Some of you might have heard of the famous Nine Old Men of Walt Disney Studios and how influential and legendary they were as animators for Disney. But who were the Nine Old Men? Back in the late 1930s, Disney as a company really began to methodically strive to set a new standard for animation and set itself apart as the superpower of the industry. To do this, Walt formed a core group consisting of himself and his nine best and most trusted animators to study their craft more deeply and develop strategies to make it excel beyond its competitors. Those nine supervising animators became known as Disney’s “Nine Old Men”, a moniker Walt borrowed from the nine Chief justices of the US Supreme Court. These men were Les Clark, Marc Davis, Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery, Wolfgang Reitherman, and Frank Thomas. Throughout Disney history, many aspects of Disney’s films and characters that make them so famous and beloved can be traced back to these Nine Old Men.
When I started working at Disney Studios back in 1973, all nine of these famous animators were still working there, and each of them at some point took a turn at mentoring me in some way. The one of the Nine that I spent the most time with was Ollie Johnston. I spent two years working under him on “The Rescuers” as he took me under his wing as a young animator. I also worked under Frank Thomas animating on “Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too”. Each time I worked with one of the Nine Old Men, they would push me and challenge me in new ways, teaching me not just how to animate, but how to animate in a way that really took it to that Disney level compared to other animation studios. I can recall one time in particular working with Frank Thomas where he lovingly but firmly pushed me to my full potential. I was working on a scene for “Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too”, and each time I would make a pass at the scene I would take it to Frank and have him give me feedback on the quality of my animation. He would look at my scene, point out ways I could make it better, and have me not just fix the problem, but animate the whole scene over again each time. Two days worth of work went into each redo of the scene! He ended up having me redo that scene 18 times before approving it. He did that because he knew my potential and he knew exactly what the scene needed in order to have that Disney charm and added level of quality.
In the same way I was mentored by the legendary Nine Old Men, I hope to push you and develop you as a student of animation as well. I believe it is important for me to pass on this knowledge to young animators like it was passed on to me. As we move forward with Pomeroy Art Academy, I will periodically revisit my interactions with the Nine Old Men and share with you stories and lessons they taught me. Be sure to stay tuned for more of my recollections of the Nine Old Men in future blog posts!