BACK to Blog Posts

Animator Ollie Johnston as work

I was thinking about the big service the other day to honor the passing of Ollie Johnston, the last of Disney’s Nine Old Men. I revisited a thought I had first at the Frank Thomas' service. Is the job of animator, even a Disney Animator, still the ultimate goal?

This does not of course detract from Frank & Ollie’s extraordinary careers. It speaks more to the declining status of the animator in our own time.

Frank and Ollie were role models in many ways. But one way we beginners in the 1970s looked at them was as symbols of the kind of career you could have in cartoons. Never mind Kendal O’Connor in layout, or Jack Buckley doing effects, or Bill Peet as a storyman; ANIMATORS were the cardinals of the church. They were Walt’s Old Guard, his Palladins. And Frank & Ollie were the quintessential image on the recruiting poster in our minds.

Imagine this life: you get out of school, go right into the Walt Disney Studio; you spend the next 46 years worrying about nothing else but being the best &*%$ artist you could possibly be; then retire rich to write books and give lectures.


It didn’t matter that animators at Disney in the Golden Age had problems of their own: The studio almost went under several times, interdepartment politics and jockeying for positions. Walt liked to set artists against one another. Being there wasn’t a guarantee of lifetime employment. The studio had layoffs like any other.

Nope, animator was the job we all wanted. That was the ultimate.

Then, after we committed to a career in animation, somebody changed the rules! Hey!!!

Over the years the image of the career animator has taken a number of hits. The job has been outsourced where it could be done in bulk for cheap, where your pay was tied to how much you can turn out in a week. And all these computer techs staying up late to develop software they think can outdo what we do. Behavioral software and Mo-Cap, so who needs good animators?

Then in the 1990s we were stars again for a time, animators were scoring big salaries and signing bonuses, contracts and other perks. But the 1990s ended, executive strategic incompetence resulted in a string of animated flops. And the money guys probably tired of kowtowing to these flaky creatives.

Now with the animators on the run, the big salaries, contracts and bonuses went away. If it weren’t for union minimum wage scales, who knows how little they would offer to pay us? The status of star-animator was de-emphasized in publicity, and we’ve gone back to being anonymous elves in the backroom.

Many artists who were top character animators, turned to other pursuits. Don Bluth, John Musker, Hendell Butoy, Rob Minkoff, Chris Bailey, Chris Buck, all once excellent animators, became directors.

I recall Glen Keane saying:” Remember when all anyone ever wanted to be was a Disney animator?” But Glen too had to turn to directing.

Many more went into storyboarding. The modern CG studios say they want to uphold the legacy of quality of Frank & Ollie, but does that sentiment translate into action?

All the tutorials I got on MAYA and other programs breezed through animating as not much more than an intermediate step between modeling and lighting.

A hot debate has come up lately whether an animator’s performance style can come through in 3D the way it does in traditional. How individual performances by a Kimball, Moore or Thomas were apparent to a trained eye. Can you spot a Scott McQueen, or Andy Schmidt as easily? Some say you can.

The final lesson the old timers had for us, is that they dealt with change too. But good technique always comes through. Much like all the British actors who study their Shakespeare, then come here and kick our butts at the Oscars every year. It was so with Olivier and Burton in the 60s, and Anthony Hopkins and Judy Dench today.

Hopefully the current posterboys of animation, the Eric Goldbergs, James Baxters and Andreas Dejas will lead the way. So young artists will continue to dream of one day becoming an animator.

click to enlarge