself of any importance,” Johnson explained.  “I loved doing him even though there weren’t too many scenes but he was a real egotistical guy who had nothing but contempt for everybody that got on the witness stand. He’d laugh at them, make fun of them, and I got this great way of having him walk and whirl.”

During the first half of the 1950s Ollie Johnston did a wide variety of characters and was able to apply his sensitivity and emotions for them to all of them successfully. On Cinderella he was the directing animator on Anastasia and Drizella, the two mean stepsisters of Cinderella. While it was a great challenge for the animator to feel emotional for such unlikeable character Ollie ultimately was able to put his magic in tact by putting his feelings towards them in the animation even if they’re not positive feelings. When you see them up on the screen you feel for Cinderella when they’re mean to her and you identify this emotion because everybody has experience with snaughty, spoiled girls some point in their life.  If you study Johnston’s scenes of the characters frame by frame you’ll see he did a brilliant job in using body posture and realistic gestures to communicate the characters. Although his animation of the characters was a success he didn’t necessarily enjoy working with the tight crotch the live action footage brought.  In addition to animating the stepsisters Ollie also animated the Lackey at the end. Although only a minor character it’s amazing to see how back then even the most peripheral of parts had great character designs and top-notch animation.  After Cinderella came Alice in Wonderland, where Johnston animated some of Alice as well as the lion’s share of the King of Hearts. The King of Hearts is rather passive giving the animator little room to do much with the performance but he did the part just right by putting in the nervous quality and communicating clearly he wasn’t the dominant one in the relationship.  One great scene Ollie did on the film is the one where Alice is conversing with the doorknob. In this scene through his animation he clearly realize from the start the most important point of the story: this is a typical, completely normal teenage girl in a world full of nonsense, whimsicalness, and insanity.  Johnston really felt Alice’s situation and emotional state in a way that the other lead animators on her didn’t, making his scenes oftentimes work much stronger emotionally than the others did.  However the animator didn’t share Milt Kahl and Marc Davis’s natural ability at animating straight characters with superb draftsmanship making it a lot harder for him to have to do a character so realistic and straight. “With a more cartoony character you can go so much broader but you had to handle Alice in a much straight way,” Johnston stated.  It was on the next film however that Johnston animated one of the greatest animated performances ever anywhere. The film was Peter Pan and the character was Smee.


Smee was actually a big challenge to Ollie Johnston and a big departure from his typical work.  The biggest problem that he found was that he had trouble getting inside the character because he was so shallow and didn’t think deep about anything in contrast to the animator’s very thoughtful personality. “The thing about Smee was he wasn’t smart at all and he was used as a foil for Captain Hook,” reflected Johnston. “I don’t drink much but I watch my friends drink. I get some ideas watching how late in the evening they sit down and smirk or cough a little bit.” Despite the challenge of Smee the animator really went into the character, conceived him thoroughly, and put a great nervous, nonchalant quality into the performance that makes the character so believable.  I personally love the character because your really do feel his character and see his lack of thought process. To communicate this Ollie gave him a very nonchalant, uncoordinated walk as well as expressions and gestures that showed his lack of thought and intellect.   Around this time the animator also did some quality animation on shorts such as Susie in Susie the Little Blue Coupe and Benjamin Franklin in Ben and Me.  In terms of features the next film up was Lady and the Tramp where Johnston was the directing animator on Lady, Jock, and Trusty.  In many ways this is the film that served as a turning point in his career: instead of being the versatile team player who did several different type of characters and drew in a very round style here his work began to focus a bit more on character relationships, soft subtleties, and had a lot of subtle touches between two characters.  Ollie’s animation on Lady shows great study, analysis, and subtle beauty making a very believable and sincere performance.  You can always tell what she’s thinking and her feelings are communicated in a very subtle way (Hal King also did some great stuff on the character but he went a little broader in some scenes.) Most of all there is a low key charm and sentimental quality that really makes Lady a character the audience falls in love with., all coming from the magic of Johnston’s pencil.  His stuff on Jock and Trusty is topnotch too, and he did a great job of making them have distinct expressions, lip syncs, and walks to show the contrast between the two characters.

