A Dreamer Walking

Ollie Johnston – Animator – Penny

Posted in Animation, Film and Filmaker Studies by Jacob on December 17, 2014

Johnston #1

Ollie Johnston happens to be my favorite animator of all time. His drawings seem to flow like water and they all come from the heart. He started working for Walt Disney in the mid 1930’s and quickly became one of Walt’s greatest animators. Johnston saved one of his greatest performances for his last.  The last character Johnston was lead animator on from start to finish was Penny from the The Rescuers (1977).  What is truly amazing is how Johnston was able to climb into the skin of  a character of the opposite sex who was about sixty years his junior.

The true beauty of animation is you can animate anything. I have consistently maintained the animators at Disney were some of the greatest actors to ever live. Even Marlon Brando had his limits yet the actors at Disney could portray anything from little wooden puppets to fire breathing dragons with just the use of a few pieces of paper and a pencil. In reality human characters were some of the hardest characters to animate. The reason being everyone knows how humans move and act, thus one wrong line with the pencil might ruin a performance and stop making the character believable to the audience.

These drawings are an example of Ollie Johnston exploring the character of Penny and her cat Rufus. Johnston wasn’t the best draftsman at the studio, but each drawing expresses an emotion which shows the essence of who Penny is. In most of the poses Johnston seems to be intentionally turning Penny away from the audience. He expresses an extremely shy young girl which makes the audience want to love her all the more. When Walt was alive he communicated to all his artists the most important thing in animating a character were the eyes. By this time in his career Johnston has become a master at expressing emotion through his character’s eyes. With the drawings where we see her eyes they become the center piece of the pose, our eyes are drawn toward her’s and it’s clear Johnston builds the rest of the pose around them.

One of the coolest things about my studies of the animators at Disney is the discovery of the different styles they brought to their animation. One of the true beauties of hand drawn animation is the ability for the artist to use the pencil in different ways in order to bring to life a unified performance. Ollie Johnston was not the only animator of Penny. Animation is long and tedious medium. In today’s studios there are literally hundreds of animators working on a film and it takes them weeks in order to get just a few seconds of animation finished. In the 1970’s there were far less animators working on a project. However, it still took a whole team of animators to bring to life most of the key characters. As the lead animator Johnston needed to figure out a way to get his crew on the same page with the character Penny. Drawing sheets like this were priceless samples for other animators to study so they could keep in mind who the character was both in terms of design and emotion.

Johnston had a very soft style of animating compared to his peers. He was known to barely “kiss” the page with his pencil. First you didn’t even know what it was he was drawing and then a beautiful creature would start to come to life. You can see the soft lines in the drawings of Penny. The only thick areas are places where Johnston is trying to find the right shape or communicate weight. There is a flow to his drawings; no harsh angles and extremely pleasing curves. Glen Kean, one of Johnston’s pupils and a great animator in his own right, said Ollie treated the pencil like it was a living thing and let it guide his hand in order to find the pose.

The reason I consider Ollie the greatest animators wasn’t because of his draftsmanship or even his mastery of the principle of animation. I consider him the best because he made me feel for his characters. His animation made me completely buy into the illusion of a life. His drawings disappeared and beautiful characters emerged. I saw characters I could laugh with, be frustrated at, and cry for. One of the most potent scenes Ollie did was with Penny. Johnston animated the performance of Penny and Rufus in the clip below. In it you see Ollie’s mastery of the medium. The performance is full of restraint. He holds poses and communicates mountains of emotion through small subtle movements. I consider it one of the best pieces of animation I have ever seen. And the magic of it all is it’s done through a few pieces of paper and a pencil.

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