Some of the most revered animators in the History of Animation, Disney's Nine Old Men were a group of Walt Disney's top animators, some of whom would even become directors. They also taught and mentored many of today's top animators, both at Disney and elsewhere.
The Nine Old Men in question are:
Leslie James "Les" Clark (Nov. 17, 1907–Sept. 12, 1979)Les Clark was hired at the Disney studio in 1927, on the Monday following his high school graduation, as an assistant to Disney's chief animator Ub Iwerks. Some of his early work as a full-fledged animator included the xylophone sequence in The Skeleton Dance, the first Silly Symphony cartoon. After Iwerks' departure in January 1930, Clark became the main animator for Mickey Mouse.
Clark was known for his staging and personality animation, animating such scenes as the male tree giving a caterpillar ring to his bride in Flowers and Trees, Mickey's frustrations as a conductor in The Band Concert and a good chunk of The Country Cousin. He would eventually make a great contribution to Disney's first feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by animating several complicated scenes of the titular dwarfs, most notably the "Silly Song" sequence.
Clark's skills improved while attending art classes held at the studio and, as the 1940s dawned, animated such scenes as Pinocchio turning his body all the way around while Geppetto inspected him, and Mickey working his magic on a broomstick in Fantasia. In the 1950s, he would animate Cinderella dancing with her Prince Charming, Alice's joining a merry caucus race and Lady being opened as a Christmas present.
Clark made his directorial debut in 1958 with the Academy Award-nominated Paul Bunyan, and served as a sequence director on Sleeping Beauty. After animating a bit on 101 Dalmatians, Clark directed various educational films for the company until he retired in 1975, after 48 years at the studio. He died of cancer in 1979.
Walt originally chose him to write The Illusion of Life, but he passed away during preliminary research.
Eric Cleon Larson (Sept. 03, 1905–Oct. 25, 1988)Eric Larson joined Disney 1933, and became an assistant to Hamilton "Ham" Luske. His first major job was animating the forest animals on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but his breakthrough was supervising Figaro the cat in Pinocchio, who he envisioned as having the personality a 4-year-old boy. After working on the pegasus family and the centaruettes in Fantasia, Larson would animate all of Friend Owl in Bambi.
During the 1940s, Larson shined with animal characters' personalities, including Sasha the bird in Peter and the Wolf, Br'er Bear in Song of the South and the Aracuan Bird in Blame It on the Samba. In a departure from this role, he would animate the majority of the title character in Cinderella, and Peter Pan's flight over London. He made a return to animals with characters like Peg in Lady and the Tramp and the puppies in 101 Dalmatians.
His only directorial effort was a sequence director on Sleeping Beauty (he was originally going to direct The Small One before it was handed over to Don Bluth). As the 1960s drew on, he animated less and less on the features, such as the farm animals in Mary Poppins and the vultures in The Jungle Book, before quitting altogether in 1973 to head Disney's training program, teaching a new generation of animators. Some of the younger animators he mentored would become key players in The Renaissance Age of Animation, including Glen Keane, John Musker, and John Lasseter. Larson would remain at Disney as a mentor and consultant until he retired in 1986, making him the only member of the Nine Old Men to wind up working under the 1984 Management Shift team note . He died in 1988, and the prince in The Little Mermaid was named in his honor.
Milton Erwin "Milt" Kahl (Mar. 22, 1909–Apr. 19, 1987)Described as "the Michelangelo of animation", Milt Kahl joined Disney in 1934. Among his first assignments were animating Mickey Mouse on shorts like Mickey's Circus and Lonesome Ghosts, as well as the forest animals in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. His breakthrough came when he would design the title character of Pinocchio, treating him not as a puppet, but as a cute little boy; he would animate when Pinocchio came to life, and later when Pinocchio found himself turning into a donkey.
After Pinocchio, he would be assigned to be a supervising animator on Bambi, where he animated, among other scenes, the scene where Thumper gets "twitterpated". Often assigned to realistic and solid characters, he was often mocked by his fellow artists for animating "cute", but it all changed when he animated most of the comical tiger from the Goofy short Tiger Trouble. Another famous scene of his was from Song of the South, where Br'er Rabbit tricks Br'er Fox into tossing him into the briar patch.