After Lady Ollie Johnston went on to spend years doing character development and animation on Sleeping Beauty, where with Frank Thomas he supervised the animation of the fairies Flora, Fauna, and Meriwether.  The thing that makes these characters work so well is that their character relationship is so clearly defined (go through the Illusion of Life and you can find the story of how the characters came to be.) For the inspiration they worked very close together and looked at woman in their own life to try to find their characters.  “On vacation in Colorado, one of us met a lady who was to have a profound influence on the character of Fauna,” wrote Thomas and Johnston. “She could be described as wispy, constantly smiling, twinkling-eyed, and almost unaware of what might be going on about her. She loved everybody, thought beautiful thoughts, could scarcely conceive of wrongdoing, and delighted in spreading what she considered to be sunshine. Here was a positive character who saw only good in everything and still lacked nothing in personality. She was supposed to read an inspirational poem at each meeting of her women’s club but when she arrived and couldn’t find her prepared selection- instead of being flustered, upset, embarrassed, or confused- she blithely pulled out a letter from her cousin in Indianapolis and read it to the assembled ladies. She was always sweet and sparkling, and also a little infuriating, but as a model for a unique good character who could move through any problem unscratched as well as unaware of what she was inspiring. This opened up a whole new relationship and made us think a little of the great comedienne Billie Burke. At last we felt we had an understanding of the elusive Fauna. She still could be vague but she did have ideas of her own. She liked the idea of baking a cake but had trouble keeping her concentration while doing it. Of the three fairies she would worry the most and would be the one who would try to smooth over any conflict between the other two. This new slant had given Fauna an almost aggressive view of life.” A great scene to study for understanding character relationships is the one Ollie did where the Fairies are planning about what they’re going to do to protect Briar Rose.  You can see clearly the different personalities and their feelings towards the situation. However as always Johnston was critical of the work done on the picture. “The thing that wasn’t as strong as it should have been was their relationship to the girl,” he resented. “You never had the type of relationship that the Dwarfs and Snow White had where she had a different feeling toward each dwarf. Briar Rose looked at the three as pretty much the same personality.” After Sleeping Beauty Johnston went on to be a directing animator on One Hundred and One Dalmatians where he focused on Pongo, Perdita, and the Nanny.  There is a ton of heart in his animation on this film and it really helps make the picture work by communicating the soft sides of the characters.  One particularly warm, sincere scene is the one where after the puppies are born the Nanny grabs Pongo and embraces him. The contact is subtle and warm but it has so much meaning because of how little is going on.  The animator’s real masterpiece on the film, however, is the scene where Perdita is worried about what Cruella de Vill might do the puppies and Pongo comforts her.  So little movement happens but the little that does has so much power and emotional impact. It’s a great example of how it’s possible to get such elusive emotions as love and warmth up on the screen.  “Depicting love between two cartoon characters is even more difficult than warmth; it is possible the most elusive emotion to portray,” wrote Thomas and Johnston. “Love is built almost solely through the animator’s personal feelings about the drawings he is making. No one can say exactly which drawing, scene, or action has sold the idea because they are so subtly related. It is only the sum total of the ingredients that creates the illusion.” “I thought gee this layout is really restrictive,” said the animator about the scene. “I though I’d rather have Perdita out in the center of the room. But the more I worked at it, the more I realized that was the best place to have her because she is secluded. You couldn’t move her head or anything but in the end what moves I did put on them paid off. Particularly the little one at the end where he gives her a little kiss.” On Sword in the Stone Ollie animated scenes with Merlin and Wart as well as most of Archimedes the owl. One particularly brilliant scene is the one where Archimedes laughs for a record 28 seconds. You feel the air just coming out of him and how he just can’t stop laughing.  Although it is only briefly on the screen one pose I’ve always loved that Johnston did on the film is the one where when talking to Wart Merlin very subtly gives a crossed look on his face making him have a pose that communicates how scholarly and intellectual but cynical and stuffy he is. I know it’s brief but it’s really stuck with me for some reason.  I just feel it really shows the character and who he is so clearly.

