Nine Old Men
by Arthur E. Vassar
I recently had the honor and opportunity to volunteer for another talk at The Walt Disney Family Museum. This time it was a wonderful talk given by Disney animator Andreas Deja, based on his new book The Nine Old Men: Lessons, Techniques, and Inspiration from Disney's Great Animators. He knows all about the Nine Old Men as he was apprenticed to Eric Larson after he started work for Disney Animation. Over his years working there he was given a great opportunity to learn directly from most of the Nine. But who were Walt's Nine Old Men?
Walt himself gave his core animators the title “Nine Old Men”, and they were the animators that Walt entrusted with much of lead work on his animated films. They worked on shorts, and then feature films going back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs up until The Rescuers. Some worked in the parks, but all of them trained the next generations of animators including Andreas Deja who had first written to the studios at a very young age asking how to put together a portfolio to work there. All of the Nine were hired to work at Disney Studios between 1927 and 1935, so they were there from the days of the shorts and went on to create some truly memorable characters in the first Golden Age of Disney animation.
First of the Nine was Les Clark, hired in 1927, and worked alongside Ub Iwerks working on Mickey Mouse from the day of that characters creation. He worked on many of the early films up until the feature Lady and the Tramp. At that point he moved into a directorial role for featurettes and shorts.
Next were Eric Larson and Wolfgang Reitherman who both were hired in 1933 by the Disney Studios. Eric Larson was one of Disney's top men, known for his notable characters and scenes (Peg – Lady and the Tramp, Vultures – The Jungle Book, Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Bear – Song of the South, and the flight of Peter Pan and the Darling children over London). He was very talented in his ability to spot and train new talent, so that is where he was focused in the 1970's. Due to this ability, many of Disney's great animators of the second Golden Age (which began with Beauty and the Beast). Wolfgang, or Woolie was an animator and director for Disney. He was also the producer for all the animated films that came out of the Disney Studios after Walt's death until his retirement. His best know characters were Monstro – Pinocchio, the Crocodile – Peter Pan, and the Rat – Lady and the Tramp. His best known directorial sequence is the escape and battle between Prince Phillip and Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty.
Next to join the Disney Studios 1934 were animators Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, and Frank Thomas. Milt Kahl's first assignment at Disney was on Snow White, and he went on to work on such characters as Pinocchio, Shere Khan - The Jungle Book, Edgar – The Aristocats, Sheriff of Nottingham – Robin Hood, and Madame Medusa – The Rescuers. Ward Kimball was known for his wild and unique characters including Jiminy Cricket – Pinocchio; Lucifer, Jaq and Gus – Cinderella; the Mad Hatter and Cheshire Cat – Alice in Wonderland. Frank Thomas was the animator of such memorable characters as Wicked Stepmother – Cinderella, Queen of Hearts – Alice in Wonderland, and Captain Hook – Peter Pan. He also co-wrote (with Ollie Johnston) The Illusion of Life which is considered to be the animator's bible.
The last three of the Nine joined the Disney Studios in 1935; Marc Davis, Ollie Johnston, and John Lounsbery. Marc Davis was hired to worked on Snow White, but continued in the development of characters such as Bambi and Thumper – Bambi; Maleficent, Aurora and the raven – Sleeping Beauty; Cruella de Vil – One Hundred and One Dalmatians. He then went on to be the Imagineer who developed the character design for the iconic Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion attractions at Disneyland. Ollie Johnston characters ranged from Mr. Smee – Peter Pan, Stepsisters – Cinderella, District Attorney – The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, and Prince John – Robin Hood. John Lounsbery was a strong draftsman who became an inspiration to generations of animators to come. He was known for his great use of squash and stretch on his characters. These include J. Worthington Foulfellow and Gideon – Pinocchio; Ben Ali Gator – Fantasia; George Darling – Peter Pan; Tony, Joe and some of the dogs – Lady and the Tramp; Kings Stefan and Hubert – Sleeping Beauty; and the Elephants – The Jungle Book. He then switched to directing in the 1970's with Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too; and his final film The Rescuers.
All of Walt's Nine Old Men are naturally Disney Legends, as well as being individually recognized as honorees given the Winsor McCay Award (lifetime achievement in animation). This was wonderful talk given by someone who knew most of these men personally. There were many great pictures and interviews used in the course of the talk. To truly get a glimpse into the lives of these animation legends, check out the book. I know I will be getting it.
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