Disney’s Nine Old Men: Legends in Animation

Posted on Thu, 04/16/2020 - 14:30

Need something to do while you are stuck inside? We have compiled ten articles exploring legendary Disney animators for you to read, and are starting a Blog Club on our Facebook page to foster discussion on these topics.

Read any of the articles that interest you, and join the Blog Club conversation on our Facebook page each day as we explore the articles.

Disney's Nine Old Men

Eric Larsen

While Disney fans know Larson as one of Walt’s famous “Nine Old Men” of animation, his path to get there was hardly a straight line. In fact, during an interview not long before his retirement, he was asked how he ended up with Disney. His reply: “This is the last place I expected to be.”

Frank Thomas

Animator Frank Thomas instilled vivid personality into his characters. He drew some of Disney animation’s most memorable, as well as touching, moments, including the Dwarfs crying at Snow White’s bier, Bambi and Thumper learning how to ice skate, and the charming spaghetti-eating sequence in Lady and the Tramp. To Frank, personality was always the key to successful animation. As he once said:

“Until a character becomes a personality, it cannot be believed. Without personality, the character may do funny or interesting things, but unless people are able to identify themselves with the character, its actions will seem unreal.”


Ollie Johnston

Animator Ollie Johnston infused an unusual level of warmth and heartfelt emotion into his characters. As lifelong friend and fellow animator and Disney Legend Frank Thomas recalled, “Ollie was the only one of the Studio animators who was sensitive to character relationships and how they affected story.” Explained Frank: “Back then, cartoon characters seldom touched unless they hit each other. But one day Ollie said, ‘You know, the act of two people holding hands communicates in a powerful way.’ And he was right. His warmth made a difference in so many of our characters.”

Ollie animated such memorable friendships as those of Baloo and Mowgli in The Jungle Book and the sycophantic relationship between Sir Hiss and Prince John in Robin Hood. And he valued his own relationship with the characters he animated, including Thumper from Bambi, Mr. Smee from Peter Pan, and the trio of fanciful fairies from Sleeping Beauty. “They were all good friends whom I remember fondly,” he once said.


John Lounsbery

John Lounsbery had his own special way of looking at things, according to fellow animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. In their book, Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, they wrote that no matter how bad a situation might be, John could always make “some funny observation to lighten the situation.”

And while shy by nature, John created animated characters that were anything but. Thomas and Johnston wrote, “Hardly subtle, John’s characters were always fun to watch.” 

Other memorable characters he animated include the “less-than” Honest John from Pinocchio, faithful Timothy the mouse in Dumbo, and the ever-so-jolly Tony the cook from Lady and the Tramp.


Woolie Reitherman

Wolfgang “Woolie” Reitherman once described himself as “full of life and ginger,” and his animation as having “vitality and … quality.” Woolie’s boundless energy and personality did indeed spill over into his animation; with an unusual knack for action sequences, Woolie animated such memorable sequences as the dramatic dinosaur battle in Fantasia, the climactic whale-chase scene in Pinocchio, and the fire-breathing clash between Prince Phillip and the Dragon in Sleeping Beauty.

Les Clark

While in high school, Les Clark worked a summer job at a lunch counter near the Walt Disney Studio in Hollywood. Walt and Roy Disney used to eat there, and, one day, Les got up the courage to ask Walt for a job.

He recalled Walt’s reply, “‘Bring some of your drawings in and let’s see what they look like.’ So, I copied some cartoons and showed them to Walt. He said I had a good line, and why don’t I come to work on Monday.

Les, who was the first of Walt Disney’s legendary “Nine Old Men” (an affectionate term Franklin D. Roosevelt coined for his Supreme Court Justices, which Disney adopted when referring to his key animators), spent the next 48 years of his life animating and directing for Disney.


Milt Kahl: Master Puppeteer

Walt was known to peek his head into Milt’s office and ask “Where’s the genius?” Kahl was one of the few who had the courage to openly disagree with Walt on some of his ideas, so confident was he in his knowledge that he was indispensable to the Studios. And he was right.


Animated Contrarian: Celebrating Ward Kimball's Centennial Year

In a conversation between Diane Disney Miller and Pete Martin, Walt could be heard making a comment that has remained oft-repeated since: “Ward is one man who works for me I am willing to call a genius. He can do anything he wants to do.” Walt recognized Ward’s multifaceted style, whilst also recognizing Ward’s profound independence. Ward was his own man, as was Walt.

Marc Davis: Style & Compromise on Sleeping Beauty

Marc Davis was a renaissance artist, capable of all manner of style and character in his art. He proved one of the greatest animators who ever lived, but always approached his craft as an artist first. As Disney animator Iwao Takamoto would say, “[Marc] leaned far into the fine arts approach to making a drawing statement…he was not an animator at heart.”

Other Notable Animators

Walt Disney was fortunate enough to have other notable animators and artists as a part of his team. Learn more about them below!

Josh Meador: Walt's Animation and Special Effects Master

As Josh was coming up to his 20th anniversary with The Walt Disney Studios, he wanted to dedicate more of his energies to his fine art painting. Walt prized Josh's services, and did not want to lose him. In 1955, Walt called Josh into his office and negotiated a compromise. Josh would be free to paint full-time, but when Walt needed him, Josh would remain under contract on an “on-call' basis. Both men grew to like the arrangement. Under it, Josh did some of his most memorable work.

Painting Dreams with Mary Blair

Despite the fact that we rarely get to see true Mary on the screen, her concepts were profound enough that today she continues to be one of the most remembered and respected artists that came out of The Walt Disney Studios.

Celebrating Burny Mattinson

It was sometime around 1940 when young Burny Mattinson's mother took him down Market Street in San Francisco. They were going to the Orpheum Theater, built in 1926 by famed theater owner Alexander Pantages. The downtown movie palace was a jewel of its age in architectural design. As Burny stepped inside, he would have gazed up in awe at the vaulted ceiling, evoking an old cathedral. The theater had passed into the ownership of RKO Pictures, which, in 1940, was busy distributing Walt Disney’s newest animated feature, Pinocchio.

“The Best Education I Ever Had”: Mel Shaw at The Walt Disney Studios

Walt, ever on the lookout for the best talent, soon hired Shaw to come work at his studio. After Shaw arrived, Walt said to him, “You like to draw animals, would you like to work on this? We just got the rights [on] Felix Salten’s Bambi.”

Make Believe: The World of Glen Keane

“As Tarzan looked into Jane’s eyes, I imagined him seeing his reflection in the face of another human for the first time. I wondered when I had experienced such a thing, and I remembered holding my daughter Claire—looking into her face and seeing myself. I told Claire years later: ‘When you see Tarzan looking into Jane’s eyes, that’s really me looking at you for the first time.’”