After the critically and commercially disappointing Sword in the Stone Walt was intent that for the next feature strong character relationships would drive the story and that the film would be one that audiences would fall in love with. The choice for the story was the Jungle Book (which turned out to be Disney’s last before his death) and Ollie Johnston proved to be vital in making the feature work.  Along with Frank Ollie was responsible for brining to life the important character relationship of Baloo the bear and Mowgli the man cub.  The relationship between the two proved to be a very emotional, deep one and arguably the strongest ever done at the studio. “I kept thinking how can I make this bear and kid feel closer to each other,” the animator reflected. “Without these coming off properly all this character work we had done wouldn’t pay off.” “Character relationships must be built slowly and carefully through actions, expressions, and emotions,” wrote Thomas and Johnston. “Once Baloo had become a definite individual he was so entertaining it was impossible to keep him out of the rest of the picture.  Instead of the little cameo part that had been planned, he was built into the story more and more until he was the main force that made it work. Phil Harris’s performance added sincerity in a colorful character that gave new interest to everything he did but most important this bear suddenly had great warmth, something the picture had needed. None of the other voices were tested or the personalities we considered would have done this.  Baloo might have remained a cameo because he wouldn’t have been strong enough or important enough to use in more than one place and the story would have been quite different. The relationship between these two began to have enormous possibilities for warmth, comedy, pathos, and suspense. They really needed each other.  The bear never had a cub of his own and saw in Mowgli someone he could teach the things he thought were important. The story had been grim with everyone against the boy, and now he had a friend. But what a friend- irresponsible, impulsive, thoughtless. The audience knew the panther was right in his concern for Mowgli’s survival, but they also could see the appeal of the bear to the boy. All the characters had clear drives; they were in conflict and they were enjoyable and provocative.” Together the two animators animated almost all of Baloo and Mowgli therefore keeping great consistency between their relationships.  Ollie himself did tons of phenomenal, sincere animation on the film.  Some of his best scenes included Baloo meeting Mowgli, the two during the Bear Necessities, Bagheera convincing Baloo that Mowgli needed to go back to the man village, and Baloo waking up from pretending to be dead.  The use of touching, in particular, between the boy and bear really showed how emotional and strong their relationship was. Johnston also was the directing animator on Bagheera, the stuffy panther.  He and Frank always told the story about how part of their inspiration for Bagheera and Baloo was that at the studio there was a guy who had a very clean, orderly office while there was another one who had a very messy office.  Ollie’s final scene on the film was the bittersweet ending where Mowgli is wooed by an attractive girl into the man village. This is an important character arc because ultimately this is a coming of age story and the boy has to decide to go back to the man village himself. “At first I hated the idea,” Johnston confessed. “I wrested with it and the more I wrestled with it the more I liked it. So finally I managed to help this little girl innocently seduce Mowgli into going back.” The girl has just enough sex appeal balanced with innocence to make the ending work.