As the 1940s came to a close, he specialized on more restrained characters, such as Johnny Appleseed and Sluefoot Sue in Melody Time, Brom Bones in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella, the title character of Peter Pan, and Prince Phillip in Sleeping Beauty.
Kahl's animation in the 1960s and 1970s is also notable for his characters' broad movements, including Roger in 101 Dalmatians, Merlin and Madam Mim in The Sword in the Stone (which he considered his favorite project, and also served as a character designer), Shere Kahn in The Jungle Book and Tigger in Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day. One of his most recognizable trademarks was giving characters a cocky "head swagger" when they talked, which showed off his uncanny ability to to lip sync while keeping his drawings rock-solid, a tricky thing to do in hand-drawn animation.
Kahl would retire in 1976 after animating all of Madame Medusa and Mr. Snoops in The Rescuers.
Wolfgang "Woolie" Reitherman (Jun. 26, 1909–May 22, 1985)Woolie Reitherman started at Disney in 1934.
Woolie was known for animating broad action scenes, both dramatic and comedic, such as the climactic chase with Monstro the whale in Pinocchio, the dinosaurs in Fantasia, Timothy scaring the gossipy elephants in Dumbo, and various scenes with Goofy in his shorts. He was also known for animating scenes of tension and suspense, such as the mice trying to retrieve the key in Cinderella, and Tramp fighting against the junkyard dogs, and later the rat, in Lady and the Tramp.
In the mid-1950s, Woolie was promoted to director, and served as a sequence director for Sleeping Beauty (the climactic dragon fight) and 101 Dalmatians (including the puppies' reunion with their parents). In 1963, with the downsizing of the animation staff, Woolie became the first director to solely direct an animated feature at Disney with The Sword in the Stone.
Following Walt's death in 1966, Woolie assumed duties as head of the animation department. Afterwards, he would win an Academy Award for Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, and he would serve as producer on all the animated features until his retirement during production of The Fox and the Hound.
Franklin Rosborough "Frank" Thomas (Sept. 05, 1912–Sept. 08, 2004)Described by Chuck Jones as "the Laurence Olivier of animation", Frank Thomas joined the studio in 1934, and soon became an assistant to Fred Moore, one of Disney's star animators. His first important scene was in Mickey's Elephant, where Pluto tries to make head or tail of a disappearing ball, and then animated the powerful finale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs where the dwarfs mourn Snow White in her glass coffin. Frank became a rising star at the studio, and animated another fine piece of personality animation, Mickey Mouse's encounter with a grizzly bear in The Pointer.
He then animated the not-yet-alive Pinocchio during the "Little Wooden Head" song sequence, and then drew him alive for "I've Got No Strings". After that, Walt assigned Frank to be a supervising animator on Bambi, where his best known scene is Bambi and Thumper's misadventure while skating on a frozen lake. When World War II broke out, Frank briefly enrolled in the Air Force and joined an animation unit producing films for the Army. He returned to Disney in 1946, and soon after, animated a scene in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow where Ichabod Crane nervously and slowly rides through the hollow.
During the first half of the 1950s, Frank animated some of Disney's most memorable villains, including Lady Tremaine in Cinderella, the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland and Captain Hook in Peter Pan. After that, he was assigned to Lady and the Tramp, where he most famously animated the iconic Spaghetti Kiss, and then helped work with the three good fairies in Sleeping Beauty with his lifelong friend and fellow animator Ollie Johnston.
In the 1960s, Frank worked on such scenes as Roger reviving a newborn puppy in 101 Dalmatians and the Wizards' duel in The Sword in the Stone. One of his most famous and emotional scenes would occur in the The Jungle Book, where Baloo has to bring himself to tell Mowgli that he has to go back to the man-village. In the 1970s, he animated the geese and dogs in The Aristocats, Robin Hood disguised as a stork, and a lot of scenes of Bernard and Bianca in The Rescuers, which he considered his best film without Walt Disney. He retired in January 1978 during production of The Fox and the Hound
Frank co-authored four books with Ollie Johnston: The Illusion of Life, Too Funny for Words, The Disney Villain and Bambi: The Story and the Film. He and Frank would also have voice cameos in two of Brad Bird's films, The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. Frank died of natural causes in 2004.
