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Disney's Nine Old Men were the core animators (some of whom later became directors) at The Walt Disney Company who created some of Disney's most famous works, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs onward to The Rescuers. Walt Disney jokingly called this group of animators his "Nine Old Men," referring to Robert S. Allen and Drew Pearson's 1937 book, The Nine Old Men, about the nine justices of the Supreme Court of the United States in 1937, most of whom were over the age of 70 at the time. (The animators, however, were in their 30s and 40s.)
All members of the group are now deceased — the first being John Lounsbery, who died in 1976 and the last being Ollie Johnston, who died in 2008 — and all have been acknowledged as Disney Legends.
Members of Disney's Nine Old Men
- Les Clark (November 17, 1907 – September 12, 1979), who joined Disney in 1927. His specialty was animating Mickey Mouse as he was the only one of the Nine Old Men to work on that character from its origins with Ub Iwerks. Les did many scenes throughout the years, animating up until Lady and the Tramp. He moved into directing and made many animated featurettes and shorts.
- Marc Davis (March 30, 1913 – January 12, 2000) started in 1935 on Snow White, and later he went on to develop/animate the characters of Bambi and Thumper (in Bambi), Maleficent, Aurora and the raven (in Sleeping Beauty), and Cruella de Vil (in One Hundred and One Dalmatians). Davis was responsible for character design for both the Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion attractions at Disneyland.
Ollie Johnston (October 31, 1912 – April 14, 2008), who joined Disney in 1935, first worked on Snow White. He went on to author the animator's bible The Illusion of Life with Frank Thomas. His work includes Mr. Smee (in Peter Pan), the Stepsisters (in Cinderella), the District Attorney (in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad), and Prince John (in Robin Hood). According to the book The Disney Villain, written by Johnston and Frank Thomas, Johnston also partnered with Thomas on creating characters such as Ichabod Crane (in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad) and Sir Hiss (in Robin Hood).
- Milt Kahl (March 22, 1909 – April 19, 1987) started in 1934 working on Snow White. His work included villains such as Shere Khan (in The Jungle Book), Edgar the butler (in The Aristocats), the Sheriff of Nottingham (in Robin Hood), and Madame Medusa (in The Rescuers).
- Ward Kimball (March 4, 1914 – July 8, 2002) joined Disney in 1934. His work includes Jiminy Cricket (in Pinocchio), Lucifer, Jaq and Gus (in Cinderella), and the Mad Hatter and Cheshire Cat (in Alice in Wonderland). His work was often more 'wild' than the other Disney animators and was unique.
- Eric Larson (September 3, 1905 – October 25, 1988) joined in 1933. One of the top animators at Disney, he animated notable characters such as Peg in Lady And The Tramp; the Vultures in The Jungle Book; Peter Pan's flight over London to Neverland; and Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Bear (in Song of the South). Because of Larson's demeanor and ability to train new talent, Larson was given the task to spot and train new animators at Disney in the 1970s. Many of the top talents at Disney today were trained by Eric in the '70s and '80s.
- John Lounsbery (March 9, 1911 – February 13, 1976) started in 1935 and, working under Norm 'Fergy' Ferguson, quickly became a star animator. Lounsbery, affectionately known as 'Louns' by his fellow animators, was an incredibly strong draftsman who inspired many animators over the years. His animation was noted for its squashy, stretchy feel. Lounsbery animated Ben Ali Gator in Fantasia; George Darling in Peter Pan; Tony, Joe, and some of the dogs in Lady And The Tramp; The Kings in Sleeping Beauty; The Elephants in The Jungle Book; and many, many others. In the 1970s, Louns was promoted to Director and co-directed Winnie The Pooh And Tigger Too and his last film, The Rescuers.
- Wolfgang Reitherman (June 26, 1909 – May 22, 1985) joined Disney in 1933 as an animator and director. He directed all the animated Disney films after Walt's death until his retirement. Some of his work includes Monstro (in Pinocchio), the Crocodile (in Peter Pan), and the Rat (in Lady and the Tramp).
- Frank Thomas (September 5, 1912 – September 8, 2004) joined Disney in 1934. He went on to author the animator's bible The Illusion of Life with Ollie Johnston. His work included the wicked Stepmother (in Cinderella), the Queen of Hearts (in Alice in Wonderland), and Captain Hook (in Peter Pan).
By the time Robin Hood was released, only four of the Nine Old Men (Kahl, Lounsbery, Thomas, and Johnston) were still animating at Disney, although Eric Larson was still working for Disney as a talent scout and trainer, Wolfgang Reitherman was by then directing and producing films, and Marc Davis was helping to create Disney theme park attractions. Lounsbery died in 1976, Kahl retired the same year and died in 1987. Thomas, Johnston and Davis retired in 1978, and Thomas and Johnston later enjoyed cameos in the Brad Bird-directed films The Iron Giant (Warner Bros., 1999) and The Incredibles (Pixar, 2004). Thomas died shortly afterwards in 2004, and Johnston, who was by then the last surviving "Old Man", died in 2008.
"The Nine Old Men" also refined the 12 basic principles of animation:
- Squash and stretch
- Straight Ahead Action and Pose to Pose
- Follow Through and Overlapping Action
- Slow In and Slow Out
- Secondary Action
- Solid Drawing
- Canemaker, John (2001). Walt Disney's Nine Old Men and the Art of Animation. New York, New York: Disney Editions. ISBN 0-7868-6496-6.