After Walt Disney’s death in 1966 many animators at the studio felt lost and struggled to stay afoot. While Ollie Johnson still did quality work he found that the inspiration, drive to do better, and unity of the studio had been lost and didn’t feel the features made after his death were as good as the ones during his lifetime. On the Aristocats he shared the leading characters of Thomas O’Malley and Duchess with Milt Kahl but unlike before where the two men could work very well together there was a lot of friction between the two men.  Kahl wanted a skinny cat and did a lot of rude trashtalking towards Ollie (the feud between the top animators at the studio was a major story for the last decade of their careers.  ) Besides doing the cats the animator also animated the geese Amelia, Abigail, and Uncle Waldo alongside Frank Thomas.  For Robin Hood the story was at the very best no better than that of the Aristocats but Johnston had more fun and fulfillment on this picture because of the character relationship of Prince John and Sir Hiss. While the story isn’t very strong, there is quite a juicy relationship between these two characters. A great inspiration to the animator on the film was the voice actors Pete Ustinov and Terry Thomas.  “I’d watch the voice actors when I had lunch with them,” Ollie remembered. “I can’t take my eyes off of them because I keep thinking I’ll see something. I’ll do it to Ustinov and he’d be eating and he looks at me out of the top of his eyes.” A lot of the analyzing and observing he did came into the final performance. “There is something very Ustinov about Prince John,” Johnston explained.  “He doesn’t move around a real lot and my conception of Prince John was the important things on him are the little things. He isn’t the kind of guy who does a lot of big movements. He really is too lazy and he only gestures. I like to see his mouth and the expression in his eyes.” Up next came the Rescuers, which ultimately was a film that the animator had a higher opinion of. “It had more heart than the previous three pictures,” Ollie simply stated. On the film he a lot of animation and did stuff on Bernard and Bianca as well as was the key animator on Penny, Rufus, and Orville.  Without a doubt Johnston’s best work on the film is the emotional, heartfelt character relationship between Penny and Rufus. There is so much warmth and subtlety between the characters that in many ways it covers up for a lot of the story shortcomings in the film.  Orville also proved to be a character that he enjoyed.  While the old guard fastly disappearing from Disney and management starting to change, Johnson did some early work and animation on the Fox and the Hound, doing scenes with young Tod, young Copper, Chief, Vixey, and Tod.  Ollie decided, factoring in his worsen palsy as well as dissatisfaction with the quality of films and a desire to write a book with Thomas, decided to retire from animating along with Frank on January 31, 1978.  Randy Cartwright took over his responsibilities as a supervising animator on the film.  However, although they were no longer animating Frank and Ollie stayed at the studio in an office together writing their classic book the Illusion of Life until 1981. In this time many young talents and animation students would go upstairs to their room and learn about animation through them.  Illusion of Life is in my humble opinion the greatest book ever written on animation and is a must-read for anyone who wants to be serious about getting into the art form. It’s so deep and analytical as well as really communicates what is important about Disney animation. Until Frank’s death in 2004 the two men constantly did things to promote Disney, inspire animation students, wrote books, and traveled around the world spreading their passion.  Ollie Johnston passed away on April 14, 2008 in Sequim, Washington at the age of 95.

As I’ve described above the heart of Ollie Johnston’s style and approach to animation was always the feelings and emotions of the characters. It was what he cared about the most, valued the most, and what he always went by first and foremost. While other animators spend a lot of time on technique and acting Ollie primarily just animated from his heart and used his own emotions to drive his animation. “Ask yourself what is this character feeling and why is he feeling that way,” he religiously said repeatedly. “You have to make it sincere so that the audience will believe everything they do, their feelings.” In comparison to Milt Kahl’s laborious work in getting the drawings and technical skills correct and Frank Thomas’s intense thinking and analysis the animator was much more intuitive and didn’t use as much intensity but rather approached his work in a very subtle, soft way.  When you look at Johnston’s rough drawings there is a lot of life, feeling, and subtlety in them. He always drew very lightly so on the paper his lines oftentimes almost disappear and appear.  When studying the structure of his scenes you’ll see that Ollie’s work and movement is pretty fluid and organic. The timing isn’t particularly complex, the movements are very fluid, the key poses aren’t too dominant, and everything is pretty even.  This gives his scenes a very smooth, natural texture.  In terms of character design Johnston used a ton of round shapes (reflecting his mentor Fred Moore) and appeal but drew more simplistically than someone like Milt Kahl and Marc Davis. Of course it was the pure emotion that made his scenes work and he did that very well.  All of Ollie’s characters are usually very honest, have very subtle emotions, and have emotional depth to them.  “I would sit, sweat, and analyze what I was going to do,” said the animator of his process. “If you haven’t, what have you got? Especially in a Disney picture. Walt’s strongest thing was personality, humor, and entertainment. So you struggle with these drawings, work so hard to get the right expression, right acting, and right timing.” Last in terms of acting physical contact and touching was something that he used as a way to thrive. The Johnston touch is always very heartfelt and incredibly sincere. “You’re not supposed to animate drawings, you’re supposed to animate feelings,” was his signature statement.


