Thursday, June 26, 2014

That "Touchy-Feely" Thing

A young Oliver at Palo Alto High School
Perhaps the two most accomplished of Disney's "Nine Old Men" were Oliver Johnston and his close friend Frank Thomas. The pair met as art students at Stanford University in the 1930s and were hired by Walt for $17 a week, back when he was expanding the studio to produce full-length feature films. Both Thomas and Johnston worked on the first of those features; 1937's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

“Ollie" was born on Oct. 31, 1912, in Palo Alto, Calif., where his father, Oliver Martin Johnston, Sr. was an Associate Professor of Romance Languages at Stanford. 

Johnston Junior once noted that he and Frank were "bound to be thrown together" at the university, as they were two of only six students in the fledgling art department, then led by architect Arthur Bridgman Clark. The Drawing Department's aims were to; " the needs of three classes of students: students who wish training in artistic perception and graphic expression for its general culture value; students who wish to begin professional art study while receiving other university training; and technical students to whom knowledge of representative drawing is essential."

Amsterdam, by A. B. Clark

Regarding Clark's influence on the department, the Stanford Historical Society wrote:

"It is due largely to Professor Clark’s vision, enthusiasm, and untiring effort over nearly forty years that the Art Department was developed from a drawing course into a substantial curriculum in art embracing both practical training in drawing, painting, design, and crafts, and an enlightened appreciation of art as an active living experience. It is hard to realize that with the energy and devotion he put into his teaching and administration of the department, and the concern which he showed for  the problems of his individual students, that he  could have found time to work so devotedly at so  many other tasks." 

When not in that "drawing" class, Frank and Ollie painted landscapes and sold them at a local speakeasy for meal money. Prior to joining Disney, Johnston had planned on becoming a magazine illustrator but fell in love with animation.

"I wanted to paint pictures full of emotion that would make people want to read the stories," he said. "But I found that here (in animation) was something that was full of life and movement and action, and it showed all those feelings." 

That element would become one of the hallmarks of Walt's films; the natural expression of emotion in the characters.

Ollie drew his characters with soft, subtle touches, gestures, and body movements which expressed how they felt.

“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.” 

Throughout his 43-year career Ollie animated some of the most sensitive and emotional scenes in Disney's stories. Among his best known works are Bambi, Thumper, and Pinocchio,  but he also enlivened 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.” 

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

Ollie was honored with a Disney Legends Award in 1989 and, in 2005, he was the first animator honored with the National Medal of Arts at a White House ceremony.

Ollie was also a huge train enthusiast. The backyard of his Flintridge home boasted a hand-built miniature railroad, and he restored and ran a full-size antique locomotive, the Mary E, at a former vacation home in Julian, California.

Mary E

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