Chances are that if you’ve watched a classic Walt Disney animated film or visited one of the Disney Parks, then you’ve witnessed the work of animator and Imagineer, Frank Armitage, even if you don’t know his name. Armitage has passed away at the age of 91 and has left behind a legacy of creativity, artfulness, and invention.
A native Australian, Armitage moved to Los Angeles in 1952 with less than $100 in his pocket. The following year he worked on Peter Pan, providing backgrounds and layouts. He would go on to work on Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty (under the direction of Eyvind Earle), The Jungle Book, Mary Poppins and a number of smaller shorts. Like many animators at the time, he was also involved in the creation of Disneyland, lending a hand on the Storybook Land section of the park. Armitage left the studio to concentrate on medical illustrations, a decision that would prove fruitful when he returned to the company, in 1977, as an Imagineer. His anatomical illustrations would largely inspire the Wonders of Life Pavilion, which opened at what was then EPCOT Center at Walt Disney World in 1989. Armitage also worked on designs and murals for Disneyland Paris (including painting the original concept art for Le Chateau de la Belle au Bois Dormant), Tokyo DisneySea (where he created murals for the American Waterfront, Hotel MiraCosta, the Broadway Bar, and the Tokyo DisneySea City Hall) and Disney’s Animal Kingdom (he painted the 5,500-square-foot mural for the Safari Fare Restaurant).
Marty Sklar, former Disney Imagineering creative executive, said in a statement that, “Frank’s artistic skills were excellent — but I loved having him on our Imagineering team because he knew so much about art and life.” Veteran Disney Imagineer and Disney’s Animal Kingdom creative executive Joe Rohde, added (in the same statement), “Frank was a great artist and a nurturing leader. I learned a lot at his side, but my greatest honor was watching him create the murals at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. I would visit him in his studio and just watch how he laid down paint. He was always a gentle and patient teacher.”
Armitage leaves behind an incredible legacy, one that was largely influenced in equal parts by medicine (he worked on several health-related educational short films before leaving Disney, and his inspiration for Wonders of Life is unmistakable) and fantasy (his work for Disneyland and Disneyland Paris, as well as the animated features). And his passion was apparent and infectious; his wife was an Imagineer as well, and now one of their daughters works at Imagineering. His legacy will be felt for as long as people watch classic animated films or visit the Parks worldwide, which is to say: forever.