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Brad Bird on Ollie Johnston

Ollie Johnston in The Iron Giant
Ollie Johnston’s cameo in Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant

We asked Brad Bird, Oscar-winning director of Ratatouille and The Incredibles, if he could share a few thoughts about the passing of Ollie Johnston. Brad responded with this eloquent piece:

I was lucky enough to meet eight of Disney’s famed “Nine Old Men”. I never met John Lounsberry in person, though he did see the film that I made as a kid. The “Old Men” I knew the best were Milt Kahl and Eric Larson, who mentored me directly in early years, and Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, who I often visited and heckled, but didn’t really get to know well until I was working professionally.

Ollie Johnston drawing

In spite of the usual “one happy family” picture that public relations always wants to paint about production teams, Disney’s Nine Old Men were competitive with each other. They would help each other out, but like all artists, they had differences of opinion on how best to approach their work.

Milt’s complaint about Ollie’s work was “There are no extremes! His scenes are all inbetweens!”.

This is, of course, wrong.

But it does capture a truth about Ollie’s work; that it was intuitive, subtle and elusive. It was difficult to see all that Ollie was doing when you flipped his original drawings, because he didn’t push his key poses as far as Milt did graphically, or as far as Frank did performance-wise… but when you saw Ollie’s scenes the way they were intended to be seen– at 24 frames a second– all the beautiful nuances became crystal clear; and his characters were as sympathetic and as full of life as anything seen on screen.

Where both Milt and Frank exerted a huge amount of energy planning their scenes, grappling with problems, exploring every alternative, etc… Ollie just thought a bit, did a few thumbnails and sort of let the scenes happen. This is not to say that he was any less dedicated than any other top animator at Disney, but he didn’t sweat as much in the process. Drawings flowed out of him like water.

Toward the end of his career, when most animators are slowing down, this extraordinary ease enabled him to be a tremendously productive animator; on “The Rescuers” he was producing ten feet of top-quality animation a week, double (or more) the output of his fellow animators.

Ollie Johnston drawing

I came along at a “best of times/worst of times” moment at Disney animation. The worst of times because the studio was creatively moribund and young people were not yet empowered to do anything to change it. The best of times because a few of the old masters were still around, still working, and still able to impart their wisdom to us eager students.

When Frank and Ollie retired from production on the same Friday I was the next animator on Ollie’s desk the following Monday; the very desk he had used for decades to create so many indelible animated moments. I was properly awed as I sat down in Ollie’s chair, at his desk.

As I was checking it out and getting the feel of it I noticed the pencil sharpener was full of shavings. Instead of throwing them out I poured them into a glass jar, labeled it and set it atop the desk. Good luck shavings… a simple reminder of the hard work required to create magic. My own jar of real Disney dust. The last jar.

Ollie got a kick out of that story when I told him, and for years afterward he asked me how the jar was doing. I kept in touch with several of the “Old Men” after they retired, and was particularly happy to pay Ollie and Frank both a hand-drawn and computer generated (both animated by Mike Venturini) tip of the hat in IRON GIANT and INCREDIBLES, which they were surprised and delighted to be a part of so late in their lives.

Ollie was one of the best that ever was and will be. He lives on as an entertainer, a teacher and inspiration for all generations to come. Needless to say, I’ll miss him. But I plan on visiting him as I visit Milt, Eric, Frank and all the others who taught and/or inspired me–

–through their work.. which will be around forever.

Ollie Johnston in The Iron Giant
Ollie Johnston’s cameo in The Incredibles

  • Jenny Lerew

    Another great tribute. I’m glad you asked and he gave it.

    And the last point is true: the fantastic thing about these particular animators at that place and in their time is that their work was so individualized and so clearly sprang from each man’s own gifts–it really is meeting them and experiencing them in a very real and immediate way to watch their work onscreen. What a bar was set by them.

  • Well said, Brad. Ollie achieved something that few people do in their lifetime; immortality.

  • Mike Caracappa

    I love that story about the pencil shavings. Talk about the ultimate good luck charm! I’ve only had the opportunity to shake his hand once, but personally he seemed like such a genuine, soft-hearted human being. It’s nice to hear that someone of that caliber, with so much influence on animation today, got to lead a long, full life. Cheers to Ollie Johnston. :)

  • Chuck R.

    That was a great read. It’s nice to have someone comment on Ollie’s distinctive approach to animation. Many of his peers like Kahl, Davis and Kimball had careers distinguished by their forays into extreme realism, limited animation and theme park design (respectively). Ollie’s close association with Frank Thomas makes it harder to differentiate his work. Too often I find myself regarding him as half of frank-and-ollie. Now I know better. Thanks, Brad!

  • Great Tribute! Really enjoyed it.

  • So glad you asked Brad Bird’s thoughts, this was so inspiring and great to hear from a living legend who personally knew a legend. This was one of the greatest reads of the year for me and makes being an animator an even more rewarding experience. Ollie will definitely be missed but always remembered. I’ll always continue to watch my Frank and Ollie DVD and refer to Illusion of Life as top notch motivation and inspiration for my own work and share with others . My prayers and thoughts go out to Ollie’s family and close friends. Thanks Jerry, Amid, Brad and most of all, Ollie.

  • What a great story.

  • Kai

    Having had the happy privilege of meeting Ollie (and showing him and Marie around Cologne, Germany many, many years ago), I am saddened by his passing. Ollie combined exceptional technical skill with that far more elusive ability to imbue his characters and situations with heart and soul, with subtle yet palpable emotion.

