April 15, 2008

Ollie Johnston (pictured above at right, with longtime colleague, co-author and pal Frank Thomas), the last of Disney's fabled Nine Old Men, passed away yesterday, marking a symbolic end of an era.

I owe Frank and Ollie a lot. About 25 years ago, a few years after my first attempts at animating, I decided that just studying movement frame by frame wasn't going to cut it, and started reading about the process. The duo's Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life wasn't the first book on creating animation I borrowed from the library, but it had an impact that was, quite simply, life-changing.

Prior to reading the book I knew little about the actual history of animation in general, and next to nothing about the history of the Disney studio. I liked Disney movies—Kino Kid and I made a point of catching every new and re-released Disney film—but unlike the constantly rerun Warner Bros. productions, I couldn't tell you who directed what, or offer any analyses of the movies. The gorgeously produced Illusion of Life was a gift from the gods, offering the ultimate insiders' view of the studio's best decades, artistically and technologically, liberally sprinkled with concept, pre-production and final artwork. The final pages contained actual animation instruction, but in truth the whole book was a masterclass for anyone who cared to open their eyes.

I devoured The Illusion of Life. Twice. The first time was during an extended road trip that took us to Toronto and Saint Catharines in Ontario, then Ann Arbor, Michigan. The second time was just a few years later, after I'd started seriously immersing myself in animation publications and bought my own copy. Both times, I couldn't put it down.

I have to admit to more than a twinge of disappointment when I later learned about the 1941 Disney strike, and discovered that the divisions caused by the strike ran so deep that The Illusion of Life effectively elided the contributions of those who participated in it. But in the end, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston were my first animation history teachers, and one of my earliest and most thorough animation teachers. Without them, and that book, my life would be very different—there would certainly be no Frames Per Second—and for that I offer my thanks to Ollie and belated thanks to Frank.

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