Walt Disney animator Ollie Johnston has died at the age 95, of natural causes. Johnston was the last living member of the celebrated group of animators known as "Disney's Nine Old Men" — the animators who created Fantasia, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and many other Disney classics.
When Walt Disney gave his A-list animators that collective nickname, the nine of them weren't actually all that old — Johnston himself was still in his 30s, in fact. But they did have a certain stature, which is what Disney was getting at.
His "old men" joke was a reference to what President Franklin D. Roosevelt had been calling the nine judges of the Supreme Court in those days. In matters of animation, Disney's Nine Old Men were equally authoritative. And as Johnston remembered in the 1995 documentary Frank & Ollie, they were determined to prove that animation was good for more than just slapstick.
"First thing you try to do is communicate what your character is feeling, what they're thinking," Johnston remembered. "If you're trying to make a point that would educate people, why, you still have to do it in the most entertaining way."
The documentary was a tribute to Johnston's work with fellow animator Frank Thomas on such classics as Snow White, Fantasia, Pinocchio, Bambi, Sleeping Beauty and more.
For Peter Pan, Johnston provided the character of Captain Hook's loyal first mate, Mr. Smee. In Robin Hood, he was responsible for the villainous King John, voiced by Peter Ustinov.
In The Illusion of Life, a book he co-authored with Thomas, Johnston would eventually lay out how to make a character emotionally expressive, fluid, real — in a word, lifelike. The book became a sort of animator's Bible, and Johnston created several other books with Thomas, including The Disney Villain (a specialty of theirs) and Too Funny for Words. After his retirement in 1978, Johnston stayed around to help the next generation of Disney artists.
Now, the last of Disney's Nine Old Men is gone — but their work will be immortal for as long as there are children.