Sure, you might have heard of Walt Disney’s “Nine Old Men” before, but how much do you really know about them? What was it that made them so influential in the world of Disney animation? These were our main questions before doing a deep dive into the lives and work of the talented group. To celebrate the animators of Disney’s Golden Age, we’ve compiled a list of nine facts that might surprise you.
Before we get into a few specifics and fun facts, as a frame of reference, here are the nine men we’ll be discussing: Les Clark (who joined Disney in 1927), Milt Kahl (who joined in 1934), John Lounsbery (who joined in 1935), Eric Larson (who joined in 1933), Ollie Johnston (who joined in 1935), Wolfgang (aka Woolie) Reitherman (who joined in 1933), Frank Thomas (who joined in 1934), Ward Kimball (who joined in 1934), and Marc Davis (who joined in 1935).
Ready? Let’s dig in!
1. They all worked on 101 Dalmatians.
With Wolfgang Reitherman at the helm as director, and Marc Davis the sole animator responsible for Cruella de Vil, the other seven worked on Perdita. That’s right, Les Clark, Ward Kimball, Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl, John Lounsbery, Eric Larson, and Frank Thomas all worked on the character together, on top of tackling separate things. It was truly a team effort!
2. Eric Larson recruited several of Disney’s famous animators/directors.
During his tenure at Disney, Larson ran a recruitment program for animators. Among his famous pupils were: John Lasseter, Brad Bird, Don Bluth, Tim Burton, Glen Keane, Henry Selick, Andreas Deja, Mark Henn, Ruben Aquino, and Ron Clements.
3. Several became directors.
In addition to animating classic characters, several of Disney’s Nine Old Men stepped up to the role of director. Wolfgang Reitherman was perhaps most famous for this when he was promoted to the chief director of animation. He was responsible for 8 Disney films: Sleeping Beauty (which he co-directed with Les Clark, Eric Larson, and Clyde Geronimi), 101 Dalmatians, The Sword in the Stone, The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Robin Hood, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (which he directed with John Lounsbery), and The Rescuers.
4. Marc Davis worked on several famous Disneyland attractions.
In addition to working on classics like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Bambi, Peter Pan, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and 101 Dalmatians, Davis–who was a skilled draftsman–held a top position in Walt Disney’s Imagineering Department. He designed many of the animatronic characters for The Jungle Cruise, Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room, “it’s a small world”, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion, and more.
5. John Lounsbery animated most of George Darling’s scenes in Peter Pan.
In fact all of George Darling’s scenes at the beginning of the movie were animated by Lounsbery. The animator also worked on scenes with Wendy, Michael, and Captain Hook, proving his versatility with design.
6. Two of the Nine Old Men were in a band together.
When they weren’t creating magical masterpieces for Disney, Ward Kimball and Frank Thomas performed in a Dixieland jazz band called The Firehouse Five Plus Two. The duo played trombone and piano respectively. The band released a total of 13 albums, and received an homage at the end of The Princess and the Frog. Now you know why the band Louis joins at the end of the film is called “The Firefly Five Plus Lou”.
7. Most of the characters in The Jungle Book were designed by Milt Kahl.
While many revere Kahl for his masterpiece, Shere Khan, the animator was actually responsible for designing all of the characters seen in the film. He based them on sketches by Bill Peet and Ken Anderson. Kahl also designed all of the dogs in Lady and the Tramp, and focused on Tramp’s scenes alongside Frank Thomas.
8. Johnston and Thomas wrote a book together.
And a pretty successful one at that! Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life still serves as a source of inspiration for character animators to this day.
9. Les Clark is responsible for the iconic “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” scene in Fantasia.
In addition to animating a variety of fairies for the “Nutcracker Suite” sequence—which he based on the movement of hummingbirds—Clark was in charge of one of the most iconic scenes in Disney history. He brought Mickey to life and gave him an emotional intensity that hadn’t been seen before.
What was your favorite fact? Were you inspired to go out and create? Let us know in the comments below!