16 April, 2008

Nine Old Men

So here's the thing.

Looking on the CNN website today, I see an article with the headline, "Legendary Disney animator dies at 95". Clicking the link brought confirmation - Ollie Johnston has died. It wasn't a surprise - he was 95. But there was somthing a little shocking about it. Ollie was the last of the Nine Old Men, the animators that were working with Disney back when they were making Snow White. He joined Disney in the mid 30s, working on a few shorts before Snow White, and staying with the company, working on almost every major Disney movie (with the apparent exception fo Dumbo) up until 1981's The Fox and the Hound. Here's his list of film credits, from the website he shared with fellow Old Man, the late Frank Thomas. And there is some extraordinary work there that they created, individually and as partners.

Today we're so used to animation that it's easy to forget how radical their work was. I don't know whether it's true, but I remember reading that, when they put out Snow White, some people seriously believed the human mind could not process animation running for the full feature-length running time. But that's a nice illustration of how significant Disney and the Nine Old Men were. They in effect invented animation as an art form, and worked hard to push the limits of the art's potential. That's one of the things I love about early Disney - yes, Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Bambi, are all brilliant incredible movies in their own rights, but there is a sense of daring in the films as well, a sense of excitement, a sense that the film makers don't know whether what they are trying will even work, but they push ahead regardless. They changed animation from creating broadly-drawn quickly-identifiable characters for five-minute shorts, to subtle nuanced emotional performers working within the longer movie form. It's exciting to watch.

Today, traditional 2D animation is considered old-hat, and even Disney abandoned it for a while in favour of exclusively CG animation production - a decision that thankfully has been reversed. But I've long since lost my patience with CG animation - it's become the new fad. I'm not interested in Ice Age 2, or Shrek 3, or Surf's Up. They're all much the same - superficially well-made but with little substance, substituting already outdated pop culture references rather than any real substance, and all presented with a slightly artificial plastic sheen. But with a new Pixar film, I'll be there opening weekend, I'll buy the DVD on release day. And that's because they've inherited the legacy of the Nine Old Men. The focus on characterisation, on creating real, subtle performances, and on stretching and developing the boundaries of the new CG-animation art form, all seem to me to be characteristics of the classic work the Nine Old Men did. And it's wonderful to see that legacy maintained.

With the loss of Ollie Johnston, we lost one final link to a remarkable era in film history. And it's sad to think about that.

My condolences to all who knew him.

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