Disney animator Ollie Johnston had a talent for bringing out the emotion in his characters in sensitive and outstandingly human-like ways. As Walt Disney saw bringing emotion to his movies was one of the most important things his storytellers could do, he saw Ollie Johnston as a valuable member of the team.

Oliver Martin Johnston Jr. was born in Palo Alto, California in 1912 and loved to draw from childhood through high school into adulthood. Although like most aspiring artists, he didn’t receive a lot of encouragement from family and friends because they saw it as a dead end career. He might have abandoned his artistic ambitions when he attended Stanford University and majored in journalism, but he enrolled in the college’s art class where he learned about painting (as well as having his mind opened up by artists like DaVinci, Michelangelo, Van Gogh and Monet), plus he found work as a cartoonist for Stanford’s humor magazine. This is how he met fellow Stanford student Frank Thomas who had ambitions to work for Disney and convinced Johnston to apply too. Johnston and his friends had always enjoyed watching Disney cartoons at the theater but he never dreamed of being an animator himself, but that changed when Johnston realized he had more interest in bringing the personality of a character to life than simply drawing them in still form. He moved to Los Angeles and attended art school there, where Johnston’s art teachers could see Johnston had an emotional quality to his drawings. Something Walt Disney could see as well, which led to Disney hiring Johnston.

Johnston’s first assignment at Disney was inbetweening on Mickey’s Garden (1935) and later doing cleanup line work on Mickey’s Rival (1936). Johnston received praise from director Wilfred Jackson for his work on that film, which led to demand for Johnston from other Disney directors and artists like Clyde Geronimi and Fred Moore. Moore won out and Johnston soon became his assistant. Johnston would later recall working for Fred Moore as his greatest learning experience, including the way Moore taught him how to use squash and stretch animation techniques to convey his character’s thoughts and make them act with expression. Moore told Walt that Johnston would make a better animator than assistant so Johnston’s first major animation assignment came on the Mickey Mouse cartoon Brave Little Tailor (1938) for which he animated the various reactions of the crowd of villagers when they hear Mickey’s declaration that he killed seven flies with one blow and word eventually gets back to the king that Mickey killed seven giants with one blow.

Johnston’s work on this film was good enough to earn him a role animating on Disney’s feature films, where he had his breakout moment on Pinocchio (1940) animating the scene where Pinocchio continually lies to the Blue Fairy while he’s trapped in Stromboli’s cage and his nose grows longer and longer. Walt even paid a rare face-to-face compliment when he told Johnston how great his Pinocchio animation was, and Walt backed up his praise by raising Johnston’s salary several times during the film’s production.

Johnston followed that up with steady animation work on Disney’s feature films from the forties to the seventies, working on many memorable scenes, including Thumper’s “eating greens is a special treat” speech in Bambi (1942), Mr. Smee’s drunken stupor in Peter Pan (1953), Pongo licking Perdy on the cheek to comfort her in One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), and a vast majority of Baloo and Mowgli scenes in the “Bare Necessities” musical number from The Jungle Book (1967), much of the time demonstrating his knack for bringing out the emotion in his characters. Johnston was obviously a keen observer of humans and the way they convey feelings because he translates it to animation well, often in funny and entertaining ways.

A small sample of Johnston’s work:

Ollie Johnston retired in 1978 alongside Frank Thomas, but the two animators and lifelong friends would collaborate on a few animation books, be the subjects of a documentary and give occasional television interviews in their retirement and they have earned a lot of praise and respect from the animation community, including from modern animators like Glen Keane, Andreas Deja and Brad Bird. Shortly after Frank Thomas died in 2004 at the age of 92, Ollie Johnston joined him in 2008 at the age of 95, with the two leaving behind a cinematic legacy as well as a friendship for the ages.