    I thank Brad Bird for his very perceptive and heartfelt observations, as well as for immemorializing Frank and Ollie onscreen. My thoughts are with Ollie’s family and friends today.

  • That was really nice to read. I’m glad that Brad always sees things the way they just are. Great article!

  • Many, many thanks to Brad for taking the time to write that. Inspiring.

  • Great tribute to a great man.

  • D

    I don’t think I’ve ever taken issue with anything Brad Bird’s ever said…what’s that make me? A sycophant, I guess.

    He always seems to be able to recognize the dramatic and pragmatic with simultaneous facility.

    The impression I got from my at-a-distance learning was that the best old-school Disney animators had this ability, as well. I wish there were nine Brad Birds, too, so I could feel more optimistic about the prospects of American feature animation.

  • Brad, The pencil shavings are an incredible memento! Thank you for sharing you wonderful memories of Ollie.

  • Now that was a great post. I liked the analysis of Ollie’s animation (isn’t it amazing how we all feel close enough to call him “Ollie”) in comparison to Milt Kahl’s. Even the description via the in-house competition. Well written, indeed.

  • Keith Paynter

    Wow…kudos for such a touching tribute. I can’t say anything beyond that.

  • Sönke Allers

    On a rainy cold day in 1967 I visited the cinema as a little boy with my aunt in Bremerhaven ( Germany ). And after 90 minutes I left it. In this ninety minutes my life changed and showed me the way, that I want to be an artist and painter for cartoons and comics. What I had seen in the cinema has the name “Jungle Book”. I say only two names: King Louie and Baloo the Bear and don´t forget Colonel Hathi!!!!

    Today I am working and painting cartoon and comics. This opened many doors for jobs and postions.

    Thanks for the good old nine men, and thanks for this great work….

    Greetings from germany….

  • Michael Kiekbusch

    Great Tribute! What a great story.

  • Thanks, Brad, for sharing your memories with us.

    Only a few got the great pleasure to meet the Nine Old Men, or some of them – probably only one, probably Ollie. Me not, of course. Nevertheless, I understand as a student of an Animation School, the importance of their work …and in addition to that – to see him and frank thomas in their DVD, joking around, explaining with such humor and intense emotions, makes both absolutely sympathetic, too!

    Thanks so much,

    Greetings from germany.

  • Jojo

    So – how’s the jar doing?

  • Tom Ruegger

    Beautiful. Great words for an inspiring man.

  • js

    Brad Bird’s obituary is a masterpiece in itself! Many thanks!
    Ollie will be remembered forever!

  • Thanks Mr Bird, it’s better than anybody has put down about this great man.

  • Drake Whalterson

    C’mon, be honest… when no one was looking you must’ve tasted a little bit of those pencil shavings, correct? Ingested some of that real Disney dust, right? Wow that’s hardcore.

  • Coincidentally, I was reading John Canemaker’s “Nine Old Men”, and opened the book to read the chapter on Ollie. That night, I got the news. I’m really impressed not only the qualities of Ollie as an animator, but Ollie as a person. You have his friend Frank Thomas, the “Velvet Needle” and a political player. You have Milt Kahl, the cantankerous draftsman. Perhaps his frailties as a young man brought forward such kindness and emotional animation, but Ollie kept his art and humanity in check. I think that’s really something. A rarity, and thus precious.

  • Grief is a selfish emotion – most of our sorrow felt at the loss of someone is sadness for ourselves.

    It would be stupid to mourn for a life so long and so richly filled as Ollie’s, but the emotional wrench that many of us feel is to do with the finality of this particular passing…

    Still, as Brad reminds us, the work of this and the other legendary Disney animators lives on as vividly and tangibly as that of any movie actor…

    And the story of the jar of pencil shavings is a gem and a lesson to us all that – whatever we do – we need both to hand on our inspiration and experience and to treasure the legacy of those who have gone before

  • Things like Brad’s comment on collecting the pencil shavings, which made my eyes smart, make it worth coming here every day to see what’s up. What an amazing tribute.

  • Sweet, thanks Brad, opened my eyes to a guy who I took for granted.

  • Carolyn Bates

    Thank you, Brad. Your poignant insights were inspiring and deeply touching. Farewell, Ollie. Your scenes informed my childhood and are now a part of me forever.

  • I wondered why the Disney-released obit didn’t have at least a brief quote from Brad Bird. But now I’m glad it didn’t so we could have this longer form, more thoughtful recollection.

    Way better than the two-sentence blurbs most news articles would have. Thanks!

  • Love the pencil shavings jar. Awesome.

  • nick s

    Sarah Vowell mentioned the tribute to Ollie and Frank last night, while describing the detail and fore-thought and perfectionism and sheer sense of tradition she encountered while working on The Incredibles. Her sense of pride and respect was palpable, and so is Brad’s here. Let’s hope it gets passed on to the next generation.

  • Beautiful. =/ I feel like crying…

  • rodan

    Thank you so much for those words from brad…very touching, and inspiring.

  • Darell

    Wow, great story thanks for posting. I never got to meet him but my father called him uncle Ollie. They were talking about family members that were still alive shortly after my grandmother passed. Until I did a little research they only knew that he worked for Disney but had no idea what an amazing life he must have had and how successful he really was.

  • When i was eleven, I asked for Frank and Ollie’s masterpiece, The Illusion Of Life, since then i keep reading through pages every week almost everyday,i aim to keep it as long as i live, and to be buried with it. Ollie also died on my birthday, i wore black that day and for a whole week, i watched bambi, pinoccio, sleeping beauty etc. for days in a row. it hurts to think he’s been gone for over a year now