One of my favorite Disney animators and someone who many people agree is one of Disney’s best animators (including Walt himself) is Frank Thomas. His reputation in the animation community is huge because he is responsible for creating some of Disney’s most emotional, humorous, technically challenging and most human moments on screen, and in some ways it was his supposed lack of drawing skills that contributed to his outstanding animating ability, because he was able to reach something much deeper to bring his characters to life that went beyond just pencil and paper.
Frank Thomas was born in Santa Monica, California in 1912 and grew up in Fresno. His brothers loved to draw, and therefore a competitive young Frank Thomas proved he could draw too, but he discovered a passion for it and learned you could make a living drawing as a cartoonist from a young age. Though his family initially thought of this as a phase, Thomas continued his artistic pursuits well into high school, even drawing cartoons for the school paper.
By the time Thomas attended Fresno State College he was receiving filmmaking experience. The summer after his freshman year he began taking courses in L.A. at the University of Southern California, home to the School of Cinematic Arts, and this inspired sophomore vice president Frank Thomas to make films. Thomas learned a lot as a producer, co-writer, director, editor and actor from those years and the thrill of hearing an audience laugh while watching his film was a lot more satisfying than drawing cartoons for a paper, so this inspired Thomas to broaden his artistic horizons. His father agreed to pay for his artistic pursuits if Thomas agreed to attend Stanford University for his final two years of college, and it was there that he met fellow future animator and collaborator Ollie Johnston, who Thomas worked with on Stanford’s humor magazine The Stanford Chapparal and who would become a talented animator at Disney in his own right as well as Frank Thomas’s lifelong friend.
After graduating from Stanford in 1933, Thomas studied art at Chouinard Art Institute (later known as CalArts) at the suggestion of Stanford classmate and future Disney layout artist Thor Putnam. A year later Thomas joined Disney. Like many animators, what convinced Thomas to apply for Disney was the Silly Symphonies, in Frank’s case The Flying Mouse (1934), which Thomas thought had more pathos and more feeling than most cartoons at the time. In other words, the Silly Symphonies were not just a series of gags. They made clear attempts at emotional storytelling as was Walt’s intention. The idea of bringing characters to life through drawings really began to fascinate Thomas after watching Disney’s groundbreaking films.
Thomas began as an inbetweener for six months, later promoted to assistant animator in Fred Moore’s unit. Moore taught Thomas a lot about animation and Thomas would become a star assistant. He worked on a few classic Silly Symphonies himself like The Cookie Carnival and Music Land, but some great animation of Pluto in the 1936 Mickey Mouse short Mickey’s Elephant helped solidify Frank Thomas’s reputation as a skilled animator and for this Walt Disney put him on the feature film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).
On Snow White, Frank Thomas did some masterful animation on the Dwarfs, even adding creative touches like Dopey’s hitch step which becomes one of the character’s recurring traits throughout the film. But more significantly Thomas animated the Dwarfs crying over Snow White’s death. The famous moment which made audiences weep (even Clark Gable!) not only made Frank Thomas’s reputation but it also made animation’s reputation as a medium capable of making audiences feel something other than laughter, and the film’s cultural impact, historical significance and box office domination might not be what it was if not for that pivotal scene animated by Thomas, including the pivotal character moment when Grumpy finally admits, not through dialogue but through tears, that he actually cared about Snow White the entire time.
In the Mickey Mouse cartoon Brave Little Tailor (1938), Frank Thomas brought Mickey to life like no other animator had in the scene where Mickey explains to the king how he swatted seven flies with one blow, with the king and the whole village mistakenly thinking he killed seven giants.
In Pinocchio (1940), Frank Thomas met the challenge of animating the title character as a lifeless puppet during the “Little Wooden Head” number and he did an equally terrific job animating his stage performance in the “I’ve Got No Strings” number.