Marc Fraser Davis (March 30, 1913–January 12, 2000)Marc Davis joined Disney in 1934, and was mentored by veteran animator Grim Natwick. His first work was animating the title character of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, working with Natwick under Ham Luske.
After Snow White, he was assigned to the story and animation of Bambi, where he animated all of Flower the skunk. He then animated several scenes in Song of the South, including the first scene of Br'er Rabbit, and the scene where Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear build the tar baby.
Marc was best known for animating solid and dainty female characters, including Cinderella (where he animated the iconic scene of her receiving her sparkly gown), Alice, (which included her experience at the Mad Tea Party) and Tinker Bell. His crowning achievement came when he designed and supervised Maleficent, the wicked villainess of Sleeping Beauty. After his most challenging assignment, animating all of Cruella de Vil in 101 Dalmatians, Marc left the animation department.
He then became an artist at WED Enterprises, Walt's "imagineering" workshop that designed attractions for Disneyland, alongside his wife Alice, who was a costume designer. Among the attractions he worked on included Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion and the Country Bear Jamboree. Marc died in 2000.
Ward Walrath Kimball (Mar. 04, 1914–Jul. 08, 2002)Ward Kimball joined the studio in 1934. He soon became an assistant to Ham Luske, and was promoted to animator on Elmer Elephant. In 1937, he animated the "Music in Your Soup" and "Building a Bed for Snow White" sequences for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, both of which eventually had to be cut for pacing reasons, and was tempted to quit until Walt gave him the task of designing and animating Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio as a sort of consolation prize.
Ward's work is easily recognizable for his characters' bouncy and often wacky movements; one case he's not well-known for yet probably demonstrates this the most obviously is Faline in Bambi. Among his most noted animation included the crows in Dumbo, the demented Nazi take on the Sleeping Beauty story in Education For Death, the surreal title song of The Three Caballeros, Lucifer in Cinderella, and the Mad Hatter and Tweedles Dee & Dum in Alice in Wonderland. He made his directorial debut for the short-lived "Adventures in Music" series, the second of which, Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, won an Academy Award.
In 1955, he directed acclaimed "Tomorrowland" episodes of the Disneyland anthology series before being demoted back to animator in the 1960s, where he animated Ludwig von Drake singing the "Green with Envy Blues" and the "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" sequence in Mary Poppins.
Ward was promoted back to director in 1967. During his tenure, he directed the Oscar-winning It's Tough to Be a Bird and the satirical live-action short Dad, Can I Borrow the Car?, was well as the animated sequences for Bedknobs and Broomsticks. He also created the syndicated television series The Mouse Factory before arguments with the management made him retire in 1973, though he would later help Disney with EPCOT Center's World of Motion attraction in the 1980s. He died in 2002.
Outside the studio, he was an avid railroad enthusiast and owned his own backyard railroad, the Grizzly Flats Railroad, featuring an old locomotive he saved from the scrap pile.
John Mitchell Lounsbery (Mar. 09, 1911–Feb. 13, 1976)John Lounsbery joined Disney in 1935, and would serve as an assistant to star animator Norm Ferguson. His first job as an animator was a scene of Mickey Mouse scolding Pluto in The Pointer. He received his first credit on Pinocchio, where he animated with Norm on Honest John and Gideon. Afterward, he would animate on Ben Ali Gator in the "Dance of the Hours" sequence of Fantasia, and scenes in Dumbo where the titular elephant interacts with Timothy.
John would often animate characters with a lot of squash-and-stretch to them, including Willie the Giant in Fun and Fancy Free, George Darling in Peter Pan, and Tony and Joe in Lady and the Tramp. Other characters John animated included King Hubert and Maleficent's goons in Sleeping Beauty, and the Colonel and Jasper and Horace Badun in 101 Dalmatians.
John was promoted to director in 1973, and directed the Academy Award-nominated Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too. He died suddenly in 1976 while co-directing The Rescuers (animator Art Stevens would take over his duties).