Ollie Johnston has had a profound, strong influence over the Disney features and in the art behind them.  No other animator in the history of the studio has been able to achieve the warmth and subtlety in animation that he achieved during his career. Most of the time when an animator relies on pure emotion it either doesn’t come or is too sappy. However Ollie did this perfectly and has inspired so many other animators to look into their heart to put their emotions into their scenes.  His work more than anyone else’s (besides that of Bill Tytla) proves that the feelings and emotions of the character are the sole most important thing in great Disney animation.  Johnston always talked about this and his word inspired a whole generation of animators to do sincere, emotional work.  He also influenced his contemporaries by inspiring them to really feel the emotions of their characters and when necessary use subtleties and soft touches to make their animation much more powerful and meaningful than if they did the scene broad.  When Tangled was made it is obvious that they must have thought back to Ollie’s philosophy of feeling first. This film won many devout hand-drawn fans over because it had the emotions and feelings that were so vital to the great hand-drawn films. Johnston himself was also a believer in innovation of the art of Disney animation and of doing things that are completely original and new but at the same time true to what Disney animation means and stands for.  While many other animators didn’t care about the future and felt uncomfortable with changes Thomas and Johnston really believed in young people and their ability to break new boundaries in the art form. Their immense mentorship, writing, and advice helped inspire animators to do their best for countless years and still continues to serve as an inspiration today.

Of course there isn’t any way that I could say Ollie Johnston isn’t a major inspiration to me.  Personally I absolutely love his approach to animation and belief that the emotions and feelings of the characters are always the most important thing to focus on when you’re an animator. I’m not an animator myself but I know that someday when I am that his philosophy and approach will help me remember what is possible and important in the medium.  Johnston’s signature quote, “You’re not supposed to animate drawings, you’re supposed to animate feelings,” really speaks to me because it really is the most important thing to remember if you’re an animator. This has to happen for the audience to believe in your characters.  I remember that when I first heard that quote that I felt an obligation to always make sure I remembered it. I did and still do to this day constantly write it down in booklets such as planners (I’ve already written it out in my planner the entire school year.) I have so much I haven’t learned and even more I haven’t experienced about animation but I know that if I remember this quote and stay true to it I should be headed in the right direction. Also their book the Illusion of Life has been a huge inspiration to me and I always enjoy reading it. It was my present for my 8th grad graduation and reading it in my heart really confirmed my gumption to become an animator at Disney someday. Their approach and philosophy really captivated me and is always a good source of inspiration. Every time I read the book again I realize how much more I understand of it which is kind of exciting because it reminds me there’s so much more to learn and so much ahead to come. It’s like I’m all the way down here and the more I realize that the more I want to go to the top.  It’s encouraging too that this is only the beginning.  Last I feel like Frank and Ollie’s belief in young people and the future has had a big impact on me.  While I can’t possibly imagine I’ll ever be worthy of being compared to anyone on this 50 list it’s nice to remember that Johnston always said that the next generation would do greater work than the first generation.  It’s hard to believe but it’s nice to know that someone believed that greater work is yet to come.  In a nutshell Ollie Johnston, his approach, work, and philosophy is a great inspiration to me and always inspires me to look to do better. Thank you Ollie Johnston for your contributions to Disney animation and for being a great inspiration to me as well as so many other people!

2 Responses to “5. Ollie Johnston”

  1. Super post, super blog. Really enjoying your take on the animators and looking forward to more as the countdown heads towards #1.

    Also added your link to my blog roll.

  2. I really have no idea who would be #1!! All of my alternatives are all already named! and not even close to #1 position!

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