Frank Thomas animated a lot of memorable scenes from Bambi (1942), including the scene where Thumper is teaching Bambi how to say the word “bird,” the scene where Bambi chases a butterfly and the scene where Thumper teaches Bambi how to skate on the ice. The work Thomas did on that film was said to have brought Walt Disney to tears and Walt told Frank in no uncertain terms that the work he was doing on this movie had value. Bambi would also become Frank Thomas’s favorite film he ever worked on.
Thomas also did some great work in the package feature era of the 1940s. My favorite of these being his work on The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) in which he animated Mr. Toad, Cyril, Rat, Mole, Ichabod, Katrina and Brom Bones. But the best scene he animated was Ichabod Crane’s struggle to remain calm during his creepy ride through Sleepy Hollow right before the confrontation with the Headless Horseman.
Frank Thomas also animated some of Disney’s best villains in the 1950s. Frank Thomas said that Lady Tremaine the stepmother from Cinderella (1950) was one of the most difficult characters he animated because he not only had to animate a realistic human but a human who could elicit fear and intimidation. Walt had already chosen the right actor for the job in Eleanor Audley and he chose the right animator for the job as well because Tremaine remains one of Disney’s best characters and Thomas’s touches with the character were subtle but effective.
The other great villain he animated was the more broad and outlandish Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland (1951), and the fun he had bringing her to life truly comes out in an animated performance inspired by Verna Felton’s excellent two-faced vocal performance as a dainty monarch one second and a loudmouth tyrant the next.
Captain Hook from Peter Pan (1953) was a challenging character for Frank Thomas because the direction of the film required the character to be both believable as a serious threat to Peter Pan and believable as a slapstick foil, as pronounced in Hook’s bouts with the Crocodile. If anyone could pull off this balancing act it was Frank Thomas and Hook has become one of Disney’s most memorable characters.
Another unique challenge that Frank Thomas faced and pulled off with flying colors was the scene from Lady and the Tramp (1955) where the two canine leads are enjoying spaghetti outside Tony and Joe’s restaurant. Even Walt Disney was skeptical that a scene involving two dogs eating spaghetti could be seen as romantic, but Frank Thomas fought Walt on his decision to cut it and let his pencil do the convincing. Now it is one of the most famous moments in any Disney film.
More work by Frank Thomas:
Frank Thomas officially retired from Disney in 1978 but he remained in the public eye and co-wrote a few books with Ollie Johnston that detail the animation process, including Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, Too Funny for Words: Disney’s Greatest Sight Gags, The Disney Villain and Bambi: The Story and the Film. Plus he and Johnston were the subjects of a 1995 documentary called Frank and Ollie directed by Frank’s son Theodore Thomas, and other people who work in animation have paid homage to them, including in Gummi Bears, Tiny Toon Adventures, The Iron Giant and The Incredibles, the latter two in which they made animated cameos as themselves.
Thomas was great at embodying a variety of roles that required a variety of emotions, but no matter what that emotion was he could reach the core of it, whether it was characters mourning the death of a loved one in Snow White, characters falling in love over a plate of spaghetti in Lady and the Tramp, a heartbroken squirrel in The Sword in the Stone or Baloo struggling to tell Mowgli something in The Jungle Book. Thomas said there is a moment while animating where he suspends the fact that he is drawing and sees the fictional characters as living beings in a three-dimensional world, and you have to live in that world with them in order to animate them believably. As I referenced at the beginning of this article, Thomas did not think of himself as someone with adequate drawing skills. He struggled with draftsmanship and graphite lines, but that pushed him to reach something beyond the drawing which was the emotion of the character. That’s why his animation was less pose-heavy than the work of people like Milt Kahl and Ward Kimball. Making people laugh at animation requires a lot of skill but making people cry is on a whole other level because it requires you to see animated characters as more than just drawings. As the next generation of animators who helped kickstart the Disney Renaissance learned when they trained under Frank Thomas in the 1970s, he may look like an ordinary guy but he was an intensely focused perfectionist who was almost impossible to please when it came to animation. He was always friendly to the younger animators, but he was honest and direct when he saw you were doing something wrong. Which is why his work is some of the best in the entire medium.