Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men

Written by George Taylor. Posted in Disney, Features, The Disney Review

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Published on July 13, 2013 at 2:00 am with 3 Comments

Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men and the Art of Animation is the first book to take an in-depth look at the artists that shaped the Walt Disney Studios before and after Walt’s passing. The Nine Old Men reference relates to Franklin Roosevelt’s description of the Supreme Court Justices—Walt used it as a joke and it stuck (the name came from a 1937 book called Nine Old Men). The Nine Old Men would become the most creative and powerful people at the Studios. The litany of characters that they have brought to life is simply astounding.

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About the Author

John Canemaker is an animation historian, animator and professor of film animation at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He is a very successful author with more than ten books about animation (six just about Disney animation) and 100′s of essays and articles to his name. Canemaker is also noted for several award-winning short films.

The Book

Canemaker starts with a look at the Nine Old Men’s formative years: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (you can read my review of Fairest One of Them All, The Making of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, here). Most of the Nine Old Men were hired at the Studios in the mid-1930′s. Before them were legendary men that were mentors and friends to the new artists. Vladmir Tytla, Grim Natwick, Norman Ferguson, Hamilton Luske and Fred Moore were put in charge of various departments and sections of Snow White. As time progressed, many of the Nine Old Men were mentored by these animation pioneers. For many reasons, the previously mentioned animators left Disney or found they couldn’t keep up with the younger crowd. Canemaker touches on the influential animator’s lives throughout the chapters on the Nine Old Men.

Disney’s Nine Old Men:
Les Clark,
Wolfgang Reitherman,
Eric Larson,
Ward Kimball,
Milt Kahl,
Frank Thomas,
Ollie Johnston
John Lounsbery, and
Marc Davis.

Canemaker devotes a chapter to each animator and takes you from their birth to the present day (published in 2001) or their passing—he’s created a condensed biography and Canemaker successfully brings the important details to the top that seem relevant to the creation of the animators and their talents. You follow each artist from their birth, early family life, school, travels and their eventual start at Disney. All of the Nine Old Men stayed with the Disney organization until their retirement. They were also faithful to the Studio during the animator’s strike of 1941. Undoubtedly, this cemented Walt’s opinion of them. Family photographs, animated film stills and corporate images fill the volume. Canemaker shares a lot of great anecdotes about the artists. Did you know that Ward Kimball attended over 22 schools growing up and that Marc Davis’ family traveled the country, rarely settling in one place for more than a few months? Wolfgang Reitherman was a pilot in World War II and claims that he was only a director because Walt told him to be one.

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Throughout each chapter, Canemaker shares what makes each animator so important to the Disney Studios and animation. As you go through the chapters, you see each animator as a different personality to the whole. Each one distinct and filling a specific role within the Studios. After the animation strike, the Nine Old Men were charged with being the review committee for the Studios. A film couldn’t be made without their direct involvement and an artist could be fired at their whim. After Walt’s passing, the Nine Old Men were the creative force and were often left stumbling as to the direction to be taken at the Studio.

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As expected, a majority of the book does focus on animation. Marc Davis was really the only one of the Nine Old Men asked to work on the Disneyland Project. The book does cover that section of Marc’s career; starting with the Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland in 1962, the World’s Fair attractions, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion. Ward Kimball is mentioned in conjunction with Disneyland through his shared loved of trains with Walt. This book truly shines as a mini-biography of the Nine Old Men and how they moved the art of animation forward.

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This is a book that I highly recommend for animation enthusiasts and people interested in the Disney Studios formative years. It brings together information about the early years of the Studio and the roles of the Nine Old Men in animation, the Studio and the Company—unlike any other resource. Most of the book does deal with animation and the classic characters that were created but it does focus on the theme parks with Marc Davis and Ward Kimball’s contributions.

Have you read this title? Do you have a favorite of the Nine Old Men?


By George Taylor

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About George Taylor

George has been obsessed with Disney theme parks since the first time he saw a photo of the Haunted Mansion in the early 70s. He started writing about Disney in 2007 and has amassed one of the world's largest Disney-related libraries.

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  • DobbysCloset

    Please tell me everyone is too busy out buying the book to comment!

    These men created the visual imagery that formed my sense of aesthetics for all time. And Canemaker is brilliant. I don’t have a Favorite (though I might after reading the book).

    Thank you for sharing and I will make a rare trip to a bricks-and-mortar store soon to look for this.

  • Disneykin Kid

    I’m fascinated by the 1941 strike period, the Nine Old Men were faithful to the studio, I assume that means they crossed the picket lines, and also went with Walt to his South American tour, which allowed Walt to get away from the pressures of the strike. Dumbo was made efficiently while Walt was away, I took a quick look at Dumbo’s credits, and it doesn’t have any of the Nine Old Men listed. I’m also interested in further explanation of why some of the former greats like Norm Ferguson and Fred Moore left the studio. I’m not trying to take away any of the greatness of the Nine Old Men, I’m just interested in some of the other dynamics going on.

  • DG2

    Looking forward to buying this book. A must read for any Disney fan.