Animation Pioneer to be Feted in Oval Office Day to Day animation critic Charles Solomon has a tribute to legendary Disney animator Ollie Johnston, who will receive the National Medal of Arts Thursday in the Oval Office ceremony to mark his contributions to the entertainment industry.
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Animation Pioneer to be Feted in Oval Office

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Animation Pioneer to be Feted in Oval Office

Animation Pioneer to be Feted in Oval Office

Animation Pioneer to be Feted in Oval Office

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5005793/5005794" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Day to Day animation critic Charles Solomon has a tribute to legendary Disney animator Ollie Johnston, who will receive the National Medal of Arts Thursday in the Oval Office ceremony to mark his contributions to the entertainment industry.

(Soundbite of "Pinocchio")

Unidentified Actor #1: Oh, oh, look, my nose. What's happened?

Unidentified Actress: Perhaps you haven't been telling the truth, Pinocchio.

Unidentified Actor #2: Perhaps?

Unidentified Actor #1: Oh, but I have, every single word.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

One of the men who animated the classic Disney movie "Pinocchio" will be honored tomorrow at the White House. Legendary animator Ollie Johnston will receive the National Medal of Arts. Animation critic Charles Solomon has this appreciation.

CHARLES SOLOMON reporting:

Finally after two decades of medal-giving, the National Endowment for the Arts is recognizing one of the best-known and best-loved artists in the history of animation. Ollie Johnston, who just celebrated his 93rd birthday, is the last of the legendary animators known as the Nine Old Men. Walt Disney assembled this group of artists in the 1930s, and he relied on Ollie and the other Old Men to prove that animation could be more than slapstick cartoons, that it was a real and exciting art form. Ollie offered his thoughts about that in Ted Thomas' 1995 documentary "Frank & Ollie."

(Soundbite of "Frank & Ollie")

Mr. OLLIE JOHNSTON: First thing you try to do is communicate what your character is feeling, what they're thinking, if you're trying to make a point that would educate people. Well, you still have to do it in the most entertaining way.

SOLOMON: Ollie came to the Disney studio in 1934 and stayed more than four decades, frequently collaborating with fellow animator Frank Thomas. Some highlights of Ollie's career include "Pinocchio," "Bambi" and "Snow White." In bringing his characters to life, Ollie often acted them out first, as he did for King John in "Robin Hood."

(Soundbite of "Frank & Ollie")

Mr. JOHNSTON: (As King John) Another hiss out of you, a, a, a hiss, and you are walking to Nottingham.

(Soundbite of "Robin Hood")

Mr. PETER USTINOV: (As King John) One more, one more hiss out of you, a, a, a hiss, and you are walking to Nottingham.

SOLOMON: Actor Peter Ustinov voiced King John in the movie. Ollie helped set the standard for Disney, and he personally trained many of the best contemporary animators. Glen Keane, whose work includes "Beauty and the Beast," "Pocahontas" and "Tarzan," recalls that Ollie was a patient and inspiring mentor.

Mr. GLEN KEANE: My typical position would be to stand behind Ollie over his shoulder and look as he would place my drawings down. It's this weird thing that happens that no matter how good you think your drawings are when you have it on your own desk, when Ollie would put it on his desk, and suddenly looking over his shoulder it was like, `No, no, get back! No, I can do better than that!'

SOLOMON: Ollie's characters are distinguished by their warmth and sincerity. They're not just drawings; they're alive. And as Ollie explains, animators face a unique challenge.

(Soundbite of "Frank & Ollie")

Mr. JOHNSTON: The worst thing about starting a new scene is that you have to start with a blank piece of paper, and it's not like live action, for instance, where you have, oh, Robert Redford and Meryl Streep or something; you've got something that's a known quantity. We start with nothing.

SOLOMON: John Lasseter, the Oscar-winning director of the "Toy Story" movies, says that's what made Ollie's characters so special.

Mr. JOHN LASSETER (Director): And one thing I remember Ollie always told me, `Make the audience sit there and feel like this character is living, it's thinking, it's breathing, it's feeling things. It's not that you're telling the audience, "You should feel this way." The audience discovers it themselves.'

SOLOMON: It's sad that the other members of the Nine Old Men didn't live to share the National Medal. Ollie will undoubtedly recall them when he's in the Oval Office. He'll remember how Walt Disney led them all to create some of the most memorable achievements in the history of American cinema, films that are now enjoying a third generation of viewers. Congratulations, Ollie. For NPR News, I'm Charles Solomon.

BRAND: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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