Oliver Martin "Ollie" Johnston Jr. (Oct. 31, 1912–Apr. 14, 2008)Ollie Johnston started at the Disney studio in 1935, as a cleanup artist on Mickey's Garden. In 1936, he became an assistant under Fred Moore, who is credited with establishing the Disney style. Ollie was the head assistant on the dwarfs in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, who Moore had designed and was supervising animator on. Ollie would make his debut as an animator on Brave Little Tailor, where he animated the scenes of the townspeople spreading the rumor of Mickey killing seven giants.
Ollie was best known for incorporating feeling and emotion into his characters, and his breakthrough moment is considered to be Pinocchio lying to the Blue Fairy from inside a birdcage. Afterwards, he animated the little cherubs dressing up the centaurettes in Fantasia and various personality scenes of the ambitious Bambi, including the scenes where the Young Prince first learns to walk and where Thumper reluctantly says that "eating greens is a special treat".
Perhaps the broadest character Ollie animated was the female Emotion in the WWII propaganda short Reason and Emotion, who hated to be restrained in the backseat and wanted to have some fun. After the war, Ollie animated the timid but adventurous titular character in Peter and the Wolf and the egotistical prosecutor in The Wind in the Willows.
One of Ollie's toughest assignments was that of the stepsisters Anastasia and Drizella in Cinderella, due to the fact that, since he specialized in personality and emotion, those characters were intended to be unlikable. For Alice in Wonderland, he animated a majority of the diminutive King of Hearts and a bit of Alice herself. Afterward came one of his most famous performances as the lead animator for the bumbling Mr. Smee in Peter Pan.
Ollie was lifelong friends with fellow animator Frank Thomas, and he would often be paired with him in animating various characters, including the three good fairies in Sleeping Beauty, Merlin and Wart in The Sword in the Stone, and Mowlgi and Baloo in The Jungle Book (where he also animated the scene near the end where Mowlgi is enchanted by a girl into going to the man-village).
His favorite film after the death of Walt Disney was The Rescuers, where he animated the interaction between Penny and Rufus the cat, the latter of whom was a self-caricature. After contributing some early animation for The Fox and the Hound, Ollie would return from the Disney studio in January 1978.
He would co-author four Disney books with Frank Thomas: The Illusion of Life, Too Funny for Words, The Disney Villain and Bambi: The Story and the Film. He and Frank would also have voice cameos in two of Brad Bird's films, The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. Ollie died of natural causes in 2008 as the last surviving member of the Nine Old Men.
Common tropes include:
- Animation Bump: Any scene under their supervision, especially if it's a Milt Kahl scene.
- Artifact Title: Walt's nickname for the Men was in reference to a derisive nickname used by Franklin D. Roosevelt to refer to a then Republican-controlled Supreme Court, which was constantly striking down New Deal legislation as being unconstitutional.
- "Awesome McCool" Name: Wolfgang Reitherman—a common name in Germany, but not in the US.
- Cloudcuckoolander: Easily Ward, noted by the Disney Family Album as "The Disney animator who never grew up".
- Cool Old Guys
- The Friends Who Never Hang: You'd be forgiven for thinking it, but the Nine Old Men were not all friends with each other in real life and the relationship between several of them was largely professional. This is one of the reasons why there are very few group photos of them all together.
- Heterosexual Life-Partners: Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston were this in real life.
- New Media Are Evil: Zigzagged. Frank Thomas was initially very critical about computer animation, but some time after he retired from the business, he became interested in it and began learning how to do it on his own time. Ward Kimball had also expressed that if he hadn't retired from animation, he would have been interested in learning it too. Marc Davis, on the other hand, absolutely loathed it and even bringing up the subject about him was known to make him very angry.
- Passing the Torch: Around the 70's to early 80's.
- Rail Enthusiast: Ward and Ollie were noted railway enthusiasts and actually got Walt Disney to have his own backyard railroad in his Carolwood home.
- Runaway Brain, The Iron Giant and The Incredibles make shout outs to Frank and Ollie.
- Frank and Ollie even make a small cameo in The Iron Giant, voicing two railroad workers that were drawn to look like them.
- Same thing in The Incredibles. Two old men at the end of the climactic battle against the Omnidroid are animated to look like, and are voiced by, Ollie and Frank.