A Tribute to Frank Thomas (1912 - 2004)

Frank Thomas represented the Disney Studio at the Animation Festival in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, in 1974, where a Disney retrospective was shown. There I met him for the first time, when I was just beginning my own animation career at age 23.

I will always remember Frank as a dear friend and mentor, and cherish the correspondence (dozens and dozens of letters, all saved), and especially the memories of the several times I met him during our 30-year acquaintance. Especially dear in my memory is the time when Frank, with his wife Jeanette, and Marie and Ollie Johnston, visited Helsinki, Finland, back in the summer of 1985.

Without Frank’s invaluable help, I would not have been able to roam free around the Disney studio, or visit WED in Glendale and see the amazing work being done for Disneyland, or get an “inside” connection to the animation department (which later led to Disney acquiring my “Animac” pencil test program for their animators’ use during a few years in the early 1990s).

In Frank’s many letters (as well as in the books he wrote together with Ollie) I received much needed and very valuable advice over the years. He always had a friendly word in his letters. His criticism of my work and my ideas was always acute, but never harsh - Frank was always frank, helpful, encouraging and educational. I’m grateful for his candor and integrity, it helped me immensely in my career.

Frank’s contribution to Jazz music, as a member of Ward Kimball’s Firehouse Five Plus Two dixieland band, must not be forgotten. I vividly remember an impromptu lunch hour jazz/dixie session during one of the first of my visits to the Disney studio in Burbank -- these lunch hour improvisations gathered many of the studio personnel, either to perform themselves, or just enjoy the happy feeling.

The world has lost one of the most influential creators of the classical genre of hand drawn animation. Frank took the animation art to its pinnacle with the emotion-filled animation in Bambi, Pinocchio, Lady and the Tramp and many more -- performances, which have never been surpassed, and probably never will be. They are the best sources of inspiration an animator can ever have, even if one can never even dream of reaching that level oneself.

Frank, during the Golden Age of Disney animation, made his drawings really vibrantly alive, to live their own, independent life on the screen. Fortunately, his legacy lives on, on film and video, for generations still unborn to watch and be enchanted by.

Frank was an “actor with a pencil,” one of the very best, and his immortal work is being appreciated more and more as the years pass by.

Jan-Eric Nystrom

Frank (middle) visiting Helsinki in 1985, along with best friend and Disney colleague Ollie Johnston and their wives.
Photo by author.

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