Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Mystique of the Nine

While publicity has fixed the nine old men in the publics' consciousness, I think that it's important to realize that the "nine old men" was something of an arbitrary title. That's not to cast aspersions on any of the nine, but the title was as much a result of studio politics as it was a testament to their abilities.

There were important animators at Disney before the nine rose to prominence. They include Ub Iwerks, Fred Moore, Ham Luske, Bill Tytla, Dick Lundy, Norm Ferguson, Dick Huemer, Grim Natwick and Art Babbitt. There were other excellent animators during the early feature years including Ken Muse, Don Towsley, Marvin Woodward, Don Lusk, Preston Blair, Bill Roberts, Berny Wolf and John Sibley.

There were several things that separated the nine from the rest, and not all of them had to do with art. All nine started their animation careers at Disney, so they had no other studio as a frame of reference; as a result they didn't question Walt Disney's artistic or managerial style. All of the nine stayed loyal during the strike and stayed with the company until their retirements. What Walt Disney had in the nine, besides fantastic animation chops, was confidence that they would execute his vision without arguing with him or abandoning the company.

While Disney no doubt valued their artistic ability, he himself was willing to break up the team. He moved Ward Kimball and Les Clark into directing for TV and he took Marc Davis away from animation for good after 101 Dalmatians to work on the theme park. By the time The Jungle Book was in production, only five of the nine were still animating. While the nine may have been running the animation department, their association was more managerial than artistic.

I am sorry about Ollie Johnston's death. He did great work and deserves to be remembered. I'm sorry about the eight who preceded him in death. Every animation artist who passes away diminishes the field to some degree by his or her absence. But I believe that artists needs to have their work judged and appreciated as individuals. Walt Disney's decision to tag nine artists with a nickname was as much a political and corporate decision as an artistic one, and as a result those animators who failed to fit into Disney's comfort zone for whatever reason have been cheated of attention they deserve.


Jenny Lerew said...

I remember how stunned I was when I first realized what the "nine old men" moniker meant--that they were in fact the review board.
I'd assumed(mind you, this was back around the time Illusion of Life was being written but was still unpublished) it was simply a loose catchphrase for the men Disney considered his "best"--and that's also true, but I totally missed the significance of his borrowed reference originally referring to the U.S. Supreme Court-for that's what they were: The Board of judges in charge of raises, hirings. firings and promotions(and I'd guess things like screen credit)for everyone under them in the animation dept. That had to be a bit of a heavy burden for them. Sure, it certainly involved politics-but Walt didn't choose badly in terms of skill either. And someone had to make those decisions--better these guys than a George Drake!

But like it or not, this handy appellation is going to stick in the public mind without its provenance or less sunny aspects. It's just too catchy and ingrained. Really, it's up to knowlegeable experts such as yourself to give credit where it's due to the other people who weren't so designated. I'm glad you can and do.

Mitchel Kennedy said...

"But I believe that artists needs to have their work judged and appreciated as individuals." How many of the Disney artists got to express themselves? Not many while working through Disney.

Sad about Ollie. This is the first I've heard about it! =(

Anonymous said...

I disagree I truly believe that Ollie and all the other Nine Old Men deserved there title. Sure there were other animators in the ranks that deserved as much attention but these were the guys who really took charge of the medium. They really were able to capture Disney's vision. I think that, Frank and Ollie, lived and Breathed animation, you can see this in the Frank and Ollie film. I truly believe that they deserved the recognition they were givin. I'm sure there will be other animators that will be named in the coming years as being the legendary animators of our time. I can surely see that some of them could be the likes of Andreas Deja, Glen Keane, Ron Clements, and John Musker. I think there were and are hundreds of other great animators but these are the select few that thought outside the box.

Floyd Norman said...

Though I greatly respect and love Disney's "Nine Old Men," don't forget that the studio was hardly free of politics.

These old guys were awesome - - but they sure the heck weren't alone. There were others just as talented. Yep! Just as talented, but they never gained the special approval of the "Old Man."

Please keep in mind the same thing goes on today. As much as we would like to think differently, nothing really ever changes.

Anonymous said...

It has always been wondered, if the title was only bestowed the best ones, what level of work we could have seen decades later of Bill Tytla if he had remained at Disney after the strike to be among hte "Old men".

Thad said...

Excellent post, Mark. For a more critical response to the Nine Mythology, Mike Barrier summed it up fairly well years and years ago.

Mark Mayerson said...

I take it for granted, Thad, that on any animation subject worth talking about, Mike Barrier has already been there and in more depth.

PaulBunyan said...

I found Bill Peet's comment that "there were only nine animators"... "There sure weren't nine old story men" very interesting.

From Walt's People volume 3 p.163

Anonymous said...

Terribly sad loss, but I can't help to think that there is got to be a new, fresh and original way to create "Illusion of Life" in hand drawn animation now. Let's stop looking back. I dare the young generation to try it!

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